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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

EPA on Ice?; President Trump Claims Massive Voter Fraud in His Election; Trump's HHS Pick Questioned on Obamacare; Trump Admin Withdraws from TPP Trade Deal. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 24, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The emperor has no facts.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news: Without issuing a shred of evidence -- because it doesn't exist -- the White House today doubling down, saying it is President Trump's belief that three to five million people voted illegally.

When baseless conspiracies become White House policy, what does that mean for the rest of us?

A new era at the EPA. We have done some digging and found some major changes are in store. How might they affect you and the air you breathe and the water you drink?

Plus, Senator Bernie Sanders, other Democrats labor leaders all cheering Donald Trump for ditching a trade deal, but did he just open the door for China to flex its muscles in the Pacific?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

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

We're going to begin today with some breaking news in our politics lead. President Trump is claiming and the White House is reaffirming the fiction that millions of illegal votes were cast in the 2016 election.

It is empirically a stunning allegation for which the White House is providing no evidence. And there is a reason they are providing no evidence. There is no evidence. It is not true.

Moments ago, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged that the president believes three to five million votes were illegally cast in November. It was interesting what Mr. Spicer did not say. He did not say that he shared the belief, even after he was asked.

Now, why would that be? Perhaps because there is zero evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 election. Now, has there ever been voter fraud, any instances? Yes. Massive voter fraud, three to five million votes cast illegally in 2016? No. It's simply not true. In fact, if there were even a fraction of the voter fraud that

President Trump is alleging, he would be derelict not to order a major investigation. It would likely require a vast could conspiracy involving public officials all over the country and would likely have had far-reaching impact in other contests, tainting races down the ballot, not just the presidential race.

If President Trump's beliefs are true, Republican leaders in Congress should be holding hearings and trumpeting this injustice every single day. His Justice Department, his Department of Homeland Security, all of them would need to crack down immediately, unless, of course, it's not even remotely true, which is, of course, the case.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins me now.

Jeff, is there really no one in the White House, no Republican congressional leader willing to tell President Trump, not only that he's wrong, but that he's trash-talking and undermining the very democracy he now leads?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It seems like there is not, Jake, at least here in the White House.

That's why White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was simply repeating those claims that President Trump has made. The one difference, of course, though, between after the election and now, he is the president and his voice and beliefs carry the full weight of the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): The White House is standing by President Donald Trump's unsubstantiated claim that millions of people voted illegally in the November election.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president does believe that. He has stated that before. I think he stated his concerns of voter fraud and people voting illegally during the campaign. And he continues to maintain that belief based on studies and evidence that people have presented to him.

ZELENY: Press Secretary Sean Spicer doubling down on the president's claim, but repeatedly unable to point to evidence that backs up the charge that has been debunked by Republicans and Democrats alike.

(on camera): You said the president believes that there was voter fraud. I wonder if you believe that. You were at the Republican National Committee at the time and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus was the chairman of the RNC at the time. Do you believe there was widespread voter fraud?

(CROSSTALK)

ZELENY: How can he be comfortable with his win if he believes...

(CROSSTALK) SPICER: He's very comfortable with his win.

ZELENY: ... there was three million votes. Maybe he didn't win it.

SPICER: No, he's very comfortable with his win.

It's an electoral-based system. He got 306 electoral votes; 33 of 50 states voted for him. I think, look, Jeff, I have asked and answered this question twice. He believes what he believes, based on the information he's been provided.

Yes, ma'am.

ZELENY: What does that mean for a democracy, though, Sean?

(CROSSTALK)

ZELENY: If he does believe that, what does that mean for democracy?

SPICER: It means that I have answered your question.

ZELENY (voice-over): The allegations of voter fraud which Trump has repeatedly made before taking office surfaced again after the president repeated that claim Monday night while meeting with congressional leaders at the White House.

SPICER: I think he won very handily. He's very comfortable with his win.

ZELENY: But he doesn't sound like it, repeating charges that three to five million people voted illegally, a claim as unsubstantiated as when he first made it after the election.

But now it carries the weight of the presidency, which troubles leaders of both parties. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, if Trump believes it, he should disclose his proof and ask for an investigation, telling CNN's Manu Raju such allegations erode the president's credibility.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: So, I would urge the president to knock this off. This is the greatest democracy on earth. You're the leader of the free world. And people are going to start doubting you as a person if you keep making accusations against our electoral system without justification.

[16:05:15]

ZELENY: From the White House podium, Spicer left open the door to launching an investigation, but repeatedly brushed aside questions from reporters.

