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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Goes After FBI; North Korea Murder; Trump vs Media; White House Expected to Release New Travel Ban Next Week; Interview with Former DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 24, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: It was just this morning that Donald Trump said nobody loves the First Amendment more than him. Glad we cleared that up.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump today sounding a little bit more like candidate, attacking Hillary Clinton, as a ravenous crowd chants "Lock her up, lock her up," criticizing polls, bashing the media. And now he's taking his battle with some news organizations a step further.

And a CNN exclusive: multiple officials saying that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus pressured the FBI to publicly knock down news reports about Trump associates communicating with Russians known to U.S. intelligence, a request that the FBI declined. Now Democrats are demanding answers.

Plus, it kills in minutes. Authorities say a highly toxic chemical weapon was used to murder Kim Jong-un's half-brother. How did the alleged assassins get it and what might that mean?

Good afternoon, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

The White House today appearing to take punitive action against news organizations. Press Secretary Sean Spicer in the people's house just briefed reporters on the day's news. He was at the White House, of course. He did not allow news outlets, including CNN and "The New York Times" and "The Los Angeles Times" and Politico and others, to attend that off-camera briefing, which is known as a gaggle.

This is a wild deviation from basic White House protocol, which normally allows any credentialed news organization to participate.

For more, let's go right to CNN's Sara Murray. She's live in the White House Briefing Room.

And, Sara, I have to say even the darkest days of the Obama White House's war against FOX News, the Obama White House never banned FOX from attending any sort of press gaggle or briefing. This is clearly President Trump punishing news organizations for providing basic accountability. SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, it was

a little perplexing to see how this played out today, because it is not unusual, for instance, for the White House to do something like that with a pool, which is, of course, a small group of reporters who represents the entire press corps, or even if they wanted to do a private meeting, for instance, with a group of columnists.

But what is bizarre to see the White House hand-selecting a variety of different news outlets across the board and blocking others. For instance, they allowed every other major television network except for CNN into this briefing, which is outside the realm of what we normally see from the White House. It's very bizarre to allow newspapers into a briefing like this, but to exclude "The New York Times."

So, they did seem to opt for some outlets they believe are more favorable toward the president, places like Breitbart, places like "The Washington Times," and opted to exclude places like CNN, "The New York Times," and Politico that the president has been directly critical of.

TAPPER: And, Sara, did the White House give any explanation as to why these news organizations, including CNN, were excluded?

MURRAY: I have asked a number of White House aides today in the communication shop specifically about why they hand-selected some reporters to be included and decided to exclude others.

They have not answered that question. They have only said that it was originally going to be a pooled gaggle off-camera. Then they decided to expand the pool. Sean Spicer said that that was his decision to expand the pool, but they have not said why they decided to sort of cherry-pick these outlets.

Jake, it's worth noting in this gaggle that was off-camera that CNN was excluded from, the main focus was CNN's own excellent reporting today on contacts between the White House chief of staff and the FBI.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, thank you so much.

I don't want to spend too much time discussing this issue because we have a lot of news to cover today, but let's not make any mistake about what is happening here.

A White House that has had some difficulty telling the truth and that has seemed to have trouble getting up to speed on the basic competent functioning of government, and a president who seems particularly averse to any criticism and has called the press the enemies of the American people, they are taking the next step in attempting to avoid checks and balances and accountability.

It's not acceptable. In fact, it's petulant, and indicative of a lack of basic understanding of how an adult White House functions. In fact, Sean Spicer in December seemed to completely understand this.

He said the White House would not ban any media organization, as the Trump campaign had. He said -- quote -- "We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government. That is something you can't ban an entity from, conservative, liberal or otherwise. I think that's what makes a democracy a democracy vs. a dictatorship."

The Trump White House now, led by Sean Spicer's White House operation and the communication division, is now targeting multiple media organizations. And it seems to think it can punish reporters for sharing with you facts that they don't like.

They offer rhetoric designed to mislead and confuse you about this issue, such as this from the president today:

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are fighting the fake news. It's fake, phony, fake.

