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General Flynn and Russia; Trump White House Holds First Briefing; Interview with Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired January 23, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: A lot of talk by the Trump team of alternate facts this weekend.

Here's an alternate fact. I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

THE LEAD starts right now.

On speaking terms. Donald Trump's top spokesman comes out and answers questions from the media for more than an hour after something of a rocky start with reporters over the weekend. And some of the answers he gave could tell us a lot about the Trump administration and its plans.

He's the man who will be in President Trump's ear during pivotal moments in which lives will literally be at stake. Today, there are new questions about National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and Russia.

Plus, what can we learn from President Trump's time on "The Apprentice" when it comes to his insistence on inflating numbers? Reality TV and how past is prologue.

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

We're going to begin with our politics lead.

President Trump and his team trying to steer their administration back on to a policy track after a first few days marked by accusations of score-settling and digressions and, of course, some outright falsehoods.

Moments ago, President Trump talked trade with union leaders after he fulfilled one of his top campaign promises, withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership formally. It's a trade agreement championed by President Obama, but opposed by President Trump, not to mention Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Also this afternoon, President Trump's press secretary fleshed out a number of the administration's positions. He backed away from some of the pledges the president made on the campaign trail. For the first time in the Trump administration, this afternoon, the president's press secretary, Sean Spicer, took questions from journalists in the Briefing Room.

That, itself, marked a change from the contentious and, shall we say, fact-challenged statement he made to reporters on Saturday.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta joins me now.

Jim, at this briefing, Sean Spicer, he seemed to walk back or at least proceed very cautiously regarding a couple of President Trump's big campaign promises.


You remember, during the campaign, immigration was a big issue. We heard Donald Trump say time and again that the U.S. would build a wall on the Mexican border, but he also got into some hot water when he talked about a deportation force that would round up all of the 11 million or so undocumented immigrants in this country.

And that has raised questions going into this new administration as to whether or not the U.S. would start rounding up some of these young undocumented people in this country, the so-called dreamers. And at one point during this briefing today, Sean Spicer said that that is not a priority for the administration, that the priority is to go after criminals who are in the country who happen to be undocumented.

And so that is a bit of news there, and then, on another front, on Israel, Donald Trump talked about this during the campaign, and so did many of his advisers, that the U.S. would move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in Israel.

And during this press briefing today, Sean Spicer indicated that that is not going to happen any time soon and emphasized that they're at the early stage of that conversation. So, a number of big policy shifts and tamping down expectations, I would say, Jake.

TAPPER: Jim, when you finally got a turn, and I'm glad CNN got a question, you asked the press secretary why the Trump administration reacted so aggressively to the reporting about the crowd size at the inaugural.

ACOSTA: Well, that's right, because, over the weekend, as you know, Jake, the president went over to the CIA and accused the national news media of lying about those crowd sizes on Inauguration Day.

And then White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday evening delivered that remarkable statement in the Briefing Room, when he tried to back up what his boss was saying with a number of items that were just plain out -- plain old falsehoods.

And during this briefing today, putting all of that aside, I tried to ask Sean Spicer why he decided to go down that road, why the president decided to go down that road over the weekend, and here's what he had to say.


ACOSTA: Why worry about a couple of tweets about crowd size?

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Because it's not -- because that's what I'm saying. You're minimizing the point here, Jim. It's not about one tweet. It's not about one picture.

It's about a constant theme. It's about sitting here every time and being told, no, we don't think he can do that, he will never accomplish that, he can't win that, it won't be the biggest, it's not going to be that good, the crowds aren't that big, he's not that successful. The narrative and the -- the default narrative is always negative. And it's demoralizing.


ACOSTA: And what was revealing about that exchange, Jake, is that we did not hear very often during the campaign or from his officials, you know, what Donald Trump's attitude is about the news media. He would rail against the news media, by and large.

But we never really got sort of behind the name-calling and so forth as to this frustration that they have in terms of how we cover Donald Trump and his campaign. And so you heard it there from Sean Spicer.


I thought one other very telling moment, Jake, and you will appreciate this as a former White House correspondent, Sean Spicer pledged to all of us in that Briefing Room today that he is not going to lie to us. He said there might be times when he gets the facts wrong, and he will correct them, just as he hopes when we get the facts wrong, we correct them as well.

But to have the press secretary make that pledge to us, I think, was important after what we saw on Saturday, Jake.

TAPPER: I have heard that the media is too negative speech from every single press secretary I know, but normally behind closed doors, not in front of the cameras.

ACOSTA: That's right. I think that was very telling.

TAPPER: Jim Acosta, thank you so much.

I want to bring in CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray as well well.

