Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With Kentucky Senator Rand Paul; Interview With Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin; Republicans Set to Debate; Interview with Kentucky Senator Rand Paul. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 15, 2015 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD, live inside the gorgeous Venetian theater in beautiful downtown Las Vegas.

We're here on debate day. The podiums are set up behind me, and, all day, the candidates have been walking through to take a final look before they take the stage altogether. The debate starts in just two hours.

All the Republican candidates have what may be their last, best chance to impress voters before the Christmas holidays and before the election year begins in January. This will be, no doubt, a much different Republican debate than we have seen before, with the conversation shifting dramatically to protecting the United States and its people from terrorism.

Since the last time Republicans gathered on stage to debate, we have seen the terrorist attacks in Paris and the terrorist bloodbath inside the United States, in San Bernardino, California. In fact, just today, more than 600,000 students were forced to stay home in Los Angeles after the nation's second largest school district reported receiving an electronic threat from an I.P. address in Germany.

Now, the L.A. School District found that threat credible. New York and other school districts reported getting similar threats, but concluded that it was a hoax. Either way, it's just another indication of the high level of caution and concern and anxiety facing Americans across the nation.

Well, over the next hour, we're going to be bringing you the best political pregame on TV with the best political team on TV. Plus, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin will join us live. She knows a thing or two being the outsider. And she is here to help us understand what is confounding everyone in the Republican be establishment. They can't get their minds around it. And that is the appeal of the two guys on top in the Republican race, Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz.

But I want to start with CNN's Sara Murray. She's just offstage behind me.

Sara, that's been a busy location all afternoon now. SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You're right,

Jake. It has been a very busy location. Continues to be busy. You see here Dr. Ben Carson has just taken to the stage. He's sort of doing his walk-through.

This is what we have been seeing from candidates all day, getting a better sense where they will see their time lights, when you will get Facebook questions, just sort of getting acquainted with the stage. And there were a couple of candidates who opted not to go through this ritual.

That was Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, as well as Rand Paul. And so it just really depends on what kind of candidate you are. But I think, like you were saying, this is going to be a very different kind of conversation today. It's going to be a conversation focused on national security.

When we talk about Ben Carson being here right on the stage right now, this is a big debate for him. This is a candidate who has seen his numbers slip in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, in the wake of San Bernardino, and he is going to sort of have to be on the stage and prove to voters that they can trust him as a commander in chief, if he wants to see his numbers go back up, Jake.

TAPPER: He's been criticized, including by his own campaign advisers, for his grasp on these issues. But he put out a tweet with a video to his supporters saying that he wants these questions on international affairs and national security. He said, if so, it will be a slam dunk.

But you point out that Donald Trump has not come on to this stage. Why exactly does he not want to come on the stage?

MURRAY: Well, I think Donald Trump is one of those candidates who likes to roll up at the event at the last possible moment and sort of take the momentum of his day with him.

But he also packs some other things into his day. You know, he is meeting with the mega -- GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, which is sort of an interesting meeting for a guy who says he is self-funding his campaign, he doesn't want any money from billionaires, but he does say apparently that he wants the support of Adelson. So, that meeting is going on.

It's not a very far trip for Trump today. He's staying at his own Las Vegas hotel, doing a little debate prep, and forgoing this ritual of doing the walk-through.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, thanks so much. We will be checking back with you throughout the hour.

I want to game out tonight's debate with three people who have seen a lot of the events, CNN chief political analyst Gloria Borger, CNN chief national correspondent John King, and CNN senior political commentator David Axelrod.

David, let me start with you.

You went through so many of these when you were adviser to then- Senator Barack Obama.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's a pleasure to be an observer, by the way.

TAPPER: Yes. I'm sure it's much more pleasant.

And Barack Obama had a mixed record in debates, pretty good, but I think Hillary Clinton actually probably bested him a few times.

AXELROD: I think so.

TAPPER: What would you tell the front-runner here, Donald Trump, if you were advising him? You have a good relationship with him. He's given money to the foundation that you work for -- that you have started. But what would your advice to him be?

Well, other than...


AXELROD: I think he would be a difficult candidate to prepare for a debate.

I would suspect he just goes with his instincts. And the truth is, he hasn't done particularly well in the debates. He hasn't gained from the debates. But I don't think he's a guy who's going to change things up. I don't think he's -- you know, I think my main instruction would be, don't go after people gratuitously. Especially don't shoot behind you. And just make points that have gotten you a boost in the polls.


