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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Facing Historically Low Approval Numbers; Putin Defends Trump. Aired 4-30p ET

Aired January 17, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:02]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Some kind words for the president-elect today from Vlad the validator.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Divide and conquer? Vladimir Putin saying those who spread fake news are lower than prostitutes and accusing President Obama of undermining president-elect Trump.

Uneasy feeling, a brand-new CNN poll showing Donald Trump might not enjoy all the good vibes and positivity that traditionally come with a new presidency. The president-elect says the polls have been wrong before, but have they been this wrong?

Plus, he's the man whom Donald Trump will put in charge of a trillion- dollar budget and who will over see whatever might replace Obamacare. But today the top Democrat in the Senate is raising questions about Congressman and Dr. Tom Price.

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

All eyes are on Washington for the inauguration of president-elect Trump Donald Trump in three days. But we are going to begin today with the world lead because although there are new polls in this country suggesting Mr. Trump has some work to do if he wants to win the confidence of the nation he's about to lead, he received strong support today from Moscow.

Standing in the Kremlin earlier today, President Vladimir Putin of Russia slammed outgoing President Obama and expressed backing for his successor. Not surprisingly, the January 6 briefing of Mr. Trump by the leaders of the intelligence community came up and the heads-up that Mr. Trump received about claims Russians have been making that they might possess compromising material about Mr. Trump, claims that the Trump team denies.

CNN, in breaking the story one week ago today, made no descriptions of the specific allegations about Mr. Trump in these underlying memos which were compiled by a former British intelligence official, though those memos were published elsewhere.

CNN has never described the allegations, because this material remains uncorroborated, uncorroborated by us and as of now by U.S. intelligence officials. But while Mr. Putin today seemed to be offering something of a defense of Mr. Trump and maybe an excoriation of the charges, he apparently felt no such inhibitions.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): Russian President Vladimir Putin came to the defense of Donald Trump today. The subject was the U.S. intelligence community briefing Trump about the existence of memos of unsubstantiated claims regarding him, including allegations that Russians had compromising material about him.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Whether or not this is in the interest of United States, this does a huge, huge harm.

TAPPER: Information that on Sunday the White House chief of staff acknowledged he worries about.

(on camera): Are you at all concerned that the Russians have something on Donald Trump?

DENIS MCDONOUGH, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Look, the job description of chief of staff is to be concerned and to worry about things.

TAPPER (voice-over): Putin today denied that the Russian government would ever compile such information.

PUTIN (through translator): What do you think? We have special security services running after every American billionaire? Of course not. It is complete nonsense. This is rubbish.

TAPPER: The former undercover KGB operative today mirrored Trump's own defense last week.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: I read the information outside of that meeting. It's all fake news.

PUTIN (through translator): This is clearly false information.

TRUMP: It was a group of opponents who got together, sick people.

PUTIN (through translator): People who order false information and spread this information against the elected president, who fabricate it and use it in a political fight, they are worse than prostitutes.

TAPPER: While CNN has not reported on any of the unsubstantiated allegations in the memos, Putin today alluded to at least one of them.

PUTIN (through translator): It is hard to believe that he ran to a hotel to meet with our girls of a low social class, although they are the best in the world.

TAPPER: For his part, as a candidate and now president-elect, Mr. Trump has been critical of everyone from Meryl Streep to the cast of "Hamilton," but has had little critical to say about Vladimir Putin, whom U.S. intelligence agencies say was behind attempts to interfere with the U.S. election.

Trump last week acknowledged that he thought Russia was behind the hacking and leaked information, but didn't really say anything bad about it.

TRUMP: If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That's called an asset, not a liability.

TAPPER: And while he gets backing from this former KGB operative, Trump is now involved in a high-stakes war of words with U.S. intelligence leaders, whom he blames for CNN's report last week in which we revealed the existence of the memos and the briefing about the materials, though not any of its specifics.

TRUMP: I think it was a disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out.

TAPPER: In a tweet, Trump even likened the actions of the intelligence community to what you might see in Nazi Germany, a comparison blasted by outgoing CIA Director John Brennan. Brennan has recently been publicly raising doubts about whether the president- elect understands how his seemingly impulsive tweets and remarks might impact national security.

[16:05:08]

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA DIRECTOR: Spontaneity is not something that protects national security interests, and so therefore, when he speaks or when he reacts, he has to make sure he understands that the implications and impact on the United States could be profound.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Let's talk more about this with the former director of the CIA and the National Security Agency General Michael Hayden. He's been a critic of the president-elect.

