Return to Transcripts main page


Interview With New York Congressman Chris Collins; Fake News, Real Crimes; Trump vs China; Police: Fake News Drew Gunman at D.C. Pizzeria; At Least 36 Dead in Oakland, Death Toll to Rise. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired December 5, 2016 - 4:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: I guess the big question, did president- elect Donald Trump check the caller I.D. on the ringing from Taiwan?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Did president-elect Trump simply picking up the phone to take a call from Taiwan throw the already kind of frosty U.S.-China relationship into deeper disarray?

A crazy conspiracy falsehood spiraling out of control, a man self- investigating ludicrous lies, walking into a D.C. pizza parlor with two guns. He fires one of them. What are the cockamamie allegations that led this man to such madness?

There are still more dead inside, an out-of-control inferno devouring an open California warehouse. Fire officials saying it's too dangerous still to retrieve all the bodies of those still unaccounted for as investigators try to figure out what happened and who is to blame.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

President-elect Trump still continuing to build his Cabinet and today we learned he's bringing one of his former campaign rival on board. Dr. Ben Carson, the renowned pediatric neurosurgeon who just a few weeks ago suggested he might not be interested in a government job.

Carson was today announced as president-elect Trump's nominee to be secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carson would become one of the few, if not the only HUD secretary, to have actually lived in public housing during his childhood in Southeast Detroit.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is outside Trump Tower.

And, Jeff, a few weeks ago, one of Carson's top advisers, Armstrong Williams, seemed to express doubts about whether or not Carson could run a massive, sprawling federal agency.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: He did, Jake. That was a week after Election Day when he said he simply had no government experience and he all but took himself out of the running for that position.

But today he's back in the running as the nominee to be the HUD secretary. And, Jake, that was part of the parade of Republicans here at Trump Tower lining up to visit Donald Trump and also a Democrat paid him a visit today.


ZELENY (voice-over): Donald Trump's Cabinet is coming into clear view tonight, Trump tapping Dr. Ben Carson as secretary of housing and urban development.

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT: We're excited to have Dr. Carson as our intended nominee for Housing and Urban Development.

ZELENY: Vice president-elect Mike Pence arriving at Trump Tower followed by a day-long stream of visitors, the most notable, former Vice President Al Gore, who came to discuss climate change with Ivanka Trump, but ultimately had what he called a lengthy and very productive meeting with the president-elect.

AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The bulk of the time was with president-elect Donald Trump. I found it an extremely interesting conversation and to be continued. And I'm just going to leave it at that.

ZELENY: Before Trump takes another victory lap this week, holding rallies in North Carolina, Iowa and Michigan, he spent the day inside Trump Tower, assembling his team. He's widening his search for secretary of state. Advisers say he is no closer to making a decision and no longer has the choice narrowed down to four finalists.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: He's broadened the search. And secretary of state is an incredibly important position for any president to fill.

ZELENY: Trump is still not ruling out Mitt Romney, advisers say, but he's also not yet leaning towards him, despite their dinner last week in New York.

A new list of prospects includes former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, and Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China.

CONWAY: More than four, but who knows many finalists there will be? It's a big decision and nobody should rush through it.

ZELENY: Former CIA Director David Petraeus also still in the mix to lead the State Department. The retired four-star general pleaded his case on weekend talk shows, saying he made a serious mistake mishandling classified information, but should not be disqualified.

DAVID PETRAEUS, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I apologize for it. I paid a very heavy price for it, and I have learned from it. And, again, they will have to factor that in, and also, obviously, 38-and-a-half years of otherwise fairly, in some cases, unique service to our country in uniform and at the CIA.

ZELENY: Trump's Cabinet is increasingly taking shape, filling nearly half of the positions. Trump advisers tell CNN more announcements are expected this week.

By nominating Carson as HUD secretary, Trump is bringing aboard one more former rival. A neurosurgeon Carson, has limited experience in housing and development and during the GOP primary was critical of efforts to fight housing segregation.

DR. BEN CARSON, HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT SECRETARY NOMINEE: This is just an example of what happens when we allow the government to infiltrate every part of our lives.


This is what you see in communist countries, where they have so many regulations encircling every aspect of your life that if you don't agree with them, all they have to do is pull the noose. And this is what we have got now.


ZELENY: Now, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked Congress today, Jake, for $35 million to pay for some of the costs of protecting Trump Tower here and other parts of New York City.

Donald Trump also holding some conversations with another prominent Democrat, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, seeking advice from him in setting up his administration. Jake, a lot of these conversations are causing some Republicans to wonder if Donald Trump may offer a few more surprises when he takes office in January.

TAPPER: Interesting. Jeff Zeleny at Trump Tower in New York, thank you.

Today, former policy experts are continuing to question and analyze why president-elect Trump broke with decades of protocol by accepting a phone call from the president of Taiwan.

