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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

President Trump Meets With Colombian President; Trump Says Special Counsel Probe Hurts Country; Trump Takes Reporter Questions After Tumultuous Week. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired May 18, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Did he inappropriately influence administration decision-making? All of these things, perhaps, partly for the investigation to look at now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: That's right. He was paid $500,000, I believe from a company with close ties to the Turkish government.

I want to go back the White House and Jeff Zeleny, who has some new reporting right now.

Jeff, what can you tell us?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we are getting word here at the White House that a team of outside advisers to the president have been meeting throughout the day to find an outside set of legal advisers, to, in the words of one administration official, add more legal firepower to the representation of the president in this matter.

Now, this is very common practice. Presidents who have dealt with special counsels before have often hired outside lawyers beyond the White House Counsel's Office. But John King and I are being told by our sources here and elsewhere across Washington that, indeed, Michael Cohen, the president's personal lawyer, is here in Washington, was at the White House earlier.

And he and other advisers are meeting to present the president a plan before he leaves tomorrow with sort of a recommendation to hire a group of lawyers here.

This is something that, you know, expresses that the president, as we were talking about earlier, is seething over this. He believes it is politics. He believes it is unfair. But the blunt reality is, his advisers know that he needs representation here.

So, that's one of the sidebar discussions of many happening here at the White House and elsewhere about how to represent the president and his interests going forward, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, let's bring it back to our panel right now while we wait for President Trump and the Colombian president to enter the East Room at the White House. David Urban, a smart move to bring out -- to bring some outside legal

heft?

DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure, absolutely.

Also, Jake, what it does is, it allows the White House to focus on the business of governing on a day-to-day basis. It allows you to separate this into what I believe is, at the end of the day, going to be a tempest in a teapot.

Let's not forget one of the things that Mr. Mueller is going to be able to do is here is to look into these leaks. Right? Who was the source of all of this information to the press? That's going to -- I think going to be a very interesting thread to pull on.

And it will allow the White House to focus on all the things that are taking place. This big trip coming up, is it going to be historic? If this were to have occurred after the trip, the message would have been stepped on. You would have heard nothing of this. You are going to have a big deal with the Saudis in terms of an arms deal and cooperation on terrorism.

You are going to have meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas on cooperation on the Mideast. The president is going to the Middle East to let our friends know we're back and our enemies know we're back.

TAPPER: And, Gloria, that's the big hope of the White House, for a reset, that this trip that people like the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, Jared Kushner, Dina Powell, have all been preparing for months to bring these what are called deliverables that David just referred to...

GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure.

TAPPER: ... things that actually will be achieved because of this trip, they are hoping this reset will begin when the president lands in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, I think, tomorrow.

BORGER: And remember the famous phrase from Bill Clinton about being able to compartmentalize.

I mean, that's what this White House needs to start doing. If you remember, during the Lewinsky investigation, there were people inside the White House who were assigned to deal with it, and then there were people inside the White House who were assigned to deal with the matters at hand, and just deal with that.

And he had outside counsel, David Kendall, Bob Bennett, and those were his lawyers. His White House counsel didn't handle it, of course, because the White House counsel represents the American people to the president.

And so you need to have this in the White House if you're going to continue to conduct your business of the day. So, I think it is a smart thing for them to do, to get the president a lawyer. Maybe he could convince him to stop tweeting about all of this.

URBAN: To Gloria's point, Jake, I'll tell you, I showed up at the White House with my former boss Senator Specter, who was one of the -- one of the -- I don't want to say prosecutors on the impeachment to -- on November 11 for Veterans Day to have breakfast with the president.

And the president -- this is a day an op-ed ran by Arlen Specter said, prosecute the president.

TAPPER: This is President Clinton.

URBAN: Right, President Clinton.

TAPPER: Yes.

URBAN: Prosecute President Clinton for perjury. Don't impeach him, big "New York Times" story.

President Clinton shook his hand, chatted with him like nothing even happened. So, he was about governing the country, clearly compartmentalized it. It was pushed aside to Lanny Davis to take care of and went on with the business of governing.

TAPPER: Jen, let me ask you about the idea of resets, I have seen you through a few attempts.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: We had a few of our own.

TAPPER: Attempts to reset.

How well does the reset work? Can it work?

PSAKI: It can work, but their problems are much more significant than ours ever were and I think most administrations are.

I think any first foreign trip is an enormous undertaking by a president and his team. Foreign governments and their teams watch the American press very closely. They know that he's weak in the United States right now. They know there are scandals and controversies.

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TAPPER: When you say he's weak, low approval ratings.

PSAKI: Correct.

TAPPER: OK.

PSAKI: And so their leverage is very different than it would be from many past presidents.

