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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Clinton, Sanders Ready to Clash at New York Primary; Report: V.A. Denied Benefits to Record-Number of Vets; Ultimate Attack; Trump in Hot Water Over Abortion Comments. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 31, 2016 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:15]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: What you talking about, Donald Trump? That's a little guerrilla marketing for CNN's new documentary series "The Eighties," which premieres tonight. But, right, now we have THE LEAD.

Breaking news: Donald Trump making a surprise trip to the RNC here in Washington amid fast and furious outrage from both sides of the abortion debate, after Mr. Trump appears to take three different positions on abortions in three hours.

Trying to prevent the ultimate terrorist attack, leaders from close to 60 countries joining President Obama to try and rid the world of nuclear weapons, and especially to keep them out of the hands of ISIS.

Plus, text, lies and audio tape, the governor of a state smack-dab in the middle of the Bible Belt fighting a sex scandal, allegations of an affair, trying desperately today to save his job.

Good afternoon. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Donald Trump meeting with Republican Party officials here in Washington, D.C., this afternoon, as his rivals pounce on his multiple answers on whether after an abortion ban a woman who gets an abortion should be punished.

First, Mr. Trump said yes -- quote -- "There has to be some form of punishment." Then his campaign said the issue is unclear and should be up to the states. Then Trump issued a statement saying, under a ban, only the doctor would be held legally responsible, not the woman, adding -- quote -- "My position has not changed," which is not true in any possible understanding of the words position and not and changed.

Governor John Kasich declared today presidents don't get do-overs, trying to appeal directly to Republicans be wavering on Trump, if there are any.

But let me now issue this now familiar caution, that anyone out there predicting Trump's political demise among Republican voters, well, you have been wrong many, many times before.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is live for us from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Jim, Trump meeting with Republican National Committee officials this

afternoon after all three Republican candidates this week appeared to walk away from their pledge to support whomever wins the nomination.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. It seems like they had plenty to discuss. With the Wisconsin primary just days away, Donald Trump has been in Washington today. He just wrapped up a meeting with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus.

Meanwhile,, his rivals are slamming Trump's string of potentially damaging gaffes on abortion and national security. For Ted Cruz and John Kasich, the hope is this rough week is just turning point leading to their moving up in this campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Turmoil. Donald Trump was all smiles. Crisscrossing Washington in his motorcade, Trump sat down with top RNC officials behind closed doors, later vowing in a tweet that he will bring the party together, even as John Kasich and Ted Cruz furiously try to block his road to the White House.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I have to tell you that as a commander in chief and leader of the free world, you don't get do-overs. You need to be able to get it right the first time.

ACOSTA: Kasich and Cruz are now tag-teaming Trump over his gaffe that women should be punished if they undergo an illegal apportion, a position he abandoned hours later.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, MSNBC: Do you believe in punishment for abortion, yes or no, as a principle?

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The answer is that there has to be some form of punishment.

ACOSTA: On a popular conservative radio show, Cruz attacked Trump as uninformed.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I think it was just the latest confirmation that Donald has not thought seriously about the issues facing the country and he's willing to say just about anything to try to get elected.

ACOSTA: And while team Trump was brushing off the abortion comments as merely a slip-up...

KATRINA PIERSON, TRUMP CAMPAIGN SPOKESPERSON: There was a misspeak here and you have a presidential candidate that clarified the record. Not once, but twice.

KASICH: It takes restraint, it takes judgment, it takes experience, not wild-eyed suggestions.

ACOSTA: Kasich blasted Trump for another jaw-dropping comment, that he would not rule out using nuclear weapons in Europe. TRUMP: I would never take any of my cards off the table.

KASICH: It is not the way that a leader of the free world or commander in chief of our country to be so casually talking about the use, by the way, of nuclear weapons. It just shows that he's really not prepared to be president of the United States.

ACOSTA: Looking to push back on that notion, the Trump campaign confirmed the real estate tycoon met with his recently announced foreign policy team.

GOV. SCOTT WALKER (R), WISCONSIN: And that's why I'm supporting Ted Cruz for president.

[16:05:01]

ACOSTA: Back in Wisconsin, the next contest on the calendar, Cruz appears to be widening his lead and running a new ad featuring the state's governor, Scott Walker.

Still fuming over his war of the wives with Trump, Cruz cracked a joke on "Jimmy Kimmel" that revealed the Texas senator is not quite ready to forgive and forget.

