Return to Transcripts main page

THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

U.S. National Security Adviser Warns Iran; Trump Adviser Defends Travel Ban; Trump Makes Trip To Honor Fallen Navy SEAL; Trump Gives Bannon Key National Security Role; Trump Rattles NATO With "Obsolete" Blast; Fighting Escalates Between Ukraine & Pro-Russia Rebels; NATO Calls For Ceasefire Over "Dire Situation"; No Public Appearances By First Lady Since Jan 21; WH: First Lady to Split Time Between D.C. And NYC; First Lady's East Wing Made Zero Official Hires. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired February 1, 2017 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:34:03]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

More on our politics lead now. Breaking today at the White House briefing, the Trump administration sending a serious warning to Iran.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN (RET.), NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The Trump administration condemns such actions by Iran that undermine security, prosperity and stability throughout and beyond the Middle East and place -- which places American lives at risk.

President Trump has severely criticized the various agreements reached between Iran and the Obama administration as well as the United Nations as being weak and ineffective. Instead of being thankful to the United States in these agreements, Iran is now feeling emboldened. As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Joining me now is deputy assistant to President Trump in the Strategic Initiatives Group Sebastian Gorka.

Thanks so much for being here.

Now, General Flynn, or I should say Mike Flynn, because he's no longer general, was specifically referring to Iran launching a missile and also aiding the rebels in Yemen.

[16:35:02]

What does it mean to put Iran on notice? What should Iran expect?

SEBASTIAN GORKA, DEPUTY ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, it's a very simple signal. There is a new sheriff in town. His name is Donald J. Trump and we are not going to follow the policies of the prior administration, which really facilitated Iran in terms of getting more muscular, releasing those billions of dollars, and also bringing the JCPOA agreement, which also was disastrous in terms of our allies and security of the region.

So, it's sending a very simple message, this is a new dawn, a new day for relations with Iran.

TAPPER: So, President Trump was very critical of the Iran deal which you were just referring to by its acronym. He said he would tear it up on day one. It has not yet been torn up. Does he intend to withdraw from the deal or tear it up?

GORKA: I'm not going to speak for the president, but if you listen to Mike Flynn's open statements, if you read his book, "A Field of Fight," if you read a speech that wasn't adequately paid attention to, and that's the Youngstown speech by President Trump in his Gettysburg address, then it is very, very clear.

This was a bad deal. Iran isn't just another country. This isn't Belgium. This isn't Vanuatu. This is a nation that is destabilizing the region, and in the opinion of the national security adviser, the deal, the JCPOA, the Iran deal, was a bad deal.

TAPPER: Well, to play devil's advocate, if President Trump tore it up, wouldn't the Iranians just feel emboldened to then immediately start their nuclear weapons program again?

GORKA: This is the great irony, that people talk about how an action here in America in the White House or in the Congress will suddenly change the aggressive nature of Iran.

This is a nation that is already going up to our naval vessels, is harassing our naval vessels, our friends' vessels in the Red Sea, is firing upon Saudi ships. This is something that is -- let's be realistic. This is a anti-status quo actor that in the last few years has flexed its muscles in ways that hurt our allies, especially the Sunnis. So, the idea that it would make a big difference hither or yon is fallacious.

TAPPER: Let's talk about the president's executive action on immigration on Friday.

A lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill were critical, some of the policy, but more so, I think, about the implementation and the lack of coordination in their view with agencies, with Congress.

Is that something that the Trump administration thinks is criticism that would be constructive and you will take to heart and maybe be different in the future?

GORKA: No, because it's not reflective of the truth.

I spoke at length yesterday to General Kelly, the new director for homeland security, who just wouldn't stop laughing, because he said the reports he reads in the newspaper bear no reality or connection to what's happening. He said the idea that we're not being consulted is just absurd, that

principals are being shut out of an important executive order like this one. As somebody who is inside, I was inside the transition working for General Flynn -- I'm now in the White House working for the Strategic Initiatives Group.

