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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Senator Chuck Grassley; Comey Confirms FBI Investigating Trump-Russia Links. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 20, 2017 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:01]

BRIAN FALLON, FORMER CLINTON CAMPAIGN SPOKESMAN: Well, I think it just affirmed a lot of people's suspicions that the FBI director was applying one standard in terms of how talkative he was about the Hillary Clinton investigation and was following another when it came to Donald Trump.

We always suspected that there must have been an investigation, albeit it one that wasn't before confirmed publicly, into Donald Trump and his campaign. And now we know that there was one.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: But we don't know when the Trump part of it started.

FALLON: That's fair.

But I do think that I was surprised by the degree of forwardness from Jim Comey today. I think that, if you are the Trump White House, you're probably going in expecting one of two different situations. Number one, that he would decline to comment at all about the existence of an investigation or, two, if he did, he would immediately qualify it by giving a statement akin to what Jim Clapper said, where he sort of tried to contextualize the evidence and suggests that we don't yet have any smoking gun proof that there's been any collusion.

The combination of him confirming the investigation, but offering no other insights into it is going to create a storm cloud over the White House for the next several months.

TAPPER: It's going to be an issue, without question.

And the previous two weeks have really been about President Trump's evidence-free charge that President Obama had him wiretapped. Take a listen to what Jim Comey had to say about that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: With respect to the president's tweets about alleged wiretapping directed at him by the prior administration, I have no information that supports those tweets. And we have looked carefully inside the FBI.

The Department of Justice has asked me to share with you that the answer is the same for the Department of Justice and all its components. The department has no information that supports those tweets.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I have a feeling that, if Jim Comey ever writes a book, with respect to the president's tweets could be the title.

But this should put a nail in the coffin of this, but the White House appeared to be doubling or tripling or quadrupling down, whatever it is at this point.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: On the question of good news, I think Senator Santorum is right that the best news for democracy would be that this has a conclusion and that it comes fairly quickly, so this is clarified and it doesn't just hang out there with opportunistic political leaking, which we will see on both sides, and apparently from the intelligence community.

But there was good news that happened on the Hill with the Gorsuch hearings today for the White House. But they did not capitalize on that. Instead, they defensively tweet about the hearing that's not as good for them. I think they miss opportunities often in that way and also by tripling down on this false claim.

TAPPER: We will talk about Gorsuch, just you so know, in the next panel.

But, Margaret, I have to say, first of all, as a reporter, I like leaks. I don't have any problem with leaks, as long as they're accurate and they're in context. I don't care if they come from the left, right, center, whoever they come from.

But it's interesting to hear a bunch of House Republicans after the last eight years talk about how horrible leaks are.

MARGARET TALEV, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Right.

But when you look in totality of the last two weeks, let's say since the tweets, this is largely a problem created by President Trump and fueled by President Trump, not created and fueled by leaks.

And the situation was made worse or more complicated today by confirming on the record, straight from the horse's mouth, what all of us believe was happening anyway both in terms of what President Obama didn't do and what might be going on in the investigative world.

Having it out there on the record changes the game. But this is a situation that President Trump's actions largely have fueled, everything that got us to the place of this hearing today, Mr. -- Director Comey's testimony and everything that's followed. It's an opportunity strategically to shift for the White House, but it's not clear that they will.

TAPPER: Right. They should be taking Mary Katharine's advice and talking about Neil Gorsuch.

HAM: They rarely do. TAPPER: Clarissa, let me ask you, as someone who has spent months and

months in Russia, I can't help but think, as somebody who likes to meddle in elections and enjoys sowing chaos in the electoral process in liberal democracies throughout the world, Vladimir Putin must really just be enjoying this one way or the other. The American political system is in disarray.

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: What is really interesting, Jake, I think up to a certain point he was kind of enjoying it. He was enjoying the ambiguity of it, the possibility that he could have thrown the election in the most powerful and important consequential country in the world.