And, Sara, a big day for President Trump when it comes to his trade priorities, which was a big issue on the campaign trail.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I think he wanted to send a signal early on today, even though it was largely ceremonial, saying the U.S. is going to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

We basically knew this was dead already. Congress last year said they weren't going to vote on it. But the other thing that's telling is that Donald Trump is still saying he's going to move to renegotiate NAFTA. He took pains when he was meeting with business leaders today to say he is not anti-trade, and Sean Spicer in that press briefing also took pains to say that we are all for bilateral agreements, and that Donald Trump, President Trump, will proceed in trying to negotiate those.

But the worry among many Republicans who believe in free trade is by pulling out of this partnership, you're essentially leaving it open for China to negotiate their own trade deals, which they're already trying to do with some of these Pacific Rim countries, and that by the time President Trump gets around to it, he's basically going go be self-defeating, he's going to allow China to get into all of these markets and essentially exclude the U.S. by pulling out of TPP.

We will see how he proceeds with this. Obviously, we know that Donald Trump's trade agenda does not line up with many Republicans. We saw that play out today as he made his TPP announcement. John McCain blasted the decision and the AFL-CIO celebrated it.

TAPPER: I think it's fair to say his trade position is one of the reasons he won because he was able to win over all these union households in those key states.

MURRAY: Absolutely. Union leaders and union workers were another meeting on his agenda today because he knows that they were key to his victory.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, thank you so much.

The White House also weighed in today on an investigation by U.S. intelligence officials into possible Russia connections, this as CNN has learned U.S. intelligence officials are examining phone calls between Trump's national security adviser, retired General Michael Flynn, and the Russian ambassador to the United States.


QUESTION: Has the president spoken with any of the intelligence agencies about the investigation into the Russian connections? And will he allow that to go on?

SPICER: I don't think believe he has spoken to anyone specifically about that, and I don't know that we -- he has not made any indication that he would stop an investigation of any sort.


TAPPER: I want to bring in CNN chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto and justice correspondent Evan Perez.

Jim, take us through what exactly is being looked at.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: So, U.S. investigators tell us, Jake, they're scrutinizing late December phone calls between Mike Flynn, this is President Trump's national security adviser, and Russia's ambassador to the U.S. This is part of a broader counterintelligence investigation of Russian

activities in the U.S., this from law enforcement and intelligence officials. The calls were captured by what is routine U.S. eavesdropping targeting the Russian diplomats. The officials say some of the content, and this is key, some of the content of the investigations drew enough potential concerns that investigators are still looking into those discussions.

The officials all stress that, so far, there has been no determination of wrongdoing among the communications that are being scrutinized, and these were calls between Russia's ambassador, I should say, Sergey Kislyak, and Flynn in particular on December 29, the same day that the U.S. announced further sanctions against Russia and expelled 35 Russian diplomats.

Jake, we should note it was "The Wall Street Journal" that was first to report these calls were being investigated at all .

TAPPER: Evan, why was the U.S. monitoring these calls?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, the calls were heard in the course of monitoring of communications of Russian diplomats.

U.S. intelligence agencies routinely capture the communications of senior foreign officials, including those based in the United States. And we know that the FBI and intelligence officials briefed members of the Obama White House team before President Obama left office about the Flynn calls.

In the briefing today, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said there are only two calls, one in December, and one three days ago and they discussed routine matters, including setting up a call between Presidents Trump and Putin, as well as cooperation in the fight against ISIS, Jake.

TAPPER: The big concern by outgoing Obama White House members was that the calls were about newly imposed sanctions and how they would be lifted, but no evidence for that as of now.

Jim, Spicer was asked about the Trump administration's response to China building all these manmade artificial islands in the Pacific.

SCIUTTO: That's right, and it's subject of enormous dispute for years between the U.S. and China.

And I can guarantee you that ears in Beijing perked up to Sean Spicer's answer on this, particularly the word defend. Have a listen to his comments.



SPICER: I think areas in the South China Sea that are part of international waters and international activities, I think the U.S. is going to make sure that we protect our interests there. So it's a question of if those islands are, in fact, in international waters and not part of China proper, then, yes, we're going to make sure that we defend international territories from being taken over by one country.


SCIUTTO: The big question is, what does defense mean there? To this point, under the Obama administration, the way the U.S. has expressed these are international waters is basically they have flown their planes and they have sailed their ships through there, and said, these are international waters, we're going to treat them as such, even those China claims them.

Defend implies you could take them as the possibility, at least laying out the possibility of military action. That's not clear that that's what he was saying. But that's certainly something that the Chinese are going to want clarity on, because this is also land that China has said we believe it's ours historically and we will defend. If both sides hold to those positions, chance for escalation.

