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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Evan McMullin; Bomb Threats; Trump-Russia Ties?; Yellen: March Interest Rate Hike Likely "Appropriate"; VP Pence Hits Road to Pitch Obamacare Repeal; Trump Spends 4th Weekend in Florida as President. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 3, 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: Russian to judgment.

THE LEAD starts right now.

New questions today about President Trump's inner circle and why it turns out that, despite the president's claims to the contrary, we keep learning about top advisers who met with Russian officials, his son-in-law being the latest. What were all these meetings about?

An arrest tied to some of the threats aimed at the Jewish community, some bizarre details about the suspect. What would allegedly lead him to commit these acts of hate?

Plus, Camp David cobwebs. The many ghosts of history are the only current guests at the presidential retreat these days. How much is it costing you to keep it up as President Trump heads to Florida weekend after weekend?

Good afternoon, everyone. And happy Friday. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump is today trying to take back control of his messaging. Today, he's promoting school vouchers in a visit to a Catholic school in Orlando, Florida, this after yet another top adviser has become ensnared by the problem of failing to be forthcoming about conversations with Russian officials.

Today, new questions about just what Attorney General Jeff Sessions discussed exactly with Russia's ambassador last summer -- last September and why the White House contradicted its own A.G. on whether his failure to report those meetings was a problem, as we learned that more Trump officials actually did meet with Russia's ambassador.

cn senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins me now.

Jeff, President Trump said very clearly not so long ago that nobody he deals a with has had anything to do with Russia. That's clearly untrue.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, he's not only said it once. He and his advisers have said it again and again in recent weeks and months, that no one has had any contact with Russian officials.

But as we end this week, let's take stock of this list, the attorney general, his son-in-law, who is a senior adviser to the president, as well as other advisers. So, now that we know about the meetings, what we don't know is why. And what did Russia want?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump heading off today for a weekend in Florida, but not escaping lingering questions about Russia. Before leaving the White House, his closest advisers holding an animated meeting in the Oval Office, chief strategist Steve Bannon looking particularly agitated as the week ends with more aides acknowledging meetings with the Russian ambassador last year.

A day after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations involving the 2016 campaign, after failing to disclose his meetings with the ambassador, the administration is on damage control, the president's words from last month not holding up to scrutiny.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have nothing to do with Russia. To the best of my knowledge, no person that I deal with does.

ZELENY: The White House has yet to explain the purpose of these meetings, the disclosure of which has overshadowed the president's well-regarded speech to Congress this week. Republicans urging team Trump to be more forthcoming.

REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: I think everybody who has had contact with the Russians need to get in a practice of oversharing.

ZELENY: In a statement, the president defending his attorney general as an honest man, blasting Democrats for what he called a total witch- hunt.

Those words echoed in Moscow, where Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described it the same way.

SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): It all looks like a witch-hunt.

ZELENY: Russia clearly on the president's mind today, sending this tweet: "We should start an immediate investigation into Senator Schumer and his ties to Russia and Putin, a total hypocrite."

Senator Schumer firing back: "Happily talk about my contact with Mr. Putin and his associates. Took place in 2003, in full view of press and public under oath. Would you and your team?"

In Wisconsin, Vice President Mike Pence facing questions about using a personal e-mail account to conduct business as Indiana governor. It was hacked in a phishing scam, as first reported by "The Indianapolis Star." MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm very confident

that our e-mail practices were in full compliance with all of Indiana's laws.

ZELENY: On the campaign trail, he often criticized Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server.

PENCE: Even classified information that was allowed to be on her own private server exposed to hacking. I have to be honest with you. I'm experiencing Clinton scandal fatigue.

ZELENY: Pence rejected that comparison today.

PENCE: No, there 's no comparison whatsoever between Hillary Clinton's practice in having a private server, mishandling classified information, destroying e-mails.

ZELENY: All this as the week drew to a close with the president still not signing a new travel ban for visitors from majority Muslim countries. He once argued it was urgently needed because a delay would allow the bad dudes to rush in.

[16:05:00]

A new report from the Department of Homeland Security undercuts his goal, finding that most violent extremists are not radicalized when they come to the U.S., but only after living here for several years.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So, Jake, as this week ends, we do not have a new timetable from the administration on when this executive order will be signed. The urgency seems to have gone away, but the reality here is, the White House has gotten resistance from inside these agencies, as you reported two weeks ago, and this is still coming, we are told, but it may not even be next week.

