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Interview With California Congressman Devin Nunes; Shaky Syrian Cease-Fire; Immigration Crackdown; President Trump on Race; Angry Voters Confront Lawmakers at Events; Rash of Incidents Against Jewish Community. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 21, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump setting up a brand-new office just for victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump from the African American History Museum speaking out today against bigotry, hatred, anti-Semitism, pledging to unite a divided country, but critics say other presidential actions and comments tell a different story.

The crackdown, thousands of new border agents, new detention facilities, and, of course, the wall. President Trump's number one campaign promise closer to becoming a reality today -- the details of his plan to crack down on undocumented immigrants released.

Will it hold? A cease-fire aimed at ending the carnage in Eastern Ukraine already on shaky ground. Did Vladimir Putin sabotage it before it even started?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

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

We're going to begin today with some breaking news, an update to a story we have been covering on CNN, reports of shots fired inside a hospital in Houston, Texas. Houston police now say all patients and employees there are safe and that there are no reports of injuries at this time.

Now, SWAT teams are on the scene at Ben Taub Hospital. We're seeing patients being lined up outside, some being wheeled out on stretchers. We will be keeping a close eye on this story and we will bring you, of course, any updates.

But now let's turn to the politics lead. The Trump administration poised to implement sweeping changes to the way the United States handles undocumented immigrants. New guidelines released by the Department of Homeland Security today suggest the administration wants to greatly increase the number of undocumented immigrants who are detained and deported, while also expanding the powers of local law enforcement to crack down on illegal immigration.

The White House says it's merely upholding the laws on the books and it emphasizes its focus for now is on those who have committed other crimes here in the U.S., although CNN is learning there is broad leeway about what crimes would be considered significant enough to trigger deportation.

The White House says the president plans to keep in place for now the dreamer program for undocumented immigrants who were brought into the country as children.

The directives about enhanced enforcement tactics come as President Trump pledged today to stitch together a divided country. On a visit to the Smithsonian Museum of African American history and Culture, the president denounced the a string of bomb threats to the Jewish community centers across the U.S.

CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray joins me now.

Sara, pressure has been mounting on President Trump to address and condemn the bomb threats. And, frankly, he's had multiple at bats for the easy pitch of, sir, will you condemn violent bigotry?


And it's unclear whether it was just his personal unease or being frustrated with the question or what took him so long, but today he leapt at this opportunity and repeatedly denounced anti-Semitism. Now, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, was asked exactly what Trump would do about this as president.

He said it will be over the course of years that the president proves to voters in deed and in actions they can trust him to be president for all people.


MURRAY (voice-over): President Trump denouncing anti-Semitism today in his strongest terms yet.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This, too, is a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance, and hatred in all of its very ugly forms. The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.

MURRAY: Trump delivering his remarks after touring the national Museum of African American History and Culture.

TRUMP: It's a privilege to be here today. This museum is a beautiful tribute to so many American heroes.

MURRAY: His comments condemning bigotry come on the heels of a spate of bomb threats and vandalism against Jewish sites across the country. On Monday, those incidents drew sharp condemnation from the president's daughter Ivanka Trump, who is an Orthodox Jew.

She tweeted, "America is a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship and religious centers."

But the president has faced criticism for his tepid response to anti- Semitic in the U.S. Trump largely dodged the question in two separate press conferences last week and snapped at one of the reporters who asked about them.

TRUMP: Not a simple question, not a fair question. OK, sit down, I understand the rest of your question.

So here's the story, folks. Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you've ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism, the least racist person.


MURRAY: For some, the president's response is too little too late. The Anne Frank Center for Mutual respect calling his comments today a "Band-Aid on the cancer of anti-Semitism" and "a pathetic asterisk of condescension."

Before Trump's comments this morning, Hillary Clinton called him out for failing to condemn the threat sooner, tweeting: "JCC threats, cemetery desecration and online attacks are so troubling, and they need to be stopped. Everyone must speak out, starting with POTUS."

Trump's call for tolerance come as his administration is outlining plans for stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws, including a possible expansion of detentions and deportations, that as the administration insists it will continue defending its travel ban in court. In the meantime, the White House is also working on a new executive order limiting immigration.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The next step achieves the president's goal of protecting the country and does so in a way that recognizes the concerns that the court had.

MURRAY: The new order expected later this week is likely to impact the same seven majority Muslim countries, but it will be more narrowly tailored to prevent court challenges, for instance, by making clear it does not apply to green card holders.