That certainly spoke to his ego. But what was noticeable today, while every single news channel pretty much in the world -- and I'm talking globally, Sky News, BBC, Al-Jazeera -- one news channel that very noticeably did not take today's hearing was Russia Today.

And I do think you're starting to see now the beginning of what we might call a conscious uncoupling of the Kremlin and the Trump administration, because the Kremlin sees the writing on the wall here and they understand that President Trump will literally be forced at some point to start talking tough with Russia.

And so we have seen recently the beginnings of a kind of scaling back on the glowing coverage, scaling back on talks of a rapprochement with the U.S., of a real shift in the Zeitgeist in America and less and less coverage of this incident.

Another thing that didn't get much coverage, Michael Flynn's resignation. So, clearly, the Russians can see what this portends in the long run. And they're trying to kind of prepare for it accordingly.

[16:35:03]

TAPPER: Russia Today wasn't covering it this afternoon. Also, when I looked up, FOX News was not covering it. They were covering the Gorsuch hearings. An interesting observation.

Clarissa Ward, Mary Katharine Ham, Senator Rick Santorum, Brian Fallon, Margaret Talev, thanks so much. Appreciate, one and all.

The hearing on Russia was not the only hearing on the Hill today, as we just said. President Trump's Supreme Court nominee facing the Judiciary Committee for the first time.

The chairman of the committee, Senator Chuck Grassley will join us live next. Stay with us, please.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Let's stick with politics. Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump's pick to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee today, this as Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is threatening to block Gorsuch's nomination, possibly even through a filibuster, if he ultimately finds Gorsuch's judicial philosophy lying outside of the "mainstream."

[16:40:10]

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty joins me now live from Capitol Hill.

Sunlen, do we have a better sense now after the beginning of the hearing of Judge Gorsuch's judicial views?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, today, Jake, was much more of the introductory phase of the confirmation hearing.

We heard from Gorsuch very late in the day just for a few minutes during his opening statement where he tried to make the case for himself that he sees himself in his words as a judge whose job is not for interpreting the law -- whose job is for interpreting the law, not to remake the law. Most of the day today was senators saying their opening statements, really laying out the fight Democrats intend to bring in the days ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, facing the scrutiny oft spotlight.

NEIL GORSUCH, SUPREME COURT NOMINEE: I have tried to treat all who come before me fairly and with respect.

SERFATY: Democrats airing their grievances.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: Due to unprecedented treatment, Judge Garland was denied a hearing.

SERFATY: Still furious at Republicans, repeatedly invoking Merrick Garland's name, President Obama's Supreme Court nominee who never got a hearing for the vacancy Gorsuch is trying to fill.

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: Your nomination is part of a Republican strategy to capture our judicial branch of government.

SERFATY: Senator Cruz defending the decision to not hold a confirmation hearing in the middle of an election.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: His nomination carries with it a super legitimacy. The American people played a very direct role in helping choose this nominee.

SERFATY: In their opening statements today, Democrats signalling they're gearing up for a fight, ready to grill Gorsuch on his judicial philosophy.

FEINSTEIN: Judge Gorsuch has not had occasion to rule directly on a case involving Roe. However, his writings do raise questions. SERFATY: Gorsuch's independence from the president.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: Will you rubber-stamp a president whose administration has asserted that executive power is not subject to judicial review?

SERFATY: And clearly attempting to make his confirmation as much about the president as they can.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: The independence of those judges has never been more threatened. A large part of the threat comes from the man who nominated you.

SERFATY: Republicans blasting the Democrats' strategy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The nominee before us today is not President Trump. The nominee before us today is not Leader McConnell. And it's not Judge Merrick Garland. It's one of the most extraordinarily talented and capable people.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: Something is seriously wrong when the confirmation process for a Supreme Court justice resembles an election campaign.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: And tomorrow will kick off the first day of questioning on the committee where fireworks are very, very likely. That will last for a couple of days and then the chairman of the committee says he expects a final vote in committee to come the first week in April, Jake, and if passed through, Gorsuch will then head to the full Senate -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sunlen Serfaty on Capitol Hill, thank you so much.