We are told , when it is ready, they will let us know -- Jake.

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

Right now, we have more questions than answers about Trump officials' contact with the Russians.

Evan McMullin in with us now. He is a former CIA operative who ran for president as an independent alternative to Donald Trump. He was before that a Republican House staffer.

Thank you so much for joining us, Evan. Always good to see you.

EVAN MCMULLIN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Great to be with you, Jake.

TAPPER: You were a CIA officer.

MCMULLIN: I was.

TAPPER: CNN's Evan Perez has reported that the intelligence community, that the U.S. intelligence community believes that Russia's ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, is not just an ambassador, but he is a spy and he's also a spy recruiter. Was that your understanding when you were at the agency?

MCMULLIN: Yes, that is my understanding.

But why it's significant is that you have somebody with enormous access here in Washington as an ambassador engaging with some of our senior-most officials in Congress and elsewhere who also has the skills that a spy would have to extract important information and to help run covert operations.

And, so, that's the kind of person we're dealing with here. It doesn't mean that all Ambassador Kislyak's activities are related to espionage, but it means he is a skilled practitioner of that -- of such operations.

TAPPER: Of spycraft.

MCMULLIN: That's right.

TAPPER: Can you give me just a kind of understanding of what that means exactly? He has skills in persuasion, extracting information when people don't want to give that information? What exactly do you mean?

MCMULLIN: He would have skills in compromising people, first and foremost, so that...

TAPPER: Potentially blackmailing them?

MCMULLIN: Blackmailing, but it's not just blackmail.

It is not as dramatic as that. It's about slowly easing people into a situation in which they are revealing information that they shouldn't reveal, that compromises them, which makes it easier to get additional information and additionally compromise them into the future, until you have something that amounts to a covert operation in which they are working on behalf of you. That's what his job would be.

TAPPER: But, as you point out, he also is the ambassador and assuredly does things along those lines as well.

MCMULLIN: That's right.

TAPPER: When Senator Sessions says that he met with the ambassador in his Senate office in September, but he did it as a senator, not as a Trump surrogate, and he did it as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and for no other reason, is it not possible that that's true?

MCMULLIN: Absolutely, that's possible. In fact, if Senator Sessions while under oath had simply said, yes, I

met with Ambassador Kislyak on this date at this time or in this general time frame, and we discussed A, B and C, this was a part of my normal senatorial responsibilities, and just left it at that, there may have been some follow-up questions. Some people may have been concerned given Sessions' role with the Trump campaign.

But it would have been within the norms of regular senatorial activities. The problem is, is that Sessions on more than one occasion refused to reveal the truth.

And I think part of the problem here is that now we find ourselves in a situation -- the situation where we're parsing his words, parsing the words of others. But this was not some obscure issue. Russian -- or Trump campaign relations with Russian government is perhaps the issue of the year so far in a way, and it's unimaginable that Senator Sessions would enter that interview with the panel in the Senate and not know that that question would come up, and then forget, for example, that he met with the ambassador.

TAPPER: And he keeps parsing. He keeps saying things, I never met with any Russian to discuss the campaign. Well, maybe he did to discuss the lifting of sanctions, but that wouldn't qualify.

MCMULLIN: Well, it's hard to imagine that in the context, in that time frame, when he met Ambassador Kislyak in his office, that the campaign didn't come up. How could it not? Everyone was discussing it.

TAPPER: September, yes.

MCMULLIN: Absolutely. And that would have been of supreme importance to the Russian ambassador, as well as to Senator Sessions.

And so it's hard to believe that the campaign would not have come up. It's a bit of a problem if it did come up, because Senator Sessions was engaged in campaign activities. And, so, if he's going to discuss campaign activities, that should happen off-campus. That should not happen in the Capitol Building in his official capacity.

So, that's a problem, too, that is separate from espionage. And that may be also what he's trying to protect. But then you have sort of the question of whether the Trump campaign was complicit or knowledgeable in the Russians' attack on our democracy during the election.

[16:10:00]

The biggest issue here, though, is, Jake, that Senator Sessions did not tell the truth while under oath. And I will not accept that he simply didn't believe that's what he was being asked or that he forgot.

I think this serves to erode Americans' confidence in our leaders. I think we have a big problem with that. And I think it's time to call a spade a spade and say that Senator Sessions lied. And I think he should be held accountable.

TAPPER: Do you think he should resign?

MCMULLIN: I do think he should resign.