Meanwhile, Trump is getting rave reviews from some on both sides of the aisle for his choice of lieutenant general H.R. McMaster as his new national security adviser.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (R), ILLINOIS: There are so many good people to choose from and he's one of them.


MURRAY: Now, John McCain, who has sort of relished being a critic of the Trump administration, was another one impressed by this pick. He heaped praise upon McMaster as well -- Jake.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, thank you so much.

Speaking of General McMaster, almost two years ago, I interviewed the president's new national security adviser about the future of war and we got some insight into how he views the current threat landscape and what the U.S. should be doing differently and better to combat those threats.

For anyone wondering what General McMaster might think about President Trump's ideas that the U.S. should be willing to torture terrorists and to kill terrorists' families, well, McMaster would seem to oppose such moves. He thinks quite a bit about the need for moral and ethical preparation for U.S. service members.

Here is what he told me and the audience at a New America Foundation forum.


H.R. MCMASTER, U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Restrictions on the use of force are super important, obviously, right, because they are what helps make war less inhumane.

We have to do this from kind of a John Stuart Mill kind of utilitarian perspective, right, that every time you take action in a way that is against your values, you might as well be working for the enemy, right?

But also from a Kantian sort of man as an ends and a recognition of our values and that we can't violate our values or we may have lost already.


TAPPER: But make no mistake. General McMaster also seemed to be one who would be willing to pursue a more aggressive posture against ISIS.


MCMASTER: We are engaged in sort of righteous causes right now, OK? And I think it's OK for us to want to win against these, you know, these misogynistic, murderous bastards that we're fighting in the greater Middle East.

And so I think that we ought to be unabashed about it.


TAPPER: General McMaster is a professional skeptic in a lot of ways. He has described recent war plans as narcissistic, saying the Pentagon has too often tended to define war as what the U.S. would like it to do and how it would want the war to go.

But General McMaster has been around and remembers a lot of predictions that did not turn out so well. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCMASTER: What typically you hear when we neglect continuities in the nature of war is really, really the next war will be fundamentally different from all wars that have gone before it.

Remember, future wars, we're going to be fast, cheap, efficient. We were going to conduct something called rapid decisive operations, which is sort of like the George Costanza approach, where you just leave on a high note, right? You just do some military things and then leave.

And then the language was hubristic in large measure because we didn't give agency to the enemy.


TAPPER: Humility is not necessarily a word that comes to mind frequently when discussing this White House, but the new national security adviser is someone who has talked quite a bit about the need for the U.S. to show humility and learn from its mistakes.

I want to bring in Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California right now. He's the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining me. We appreciate t.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: Yes, that's some great footage you have of the interview with General McMaster.

TAPPER: Yes, he's an interesting guy.

Let's talk about him. General McMaster, it seems that he will be likely to advise President Trump to take a tougher stance on Russia than I suspect General Flynn would have. Is that fair, do you think?

NUNES: Well, I think there is a lot of innuendo about General Flynn out there.

General Flynn is a Russia hawk. I think the big decision that the Trump administration will have to make is whether do they see China as the bigger problem or Russia as the bigger problem, because I think people see it as you can't fight both of them at the same time and you can't be against both of them at the same time.


Now, you know, I have had my reservations about dealing with Putin and the Russians. I think he's a totally dishonest actor.

But I think that McMaster at the end of the day is going to give very sound advice and he will be a strong voice of reason and he's an intellectual heavyweight in the White House that I think anyone having him around is going to be very thankful for.

TAPPER: You said that you don't think General Flynn's phone call with the Russian ambassador was cause for dismissal.

Yesterday, Vice President Pence in Brussels said that he was disappointed when he learned that General Flynn had given him inaccurate information about the call. And he said it was the proper decision for President Trump to ask General Flynn to resign. Do you disagree with the vice president?

NUNES: Well, look, it's not my place to do that, Jake. And this is the president's decision. Clearly, the vice president, you know, he stated very clearly that he supported the president's decision.

And at the end of the day, I'm not president of the United States. So -- but I don't believe for a second that General Flynn talking to the Russian ambassador broke any laws. And, in fact, it's exactly what he should have been doing and I think the record in the long run will show that he was trying to improve relations between our two countries.

TAPPER: I want to ask you about this story that CNN reported and also "The New York Times" reported, because there is a discrepancy here between what you and other members of Congress say and what we are being told.

