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Trump Administration Rolls Back Environmental Protections; Interview With Utah Senator Mike Lee; Calls Grow For Intel Chair Nunes To Recuse Himself; Dems Ask If Trump Admin Blocked Yates' Testimony; U.S. & Iraq Investigate Deadly Airstrike. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired March 28, 2017 - 16:30   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Republicans need at least eight Democrats to vote in favor of Judge Neil Gorsuch next week to overcome a filibuster, but most Democrats we've heard from, they are openly opposing the nomination.

This means that Senate Republicans might invoke what's called the nuclear option. The controversial move which would allow Judge Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple majority vote without any Democratic support.

Joining me now is Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah. He serves on the Judiciary Committee.

Senator Lee, thank you so much for being with us.

I know this is actually a subject you have talked about and written about for a long time. Would you support changing the Senate rules to allow for the nuclear option?

SEN. MIKE LEE (R), UTAH: Look, we're going to get Judge Gorsuch confirmed. This is a good judge. This is a judge who interprets the law based on what it says, rather than what he might wish it might say, and we intend to get him confirmed.

We will get him confirmed one way or another.

BERMAN: One way or another means yes on the nuclear option if you have to go that way.

LEE: It means we're going to get him confirmed.

BERMAN: Nuclear?

LEE: It means we're going to get him confirmed.

BERMAN: No matter what it takes.

LEE: Yes.

Look, there are a number of routes this thing could take, and I believe that he will be confirmed at the end of this. I'm not sure exactly what procedural route, but he's going to be confirmed.

And when we talk about the nuclear option, we have to remember the Democrats went nuclear on the executive calendar. They nuked the executive calendar in November of 2013. As they did that, they purported to carve out this exception for Supreme Court nominees.

But all of the rationale that they used at the time applied with equal force to everyone, whether they were serving in the executive branch of government or in the judicial branch of government. They nuked the entire thing.

And so for them now to say that, well, it shouldn't have extended to that is a little disingenuous. Three-and-a-half years later, to have regrets about the fact that they nuked the executive calendar is not a reason not to confirm Judge Gorsuch.

BERMAN: And, look, I have talked to Democratic senators who flat out tell me they do regret that they did it at all. They regret that they made that move because it didn't allow them to filibuster some Cabinet appointees.

But the fact is, you're absolutely right. They did it first. The question is now, are you willing to go there? It sounds like yes. I'm just curious why you're not willing to say that you would support the nuclear option.

LEE: Yes. Just to be clear, I have an overall policy of not signaling in advance of a particular procedural move in the Senate exactly what course I'm going to take, in part because it relies on facts not yet in evidence. It relies on things that we don't yet know and whether or not we have to go there.

But, again, I want to get back to this other point that I was making before, which is that the Democrats in fact nuked the entire executive calendar. That's what they did in November of 2013. Whether they acknowledge that or not is a different question.

I don't see this as are we willing to take the next step? There is no next step. This is the step they created in November of 2013.

BERMAN: Well, look, they say that it did not apply to Supreme Court justices. They made that point at the time on the floor, but both you and I know we're talking -- see, this is not like it's in the Constitution.

You're a constitutionalist. It's not like the Senate rules are written in the Constitution. You can make them up as you go along. It's precedent. The precedent is, at least right now, that, you know, Supreme Court justices, you know, you can filibuster them right now, but you say you want to...

LEE: No, no.

I would push back on that. I push back on that. I want to be very clear. When they did this back then, sure, they might have said we're not necessarily intending this to extend to other circumstances. But in every situation where we have been confirming someone, whether it's through an executive branch position, to an independent board or commission, to a federal district judge vacancy, a federal circuit court vacancy, any of those things, ever since November of 2013, the precedent has been established that the executive calender having been nuked, it takes only 51 votes to close debate on a nominee.

That is based on the rationale that they used at the time, which extends to the whole of the executive calendar.

BERMAN: You would be the first one to do it. Again, I'm not arguing you shouldn't. What goes around comes around in politics. I mean, the Democrats may have made this bed in 2013. I just still don't understand why you won't admit that you're going to do something that hasn't been done before for Supreme Court justices.