TAPPER: Do you think that the Republicans in the Senate, and senators -- the Republican House and Senate -- and you used to be a Republican House staffer -- are taking this Russia thing, this Russia controversy seriously enough? Do you think the House and Senate Intelligence Committee investigations are sufficient at this point?

MCMULLIN: I do not think they are sufficient.

I think the Republican leaders in Congress understand this is a very, very serious issue, but they're faced with dealing with this issue and their desire to minimize the political consequences of this terrible situation, and at the same time advance some policy goals that they have had for a long, long time that they view as very, very important.

So, they're caught between a rock and many hard places. But the simple fact in my mind is that we must first protect our democracy. And it is under attack now, as democracies in Europe are, by the Russian government. And we have got to make sure that there is accountability for what happened during the election, and we have got to know the truth about whether the Trump campaign was knowledgeable of these attacks, whether they were complicit.

We have got to know the truth behind this. And, no, I don't think the Senate investigations, the Senate and the House Intel Committee investigations are sufficient.

TAPPER: All right. Evan McMullin, always good to have you. Thank you so much.

MCMULLIN: Thank you.

TAPPER: Really appreciate it.

Coming up: on the hunt, Senator Rand Paul leading the search for a copy of the GOP Obamacare replacement bill that lawmakers could be just days away from finishing. It's like he's searching for the Rosetta stone -- that story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:48] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Now the money lead, Wall Street was just slugging along today. The Dow finishing up about three points. A big difference from most of the past month where record after record was shattered.

So, why was it different today? Well, because the head of the Fed, Janet Yellen, today said that if the economy stays on track for the next few weeks, an interest rate hike would likely come when Fed leaders meet in a couple weeks. The Fed last raised rates in December, only its second rate hike in about a decade. Rising rates affect millions of Americans from home buyers to savers and financial markets.

Back to the politics lead now. Some of the first votes on the future of Obamacare are potentially just days away and whether or not you use the Affordable Care Act, odds are, there will be effects that you and your family feel. The House Republicans are taking some heat now for the secrecy of their plan and some of their GOP colleagues are taking issue.

Case in point, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and, no, they were not filming another sequel to "National Treasure" this week on Capitol Hill. That was just the senator channeling his inner Nick Cage on a quest for the secret hidden GOP Obamacare replacement bill. Marching to the House side of the capital yesterday on something of a scavenger hunt, knocking on a locked door and demanding to see a copy of the House's bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. It might be in the resolute desk, Senator.

This comes as the vice president hits the road to sell the plan to repeal and replace.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is live for us on Capitol Hill.

Phil, I guess the big question for everyone is, after seven years of political rhetoric and opposition to Obamacare, is there any actual replacement bill? Does it exist?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Technically no, which goes a long way to explaining why Senator Paul's crusade across the capital struck out as satirical Twitter account they've created in the wake of that. Also failing to discover any actual bill text, but there are drafts. I think this is an important point.

As you noted, we are just days away from House Republicans really starting to launch the legislative process on this. And they are drafting behind the scenes, the two committees that are responsible for this are working behind the scenes and the bold promises made by so many Republicans election cycle after election cycle, those are now going to come to fruition.

And that's exactly what Mike Pence had to say today. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Let me make you a promise: the Obamacare nightmare is about to end.

(APPLAUSE)

You know, despite the best efforts of some activists at town hall meetings around the country, the truth of the matter is the American people know. Obamacare has failed and Obamacare must go.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: Now, I should note the promises are that they will be starting action. There is no sense yet when they will be finishing action and it is important to note that there is still a lot of conflicts going on behind the scenes not between Democrats and Republicans, Jake, but between Republicans and Republicans as Senator Paul showed over the last couple of weeks. House Republican leaders, while they are very ready to move forward on this, still have a lot of hang ups that they're going to have to address in the days ahead.

TAPPER: One of the biggest issues is there are conservatives in the House and Senate who are opposed to the idea of a new entitlement, this refundable tax credit which some of them call just free money for lower income people. Do Republican leaders think they have the votes to get what they want done with Obamacare?

MATTINGLY: They're confident. And both leaders and House Republican leadership aides I've spoken over the last couple of weeks think they can get there. But they also recognize the reality right now of how complicated this process is. If you've changed the bill too much, you lose the moderate Republicans who are very wary of the 2018 election dynamics. You don't change the bill enough, those conservatives, you're talking about Jake particularly on the tax credit issue, might not come along.

