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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

American Allegedly Tortured in Saudi Arabia; Congress Ramping Up Trump Investigations. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 4, 2019 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:00]

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Erica Hill, in today for Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for spending some time with us.

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The Mueller report may be just the beginning.

THE LEAD starts right now.

His White House, his company, his children, Democrats are demanding information from dozens of people and organizations in President Trump's world, as they launch a tremendous probe into whether he abused his power.

The president speaking this hour. How might he respond?

Getting personal. Senator Bernie Sanders showing us how he plans to try to break through in a younger and more diverse Democratic crowd.

Plus, an American taken prisoner, allegedly tortured in Saudi Arabia. Will President Trump speak up against the crown prince this time?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We start with the politics lead.

House Democrats escalating their investigations into President Trump. Late this afternoon, the chairmen of three House committees, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight, teamed up to push for answers about President Trump's communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin, asking in a letter to be able to interview State Department translators and asking if the president had destroyed any records related to those conversations, as sources tell CNN did happen.

Now, that joint inquiry comes as the House Judiciary Committee today sent letters to 81 people and entities in the president's orbit. The committee demanding information from individuals such as the president's sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, CFO for the Trump Organization Allen Weisselberg, former fixer Michael Cohen, Steve Bannon, his former chief strategist, and on and on. Some of the entities that made the list include the White House, the Trump Organization, the Kushner Companies, even the FBI. When asked about Nadler's letters today, President Trump put it on the same scale as special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a political hoax. There's no collusion.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: But there is more.

As CNN's Manu Raju reports, Democrats may deny direct efforts to impeach the president at this stage, but it sure does look as though they're trying to lay some groundwork.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The House Judiciary Committee today announcing a sprawling investigation into the president's inner circle, trying to uncover evidence that the president obstructed justice and abused his power.

The chairman of the committee, Jerry Nadler, sent letters to 81 individuals and entities connected to the president, including family members like his sons, Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, former aide Hope Hicks, longtime Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, and his current campaign manager, Brad Parscale.

REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: It's very clear that the president obstructed justice. It's very clear.

RAJU: The scope of the probe is breathtaking, looking into everything, from whether the president is benefiting financially from foreign interests, as well as campaign contacts with the Russians, the firing of then FBI Director James Comey, and demanding from the head of the parent company of "The National Enquirer," and hush money payments the president made to silence stories in 2016 about his alleged affairs with a porn star and a former "Playboy" Playmate.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I think what they're doing is exercising their constitutional responsibility for oversight. To do anything less would be delinquent in our duties, than to exercise their oversight.

RAJU: Asked today if he would cooperate, Trump said:

TRUMP: I cooperate all the time with everybody. And you know the beautiful thing? No collusion. It's all a hoax.

RAJU: Republicans contend it's all part of a Democratic effort to take down the president. SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: I think there a lot of House members that just decided they wanted to start the election early. And they're going to do everything they can to tear down the president. I'm not saying that the Republicans wouldn't do it if the shoe were on the other foot.

RAJU: But Democrats who have called for impeachment are giving House committee some breathing room to first investigate the president, at least for now.

REP. ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D), NEW YORK: I understand that the leadership perhaps may want to build a stronger case and subpoena more records or figure out what's happening perhaps in the Mueller investigation. And so I defer to the chair. I defer to the party leadership.

RAJU: The Judiciary probe is one of a number that House Democrats are intensifying in just their third month in power.

House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings is threatening to subpoena the White House for records over Kushner's security clearance, after a "New York Times" report revealed that the president overruled concerns from intelligence officials to give Kushner access to classified information.

REP. GERRY CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: I would certainly support a subpoena issuance if we don't get cooperation from the White House.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU: Now, there are 81 names and entities on that list from the House Judiciary Committee. But that is just the beginning. Expect more names to come forward in the coming days and weeks.

[16:05:00]

And, at the same time, Jake, you mentioned the top three powerful committee chairmen demanding a range of documents from the White House and the State Department that detail what exactly happened in those conversations between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, asking for transcribed interviews, including with a translator who was at the meeting -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju on Capitol Hill.

