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Interview With Republican National Committee Communications Director Sean Spicer; Uber Rampage; Trump Wins Again; Supreme Court Battle: Obama Pushes Back on GOP Plans to Block Vote. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 24, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: He now has the mojo and the math on his side.

THE LEAD, live from Houston, Texas, starts right now.

Donald Trump pulling a hat trick, winning his third state in a row, getting more votes than Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz combined. Could they go nuclear in a last-ditch effort to stop him at tomorrow night's critical CNN debate here?

The Senate GOP is going to build a wall and it's going to be a great wall. The Senate Republicans vowing to block any Obama nominee to the Supreme Court, but what if President Obama picks a Republican governor? Breaking details on what could be the ultimate curveball.

Plus, chilling new images of the Uber driver who admitted to a mass shooting in Michigan happily wandering around a gun store just hours before the rampage.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are live in Texas today preparing for the final Republican debate before Super Tuesday. It is exciting. We are counting down the hours until tomorrow night's debate. This might be the last opportunity candidates have to stop Donald Trump and his momentum.

And breaking right now, CNN is announcing the official lineup and the podium placement. In the center of the stage will be front-runner Donald J. Trump, to his right, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, to his left, Senator Ted Cruz of this home state, the Lone Star State of Texas. To Senator Cruz's left will be Governor John Kasich of Ohio, and then all the way over here will be Dr. Ben Carson.

This could be the last chance that these other candidates have to try to stop the momentum of the man in the middle.

Our own Phil Mattingly is in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Donald Trump spoke there earlier at Regent University. That's the Christian school founded by the Reverend Pat Robertson. And, Phil, it's almost as if Trump has so much momentum people are

asking as if he's already the nominee. He's already being asked even what he would do on the first day of his presidency.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And, Jake, I'm sure you won't be surprised to know that he has some rather ambitious plans on day one.

But, look, if you look at what's happening in the Republican race right now, it's not that outlandish of a question. GOP operatives across the different campaigns noting if something doesn't change quickly, Donald Trump is in a very good place.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): A sweeping Nevada victory.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We weren't expected to win too much, and now we're winning, winning, winning the country. And soon the country is going to start winning, winning, winning.


MATTINGLY: An air of inevitability starting to set in for the Republican field. For Donald Trump, winner of three straight contests, a to-do list for his first day in office.

TRUMP: The first thing I would do is knock out some of the executive orders signed by our president, especially the one on the border. I'm going to work out immediately to knock out Obamacare and we're going to start taking care of the vets and our military.

MATTINGLY: For other Republican candidates, a furious sprint to forestall a Trump nomination, Texas Senator Ted Cruz picking up the endorsement of his home state governor, Greg Abbott, just days away from the crucial Texas primary.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We got six days, six days to lead in Texas, to lead the country, so let's get to work.

MATTINGLY: Florida Senator Marco Rubio, big-name endorsements and big donors flocking his way, trying to convince all that there are states he can win.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I didn't run for office to tear up other Republicans. I'm going to tell people who I am and why I'm running and I'm going to give them a choice. If they elect me, they are going to have someone that unifies this party, grows this party, governs this country responsibly.

MATTINGLY: And Ohio Governor John Kasich campaigning today in Mississippi and Louisiana.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's really not what the score is at the first quarter. It's what the score is at the end of the game. MATTINGLY: While also setting his sights squarely on other March

contests in Michigan and in his home state of Ohio, vital to his hopes for survival.

Now each candidate mapping out a crucial week ahead in the lead-up to Super Tuesday, Trump starting in Virginia today.

TRUMP: Senator Cruz gave us Obamacare in a true sense.

MATTINGLY: Then moving on to a swing through the Deep South, Rubio and Cruz targeting their own must-win states.

RUBIO: I didn't just become a conservative like a year-and-a-half ago when I thought about running for president. I'm as conservative as anyone in this race.

CRUZ: The only campaign that has beaten Donald Trump and the only campaign that can beat Donald Trump is this campaign.

MATTINGLY: All trying to halt or at least slow the momentum that has some willing to proclaim the race may already be over.


MATTINGLY: Now, Jake, the reality is, there is still time; 25 percent of the delegates available in the Republican primary contest up for grabs on Super Tuesday, and we're not even to the winner-take-all states that start coming into play on March 15.