You can have a reset, but there's going to be an ongoing investigation by the FBI. There's ongoing work by the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is related to President Trump himself specifically. It is not related to a bad policy rollout. So, it is going to be much more difficult for them. TAPPER: And, Jeffrey Toobin, let me go to you. You have covered a

few White Houses.

The attempt to reset, so that the president can focus on the issues that matter the most to the American people, it can be done, but it is difficult to do.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: It is.

And you need concrete proposals, achievements, bills passed. You know, if they pass a new health care bill, that will be an accomplishment. That's a fact in the world, if they pass a tax cut, an infrastructure bill. But if they don't, all that is left to fill the void is this continuing investigation, which will go on now for months, if not years.

URBAN: But I think, coming back to this trip, to talk about reset from this trip overseas, you are going to have a giant deal with the Saudis, a big arms deal that I heard Wolf talking earlier, new cooperation on Islamic fundamentalism being led out of the Middle East.

You're going to have lots of things to talk about moving forward. These seeds are being planted on this trip. They are not going to end when the president comes back.

TAPPER: And that's right.

No, it's interesting because, normally, a U.S. president, their first stop will be Canada or Mexico. That's been tradition.

PSAKI: Sure.

TAPPER: If the president's first stop is Saudi Arabia, probably something that would not have been predicted during the campaign. And the reason for it, as David points out, is not only a deal that will be announced that will send the message that the president is trying to get other countries to pay more of their fair share, but also this counterterrorism offensive.

Here comes President Trump and the president of Colombia.

Let's listen in.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much.

It is a great pleasure to welcome President Santos to the White House. Colombia is one of our closest allies in the hemisphere. And, today, we reaffirm partnership between our two great nations.

President Santos and I had a very productive meeting, and we will continue to work very closely together to bring peace, safety and prosperity to the hemisphere.

Perhaps no area is really more important in terms of cooperation than our joint effort to end the terrible drug crimes that plague both of our countries.

Recently, we have seen an alarm, and I mean really a very highly alarm and alarming trend. Last year, Colombia coca cultivation and cocaine production reached a record high, which hopefully will be remedied very quickly by the president.

We must confront this dangerous threat to our societies together. Today, I affirmed the United States' willingness to assist Colombia's strategy to target and eliminate drug trafficking networks, illicit financings, coca cultivation and cocaine production, of which there is far too much.

The drug epidemic is poisoning too many American lives, and we're going to stop it many different ways. One of them will be the wall. My administration is committed to keeping drugs and gangs from pouring into our country. Already, border crossings are down more than 73 percent.

Secretary Kelly is with us. He has done a fantastic job.

Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.

And, in short, we have a tremendous group of people working with us in terms of ICE, the ICE patrol and the Border Patrol agents. They have done a fantastic job.

And I would like to you give them my highest compliments, Mr. Secretary.

And MS-13, likewise, a horrible, horrible, large group of gangs that have been let into our country over a fairly short period of time, are being decimated by the Border Patrol, by ICE and by our incredible local police forces.

And they are getting out of our country or, in some cases, going directly into prisons throughout our country. But they have literally taken over towns and cities of the United States. They will be gone very quickly.

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I look forward to working with President Santos as we target drug trafficking. Both the United States and Colombia have strong law enforcement and security relationship. We have had it, and especially over the last fairly short period of time.

Together, we will continue to fight the criminal networks responsible for the deadly drug trade that our people have a really strong commitment to getting rid of because they want a much brighter future.

President Santos and I also discussed the deteriorating situation in Venezuela. And it is really in a very bad state, as you see, as we all see through the media.

The stable and peaceful Venezuela is in the best interests of the entire hemisphere, and America stands with all of the people in our great hemisphere yearning to be free.

We will be working with Colombia and other countries on the Venezuelan problem. It is a very, very horrible problem. And from a humanitarian standpoint, it is like nothing we have seen in quite a long time.

The United States and Colombia are also strong economic partners, and we will continue to pursue trade policies that benefit both of our peoples. The nations' common goals of protecting our citizens, expanding opportunity and confronting the drug crisis will improve the lives of our people and many throughout the region.

So many people are being so horribly affected by what's going on in terms of violence and in terms of drugs, and we're going to take care of the situation. And we both agreed to take care of it strongly and quickly.

President Santos, it was an honor to meet with you and your entire group of representatives, very talented people indeed, who have been working with us and my representatives. And I look forward to many more productive meetings such as the one we just had.

I would like to thank you very much for being at the White House, being our guest. And I would like to congratulate you on winning the Nobel Peace Prize. That's a very great achievement.

Thank you very much.

JUAN MANUEL SANTOS, COLOMBIAN PRESIDENT: Mr. President, I want to thank you personally for this warm and productive visit and for the strong support Colombia has received from your administration, from Congress, and from the American people.

(through translator): As you know, our nations have had for a long time a strategic alliance, an extraordinary friendship.

