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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Interview With California Congressman Adam Schiff; Synthetic Drugs; Comey Testifies; Republicans Nearing Health Care Vote?; Trump Vows to Broker Palestinian, Israeli Peace Deal; Trump Admin Mulling Withdrawal from Climate Agreement. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 3, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:16]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: A vote of no confidence in the Obama Justice Department from the FBI director.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Speak or conceal. The decision to speak, the FBI director testifying today, saying it makes him mildly nauseous to think the FBI may have impacted the election, but standing by his decision because of concerns he had about the credibility of the Justice Department. But what does Comey think, what does he now know about how much Russians successfully meddled in the election?

President Trump twisting arms, as House Republicans fight to secure enough votes to repeal and replace Obamacare. Will an $8 billion addition to help those with preexisting conditions be close to enough?

Plus, synthetic drugs, some strong enough to drop an elephant, being sold as heroin on the streets and killing Americans nationwide.

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

We are going to begin this afternoon with our politics lead and a dramatic hearing today on Capitol Hill, with FBI Director James Comey testifying and admitting he had concerns about the credibility of how the Obama Justice Department led by Attorney General Loretta Lynch was handling the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server, and that, he said, led him to take many of the actions he did.

Comey said it makes him -- quote -- "mildly nauseous" to contemplate that his letter about potential new evidence in the probe 11 days before about the election may have impacted who won. Still, Comey insists, six months later, he would do it all again because to conceal the new information, he said, would be -- quote -- "catastrophic" and destroy the FBI's reputation as a -- quote -- "independent institution."

Comey also stood by the decision not to reveal before voters went to the poll that the FBI was also investigating whether Donald Trump's associates worked in any way with Russian operatives to interfere in the election.

CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown joins me now live.

And, Pamela, Comey begged off answering any questions about the group that made for that dossier about Donald Trump that we have discussed in recent months and whether the group that paid for it was tied in any way to Russian intelligence.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. No, you could see the chairman, Grassley, get frustrated that he wouldn't answer that, because the Republicans pressed James Comey about this Justice Department complaint concerning Fusion's ties to Russian lobbying efforts at the same time it was working on the controversial dossier.

Now, while Comey refused to discuss that specifically, it's clear he did want to get a lot off of his chest about his controversial handling of the two high-profile probes involving Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump's campaigns.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): Today, FBI Director James Comey in the hot seat before the Senate Judiciary Committee said he has no regrets about his letter to Congress announcing the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe was reopened, even if it affected the outcome of the election.

JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: It makes me mildly nauseous to think that we might have had some impact on the election, but, honestly, it wouldn't change the decision. Everybody who disagrees with me has to come back to October 28 with me and stare at this and tell me what you would do. Would you speak or would you conceal?

And I could be wrong, but we honestly made a decision between those two choices that, even in hindsight, and this has been one of the world's most painful experiences, I would make the same decision. I would not conceal that on October 28 from the Congress.

BROWN: And Comey made the stunning admission his lack of confidence in Justice Department leadership after Attorney General Loretta Lynch met with Bill Clinton on the tarmac paved the way for his unprecedented press conference last July announcing he didn't recommend charges.

COMEY: The department leadership could not credibly complete the investigation and decline prosecution without grievous damage to the American people's confidence in the justice system.

That was a hard call for me to make to call the attorney general that morning and say I'm about to do a press conference and I'm not going to tell what you I'm going to say. And I said to her, I hope some day you will understand why I think I have to do this.

But, look, I wasn't loving this. I knew this would be disastrous for me personally, but I thought this is the best way to protect these institutions that we care so much about.

BROWN: Democrats fired back, asking him why he didn't also publicly acknowledge the ongoing probe into Russia's connection with Trump campaign associates before the election?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Had there been public notice that there was renewed investigation into both campaigns, I think the impact would have been different. Would you agree?

COMEY: That's a separate question from, do you confirm the existence of a classified investigation that has just started to try and figure out are there any connections between that Russian activity and U.S. persons that started in late July?

Remember, the Hillary Clinton investigation, we didn't confirm it existed until three months after it started and it started publicly, so I thought the consistent principle would be, we don't confirm the existence of certainly any investigation that involves a U.S. person, but a classified investigation in its early stages.

[16:05:15]

We don't know what we have, what is there, and so my judgment today was, consistent with the principles I have always operated under, that was the right thing to do.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: And Director Comey made it clear he does not plan on providing any more information about the Russia-Trump campaign investigation until it's a closed matter, and he won't commit to how he will let the public know when that happens.

Of course, Jake, in Hillary Clinton's case, he held that press conference last July, so it's unclear how this will play out. We will have to wait and see.

TAPPER: Fascinating stuff. Pamela Brown, thank you so much.

Joining me now to discuss all of this is Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff. He's the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which is, of course, conducting its own investigation into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, if they exist.