But as long as the race stays the way it is right now, the dynamic setting with this many candidates all battling it out for second place, there's not a lot of hope that somebody is going to step up and really take Donald Trump on soon. Tomorrow night in Houston will be a really good at least opening act to seeing what the plans are for what comes next, Jake.

TAPPER: Past tomorrow night, it should be pretty clear. Take out Donald Trump. Trump just trounced both Rubio and Cruz in the Nevada Republican caucuses. That ceiling that all the Republican establishment was talking about Trump having, well, it might not exist anymore.

Look at this. Through the first four nominating contests, Donald Trump racked up just as many percentage points as 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney. And while Romney was batting .500, Trump is now three for four. But with time running out and Super Tuesday just six days away, it seems Rubio and Cruz are caught in the seven stages of grief, stuck somewhere among shock and denial and bargaining.

They could be attacking each other instead of going after the front- runner with focus. Rubio this morning walking what's been his line and saying he's not in this to attack others and, thus, will not target Trump unless he gets incoming fire first, while Cruz last night argued that Rubio doesn't even really seem to belong in the race anymore.

Let's talk about this all with the communications director and chief strategist for the Republican National Committee, Sean Spicer.

Sean, thanks for being here.


TAPPER: Nice to have you.

So, big night tomorrow night. Donald Trump said he might not even need two months to wrap this up. Is it possible that the math could work that way? Could this race be wrapped up in two months?

SPICER: I think there's a difference becoming the actual nominee and getting the 1,237 delegates that you need and the presumptive nominee, meaning that you amass such a lead that no one can catch you.

On Super Tuesday, we have 11 dates going, 595 delegates on that day alone, and then between March 1 and March 14 another 993 delegates. So you still need 1,237. Theoretically, if he ran the entire table, he could have that wrapped up, but because they are proportional states up until March 15, it would be very hard for that to happen.

TAPPER: So not technically, but he could be the presumptive nominee, the lead so wide.

SPICER: Right. At some point, if someone gets to 1,000 delegates and if everyone has taken enough pieces and there's three or four people in there, it becomes almost mathematically impossible for someone else to catch you. So, in theory, yes, it's possible.

TAPPER: The last time there was a debate, as you know, Donald Trump complained afterwards, said that the Republican Party and others had given all the seats away to big money donors and to his opponents.

A, if you could address that criticism, and, B, who's going to be here tomorrow night?

SPICER: That's a great question.

So at the last debate, we had a total of 10 RNC donors. There were 1,600 people in the audience. The largest tranche of tickets went to the candidates, then to the media partners and the state party. The RNC had a total, I think, of 50 tickets, 10 of which actually had donated to the RNC.

The difference between last debate and what you will see tonight is that...

TAPPER: Tomorrow night.

SPICER: Tomorrow night, rather, is that the candidates now have a greater share of the tickets. What that means is now there are more partisans in the room. So it's four against one or, you know, in that case it was six against

one, where you have got supporters of the other campaigns that are clearly there to support their guy. And that's a big difference in the audience. So they are going to be more lively.

Tomorrow night, you are going to see folks from the state party. There will be elected officials. There will be guests of CNN, guests of the university. Again, the candidates will have the majority of tickets. The last time, they had 107 tickets because it was a huge venue. This beautiful opera house that we're in right now is one of the smallest venues that we will have a debate in, just about 700 people. The candidates will have the lion's share of those tickets.

TAPPER: But you reject the idea that the debate last time was stacked with opponents of his that were from the big money donor classes?

SPICER: It's not that I reject it. The facts are what they are.

We can track every single ticket.


TAPPER: The truth rejects it, is what you're saying.

SPICER: Well, just the facts are what they are.

And we know the beautiful thing about the systems that we use, which is I'm sure what every CNN viewer wants to know, is that we can literally track who's in, how many of the candidates have used their tickets, whether their guests have checked in. So every one of the 107 tickets that went to each of the candidates did check in. They were here. Each of them had that equal footing going into that debate.

TAPPER: I know you're not here to pick sides and I know you're not here to tell campaigns how to run their campaigns, but I do think it's interesting -- you can hear the rehearsals going on right now -- that it is interesting this whole idea of lanes and the idea that, oh, I'm not going to go after Donald Trump until I take care of all these people in my lanes.