SPICER: There is no investigation. I said it was possible. Anything is possible. It was a hypothetical question. My point to you is that to ask us on day two -- he made a comment last night on something that he has believed and said for a long, long time. And the question that was asked to me is whether or not -- it's been asked and answered. ZELENY: Even as he gets to work laying out his agenda, Trump is still

on a quest to prove his legitimacy.

The exchange came on the fourth full day of Trump's presidency, overshadowing his executive actions to revive the Keystone pipeline and clear the way for the Dakota Access pipeline, two more reversals of the Obama administration. The president said today he is closing in on his first Supreme Court nomination to replace the yearlong vacancy of former Justice Antonin Scalia.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will pick a truly great Supreme Court justice.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: Now, four Senate leaders were just inside the Oval Office talking with the president about that Supreme Court nominee. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, is also meeting one on one with the president to talk about the agenda.

But, Jake, that agenda even as it goes forward is being overshadowed and overtaken by questions of the election's legitimacy. All Republicans and Democrats, but Republicans in his own party wish he would stop talking about this -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jeff, stay there.

I want to bring in CNN's political director, David Chalian, to join this discussion.

David, do you think President Trump understands the seriousness of the claim that three to five million votes were cast fraudulently, thus calling into question the entire election, every election that took place in November?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I hope he does. There is no real way for me to answer that question. I can't get inside his head, but I hope he understands what he's doing here.

It is disrupting the basic foundation of our democracy. All this marble behind us, the building where is Jeff standing in front of, it all rests on this notion of free and fair elections. And if the person in charge of the government, the president of the United States is calling into legitimacy the very election that put him there, he is just completely throwing out our basic small-D democratic principles.

Nothing else Sean Spicer got asked today matters than this, because if we can't get past this threshold issue, how is the country going to follow Donald Trump, its leader?

TAPPER: And, Jeff, I should point out, and I did earlier, that Sean Spicer did not -- you asked him -- did not say that he shared this belief, one assumes because it's not true.

ZELENY: Well, Jake, that's why I did ask that question, because it's not that Sean Spicer has just arrived on the scene here. He actually was a chief strategist for the Republican National Committee during the general election.

The chief of staff here at the White House, Reince Priebus, was the chairman of the Republican National Committee. So I was trying to ask if they actually believe in that, and he didn't answer the question.

But, Jake, the question now is if he does believe this, if the president does believe this, why not launch an investigation? And Sean Spicer did not answer if he intends to do that. But also one of the reasons that other lawmakers are -- sort of don't want to talk about this, if the president's election was not legitimate, what about their elections? What about elections up and down the ballot here?

It creates a whole scenario here that no one wants to discuss, again, because there is no evidence suggesting that there were millions of voters. People will say, yes, there was voter fraud, perhaps in isolated instances, but the president said three to five million people voted illegally. Simply no evidence of that.

TAPPER: David Chalian, Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much.

I want to bring in former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander. He's a Democrat and a former Army captain who served in Afghanistan.

You might remember Jason from this senatorial campaign ad where he showed how quickly he could put together an AR-15 rifle while blindfolded. Jason was then serving as Missouri secretary of state, where he oversaw voting on Election Day.

I do not have an AR-15 for you to put together or a blindfold. But maybe next time you're...

(CROSSTALK)

JASON KANDER (D), FORMER MISSOURI SECRETARY OF STATE: It's easier to do while sighted.

TAPPER: Next time.

So, you have supervised elections in Missouri. Voting integrity is important to you. You were on the ballot last November. Is there any reason to think that there was widespread voter fraud, even in the hundreds of thousands, even in the thousands, let alone the millions in 2016?

KANDER: No, there is absolutely no reason to think that. This is a lie, but it's actually not a new lie.

It's just the biggest version of a lie that, honestly, the Republican Party has been telling for a while. And that lie is that voter fraud is widespread, and as a result that they need to pass laws like photo I.D. which the only purpose of which is to actually prevent one kind of fraud, which is voter impersonation fraud.

[16:10:01]

I can just tell you, in Missouri, we have actually never had a case never of voter impersonation fraud.

TAPPER: You have investigated as secretary of state allegations of voter fraud?

KANDER: Allegations of voter fraud, but we didn't even have during my time a reported case of voter impersonation fraud. There has never been a reported case of that kind of fraud in the history of the state of Missouri.

I did more investigations than any secretary of state in the history of the state, but without disenfranchising voters. This is just the biggest version of a lie that they have been telling for a very long time, and it's a whopper, it's a huge one.

TAPPER: What kind of conspiracy -- as somebody who has supervised elections in Missouri, what kind of conspiracy would be necessary for three to five million illegally cast votes to take place? Would it be hundreds of people, governors, secretaries of state? What would need to happen?

KANDER: All of those, probably thousands of people.

