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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton; Republicans Attempt to Revive Health Care Talks; Trump-Russia Probe Continues. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired April 4, 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: As one U.S. senator quipped, who among us hasn't secretly met with a Putin confidant in the Seychelles Islands?

THE LEAD starts right now.

The FBI now reportedly looking into a mysterious meeting between a rich Trump donor and a Russian close with President Putin. What was discussed on this secluded island?

And President Trump and Republicans said it was dead, but is health care legislation instead on life support? New negotiations under way right now. What is different this time that makes it likelier to pass?

Plus, a corporate revolt against alleged revolting behavior -- 10 companies now pulling their ads from Bill O'Reilly's top-rated show, after a report that several women were paid a total of $13 million in sexual harassment and other settlements.

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

The steady drumbeat of questions about the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Russia in Russia's 2016 election interference continues today, with new reports about two more meetings between associates of President Trump and Russian officials.

But for his part, President Trump is zeroing in instead on President Obama's national security adviser, Dr. Susan Rice, who acknowledged today that as part of her job she did occasionally request the unmasking of U.S. individuals mentioned in intelligence reports.

That means having intel changed so that, for instance, individual a would be instead identified internally by his or her name, internally, that is. And the president and his team and his allies in conservative media are pointing a finger at Rice, essentially accusing her of unmasking Trump associates for political reasons. She denies it wholeheartedly.

We have a lot to talk about today.

Jim Sciutto has the latest on these two meetings that people in the president's orbit reportedly had with Russians, including one with an alleged Russian spy.

But we're going to begin with CNN's Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.

Manu, when it comes to Susan Rice, have we seen any evidence one way or another about Dr. Rice unmasking anyone inappropriately?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: We haven't seen that yet, Jake.

And one reason why is a lot of this information is locked up in classified intelligence reports. And this appears to be the same reports that Chairman Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, looked privately at a White House briefing last month and later briefed the president of the United States on, saying that some communications appear to have been incidentally collected by U.S. surveillance.

Now the allegation today by some Republicans that Susan Rice seemed to have been doing this, unmasking those Trump associates for political reasons, so today Rice went on TV and pushed back against those accusations and saying she didn't do anything improper and she did not leak any of the names to the press.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SUSAN RICE, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The notion which some people are trying to suggest that by asking for the identity of an American person, that is the same as leaking it is completely false. There is no equivalence between so-called unmasking and leaking.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, just said moments ago, Jake, if the intelligence leads to Susan Rice, they will call her to testify before the committee.

And at the same time, Jake, House Democrats and Republicans on the Intelligence Committee will look at those reports that Devin Nunes and Adam Schiff looked at about incidental collection. So they will learn some more of that information, and we will learn maybe more about what Susan Rice did or did not do -- Jake.

TAPPER: Manu Raju on Capitol Hill for us.

And CNN chief security national correspondent Jim Sciutto is here with more.

Jim, you're looking about new connections that associates of President Trump had with Russians who are known to U.S. intelligence.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right.

A congressional intelligence source tells me that the congressional committees on the Hill that are now examining these Russian connections are interested in the meetings in part because of the timing. It was during the transition in December and January, the proximity of these meetings, but also the question of what was the substance of these meetings?

In particular, did the issue of U.S. sanctions on Russia come up and the possibility of easing those sanctions?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, the timing and proximity of meetings between Trump advisers and Russian officials during the transition is raising questions among Hill investigators, a congressional intelligence source tells CNN, in particular, whether the loosening of U.S. sanctions only Russia was discussed.

The FBI is looking into a secret meeting on the island nation of the Seychelles, hundreds of miles off the east coast of Africa, according to "The Washington Post," this as part of an investigation into alleged contact between the Trump campaign and Russia.

[16:05:00]

"The Post" reporting that in January, just before President Trump took office, Blackwater founder and Trump donor Erik Prince had a meeting in the Seychelles with a Russian close to the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to arrange a back-channel communications between Moscow and the incoming administration.

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER U.S. UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE FOR POLITICAL AFFAIRS: There was no reason to find some Russian businessperson for some contact with the Russian government, when you could easily have asked the State Department or the Obama administration to help create contacts that are front-channel, direct between government to government.

SCIUTTO: Prince donated $250,000 to the Trump campaign, and his sister is the education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

The White House said Prince had no connection to Trump and Prince denied to "The Washington Post" that the meeting was about Trump. But even GOP lawmakers acknowledge the growing questions.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: This is a centipede. A shoe will drop every few days, the latest the meeting in the Seychelles. Look, this is a requirement, in my view, why we need a select committee in order to get through all this, because there's lots more shoes that are going to drop.

SCIUTTO: This is just the latest in a string of meetings Trump associates and Russian government officials, including a meeting in December between Trump's son-in-law and aide Jared Kushner and a Russian banker whose bank has been under U.S. sanctions.

