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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Officials: Marines Arrive in Syria to Help Rebels; Interview with Congressman Eric Swalwell of California. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 9, 2017 - 16:30   ET

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


GEN. JOSEPH VOTEL, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Our intention, of course, is to prevent them from getting out. So, the first part of all of our operations is to isolate the areas where we are -- where attacks are taking place by our partners.

[16:30:01] We're bringing our enabling capabilities so that we don't let anybody get out or get in.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The marines are equipped with M777 howitzers that can fire shells up to 25 miles away. These combat marines will try to protect local forces advancing on the city. Even more U.S. troops could be on the way.

VOTEL: I am certainly in discussions with the secretary about what we might need going forward.

STARR: But the largest deployment of an additional 1,000 troops to Syria is not yet approved. Portions of the 82nd Airborne Division have draft orders that could send them to the region on stand by for combat operations in Raqqah or Mosul, Iraq, if needed. A top Army general told Congress, the troops might be going to Kuwait to be postured there.

The Pentagon says the campaign is working. In Iraq, ISIS has lost almost all access to oil, a major source of cash for the group. There are few foreign fighters now moving in, and recruiting is down.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: But U.S. officials say ISIS is already making plans for the next phase to turn itself into a guerilla insurgency and possibly spend years staging hit and run attacks -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon for us today, thank you so much.

Unpacking the Russian nesting doll. One lawmaker has launched is asking or help connecting the dots between Trump's inner circle and Russian officials. That congressman will join us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:35:55] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

More in politics now. A local TV interview caught our eye last night. John Cusack (ph) Channel 5 in Cleveland asked the Vice President Pence about President Trump's evidence-free accusation that President Obama had him wiretapped last year.

Here is how Vice President Pence responded.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPORTER: Yes or no, do you believe President Obama did that?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, what I can say is that the president and our administration are very confident that the congressional committees in the House and Senate that are examining issues surrounding the last election, the run-up to the last election, will do that in a thorough and equitable way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I'm sure you noticed that the vice president was asked yes or no, do you believe President Obama committed this action, one that both the FBI director and former director of national intelligence have said, did not happen, and the vice president did not answer. And he did not say he believed it.

This is interestingly just the latest example of members of the president's own team refusing to say that they believe his apparently false claim.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the president did not share his reasons for making the untethered charge. That would be above his pay grade, he said.

Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, quote, "The American people have a right to know if this took place." I repeat, if this took place.

The president says it took place. His deputy press secretary, not so sure. Every credible person with access to intelligence says this did not happen, or they have seen no evidence that it happened. And not even the vice president will say that he believes it happened.

No one from the president's team says the charge is true. No one says, "I believe the president." And these are people who are paid to believe the president.

Now, the president's tweets about a apparently nonexistent wiretapping by President Obama were based on reporting of actual wiretaps that may have revealed contacts between Trump campaign advisors and Russians known to U.S. intelligence. In 11 days, the House Intelligence Committee will hold is its first public hearing on Russia's meddling in U.S. politics. And as lawmakers review evidence classified and declassified, one Democratic congressman on the Intelligence Committee just launched a web wage to try to connect the dots between President Trump and his inner circle and Russian officials, based on publicly available information. It includes what we've learned about Russia's meddling and, of course, the country's history of horrific human rights violations. That website's creator is Congressman Eric Swalwell from California.

He joins me now. He's the top Democrat on the Central Intelligence Agency Subcommittee of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: Thanks for having me back, Jake.

TAPPER: So, you laid out on your website the known links between Trump advisors and Russians. For instance, Jared Kushner meeting with the Russian Ambassador Kislyak, for example, or Secretary of State Tillerson who is once head of ExxonMobil and had dealings with Russian business interests, a critic might say, so what? That's not evidence of any wrongdoing. What would you say back?

SWALWELL: Certainly right now, this investigation has put a lot of dots up that continue to get connected. One that I would also add is in June 2016, it's revealed publicly that Russia is attacking our democracy. A month later, Carter Page, a foreign policy advisor for the president with permission of the campaign travels over to Russia. That's another critical piece of evidence.

