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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

U.S. Intel Estimate: 500 Russian Troops In Syria; Lindsey Graham Praised For His Performance; Face-Off Could Reset The Republican Race; Teen Receives Job Offers, White House Invite. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired September 17, 2015 - 16:30   ET

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


(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- sat before that congressional committee, took the oath, faced the cameras and delivered some hard news.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): And the Pentagon is now defending how involved Defense Secretary Ash Carter is in overseeing the war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He is actively engaged in every aspect of this fight.

STARR: But Carter has deferred to Secretary of State John Kerry to lead U.S. discussions with Russia about its military involvement in Syria. Russia is now averaging two flights daily into Syria bringing in troops and weapons.

The latest commercial satellite imagery capturing four Russian military helicopters on the ground, the first combat aircraft. One U.S. intelligence estimates up to 500 Russian troops already there. The Russian foreign minister has told Kerry it's all to fight ISIS.

JOHN KERRY, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm not taking that at face value because we look at the type of airplanes or the type of munitions and so forth and it obviously raises much more serious questions about what is happening.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: Worried that what is happening is the Russians are preparing to defend Bashar Al Assad. I will tell you, Jake, that many military officials I speak to are increasingly frustrated.

One of them telling me we are fighting with two hands tied behind our back. That's a direct quote. They say that General Austin has put forward proposals to deal with some of these issues and that the White House and the Pentagon simply have not yet signed off on them -- Jake.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Barbara Starr for us at the Pentagon. Thank you so much. We heard a little bit about those frustrations in the Republican presidential debates yesterday. The next president, whoever he or she is, will inherit this fight against ISIS. In the debates last night in the first one, Senator Lindsey

Graham of South Carolina, he got repeated applause from the crowd for his strategy to fight ISIS. Today, he'll talk to me about his rivals who criticized the current plan without bringing up one of their own. My conversation with the senator from South Carolina comes up next.

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[16:31:20] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I'm still at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California.

Let's continue with our Politics Lead. Four Republican presidential candidates are hoping their performances in last night's undercard debate will propel their campaigns or at a minimum keep their hopes alive.

One of those four is South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who is earning some praise for his tough talk targeting Donald Trump.

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SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: A leading candidate gets his foreign policy from watching television. And what I heard last night is the Cartoon Network, I'm big, I'm strong, we're going to hit them in the head. That's not foreign policy. That's a cartoon character.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And joining me now from Washington, D.C. is South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. Senator Graham, thanks so much for joining us.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

TAPPER: You got a lot of praise from the pundit world for your performance in the so-called undercard debate, the 6:00 p.m. debate last night. Do you feel good?

GRAHAM: Yes, I do. I mean, people have been very nice. I enjoyed it. I want to compliment the people who built that stage. It was the most awe-inspiring thing I think I've done in politics to be that close to Air Force One in the Reagan Library.

You and your colleagues you made it fun. You challenged us. And it was good to have real live people. The first debate was like debating in a bathroom. I thoroughly enjoyed this very much and it was good. Thank you for having me.

TAPPER: Well, more than 6 million people watched the undercard debate, so you and your colleagues were able to get your message out. I wonder if you watched the primetime debate.

I did mention you at one point because I mentioned your commander-in-chief test that you're only serious about fighting ISIS if you're willing to send 10,000 troop U.S. troops to Iraq, 10,000 U.S. troops as part of a coalition to Syria. Did you hear anybody on that stage that passed your commander-in-chief test?

GRAHAM: I apologize. I had to get a plane to get back to Washington, so I did not. And I just, you know -- here's the good news. It's a fraction of what we had to use in the past, but I just don't understand how you turn Iraq around unless you have more American ground capability.

The Iranian-Shia militia dominates the terrain and there's nobody left in Syria to work with. We're going to need a regional army or ISIL will hit us here. I don't know what they said. I'll go back and check the tape.