The reality, when you talk to Republican leadership aides is this is the plan. No matter what they say they're going to change this weekend, those refundable tax credits will still be in there. The changes to Medicaid are still coming.

They are going to move forward with this and their message behind the scenes is essentially this: this is the vehicle. This is the vehicle to do what we've said on the campaign trail for years. If you don't want to get aboard this, then this is going to fail and this all dies.

So, they're more or less daring their members to oppose them. They feel like they can win this game of chicken and it will go over to the Senate and, of course, we'll see what happens over there, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mattingly, thank you so much.

[16:20:01] President Trump just arrived in South Florida where he will spend yet another weekend at his Mar-a-Lago club. The president has said the U.S. needs to do much more with less as he's been pushing budget cuts. But does that include his weekend retreats?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Let's stick with politics. Moments ago, President Trump arrived in West Palm Beach, Florida. He will spend his fourth weekend as president at Mar-a-Lago after making this pledge just a few days ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No more wasted money. We are going to be spending the money in a very, very careful manner.

[16:25:02] We must do a lot more with less. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Do a lot more with less.

Presidents are certainly entitled to take a day off, but any deficit hawk would ask, is a weekly trip to Palm Beach by the president doing a lot more with less? It takes Marine One, Air Force One, and motorcades to get the president to his posh ocean side estate, along with intense Secret Service protection.

There happens to be another presidential retreat much closer and cheaper. That, of course, would be Camp David. It is already set up to be a working White House and has security protocols in place 24/7. Some presidents used the Maryland site more than others.

But as CNN's Suzanne Malveaux reports, Camp David is costing taxpayers millions to maintain while it sits dormant.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Donald Trump taking off for Florida this weekend, first for a visit at an Orlando school then to his Mar-a-Lago resort.

TRUMP: And we get a lot of work done. Believe me, there is not rest at the southern White House. It's all work.

MALVEAUX: His fancy Florida estate, his go-to for getting business done outside the White House, and hosting world leaders like Japan's prime minister.

But President Trump's weekends at Mar-a-Lago are costing U.S. taxpayers big money. From firing up Air Force One to fly to Florida with traveling staff, to securing the beach front property with Coast Guard patrols. "The Washington Post" estimates the trip so far have cost up to $10 million in just five weeks.

And at the same time, taxpayers are also footing the bill to operate Camp David, the secluded presidential retreat less than 70 miles from the White House, set aside for presidential down time and diplomacy, even dormant, it costs an estimated $8 million a year to run.

Trump has expressed little interest in using the cheaper alternative, describing the retreat to reporters as very rustic, saying, "It's nice, you'd like it. You know how long you'd like it? For about 30 minutes."

ANITA MCBRIDE, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF TO LAURA BUSH: It doesn't fit everybody. President Obama, you know, he's a city guy. This is a remote location. I don't think initially President Clinton was crazy about it either but then came to really love it.

Remember, Jimmy Carter almost thought about getting rid of it, and thankfully he didn't.

MALVEAUX: Famously, Carter brokered the historic 1978 peace accord between Egypt and Israel at Camp David.

Anita McBride who worked in both Bush White Houses says for them it was a sanctuary.

MCBRIDGE: George W. and Laura Bush had an exceptional I think sort of relationship with Camp David. Still, the only presidential family that spent 12 Christmases at Camp David.

MALVEAUX: The private secure location also enables some world leaders to grow close. As Bush revealed what he discovered after hosting British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER PRESIDENT: We both used Colgate toothpaste.

(LAUGHTER)

TONY BLAIR, FORMER BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: They're going to wonder how you know that, George.

MALVEAUX: President Franklin D. Roosevelt called it Shangri-La. His doctor believed the cooler mountain air helped Roosevelt's sinuses. President Reagan visited a record 150-plus times, often to ride his horse.

President Clinton famously failed to get a peace deal after sequestering the Israeli and Palestinian leaders there for two weeks. And President Obama hosted African and G8 leaders at a summit early in his presidency. But rarely returned, spending most weekends at the White House.

Whether Trump continues to use Mar-a-Lago as his so-called Winter White House, Camp David remains open because not only is it a retreat, it's a military installation, doubling as a bunker to assure continuity of government in times of crisis as was the case on 9/11.

Suzanne Malveaux, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: And our thanks to Suzanne Malveaux. The Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes region, Puget Sound, what do these three areas have in common? Well, in addition to their beauty, they all could be targets for environmental spending cuts, as the EPA faces the chopping block. That story coming up.

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