I want to bring in CNN chief security national correspondent Jim Sciutto.

Jim, you lived in China for a while. Explain to us, why is this such a big deal and is it necessarily a negative thing?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, let's talk about the style and the substance.

So, first, on the style, is it a way to signal substantive change in U.S. policy via tweet? I will let that for others to decide. This is obviously a new era we're in. I do know from dealing with China on a number of levels that they treat even the most infinitesimal change in rhetoric or diplomatic gesture, they will look at that and they will react and they will be concerned about it. It could cause real diplomatic issues. That's just the way they react to this kind of stuff. That is on the style. On the substance of this, let's be frank. It is true, the U.S. has an enormously tight relationship with Taiwan. We sell from F-16s.

TAPPER: That's right.

SCIUTTO: China has an enormously tight relationship. China is Taiwan's number one trading partner. They deal with each other all the time, but fact is, historically, China looks at Taiwan as a renegade province, as if the state had seceded from the Union here in the U.S.

And one thing that has kept the peace there through decades has been the U.S. deals with China at the level of head of state to head of state, and they deal with Taiwan in a thousand other ways, but not at that level.

TAPPER: The way you would deal with a governor of a state, and not as a president.

SCIUTTO: Exactly. Not as a sovereign state to a sovereign state.

TAPPER: Tell me about these tweets president-elect Trump sent after this phone call.

SCIUTTO: That's the thing.

Think about these tweets. The phone call could be spun as a one-off, it was a congratulatory phone call, et cetera, although a lot of his advisers now are saying, heck, this is exactly what we intended to do.

TAPPER: This was planned, yes.

SCIUTTO: But now the tweets followed through.

And they hit at two other major issues besides Taiwan, one, the economy, one the South China Sea. Donald Trump tweeting: "Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency, making it hard for our companies to compete, heavily tax our products going into their country? The U.S. doesn't tax them. Or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so."

So, by saying that via Twitter, here you have the president-elect saying, listen, I'm going to be tough on these issues going forward. To be fair, the Chinese official statements from the Foreign Ministry, et cetera, they were pretty anodyne. They were pretty calm and diplomatic, but China often uses their state newspapers as well.

And I just want to quote from "Chinese People's Daily," the English- language edition. There is a reason they put this statement in the English-language edition. "Trump and his transition team should realize that making trouble for China-U.S. ties is making trouble for themselves."

They went on to poke a little fun at Donald Trump's make America great again campaign motto, saying that these steps in their words are not going to make America great. China in those statements, you know is concerned and they are pushing back.

TAPPER: May you live in interesting times, as they say. Jim Sciutto, thank you so much.

SCIUTTO: Exactly.

TAPPER: Joining me now, Republican Congressman from New York Chris Collins. He was the first member of Congress to endorse Trump during the campaign.

Congressman, thank you so much for being here. Really appreciate it. And congratulations.

REP. CHRIS COLLINS (R), NEW YORK: Thank you. Thank you.

TAPPER: I know when you were the first one to do it, a lot of people thought you were out on a limb there.


COLLINS: There were a lot of adjectives to describe that, but, no, I was proud to be the first and stick with that right until victory night.

TAPPER: Well, congratulations.

So, listen to what U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill -- he was ambassador during Bush, Clinton and Obama -- said about the phone call with Taiwan.


CHRISTOPHER HILL, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Obviously, it was an example of what is all too often happening now with this incoming administration, this tendency to wing it.


TAPPER: Is that a fair characterization? Is the Trump transition team winging it?

COLLINS: I wouldn't use that term.

What I would say is Donald Trump is a nonconventional candidate. He will be a nonconventional president. And I think that's good. He's going to speak to America in a way that hasn't been done before through his social media, but he's also signalling, and he said put America first, bring our jobs back.

China's economy is totally dependent on the U.S. consumer. He knows that. So he's dealing from a position of strength. And so a lot of what he's doing is basically telling China, in my opinion, it's a new day, we're putting America first. You are dependent on our consumers, you have been stealing our jobs for two decades. That is going to change.

As president, we can have a dialogue how we can peacefully coexist, we can fight ISIS, we can deal with North Korea. But in the meanwhile, our consumers are no longer going to be just buying your products without some issue of fairness.


TAPPER: One Republican China expert told me if it were anybody but Donald Trump that had done that, that there would be missiles flying into Taiwan, that the idea that there is this element of, well, maybe he doesn't know exactly what he's doing because he's new to this actually helps him, but that it was perceived in Beijing as very, very provocative.

COLLINS: That's Beijing.

And again they're going to have to deal with a nonconventional president who is going to call it like it is, who is dealing from a position of military strength and economic strength. Let's face it. If they don't have access to our consumers, what does China's economy look like? Donald Trump and his secretary of commerce or treasury secretary, they know that.