I have to just laugh, when I read something in the newspaper about a decision where I was in the room the day before, and it bears no relation to reality.

TAPPER: OK. But members of Congress, Republican leaders, they say that they didn't know this was coming and they were surprised. Obviously, there was a lot of confusion at airports. People on the front lines, at least in that first couple days, didn't know exactly what was going on.

GORKA: General Kelly would say no. And that's what he told me yesterday. There was no confusion.

We actually implemented this order with 109 people who were slightly delayed for secondary screening. That's incredible efficiency out of 325,000 people in one 24-hour period. That's how smoothly it was executed.

TAPPER: Top Republicans, including Senators Graham and McCain, say that the ban is a propaganda tool for ISIS and similar groups and could put U.S. troops at risk who are fighting alongside groups against ISIS right now. What do you say to that?

GORKA: I would say that any document signed or executed in the United States makes no difference to ISIS.

ISIS believes you are an infidel, Jake, and you should be beheaded or convert to Islam. Whether or not a president signs something or not is utterly irrelevant to that attitude. The idea that what we do here is that they're suddenly going to surrender or give up or recruit less is absurd. They wish to have a global caliphate, Jake. That's all that they wish to do.

TAPPER: I take your point on the leadership of ISIS.

But there's talking -- McCain and Graham are talking about it being a recruiting tool, that people who wouldn't necessarily join a group like ISIS or al Qaeda are -- when they hear that the United States is banning people from seven majority Muslim countries, at least temporarily, they think or one -- Syria, who knows that's how long it's going to be -- they think this really is a showdown between the West and Islam.

I'm not talking about al-Baghdadi. Obviously, he has his opinions and his vile thoughts. I'm talking about the people that they might be able to recruit.

[16:40:05]

GORKA: I think that people who propagate that version of events need to get out of -- what did Ben Rhodes call it, the echo chamber.

This bubble that the media has created for itself on the left and on the right coast, it's not the reality. I spoke to an Iraqi today who told me his friends in Iraq who are now delayed for a certain amount of time said, this is excellent. This means the president understands how many bad guys want to come to America. We wish to be processed, as former interpreters, as people who worked for the American forces in theater, we want to be recognized for what we did and to have the bad guys excluded.

This is what Iraqis are saying right now who wish to come to America. Let's listen to them and not the chattering classes in L.A., New York or D.C.,

TAPPER: Well, we heard from a lot of refugees and people who had visas and people who had green cards, and I'm sure you have seen the reports that people who were negatively affected by the executive order on Friday.

I'm sure that there are some -- we talked to one yesterday, an Iraqi who is now in this country who said exactly what you said. But there are also a lot of people who say, you know, I have gone through two years of vetting and then all of a sudden I can't come. Or I'm a refugee, what am I going to do? Some people who have sold all their belongings. Certainly, there is another side to this.

GORKA: Look, I am an immigrant, Jake. I chose this nation. I'm a proud American. My parents were refugees.

TAPPER: From Hungary.

GORKA: Yes, who escaped a dictatorship. What happened to them?

My parents were vetted for weeks in a refugee camp, not for 60 seconds by some INS agent or a member of the State Department online. For weeks, to determine that they truly were persecuted and escaping that dictatorship and didn't pose a threat to the U.K. That's extreme vetting. That's taking national security seriously.

This is simply about protecting Americans. Nothing to do with religion, and nothing to do with xenophobia. It's about national security.

TAPPER: The refugee program, the vetting, is 18 months to two years.

GORKA: The length of it, maybe. That's paperwork, that's process. I am talking about serious counterintelligence questioning. Making sure somebody's story is accurate.

The absurdity under the Obama administration that you're not allowed to check somebody's public Facebook postings because that's against their privacy, hang on. American citizens don't have their Facebook posts protected from anybody else reading them. The system is broken, Jake. It's broken.

It has to be fixed. We don't want to see a Berlin here. We don't want to see people mowed down as they were in Nice happening in America.

