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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Rubio, Cruz Spar Over Immigration Reform; Will Voters Elect A National Security Hawk?; Putin: Trump "Absolute Leader" Of 2016 Race; Research: Lifestyle Plays Bigger Role In Cancer. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 17, 2015 - 16:30   ET

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


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[16:31:17] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, Jake is off today.

Our Politics Lead now, Vladimir Putin transmitting a message today not to President Obama but directly to Donald Trump. His Yelp review of the Republican candidate is flamboyant, very talented, and the absolute leader of the presidential race.

But, while Trump is riding high in the polling saddle, it's the other two guys in the top tier, the ones who seem like they are cut from the same cloth, Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. They have both figuratively ripped off their shirts and are now trying to judo chop the other.

CNN chief political correspondent, Dana Bash is running this down. Dana, after a testy confrontation on Tuesday, you really get the sense of Cruz versus Rubio, it's on right now.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: White, white hot. They're continuing to really go after each other, but the person who gives late-night talk show hosts the most fodder is Donald Trump, of course.

Everything he says, the Trumpisms they're like nuggets of gold for comedians. Last night Trump went to hear some Trump jokes in person. And while there the Republican frontrunner test drove some lines of his own for his new role as a party leader.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, "Winners Aren't Losers" by Donald J. Trump.

BASH (voice-over): A late-night version of what a Donald Trump children's book would look like.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Winners do deals and winners get rich while sad little losers just sit there --

BASH: But on Jimmy Kimmel Trump also struck a new serious tone talking GOP unity. DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I would like to see the Republican Party come together and I've been a little by divisive in the sense I've been hitting people a little hard.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little bit.

TRUMP: And ultimately we have to come together --

BASH: And practically the next breath talking about Jeb Bush, he was vintage Trump.

TRUMP: I defined him. I gave him this term low energy. I said he's a low energy individual.

BASH: That after Bush put his energy at CNN's debate into repeatedly going after Trump.

JEB BUSH (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Do you think this is tough and you're not being treated fairly? Imagine what it's going to be like dealing with Putin or President Xi.

BASH: Today Putin himself weighed in on Trump welcoming the billionaire's openness towards him. Saying, he is a very flamboyant man, very talented. No doubt about that. Meanwhile, another debate clash is getting even hotter on the campaign trail.

Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz going at it over immigration, in Iowa where Cruz is ahead in several polls, Rubio blasted him for backing legal status for undocumented immigrants, something many Iowa Republicans oppose.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He never brings up his support of legalization in Iowa or in his stump speeches, but he supports legalization. And I think his hope was once he got into the general election to then start talking about legalization is a way to attract more voters.

BASH: Cruz argues he only backed legal status as a legislative maneuver two years ago to kill Rubio's bipartisan bill, which gave undocumented immigrants even more rights a path to citizenship.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So let's have a moment of simple clarity. I oppose amnesty. I oppose citizenship. I oppose legalization for illegal aliens. I always have and I always will.

[16:35:06]BASH: Cruz is trying to keep the focus on Rubio admitting for the first time in a debate he stands by his plan allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens.

(on camera): Senator, you haven't answered the question. You just described the very long path, but does that path end at citizenship?

RUBIO: I've answered that question repeatedly. I personally am open to allowing people to apply for a green card.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BASH: Today Cruz amplified an attack that he debuted against Rubio at CNN's debate that Rubio supporter Barack Obama and Chuck Schumer's amnesty bill, Cruz was hoping that would be the immigration story line out of the debate.

But Rubio successfully deflected that or at least muddled it a bit by trying to make Cruz look hypocritical by painting his position, Jim, on legal status as actual true position and not a clever legislative maneuver as Cruz says he was just trying to do.

SCIUTTO: Yes, one more story line, conflict in this debate, in this race rather. Great to have you there in Las Vegas, Dana Bash.

BASH: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: I want to talk to this suddenly hot war of words between Rubio and Cruz with CNN political commentator, Van Jones, and Republican strategist, Katie Packer, whose firm we should note has done work for Marco Rubio's campaign. Welcome.

Katie, Cruz attacking Rubio, of course, for the gang of eight bill, but you have Rubio in turn highlighting the amendment Rubio proposed to tank the immigration reform bill. In that battle who do you think has the upper hand?