General, thanks so much for being here. We appreciate it.

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: So, first big picture, president-elect Trump being praised by the former top official of the KGB, and in a war of words with our own intelligence agencies, specifically the CIA, how did we get here?

HAYDEN: So, let's play on the American side first, Jake.

Look, there's always tension between the intel guys and the policy guy. The guys over here are fact-based. He's vision-based, world as it is, world as we want it to be, inherently inductive, inherently deductive, inherently pessimistic, inherently optimistic.

This happens all the time. And you go through it in every transition. This particular president-elect exhibits these characteristics over here, this confidence in his own kind of visionary intuition, far more than any other previous president.

So, I think we all knew in the intelligence community this was going to be hard. It's our great misfortune that the first time we come into contact with this dilemma, which we knew was going to come, it's on an issue that is used by others to actually question the legitimacy of his presidency.

This is an absolutely perfect storm, and we have seen the results of it inside the American government.

TAPPER: Have you ever seen anything like what Vladimir Putin did today in terms of his defense of Donald Trump and his attack on both President Obama and the intelligence community here in this country?

HAYDEN: No, no. We are off the map in terms of both our situation here, our circumstances and what the Russians are doing.

Now, look, I think Putin is a fairly smart guy, at least tactically. I think he understands his coming out and saying those kinds of things really are not viewed as a vote of confidence back here in the United States for the president-elect.

I think it's just a continuation of his campaign to continue to poke and meddle and to mess with our heads in terms of the American political process.

TAPPER: And also what you heard Vladimir Putin saying, going into detailed allegations, saying they weren't true, but then describing them.

HAYDEN: Right.

TAPPER: That's fairly pernicious.

HAYDEN: No, it is, and, again, back to messing with our heads.

Let's go back to the original covert influence campaign, which this certainly was, and probably the most successful in recorded history. It wasn't all that covert. I mean, the Russians actually got an added impulse to their efforts by having plausible deniability, but in essence allowing everyone to pretty much see who was pulling the strings.

TAPPER: Let's go back to that briefing where the intelligence chiefs told president-elect Trump about the existence of this information. They didn't provide the actual memos. They gave him a two-page synopsis of them.

Some people, Donald Trump and also people around him think that was a sneaky way to jam up president-elect Trump, that they were just trying -- they were trying to job him, they were trying to give we in the media an excuse to report on these uncorroborated allegations. What do you think?

HAYDEN: So, I think there are two severable decisions here, all right, on the part of the intel community. The first is to make sure the president-elect is aware of this. I

think that's unavoidable. I think that's an absolute duty. Jake, we know, if we know, a lot of other people know. You need to know, Mr. President-Elect.

So, in terms of telling him this, I think that was just a given. That had to happen. How they told him is a separate decision. Maybe there were other ways of doing it that would have had a lower profile that would not have triggered what you just suggested, but the fact they told him I think is a product of duty, and nothing else.

TAPPER: What do you make of the fact that when I asked the White House chief of staff, are you worried that the Russians have something on Trump, he said -- his response was, it's my job to be worried?

HAYDEN: Yes, look, Denis has to be cautious. I mean, if...

TAPPER: But it's a yes.

HAYDEN: Actually, no, it's not a no.

TAPPER: Right, OK.

HAYDEN: All right? And he can't say yes. But, then again, a man in his position of responsibility can't issue the categorical, no, there's nothing to see here, folks, move along, because he doesn't know that either.

TAPPER: Yes.

What do you make of the fact that you say that he -- they had to tell him because this MI6 agent, this former MI6 agent has long been considered a credible source of information. He has a network of information. I'm sure you know him or at least know his work.

But what does it say about the credibility of the information that they even mention it to him at all? I mean, they're saying it's not corroborated. We don't know it's true.

[16:10:00]

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, had a statement saying they have made no judgment one way or the other. But that's not saying, we think it's garbage.

HAYDEN: Well, look, what you need to understand, this brings you back a little bit into the tradecraft of the profession.

All right, what that was, had we written it, we would have called it raw, unevaluated intelligence. And, Jake, I did go to the site and I did read those 30-plus pages. And it actually -- in terms of having been written by a professional, yes, that's the way these things are written.

But that's why we call it uncorroborated. All right? So, it has some existence inside of our community, but it's really a great deal of distance away from any kind of conclusions.

What we do normally then is to take that data and begin to compare it against other information we have. And one thing that's not visible on the Web site is, who are these guys? How much access do they have? Is it plausible that they would know this kind of information? Have they reported reliably in the past?