TAPPER: The Trump White House making it very clear that they're going to have a more aggressive posture toward China than the Obama administration did.

Jim Sciutto, Evan Perez, thank you so much.

Moments from now the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee is scheduled to hold a vote on President Trump's pick for secretary of state, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson. Republican Senator Marco Rubio spent a great deal of time over the last few weeks raising concerns about Tillerson's ties to Russia. But now Rubio says he will support Tillerson's confirmation.

CNN's Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what does Senator Rubio say changed his mind?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, he had come under intense pressure behind the scenes over the past couple of weeks from supporters of Rex Tillerson, including some people, senior members of Donald Trump's own team.

Last week in a private meeting, a 90-minute meeting between Rex Tillerson, Senator Rubio, Vice President Mike Pence, as well as Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, they had a meeting discussing Rubio's concerns at length. I'm told it was a "blunt meeting," according to the words of one Rubio adviser.

In addition, Rubio sent an additional 100 questions, written questions and answers that Tillerson responded to after that a very contentious confirmation hearing in which they discussed Russia and Rubio was not satisfied with Tillerson's remarks about Russia.

But today, in a lengthy Facebook post, Rubio explains his support saying he needs to give deference to the administration, saying -- quote -- "Given the uncertainty that exists, both at home and abroad about the direction of our foreign policy, it would be against our national interests to have this confirmation unnecessarily delayed or embroiled in controversy."

Significant, Jake, meaning that Republicans will have the votes to get it out of committee later this afternoon and also on the floor as soon as next week -- Jake.

TAPPER: Manu, Trump's pick for director of the CIA is expected to be confirmed when the vote comes this evening. Thank you so much.

Let's go back to the White House, where President Trump just finished meeting with union leaders from across the country.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it's very representative of what's happening in our country and I think they're very happy with the meeting we just had. What do you think?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Excellent meeting.

TRUMP: Just had a great meeting. They haven't been here many, many years in this particular house. We're going to get them working again, right?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're going to be discussing it.


TRUMP: Thank you, everybody. Thank you.

Did you get in trouble at all before? Huh?

TAPPER: President Trump in the Oval Office sitting at the Resolute desk with union leaders talking about a very good meeting he had and about how he's going to get them to work.

Our next guest voted in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that President Trump nixed today. Senator John Barrasso will weigh in on the president's executive actions and much, much more coming up next.

Stay with us.


[16:17:55] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with politics now. It's been a busy first Monday for President Trump signing a number of executive orders and actions including one that pulls the United States out of the Trans Pacific partnership trade deal formally.

Joining me now is Senator John Barrasso. He's a Republican from Wyoming and member of the Foreign Relations Committee. I want to start with TPP, because you voted in favor of the Pacific

trade deal. What do you make of the president's order and are you upset at the direction he's taking trade?

SEN. JOHN BARRASSO (R), WYOMING: Not upset with the direction. He's talked about this during the campaign. This is what he promised the American people. He was elected and absolutely he was right to do what he's promised.

In terms of trade from Wyoming's standpoint --


BARRASSO: -- we want to be able to send our product overseas -- our number one cash crop is beef. We have -- sent out a natural gas, natural liquefied natural gas and people want that.

Now, Donald Trump is a world class deal-maker. I'm sure that he's going to make sure that we get good deals for the United States. Of course, the concern I have is that if we're not trading with certain people, China will try to step into that void.

TAPPER: Right.

BARRASSO: You know, when I was in Japan visiting with Abe, he said, please sell us your liquefied natural gas. We've been having a hard time getting permits from the Obama administration even to get the ports built to ship it overseas.

So, we have an abundance of product in the United States. We've had problems with regulations to get it out. And I think Donald Trump is going to make sure that we use our energy as a geopolitical weapon.

TAPPER: But you know that China is going around to all these countries in the Pacific and saying, look what the U.S. is doing, they don't want to do deals with you. You're going to have to do deals with us. And countries that are naturally our allies, South Korea, Japan, they're concerned.

BARRASSO: Well, they are. And I was in Singapore earlier this year. Same thing as I traveled that region. A number of us senators went and did that. They said, look, everyone there wants to be the United States' friend, but they don't want to be China's enemy.

And when you take a look at China, rule of law, they respect history more than law, and in terms of the islands that you were just talking about, they respect power more than history. And that's this is talking about, what they can inhabit and how they're going to try to use their power.

[16:20:01] TAPPER: Let's talk about Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state nominee.

Marco Rubio is now supporting him but he did express a lot of concerns as did John McCain, Lindsey Graham, et cetera. You are supporter of Rex Tillerson. You want him to be secretary of state. It looks like he will be secretary of state.