CRUZ: And if I were in my car and getting ready to reverse and saw Donald in the backup camera, I'm not confident which pedal I would push.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now, this is a crucial period in the campaign for Trump. If he loses Wisconsin and then the next contest in Colorado, it may be difficult for Trump to project himself as the presumptive GOP nominee.

Kasich once again predicted today that this race is headed for a contested convention. And as one GOP operative, top GOP operative, said to me today, Jake, after Kasich's comments today about Trump not being ready to be president, the Ohio governor all ruled out being Trump's running mate. But, as you said, Jake, predictions of Donald Trump's demise have been put out there before -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jim Acosta, thank you so much.

Wisconsin is not the only big contest coming up for Republicans. Voters there will weigh in next Tuesday. But the next big contest after that is New York's primary on April 19. On April 26, voters in five Northeastern states will head to the polls.

For more on this exciting race, let's go to our political panel, Republican strategist Ana Navarro, communications director for Senator Ted Cruz Alice Stewart, and Karen Giorno, who is Donald Trump's Southeast Political director.

Karen, welcome to the show. Let me start with you and ask you. You saw that clip of Cruz on the

Jimmy Kimmel show joking running over Donald Trump. Does that offend you at all or is that just a joke on a late-night show?

KAREN GIORNO, DONALD TRUMP SOUTHEAST REGIONAL POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Of course it offends me. Of course it offends me. It should offend every American.

This is a presidential race. This is not a time to be joking about the front-runner and essentially running him over and causing him harm or death. To be honest with you, if he wasn't Ted Cruz, he probably would be reported and investigated BY the Secret Service. That's a death threat to our nominee.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Alice Stewart from the Cruz campaign, I will give you a chance to respond to that.

ALICE STEWART, COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, TED CRUZ CAMPAIGN: It was a joke. It was late-night comedy. Give me a break. You know better than that. He was saying it in jest.

Look, who is Donald Trump to be talking about something like that when he's talked about walking down the streets of New York shooting voters and they'd vote for him anyway? This is a joke, you know it, get over it. Stop. It was a joke. You know that.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Alice, let me ask you. A new Cruz ad says that he's the only candidate who can beat Hillary Clinton in November. But in the next big states to vote, Wisconsin and New York, John Kasich is actually doing better in hypothetical matchups against Clinton than Cruz is.

STEWART: Well, still, poll after poll shows that in a head-to-head matchup with Ted and Hillary Clinton, that he has a chance -- he statistically has a better chance to beat Hillary, certainly more than the head-to-head matchups with Donald Trump and Hillary.

Look, we're looking at the next contest, which is Wisconsin, which is coming up soon and we're in a great position there. Poll after poll shows us in a two-digit lead over Donald Trump and Kasich way behind. Look, we're having great momentum heading into Wisconsin.

We have the endorsement, as you said, of Governor Scott Walker.

TAPPER: Right.

STEWART: We have large crowds, enthusiastic crowds, and really working hard. Our goal right now is our next contest ahead, which is Wisconsin.

TAPPER: OK.

STEWART: Doing well there, racking up delegates and racing on to New York.

TAPPER: And, Ana Navarro, let me bring you in.

The super PAC supporting John Kasich put out an ad attacking Ted Cruz today. Take a watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NARRATOR: Lying Ted lied about Ben Carson to steal a win in Iowa, lies about being the best for the GOP, when polls show he can't even beat Hillary Clinton.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: OK. First, wow. But let me note that Kasich attacked Trump and now we have this group attacking Cruz.

I guess no more Mr. Nice Guy for Governor Kasich.

ANA NAVARRO, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it's the super PAC, right? So they would argue that the campaign and the super PAC do not coordinate. I actually know the people who run the super PAC and the campaign. I think that's true.

TAPPER: Any reaction to that ad?

NAVARRO: I think it's memorable. I think it's funny.

TAPPER: Memorable, yes.

NAVARRO: And can I tell you something? I am so glad Ted Cruz went on late-night TV shows and is showing a sense of humor. Look, this primary is now in the realm of surreal and cuckoo crazy.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: ... surreal.

NAVARRO: We're not going to get...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Surreal town, yes.

NAVARRO: We're not going to get through this thing. We have got months and months left. We're not going to get through this thing without the aid of a little humor and maybe a little alcohol, so lighten up.