TAPPER: We certainly don't, but there is not any example of a refugee successfully carrying out a terrorist attack in this country.

And, as you know, the individuals from foreign countries, from majority of Muslim countries who have carried out successful attacks in this country are largely from countries that are not on this ban.

GORKA: Can I really -- I'm really glad you asked this question. This is incredibly important.

Those seven nations which are identified by the last administration...

TAPPER: Sure, absolutely.

GORKA: OK, so it's Obama's...

(CROSSTALK)

TAPPER: Not for banning, but for thorough vetting, absolutely.

GORKA: Concern. OK.

Those are the nations -- why is it that list of seven nations? Because that's where ISIS is and that's where al Qaeda is, OK, Somalia, Yemen, and that's also Iran, a state sponsor. OK?

These are the nations where we have to now engage with our allies, our partners. We have to take down ISIS. What do you think is going to happen when we squeeze that balloon, Jake? Where do you think they are going to go?

I talk to our European counterparts. They are petrified that if we win in Mosul, what's going to happen? We're not going to kill or capture all the terrorists. What are they going to do? A phrase that was used with me today by one of our allies, there is going to be a starburst, they're going to go west, they're going to go north. We don't want the Berlins to happen here.

We don't want to Paris attacks to happen here. That's why we're taking action now, and that's why the president's executive order is so very, very timely.

TAPPER: Of course we do not want those attacks.

GORKA: So, we're being preventive.

TAPPER: But should there not be -- it seems -- the criticism that you're getting is, this is a blanket ban, a temporary ban, on tens, hundreds of thousands of people, most of them who wish no harm on the United States.

Some of them -- you have seen the stories in the newspaper, a little boy who needs cancer treatments, that sort of thing. That has the effect of, in some -- in the view of many national security experts -- I'm not talking about the media now -- I'm talking about national security experts -- of this actually makes us less safe, even though the attempt is clearly to make us more safe.

GORKA: Do you have a family?

TAPPER: I do. I have two beautiful children and a wonderful wife.

GORKA: That's great.

Would you be prepared to take the chance that out of these thousands of people that we're just going to keep things as they are and one bad guy gets in and attacks your family, God forbid? Are you prepared to take that chance?

Because that's the calculation the president is making, and it's his prerogative. The law laid down in the 1950s states it is the commander in chief's prerogative to set the standards for immigration. He understands it is his burden to make sure your childre are safe. I think you would take that decision if you were in his shoes.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN THE LEAD ANCHOR: We only have a few more minutes and there are couple other questions I want to ask. You've been a friend and acquaintance of President Trump for quite a long time. The decision to send troops into harm's way, previous presidents have said is the most difficult part of being a president. As a man, as a person, what was the effect like on him ordering this mission in Yemen? We lost a Navy SEAL.

GORKA: 12, 13 tours.

TAPPER: Yes, and, I mean, just a wonderful guy by all -- by all accounts, Chief Special Warfare Operator William Ryan Owens. What was the effect of that on President Trump? Because it is by -- I'm sure, the heaviest thing he's probably ever done in his life.

GORKA: I'll let you ask him the next time you see him because that's an incredibly personal question to answer, but from watching him -- I met him long before anybody took him seriously, briefed him on national security, this is a man that cares about this nation. He knows we are at war, and I'd just ask you is to do one thing. Look at how he treats, for example, the law enforcement officers that protect every event he went to during the campaign. He took time-out especially to walk over there to greet them, to thank them whether it was a motorcycle outrider, whether it was a member of the personal protective detail. That tells you how seriously he takes the responsibility that is now on his shoulders.

TAPPER: I also want to ask you, there's a talk in the national security community that Steve Bannon is setting up a national security policy advisory board within the White House, and you're going to be in charge of it. Is that true? And if it is, what can you tell us about it?

GORKA: No, I have to disabuse the media from --

TAPPER: It's not true?