Why are you not concerned about his relationship with Putin and whether the U.S. is cozying too much up to this murderous dictator?

BARRASSO: I think that Tillerson knows the world better than many members of the Foreign Relations Committee. He's had interactions over the years, knows the leaders around the world, knows how to be a tough deal maker. And he knows the power of energy as he's done with his job lead leading up to that.

He's going to use energy in a way that helps America become better, stronger. And, you know, we all want to make sure we have a safe, strong and secure America. I think he is the right person as other leaders around the world, you know, look for relevance, look for respect, he is the person that I believe can restore the credibility that we need worldwide.

I think that President Trump has inherited from President Obama a world that is less safe and more dangerous than it was -- that President Obama inherited from President Bush. We want to be the most powerful, respected nation on the face of the earth. I think Rex Tillerson is the right person to be secretary of state.

TAPPER: With all due respect to Mr. Tillerson, his job at ExxonMobil had nothing to do with human rights. So, he was making deals having to do with access to enriched uranium or whatever. And my question is, are we now entering an era where the human rights of other countries are no longer important?

Because that -- that's not how when I was growing up I was raised to believe the Republican Party, what they stood for. When I was young, Ronald Reagan was president and human rights abroad were important. I'm not getting the impression that that is a priority for the Trump administration. Am I wrong?

BARRASSO: Well, actually that specific question is one I asked Rex Tillerson during the hearings about when you deal with international neighbors, the issue of national security in those countries, the area of economic growth and then human rights. And how do you balance those? And I was very satisfied with his putting human rights way up there, very important. As you take a look at making sure that the continued commitment of America to human rights continues around the world.

TAPPER: I want to ask you, you chaired the hearing for the EPA nominee, Mr. Pruitt. I know you're going to support him. Can you guarantee the American people that the actions that Pruitt and the Trump administration take when it comes to cutting regulations, I've heard up to 75 percent of the regulations, will not hurt our and our children's health and our drinking water and the air we breathe?

I know people think that we're -- that those who are concerned about this are alarmist about it. Can you make that assurance?

BARRASSO: Well, we all want clean air, clean water, clean land and I think Scott Pruitt is the right person in this job. The EPA has really lost its way over the last eight years.

You take a look at what happened with the spillage of 3 million gallons of toxic wastewater into a river in Colorado. That was -- the EPA caused that. What happened in Flint, Michigan, with the poisoning there with the lead, that was EPA related.

So, the EPA has lost its way. I think that Scott Pruitt is trying to get rid of some of these regulations that have stifled the economy, really haven't in any significant way improved the environment. We can have clean air, clean water, clean land, and at the same time, have economic growth and the jobs. I don't think you have to choose one or the other. We have incredible resources in this country. We need to be using them.

TAPPER: So, you can assure the American people whatever actions Pruitt takes it's not going to cause an increase of asthma among children or polluted drinking water? I mean, not including accidents.

BARRASSO: Yes, I have great confidence in Scott Pruitt. You take a look at his role as attorney general in Oklahoma, working with the neighboring state of Arkansas, with the Democrat attorney general there. They forged an alignment that helped clean the water and the river between those two states. He's worked with attorneys generals, certainly the one from Wyoming, on clean water, on clean air.

What has happened is EPA has basically gone rogue and come out with regulations untethered from the law. They have kind of gone and decided what they wanted to do rather than the laws that Congress passed.

TAPPER: Doctor and Senator John Barrasso, always good to see you, sir. Thank so much for being here.

BARRASSO: Thanks for having me.

TAPPER: We appreciate.

President Trump's focus on inauguration crowd numbers might not be surprising. There is new insight on his complicated relationship with numbers and ratings from "The Apprentice" boardroom. That story next.


[16:29:04] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

President Trump has not always had the most fidelitous relationship with facts and truth, ranging from his predecessor's birth certificate to Ted Cruz's father and Lee Harvey Oswald. Over the weekend, we saw the Trump administration mobilize its fact asphyxiators over an issue of dubious importance, the size of the inauguration crowd. It's something on which his press secretary doubled down today.

And now, it turns out that this is standard operating procedure for Mr. Trump about numbers. The question now being, will White House officials be more willing to give him hard truths than did producers and editors of "The Apprentice"? (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): During his first weekend as president, Donald Trump and his team were fixated on an issue of no consequence to most voters.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We had a massive field of people. You saw that. Packed.

TAPPER: How big the crowds were at his inauguration.

TRUMP: I looked out. The field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people. They showed a field where there were practically nobody standing there.

TAPPER: On Saturday, the president sent his press secretary Sean Spicer to the White House briefing room to make several patently false claims to the public.