But right now, what the public is asking is what were the personal, financial, and campaign ties that the president and his team had with Russia and we wanted to piece those together in an unclassified way so the public could follow along. And also see the influence that has taken place because you have Jeff Sessions who was tough on Russia, meets with the Russian ambassador a number of times, changes his stance. The Republican Party wants to help Ukraine, as Russia is moving in on Ukraine. Goes to the convention, changes the platform.

So, it's not just Russia ties. It's a change in policy.

TAPPER: So, this is all public information that you're putting on the website. But you're on the House Intelligence Committee. You must know more than the rest of us do about any of this.

Is there any evidence you've seen of actual wrongdoing, of actual collusion?

[16:40:05] SWALWELL: We're undergoing that investigation right now. And the pledge that our chairman and the ranking member have made is that we will follow the evidence. And there is going to be a number of tests as we go forward.

One will be, are we allowed to interview all of the witnesses, particularly Carter Page, Roger Stone, others who were with the Trump campaign? Will we be able to see the president's tax returns that would tell us a lot about his financial dealings with Russia? And if we are, I would say then I would take them at their word we're going to follow the evidence.

It is also, Jake, I think in the president's interests if these are all mere coincidences to clear the clouds surrounding this presidency.

TAPPER: What will you do if it turns out they are coincidences or at the very least you can't prove anything more than the guy who was head of ExxonMobil dealt with a country that had a lot of oil? Or a guy who is the son-in-law of the president, met with one of many ambassadors? What will you do then?

SWALWELL: Well, then I would just say it's bad judgment if the president wants to embrace a country where it's still pretty clear that they attacked us. But as far as whether there were ties and those ties also included working with the Russians, that's what we want to run down right now.

TAPPER: Which of these connections that you layout in your web page concerns you the most? Are you most concerned about Carter Page and Roger Stone? You singled them out.

SWALWELL: Yes, Roger Stone would intimate throughout the campaign that more information was coming through WikiLeaks. And our intelligence committee -- our intelligence community has said with full confidence that WikiLeaks was working with the Russians to disseminate information that the Russians had hacked.

So, he's another individual where it looks like we need know more about what his connections were as this active measures campaign by the Russians was taking place.

TAPPER: Now, Congressman, you called for an independent bipartisan commission to investigate Russian interference in the election. Do you not have faith in your own House Intelligence Committee and the chairman to conduct a thorough inquiry?

SWALWELL: Yes, the lane that we conduct this in is one that is mostly done in secret. And, so, I think the best way to make this available to the public and the best way to really depoliticize this because it's become a little too partisan, and the best way I think to debunk a lot of the myths that are out there would -- to have a 9/11 style commission. I worked with Lee Hamilton who was the co-chair of the 9/11 commission to write our bill. Every Democrat supports it. Walter Jones is the first Republican who has come on board.

But I would like to take this outside of Congress to understand what happened and most importantly how we can protect the future elections.

TAPPER: The Senate Intelligence Committee, the deal made between the Democrat and Republican there, Warner and Burr, says that they could subpoena the president's tax records. But the chairman would have to sign off on it.

Do you have that same deal in the House Intelligence Committee? And do you think that Chairman Nunes would go along with that?

SWALWELL: The deal we have is that we will follow and pursue all leads. And for me that includes the president's tax records. He has past ties with Russians as far as his own business dealings. And so, I think it would be instructive for us to know whether his taxes show any business dealings with Russians and whether those Russians were individuals involved with the Russian government. Yes, I intend and I know my colleagues on the intelligence committee on the Democratic side intend to ask for that.

TAPPER: Congressman Eric Swalwell --

SWALWELL: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: -- Democrat of California, appreciate it, thank you, sir.