Joining me right now is Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, a Republican and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held the hearing today.

Senator Grassley, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: Thank you, Jake. Glad to be with you.

TAPPER: So, are you confident that there will be at least eight Senate Democrats who will vote in favor of Judge Gorsuch, enabling him to pass the 60-vote threshold?

GRASSLEY: Well, first of all, we are not anticipating that that's going to be a problem.

If it is a problem, then we will deal with it when we get to it. But we are assuming that Judge Gorsuch is such a judge, showing his independence, that what a judge ought to do, that he is going to be able to get an up-or-down vote without worrying about the 60 votes. TAPPER: Well, I am sure you heard what Democratic Senator Richard

Blumenthal of Connecticut said about using the filibuster possibly to at least put up a roadblock to Judge Gorsuch's nomination. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLUMENTHAL: I think every nominee is important. If I conclude this one is outside the mainstream, I will use every tool at my disposal and I think many of my Democratic colleagues share that view.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: He said that conditionally. He didn't say it was absolutely going to happen, but he did say there was a possibility he would use every tool. What's your response, sir?

GRASSLEY: Well, I don't think I am a naive person, but this is the way I look at it and I expect other people to look at it. And I think the pressure from the public when they get done hearing Judge Gorsuch, that he will be able to get through without that sort of a vote, because we didn't filibuster two Clinton nominees or two Obama nominees.

The Democrats have filibustered one George W. Bush nominee, but we think that reciprocity will get this through without worrying about 60 votes.

TAPPER: Your Republican colleague Senator Orrin Hatch said that he believes that the Senate owes President Trump some deference when it comes to Supreme Court nominees.

But, of course, Democrats point out that Mr. Hatch was adamant that President Obama's choice of Merrick Garland did not even get a chance to appear before the committee when he was nominated. What do you say to democrats when they privately approach you and say, you know, look, I like - I like Neil Gorsuch, he seems like a nice guy, he seems like a deserving judge, but you are - you - republicans gave us no choice because you wouldn't even let Merrick Garland have a hearing?

CHARLES GRASSLEY, SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The only answer I can give to that is a historical answer that, during the Reagan administration, during the H.W. Bush administration and during the George W. Bush administration when there were prospects of vacancies, democrats gave speeches that said it ought to go over to the new President to make a decision. So when it came to Scalia's death and having a democrat President, you really can't have one rule for democrat Presidents and a whole different rule for Republican Presidents. And we were following that precedent set by different democratic senators. We call it the Biden rule. You can call it any rule you want to. But they said that it should go over to the president - the people making the choice and let the new President make the decision. And that's what we decided to do. And I was asked before my reelection if Hillary Clinton was elected president, everybody expected Hillary Clinton to be elected president, would I move forward, and I said yes, we're going to move forward with whosever is president.

TAPPER: I know, democrats would disagree but I'm not going to - I'm not going to fight their fight for them right now. I have a couple of questions for you about other matters. The FBI Director, James Comey testified today that there's no evidence that President Trump was wiretapped. Now, you tweeted this morning, quote, "FBI Director Comey needs to be transparent and tell the public what he told me about whether he is or is not investigating the President of the United States." Senator, what did the FBI Director tell you about whether he's investigating the President of the United States?

GRASSLEY: Well, it was told to me in a secure briefing, so obviously I can't talk about it. But whatever Comey can say, he ought to say, and I think it's pretty clear that he can say one way or the other.

TAPPER: And lastly, Senator, I've noticed as a follower of yours on twitter, and I am a big fan of your tweets, which you obviously do yourself, sometimes you tweet directly to President Trump. You're trying to get through to him. For example, yesterday you tweeted to the POTUS, if you want a real expert on fixing H-1B Visas, a former staffer of mine just moved to the Homeland Security. Call my office, I will tell you who she is. You also wrote, if you don't have time to call, tell Homeland Security Secretary Kelly to call me. I just wondering Senator, you're one of the most powerful men in the country, you're the Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Can you not get through to President Trump?