Donald Trump has promised to bring those jobs back.

TAPPER: And one of the ways he's promised to do that is by imposing up to 35 percent tariffs.

Take a listen to this. This is me interviewing Donald Trump in June 2015. And I was wearing a Trump tie made in China.

Take a look.


TAPPER: Let me ask you about China because as you may or may not know, this is a Trump tie, I bought it for this interview.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: Yes. Not only that. I buy a lot of stuff because...

TAPPER: But, as you know, they're made in China.

TRUMP: That's very beautiful, that tie, by the way.

TAPPER: It's a lovely tie. It's made in China.

TRUMP: Correct.

TAPPER: Is it hypocritical for you at all to talk about this?

TRUMP: No, not at all.

TAPPER: What do you say when somebody says why don't you be a leader and make these in Philadelphia? I would be willing to pay more for this tie.

TRUMP: You would. And, unfortunately, you would see that it's very, very hard to have anything in apparel made in this country.


TAPPER: How would he apply these tariffs if he himself is making his own goods in China?

COLLINS: Well, let's start with, as a businessman, he's going to have his goods made where they can be made in the least expensive way.

TAPPER: So were the guys at Carrier.



So, it's not fair trade. So, to level the playing field, once it's leveled -- and it it's tariffs, it's tariffs -- then, all of a sudden, they don't have that economic advantage. The jobs come back to America. Manufacturing jobs as a multiple of 6-1 come back to America.

But today and under prior administrations, call it unfair trade, whether it's currency manipulation or the fact that they have no regulations, no worker safety laws and the like, they have had that advantage. And if we're going to get the jobs back, it's fair trade, it's a level playing field.

Tariffs, I think, are certainly on the table. And at that point, American companies are going to have to decide, do we make it there, pay a tariff, transport it?

Why don't we move our jobs back to America? That's what we're hoping for.

TAPPER: Let's bring the ties back to Philadelphia. That's what I say.

COLLINS: Absolutely.

TAPPER: All right, Congressman Collins, thanks again. And congratulations.


COLLINS: Yes. Thank you.

TAPPER: A man arrested after shooting a gun at a family restaurant after lies about the pizzeria were spread online -- how one conspiracy theory turned into an armed confrontation next.


[16:17:01] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

In our national lead, a startling incident that shows just how conspiracy theories and fake news can have tragic circumstances. An armed man walked into a Washington, D.C. pizzeria filled with families and young children yesterday afternoon. He and his guns were there because he wanted to, quote/unquote, "investigate" what police a fictitious conspiracy theory, a ridiculous accusation that the pizza place is the home base for conspiracy acts tied to Democratic officials.

Now, none of the conspiracy theory is true, but what could have happened -- well, that's all too real.

Let me bring in justice correspondent Pamela Brown.

And, Pamela, shockingly, even a top aide, a Donald Trump pick for a financial adviser continues to push this nonsense, even after the incident, even after the police called it fiction.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is truly shocking as you point out, Jake, that this armed confrontation in a family filled restaurant did not stop Michael Flynn Jr., who was tied to Donald Trump's transition team through his dad, General Michael Flynn, from continuing to spread the baseless claim online. And today, the suspect is expected to appear in court after police say he drove to D.C. and walked into that pizza restaurant armed with two guns and fired off rounds because of a fictitious conspiracy theory.


BROWN (voice-over): D.C. police say this North Carolina man, 28-year- old Edgar Maddison Welch, was inspired by a lie spread on line to walk into this D.C. pizza restaurant with two guns Sunday.

Sharif Silmi was there with his three daughters and wife.

SHARIF SILMI, WITNESS: We were at the Comet Ping Pong really just enjoying lunch, having a good day there. My -- I was playing ping- pong with my wife and my kids were kind of around us. They were playing foosball. And this guy basically walked in. He was walking straight directly for the back room.

BROWN: D.C. authority say Welch admitted he drove to D.C. from North Carolina to, quote, "self-investigate pizza gate", a fake story alleging Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman John Podesta were involved in a child sex ring at Comet Ping Pong.

Again, the story is not true. There's no evidence, no victims, and police called it a fictitious conspiracy theory. Nonetheless, authorities say Welch had a handgun, shotgun and rifle. Two of the firearms are recovered inside the restaurant and another was found inside his car. Police say at one point he fired off his weapon after pointing it at an employee.

SILMI: I was aware of the situation surrounding the Comet Ping Pong, so I thought maybe they would have security or people that are coming in and out, so my initial reaction wasn't really to respond, but then a staff member kind of looked at me and indicated that this was a gunman and, you know, we just swiftly made our way out to the exit and got out of there.

BROWN: The pizza gate lie began circulating shortly before the election based on false social media sources, about a sex trafficking ring linked to the Clintons. The rumor spun off into a theory about the pizza place based on twisted interpretations of emails and pictures.