AXELROD: Go after, you know, your point on Muslims. Go after your point on securing the borders from terrorism. Go after the muscular points that have lifted you in the polls recently and stay out of trouble.

TAPPER: And what would you advise Senator Ted Cruz, Gloria? Obviously, he's in first place in one poll in Iowa and basically neck and neck in another poll, and, clearly, even though Donald Trump is still way ahead of everybody else...


TAPPER: ... he still seems to represent the strongest challenge to Trump right now.

BORGER: Sure, particularly in Iowa, right?

I would say to Cruz, don't go after Donald Trump frontally. And in talking to his campaign, I can tell you, they don't intend to do that.

TAPPER: Why not? Why would you tell him not to?

BORGER: Because they feel it doesn't work for them. Eventually, they'd like to get Donald Trump's supporters, so they don't want to attack him.

But if Trump attacks him, he's going to try and deal with it with substance, with a little bit of humor, as we saw this week that he's already done, and also actually he's expecting attacks from the other side.

So, he knows that Marco Rubio, for example, will go after him. Chris Christie might go after him. He knows he's going to get a lot of assaults. And so he's going to be fending off assaults more than going on the offense, I think, tonight.

JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But there's a remarkable moment for Ted Cruz here, because you do now have the word that, in private, he has said things about Donald Trump.

In public, he says, I love him, he's terrific, he's wonderful, he's great for the race. In private, he says, I don't think he has the judgment to have the nuclear football. I don't trust him to be the commander in chief.

Well, Ted Cruz made his name by saying, I tell it like it is, I'm a truth-teller, I'm not a typical politician who goes into one room and says A and another room who says B.


KING: So, I do think that his character...

TAPPER: I'm sorry, John, that's all the time...


KING: That's it. It's all the time...



TAPPER: Obviously, they're practicing the bell here, the rehearsal.

KING: Happy hour debate.


KING: I do think it's a -- I don't know if it's a character question, but it's a credibility question. Are you a truth-teller? We saw -- I was at a debate when Tim Pawlenty had said something about Mitt Romney on a Sunday show. And I said, well, there he is. Say it again.

TAPPER: Obamneycare.

KING: Obamneycare. And he wouldn't do it. (CROSSTALK)

AXELROD: May have then ended his campaign.

TAPPER: It probably did.


BORGER: He's not shy. We know that. He's not shy.

KING: And he's a much more polished debater.

BORGER: He is.


AXELROD: There's a great line here. I'm sorry, Gloria.

BORGER: No, go ahead.

AXELROD: There's a great line here for Trump, because he has the ability to say, you know, one of the problems with politicians is, they say one thing in one place and one thing in another. Well, I'm not a politician. I say what I mean, and I mean, what I say. Ted, you ought to say what you say behind closed doors here. Let's talk about it, because one of the things Trump wants to do is portray Cruz as a politician, and not as a real change agent.

TAPPER: I was on the campaign trail with Donald Trump last week.

And Donald Trump, it was -- we had already started to hear that Cruz was going to be in first place in the "Des Moines Register" poll which was coming out the next day, and Trump knew that. He took shots at "The Des Moines Register" and he took shots at Ted Cruz, unprompted obviously in a town hall meeting. He went after him for opposing ethanol subsidies, which of course very important in Iowa, and for being in the pocket of big oil.

And he went after him for other things in terms of his being a politician, not having judgment, not having the kind of temperament to be president, as he does. It's an interesting situation you're in when Donald Trump is harrowing his temperament.

BORGER: But he kind of made a mistake as a conservative.


TAPPER: Trump did. Trump did.

BORGER: Trump did in attacking Cruz. And Rush Limbaugh was the person who really pointed this out, saying, why do you attack Cruz as being a maniac for not being able to get along with other Republican senators, right? That means he's anti-establishment. And that's what conservatives want.

TAPPER: Right. BORGER: Why did you attack him that way? Because then Cruz can go

back at you and say, wait a minute, uh-uh, I'm the real conservative here. Do you want me to get along with those establishment Republicans?

TAPPER: A little bit. He said...


TAPPER: ... a little bit of a maniac, a little bit of a maniac.

BORGER: A little bit of a maniac, not a whole maniac.

TAPPER: But here's the question.