GORKA: No, there's something called the "Strategic Initiatives Group" that was announced with regards to its director, Chris Liddell. And we are charged with doing long-range initiatives of real import to the president, and it's a number of task forces. I'm working on the cyber task force with Mayor Giuliani. We have one on veterans affairs, we have one on U.S. manufacturing. So, we have a strategic initiatives group to do things with private industry, bring in outside experts on key issues such as the modernization of government I.T., and that is very different from what the National Security Council is doing every day under the stern leadership of General Flynn.

TAPPER: Sebastian Gorka, thank you so much for being here. We appreciate it.

GORKA: Anytime.

TAPPER: Good to see you and good luck to you.

GORKA: Thank you.

TAPPER: I know it's a heavy job. I know it's a big job.

GORKA: It's exciting.

TAPPER: And it's exciting. Good luck to you. We really appreciate it.

All right. Coming up, a "dire" situation, that's how the violence in Eastern Ukraine is now being described. Will Russia step up to stop it, or does Vladimir Putin have another agenda?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] TAPPER: We're back with our "WORLD LEAD" now. European leaders and national security experts in this country, are worried about President Trump's commitment to NATO and to the European Union, organization they think is vital to fending off Russian aggression. President Trump has, of course, been more critical of long-time U.S. ally German Chancellor Angela Merkel than he has of Vladimir Putin, which gives these officials and leaders pause and night sweats. The Trump administration is even contemplating lifting sanctions against Russia, and now, we see an upsurge in violence in Eastern Ukraine, as fighting escalates between Ukrainian government groups and Russia- backed separatist rebels.

At least 13 people have been killed since Sunday. NATO is describing it as, a "dire" situation. As heavy artillery and rockets hit residential areas, thousands of civilians are currently trapped without water or electricity amid freezing conditions. CNN Senior International Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh was there on the ground. Nick, who is being blamed here for the escalated violence? What did you see on the front lines in Eastern Ukraine?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Jake, it's always very hard to really divine who is firing who, who started what. All you hear or you see on the sky line is a cacophony of shell explosions and violence. I should point out, in a 24-hour period just recently past seen by OSCE monitors, they recorded 2 1/2 thousand explosions. That's a staggering amount. You mentioned the 13 dead on the Ukrainian side, separatists reporting two civilians dead in a similar period. We're entering a confused moment here, because both sides, I think, the Ukrainians and the separatists backed by Russia are trying to work out, really, what Donald Trump wants to do with his relationship with Moscow, and whether they can get an advantage from that. And as we saw on the very first full day Donald Trump had in office, there was staggering amounts of violence on the tensed front line near Donetsk Airport. Here's our report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

It's grim here in the twilight of Europe's forgotten war. Not much has changed, the daily dusk artillery shoot out here in months, but oddly, it is the new Trump era that have put hopes up in this Russian- backed separatist area. President Trump's first day in the office, and it is raised the question of should there be sanctions still against Russia. They were put in place because of this war in Eastern Ukraine. The world may have taken it out of its attention, but it is still this night on going. There meant to be a ceasefire. We never know who is firing at who, but they say they do get hit here and blame the help America gave Ukraine when it said Russia invaded.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Obama was to blame for this war. He sponsored with arms and this is why they bomb us.

WALSH: Closer relations with Russia or even sanctions being dropped for the right deal. Trump said it, and it was heard even around these empty shelves.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): I think they will befriend Russia and change. We don't have Russian forces here, just locals who've lost people in the war and fight. With Trump, it could be better.

[16:55:03] UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We head to the front. Snipers, they say, and holes in the ground from recent shelling. Even in the dank smoke, they can feel the summersault in world order.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Trump is far and I am here.

WALSH: Is it possible Trump might recognize this as part of Russia (INAUDIBLE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): It would be good if he did. Time will tell. People change.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): If he does what he said, then our life will be easier, make Ukraine make peace in reality, not on paper.

WALSH: Even there's a little advice from their top spokesman.

EDUARD BASURIN, DONETSK PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC SPOKESMAN (through translator): I have only one thing to suggest, that he listens to himself and not his aides. He will answer for the country and his aides may perceive the agendas of those who put them in place. He should listen to himself and his family.