It's good for Republicans to show a little levity, not that everybody are angry, old white people, that there is a sense of humor. And you reach a demographic in a late-night show that you might not reach on cable news, that you might not reach during the day.

(CROSSTALK)

GIORNO: Ana, I'm going to interrupt you.

[16:10:00]

This is not -- that's not the type of humor we want when we're talking about especially my candidate, who has Secret Service protection for a reason. There are people out there that are there to physically harm him, OK?

So, when we're talking about another presidential candidate talking about backing up, you know, over him with a car, that's not funny.

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: Let me just remind you that just a few weeks ago -- let me just remind you a few weeks ago, Senator Lindsey Graham was joking about Ted Cruz being murdered, and nobody being found guilty of it if it was tried in the Senate.

(CROSSTALK)

NAVARRO: So, nobody has used sense of humor more effectively so far than Donald Trump.

TAPPER: Let me just bring Alice Stewart in.

Yes, go ahead, Alice.

STEWART: Sure, Jake.

It's no surprise that the Trump team is going to focus on this. But let me remind them, a large majority of that interview last night, it was a phenomenal interview, I encourage people to go take a look at it -- it was on the issues. It was on foreign policy. It was on how is Ted going to take his message to the people in the country that have yet to hear his message.

And one of the key components that I'm sure the Trump team does not want to have a conversation about is how Ted is the best qualified to handle foreign policy and eradicate ISIS and strengthening our military and rebuilding the relationships with the countries that have been decimated through the last seven years of the Obama administration.

That was a large part of the interview that the Trump people I'm sure don't want to talk about, because he doesn't clearly have any foreign policy...

(CROSSTALK)

GIORNO: We're happy to talk about that. This is about leadership.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: All right, Karen and Alice and Ana, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate it, one and all, to all of you. Donald Trump angered a lot of Republicans with his comments on abortion, so just imagine the reactions from the Democrats running for president, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders teeing off on Trump -- that story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:46] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Let's stick with our politics lead.

Donald Trump's remarks about abortion also infuriated many on the left. Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are echoing the same message on the campaign trail, calling the Republican front-runner's abortion comments horrific and shameful.

Let's bring in CNN senior political correspondent Brianna Keilar.

Brianna, Clinton and Sanders both campaigning in New York today. Clinton represented the Empire State for eight years in the Senate, but Brooklyn-born Sanders says he's going to try to beat her on her home turf. Does he actually stand a chance there?

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the Clinton campaign certainly hopes not, but the issue here, even though you see Hillary Clinton ahead in the polls right now, between now and the April 19th primary here in New York, you have Wisconsin, the big state, you also have Wyoming. Bernie Sanders could do well there, perhaps add to those wins that we saw over the weekend in Washington, Alaska and Hawaii, and because of that, Clinton is trying to blunt his momentum.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR (voice-over): Hillary Clinton campaigning for the second straight day in her adopted home state where a group of students interrupted her rally.

PROTESTERS: If she wins, we lose.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Oh, I know the Bernie people came to say that. We're very sorry you're leaving.

I have earned nine million votes in this election. I have one million more votes than Donald Trump and I have 2.5 million more votes than Bernie Sanders.

KEILAR: Clinton is fighting on two fronts, turning to the general election even as Bernie Sanders challenges her in Wisconsin, which holds its primary on Tuesday.

CLINTON: Just yesterday, Donald Trump said women should be punished for having an abortion.

(BOOS)

KEILAR: Her campaign releasing a new video. CLINTON: What Donald Trump said today was outrageous and dangerous.

KEILAR: As Sanders also takes aim.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: But to punish a woman for having an abortion is beyond comprehension. I don't know what world this person lives in.

KEILAR: But Clinton is trying to cast Sanders as out of touch with the concerns of women.

CLINTON: Senator Sanders agreed that Donald Trump's comments were shameful, but then he said they were a distraction from, and I quote, "a serious discussion about the serious issues facing America."

(BOOS)

To me this is a serious issue.

KEILAR: The Vermont senator is trying to take on Clinton in New York, where Democrats vote in a few weeks. At stake, a whopping 247 delegates. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows Clinton with a 12- point lead here, but Sanders is promising a challenge, buoyed by a potentially strong showing in Wisconsin next week and union support that he has been courting.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We call that a steel worker small.

KEILAR: As he did today in Pittsburgh.