[16:05:01]

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: A few days ago, I called the fake news the enemy of the people, and they are. They are the enemy of the people.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's just simply not true.

So, don't misunderstand what's going on with that rhetoric and with today's action banning various media outlets, including CNN and "The New York Times."

This White House does not seem to respect the idea of accountability. This White House does not seem to value an independent press.

There is a word for that line of thinking. The word is un-American.

Now, the Republican Party is now the party of Donald Trump, and it sounds a little bit different than it has in the past. The president took the stage today at the conservatives' influential annual conference CPAC. It's a forum he skipped last year, when he was a candidate.

He laid out his governing principles in today's speech. It wasn't quite conservative, exactly, more nationalistic, if anything else.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins me now.

And, Jeff, President Trump is going to address Congress next week. Do we expect that speech to sound similar to today's?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, I think the president will sound similar.

When I was in that room, I was almost thinking I was back at a campaign rally some six months or so ago, even a year or so ago. His proposals, his pitches will sound the same. One key difference, only half of the crowd next week in the House chamber will be cheering.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: And now you finally have a president, finally. Took you a long time. Took you a long time.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump taking a victory lap today before a roaring crowd of conservative activists.

TRUMP: The forgotten men and women of America will be forgotten no longer. That is the heart of this new movement and the future of the Republican Party.

ZELENY: It's Mr. Trump's Republican Party now, his realignment of the GOP already under way, hailed as a hero today at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Mr. Trump outlining his America first agenda that goes against the grain of recent Republican orthodoxy.

TRUMP: But there is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency, or a global flag. This is the United States of America that I am representing. I'm not representing the globe. I'm representing your country.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Welcome to CPAC 2016.

ZELENY: At the same gathering last year, just outside Washington, many conservatives recoiled at the idea of a Trump presidency. He canceled his appearance and, of course, went on to win.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: He really doesn't belong at a conservative gathering. Donald Trump is not a conservative.

ZELENY: But it was here at CPAC six years ago where Trump's idea of running for the White House first sprang to life.

TRUMP: While I'm not at this time a candidate for the presidency, I will decide by June whether or not I will become one.

ZELENY: He stopped short of running back then, but his words sound prescient.

TRUMP: I will tell you the reason that I'm thinking about it is that the United States has become a whipping post for the rest of the world.

ZELENY: But now, after five weeks in office, the president is faced with making choices over which campaign pledges take priority and how he will pay for them.

TRUMP: We're also putting in a massive budget request for our beloved military.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: And we will be substantially upgrading all of our military, all of our military, offensive, defensive, everything, bigger and better and stronger than ever before.

ZELENY: Carol Marino was an early Trump supporter from North Carolina who for now is giving the president the benefit of the doubt that his agenda won't break the bank.

CAROL MARINO, CPAC ATTENDEE: I'm not overly concerned that he's going to blow the deficit. I'm really not. I think he will find a way to kind of shrink the waste and then use that someplace else.

ZELENY: Yet several other fiscal conservatives say they are carefully watching the price tag of Trump's agenda, even as he redefines the meaning of conservatism.

MARINO: Well, you know, again, what is a conservative? I think that that's one of the questions that we're all debating at this conference.

ZELENY: It was clear today Mr. Trump isn't quite ready to let go of his campaign, even as those promises give way to the realities of governing.

TRUMP: Our victory was a win like nobody has ever seen before.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: And, Jake, just a short time ago, another very interesting meeting here at the White House. That was with the Ohio governor, John Kasich, and the president.

Now, John Kasich has been a loud critic of the president going back more than a year in their own campaign. But they were meeting one on one in the Oval Office.

[16:10:00]

And the governor walked out of the White House and sounded more positive than he's ever sounded yet about the president. But, Jake, he said this. He said, look, the man is the president of the United States. It's sort of like you're on a plane and you're rooting for the pilot.

All of the governors from across the country also in town this weekend. The president will be meeting with them later -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny at the White House for us, thank you so much.

The White House is pushing back strongly today against the CNN exclusive. CNN reporters found that the FBI rejected a request made by the White House to try to publicly knock down reporting by both CNN and "The New York Times" about contacts between President Trump's campaign staff and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

CNN's Jim Sciutto joins me now.