LEE: Yes, OK. So, first of all, one of the reasons why I'm not talking about exactly what we're going to do, we don't know how many votes we will have on cloture.

And so there may be no reason to have this debate of whether this was something that's already been done or whether this was being done for the first time.


LEE: And like I say, I have a personal policy of not signaling in most circumstances what procedural steps I might take in the Senate before we know whether it's going to be necessary anyway.

But since you're pushing back, I have to point out, it's not really taking a next step. This is the step they took in November of 2013. Every single argument they made in support of their decision to nuke the executive calendar extends to the entirety of the executive calendar and not just to the non-Supreme Court nominees.

BERMAN: All right. Again, Democrats would disagree with that, but I think we have run the course on this subject.

LEE: Hold on.



BERMAN: Can I ask you one question about health care? I don't want to lose you on health care.


LEE: Democrats would respond differently.

But you ask them what they said just a few weeks before the November election, this last year. They were already signaling that they were going to apply this in the context of Supreme Court nominees. So the fact that Democrats may say otherwise is contradictory to their own arguments and their own statements just before this election. BERMAN: I understand. And, of course, the two words they might say

is Merrick Garland, so when you're talking about rules and talking about precedent, again, it's just you guys have the power right now. You can do this.

All I was trying to get to was...

LEE: I have no idea -- what does Merrick Garland have to do with the nuclear -- going nuclear?

BERMAN: No, I think what Democrats would say, you know, Republicans would say you shouldn't filibuster a Supreme Court nominee. Democrats would respond and say, well, you Shouldn't block a Supreme Court nominee from even having hearings on Capitol Hill.

LEE: Fine.

BERMAN: Ail was saying was the political environment that has been set up over the last two years because of Republicans and Democrats.

LEE: Gotcha, but, again, the same arguments they used to go nuclear in November of 2013, and the same arguments that they were making just weeks in advance of the November 2016 election lead to exactly the outcome that they are now decrying, that they are now calling out against. And I think it's disingenuous.

BERMAN: I only have time for a yes/no question on health care.

The House Republicans today said they think they are closer to a health care agreement today than they were last Friday. Do you think they have something to work with right now?

LEE: I think there's something to work with.

Look, I'm working with colleagues on both ends the Capitol in a bicameral action to find agreement, so we can get health care reform passed. Look, we have been campaigning for seven years as Republicans on repealing Obamacare. We need to do that, and I'm determined to find a way to go forward.

BERMAN: Senator Mike Lee, great talking to you. Always appreciate the back and forth, sir.

LEE: Thank you very much.

BERMAN: All right, today, a new executive order, as President Trump does away with Obama era policies. No calls to Congress for negotiations on this one, so are executive orders the new norm for moving the needle in Washington?



BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

I'm John Berman, in for Jake today.

Continuing our politics lead, the Trump administration taking major steps toward changing the U.S. approach to fighting climate change. Critics might say they are changing the fighting part.

A new executive order rolls back Obama era environmental regulation, ends a moratorium on coal mining on federal land and eases restrictions on coal-fired power plants.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty joins me now.

And, Sunlen, the White House looks at this really as a job growth opportunity.


They see this as President Trump making good on a campaign promise to bring back jobs to the hard-hit coal industry, but how many jobs and at what cost to the environment? Those remain something of an open question.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My administration is putting an end to the war on coal.

SERFATY (voice-over): President Trump taking major steps to strip down Obama ear regulations to combat climate change.

TRUMP: I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion and to cancel job- killing regulations.


SERFATY: Signing an executive order at the Environmental Protection Agency that undoes the Clean Power Plan, the initiative to curb carbon emissions at coal-fired power plants. But that 2015 effort by the Obama administration has been tangled up in legal challenges and hasn't even gone into full effect.

President Trump's order also allows for new coal mines on federal land by lifting the three-year moratorium and rescinds at least Obama executive orders aimed at curbing climate change and regulating carbon emissions, including one that says climate change poses a growing threat to national security and another instructing the federal government to prepare for the impact of climate change.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The actions that President Trump has taken today represent the largest attack on climate action in our country's history.