SANDERS: Not only did I oppose NAFTA, I stood on picket lines with workers in opposition to this disastrous trade agreement. Secretary Clinton supported NAFTA.

WILLIAM JEFFERSON CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT: I thank you for your votes for her.

KEILAR: Bill Clinton tried shore up his wife's backing from labor visited with four different union groups in New York City today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: Bernie Sanders may be behind Hillary Clinton when it comes to pledged delegates, Jake, but he is actually winning the money game. His campaign says that he has raised $40 million this month and that they're hoping to best last month when he raised $43 million, outpacing Secretary Clinton by several million dollars, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Brianna Keilar, thank you so much.

The buried lead now: they served our nation. Many still suffer the effects of war, yet one technicality allows the government to deny any care to many of these veterans and at record rates.

Plus, he's confessed to a mistake but did he have an affair? The mounting pressure in a sex scandal that could cost one governor his job. Back after this quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:24:11] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Time now for our buried lead, that's what we call stories that we think are not getting enough attention.

A very troubling report about the nation's veterans. A record number of our vets are being denied basic V.A. benefits. The study finds that those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are almost twice as likely to be rejected access to benefits than Vietnam vets and four times more likely than those who served in World War II. Why?

Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): At least 125,000 American veterans who served our nation since September 11th are being treated by the V.A. as though they never even put on a uniform. The Department of Veterans Affairs has ruled them ineligible for veterans benefits not because they didn't sacrifice, but because they left the military without an honorable discharge.

[16:25:01] BRADFORD ADAMS, REPORT CO-AUTHOR, SWORDS TO PLOWSHARES: The stakes for this really couldn't be higher. If the V.A. doesn't recognize you as a veteran, not only do you lose the dignity of acknowledgement of your service, but you lose those really basic services.

TAPPER: The staggering numbers come from a new report from veterans advocacy group Swords to Plowshares, the national veterans legal services program, and Harvard, which found that the V.A. is denying valuable benefits at unprecedented levels.

STEPHEN RAYMOND (ph), MILITARY VETERAN: I got shot at by one of those the other day and it blew my (EXPLETIVE DELETED) leg off.

TAPPER: This is Stephen Raymond in 2003. A YouTube video capturing some rare downtime during his first deployment to Afghanistan.

After nearly eight years of service and his second war zone deployment, Raymond's wife threatened suicide, he says, if he left again so the infantryman went AWOL.

RAYMOND: There's been times where it seems like the firing squad would have been a better option.

TAPPER: Raymond finally returned to his unit, desperate for help. He was sent to prison and given a bad conduct discharge.

RAYMOND: They let us know that we were basically going to go out and have -- basically our lives were going to be ruined. And that's really kind of how it ended up being. I have four children. Not to be able to provide correctly, not to have any type of medical care, not to have anybody to talk to, just no benefits whatsoever.

TAPPER: Raymond tells CNN that he ultimately lost his family and ended up sleeping in the streets.

The law denies any benefits to those who have been discharged dishonorably, but the report says that operating on its own discretion, the V.A. takes it even further, denying benefits to those like Raymond, who received neither an honorable nor a dishonorable discharge.

ADAMS: The V.A. has set aside not only those with dishonorable discharges but two categories above that. Dishonorable, bad conduct and other than honorable and placed them in limbo.

TAPPER: So, Raymond's two tours in war zones notwithstanding, as far as the V.A. was concerned, he was not a veteran. He was ineligible for housing assistance or job training or crucial medical care.

In a statement to CNN, the V.A. says, quote, "We recognize that there could be a variety of reasons that service members receive other than honorable discharges and V.A. benefits can greatly improve the quality of their lives." Adding that this new report provides them, quote, "an opportunity to do a thorough review and make changes."

In Raymond's case, Swords to Plowshares recently managed to get the V.A. to re-evaluate and he now receives some benefits, but this story is the exception.

RAYMOND: Instead of treating everybody as a number, perhaps really do something because there's a lot of guys out there that need help.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Here's another hurdle that our veterans have to jump. The review process for these so-called "bad paper discharges" is unnecessarily complex according to the study, taking an average of more than three years to complete.

The world lead, how can anyone keep nukes out of the hands of ISIS? Leaders from around the world are here in Washington to talk about just that and what sounds like Donald Trump endorsing the idea of more countries, not fewer, getting nuclear weapons.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You're better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea. We're better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Saudi Arabia with a nuclear weapon?

TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, absolutely.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)