Ties between former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page and Russia are also under renewed scrutiny, after revelations that Page was in contact with a Russian intelligence operative in New York in 2013. Court documents reveal a transcript of the Russian spy's account of a

conversation he had with Page, who is referred to in the document as male number one. Speaking about Page, the Russian says -- quote -- "I think he is an idiot and forgot who I am" and -- quote -- "I will feed him empty promises."

Page admits that he was in contact with at least one Russian spy in 2013, but claims he thought the Russian was working for Moscow's U.N. office and he did not release any sensitive information, Page saying in a statement -- quote -- "I shared basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents. In doing so, I provided him nothing more than a few samples from the far more detailed lectures I was preparing at this time for the students in my spring 2013 semester."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Now, regarding Erik Prince, two sources tell CNN that Prince met with then incoming Security National Adviser Michael Flynn and incoming President Trump during the election.

I'm also told by multiple sources that's here and outside the country as well that Prince bragged about his closeness to the Trump administration. Whether that was true, we don't know for sure, but at least he was claiming to have access to the administration.

TAPPER: All right, an open invitation to Erik Prince and Carter Page to come on the show and help clear things up.

A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee had some harsh words for Dr. Susan Rice today. And that senator, Tom Cotton, who is on the Intelligence Committee, as we said, joins us live next. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:11:40]

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

I'm joined now by Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Senator, thank so much for joining us today. We appreciate it.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Hey, Jake. Good afternoon.

TAPPER: So, let's talk about Dr. Susan Rice, a lot of people making some strong charges.

To play devil's advocate here, it is perfectly legal, as you know, for a national security adviser to request unmasking within an Intelligence Committee report or community report. Do you know for a fact that she did it inappropriately in any way?

COTTON: No, Jake. I don't think many of us know the details around these allegations.

You're right that it's not necessarily illegal. It is unusual, though. The White House doesn't conduct criminal investigations. The White House doesn't conduct counterintelligence investigations. The White House is a consumer of intelligence.

Normally, those kind of unmasking requests would be done by the agencies responsible for those activities. That's one reason why I think the Senate Intelligence Committee needs to take a careful, deliberate to obtain the documents at issue and to review them carefully and to call Ms. Rice to testify if necessary.

TAPPER: So, my understanding is -- and correct me if I am wrong -- but my understanding is that the National Security Agency, which is of course different from the national security adviser, that the NSA would have to approve the unmasking.

So would theoretically Vice Admiral Mike Rogers, the director of NSA since 2014. Would he have done anything inappropriate if he unmasked at Susan Rice's request?

COTTON: I think it's an open question, again, Jake, about exactly what documents were being reviewed, which agencies were requested to unmask them and why.

And I can't speculate about either Ms. Rogers (sic) or Admiral Rogers or the National Security Council or National Security Agency's activities. I do think it's appropriate for us, though, to review these matters because there are serious allegations at stake now.

TAPPER: The other obviously big issue, and many in the national security community would say the bigger issue, has to do with Russia's interference in the election of 2016.

The list of Trump campaign advisers or supporters who met or communicated with Russian officials or nationals includes, as we know from public reports, Jared Kushner, then Senator, now Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Carter Page, Erik Prince, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and Paul Manafort, just to name some of the ones that we know of.

Does this strike you as odd at all, given that at the time the Russians were interfering in the U.S. election or had just completed doing so?

COTTON: Jake, if I can, give me a moment to disentangle a couple different threads here.

TAPPER: OK.

COTTON: The Intelligence Committees are reviewing three main sets of issues.

The first one, you mentioned, which is Russia's activities in our campaign last year, hacking those e-mail accounts and releasing the e- mails. Then there is a second set of issues. And that is allegations of

potential collusion between Trump associates and Russian intelligence. The third is what we were discussing earlier, allegations of Obama administration misconduct handling classified information.

But I think it's important to keep those three separate, especially keep the first separate from the second. I have no reason to dispute the intelligence community's assessment that Russia was behind hacking those e-mail accounts and releasing that information.

I'm still digging into the question of the exact motives of why they did that. But I suspect that we will be able to issue a report on that hopefully sooner rather than later, at least an interim conclusion of the Intelligence Committee.

In the second set of issues, we're going to look into these allegations. But the people that would be in a position to know, Barack Obama's own director of national intelligence, his own deputy director of the CIA, have said they know of no evidence to support such claims, that they don't think there's a fire there, not even a small camp fire, not even a spark.

[16:15:17] That doesn't even that they're right. That just means that they were in a position to know and they said there's no evidence there, and they have no reason to defend Donald Trump and his associates. So, I think for the time being, we might want to give them some weight while we let the facts take us where they may in the investigation.

TAPPER: Absolutely. Though, I will point, that I think what General Clapper said was that, as of the time he left office, January 2017, he knew of no evidence of any collusion. Obviously, since then, the investigation has gone on. So, who knows --

COTTON: Of course, that's right, Jake. He left on January 20, and he knew of no evidence at that point.

TAPPER: Right.