While lawmakers battle over what right now are health care hypotheticals, there are tens of thousands of Americans if not more, millions, facing very real and hard choice about their health insurance. A look at the human side of this health care debate, coming up next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN THE LEAD ANCHOR: Welcome back. We're back with our "HEALTH LEAD" now. Members of Congress are hardly the only ones struggling with the health care debate. Far from it, as our viewers likely know firsthand all over this country. Everyday Americans are facing the harsh realities of our current health care system, the uncertainty of what's ahead, and the fear of not having insurance coverage in the future. CNN Correspondent Brynn Gingras traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee where a major insurer is about to pull out of the state's ObamaCare exchange program. Brynn, these people who will be losing health coverage under ObamaCare, do we have any idea what their options might be under the new republican plan?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we know that 15 counties are affected by this Humana exit and whether or not this GOP plan will hurt or help them is really remains to be seen. They are in fact telling us they're waiting to see what that final plan will look like. But here's the issue, come 2018, if there is no insurer who is actually operating in these counties, then may be all a moot point. You know, people who are critics of this current GOP plan say that it does them no good, and that really there isn't going to be convincing enough for people to come back here to this market place. Well, those who took advantage of ObamaCare who it helped them, they said they just want some answers soon and really they say their life depends on it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS: For Melissa Nance and her fiance Wade, this mobile home is their means to living out the couple's dream of driving cross-country. Recently, though, a new reality set in.

MELISSA NANCE, INSURED THROUGH AFFORDABLE CARE ACT: I was diagnosed with leukemia.

GINGRAS: Then incurable form of cancer, a basket of prescriptions keep her going.

NANCE: Now I'm a sick person. Before I wasn't.

GINGRAS: Right now her treatment is covered through the Affordable Care Act. But insurer Humana recently announced its pulling out of ObamaCare exchanges across the country leaving zero option for about 40,000 customers in the Knoxville area. So people like Nance, maybe without coverage by the end of this year.

NANCE: I feel like I battled cancer and survived. And now I'm having to - I feel like battle and fight to make sure that I have health insurance and it's exhausting.

GINGRAS: Michelle Johnson heads a nonprofit that helps people across the state access health care. The panic, she says, crosses party lines.

MICHELE JOHNSON, TENNESSEE JUSTICE CENTER: These are folks who voted for Trump, or (INAUDIBLE) at all, or voted for Clinton, but mostly people are calling very afraid and they're calling wanting us to say everything is going to be OK.

GINGRAS: The company blames, quote, "an unbalanced risk pool," meaning fewer healthy people on its rolls hurting business. Humana's leaving follows a recent move by two of its competitors. Tennessee's health care system is already fragile. Three quarters of the state's counties have only one health care provider through ObamaCare, according to the State's Department of Insurance.

[16:50:07] JOHNSON: That means that we don't have a very bright future. It means that we're on very, very shaky footing.

GINGRAS: And politics are in play.

PAUL RYAN, UNITED STATES HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES SPEAKER: Options are disappearing fast.

GINGRAS: A republican sponsored repeal bill is moving through congress. The proposed bill would get rid of ObamaCare's individual mandate, but matches its predecessor by offering tax credits to purchase health insurance and maintaining coverage for people with preexisting conditions.

NANCE: Selfishly, I'm glad that preexisting conditions are lifetime (INAUDIBLE) covered. I think that we need to have a broader picture and look what's best for our community as a whole.

GINGRAS: Not everyone in this red state agrees. Health care was a major election issue here, and many like small business owner Catherine Ian, believed it needs a complete overhaul.

KATHRYN EATON, EATON TAX AND BUSINESS SERVICE MANAGEMENT ACCOUNTANT: We're paying more enforced type of expenses and we feel like we're getting less and less benefit out of it.

GINGRAS: For Nance, it's worth everything and without an insurance plan she can afford, her motor home intended for travel may be what's needed to save her life.

NANCE: If the plan is, I'll move.

GINGRAS: It comes to that. NANCE: Yes. It's that or die. So, you know, what else would you do?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GINGRAS: And we reached out to Humana to see if this current GOP plan motivates them to come back to the market. They referred us to an insurance industry association who says they are currently monitoring what's going on in congress. Jake?