But I say this humbly. I know what it entails sending people back to Iraq and eventually to Syria, missing families, missing holidays, risking getting, you know, injured or killed is no light thing that I am suggesting here.

I just can't think of another way to destroy ISIL. You can't do it from the air and there's no ground component left in Syria.

TAPPER: Are you surprised that with 15 Republicans -- or 16 if you count former Governor Jim Gilmore who didn't make the cut to our debate last night, but with all these Republicans only you are proposing sending so many troops to Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS.

And I only know of one other, Senator Rick Santorum, who's proposing sending 10,000 troops to Iraq. It seems like the Republican Party is almost embracing a limited role for U.S. power.

GRAHAM: Yes. I mean, we criticize Obama. At least what I try to do is not just criticize the president but offer an alternative. And everybody says Obama's not doing this, Obama's not doing that. Well, it's not enough to criticize him.

What are you going to do beyond dropping bombs? And if I hear one more time that we're going to send the Kurds to go clean up the whole world, that's just ridiculous. The Kurdish military is not an expeditionary force.

[16:40:02] If you send them in to Syria to destroy ISIL, you'd start a war with Turkey. So I'm a little disappointed. I don't make these numbers up. I've been to Iraq and Afghanistan 35 times.

General Keane said we need 5,000 in Iraq versus 3,500. He's come to the conclusion there's nobody left to train in Syria to destroy ISIL and push Assad out.

We've seen that with the latest round of trying to train the free Syrian Army. We spent $50 million training 54 people. So clearly there's no ground component left. If you really want to destroy ISIL, you've got to have a ground game.

I am a little bit confused, I guess, disappointed. But I know what I believe. And I'm going to keep saying what I believe. And I believe we need to destroy ISIL. I'm committed to doing it.

If you don't have a ground component of which America will have to be part of, you're never going to destroy ISIL and they're going to hit us here.

TAPPER: Senator Lindsey Graham, thanks for joining us. We'll see you on the campaign trail.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

TAPPER: As the campaign -- as the candidates and the campaigns see their reviews and weigh the debate performances, whose campaign might get a boost? Who might be thinking time to throw in the towel? We'll discuss that with our political experts next.

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[16:45:12]

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GRAHAM: By the end of this debate it would be the most time I've ever spent in any library.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Ever ready, it's very high energy, Donald.

BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He's an OK doctor.

MARCO RUBIO (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I'm also aware that California has a drought. So that's why I made sure I brought my own water.

GRAHAM: That's the first thing I'm going to do as president. We're going to drink more.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: A very buzzy night for the Republicans running for president. Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper live here in Simi Valley, California at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

After squaring off in the CNN Republican debate, which candidates are hoping to spring off the diving board to the front of the pack? Which contenders tossed buckets of cold water on their chances?

Here to break it down CNN political commentators, Kevin Madden, Dan Pfeiffer, and Ana Navarro. We have two Republicans because it's Republican debate.

Dan, let me start with you. Who would the Democratic Party do worse against last night? Who was the strongest candidate you saw last night?

DAN PFEIFFER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Marco Rubio by far. TAPPER: Still. You're still bullish on Rubio.

PFEIFFER: I am. I think the best argument the Republicans will have against Hillary Clinton are most likely nominee is a future versus past and he embodies the future. He's the only Republican candidate up there who's had an optimistic future looking -- an optimistic way of talking about the conservative message.

TAPPER: And Ana, you are a friend of both Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. You have endorsed Jeb Bush. How do you think Mr. Bush did? How do you think Mr. Rubio did?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think they both did really, really well in their weight class and I'll explain that. These are Marco's skills. He is by far the most skilled orator in politics today, I think. And he's witty and quick. He is very good at this debate stuff.

Jeb had not debated in ten years. I think if you grade him with how he did in Cleveland, he's by far is the most improved. Jeb did what he had to do. Marco was consistent and just as good as he was --

TAPPER: Jeb had to show he had a pulse.