[16:20:04] Again, there is no evidence and no victims.

The emotional owner of Comet denounced the smears and the tragedy it almost led to.

JAMES ALEFANTIS, COMET PING PONG OWNER: I really hope that all of these people fanning the flames of this conspiracy will take a moment to contemplate what has gone on here today and maybe to stop.

BROWN: Even after the arrest, the wild conspiracy theories continued. Even people connected to Donald Trump's transition team continued to spread the baseless and dangerous claim. Michael Flynn, Jr., who is the son and chief of staff to Donald Trump's incoming national security adviser, tweeted, "Until pizza gate is proven to be false, it will remain a story. The left seems to forget Podesta emails and the many coincidences tied to it."

His father, General Michael Flynn, has also pushed similar unfounded theories, tweeting just before the election, "You decide, NYPD blows whistle on new Hillary emails, money laundering, sex crimes wit children, et cetera. Must read."

Today, the White House says the latest incident proves fake news stories can potentially cause real harm.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We all hold the responsibility regardless of whether or not we are planning to serve in a government position or if one of our family members is planning to serve in a government position, that we shouldn't be propagating false things that could inspire violence.


BROWN: The suspect has been charged with assault, with a dangerous weapon. And the family interviewed today say that they will continue to go to Comet Ping Pong but said it's frustrating, Jake, that people continue to spread lies on line when it continually shows that can have real life consequences.

TAPPER: And the Trump campaign, the Trump transition team -- no comment, in response to the fact that a member of its team putting this out after the attack. Unbelievable.

Pamela Brown, thank you.

At least 36 people dead in a horrific warehouse fire. Now, questions about why nothing had been done earlier, even after the city the owner after potential fire hazards.

Plus, protesters celebrating a victory after the Obama administration put a temporary halt on that controversial pipeline in North Dakota, but will Donald Trump reverse course?


[16:26:30] TAPPER: We're back with more on our national lead. The tragic story, the grim search continues for victims of that massive fire in Oakland, California. Over the weekend, 36 people, most in their 20s and are now confirmed dead, after a fire broke out at a warehouse turned artist base called the Ghost Ship. It sent plumes of thick smoke through the roof and it trapped dozens of people inside. Authorities in the area continue to discover more bodies. One victim was as young as 17. We're told the death toll is likely to climb.

Let's bring in CNN correspondent Dan Simon. He's in Oakland outside the scene.

Dan, even after more the 50 hours, fire crews are still struggling to identify all the victims.

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is a daunting task, Jake, and you can only imagine the agony for these family members who are anxiously awaiting any information about their loved ones. We're about a block away from the scene and you can see this growing makeshift memorial. The pain and the grief is so raw, but there are also so many questions, including whether people should be living there. I spoke to one woman who explained what drew her in even if she herself did not necessarily feel safe.


SIMON: You lived there. Did you think it was safe?


SIMON: Why did you stay, then?

VEGA: Because this is my community.

SIMON (voice-over): Swan Vega has lived in the warehouse, or what artists have called the Ghost Ship since the very beginning. It was conceived as a place for artists to do their work. Even though she had reservations about its safety, she is defending its purpose and the celebration that turned tragic on Friday night.

VEGA: There was no rave. It is very disrespectful to those who died because this was our gathering place. And it was not a nightclub, it was not for profit, it was just our community house.

SIMON: The enclave still holds a unknown number of victims after the deadly fire engulfed nearly a 10,000-square-foot venue.

MELINDA DRAYTON, OAKLAND FIRE BATTALION CHIEF: We've got some areas where this steel is actually twisted and wrapped in the back of the building. We can see fire spread.

SIMON: Partygoers came to what had been advertised as a dance party with live music. Dozens have already been confirmed dead.

SHELLEY MACK, FORMER WAREHOUSE RESIDENT: I expected it to be shut down a long time ago. I called the police three times myself.

SIMON: Former residents and friends are saying it was only a matter of time before disaster.

MACK: There were fires started from electrical cords, transformers. There was intermittent heat and electricity.

SIMON: Now, investigators are looking closely at previous code violations and complaints, ranging from a legal occupancy to trash and debris.

NOEL GALLO, OAKLAND CITY COUNCILMAN: The neighbors have reported it for several years. The activity, the merchants have been involved in reporting the activity at night. It's really inexcusable in terms of our response.

SIMON (on camera): What do you want to say to those who are mourning who lost friends and loved ones?

VEGA: There's nothing I can say. There's nothing anyone can say. There's nothing. It's just tragedy, horror and tragedy. It's not a time to fight each other. There's just -- can we please embrace each other? It's just beyond.


SIMON: And that woman saying she viewed the warehouse kind of like a church, a way to draw inspiration from one another to create their art project.