Donald Trump is an expert at branding, his own brand, and then others. He's branded Jeb Bush low-energy. That's really hung around his neck like an albatross.

Does labeling Ted Cruz a little bit of a maniac in this environment hurt Cruz or help him?

AXELROD: No, I think Cruz -- Cruz's appeal, much like Trump's, is that he's an anti-establishment Republican.

And I think that certifying that helps him. I think branding him as a politician hurts him. I think branding him as a guy who plays the typical political games hurts him. And that's, if I were Trump, where I would go.

TAPPER: One person we haven't talked about yet is Senator Marco Rubio, who is still the favorite of many in the establishment in Washington, D.C., who see him as the best chance to defeat Hillary Clinton, because of his raw political talent, because of his heritage, he's Cuban-American, because of his youth.

But he's still -- he's risen a little, but he really hasn't had a huge success yet.

KING: You just -- I think your expression just summarizes where the centrists feel, if you will, in this race. He's -- who is it at the moment?


And so a lot of them have decided that they're probably not going to make their mark in the debates. It's survival of the centrists I think is the big key.

And Marco Rubio is the ascendant of the Rubio-Bush-Christie-Kasich wing of the party.


KING: You could put Carly Fiorina, who is an outsider, but her views are in mainly that sense too. Those -- they're all struggling right now. Rubio is the ascendant of

them. He will go after Cruz tonight for his vote to curtail surveillance. He will go after Cruz tonight and say you're not fit, you're not ready to be commander in chief, you don't get it, you're like Rand Paul.

Look for Chris Christie to do very much the same thing. But if you talk to those campaigns, they have really come to the conclusion that have a moment or two, survive the debates, keep the money coming in and hope to get to the votes.

AXELROD: It's a risky strategy. One of the reasons why is, Chris Christie is going to be on the stage. And while his long-term prospects may not be good because of all of the freight of New Jersey, he's doing very well in New Hampshire.

TAPPER: Third place.


AXELROD: He could edge Rubio out in New Hampshire and Rubio could be the odd man out here.

Rubio's tried something that no one else has try and I think it's very hard to do in this environment. There are three factions in the Republican Party, the social conservatives, Tea Party Republicans, and then there's the center-right establishment Republicans.

And he's riding all three horses right now. It seems to me he has to make a choice here. Is he going to be the centrist candidate? Then he's going to have to stake out some ground somewhere. And tonight may be the night where he has to do it.

BORGER: And, by the way, he has to win somewhere. And right now, if you look at the polling, he's not winning anywhere. He's a lot of people's second choice, a lot of people's third choice. But Ted Cruz seems to be moving up.

AXELROD: Absolutely.

BORGER: So, it's a tough road for Rubio.


TAPPER: Gloria Borger, John King, David Axelrod, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Rand Paul arrived here at the hall within just the past hour. What the Kentucky Republican says tonight on the main stage in prime time may determine the future of his campaign. We will ask Rand Paul what issues he's going to try to drive home this evening next on THE LEAD, live from Vegas.


[16:15:12] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper, coming to you live from the Venetian Hotel where in fewer than two hours, the final Republican debates of 2015 will get under way.

This could be a make or break moment for some Republican presidential hopefuls. One of them is Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.


TAPPER: Senator Paul, thanks so much for being here.


TAPPER: So, you are in the bubble but you are going to be here. A lot of tonight's debate focused on national security, issues where you have strong disagreements with the other eight Republicans on stage. How do you hope to get your message out tonight to really distinguish yourself?

PAUL: Well, I think there's an important debate not only in our party but in the country, about whether or not regime change makes us safer. So, for example, toppling Assad in Syria, would we be safer or less safe? I think, actually, if you were to topple Assad two years ago or even now, it probably allows ISIS to grow stronger. The same with Gadhafi, when Clinton, Rubio, Bush, most of them wanted to topple Gadhafi in Libya, I think it actually created chaos.

ISIS now pledges allegiance -- a third of Libya pledges allegiance to ISIS. So, I think there should be a debate whether or not we're better with regime change or without regime change.

TAPPER: Another issue you disagree with competitors on stage has to do with surveillance and the national security state here at home. Right now, there's a big discussion how Tashfeen Malik, the female terrorist from San Bernardino, even though she applied for fiancee visa and went through at least three background checks, nobody detected things she had written on social media.