SERFATY: And still TBD in all of this, the Paris climate change accord, which this doesn't touch, but these new changes will make it harder to meet the benchmarks of the agreement. TRUMP: We're going to bring the coal industry back, folks.

SERFATY: The White House touting this as a campaign promise kept with the goal of job creation, a move that the White House claims the mining industry is embracing.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The miners and the owners are very, very bullish on this.

SERFATY: But some top cool executives warn jobs may not return, due to the rise of natural gas use and more automation in coal mines.

The CEO of the largest U.S. private coal mine told CNN Money he suggested to Mr. Trump that he temper his expectations. Democrats and environmentalists see little benefit and a lot of harm.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The coal industry has been losing jobs for year after year after year. Coal jobs are not going to be coming back in any kind of large quantities whatsoever.


SERFATY: And former Vice President Al Gore, who met with Trump during the transition, he's responding today, saying these moves by the Trump administration are discouraging and he calls this a misguided step away from a sustainable carbon-free future for ourselves and generations to come -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Sunlen Serfaty, thanks so much, just one of the many things going on in Washington today to discuss with our panel.

Bill Kristol, editor at large of "The Weekly Standard," let me start with you.

And I want to start with Russia. Climate change, not to diminish the importance of it, but there's much going on today, and so much of it centers around the Russia investigations.

You wrote this morning: "Don't lose sight of the forest through the trees. This is fundamentally a White House scandal, not a Nunes scandal," meaning Devin Nunes, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee. What did you mean?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I mean Nunes may have been unwise -- I think he was -- to go to the White House and look at documents on a White House computer, but let's look at the flip side of that.

Some White House staffer cleared Devin Nunes into the White House. Some White House staffer logged onto his classified computer to show the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee classified documents, which you're not supposed to do, incidentally.

It's not like, just because you have clearances, you get to see everything, right? There's -- there are protocols. There are distribution lists. [16:45:00] Anyway, what about that White House staffer? Did he tell

his superiors he was showing these materials to -- these highly- classified materials to the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee? Was this part -- was he ordered to do this by someone above him? Did Donald Trump know about this? Devin Nunes says, "Oh, it's just a rogue staffer." We don't know that. We need to know who the staffer is.

BERMAN: You work -- you work in an administration, right? I just want to be crystal clear on this. You say White House staffer. Could it not have been someone from the Intelligence Committee assigned to the NSC which I guess technically would make them a White House staffer but we wouldn't really consider them of a political appointee?

KRISTOL: They report to someone. They -- look, no -- it is (INAUDIBLE) -- I was merely a Vice Presidential Chief of Staff. If some -- the Chairman of one of the House Committees comes and sees some staffer that would be reported up to his boss and ultimately to me. I think -- I don't actually believe that's -- I almost think it's impossible that this wasn't reported up, you know what I mean? And that's how -- this -- there -- and certainly in terms of the classified protocols, there are issues there. And again, we know who's cleared into the White house and how just like getting into this building downstairs, right? Your staff calls down, clears me in. There's a little -- the computer record of the clearing in that I showed up and I got in. That can be found out in 30 seconds.


BERMAN: If the White House -- if the White House would release logs.

KRISTOL: Why does the White House -- what is so secret about that?

BERMAN: They have -- they have refused to give it so far. They say they're looking into it. It will happen soon. And it has not happened yet. Marc Lamont Hill, you are nodding in agreement with Bill Kristol. Which maybe --



BERMAN: Which maybe one of the first time that's ever happened.

KRISTOL: We do that -- we do that once a year. Every once in a while.

BERMAN: Marc, tell me why.

HILL: So it was right. It is a White House issue. I mean, the White House has to be responsible. Someone needs to be held accountable for how this happens. However, it is also a Nunes scandal. We -- the House Intelligence Committee, all committees are partisan but this is one of the least partisan committee. These are people who are supposed to be above the fray. People who are supposed to be really committed to investigating this issue. And the fact that he went around the committee, refused to reveal sources even now, speaks not to the White House but to him. This is a bizarre set of events that everyone, even John McCain is saying, "Hey, wait a minute, he has some explaining to do." I think, in this case, it's both and not either/or.