Jim, the White House's pushback is interesting, because it actually ends up confirming the reporting.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's -- between all the pushback and the normal insults and the obfuscation, this essential fact.

The White House confirms it did speak to the FBI about these communications and did ask for help knocking down stories describing those communications. And, more broadly, the White House has not denied the existence of those communications between Trump advisers and Russians known to U.S. intelligence during the campaign, as CNN reported last week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the White House vehemently defending, asking the FBI to deny reports of communications between Trump campaign associates and Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

The administration's intense pushback follows CNN's exclusive reporting of the White House request. Senior administration official insisting it only asked for the denial after a top FBI official himself volunteered that "The New York Times"' story on those communications was inaccurate.

White House officials, who asked not to be named, today outlined their timeline of events, saying, the conversation happened on February 15, after a 7:30 a.m. meeting led by White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe asked Priebus for five minutes alone after the meeting ends, this according to senior administration officials, and called the reports linking Trump campaign advisers to Russia -- quote -- "total B.S."

Priebus, the White House said, asked McCabe -- quote -- "Can we do anything about it?" and whether there is something the FBI can do to -- quote -- "set the record straight."

Later, in separate conversations, McCabe and FBI Director James Comey tells Priebus the FBI cannot comment on the reports. Priebus then asks Comey if he can cite McCabe and Comey as -- quote -- "top intelligence officials" in pushing back on the story himself in TV interviews last Sunday, which he did.

REINCE PRIEBUS, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I have talked to the top levels of the intelligence community and they have assured me that that "New York Times" story was grossly overstated and inaccurate and totally wrong.

SCIUTTO: The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts concerning pending investigations.

ALBERTO GONZALES, FORMER U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: You don't even want the appearance of political influence with respect to an investigation or prosecution. That's why the protocols are in place.

SCIUTTO: President Trump on Friday ranted against the leaks that have plagued his administration, making a case reporters should only used named sources, even as White House officials spoke to reporters asking not to be named.

TRUMP: I'm against the people that make up stories and make up sources. They shouldn't be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody's name. Let their name be put out there. Let their name be put out.

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: A source says that Donald Trump is a horrible, horrible human being. Let them say it to my face.

SCIUTTO: Mr. Trump also criticized the FBI directly, tweeting -- quote -- "The FBI is totally unable to stop the national security leakers that have permeated our government for a long time. They can't even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. Find now."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: We learned today that, at Friday's briefing, the members of the Intelligence Committees, both the Senate and the House, a congressional sources tells CNN that FBI Director James Comey did not dismiss the existence of any communications between Russians and Trump advisers.

Fact is, the FBI is still investigating the significance of these contacts, as are the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. So, when Reince Priebus there makes that broader denial that there is nothing to these reports whatsoever of communications, that contradicts the fact that there are, in fact, ongoing investigations, FBI and two on the Hill as well.

TAPPER: All right, Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

Joining me now is former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. She is just going to come with us in the next block.

But we are right now just days away from President Trump unveiling his revised executive order on the travel ban, this after CNN learned that the White House asked the Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department to come up with intelligence supporting the order.

[16:15:00] We're going to be with DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano weighing in next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Let's stick with politics now. President Trump is expected to next week release a revised executive order which will restrict travel and immigration from seven Muslim majority countries. CNN has learned that in an effort to bolster its legal case, the White House has asked the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to offer an intelligence report that will help support the reason for this ban.

Sources also tell CNN that some inside the intelligence community are concerned that the Trump administration is politicizing intelligence.

With me to discuss this more is Janet Napolitano. She was homeland security secretary under President Obama.

Secretary Napolitano, thanks for joining us.

Have you spoken with any of your former colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security about what's going on?

JANET NAPOLITANO, FORMER HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: No, I haven't. But I have seen the reports about what's going on and it's troublesome.

TAPPER: The idea right now is that the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, which, of course, is the intelligence arm of the Department of Homeland Security, they offered a report that basically says that they don't think the travel ban makes sense.