PAUL: Right.

TAPPER: Now, these were private messages and she was writing under a pseudonym. How much ability do you think the U.S. government should have to go into the social media accounts of noncitizens?

PAUL: Well, you know, it's public record, I don't think it should be hardly any limits to public record. If you want to look at as an intern in my office, we look at your Twitter account before you come in because we don't want somebody who is saying outlandish stuff that would be a bad representation for me.

TAPPER: What about the private messages that that person sends?

PAUL: Well, you know, whether if you want to look at something you don't have access to, it's not part of public record, then you have to get a warrant. But people need to realize that a warrant is not proof. All you have to do is have suspicion in a person's name.

My main objection with the Christies and Rubios is that they want everybody's information without listing a person's name, without suspicion or that a judge's warrant. I'm all for getting records of potential terrorists. In fact, if I'm a judge and asked me, can we look at Boston bombers' records maybe two months beforehand -- yes, I'm all for individualized searches. I'm just not for general sweeping dragnet.

TAPPER: What a about a general sweeping dragnet when it comes to people who are not American citizens who are applying to come in to this country?

PAUL: Outside the country, there really are no constitutional protections and a lot of people misconceive, even on immigration and other subjects, if you're not in our country, there are no constitutional protections for you.

TAPPER: So, you don't have a problem with the idea that Facebook should offer if the government asks for it access to private accounts of anybody who is applying to come into the U.S.?

PAUL: Well, I can't tell private companies what to do and they have businesses worldwide. And I think if Facebook said, oh, we're going to give all of our private information to the U.S. government all of the time, people would quit using Facebook. So, it's not good for their business model or Apple or any country just to say, we're going to give the government -- in fact, it's really hurt them in recent times. They've lost a lot of international business because everybody now thinks that the government is spying through Facebook all of the time.

So, they have to be very careful. And I wouldn't force Facebook to do it. But I think that public open social media forums, sure, we should look at them.

TAPPER: Since the San Bernardino terrorism, you and I have talked about the fact you have a proposal to stop the flow of individuals from 33 different countries, most of them Muslim, not all of them majority Muslim countries. But, of course, Syed Farook, the San Bernardino terrorist, the main one, he was an American citizen born in the country. So, it wouldn't have stopped him.

PAUL: Yes. But I think if we look at most terrorist attacks since 9/11, everybody seems to be using our legal immigration system. We had 20 hijackers, 19 that actually committed 9/11 and one that we caught, but they all came here using the legal system. We didn't do a very good job of vetting them.

So, if someone wants to go to college, we should find out if they're in college. We have a system that is overwhelmed, 11 million people said to be illegal in the country, 40 percent came legally and overstayed their visa. We have no idea who they are or where they are.

So, we have a system that is so broken that I don't think we can stop any terrorism. So, we do have to fix the system. But what I do is I think the system of global entry, which is like our frequent flyer system, I think it could be applied almost universally around the world. People would get a background check. I'm not against everybody coming. There are Egyptian business men,

Iraqi businessmen, there are Yemen businessmen, and women, who can and should be able to come to our country.

[16:20:00] But we need to did a background check, know who they are, and then they would come back pretty easily. So, I'm not for saying let's not allow anybody come and visit, but I am for saying we do have to have more scrutiny to figure out who might be coming to attack us.

TAPPER: You're going to have to be better tonight when the buzzer goes off. It wasn't applied to you now. So, it's OK.

Let me ask you about the fact that Saudi Arabia just announced this coalition with 34 other Muslim countries to take on ISIS. As you know, in a recent CNN poll, a majority of the American people support the idea of U.S. combat troops fighting ISIS. And I know you are opposed to it.

But what if that majority Muslim country coalition asked for U.S. help, saying we are doing the brunt of this, but we do need what you are able to provide in no other country. Would you then support it?

PAUL: I think the boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground, particularly, they need to be Sunni Muslim boots on the ground. And, frankly, Saudi Arabia hasn't been very helpful in this instance. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United States poured millions of tons of weapons into the Syrian civil war, all in the side of ISIS and al Qaeda and radical Islam.

And I don't think they've been helpful. So, Saudi Arabia does need to step up and do more. But, frankly, Saudi Arabia's done things for decades that have made it much worse. They have funded radical Islam throughout the world. And, Saudi Arabia, you know, the attackers came from Saudi Arabia.