Here's an interesting sentence from "The New York Times." "In a presidential campaign during which super PACs spent $215 million, just $9.2 million or around 4 percent was dedicated to attacking Mr. Trump, even as he dominated the polls for months."

Do you understand what's going on and why the candidates are so reluctant to go after the front-runner, the guy who's winning?


SPICER: I think that what they want, it seems anyway, is to wait until that moment where it's going to be a one-on-one contest.

Trump has been very successful for folks that pop their head up when there's been multiple people in the field and taking them out one at a time. Look, the one thing I think is true about this cycle overall is comparing it to any other cycle, saying it's '12 or '8 and looking back and trying to play that analogy just doesn't work.

This is a unique cycle both in terms of the candidates and the process. And for people to try look and say, this is what worked in '12 and this is what worked in '8 or '4 or '0 just doesn't make sense right now. This is a new field, a very different electorate, and a process where more voters in more states are going to take part in electing our nominee than every before.

TAPPER: All right.

If you're wondering what that distracting noise is, everybody is rehearsing and getting ready for the debate tomorrow night, which is much more important than this interview, apparently.

SPICER: Always.

TAPPER: Sean Spicer, thanks so much for being here.

SPICER: Thank you.

TAPPER: Be sure to tune in to CNN tomorrow night. It will be the last time the Republican candidates face off in a debate before the crucial Super Tuesday primary day, which is on Tuesday.

Wolf Blitzer moderates from the stage right behind me. It's all going to start at 8:30 p.m. Eastern only on CNN.

For the Democrats, it's a fight for votes in the South. In just four days, voters head to the polls in South Carolina's Democratic primary, a state where African-Americans made up 55 percent of Democratic primary votes in 2008.

Fast forward to 2016, today, Hillary Clinton picking up a major endorsement as she and Senator Bernie Sanders both try to show how they would confront the needs of the black community.

CNN's Joe Johns joins me live from Columbia, South Carolina -- Joe.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Jake, a new line of attack for Bernie Sanders today, accusing Hillary Clinton of actively backing the 1996 welfare reform bill that her husband as president signed into law.

Some activists have said that bill essentially removed the safety net from needy families. The Clinton campaign has said it reduced child poverty rates.


JOHNS (voice-over): Today, Clinton scoring another big endorsement.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: I think the middle class would be better served by Hillary.

JOHNS: Senator Minority Leader Harry Reid telling CNN he's all in for the former secretary of state.

REID: She's a person who is a very quick learner. All you need to do is look at what happened after 9/11. Gee, did she do a good job. She fought for New York like I have never seen anyone fight.

JOHNS: Reid's announcement comes after Clinton's victory in Saturday's Nevada caucuses and could give the Democratic front-runner a boost heading into next Tuesday's Super Tuesday, when Democrats will vote in 11 states.

Looking to blunt Clinton's momentum, Bernie Sanders is hitting the road, rallying supporters today in Oklahoma and Missouri. Clinton today is keeping her focus on the state up next on the calendar, South Carolina, where she holds a big lead in the polls.


JOHNS: Democrats in the Palmetto State will cast their ballots on Saturday. And while Sanders splits his focus with other states, he says he's not conceding the first-in-the-South primary to his rival.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (VT-I), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We're not writing off South Carolina. You all know that on March 1 there are a dozens states that are holding elections. And the nature of the world is that we got to go out.

JOHNS: South Carolina played host to CNN's town hall Tuesday night, providing both candidates an opportunity to make their case to African-American voters, who account for over half the Democratic electorate there.

CLINTON: I think it's important for people, and particularly for white people, to be honest about those, and to recognize that our experiences may not equip us to understand what a lot of our African- American fellow citizens go through every single day.

SANDERS: When youth unemployment in the African-American community for high school graduates is 51 percent, 51 percent unemployed or underemployed, we have got a plan to invest in jobs and education, not jails and incarceration.

JOHNS: Sanders again attacking Clinton for not releasing transcripts of her paid speeches to Goldman Sachs.

SANDERS: I am very happy to release all of my paid speeches to Wall Street. Here it is, Chris. There ain't none.

JOHNS: Clinton saying she would comply if Republicans agree to do the same, but countering that she's being held to a higher standard.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Will you agree to release these transcripts? They have become an issue.