NAVARRO: That helped. He showed he had blood. He had a pulse. He didn't have sweat. I think being malnourished help him not sweat in the 85 degree heat. He showed he had a sense of humor. He showed he could be self-deprecating, go on the defense.

And he also showed he knew policy because Jeb bush as I've always said cannot afford to not get the policy right. But he also has the performance and theatrics much better than he did in Cleveland.

TAPPER: Kevin, who woke up and had the most regrets about last night? And who do you think is feeling pretty good?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think, you know, Walker I actually thought had a very strong debate. But I think he had to breakthrough. I think at this point in his campaign since he's had the most to lose with Donald Trump entering the race.

That he had to come out of this debate with his name in the headlines so that, you know, all three of us would be saying Walker was the guy who won last night clearly, but he didn't.

But I still think he as part of these especially when you have a field this big a lot of what you try to achieve is survive in advance. He's definitely survived and advanced to the next round.

TAPPER: Let me ask you --

MADDEN: But because he didn't breakthrough and because headlines are all about Fiorina and Rubio, it was just a missed opportunity.

NAVARRO: But the question is going to be now how does this affect fund raising? How does this affect support from the donors?

TAPPER: For Scott Walker you mean?

NAVARRO: For Scott Walker.

TAPPER: Who's been plummeting in Iowa.

NAVARRO: We've seen stories today that some of his donors already getting a little nervous and saying they're going to start giving money to others. So that is the fallout from those debates.

TAPPER: Let me ask you guys a question as savvy political operatives, well-seasoned --

NAVARRO: What do you mean? We're all young ones?

TAPPER: Let me say smart. I as a moderator have a different objective than obviously a candidate. I wanted them to debate. I wanted them to distinguish themselves from one another.

And generally speaking I also feel as if you were I like it better when candidates don't just take a question and pivot and recite 15 talking points that they actually engage in the conversation.

But do you think when Governor Walker or Governor Kasich for example take a question, answer it in two seconds and then start talking about their records in Ohio or Wisconsin, do you think that works, Kevin, I don't, but I'm biased.

MADDEN: Look, I think some of the best moments last night weren't because they had time, right, where it was just space to talk about to go through your bullet points. But it was where candidates seized a moment and crystallized their message to a key audience.

And I thought Rubio did that really well. Fiorina did that really well. To a certain extent Carson did it with some evangelicals. So did Senator Cruz with some of these early state demographics that are going to be important to winning there. So that's really what you want to do.

[16:50:10] I mean, particularly because we have such a large field the best way to break through is to have a moment of strength.

TAPPER: But you think grab an opportunity from something --

MADDEN: For example Rubio did that when a question was asked about speaking Spanish to Jeb Bush. He seized on it, took it and hit it out of the park.

PFEIFFER: The old way of thinking about this before social media was there's a camera on me, some people are watching it. And I will get to speak to them. So here I will just do my record. I got to educate in this case 23 million people about my record in Ohio if you're John Kasich.

In the internet age, you need moments as Kevin said. You need something not just played on the TV next morning, but shared on Twitter and Facebook. So you have to have a strategy to have those moments.

I thought Rubio did a good job of that. I thought Bush came in with the strategy he missed on the first couple, but he found some later in the debate, particularly dehumanizing ones about smoking marijuana and things like that.

NAVARRO: He's the only one that did better with the heat and the light. I think you did -- you told me on Sunday when I was on your show, I'm not going to make it about me. I want to make the about them. And I think you achieved that.

I liked you brought out the differences. There's a lot of diversity of thought in this Republican field. And I like you brought out the differences on marijuana for example between Rand Paul and Chris Christie.

Well, you brought out a lot of differences with Rand Paul because he kind of stands on his all by himself in a corner on a bunch of issues. But I think that makes a long debate with 11 candidates interesting. And it puts on display that diversity that exists right now in the Republican Party.