TAPPER: Most of them did on 9/11.

PAUL: The missing 28 pages from the 9/11 report that I've tried to get publicized, I just finished reading Senator Graham's book, Bob Graham, the former senator from Florida. And it's a book that everybody should read because it lists like 20 different failures to stopping the 9/11 hijackers, some of which include immigration, but in those failures I don't think we fixed any of them because we spent a trillion dollars on surveillance of Americans but we haven't done anything to fix our immigration system and that's where a lot of the problem came on 9/11.

TAPPER: Senator Rand Paul, good luck this evening. We'll be watching.

PAUL: Thank you.


TAPPER: We are fewer than two hours away from the start of tonight's Republican debates. You can watch it all here on CNN, the undercard debate starts 6:00 p.m. Eastern, followed by the prime time debate at 8:30 Eastern.

CNN also wants to know what you think will happen next in this quite unpredictable election. You can go to And there, you can make predictions. Couldn't be any worse than our own predictions.

You can also enter a chance -- for a chance to one a trip to join CNN in Florida in the Republican debate in March.

Most of the candidates have arrived to check out their stage positions. They're now in their own workspaces in hotels, with their campaign teams. We're going to take a look at what will happen now as candidates prepare for this evening.

Stay with us.


[16:26:46] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We're live from Vegas where we are counting down to tonight's Republican presidential debates here on CNN.

Over the past few hours, we've watched a parade of candidates streaming into the Venetian Hotel here on the Vegas Strip. Now, most are in their workspaces right now, making final preparations, drinking some water, relaxing. They will walk by our cameras one more time before taking the stage.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny joins me now, live in front of the house.

Jeff, you've been catching the candidates as they've come in. How are they doing? Are they nervous?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, all of these Republican candidates have been through this before, they're certainly not as nervous they were at the first debate that you moderated, at the Reagan Library. But, boy, the stakes have certainly gotten so much higher for them.

So, all the candidates seem to be in fairly good spirits. We are here right outside the debate hall, just to give you a sense of where we are. The crowd is beginning to slowly come in. There will be 1,400 people who will be watching this live inside this "Phantom of the Opera" Theater, where it was performed for about six years or so.

But the candidates, to a person, know that it's a key time to break out. I talked to Ted Cruz earlier, and he says, look, I know I have so many arrows pointing at me from all sides, but that is a good thing because he's suddenly the person at center stage.

But I did catch up with Ben Carson just a few minutes ago. Let's take a listen.


ZELENY: How do you feel about tonight?


ZELENY: How did you -- how did you prepare differently this time, if at all?

CARSON: I think you just prepare because the more you do it, the more used to get to it. So, now, it doesn't seem to strange anymore.

ZELENY: It doesn't seem strange.

CARSON: Exactly.

ZELENY: "The Phantom of the Opera" was performed here. Did you ever see that?

CARSON: No, I didn't.

ZELENY: Sir, good luck tonight.


ZELENY: So, we asked all of the candidates lighthearted questions like that. You know, we're not going to grill them now. We'll save that for Wolf Blitzer later tonight.

But it's true Ben Carson has fallen out of the spotlight here. You can feel that when you talk to him, when you talk to his supporters. But, Jake, the two people to watch the top of the debate are Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

TAPPER: What about Jeb Bush, Jeff? He hasn't really been in the conversation much today. Have you seen him? Have you talked to any members of his team?

ZELENY: Jake, I think that may be one of the biggest changes going into this debate, the final Republican debate of the year. No one is talking about Jeb Bush nearly as much as they have at the last debate. The last debate, it's like this is a make or break moment for him.

He's largely fallen out of the conversation. So, he needs to create a sense of urgency tonight. He actually has not done a walk-through yet. He's preparing very much for this, I'm told.

His aides say that he is ready for the debate, he is up for it, but he's not been the best debater. So, I think it's safe to say he wants to get back into the conversation, if he wants to do that, he has to have a very good showing tonight -- Jake.

TAPPER: Yes, with the focus on national security and counterterrorism, this is supposed to be a commander in chief moment, he's supposed to be the candidate, he really needs to bring it tonight.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Once again, CNN is teaming up with Facebook for tonight's debate. We're going to keep a close eye on what you, the voters, are saying about the candidates and about debate topics in real time. All the interactive data will be monitored from our Facebook lounge.