[16:20:13] Now, the head of I&A, Intelligence and Analysis, has criticized that report. In fact, the Department of Homeland Security has on the record criticized that report. Is that unusual?

NAPOLITANO: It is unusual and it's also unusual to have I&A requested to come up with intel that supports a previously arrived at conclusion. Normally, your policy and your conclusions arise from the intel as it's developed and vetted amongst different agencies, so that there's a cohesive view of what the policy that arises from that intelligence should be.

Here, it sounds backwards, that they were given direction on what conclusion to reach and despite what some in I&A thought were directed to develop intel that supported that conclusion.

TAPPER: Now, the Trump White House argues that the Obama administration under played terrorism, not counting as terrorist activities attacks that were thwarted or failed in any way, not counting as serious enough when individuals attempted to join or support terrorist groups. They want to expand the definition of terrorist activities to include all of those factors.

Does that seem unreasonable to you?

NAPOLITANO: Well, it depends on what all of those factors are. If you expand the definition too broadly, it loses all meaning. But there may be room for some compromise there.

TAPPER: I mean, I think their basic idea is that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and also some Democrats have said none of the people from these seven countries have committed any acts of terror, and it's true only if you're counting as acts of terror in this country successful murders of innocent people by these terrorists as opposed to wounding people, for instance, as happened at Ohio state by a recent Somali immigrant.

To a lot of people, it might be -- it might sound completely reasonable that person poses a threat. I'm glad they were not successful in killing anybody. That should count as somebody who committed a terrorist act even if they didn't successfully kill someone.

NAPOLITANO: Yes, perhaps. That's why I'm saying I think there may be room for some middle ground here. But, again, what we're seeing is an effort to support a previously arrived at conclusion in a sense by directing I&A, Intel and Analysis, what to come up with. And that's what's troublesome about what I've read about what's happening at DHS.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about immigration, both in your capacity as secretary of Department of Homeland Security, but also as former governor of Arizona. You dealt with the issue of undocumented immigrants illegally crossing the border all the time. President Trump has vowed to more strictly enforce laws on the books and he says he's just following the lead of the Obama administration, as you know. I'm sure you heard a lot of complaints about it. President Obama authorized the removal of, in total, more than 3 million undocumented immigrants.

Is the Trump administration wrong to say that they are just following the lead of the previous president?

NAPOLITANO: Yes, they are. And they're wrong in several respects. The most important is the notion of who should be removed and the priorities for removal. Under President Obama, we focused on those who had committed serious felonies, had known gang associations, and that there was a great deal of derogatory information about.

Under the Trump administration, those priorities are essentially wiped away so that, for an example, a mere arrest, even for a minor offense, would subject someone to deportation. And as somebody who has worked in this area for a long time, I know that widening those priorities, in essence, means no priorities. And that's not good law enforcement.

TAPPER: Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -- thanks for your time. I really appreciate it. Have a good weekend.

NAPOLITANO: You bet.

TAPPER: Police now say that the suspected assassins who killed Kim Jong-un's half brother used one of the deadliest nerve agents in the world. Is this a sign that North Korea might be stockpiling a weapon of mass destruction?

And then, two teenage girls murdered in a hike in Indiana, one of them might have caught her killer's voice on her cell phone.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:29:14] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Let's stick with politics.

We have lots to talk about today with my panel. It's day 36 of the Trump administration.

With us is Jen Psaki, former communications director for the Obama White House, A.B. Stoddard, associate editor and columnist at "Real Clear Politics", and Salina Zito, reporter for "The Washington Examiner".

Thanks one and all for being here.

Let's start with the fact that -- we have a former White House communications director here -- that the White House today would not let CNN, "The New York Times", "The Los Angeles Times", and "Politico", and I think maybe some other outlets, into the briefing known as the gaggle.

What's interesting is Sean Spicer, the press secretary, was asked last December if the Trump White House would have the same policy that it had during the campaign when it also banned several outlets. Here's what Sean had to say back in December.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have a respect for the press when it comes to the government, that that is something that you can't ban an entity from.