That's all hidden from our view. One needs to begin to know those kinds of things before you begin to invest any kind of credibility into the raw, unevaluated reporting.

TAPPER: So, we know that the FBI is looking into some of these allegations. I would imagine that other parts of the intelligence community are looking into other parts, because their allegiance is to the United States, not to a president.

HAYDEN: Right.

TAPPER: Is it possible for a president to come in and say, any of you looking into any of this stuff, stop, you have to stop? Can he do that?

HAYDEN: I don't think he can do it with regard to the law enforcement aspect of it. If there is an investigation ongoing by the FBI, I do think that might have to continue.

More broadly, though, Jake, the intelligence community responds to the priorities of the president. And, now, frankly, I have got to admit I'm making this up. It's my judgment as to how it would happen, because, let me repeat, we're off the map. We have never been in these circumstances before.

TAPPER: OK, I didn't find this interview reassuring at all.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: Thank you very much, General Michael Hayden. I appreciate it.

Coming up, will Donald Trump's first 100 days be an uphill climb? The new poll numbers just days before he is sworn into office.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:16:09] JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

In our politics lead -- right now, you're looking live at the Senate, Energy and Natural Resources Committee. They're in the middle of questioning Congressman Ryan Zinke, former Navy SEAL. He is Trump's nominee for interior secretary. This is the first of several confirmation hearings this week before Mr. Trump is officially sworn in as president.

The president-elect is promising a record-setting turnout at his inauguration this Friday. There will be some no-shows, of course, namely the 49 and counting Democratic members of Congress who say they are boycotting the ceremony.

CNN senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins me now.

And, Jeff, before the election, Democrats were the ones saying, oh, Donald Trump isn't going to accept the results of the election. Forty-nine Democrats aren't accepting the results of the election.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it's one more example of the partisan divide here in this town. But you can beat the shoe was on the other foot, there would certainly be criticism from many of these Democrats. Yet, the list of those who say they will boycott the inaugural on Friday, as you said, is growing up to 49 Democratic members now.

For most, it's a sign of protest, not that they don't accept the results. But it's another troubling number the Trump team today is focusing on, that's his falling approval rating.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): There's no honeymoon awaiting Donald Trump in Washington. Three days before taking office, the president-elect's approval rating stands at 40 percent. With a majority saying they disapprove.

A new CNN/ORC poll also finds the confidence in Trump's transition is lower than the last three presidents, much lower.

Eight years ago, President Obama came into office with 84 percent of Americans approving of his transition. George W. Bush, 61 percent. Bill Clinton, 67 percent.

Tonight, Trump is taking issue with the findings, saying on Twitter, "The same people who did the phony election polls and were so wrong are now doing approval rating polls. They are rigged just like before."

But a majority of Americans do believe Trump will deliver on his biggest promise of all, jobs. Sixty-one percent say it's likely President Trump will create good paying jobs, 39 percent disagree.

At Trump Tower today, another big name CEO meeting with the president- elect. This time, the chairman of Boeing who Trump tangled with last month over the cost of a new Air Force One.

DENNIS MUILENBURG, BOEING CEO: I think Mr. Trump is doing a great job of engaging business, but we're all on the same page here.

ZELENY: Corporate America is trying to stay on Trump's good side with General Motors announcing a $1 billion investment in factories to save or create 1,500 jobs. And Walmart announcing 10,000 new jobs this year.

And Trump noticed, responding on Twitter, "Thank you to General Motors and Walmart for starting a big jobs push back into the U.S."

As Washington puts on the finishing touches for Friday's inauguration, some Republicans are apprehensive about Trump's rocky transition. Senator John McCain told CNN he's not surprised Trump's approval ratings are far lower than his predecessors.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: He seems to want to engage with every windmill that he can find rather than focus on the large aspect of assuming the most important position on earth.

ZELENY: Other Republicans in Congress say they are being kept in the dark on Trump's tax reform and health care plans.

Vice President-elect Mike Pence making the rounds on Capitol Hill today, hoping to ease concerns about Trump's agenda.

Meanwhile, the list of Democrats who say they will boycott Trump's inauguration is growing. Tonight, about one quarter of all House Democrats say they will not be on hand when Trump takes his oath.

Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego explained his absence, saying, "We must stand against Trump's bigotries, further conspiracies, attacks on Gold Star parents, and civil rights heroes."