We believe in the same principles of democracy, freedom and the rule of law. And we work so that the Western Hemisphere can be more prosperous and safe.

The United States and Colombia, they're both democracies of greater and long -- and of longer standing in the hemisphere. We have supported each other. Our soldiers fought shoulder-to-shoulder in the Korean War. At the request of the United States, we sent anti-drug experts to Afghanistan. And, today, Colombia and the United States are working together to support Central America in their fight against drug cartels and the violence of organized crime.

I can say, Mr. President, based on our conversation this afternoon, that I have no doubt that the United States and Colombia continue to be today, more than ever, a support, one for the other. Our alliance was strengthened.

Our most valuable cooperation has been Plan Colombia, which I can sum up in very simple terms. When Colombians were fighting to survive, for our democracy to survive actually, faced with the threat of terrorism and drug trafficking, the United States stretched out a hand and helped us win that battle. We will never forget it.

Today, we live in a different country. Today, Colombia is a more peaceful society, a more modern and a fairer society.

[16:15:07] In November last year, we ended the longest and last armed conflict existing in our hemisphere. The guerilla is putting down weapons at this precise time to the United Nations and security has gone down significantly.

Today, we have the lowest levels of violence of the last 40 years. At the same time, we have had significant progress for our citizens on issues such as education, housing, health and social services. Millions of Colombians have been lifted out of poverty. Today we continue next to you as partners in peace Colombia, to consolidate peace in the most affected areas.

With the robust support of your government, we are removing thousands of anti-personnel mines that murdered and mutilated children, women and soldiers. We are healing the wounds of our victims and we are embarking on a big social development program. Such as we said today, we are working with your administration to take advantage of the unique opportunity peace offers so as to reduce permanently the production of cocoa leaf in Colombia and fight more effectively the other links in drug trafficking including consumption.

We must continue and deepen the fight against organized crime, trans national crime, responsible not just for drug trafficking but also for human trafficking and illegal mining. Our shared agenda, framed within a high-level dialogue that we Colombians value so much includes cooperation which has allowed us to have unprecedented progress towards quality education for everyone, and this is a priority in the policies of my government. And we wish to do more with regards to innovation and technology. With the active participation of the private sector, we have reached trade agreements, investment agreements that are mutually beneficial.

This morning, we established the entrepreneurial council between the United States and Colombia. We are and wish to continue to be the best destination in Latin America for American businesses. Colombia will continue to be very proudly a close friend and a strategic ally of the United States.

Dear President Trump, I hope you can visit us soon so that you can personally witness the transformation underway in our country. I hope to be able to welcome you to a Colombia in peace, a more equitable Colombia, a better educated Colombia, that you have so much contributed to. Thank you so much.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much.

Does anybody have any questions? I'm shocked. Jon, go ahead.

REPORTER: Mr. President, thank you very much.

TRUMP: Thank you. REPORTER: I would like to -- Mr. President, I would like to get your

reaction to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein's decision to appoint a special counsel to investigate the Russia -- Russian interference in the campaign. Was this the right move or is this part of a witch hunt?

TRUMP: Well, I respect the move, but the entire thing has been a witch hunt and there is no collusion between certainly myself and my campaign, but I can always speak for myself, and the Russians, zero.

I think it divides the country. I think we have a very divided country because of that, and many other things. So, I can tell you that we want to bring this great country of ours together, Jon.

I will also say very strongly, we've had tremendous success. You look at our job numbers. You look at what's going on at the border, as we discussed before.

[16:20:02] You look at what will be happening, you're going to see some incredible numbers with respect to the success of General Mattis and others with the ISIS situation. The numbers are staggering, how successful they've been, the military has been. Tomorrow, as you know, I'm going to Saudi Arabia, I'm going to Israel, I'm going to Rome and we have the G7. We have a lot of great things going on.

So I hate to see anything that divides -- I'm fine with whatever people want to do, but we have to get back to running this country really, really well. We have made tremendous progress in the last 100 and some odd days, tremendous progress. And you see job numbers. You see all of the production that's starting, plants starting to open again, haven't been opened in years.

I'm very proud of it. That's what I want to be focused on because, believe me, there's no collusion. Russia is fine, but whether it's Russia or anybody else, my total priority, believe me, is the United States of America.

So, thank you very much.

REPORTER (through translator): President Trump, President Santos, can we say that today we are setting a new road map in the relationship between Colombia and the United States, which are the concrete commitments? You were talking about the post-conflict time. Many funds are needed for that. On the issue of Venezuela, President Trump, many deaths, human rights violations. There's plenty to be done.

TRUMP: As well as a very, very serious problem, we haven't really seen a problem like that I would say, Mr. President, in decades, in terms of the kind of violence that we're witnessing. The president was telling me, and I knew, that Venezuela was a very, very wealthy country, just about the wealthiest in your neck of the woods and had tremendous strengths in so many different ways.