Let's dive into this with our experts.

Karen Finney, let me start with you.

Democratic leaders keep saying it's too early to talk about impeachment. Take a listen to Chairman Jerry Nadler of the House Judiciary Committee just yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS: Do you think the president obstructed justice?

NADLER: Yes, I do.

STEPHANOPOULOS: If that's the case, then is the decision not to pursue impeachment right now simply political, if you believe he obstructed justice?

NADLER: No. We have to -- we have to do the investigations and get all this.

Before you impeach somebody, you have to persuade the American public that it ought to happen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So is this what we're about to experience, two years of House Democrats using their subpoena power to try to persuade the American people that the president does not belong in office?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think what you're going to see is a thoughtful investigation. I think Democrats are trying to be very mindful about how they proceed

I think you heard Chairman Nadler say that. You even heard Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez say, defer to the chair. So I think you're going to see a process by which all of these pieces of evidence, I would argue, like the check we saw last week during the Michael Cohen hearing -- or I'm sorry -- appearance -- see, how does this evidence fit together?

Is it grounds for impeachment? And I would remind you, having worked for President Bill Clinton, I mean, he was impeached for lying. And that is -- some believe that is an impeachable offense. There's a lot more on the table here with regard to whether or not we have collusion. There may be cover-up. There may be all sorts of other things.

And unfortunately for the president, the problem -- we have talked about this again and again -- there continues to be more evidence all the time that there were wrongdoings.

TAPPER: You -- your face, at least, suggests you disagree very strongly with everything Karen just said.

RICK SANTORUM, CNN COMMENTATOR: So, look, first off, I don't think they're being cautious. I mean, you heard Jerry Nadler just say that he's guilty of obstruction. You have heard them say he's guilty of collusion with the Russians, the chair of the -- Steve (sic) Schiff.

So, look, the reality is they're not getting cautious, and that's going to be their downfall. They're going to continue to try to -- I mean, you throw out a net of 80 people that you're going to interview on gosh knows what they're going to interview them on.

This is just trying to trash Donald Trump, to do what you suggested. The next two years will be a just one hearing, one subpoena, one whatever, just to beat him up, not impeachment. They're not going to do impeachment. They got an election next year. There's no reason to do impeachment if you got an election next year.

FINNEY: But can I just say, having been in the Clinton administration, we used to get letters from Republicans like yourself on the Hill every week asking for records.

And back in those days, your phone records literally were paper. I had a file that I would pull out and then Xerox the extra copies. There were like 100 of us who had to do that just about every week. I actually still have a box of those files.

TAPPER: So, Margie, let me ask you, because one of the pressures that I think House Democratic leaders feel is from freshman members who do want to go forward with impeachment.

We played a little bit of Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez talking about how she defers to leadership, but there was more to that quote. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

OCASIO-CORTEZ: I have always been very clear that I'm supportive of -- and how I would vote in terms of impeachment. I understand that the leadership perhaps may want to build a stronger case and subpoena more records or figure out what's happening perhaps in the Mueller investigation.

And so I defer to the chair. I defer to the party leadership.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: She defers to the chair, but she's ready to vote for impeachment already.

MARGIE OMERO, DEMOCRATIC POLLSTER: I think voters and members come to this from different perspectives.

But overall, if you look at the public opinion -- there's been lots of pulling on this. We have done some. Lots of outlets have done this. Americans support -- they support the special counsel investigation. They support the role of Congress to have oversight.

There's an increasing number of people who feel crimes are being uncovered. People want more public information. They are worried about lies. You have a majority who feel the president lies more than other presidents.

I mean, this is becoming increasingly serious in the minds of voters, I think more than we saw in the beginning of the administration, as we continue to have this conversation.