California Congresswoman Karen Bass took a nonscientific Twitter poll of her constituents before deciding not to attend.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[16:20:07]ZELENY: Now, Donald Trump's advisors are downplaying this. Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, said today, "It's a shame but it also frees up some great seats for people who are excited to see Donald Trump sworn into office."

When Trump is sworn in, Republicans will control the House, the Senate and the White House for the first time in a decade, Jake. Democrats protesting or not are in the wilderness.

TAPPER: So, some of them are protesting his legitimacy, some of them are not. They're just opposing what he stands for. But I guess the big question is, does it matter if 50 Democrats don't come to the inaugural?

ZELENY: I think it doesn't and that's the reality Democrats find themselves in. They are the opposition party here. But for the first time in a decade, again Republicans controlling everything.

Watch the Senate though. So far, all the Senate Democrats are going. I think if you start to see some fall off there, Trump does need some Senate Democrats to get to that 60-vote on key pieces of legislation. But so far, all Senate Democrats are going or at least they are not making a point of protesting.

TAPPER: Interesting. Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much.

Will it be the first thing he does as commander-in-chief? The Pentagon is now preparing for President-elect Trump to approve on his first day in office.

And then, North Korea's leader has a message for President Obama. What Kim Jong-un would like to see Obama do in his final hours in office? That story, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:32] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Well, we have some breaking news for you now from the White House. With fewer than 72 hours left in office, President Obama just granted commutations of sentences to 209 individuals and other pardons. Now, one is -- involves Chelsea Manning. You might remember Chelsea Manning, the army private who provided sensitive documents to WikiLeaks. Chelsea Manning's sentence has been commuted by President Obama.

Let's bring in CNN justice correspondent Evan Perez.

Evan, tell us about this.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: This is a bit of a surprise, Jake. Chelsea Manning served about seven years of a 35-year sentence, and President Obama has decided to commute that sentence. She will be released in May, according to the White House.

Now, this makes a total of 1,385 commutations, 212 pardons, a total of 1,597 acts of clemency by this president, far outpacing his previous presidents from Reagan to Bush to Obama.

So, this is a big number that President Obama has issued today, 209 commutations, 64 pardons issued today. The big name obviously, the surprise name is Chelsea Manning, a 35-year sentence now seven years is what she has served so far and she'll be out in May.

Another big name on this list today, Jake, is James Cartwright, the retired general who was accused -- rather, he was found guilty of leaking information to journalists, including David Sanger of "The New York Times" who wrote a book about the Iranian nuclear program. Cartwright was due to be sentenced later this month once President Donald Trump had taken office.

With the action today, President Obama has made sure that he will not go to jail. The expectation was he was going to serve possibly up to six months in jail. He had gotten an outpouring of support from the national security establishment, 38 letters of support, including members of Congress, people inside the government who thought that he was frankly should not have gone to prison. And, so, he has now gotten a pardon.

But the big reaction I suspect, Jake, will be to Chelsea Manning. This is obviously a leak that many in national security circles believe was incredibly damaging. Some people say that she had blood on her hands because of some of the information that was leaked from State Department files. And the reaction is going to be swift from people there who -- in the national security area, who believe she did not deserve to get out of prison right now.

We'll see what the reaction is at this point. But, again, that's the surprise announcement from the White House.

TAPPER: That's right. Thank you, Evan Perez.

Let's bring in CNN's Michelle Kosinski at the White House, CNN justice correspondent Pamela Brown and CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, let me start with you. Going back to General Cartwright, it's not a huge surprise. The former vice chair of the joint chiefs, he pleaded guilty last October to one single charge of making false statements to federal investigators when he was questioned about who provided that information about the efforts to cripple Iran's nuclear program, the Stuxnet program. Not a surprise because the chair of Vice Chair Cartwright's decades of service to our country.

But I have to say I am rather surprised that Chelsea Manning has received a commutation. Just to go back over the charges, one specification of wrongful and wanton publication to the Internet, of intelligence belonging to the United States, five specifications of stealing, purloining or knowingly converting U.S. government records. It goes on and on and on, many, many charges.

I do not imagine that this is going to be received very well in national security circles, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: I think that is a very fair assessment, Jake. I think that the fundamental issue now is will this be seen as a victory for WikiLeaks? And it comes against, of course, the backdrop of WikiLeaks' potential involvement in the Russian hacking of the presidential election.

This was many years ago, but it was the first a lot of people heard of WikiLeaks. The information that the U.S. government says Chelsea Manning wrongfully and illegally took turned up in WikiLeaks to a large extent. The Pentagon was absolutely furious.