KATIE PACKER, FORMER DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER, ROMNEY 2012: Well, I think certainly in terms of where Republican primary voters are there's sort of this battle right now as to who's the most conservative on this issue. But I do think that Marco Rubio has successfully sort of called Cruz out on this.

You know, he claims that it was some kind of a poison pill. That's not what he was saying at the time. It's very clear in interview after interview that he wanted his amendment to pass and he was trying to get this bill to pass.

So what he's doing is sort of going at odds with this whole notion of authenticity, which I do think is what voters care about. He's coming across as, you know, somebody really parsing his words. And Ted Cruz is not looking particularly authentic right now.

SCIUTTO: And parsing words is not a very lovable quality in the current political environment.

PACKER: Absolutely not.

SCIUTTO: They want to hear tough talk almost regardless what it is, right?

PACKER: Well, it's a very tough position that he's now staking out. He's sort of making the 2012 candidates look like the welcome wagon compared to, you know, the position that he's now feeling very forced to take in order to sound as extreme as Donald Trump. And I think it's a lose-lose proposition for the Republican Party if they keep going down this road. SCIUTTO: So the division from outside the Republican Party, you know, Cruz's entire pitch in effect is built around destroying he calls it the Washington cartel, but yet another, you know, throw the bums out kind of story line in the race.

So he's saying as Katie was saying he made this procedural ploy not to get something done but to oppose hypocrisy to make a political point. What do you think? Do you buy that?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: No, I think it falls flat because he says I'm the big outsider, I hate the whole system. But look at this cool, clever, procedural parliamentary maneuver I was using doesn't make a lot of sense.

However, as long as we're talking about immigration, it's not good for Rubio. Rubio wants to be seen as this tough hawk. He's conservative and yet this is the one issue where we know he's weak.

So even though he's a great counterpuncher right now, Rubio has been very smart on the counterpunch. The reality is the last thing Rubio wants to talk about is immigration because he is out of step -- at least he has been out of step with his party on that issue.

SCIUTTO: That exposes him. Can he get over that weakness?

PACKER: Yes, absolutely. We did some research earlier this summer on this very issue and what we found out is only about a quarter of Republican primary voters say that a candidate that has a position that allows for legal status would be a deal breaker for them. Seventy five percent of the party says they're open to it as long as there's some very strong immigration reform that's tied into it.

SCIUTTO: So, Van, you like me I'm sure heard the very hawkish talk during the debate on the key national security issues. We're talking about carpet bombing, shutting down the internet to keep ISIS out.

You know, outside of Rand Paul, him being the exception, the candidates really committing themselves to intensifying the campaign against ISIS. That plays well to certain parts of the base, but in the broader climate is that what the American voting public wants?

JONES: Well, in some ways the jury is still out. The country is still trying to metabolize this new reality. We're not going to see the big 9/11 3,000 people American icons on the ground. But you could wind up with these pinprick lone wolf attacks. We don't know where that leaves the American public.

I think the Republicans are taking a very big risk that people want to go back on the limb with boots on the ground and hawkish posture that has not worked for the country.

I think frankly Donald Trump the only time I've ever agreed with him is said, listen, you know, with the Iraq war, we wound up spending a ton of money and we didn't get good results. So I think the Republicans are taking a big chance. [16:40:06]But more importantly I think that the tone overall, there were some exceptions like Jeb Bush, but the tone overall toward the Muslim community I think was too tough, too harsh.

If I were a Muslim parent watching that debate, I'm a shop owner, I work in Silicon Valley. I'm a dentist. I would feel very uncomfortable with the direction of this party. And I think that needs to be checked more by people who don't agree with Donald Trump.

SCIUTTO: Katie, that's a criticism we've heard both from inside and outside, frankly, the Muslim community and not just from the Democratic Party but from the Republican Party, do you think that's fair?

PACKER: Well, I do think that there are some concerns that some of these candidates are hurting the Republican brand terribly. And I hope that Republicans will look to a candidate that has a very strong position on national security and will not just talk tough but actually has a plan to do what's necessary to keep the country safe. I don't think that that has to mean discriminating against people based on their faith.

SCIUTTO: Right. We should hope so. Katie, thanks very much, Van Jones, always great to have you both on.

In other politics news, we have this just in. Former speaker of the House Dennis Hastert is in the hospital after suffering a stroke. The Illinois politician's lawyer said in a statement today that Hastert was rushed to the hospital back in the first week of November.