GRASSLEY: I can get through to President Trump anytime I want to but sometimes it's easier to do it by twitter than it is any other way. And so, I took advantage of that on a weekend when I thought the President was in travel for him to get my message. Whether he got my message or not, since I was in this hearing all day on the Supreme Court Justice, I don't know whether there's been a response yet.

TAPPER: But sometimes you'll tweeted him and he'll respond because he reads Twitter and his team reads Twitter?

GRASSLEY: Well, that's what I am hoping happens. And if it doesn't happen, there's other ways that I can communicate with him. But if I picked up the phone now, maybe I couldn't talk to him right now, but I know I could talk to him.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Chuck Grassley, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Republican of the great state of Iowa. It's always a pleasure to see you Sir. Thanks so much.

GRASSLEY: Thank you.

TAPPER: An alert going out to a dozen airlines flying to the United States, what new threat has Intelligence and Homeland Security officials so spooked? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] TAPPER: It's a Breaking News now in our "NATIONAL LEAD". U.S. officials have apparently banned electronic devices from the cabins of some Middle Eastern and African airline flights bound to the United States. About a dozen airlines that fly nonstop from certain countries must now require passengers to check in almost all electronics according to U.S. official. CNN's Rene Marsh is here with me. Rene, what do we know and what reason our officials giving for this?

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: So, we know at this point that the Trump administration is getting ready - they're in the process of announcing some new security restrictions, specifically though, for passengers flying on direct flights to the United States from very specific countries due to, I am told, a security threat. Almost all electronic devices will be banned from the cabins, as you mentioned, Jake, on flights that are coming from these overseas airports. We're talking about airports in countries in the Middle East as well as in Africa. Passengers will actually have to put their electronics in checked luggage. They will not be able to carry it on board the cabin, anything larger than a cellphone would not be allowed.

TAPPER: So, no iPad, no laptop, nothing.

MARSH: Absolutely. Nothing. We did reached out to the Department of Homeland Security, officially on the record they're saying we have no comment on potential security threats but we are getting this information directly from a U.S. official as well as one of the airlines impacted by this, Royal Jordanian Airlines. They're based in Amman, Jordan. And they tweeted out that starting tomorrow you will not be allowed to have those electronic devices on the cabin if you're going directly to the United States.

TAPPER: In fact, that's how we know about this, right? They put out the tweet.

MARSH: Right.

TAPPER: Interesting. Rene Marsh, thank you so much. Keep us up to speed on this.

The mystery of Tom Brady's stolen super bowl jersey has finally been solved. I know, grateful nation rejoices. Where was it found? Who had it? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TOM BRADY, NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS QUARTERBACK: Hey, did someone take my jersey?

TAPPER: Not to worry, nation. Tom Brady's Super Bowl jersey is missing no more. And that is our "MONEY LEAD" today because for some reason it's worth a lot of money. The NFL star says that the quarterback - I am sorry, the NFL says that the star quarterback's jersey from Super Bowl LI was found, quote, "in possession of a credentialed member of the International Media." Beyond historical value, the jersey from the Patriot's win over the Atlanta Falcons is estimated to be worth half a million dollars, according to a police report. The jersey was recovered in Mexico as well as a second Brady jersey from Super Bowl XLIX that was also missing. The memorabilia has been returned to Boston. Tom Brady has released a statement to CNN, quote, "I am happy my jerseys from Super Bowl XLIX and Super Bowl LI have been recovered. And I want to thank all of the law enforcement agencies involved." And there could be more. The NFL said a Denver Broncos' helmet was also found. Wow!

Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @jaketapper. Tweet the show @theleadcnn. That is it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer. I see him right over there. He's in "THE SITUATION ROOM". Thanks for watching.