TAPPER: And, Mary Katharine, one of the things that's interesting here is there's no real standard for what an impeachment can be for. Take a listen to Governor Chris Christie, a defender of the president, talking about how this ultimately is a political decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), FORMER NEW JERSEY GOVERNOR: It's a political judgment. It's what can you get 67 votes for in the Senate. Listen, it's high crimes and misdemeanors. Tell me what that means.

It means whatever 67 members in the United States Senate think it means.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And that's the issue for House Democrats, is they need to get 67 votes. Otherwise, it's just a wasted vote.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, the reality is, it is a political calculation. And it always will be because they're politicians, and especially in a post-Bill Clinton world, they have to make that part of the discussion.

[16:10:02]

I do think there's a shift that the Democratic Party is making that's going to be tough and may be read by some voters as suspicious, which is, the Mueller report was to be the gold standard. He's the guy we can trust. Everything in here is really important.

As soon as it comes out, if it doesn't find enough, we're going to say, we're just going to keep doing this for two years. Now, oversight is their job. Some of that is perfectly legit. But I do think there is a danger there of sort of discarding the Mueller one if it does not say what you want it to say.

And here's the final point. There is a way to persuade people that the president does not belong in office, and we generally do that in the campaign. And there's an opportunity to do that very soon.

TAPPER: How do you respond to that, the idea that everybody was talking about conspiracy, but now that it looks like the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Mueller report are neither are going to prove direct evidence of conspiracy, perhaps circumstantial evidence, but no direct evidence, and now Democrats are talking about finances and subpoenaing 81 individuals or offering -- or asking for 81 individuals and entities to provide information?

FINNEY: But I think we're talking about a couple of different things here.

I mean, the Mueller investigation was very specifically to look into collusion. Certainly, when you have the national security apparatus -- we had Dan Coats and others on the Hill just last month saying, yes, there's -- the Russians are still at it, by the way, that is a valid question I think for Congress in their role for the Intel Committee to take a look at to see, all right, if we believe that's still happening, we need to still understand, what are those linkages and do the -- were those links begun in 2016, and do they continue?

That's different than what Mueller is looking. Also different than what Mueller is looking at is this idea of a potential cover-up, a check that may have been about covering up an affair with a former "Playboy" Playmate, right.

(CROSSTALK)

HAM: That's a $130,000 FEC violation.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: But what was the intent?

But if the intent was to mislead the public, then it does matter. And, at the end, there may be other efforts, as we have seen throughout the Trump administration, like the president himself just said yesterday when he whined in that two-and-a-half-hour screed about Jeff Sessions.

Yet again, he's still so mad that he didn't tell him right before he appointed him that he was going to recuse himself. And so there's plenty of evidence there to suggest that there was a cover-up and an abuse of power while he was in office.

TAPPER: Senator?

SANTORUM: Well, first off, news flash, the Russians have been trying to influence our elections since World War -- since the end of World War II.

FINNEY: In 2016, they succeeded, so...

SANTORUM: Well...

(CROSSTALK)

SANTORUM: It used to be the Democrats covering for the Russians and all the things that they did.

(CROSSTALK)

FINNEY: Now, that's absolutely a lie.

SANTORUM: No, that's absolutely true.

FINNEY: No, it's not.

SANTORUM: Including Bernie Sanders, who went over there and reported how wonderful the Soviet Union was.

FINNEY: So, one Democrat did it.

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Your point?

SANTORUM: My point is that what the Democrats are doing here is, they missed the ball on Russia. There's no cover -- there's no cover-up, and the president was exercising authority. And all they're doing is playing politics. Nancy Pelosi is not going to allow vote on impeachment. Just I will say that for the record right now, because it's political suicide for her to do so. She's not going to do that to her own caucus. She will somehow appease her more radical members, but there will be no impeachment between now...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: All right, we've got to squeeze in a quick break. Everyone, stick around. We're going to keep talking.

New reporting about President Trump possibly, possibly using the power of his office to go after his enemies. That's next.

Then, an American doctor imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for more than a year, reportedly being tortured and abused. Where's the White House?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:27] TAPPER: And we're back with the politics lead, and the latest example of President Trump possibly using the highest office in the land to try to settle personal scores.

A report in the "New Yorker Magazine" today says President Trump ordered senior administration officials to pressure the Justice Department to try to stop the merger between AT&T and Time Warner, CNN's parent company, a move "The New Yorker" reports, quote, many people suspected was a matter of petty retaliation against CNN whose coverage along with that of "The New York Times", "The Washington Post", NBC News, CBS News, ABC News and more, the president has continually attacked.

And, of course, the president's feelings on the merger were no secret. He has repeatedly publicly talked about wanting to block the deal. Yet as CNN's Abby Philip now reports, the Trump administration has also claimed the president had nothing to do with the Justice Department's decision.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: AT&T is buying Time Warner and thus CNN, a deal we will not approve in my administration.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump attempted to personally see that campaign promise was kept, according to a New Yorker investigation raising new questions about whether he attempted to settle political scores from the Oval Office where he has made a practice of attacking as fake news stories that are accurate but not flattering.

TRUMP: When you report fake news, which CNN does a lot, you are the enemy of the people.

PHILLIP: According to the magazine, in 2017, Trump summoned Gary Cohn, then the director of the National Economic Council and his Chief of Staff John Kelly into the Oval Office and ordered them to pressure the Justice Department to stop the merger of AT&T and Time Warner, then the parent company of CNN.

Trump reportedly told Kelly: I've been telling Cohn to get this lawsuit filed and nothing's happened. Adding: I want to make sure it's filed. I want that deal blocked.

All this adding fuel to the impeachment fire.

REP. DAN KILDEE (D), MICHIGAN: It does paint the picture of a president who is out of control and I think it does make the case that this president is unfit for office.

PHILLIP: House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff tweeting: I've long-feared Trump would use the instruments of state power to carry out his vendetta against the press he is attacked as the enemy of the people.

Meantime, Trump spent the weekend lashing out at other enemies on all sides, blaming his former personal attorney Michael Cohn's blistering testimony before Congress for its failure to strike a deal with North Korea. Trump tweeting that the open hearing during his summit with dictator Kim Jong-un is perhaps a new low in American politics and may have contributed to the walk.

TRUMP: All of a sudden, they're trying to take you out with bullshit, OK?

[16:20:02] With bullshit.

PHILLIP: Trump also delivering the longest speech of his presidency at the Conservative Political Action Conference, really for more than two hours at the special counsel investigation and Democratic lawmakers who have promised to investigate obstruction of justice his personal finances and business dealings.

TRUMP: There's no collusion, so now they go and morph into let's inspect every deal he's ever done. We're going to go into his finances. We're going to check his deals. We're going to check -- these people are sick. They're sick.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: And the Justice Department did eventually lose their bid to stop this merger, but in the course of the litigation over the last several years, the antitrust division's chief said this in an affidavit: At no time did I receive orders, instructions or directions related to this transaction. So, he's denying that there was any undue influence, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Abby Phillip, thanks so much, from the White House.

Margie Omero, let me ask you because this is this bleeds into the conversation from the last block, which is, does the public care? Does the public care that President Trump would do such a thing? Is this something that's already baked in?

OMERO: Well, I think people are do feel the effect of the critiques on the media for sure, whether this particular incident remains to be seen -- I mean, this is something that just came out today.

But it is certainly consistent with what we knows to be true this president and how he sort of sees the entire government just at his disposal. But specifically when it comes to the media, we hear it in focus groups where people feel they just feel completely resigned to the fact that they're not sure what to think about anything they see in any media, and we'll ask people, you know, will show them even the full article about something just to get a sense of how they can process it.

And they said, well, I don't know if that's true, I don't believe anything. You try to push them on it, well, what does that mean? Reporters to show up and concoct a story from scratch, or how does that work? And they just feel that they simply can't trust any media source.

And the president and his comments are -- partly responsible for that. You see it in polls. You've seen in focus groups, where they feel that they can't really trust whatever they see and that comes from the way he talks about the media.

TAPPER: Mary Katharine, conservative lawyer George Conway who happens to be married to Kellyanne Conway, tweeted about this report from the "New Yorker". He wrote: If proven, such an attempt to use presidential authority to seek retribution for the exercise of First Amendment rights would unquestionably be grounds for impeachment.

Now, George Conway is not a fan of the president's, but he is also a very serious conservative lawyer in town.

HAM: Right. No, this if it were -- if it were proven, which is a huge part, it's a huge caveat here.

TAPPER: Yes.

HAM: Then it looks like corruption and I think could be grounds for impeachment. Again, you're at the point where Democrats have to make the political calculation whether they want to do that. And as to the media part of this, Jane Mayer reported this, her last big scoop was Ramirez, the second allegation of sexual misconduct against Brett Kavanaugh, an extremely shoddily sourced story. It must be said.

So, people look at work and they say, well, can I trust this? And sometimes it is with good reason, it's not because the president is saying so.

TAPPER: So, Senator Santorum, "The New Yorker" reports that Gary Cohn told John Kelly, this is when they're both at the White House, not to go through with what President Trump was telling him to do. Quote: according to the source, as Cohn walked out of the meeting, he told Kelly, don't you F-ing dare call the Justice Department. We are not going to do business that way. That is one of the guardrails around the president that people talked about Gary Cohn and John Kelly.

So, it's possible that he was railing about this but it never actually --

(CROSSTALK)

RICK SANTORUM (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDTE: Let's just be honest about this. The Justice Department knew the president's opinion on this.

TAPPER: Right.

SANTORUM: The president very -- but it's not like he was surreptitiously trying to block this.

TAPPER: No, he said it on the campaign trail, yes.

SANTORUM: He campaigned that he was going to do this. So, I don't know what the story is here. I mean, did he try to influence the Justice Department? He campaigned that he didn't want this to happen, so that everybody knew that the president didn't want this to happen.

So, Gary Cohn going to tell him, hey, the president doesn't want this to happen somehow is an impeachable offense? I think this is just overwrought.

TAPPER: And, Karen, I want to ask you also in the "New Yorker" story more new details about the hush money payments. According to Jane Mayer in "The New Yorker", Fox News had this story before the election, but Fox News killed the story. They report that when her story didn't run, the Fox News reporter at the time, Diana Falzone, told her colleagues that a Fox executive said to her, quote: Good reporting, kiddo, but Rupert Murdoch, the head of News Corps, wants Donald Trump to win. So just let it go.

FINNEY: Yes.

TAPPER: Again, that's according to the "New Yorker's" report. Do you think of that story had come out ahead of the election, that it would have actually had an impact?

FINNEY: It's impossible to know possibly because, you know, for some people, that is the kind of issue for which they would vote against someone. And there was so much that was going wrong with the 2016 election, it's hard to know, you know, what --

TAPPER: This is after the "Access Hollywood" video.

[16:25:00] I mean, like, you know, I understand but the fix was -- from my perspective, in part the fix was already in with the Russians. So, some of the damage was already done and that's based on research that I did after the fact with certain African-American audiences where they were parroting some of the Russian talking points. So I have a different perspective on that. However, here's what I think about all of this: I think what really matters to your initial question about whether or not matters to the American people, it is the job -- if they're going to pursue investigations, we've got to have -- we've got to be able to explain to the American people why it matters. And the reason I would argue that it matters is if everybody, if the president is focused on protecting himself and his own business interests, which Rupert Murdoch clearly in that article is very interested in doing, good for him, he's a businessman, that's his job. But not fighting that hard for the American people, and if the Republicans in Congress who have been protecting him have not been using that time and effort to fight for them to get an infrastructure bill, to create jobs, to lower health care costs, that's where people start to get angry.

Yes, they think things are corrupt, but they get angry when they think, you know what, you're not working for me.

TAPPER: Stick with us. We're going to keep talking.

Senator Rand Paul just made Mitch McConnell's life a little harder and now it seems he's calling some of his peers hypocrites. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)