I can't even conceive of what you would -- it would be easier to fake a Mars landing than it would be to do that. I mean, you're talking about, in most states, elections are actually run at the county level and then it goes up the process.

It's ridiculous. And the fraud here is continuing to perpetrate this idea. And the reason I think that people within his party, the president's party, people -- with the exception of people like Lindsey Graham, the reason they won't stand up and say something is because, if the American people start to think, well, maybe there were millions of illegally cast votes, it gets a lot easier for them to pass laws like the photo I.D. laws they have in Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Wisconsin was a state, North Carolina was a state that decided this election. Well, in Wisconsin, they had the lowest voter turnout that they have had in 20 years. And it had a lot to do with voter suppression laws.

TAPPER: I want to get to -- I want to look into something Sean Spicer said during the press conference. He seemed to refer to a Pew study from 2012 that found that millions of people were still registered to vote even if they had died or moved.

That's about bad voter data. But the author of the study tweeted they found no evidence of voter fraud, but bad voter data. He also mentioned a 14 percent figure. That's from an Old Dominion University study from a survey suggesting 14 percent of non-citizens claimed to be registered to vote, but a few years after that came out, the authors of the original survey said their statistics were inaccurate.

Taking these studies and saying that they suggest what they clearly do not suggest, what does that do to voters in terms of their faith? And why would their faith be important or not? I know there are conservatives out there watching and thinking that we're all being hysterical. But why does it matter?

KANDER: Because when you have a vibrant democracy that works, it's not something that you can just take for granted.

It's actually something that you have to work for and you have to maintain it. At the risk of sounded like I'm using hyperbole, I have been to a country, Afghanistan, where people had actually lost faith at times in the ability of the government to do basic functions like an election. They actually had lost faith in the legitimacy of their leaders because of it.

And I'm not saying that that's the direction that this will ultimately take us by any means, but there is a reason that we protect our democracy and we make sure that people know that it works, because it's what this whole thing is built on.

TAPPER: What was your reaction when you heard that Donald Trump -- I mean, he's been saying this for a while. But now he's president. And what was your reaction when you heard reported last night that he had told congressional leaders that he said this? And, by the way, the fact that this leaked out suggests that there are congressional leaders who, even if they're not going to say something about it publicly, were not happy about this.

KANDER: Right.

Well, one of the things we need to remember is that, now that he's president, when he speaks, he speaks for the United States of America. Every tweet, it's not a tweet any more. It's a policy statement of the United States, not just the president. It's a policy statement of the United States of America.

So, the idea that it is the belief of the United States of America that we had widespread voter fraud, three to five million people, that would be something that, if it were true, we would need to stop everything and deal with.

It is clearly not true. It's interesting that Sean Spicer refers to it as a belief, as if it is some sort of religiously held conviction, and therefore cannot be questioned. Perhaps maybe the president believes he can dunk a basketball. Perhaps he could provide evidence of that if he believed it. They wouldn't say to us, look, this is the president's belief and who are you to question it?

If the president believes that three to five million people voted illegally, then perhaps he should look into it. But he's not going to look into it because it's not true.

TAPPER: Jason Kander, thank you so much. Appreciate it. Good to see you, as always.

KANDER: Thank you.

TAPPER: Other incorrect statistics coming from the White House causing problems on the Hill for President Trump's nominees.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: He referred to you as a bold truth- teller. I have behind me two pictures that were taken at about the same time of day in 2009 and 2017. Which crowd is larger?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: How the president's pick to head the Office of Management and Budget answered that question built inside that stunt -- next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:18:56] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Continuing with politics, today on Capitol Hill, there was an attempt to get more clarity as to one of president Trump's day one actions as executive order on Obamacare. The man who could soon oversee overhauling the health care system, Congressman Tom Price, would not commit that no American will lose coverage as a result of the president's actions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), RANKING MEMBER, FINANCE COMMITTEE: Under the executive order, will you commit that no one will be worse off?

REP. TOM PRICE (R), HHS SECRETARY NOMINEE: What I commit to, Senator, is working with you and every single member of Congress to make certain we have the highest quality health care and that every single American has access to affordable coverage.

WYDEN: That is not what I asked.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: CNN's Manu Raju is covering today's developments.

And, Manu, Price seemed reluctant to give any specifics on what might replace the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. But, of course, before Friday's inauguration, the Trump transition team said that they kept him out of the loop on purpose.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, absolutely, Jake. This is an effort to try not to get pinned down on the specifics of what an Obamacare replacement plan could look like.

[16:20:04] And also, to also not divulge some controversial views that could imperil Dr. Price's nomination, including over some bedrock issues like the expansion of Medicaid and whether or not Mr. Price, the congressman from Georgia, supports the idea of turning Medicaid into a block grant program.