And now, it's -- it is poverty stricken. People don't have enough to eat. People have no food. There's great violence. And we will do whatever is necessary and we will work together to do whatever is necessary to help with fixing that.

And I'm really talking on a humanitarian level. When you look at the oil reserves that they have, when you look at the potential wealth that Venezuela has, you sort of have to wonder, why is that happening? How is that possible?

But it has been unbelievably poorly run for a long period of time, and hopefully that will change and they could use those assets for the good and to take care of their people, because right now what is happening is really a disgrace to humanity.

Jon, I think you also had a question for the president, if you would like to.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does he have another one?

TRUMP: Yes.

SANTOS (through translator): The commitment on President Trump's side and his administration was shown through the approval of the budget that for Colombia means an increase in the support to fund the post- conflict era. Last night, we received from a very important organization, the Atlantic Council, a report which includes both parties, presided by a Republican senator and a Democrat senator, with the road map recommending the governments of the United States and Colombia to follow.

This morning, we established the Entrepreneurial Council of the United States and Colombia so can have a voice in that road map. This means we are working together on every front that can be convenient for both countries. We will continue to work together. We have ratified that commitment today during our conversation.

As I said before, we have the best of relations with the United States. We are strategic allies in the region, and we will continue to be so.

REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President.

President Santos, to you, you heard President Trump say that it is critical to stopping the flow of drugs into the United States will be the wall that he wants to build on the Mexican border. Do you agree with him? Would that wall be a step, a positive step and a step towards reducing the flow of drugs across the border?

[16:25:04] SANTOS: I believe that the best way to fight the drug trafficking is by collaborating. This is not a problem of Colombia only or a problem of the United States only. It is a world problem. And we have to all work together.

We declared the war on drug 40 years ago. The world declared a war on drugs, and it is a war that has not been run. So we must be more effective and more efficient.

Now, we are doing very big effort because of the peace process to have a new strategy, carrot and stick. Stick by force the ratification, we have already eradicated this year only 15,000 hectares, which is the whole volume that we eradicated last year, and we are starting to eradicate -- to substitute voluntarily through a program where the peasants -- and we have 80,000 families already in the program, that they are going to substitute for legal crops. This is the first time that this could be done because of the peace. Before, the conflict did not allow us to build roads and to give these peasants an alternative. Now we have.

So, we have to take advantage of this opportunity and continue reducing the production of cocoa. In the meantime, we will work together, the U.S. and Colombia with other countries, Central America, to fight the other links of the chain, the intermediaries. We have destroyed 22,000 laboratories in the Colombian jungles, seizing the cocoa in the transit. We have seized record amount of tons last year and this year we're doing even better than last year.

So, by working together, we can be much more effective, and that is the commitment we just made or ratified this afternoon.

TRUMP: And that was a long and very diplomatic answer to your question. I will say it a little bit shorter. Walls work. Just ask Israel. They work. Believe me, they work. And we have no choice.

Peter Baker, yes?

REPORTER: Thank you, Mr. President. In the light of a very busy news week a lot of people would like to get to the bottom of a couple of things, give you a chance to go on record here.

Did you at any time urge former FBI Director James Comey in any way shape or form to close or back down the investigation into Michael Flynn? And also, as you look back --

TRUMP: No, no. Next question.

REPORTER: Next question. Always you look back over the past six months or a year, have you had any recollection where you have wondered if anything you have done has been something that might be worthy of criminal charges in these investigations or impeachment as some on the left are implying?

TRUMP: I think it's totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so.

And again, we have to get back to working our country properly so that we can take care of the problems that we have. We have plenty of problems.

We have done a fantastic job. We have a tremendous group of people. Millions and millions of people out there that are looking at what you have just said and said, what are they doing?

Director Comey was very unpopular with most people. I actually thought when I made that decision -- and I also got a very, very strong recommendation, as you know, from the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. But when I made that decision, I actually thought it would be a bipartisan decision because you look at all of the people on the Democratic side, not only the Republican side, that were saying such terrible things about Director Comey.

Then, he had the very poor performance on Wednesday. That was a poor, poor performance. So poor, in fact, that I believe -- and you would have to ask him because I don't like to speak for other people, but I believe that's why the deputy attorney general went out and wrote his very, very strong letter.

And then on top of that, after the Wednesday performance by Director Comey, you had a person come and have to readjust the record, which many people have never seen before, because there were misstatements made. And I thought that was something that was terrible.

We need a great director of the FBI. I cherish the FBI. It is special. All over the world, no matter where you go, the FBI is special.

The FBI has not had that special reputation with what happen in the campaign, what happen with respect to the Clinton campaign, and even you could say directly or indirectly with respect to the much more successful Trump campaign.