COTTON: Now, I would say, some of the points you mentioned, some of the people you mentioned consulting with various Russian officials like Jared Kushner meeting with the Russian ambassador, that is a very normal activity during any kind of transition, ambassadors and foreign ministers and heads of states from across the world, of course, are reaching out to try to a contact a president-elect and his close advisers.

TAPPER: Right.

COTTON: So, the simple fact that Trump advisers were meeting with foreign officials during the transition does not to me raise any concern whatsoever, whether they're Russian, or Chinese or from any other country.

TAPPER: All right. Senator Cotton, stick around. I have more questions for you about Syria, the Supreme Court and more. We're going to take a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:20:56] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We're back with Senator Tom Cotton of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He represents the great state of Arkansas.

Senator, I want to talk about this horrible gut-wrenching images coming out of Syria today, and let me warn our viewers of some of the video we're about to show are disturbing. But we do feel it's important to show you. You might want to ask the children to leave the room if you're watching with them.

Dozens of people, including at least 10 children were killed, in a suspected chemical weapons attack. President Obama, of course, as we all know, drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. But he did not take any military action after dictator Bashar al Assad crossed the line. But last week, the Trump administration through its U.N. ambassador and the through the secretary of state, they backed away from the longstanding U.S. policy advocating for the removal of Assad. Days later, we see this attack.

Do you think the Trump administration might bear some culpability in the same way that perhaps President Obama does?

COTTON: Jake, I think primary responsibility for the situation in Syria goes to Bashar al Assad --

TAPPER: Sure, of course.

COTTON: -- sponsors in Moscow and Tehran. Our policy for six years under the Obama administration, though, was very weak and conciliatory and it emboldened that access.

I know that the Trump administration right now is working through the national security decision making process to reach an ultimate policy. I would suggest the policy needs to be that Bashar al Assad must go. That's been my position for many years, and ultimately, that's the position of millions of Syrians who have been brutally oppressed by him, as well as our Arab allies in the region. Yes, we can make the destruction of ISIS in Raqqah our most immediate priority because of the threat they pose to us. But ultimately, we're not going to have any kind of peaceful resolution in Syria if Bashar al-Assad remains in power.

TAPPER: I want to ask you before you go, sir, Senate Republicans appear poised to trigger what's called the nuclear option, changing Senate rules to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, requiring 51 votes instead of 60 for cloture. Do you worry at all about this rule-making, how it might change or alter the character of the Senate?

COTTON: No, Jake, I don't. For 214 years, the Senate had never, not ones, in a partisan filibuster that they did a nominee to the courts or the executive branch. That all changed in 2003 when Chuck Schumer persuaded Democrats to begin filibustering judges. Then, that continued under the Obama era, and the Democrats used the so-called nuclear option in 2013.

But there is a world of difference between Republicans using the tool that the Democrats first abused in 2013 to restore a 214-year-old tradition that the Democrats first violated in 2003. After his week, we'll be back to where that 214 tradition was, which is that nominee should get an up-or-down vote, and that's probably where we should have stayed all along.

TAPPER: Senator Cotton of Arkansas, thanks so much for your time, sir. Appreciate it.

COTTON: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: If at first you don't succeed, try and try again. That seems to what the White House and Republican leaders of the House are doing with health care. What they could be leaving out to get it passed, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:04] TAPPER: Welcome back.

We're back with more in the politics lead now.

And less than a week after President Trump pointed his fingers at the conservative House Freedom Caucus for sinking a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, today, the White House maybe extending a new compromise. It is drafting tax for a sort of reboot of the bill. But given the extraordinary feat that likely would be, proven by last month's failed attempt in Congress, why no peep at the potential deal when the president made one but two public appearances? It's a mystery.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny joins me now from the White House to help us clear it up.

And, Jeff, Congress begins this two-week spring recess on Friday. Is there any hope you think that lawmakers will have a strong proposal in hand before they go back home?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, hope is about all they have here. They don't have a bill. They don't have an agreement. And the basic challenges remain the same, trying to get those conservative House Freedom Caucus members on board without losing those moderate Republicans. But it does give them a chance to do this, talk about something other than Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): On a sun-splashed day in Washington, President Trump grabbing a breath of fresh air and trying to move beyond the cloud of controversies hanging over the White House.

From reviving the collapsed health care legislation to creating jobs through a major infrastructure plan, the administration is eager to change the subject beyond the Russia investigations.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to unleash the country and I'm willing to take the heat and that's OK. I've been taking heat my whole life. But in the end, I know it's the right thing to do.

REPORTER: Are you going to get a deal on health care?

ZELENY: Vice President Pence and top West Wing aides were back on Capitol Hill, trying to build support for a new effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.

Republicans are hoping to show progress before Congress heads home for a two-week Easter break and must explain why they failed to accomplish their top priority.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters today, "The president would like to see this done," but added, "I'm not going to raise expectations."

Speaker Paul Ryan also offered something of a reality check.