Here's an exchange, a testy one, between Senator Claire McCaskill and Dr. Price.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D), MISSOURI: When we repeal Obamacare, we're going to do a tax cut. Does anybody in America who makes less than $200,000 -- are any of them going to benefit from that tax cut?

PRICE: It's a hypothetical and you all are --

MCCASKILL: No, no, it's not a hypothetical. I'm trying to get at the very simple question and I don't think you want to answer it -- that in fact when Obamacare is repealed, no one in America who makes less than $200,000 is going to enjoy the benefit of that.

PRICE: As I say, I look forward to -- if I'm confirmed, I look forward to working with you to make certain that's the case.

MCCASKILL: That's a fine answer, but we'll go on.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Jake, overshadowing this confirmation hearing, too, were questions about whether the congressman improperly pursued legislation while also investing in health care firms that could be impacted by those bills. He was asked repeatedly about those issues and continuing to say, Jake, that he did nothing wrong. He followed the law.

Republicans coming to his defense, including over omissions that he made in the questionnaire to the Senate Finance Committee, not including some disclosures that he was required to give. Those are innocent mistakes and Republicans hoping to move on quickly to a vote as soon as next week in his nomination.

TAPPER: And, Manu, there was also an interesting exchange in the hearing for President Trump's pick to be director of the Office of Management and Budget. Democrats used fall out over inauguration crowd size to measure how Congressman Mick Mulvaney would challenge the president on disputed facts. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Are you comfortable as you proceed as a key budget advisor presenting falsehoods as simply an alternative fact?

REP. MICK MULVANEY (R), OFFICE OF MANAGEMENT AND BUDGET NOMINEE: As you and I discussed in your office, I have every intent and believe that I have shown up to this point in my time in Congress that I am deadly serious about giving you hard numbers.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Mulvaney also addressing another question at hand, why he didn't pay payroll taxes for his babysitter. What was his response, Manu?

RAJU: Jake, he said it was a mistake. That was the first thing that he said at this hearing. He said that this was a baby-sitter he hired for his newborn triplets. He said that he didn't realize he had to pay household taxes. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MULVANEY: During the transition, I got a checklist. Have you ever had a babysitter, a nanny or au pair or governess, whatever? And I said yes. They sent me an IRS circular. First time I had seen it. I read it.

And it became immediately clear to me that I had made a mistake and that the IRS viewed our baby-sitter as a household employee for whom we should have withheld taxes. I will pay any penalties, any interest, any late fees, and abide by the law to the best of my ability.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Jake, just moments ago, Mick Mulvaney had his second confirmation hearing of the day before the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee. And in that committee, Senator John McCain tore into Mick Mulvaney's views about shorter -- smaller defense budgets. McCain, of course, a defense hawk and wants to expand defense spending, and Mulvaney and him got into it.

It will be interesting to see whether or not John McCain ends up voting for Mick Mulvaney or some defense hawks end up deciding to join Democrats in opposing his nomination. Now, if that's the case, it could be a very close vote and maybe Donald Trump may not get the budget director he wants, Jake.

TAPPER: Manu Raju, thank you so much.

It's one of the first things President Trump did after taking office, withdrawing the United States officially from the Pacific trade deal. Will China now try to fill that vacuum and if it does, what might that mean for America? Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:28:29] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Turning now to the world lead and the ripple effects President Trump may have created when he signed that executive order officially ending U.S. participation in the Trans Pacific Partnership, the president called the 12-country trade deal a raw deal for American workers.

But proponents of the deal worry that President Trump's actions might backfire on the American middle class or even trigger a trade war as China looks to fill this vacuum that is left by a U.S. withdrawal.

Let's go to CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray right now.

Sara, the Trump, White House insisting the executive order ushers in a new era of trade policy. Are there any hints as to what's next?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, Donald Trump has made it clear that he thinks a lot of existing trade agreements don't really serve the American public and that he wants to reset the relationship with China and he's not afraid of cracking down on that country. But I think the big question is whether this first major step pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership really furthers those goals.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you all for being here.

MURRAY (voice-over): If the Trump administration is aiming for a tougher stance on China, the newly minted president is taking a questionable first step.

TRUMP: We just officially terminated TPP.

(APPLAUSE)

MURRAY: Trump formally withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership, a move some experts say could create a vacuum for China's influence to spread in the Pacific Rim.

MIREYA SOLIS, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: The first executive order Trump signed is in effect a gift to China. There is great irony here. You think that a lot of the talk about the Trump campaign and now the new Trump presidency has been how to get tough with China.

MURRAY: Trump says he'll still pursue bilateral trade agreements. But those could take longer to negotiate, at a time when countries involved in TPP are already making move to join a regional --