CLINTON: Sure, if everybody does it, and that includes the Republicans. Why is there one standard for me and not for everybody else, Chris?


JOHNS: The Bernie Sanders road tour continues tomorrow with stops in Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, and Illinois, the Clinton campaign sticking around here to try to get out the vote -- Jake.

TAPPER: Joe Johns, thank you so much.

Sticking to our politics lead, a Supreme showdown in the works, as Republicans insist they will not hold a hearing for a nominee until there is a new president.

[16:15:08] But the White House is pushing forward anyway. Reports vetting is already under way for a name that may put Republicans between a rock and a hard place.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We're live in Houston, ahead of tomorrow's Republican presidential debate. If you hear noises throughout the show, there's a lot of rehearsals going on, people getting ready, getting excited for tomorrow night.

Let's stay with the politics lead and what has become one of the most polarizing fights emerging in the 2016 race. Indeed in the entire Obama presidency.

Today, President Obama pushing back on Senate Republicans who have said they will block his plans to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Senate Republicans have turned their back on the entire process, saying outright there will be no confirmation hearings on the president's pick. They won't even meet with any nominee as a courtesy.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski joins me now live at the White House.

Michelle, we're now hearing some of the names of potential nominees.

[16:20:00] MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Jake. A lot of federal judges on that list, one of whom was born in Cuba, one in Vietnam, another in India, and also a federal -- a former federal judge, Brian Sandoval, who is now the Republican governor of Nevada. That would be interesting.

And today a week after we heard President Obama just slam Republicans over their stance on this, talking about the rancor and venom and politics, today, he took ten minutes while he's sitting there with the king of Jordan to very carefully make his case. Only this time, he said things like he understands the politics at play. He recognizes that. Even that he's sympathetic.


KOSINSKI (voice-over): One day after top Senate Republicans decidedly dug in their heels saying, they will not even hold hearings, won't even president's nominee --

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: This decision ought to be made by the next president.

KOSINSKI: The president launched into a nearly ten-minute impromptu speech on why this should happen.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think it will be very difficult for Mr. McConnell to explain how if the public concludes that this person is very well qualified that the Senate should stand in the way simply for political reasons.

KOSINSKI: But while only days ago, the president expressed deep frustration --

OBAMA: We've almost gotten accustomed to how obstructionist the Senate has become when it comes to nominations.

KOSINSKI: Today, a strikingly different tone.

OBAMA: I understand the posture that they're taking right now. I'm sure they're under enormous pressure. I'm sympathetic. I recognize the politics are hard for them.

KOSINSKI: Republicans have made much of the president himself joining a filibuster against now Justice Samuel Alito in 2006, something the White House says he now regrets.

President Obama today also posted on SCOTUS Blog, optimistically adding, "As senators prepare to fulfill their constitutional responsibility to consider the person I appoint, I hope they'll move quickly."

Now comes word that one of those potential nominees currently being vetted in that big black binder is Republican Nevada governor and former federal judge, Brian Sandoval, says top Senate Democrat Harry Reid.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), MINORITY LEADER: I know if he were picked, I would support the man.


KOSINSKI: Right now, a meeting is being planned, supposed to take place here at the White House sometime soon with leadership in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but it's unclear who will attend, at this point, and, of course, when exactly this will happen, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Michelle Kosinski at the White House, thank you so much. Joining me to discuss all of this, Carrie Severino, chief council and

policy director at the Judicial Crisis Network. She was once a law clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas.

Also with me, Dr. Michael Eric Dyson. He's out with a new book called "The Black Presidency: Barack Obama and the Politics of Race in America."

Thanks both of you for joining me.

Dr. Dyson, let's start with you. I want you to take a look at something that Bernie Sanders said last night at the CNN town hall when asked about the Supreme Court vacancy and Republicans blocking the nominee.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: What you are seeing today in this Supreme Court situation is nothing more than the continuous and unprecedented obstructionism that President Obama has gone through. And this -- and this is on top of this birther issue, which we heard from Donald Trump and others, a racist effort to try to de-legitimatize the president of the United States. Can you imagine that?


TAPPER: Dr. Dyson, I think a lot of people -- I know there are a lot of people who agree with that and a lot of people who disagree, not just obstructionism, Bernie Sanders said, but also racism.