TAPPER: Brynn Gingras, thank you so much. The "NATIONAL LEAD" now. Assigned the President Trump's tough talk on illegal immigration perhaps is having an impact. The Department of Homeland Security says illegal southwest border crossings are down 40 percent from January to February. The Secretary of Homeland Security, former General John Kelly announced the numbers himself. Statistics that are usually a quiet website post with little fanfare. Kelly made it a point to say crossings took a dramatic drop after the President's inauguration January 20th. Officials called the drop unprecedented. Typically the January to February change is actually an increase of 10 to 20 percent. A former customs and border protection official tell CNN however, it might be premature to credit President Trump for the decline factor such as whether, and the economy, the official say can affect border crossing numbers. The owners of a small Washington, D.C. restaurant are suing the President of the United States claiming his luxury hotel and restaurant is unfairly hurting their business. Do they really have a case? That story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: We're back with today's "MONEY LEAD." Owners of a D.C. restaurant are now the first to sue President Trump since taking office. Claiming his D.C. hotel is unfairly eating up competition. That is the focus of today's conflict of interest watch. Cork Wine Bar, is about a mile and a half away from the Trump Hotel, it's a family owned local business. Its owner say their business, however, is now second choice to anyone who wants to curry favor with the Trump administration. They also say President Trump is directly benefiting from his hotel because he is still on the lease.

CNN's Christina Alesci joins me now. Using this logic, basically every restaurant and bar in Washington D.C. is competing with the Trump Hotel. Do the owners really have a case? Have they proved that they've been harmed in any way?

CHRISTINA ALESCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's and excellent question. And I asked that very question at the press conference today. So did other reporters. Look, the bottom line is, the restaurant owners said they've seen a downturn in private events there, but the couple and their attorneys declined to provide any figures today that back that up. In the future, however, I think they'll welcome a request for evidence in court because that would allow the plaintiffs to make their own request for information, possibly even Trump's tax returns. Now, the core of this argument is the restaurant owners call Washington, D.C. a company town full of foreigners, diplomats, lobbyist, and business leaders seeking to influence the administration. So, those people have a choice between having dinner or hosting an event at Trump Hotel versus another venue like Cork, why not choose the Trump Hotel? Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DIANE GROSS, CORK AND WINE BAR OWNER: That's the whole thing about what's happening now at the hotel. The possibility of seeing him, the possibility of seeing his staff, of you know, having prominent members of the administration who are even staying there be - you know, seen and available to influence and have conversations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALESCI: Now, the plaintiffs are not looking for money from the lawsuit. Instead, they want the President to divest from his businesses and they are pointing to the lease for the hotel, which is between the federal government and Trump's company. There's a term, as we've talked about, Jake, many times in that lease that bars an elected official from being party to it.

TAPPER: Now, you mentioned how they talked about how his name is on the lease for this hotel even though it is against the rules for the general services administration. But this lawsuit has nothing to do with that so why mention it?

ALESCI: Yes. It is really unclear that that's going to help their case, but Cork's lawyer say the specific language is evidence that the government acknowledges the hotel could be a conduit for funneling money to the administration. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

STEVE SCHOONER, PLAINTIFF'S ATTORNEY: The parties to the lease including the government and initially the President understood that this would be unfair competition. And so, it's merely another articulation of how unfair the situation is. That's the situation that needs to be avoided by this lawsuit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ALESCI: Now, Jake, you remember the Trump administration committed to donating profits from foreign countries to the treasury for hotels, but it's unclear how they'll be held accountable to that. And today, a Trump organization spokesperson dismissed the lawsuit, calling it a publicity stunt.

TAPPER: It might - I mean, truth to be told. There's a lot of democrats and liberals in this town. It might be one, whether or not they intend it to be, and it might help them get business.

ALESCI: That said there are a lot of high profile lawyers on this that have a reputation. So, that's at stake.

TAPPER: Christina Alesci, thank you to so much. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer.