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White House Chaos; Interview With California Congresswoman Jackie Speier; Treasury Secretary: Russia Sanctions Coming In Next Several Weeks; Mayor Resigns Amid Sex Scandal, Theft Plea. Aired 4:30- 4:45p ET

Aired March 6, 2018 - 16:30   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: We're back with our politics lead and my panel.

So, the president says the White House isn't chaotic, but isn't the way he just described what he does, managing by conflict, basically chaotic? And isn't it just empirically chaotic when you see the comings and goings of people who leave the White House?


I'm not sure both of those things can be true at the same time.

And also clearly, when there is conflict and there's disagreements in White Houses, that can work. But in this White House, what it often means is that those disagreements spill out into the public. People are fired one day or they resign. There's no one to replace them. That's happened multiple times in this White House.

It is very clear that this is a White House that operates in chaos. And it is also true that President Trump kind of likes that. I think he doesn't mind it. It is sort of reminiscent of "The Apprentice" days.

It's a little bit like game show. He doesn't mind that people are kind of vying to one-up each other. But the problem for the rest of the public is that it seems like there's nobody in charge, that there's no order to this madness, and that this is not a White House who is setting out an agenda for what they want to do and trying to go forward in an organized fashion to get it done.

I think that is still true.

TAPPER: Certainly there's nothing wrong with having people who disagree and have them fight and the best idea wins. That's the whole idea of Lincoln's team of rivals.


Yes. No, I think the question is how much conflict is healthy and how much is pushing you forward. Is it team of rivals or is it team of mean girls? And I apply that equally to both genders in the White House, not as a gendered term.

What are you creating? Are you creating a toxic environment or are you creating a productive one? I think it swings with this White House, but often you see that there's so much chaos that there's not a straightforward way of rolling out plans and doing something like, I don't know, infrastructure week was tried several times, but did not roll out because of the turmoil that was going on.

TAPPER: Nina, meanwhile, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel has referred White House aide Kellyanne Conway for possible disciplinary action after the counsel determined she had violated the Hatch Act by twice backing political candidates while in her official capacity as a White House staffer, including this CNN interview when she talked about the Alabama Senate race.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: When the president endorsed Roy Moore, when he started to talk about Doug Jones, the opponent here, which you still don't want to talk about, but the president does, Roy Moore took a lead in the polls again. Why is that?

Because the president himself came out and said he doesn't want a liberal in the Senate. He doesn't want a liberal Democrat in the Senate. He wants a reliable vote for taxes for life.


TAPPER: One is not supposed to stand in front of the White House and talk about politics this way. But I have to say, in the scheme of conflicts of interest and unethical behavior that we've seen out of this White House and this administration...

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, that's minimal compared to everything else.

I'm surprised. And I guess we should expect her to know better. But in that framing, the way she was interviewed, I don't necessarily think she believed she was actually endorsing him, as much as stating a fact about where the president stood on a very terrible candidate, might I add.


TAPPER: But, Abby, when you look at, for instance, the charges against Ben Carson, secretary of the -- housing and urban development and the money he was supposed to have spent on refurbishing a dining room or whatever, and then you just look at the parade of conflicts of interest between the president and the Trump Organization and so many things that go on here, all the trips to Trump hotels, all the money the RNC spends at Trump organizations, et cetera, et cetera, there's really kind of a tone set at the top that I don't know that this is even a misdemeanor.

PHILLIP: Absolutely. I think Nina is right. This is not a big thing. And I don't know of

any punishment, per se, for a Hatch Act violation that would even merit mentioning in this context.

But, that being said, the question is, is this White House willing to set their own standard for what they think is ethical behavior? And I think it is clear that, given everything, taken altogether, they have a hard time doing that.

And the other side of this is that it does kind of highlight that some of these ethics barriers that we have, the fences that we have created as a political society, don't really have a whole lot of -- there are no consequences really.

And that's why the violations all seem to kind of meld into each other. They all become the same. It maybe highlights the potential need for, if there are serious ethical problems, real consequences being there for them. Certainly the Hatch Act, there are, as far as I know, no real consequences to these kinds of violations. And in this White House, they seem to happen all the time.

TAPPER: Mary Katharine, do you think ethics matter to this White House at all?

HAM: No, I take your point that a lot of this is sort of a gentleman's agreement structure.

If you get a team in there that does not observe the gentleman's agreement on these ethics, then you run into problems. I think as far as Kellyanne Conway goes, that to me can clearly be read as her stating a fact about him endorsing a candidate and not actually endorsing.


It doesn't seem like huge problem to me. But when it comes to the Trump world and business, I don't even think it is an issue of not setting an ethical standard. It is like it's not even thought about.

These two things are the same thing, the Trump family in the White House and Trump family in the business. They meld. And drawing the lines is sort of inherently very tough for them. And that's why it doesn't get done in bright line ways.

And, unfortunately, when you are in the White House, it needs to get done in bright line ways.

TAPPER: So one of the president's top advisers, his top executive adviser, Gary Cohn, was notably absent from the joint press conference today.

Gary Cohn had a seat saved for him. Let's show that photograph if we can. But he did not attend. We know he's been very unhappy about the president's push for tariffs. Internally, he's been fighting with others in the administration, Peter Navarro, who is on the other side of that issue. And we're told this is at least the second or third time I have heard

Gary Cohn is threatening to quit. There was the Nazis, and then there's this, the tariffs. Nazis and tariffs. But -- it's a band.


TAPPER: But do you read, should we read anything into that, you think?

TURNER: A little. Yes, I think we should.

The president is in conflict with his own party. In dealing with tariffs, we shouldn't be surprised he is talking this populist -- because he says these things also on the campaign trail. But the realization that jobs are going to be lost, not gained, if he does this, and there's nothing else besides people are going to love this war, and nobody is going to lose, believe me, I assure you -- there is something, something to that.

HAM: And not only that, but from an economic and political standpoint, the rest of the party is looking at him and saying, OK, this tax package that has actually improved 20-plus points over the last couple months because people are seeing effects it, is going to be undercut almost entirely or more by the tariffs.


TAPPER: By the downstream effects.

HAM: Exactly.

PHILLIP: It's worth noting Gary Cohn is the registered Democrat in this White House. That's the core of some of these problems is that he's not fully ideologically aligned with this president or with his party.

But it is ironic that the Democrat here is raising his hand and saying I think tariffs are bad. That's usually a Republican thing.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We're going to take a quick break

Why is it so difficult for President Trump to say Russia meddled in the 2016 election? That's next.



TAPPER: And we're back with breaking news in our politics lead.

President Trump moments ago answering questions about Russian interference in the 2016 election during a press conference with Sweden's prime minister.


QUESTION: What do you think Sweden should learn from how the Russian influence campaign affected presidential election in the U.S.?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever. But, certainly, there was meddling, and probably there was meddling from other countries and maybe other individuals.


TAPPER: President Trump also insisting he's not worried about meddling in upcoming midterm elections because he said the U.S. will counteract any Russian operation.

Joining me now from the House Intelligence Committee is Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California.

Congresswoman, thanks for joining us.

What do you make of what you heard from the president?

REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D), CALIFORNIA: We shake our head every time he makes a statement about Russia's engagement in our elections in 2016, because he can't ever get it right.

Mueller has just indicted 13 Russians for their involvement in our elections.

The president really has a blind spot here, because it creates a situation where it calls into question his real -- veracity of him being the president of the United States and whether or not there was in fact a rigging of the election, not by Hillary Clinton, as he presumed, but by the Russians.

TAPPER: Now, last week, the director of the NSA, Admiral Mike Rogers, had been asked about whether or not he had taken appropriate measures to counteract Russian cyber-attacks, influence campaign, et cetera.

And he said he had not gotten those instructions. That was a big story. Today, the director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, was on Capitol Hill, and he was asked about whether there had been discussions about the U.S. response to Russian meddling in 2016, 2018 and beyond.

Take a listen to that.


DAN COATS, U.S. DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I have discussed it personally with the president of the United States. He has said, I assume you're doing your job, all of you who head up these agencies relative to cyber. But if you need me to say, direct you to do it, do it.


TAPPER: Is that good enough for you?


And, actually, when he was asked further, Mr. Coats said that he was talking about cyber generally.

The truth is that we know that the Russians were able to hack into voting records in over 20 states. And the question is, did they hack into the machines?

If you talk on a hacker, they will tell you there's no way of telling whether or not they hacked into the machines because there's no way of assessing whether or not they left fingerprints.

We have a serious problem on our hands, and it is incumbent on us, particularly in the House Intelligence Committee, to become very aggressive in trying to deal with this issue, because they will do it again. The Russians are not complacent.

They have spent a fair amount of time and talent, not a lot of money, because they didn't have to spend a lot of money, but they have intervened on every level, whether it was in social media, through the hacking of e-mails, to WikiLeaks. They were on every platform imaginable in terms of impacting our elections.

TAPPER: Just to press further on this, do you know of any evidence at all that any votes were tampered with or any vote counts were changed?

SPEIER: I have asked that question from a number of people.

And those who are most savvy will say that our voting machines are so antiquated and that the contracts don't allow us to do what is called red-teaming, where you try to go in and hack them, and that the software is antiquated.

So, the combination of only four companies who provide the machines and the software that are used by counties and states around the country would suggest to us we have never put in place the kind of controls that needed to be put in place to protect the vote.

[16:45:00] REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA), HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: The machines and the software that are used by counties and states around the country would suggest to us, we have never put in place the kind of controls that needed to be put this place to protect the vote. And that's why we need paper ballots, we need scanning of them and we need audits.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: I understand and respect what you're saying in terms of the kind of security that there needs to be but just to press again, do you know of any evidence that any votes were changed at all because I think that's a rather significant point that we need to underline if there is evidence or isn't evidence?

SPEIER: So what I've been told by the computer experts is that there's no way of telling because of the way these machines are configured. The ten machines that were used at DEFCOM last year in Las Vegas, they were hacked into. Each and every one of those machines was hacked into before the weekend was over. That would suggest to me that we have a problem.

TAPPER: But again, you don't know of any evidence.

SPEIER: I do not know of any evidence.

TAPPER: OK. The White House says it's being tough on Russia. Today Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin vowed to implement the new Russian sanctions that you voted for. He says he's going to do it in the coming weeks. Will that be good enough for you?

SPEIER: Well, you know, the proof is in the pudding. The President said we didn't need to impose the sanctions because they were changing their behavior. Well, that was really a silly statement to make. And once again it shows that the president has something to hide about Russia. Russia has something on the President of the United States and we have to look at his relationship with Russian oligarchs in many of his real estate deals to really find out what's really behind it.

TAPPER: Do you - I mean, is that just a suspicion or do you know of something there?

SPEIER: Well, I think if you connect the dots, you can make the case that there is something wrong that so many of his business dealings were with Russians and that many of them were with large sums of cash that were brought into the country. So you would have to argue, there might have been some money laundering and you know, that one property in Florida where he made over 100 percent profit, in less than four years. And by the way, it was in 2008 when the financial markets were careening and all of real estate around the country was absolutely in the toilet and somehow he made 100 percent on that property? And then property was demolished and turned into lot. Something is wrong and we've got to get to the bottom of it. I think the person who will get to the bottom of it is the Special Counsel. I think that's where he's heading.

TAPPER: Congresswoman Jackie Speier, thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

SPEIER: Thank you.

TAPPER: One minute she's a popular mayor of a major city, the next minute she's a convicted felon. What brought the national mayor's political career to a stunning end. That's next.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: In our "NATIONAL LEAD" today. The first female mayor of Nashville pleading guilty to felony theft in court just hours after the Democrat resigned from her office. A sex scandal-marred her last month in office admitting she had an extra-marital affair with her head of security. The scandal consumed the city and reports detailed how the popular Democratic Mayor and her bodyguard boyfriend traveled together on the taxpayer dime, raking up overtime for him and nude pictures of her on his phone according to the Tennessee newspaper. And another local news station obtained security video of her arriving in the early morning at a local cemetery with her boyfriend. I want to bring in CNN's Nick Valencia. Nick, how serious a charge is this?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well serious enough to resign over, Jake. That's part of the plea deal that she took, pleading guilty to this personal theft of over $10,000. And specifically, we don't know what she's been charged with in that personal theft of money. We just know that it has to do with improper billing of overtime. This is really interesting if you consider that this is a female politician and you know, we're pretty hard pressed to find the last time, at least domestically anyway, a female politician resigned as a result of a sex scandal but that's exactly what happened this morning. It was just hours after she pled guilty to that personal theft of over $10,000 that she had a pretty bizarre news conference that lasted less than five minutes. She never said the words I resign. In fact, she never made mention of the extra-marital affair.


MAYOR MEGAN BARRY (D), NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE: Nashville with its boundless energy, its infectious optimism, it has never encountered an obstacle it couldn't overcome attitude, will in the years ahead continue its steady march toward the very top of the list of great American cities. It's a continued climb that I will watch but I will watch as a private citizen.


VALENCIA: It has certainly been a difficult last month for the mayor there, now former Mayor, Megan Barry. She had said that she wasn't going to step down, Jake. That she had no intensions, no plans of stepping down. That changed of course when she took this plea deal. She is going to be on three years of probation. That goes for her lover, I guess we should call him. He's also going be on three years of probation. He's going to pay back about $45,000. She's going to pay back about $11,000, all of that having to do with improper billing of overtime. But it was just a couple weeks ago that some more salacious deals -- details emerged about their extra-marital affair. It was during TBI's investigation of her former head of security, his phone had a nude photo of the mayor and she says that she felt her privacy was infringed because she didn't pose for that photo.

All of that was part of that investigation that ultimately led to her downfall and it is really, really interesting to note here, Jake, even though she publicly came out and admitted to this extramarital affair, her approval rating never dropped below 60 percent. Now, her resignation takes effect in just a couple of hours from now, about 6:00 p.m. Eastern, about an hour or so. Now, 6:00 p.m. Eastern and the new mayor will be Vice Mayor Dave Briley. No political connection to the former Mayor Barry but a lot of people hope that he won't have as much scandal surrounding his term. Jake?

[16:55:34] TAPPER: All right, Nick Valencia, thank you so much. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be right back.


TAPPER: Thanks, everyone. I appreciate it. Thank you for watching THE LEAD. I now turn you over to Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, no impact.