DR. MICHAEL ERIC DYSON, AUTHOR, "THE BLACK PRESIDENCY": Sure. Well, it would be hard to deny the fact that Obama has faced unprecedented levels of obstruction in an American culture that is also skeptical about his birth and also skeptical about his legitimacy as president.

Fifty-four percent of Republicans now think he is Muslim. If he were Muslim, that would be fine, but he happens to be a Christian. Many don't believe he is legitimately an American citizen. When you overlay that with the unprecedented amounts of obstruction he's confronted, a person on the White House lawn who refuses to let him as a reporter continue his conversation, a white female governor who puts her finger his face, a white congressman from South Carolina who hollers "you lie".

So, when you put all this together, the refusal to have an automatic raise in the debt ceiling that was denied to not any other president except Obama, that gives many people who observe the political situation here the feeling that Obama is under extraordinary duress not only that a normal president embodies and endures, but the overlay of racism has certainly sparred people like Mr. Sanders and others to conclude that there are some racist impulse here as well.

TAPPER: Carrie, today a source told CNN that the White House is vetting the governor of Nevada, Republican Brian Sandoval. [16:25:04] Would that be difficult for Republicans to oppose if

President Obama actually nominated a former federal judge who's also a Republican governor?

CARRIE SEVERINO, CHIEF COUNSEL & POLICY DIRECTOR, JUDICIAL CRISIS NETWORK: Look, Jake, the president is simply not going to nominate someone like Sandoval. He has said he was going to nominate someone who was not a moderate. I think this is really just a lot of spin and deception. You and I both know the president wants to know someone who will cement a liberal domination of the Supreme Court. He's doing everything he can and saying everything he can to make sure the American people don't have an opportunity to have their voices heard on this issue.

And -- but I think the reasonable outcome is the people deserve a voice on this issue. They deserve to have an opportunity to decide who will fill Justice Scalia's seat on the Supreme Court.

TAPPER: Dr. Dyson, I want to ask you, couldn't this back fire on Republicans if President Obama makes a selection soon and that person goes the majority of the year without hearings? Wouldn't that be on the minds of voters? And isn't that also possibly part of the president's calculation?

DYSON: Absolutely. I mean if he's smart, and he is, I think that certainly is a part of the calculus. You know, the American people have spoken twice. They put him in office two times. So, the American people certainly have a voice that is echoed through Obama's choice in that sense, but also more broadly, of course he understands that if he puts this person forward and it's a reasonable choice, that any reasonable person might decide that this jurist would do well on the Supreme Court, then the Republicans look as what they are, an obstructionist bunch of people who refuse to do what the Constitution suggests.

And what Obama does here is play a bit of, you know, wizened (ph) and insightful, if you will, legerdemain, because on the one hand, he's putting forth a legitimate choice he believes in but secondly, he understands that if they are strict constructionists and they are adhering to the letter of the law, then his responsibility is to put forth a person in a reasonable amount of time and they should advise and consent about what that might mean.

Should they provide a classic case of obstructionism here, then I think Obama wins the political battle as well as perhaps the legal one in the long run.

TAPPER: Carrie, just a quick question for you, if possible. Let's just pause at that if the roles were reversed, Democrats would do the same thing to a Republican president. Either way, doesn't it set a horrible precedent?

SEVERINO: Jake, the Constitution gives the power to appoint justices to the president and to the Senate. What the Senate is doing in this case is exercising their shared responsibility to let the people have a voice. The voice they really deserve. What the Democrats are doing is they're willing to say or do anything

it takes, including going back on the very things they said during previous administrations in order to block the American people and deny them from having that voice. The Democrats are trying to move the court in a direction the American people are uncomfortable with, whether that means rolling back the Second Amendment, eliminating any restrictions on abortions, including partial birth abortion, unleashing the EPA, the IRS, that's not what the American people want and they deserve a chance to make their position known in November.

TAPPER: All right. Carrie Severino and Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, thanks to both of you for being with us today.

Coming up , it houses the worst of the worst, and President Obama says it's time to close Gitmo for good because terrorists use it as a recruiting tool. Next, we'll ask the admiral who used to be responsible for Gitmo if the president is playing with fire.

Plus, disturbing details emerging about the confessed Uber killer, including eerie reports that he kept driving around a playground asking people if they knew Missy or Misty.

Back after this.