Congressman, thank you so much for joining us.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: So, FBI Director Comey said he was concerned that the Justice Department wasn't going to be able to handle the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mail server in a credible manner, especially, he said, after Bill Clinton met with Attorney General Lynch on the tarmac.

Do you buy it? Is that a good enough explanation as to why he took the actions he did?

SCHIFF: It's not a good enough explanation. I certainly agree with the director that once they had that meeting between Loretta Lynch and President Clinton on the tarmac, it put the FBI in a difficult position, because the attorney general was effectively deferring to the FBI to make a prosecutorial decision, something that the department usually makes.

But that in no way justifies the discrepant way he treated two different investigations, both equally significant in terms of the election, the investigation into Hillary Clinton, the investigation into Donald Trump's campaign.

Nothing excuses the disparate way he handled those. And what really struck me about his testimony today was, when he posited that the decision he had to make was between speaking out or concealing, and he used such a loaded term like concealing, that really in my view undermined the strength of what he was trying to get across, because that wasn't at all the decision he faced.

And to use that kind of loaded term, I think, you know, suggested to me that he has a very weak argument to make. Indeed, the choice was between adhering consistently to Department of Justice policy that you don't talk about investigations right before an election, or ignoring it, or treating one investigation differently than the other.

And I don't think in any way he adequately justified both what he did and why he treated those investigations so differently.

TAPPER: Well, what he said today, what he said today, Congressman, about the investigation into Trump associates is that they were in the very early stages in October 2016, having just launched the probe in July. They weren't even sure that there were contacts.

Meanwhile, the Hillary Clinton investigation had been going on for quite some time. They waited three months until they even acknowledged it, much less his press conference in the summer.

SCHIFF: Yes.

You know, honestly I don't buy that, because now -- you know, first, the distinction was, we don't talk about open investigations. We only talk about closed ones. But then he was forced really to acknowledge that they had reopened the Clinton investigation. So then you had an open Clinton investigation and an open Trump investigation.

At that point in October, the Trump investigation was at no longer an early stage. It had opened in July. It was now October. So, these are distinctions I think without a difference, and the principal impact was to talk about one right on the eve of the election and to not talk about the other, had a very disparate impact on the election.

And I think the whole impact that he was hoping to avoid, that is dragging the bureau into a political contest, is exactly what he did.

TAPPER: But, Congressman, you know, the reason that he reopened it in October had to do with -- well, listen to this.

Comey testified that Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton's top aide, forwarded e-mails with classified information on them to her husband, Anthony Weiner, for him to print out. Take a listen to the exchange. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Was there classified information on former Congressman Weiner's computer?

COMEY: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Who sent it to him?

COMEY: His then spouse, Huma Abedin, appears to have had a regular practice of forwarding e-mails to him for him, I think, to print out for her, so she could then deliver them to the secretary of state.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Weiner obviously did not have the appropriate clearance for that. Don't you find it somewhat outrageous?

SCHIFF: Sure.

I mean, he shouldn't have any kind of classified documents if there were on his laptop. But that's a separate question. Whether the FBI should have looked at this is one thing. Whether they should have talked publicly about it before they even knew what was on the laptop is something very different.

[16:10:00]

Obviously, the director was well aware this could have a potentially decisive impact on an election that close to his public statement. And without even knowing what was on there or whether it bore any significance or whether it was redundant of e-mails he already had, to take that step, I think, was a colossally poor exercise of his judgment that has had really significant consequences.

And I don't mean just consequences in terms of what impact it had on the election, but consequences on how the country now views the FBI, how it views the Justice Department. I think it's cast a lot of doubt on the impartiality, the apolitical nature of the FBI.

And he did the very same damage to the bureau that I think he was hoping to avoid. I don't think it was an effort by him, I want to say this, Jake, to tip the election. I don't think he was in one camp or the other politically, but I think it was a very bad judgment that had a very substantial and adverse consequence.

TAPPER: All right. Congressman Adam Schiff, thank you so much for your time, sir. Really appreciate it.

SCHIFF: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: President Trump wants to be the -- quote -- "mediator," or arbitrator or facilitator for peace in the Middle East after hosting the Palestinian president at the White House, but did he have a different message for the Palestinian president behind closed doors?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:13] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing with politics, President Trump says he would love to be mediator or an arbitrator or the facilitator of a peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis. Today, he's hosting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House. Abbas made clear peace in his view can only come through a two-state solution, an Israeli state existing next to a Palestinian state with defined borders. But both sides, of course, blame each other for not letting that happen.

CNN's Elise Labott joins me now.

And, Elise, behind closed doors, what is the message President Trump is delivering to President Abbas?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's very similar to the one he's using in public, Jake. I mean, President Trump is only really now getting to know the Palestinian story, because he's been, you know, for many years very pro-Israel, and now, he's learning a lot more about the conflict, and he seems to think that even though the deal has eluded many presidents in the past for decades, that it's within President Trump's grasp to help the parties reach it.