He's since undergone two surgeries on his back and has been treated for sepsis. You remember that back in October, Hastert pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about a scheme to pay lots of money to hide, well, we're not sure what.

But prosecutors never detailed why Hastert funneled $3.5 million in hush money, but sources did tell CNN that he paid all that money to cover up sexual misconduct back in the 1960s when he was a high school wrestling coach.

Coming up next on CNN, an exclusive rare chance to be up close with the Russian military, see our access on a Russian warship right off the coast of the battleground in Syria.

Plus, that smoking habit, it's a weight gain, you can blame the carefree live you lead now for getting cancer later. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta will join me to help answer questions on that. Stay with us.

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[16:45:54]

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto in today for Jake Tapper. In our World Lead, Russia intensifying its attack against ISIS, within the last 36 hours Russia says it completed nearly 60 combat missions killing, they claim, more than 300 ISIS militants. CNN was given exclusive access behind the scenes of Russia's war machine inside Syria, the staging areas where many of those deadly missions are launched.

Let's now bring in senior international correspondent, Matthew Chance. Matthew, really incredible access what you got to see there. The Russians claim to be much more active than the Americans, much more aggressive than the coalition in strikes is. Did you see that at the base there?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, well, they're saying they're being much more effective at the very least because they give this example, and I spoke to a senior Russian military commander here in Latakia in Western Syria just yesterday about this.

They're saying, look, for the past two years the territory controlled by ISIS and by other Islamist groups in Syria have expanded by dozens of times that's what he said.

In just three months since the Russians have been engaged in their airstrikes conducting over 4,000 airstrikes they've carried out since they began, that territory controlled by ISIS and other rebel groups they say has shrunk.

It shows they're being much more effective and much more targeted and using the Syrian army to back them up and take advantage of the air strikes that they're carrying out with their warplanes essentially much more effective than the U.S.-led coalition.

SCIUTTO: You're aware the U.S. position that Russia is more interested in protecting Assad than striking ISIS and in effect striking all rebel groups that threatened the Assad regime. I saw that you asked the Russian commander there what they're focusing on. Did he give you a hard answer?

CHANCE: The Russians are never going to admit that they're here predominantly to support Assad to make sure that their interests here in Syria, their military assets, their economic ties are protected and to make sure their ally Bashar Al-Assad doesn't crumble and other rebel groups ISIS amongst them takes over.

But in effect that's what they're doing. What they say though is, look, we're targeting is, we're targeting illegal rebel groups, terrorists. We're striking at their oil installations so they can't get money to buy more weapons.

That's the line being pushed by the kremlin. To a large extent or certain extent they are doing that. They're striking at ISIS but also striking at other rebel groups that pose the biggest threat to Bashar Al-Assad's rule.

But the Russians want Assad to stay in power. They see that as the key to stability in Syria rightly or wrongly.

SCIUTTO: Matthew Chance speaking to us from inside Syria. Please be safe out there.

More news out of Russia, every year President Vladimir Putin holds a televised news conference. One interesting thing from today's address, the Russian president giving a shoutout to one U.S. presidential candidate in particular, Donald Trump.

Trump himself once spoke about his relationship with the Russian president. This may help jog your memory a little bit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I got to know him very well because we were both on "60 Minutes." We were stable mates and did very well that night.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Also Trump previously said he would get along very well with the Russian leader if he was elected president. It appears today that that feeling is mutual. Putin reaffirming their bromance by calling the GOP front-runner, quote, "brilliant and talented."

Let's talk now to Julia Ioffe from Moscow, a contributing writer for the "New York Times" magazine and for foreign policy. Julia, there's an entertaining aspect to this certainly, but just to remind our viewers Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian government.

He puts dissidents in prison, even political opponents in prison. Is this sincere praise for Donald Trump or is he poking a little bit of fun at the U.S. political process?

JULIE IOFFE, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, "NEW YORK TIMES" MAGAZINE: I think he's poking a little fun at the U.S. political process I have to say. I think if I were Vladimir Putin and I were watching the Republican primary and, you know, the circus it's turned into, I would be saying to myself I knew democracy wasn't such a good idea.

[16:50:00] SCIUTTO: So what do Russians think? Average Russians on street about the presidential race here in the U.S., a well-known businessman slash celebrity as the top contender for the next president? Are they entertained?