Multiple current and former intelligence, law enforcement and administration officials tell CNN and other outlets that they high- level advisers close to then presidential nominee Donald Trump were in constant communication during the campaign with Russians known to U.S. intelligence.

But you say that is not what you are being told. Help explain this discrepancy to us.

NUNES: Well, first, Jake, if I may, I believe the first time that I went out and sounded the alarm about the problems that we're having with Russia and it being the biggest intelligence failure since 9/11...

TAPPER: Months ago. Yes.

NUNES: Well, not only that, but it was on your show. I think it was on your show last spring, I was begging anyone to pay attention.

And at that time, the Obama administration ignored it. The I.C. under the direction of the Obama administration largely ignored it. Why? Because they were in the middle of doing an Iranian deal. They wanted to try to get the Russians to side with them in Syria to try to get Assad out of power.

And, so, I was warning, asking anyone to come forward with information that would help us to begin to understand this Russia threat. And many members of the House Intelligence Committee have spent a lot of time over in Eastern Europe and looking at the Russia threat, including at the time now Director Pompeo, who is very familiar with the Russia threat.

So, with all that said, what I'm most interested in are facts. So, I just can't go on a witch-hunt against American citizens just because they appear in a "New York Times" story. I have asked the appropriate authorities. Any time one of these stories pops up in the news, we try to get it to the intelligence agencies and say, do you have anything on this?

Until somebody can show me, who were they contacting, what phone numbers were they calling, I would love to have it, because I have been a lone voice in the wilderness here since almost a year ago being on your show, calling for somebody to do something about the Russia problem.

TAPPER: One last question for you, sir. Today, the Department of Homeland Security released some guidelines for the president's upcoming executive orders on immigration. They suggest that the Trump administration clearly wants to take a much more aggressive approach when it comes to detaining and deporting many more undocumented immigrants, with a focus, of course, on those who have committed other crimes since coming to the U.S.

You live in California. You have a plurality Hispanic district. You're a founding member of the Congressional Hispanic Conference.

Do you have any concerns? Are you hearing of any concerns about these plans?

NUNES: Well, I do have a lot of concerns about this.

Most importantly is that can DHS effectively implement a plan and follow through on it that only goes after those people who are here illegally that have committed crimes? If they can, I'm all for it.

And I can tell you that we're kind of at a standstill in this country with immigration reform, and I do believe that we need to have strong security at the border. And I do believe that we need to kick all these bad guys out and gang members and drug dealers and everything else, because they are plaguing many communities here in California.

The tightrope that the administration will have to walk will be what do they do with the people that are here? What do they do with the young people, someone who was 2 years old when they were brought to this country?

And that's going to be difficult. Now, today, I noticed that they did make some announcement on DACA, that they weren't willing to go after children, which I think is important. And they weren't going to do mass roundups, which I think is important.

[16:15:03] So, look, I'm all for going out and executing the plan to get rid of bad people. And I want them out. The challenge for them will be, can they actually -- can they actually do it?

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Chairman Devin Nunes, always a pleasure to have you on, sir. Thank you so much.

NUNES: Thank you. TAPPER: Constituents greeting members of Congress with some tough

questions, especially about immigration as the nation waits for the president to issue his revised executive order. That story next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Our national lead now, angry constituents and testy exchanges are becoming somewhat commonplace at congressional town halls this season. This morning, protesters lined the streets of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell arrived.

In Iowa Falls, Iowa, an Afghan immigrant confronted Republican Senator Chuck Grassley about his life in limbo as he awaits word on immigration order expected from President Trump any day now.

CNN's Kyung Lah has been covering these town halls. She joins me now from New York.

And, Kyung, would you agree the energy we're seeing at these town halls, is it semi-organized? It seems a lot to be completely organic.

KYUNG LAH, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Let's start by breaking that up. Let's start with the energy, because I want you to take a look at this video clip to get a sense of these grassroots energy that we're seeing.

[16:20:02] This is Senator Joni Ernst just wrapping a short time ago in her town hall.

She had to cut her town hall short after 45 minutes. She answered one single question on Obamacare. The room was furious, it never calmed down. So, she simply had to walk out.

Now, that's a very different situation from what we saw last night. We attended Congressman Scott Taylor's town hall. He took a number of questions. He did have an exchange.

Yes, there was booing, yes, there was yelling. Yes, there were thumbs down. But it was a bit more of a town hall format.