Take a listen to President Trump with Mahmoud Abbas earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Over the course of my lifetime, I've always heard that perhaps the toughest deal to make is the deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Let's see if we can prove them wrong, OK?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LABOTT: And President Trump did say to President Abbas very clearly that he wanted the president and his government to crack down on incitement and violence against Israelis, and, Jake, he'll be taking, we think, a trip later in the month to Israel where he'll be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Abbas in the region, and, you know, look -- he really seems to be getting a peace process together. Whether or not they will be able to get there, we don't know, but he certainly has the impetus.

And today, President Abbas said, "With you, President Trump," he kind of buttering him up on the negotiating prowess, and all said, "We have hope with you as president."

TAPPER: And then there's a question of whether the U.S. will move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As you know, King Abdullah of Jordan warned President Trump --

LABOTT: Right. TAPPER: -- don't carry through this campaign promise. It will ignite tensions throughout the Middle East. But yesterday, Vice President Pence said that they are still looking into it.

LABOTT: Many others in the region also said that. And, you know, President Trump during the campaign said he'd do it on day one. They've backed off on that. You know, even the Ambassador David Friedman was supposed to start working and living in Jerusalem when he went out there. I don't think that's going to happen. I don't see them doing it right away.

I think it's going to be part and parcel of this peace process that President Trump wants to get together. And I was just speaking to the new Palestinian representative just the other day. He said that if President Trump were to go to Israel and make some kind of announcement on the embassy, that would really negate all the momentum that they feel that they have, and it would be a no go. So, everyone hoping that President Trump in the region certainly does not do that. Obviously, it's not even clear if the Israelis really want it.

TAPPER: All right. Elise Labott, thank you so much.

Republicans in the House now closer than ever, they say, to potentially getting a health care bill through. President Trump guarantees coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, but does the math really add up?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:22:13] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

The Trump administration is considering withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, the world's first comprehensive climate agreement adopted in 2015 by nearly 200 nations. It's our "Earth Matters" segment. Candidate Trump, of course, promised to, quote, "cancel the Paris agreement". But sources tell CNN there's an internal White House debate on whether they should. The Jared Kushner/Ivanka Trump wing wants to stay in the agreement. The Steven Bannon wants to pull out.

Here with me for more is CNN's Rene Marsh.

And, Rene, what is the U.S. required to do under the agreement, and what happens if the U.S. pulls out?

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: So, essentially, this agreement is, many would argue, to save the planet. They want to rid the planet of this carbon pollution in this century. A hundred and thirty-two countries, they have all committed to this Paris agreement, including the United States. The United States has committed to decreasing its carbon emissions by some 28 percent by the year 2025.

In order to do that, they are putting things in place or they have put things in place like fuel standards, efficiency standards as well as limits for carbon emissions from coal power plants. But as you know, Jake, we've been reporting on it. The Trump administration has been unraveling a lot of or attempting to unravel a lot of those regulations, and then there's this debate whether to stay or leave that -- the Paris agreement.

Well, now, there's a new issue on the table, and that new issue on the table is whether the U.S. would get into some sort of legal trouble if they stayed but they just didn't meet their targets, meaning they didn't reduce the amount of emissions that they said that they would going into the agreement. That is what sources are telling CNN. The White House lawyers are concerned that staying in and not doing what they said they were going to do could present a problem.

So, that begs the question, what will they do? Will they leave all together if now they are concerned about the legal problems? We don't know yet because they haven't made the decision and this debate has been going back and forth for quite some time.

TAPPER: And, Rene, just a few days ago, the president signed an executive order to expand offshore drilling. Even some Republican members of Congress who represent Eastern coastal states are opposed to this, and now, there's environmental groups suing.

MARSH: Right. So, this separate executive order, what it does is reverse Barack Obama's ban on oil and gas drilling both in parts of the Arctic as well as the Atlantic Ocean. And so, now, what Trump wants to do is owe essentially roll this all back, but like you said there's a bipartisan pushback on all of this.

And just a few hours ago, we did get word that several environmental groups, they filed a lawsuit against the Trump administration over this action. They are essentially challenging Donald Trump's constitutional power to undo President Obama's permanent protection of parts of the Arctic as well as the Atlantic Ocean.

[16:25:08] So, again, that legal battle is gearing up now all because of this executive order. So, we'll have to wait and see how the Trump administration responds. At last check, they haven't responded to this latest lawsuit.

TAPPER: All right. Rene Marsh, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

New momentum and optimism as Republicans hope to vote on a bill to repeal and replace Obamacare by tomorrow, but will pre-existing conditions still be fully covered like President Trump promised? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back.

My apologies if you have heard this before, but House Republicans are again working frantically on their latest last best chance to repeal Obamacare. And after a meeting with President Trump, two key moderate Republican holdouts now say they will vote yes.