IOFFE: It's funny you ask. On landing here on Sunday night the first thing I did was to do a TV hit for a Russian TV channel who wanted to know all about Donald Trump. They actually don't know a lot about him, about his past, his business, his entertainment past.

They wanted to know -- what they most want to know is about his shedding or kind of violating certain social conventions and the way he talks about certain issues. Russians have hated political correctness before Donald Trump or many of his supporters.

They've often mocked political discourse or casual discourse as political correctness is kind of an insult here, it's a derogatory term. And so his kind of flouting these conventions is somewhat satisfying to a lot of Russians. And they're kind of rubbing their hands and saying like, aha, see somebody finally came along and busting through these artificial barriers that you people have put up.

We knew you were all kind of fake and all fake smiles and fake niceness and fake politeness all along. Here's what you guys really think.

SCIUTTO: I want to read you a quote from the chess grand master who also ran for president number years ago under great restrictions in Russia. This is what he had to say of Putin's endorsement.

He says Putin's endorsement puts Trump in company with the divisive EU xenophobes and neo-fascists he sponsors, divide, and conquer. Is that a widespread feeling for instance amongst the dissident community in Russia?

IOFFE: I don't think so. He is a pretty irrelevant figure here. He lives in the states. He's rarely here. He's not really seen as somebody that carries any clout or listened to even among opposition activists here.

Let's recall though that Donald Trump said a while ago, a few months ago that if anybody could get along with Putin it would be him. And a lot of Russia watchers say, you know, that's probably true, that the two men would probably have a very interesting and probably good rapport.

SCIUTTO: Julie Ioffe from Moscow, thanks very much, as always.

IOFFE: Thanks for having me.

SCIUTTO: So just how much does living a reckless lifestyle put you at risk for cancer? The surprising new study right after this.

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[16:51:42]

SCIUTTO: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto in for Jake Tapper. Most cancer is caused by the lifestyle you live and not just bad luck. That's according to a provocative new study that flies in the face of recent research that blamed most cancers on being unlucky in the genetic lottery.

I want to talk to CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Sanjay, people's heads might be spinning at home because there was another study earlier this year in the "Journal Science" that it affects the opposite.

It's really luck genetic mutations that you can't control rather than environment, are we closer to a definitive answer now?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think so. And these are both big journals, the first as you mentioned was in science. This is nature. These are the important journals. But I think what they said in that first paper was that there is sort of an idea that there's some tissue, some areas of our body where you may be more likely to develop cancers because those tissues the cells divide more often in those tissues, and when cells divide that's -- every time it divides you get a chance of an error, a chance of a mutation.

What this paper is saying, yes, that is true. But there are certainly environmental factors which play a much bigger role. May be predisposed to certain types of cancers, but if the environment doesn't push you over the edge, you may still never go them. This is sort of explaining why that happens.

SCIUTTO: I suppose there are two ways to react to this, one, my God, the environment's killing me. But on the other hand it seems the positive side is you have -- we have some control.

GUPTA: Yes, right. So it's good news and bad news. You have control and you have to control it. You have to use that knowledge. Look, tobacco smoke, air pollution, viruses such as hepatitis, there are all these things that we know are associated with cancer. This is no secret.

The evidence is really clear on this. By the way, that's never been in dispute. What I think is what we sort of understand better than ever is that those things are associated with cancer. They can cause cancer.

But there are certain people who may be more predisposed to it. What that leaves all of us sort of trying to basically do is limit our exposures. We don't know if we're part of those few who are more predisposed to cancer. So if we limit our exposures to those things, all of us are going to cut down on actually getting cancer.

SCIUTTO: It seems like sound advice. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thanks very much.

GUPTA: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Now, the Pop Lead. It's the night that will awaken a new generation of "Star Wars" fans and finally give the older generation, including me, the answer to that 33-year-old question, what happened to Luke Skywalker.

Just a couple hours "Star Wars" episode 7 will hit theaters across the country, lines of geeks and movie buffs and the pop culture curious all wondering if Disney and JJ Abrams can pull off the ultimate Jedi mind trick and wipe out memories of Jar Jar Binks.

Opening weekend projected sales are far, far away. Some say it could bring in $240 million. That's just domestically. "Jurassic World" holds the top so far with $209 million.

That's it for THE LEAD today. I'm Jim Sciutto in today for Jake Tapper. I turn you over now to the very capable hands of Wolf Blitzer. He as always in "THE SITUATION ROOM".