WALSH: Cross over the lines through the checkpoint queues and drudgery, you'll see how poor Ukraine is in a war with a so-much- richer neighbor. Tatiana (ph) moved here right on the Ukrainian front line a year ago and has her own take on Trump.

TATIANA, UKRAINIAN (through translator): He looks like an improviser. He says what he thinks. He doesn't make things look pretty, just says what he thinks.

WALSH: Next door is a mine field and just back from the front line, they refuse to show us a small base where we can see America's limited assistance here.

The unit -- some kind of training and assistance from American forces, and they have to ask themselves now if - from.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Regardless of American politics, we will continue to fight for our homeland and for the return of our land that enemy occupiers have tried to steal and make part of another country.

WALSH: Once they were falling over themselves for western help. But now, two years and two American presidents on, there is an anger here and perhaps ever more, a resignation they will have to fight this alone.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WALSH: Now, Moscow said this kind of volatile is the reason why they should cooperate better with Washington, but I think we're into a troubled moment here where we may see greater volatility. Everyone thinks Russia really hasn't finished its broader strategic agenda in Ukraine. The question is how does Donald Trump, who's trying mano a mano to sound so close to Vladimir Putin, how does he respond to the cold reality on the ground of potentially territory changing hands, Jake?

TAPPER: Nick Paton Walsh, thank you so much. More in politics now. It has been 12 days since the inauguration, but First Lady Melania Trump has yet to make any public appearances. We know she and her son, Barron, have been back in New York City so that the (INAUDIBLE) can finish his school year in Manhattan. But now, there are new questions about whether President Trump will have the White House all to himself all four years.

Let me bring in CNN White House reporter Kate Bennett. Kate, is the new First Lady moving to Washington, D.C. at all?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: She is. I mean, according to the White House, the plans have not changed. Reports, otherwise, are not true. She is going to wait until Barron finishes school. But the one thing that's interesting is that, the White House did tell us, they -- she plans to split her time between Washington and New York. In the meantime, she wasn't here, though, last weekend and she hasn't been seen in Washington since the inauguration. So, it's sort of a question as to when she's going to come down here, what splitting her time means. Does it mean weekends, does it mean, you know, when she can?

TAPPER: And obviously, first ladies get their own office, they have their own agenda. And Melania Trump's issue is going to interestingly enough, combat cyberbullying. But she's been slow to hire a staff.

BENNETT: Yes, so far, no official hires in the First Lady's Office, which means several things. You know, no social secretary, no communications director, no chief of staff. So, right now, even the visitors' office is on hold because there's no one staffed there, which means the White House, the people's house is not allowing tours. So, there's positions she's been interviewing, we've heard that there are announcements coming, we heard as soon as this week. However, right now, she is staffless, which is unusual for a first lady. Michelle Obama had a staff of 24, and they were mostly in place by the time she took over the White House.

TAPPER: Yes, and they had a - they had a whole agenda from let's move to working with veterans families.

BENNETT: Right.

TAPPER: When are we going to see her again? When is she next going to make a public appearance?

BENNETT: Well, we think -- and again, this is one of the White House - it's one of those places this week, these past couple of weeks we aren't sure, but the White House has said the First Lady will be traveling to Mar-a-Lago this weekend as will the President. We think that they're going to attend the American Red Cross Annual Ball. That's a charity that she's been associated with that she said she supports. So, this could be the first sighting of Mrs. Trump in quite some time.

TAPPER: It is a curious, curious story.

BENNETT: Yes.

TAPPER: Kate Bennett, thank you so much.

BENNETT: Thank you.

TAPPER: Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or tweet the show @THELEAD. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I now turn you over to my friend, one Mr. Wolf Blitzer. He's right next door in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for being here.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN THE SITUATION ROOM HOST: Happening now, "BREAKING NEWS", Iran "On Noticed": An Iranian missile test draws a veiled threat from the president's national security adviser.