BERMAN: So, there's a new car on the bizarre train that Mark Lamont Hill is talking about here Maggie. And that's -- you know, former Deputy Attorney General, former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates who was supposed to testify today before the House Intelligence Committee. That was canceled. The Washington Post reported today that it was canceled after White House pressure. The White House vehemently denies that, but talk to me about the significance of this story.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: There was a lot of vehemence out of the briefing room today. I didn't actually understand what the denial was, however. And the denial didn't seem to match up with the facts in the Washington Post story which was co-written by somebody I used to work with and who I have a lot of faith in his reporting. The basic facts, as I understand it from the Washington Post story, is that she essentially was going to testify. The Justice Department sent her letters saying that a lot of your communications are covered under Presidential privilege and, therefore, you can't talk about it. She expressed an interest in testifying anyway, and when she said that the hearing was canceled.

This is not a great look in the middle of this Nunes issue where you have the appearance of some kind of -- it's not coordination, but to Bill's point, Nunes didn't get on the White House grounds by climbing over a fence or by sneaking in which is very difficult to do. You have to be cleared in any kind of official way, and so there is a question as to how that happened. Look, people do get told information that is not approved. That does happen, but the White House has also not made any show of trying to learn how that happened, how he got his information and Nunes then went and made a display of briefing the President. So the way the White House has handled this has raised its own questions. When you couple that with the Sally Yates issue, this is not a great look in terms of the integrity of the investigation coming out of House.

BERMAN: My understanding is what the Justice Department said is that if you want to testify, you actually have to get clearance for the privilege.

HABERMAN: Right. That's right.

BERMAN: If the White House is going to invoke execute executive privilege, you need to check with them. The White House didn't do it or never responded --

HABERMAN: That's right. That's right.

BERMAN: -- to the letter from Sally Yates' attorney. So, I'm not sure that we know that the White House directly intervened. Bill Kristol -- KRISTOL: Hey look. Here's the simple question. Did -- which can be

asked of Chairman Nunes, did he talk to the White House about whether Sally Yates should testify or not?

HILL: Do you feel confident you'll get an honest answer?

KRISTOL: Well, I don't know, I like Devin Nunes. In the past, I've respected him. I think he tried -- I don't know. I mean, but seriously --

HILL: That's because he put a shadow on all of this.

KRISTOL: But that's the whole question isn't it? Is this an authentic investigation by an independent branch of government or is Devin Nunes in constant touch with a lot of people in the White House and adjusting the investigation accordingly?

HILL: Is it possible to have an independent investigation if you're on this transition team, if you're going around the committee having back door conversations, and you're at the White House so that you can have a secret location to talk to this source if he's -- you know, Woodward and Bernstein as opposed to an elections official. If all of this is happening, to me, it gives the appearance of impropriety and an appearance there's no way to have an impartial investigation.

BERMAN: Maggie, can I ask you one question about healthcare? Because there's a big question -- you know, is it happening, is it not happening? You, of course, talk to the President directly about this. Now the House Republican leadership seemed to open the door that maybe they're working on something but the White House isn't sure about how much how fast.

HABERMAN: Well, I've spoken to people at the White House and so has my colleague Jeremy Peters and we have heard that there is interest at least from some quarters -- remember there are different wings of this White House -- in trying to get something done. But, again, the practicality of that is not on clear to me. The uniformity of that in the House in terms of where people are in the -- in the two different groups of moderates and then -- and then the House Freedom Caucus working together is also not clear to me. This is still a really, really heavy lift. What we do know is that the President is very frustrated with what has happened as you know well, as everybody on this panel knows, the President, when something does not go well, tends to sort of stew. And he thinks about it a lot and this I think was a tough weekend for him.

[16:50:31] BERMAN: Well, we know he talked to Paul Ryan again twice today. So that means at least like four or five times in the last five days which is pretty remarkable. Bill Kristol, Maggie Haberman, Marc Lamont Hill, great to have you here with us. Thanks so much.