This sort of rage that you're talking about, that semi-organized effort, so, where does it come from? Well, it actually started shortly after the election. There were three congressional -- former congressional staffers on the Democratic side, as young congressional staffers during the Obama era, they saw the Tea Party tactics work against them.

They took those tactics, wrote it down, put up something called the Indivisible guide online. It went viral. Has since been downloaded 1.7 million times and we have been in a number of cities, I've talked to these people, they are volunteers. They simply have taken this as a manual and they've shown up at these town halls.

And it allows you, it prepares you to have exchanges like the one you just mentioned, the one with the man from Afghanistan, the immigrant who says he is having a hard time getting asylum.

Here's what he told Senator Grassley saying who is going to take care of me.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was with the United States armed forces back in Afghanistan. I get shot. I didn't shot because of my mom and dad.





UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator, answer his question.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: I'm going down the list and when we're done with that list --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, answer the question.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Answer the question.


LAH: Senator Grassley did wrap that up by saying, Jake, he's going to try to do everything he can -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Kyung Lah, thank you so much.

A new bomb threat at a Jewish community center even as President Trump publicly denounces anti-Semitism. Now, there are calls for the new attorney general to get involved.

Stay with us.


[16:26:34] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Let's dive a little deeper into the national lead now. This recent spike in anti-Semitic incidents. Today, yet another Jewish community center in San Diego made its second call to police in less than a month after a bomb threat today. This is one of 70 recent bomb threats to Jewish community centers which often operate preschools, gyms, family programs.

The threats have been coming in waves. Sixteen were made in a single day in early January, 11 more happened just yesterday. And now, even a Jewish cemetery in St. Louis has been vandalized.

Jewish leaders are calling upon the president's new attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to create a special task force to investigate why the outbreak of these cases.

Let's bring in CNN's Brynn Gingras now.

Brynn, when you look at just the bomb threats, most are happening on the same day. Is there any evidence yet that one person or one organization might be responsible?

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, really at this point, it's unclear if it's one person or several people. We do know there are some similarities for the threats that were called into JCCs. The person on the line is using masking technology to disguise their voices. One caller was described as sounding like an older woman, and then the one today in San Diego, that threat was actually sent via e- mail.

Now, the dozens of threats have all been false alarms so there is some good news, but they certainly changed security measures at centers all across the country, and really the habits of the people who visit them.


GINGRAS (voice-over): Police scoured the scene at the San Diego Jewish community center today as a bomb threat forced evacuations for the second time this year. Police say the center received an e-mail late last night indicating an explosive was inside, but none was found.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Knowing that they were evacuating the building and they are searching for possible bombs is obviously very disconcerting when you're sending a child to this.

GINGRAS: It is just the latest in a recent rash of disruptive false alarms targeting the Jewish community.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Somebody, it seem like, has put together some sort of concerted effort.

GINGRAS: Seventy reported threats have affected 54 Jewish community centers in 27 states this year alone, and it's only February.

DAVID POSNER, STRATEGIC PERFORMANCE DIR., JCC ASSOCIATOIN OF NORTH AMERICA: Well, we do see that there is an unprecedented number of these threats taking place. We look forward to all elements of government taking this and making this a strong priority for them.

GINGRAS: Eleven JCCs reported threats of violence just yesterday, raising concerns about the future.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just incredibly depressing. I guess it's, you know, this is the age we live in, but it's really sad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm afraid that eventually someone will take the next step.

GINGRAS: And vandals are proving community centers aren't the only target.

KAREN AROESTY, ST. LOUIS DEFAMATION LEAGUE: The level of tension in the Jewish community is pretty high.

GINGRAS: Over the weekend, at least 100 gravesites were desecrated at this historic Jewish cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri. Police would not say whether it was considered a hate crime.

AROESTY: There is a difference here between intent and impact, right? The intent may be one this can. The impact is huge on the Jewish community, right? This is where your loved ones come to be safe in perpetuity.

GINGRAS: Earlier this month a Chicago area synagogue was vandalized and defaced with swastikas, while in New York, pro-Nazi graffiti was removed from subway cars by writers using hand sanitizer and tissue. Both incidents part of a disturbing trend.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You do have to persevere and not let this influence you and recognize it for what it is. It is an attempt to intimidate.


GINGRAS: And earlier today -- Sara Murray talked about this in your show, Jake, today is the first time the president addressed this recent spike, after deflecting the questions several times, having several opportunities to talk about it.