TAPPER: There were a lot of differences among the 11. Less so with the four candidates in the undercard debate, but they did bring it too. I don't know how many of you watched it. About 6 million people watched that as opposed to 23. I thought they did pretty good as well. We have to leave it there unfortunately.

MADDEN: You know what's interesting though? This is one of the first post-debate interviews we haven't talked about Donald Trump more than anybody else.

NAVARRO: Who?

TAPPER: That's very interesting.

PFEIFFER: He's probably coming up next.

TAPPER: Thank you so much. Our Money Lead now, the decision could have gone either way, but this afternoon the Federal Reserve decided to keep its key interest rate unchanged. The rate has been near zero percent since 2008 mostly to boost the weak economy.

Overall the Federal Reserve does sound a tad optimistic, but not enough to raise rates right now they say at least. Citing concerns about the global economy and volatile stock markets. Most fed members still expect a rate hike later this year.

Coming up, the National Lead, he was handcuffed and accused of making a bomb. Now the overwhelming offers coming in for the 14-year- old, who created a clock out of a pencil box.

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[05:57:02]

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. You know who's with me right now? One Mr. Wolf Blitzer, he's here with a preview of "THE SITUATION ROOM." You know, you have a big -- I know you know this. You have a big interview coming up.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": I heard about that.

TAPPER: Not a Republican though.

BLITZER: No, Democrat. Hillary Clinton is going to join me live at the top of the hour. We're going to get her reaction to a lot of the stuff that was said about her, some of which not so nice.

TAPPER: All of which not so nice.

BLITZER: The CNN Republican debate here in Simi Valley, California at the Reagan Presidential. We're going to go point by point and give her a chance to respond to some of those Republican critics. See what she has to say to Carly Fiorina among others. It will be a good interview live at the top of the hour.

TAPPER: Senator Lindsey Graham had some pointed remarks about her and some nice things about work she did in Africa to combat AIDS. Some not nice things about Benghazi.

BLITZER: Well, we'll see what she has to say. This is her chance to respond and we'll give it to her.

TAPPER: Looking forward to it. Wolf Blitzer, thank you so much.

Turning to our National Lead, some of us couldn't even get that science fair volcano to erupt, in Texas, however, a 14-year-old student built his own clock.

But instead of receiving praise, Ahmed Mohamed was put in handcuffs after an alarmed teacher thought the clock looked more like a bomb or a mock bomb or something. A family spokesman just last hour said Ahmed will be transferring schools because of it.

The internet has erupted in support for the teen. Well, looks like that clock will give him more than just 15 minutes of fame. I want to get to CNN's Alina Machado who's been following the story -- Alina.

ALINA MACHADO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, Ahmed Mohamed is entertaining a number of invites. He's been even offered an internship with Twitter. This started on Monday when the 14-year-old created a digital clock at home using a pencil box. Here's what he says happened when he showed the device to a teacher at his school.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AHMED MOHAMED, STUDENT WHO BUILT CLOCK: When I showed it to her, she thought it was a threat to her. So it was really sad that she took a wrong impression of it and I got arrested for it later that day. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MACHADO: The police chief in Irving, Texas says because of the, quote, "suspicious nature" of the device, Mohamed was handcuffed, taken into custody and accused of having a fake bomb. The school district would not comment on what's happened citing student privacy.

But the mayor has released a statement saying she does not fault the school or the police for looking into what they saw as a potential threat.

Still, the incident has sparked outrage on social media. The #Istandwithahmed began trending worldwide with high profile names chiming in. The founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg posted that the future belongs to people like Ahmed.

Adding, quote, "Ahmed, if you ever want to come by Facebook, I'd love to meet you. Keep building." Even President Obama weighed in tweeting, "Cool clock, Ahmed. Want to bring it to the White House? We should inspire more kids like you to like science. It's what makes America great."

Now, police say the case is closed and that they will not be pursuing charges against the teen. We also know his family has retained legal counsel and is contemplating what steps if any they will take next -- Jake.

TAPPER: Alina Machado, thanks. That's it for me.