Next, how is the Pentagon investigating claims that a U.S.air strike killed scores of civilians in Mosul? This as CNN goes to the front lines to see the damage firsthand.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:55:00] BERMAN: We're back now with our "WORLD LEAD". The U.S.- led coalition is being accused of causing significant civilian casualties in Mosul. A senior Iraqi official tells CNN at least 112 bodies including most of women and children, have been pulled from the site of an air strike. This as amnesty international claim the coalition forces are setting quote "an alarming pattern by destroying whole houses with entire families and civilians inside." The U.N. also says the March 17th airstrike targeted a house full of civilians. We're taking a closer look into these allegations and the ongoing battle for Mosul. CNN'S Arwa Damon about 50 miles away tonight for us in Irbil, but first we want to go CNN Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, a short time ago, the top U.S. Commander in this fight talked to the press. What's his response to the allegations of civilian deaths?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, a very candid discussion, words that may be hard for some to hear. He is adamant that the U.S. is not targeting civilians, but he went on to say there seems to be very little question that the U.S. indeed was there when this happened. Have a listen.


STEPHEN TOWNSEND, UNITED STATES ARMY OFFICER: There's a fair chance that we did it. Our initial assessment is -- shows that we did strike in that area. There were multiple strikes in that area, so is it possible that we did that? Yes, I think it is possible. I think there's a -- what I meant by -- there's a fair chance.


STARR: Well, General Townsend also going on to say some of the series that they're looking at was the house where these people were -- was it booby-trapped with explosives. If there was an air strike which they say they now, they believe that there was, could the booby trapping -- the resulting explosions perhaps have brought that house down? That is what they are looking at. What caused all of this to happen. But at the end of the day, 100 souls or more brought out of that wreckage, and these are men, women, and children who are simply trying to survive. John?

BERMAN: Quickly, Barbara, where do you think this investigation is going now?

STARR: They are going to try to come to a definite conclusion about what happened and look for any so-called, as we know, lessons learned. Is there anything they could have done differently? Is there anything they should do differently as they continue to prosecute the campaign? John?

BERMAN: All right. Barbara Starr for us in the Pentagon. Thanks so much, Barbara.

A shocking claim by Amnesty International that many civilians killed in the coalition led air strike were repeatedly told by the Iraqi government to remain in their homes instead of fleeing Mosul. This as CNN crews on the ground in Mosul learning many of those left behind are desperately trying to stay alive. CNN's Arwa Damon reports.

ARWA DAMON, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, we were down in western Mosul earlier today in one of the neighborhoods that's not far from where the incidences that are being investigated by both the U.S. and the Iraqi militaries took place. And even being there, you really see the extent of the devastation. A lot more vast and widespread than what we have seen in eastern Mosul and that's for a number of reasons. The area is very densely packed. There are narrow alleyways that make it very difficult for vehicles to go down, if not completely impossible. Plus, this is where ISIS had really entrenched itself. We saw one large crater quite possibly caused by an air strike. Spoke to a handful of civilians. One woman has said she was waiting to see if her husband came back home. He had left and was taken by ISIS the day before this particular area was liberated. People, of course, talking about the intensity of the battle. Now, when it comes to the incidences in question that are being investigated, a number of them, but the top U.S. military commander in Iraq did say that there was a fair chance that a U.S. air strike did cost civilian casualties. We do also know that ISIS does hold, has held and continues to hold the civilian population as human shields and also at this stage the U.N. high commissioner for human rights has said that in between the dates of 17 to 22nd March, more than 300 civilians they believe have been killed. John?

BERMAN: All right. CNN's Arwa Damon in Irbil. Arwa has been doing terrific reporting in Mosul. Thank you so much for that report Arwa. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @johnberman. You can tweet the show @theleadcnn. That is all for us this afternoon. John Berman here in for Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: Happening now, breaking news, testimony acrimony. The White House denies that it tried to block testimony by the former acting Attorney General in the investigation of ties between Russia and Trump campaign officials. Why were congressional hearings suddenly canceled?

Recusal refusal. Amid claims that he's secretly working with the White House, the Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee rejects calls he steps aside. Is he actually obstructing the investigation?