Return to Transcripts main page


Travel Ban Tensions; Steve Bannon Speaks; Justice Dept. to Make Legal Case for Travel Ban; Interview with Congressman Dan Donovan of New York. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 23, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: If Donald Trump is the real estate mogul, he is the architect.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The man behind President Trump steps forward. Today, his top adviser, Steve Bannon, makes a rare public appearance and pulls back the curtain of the Trump White House.

Tensions. Breaking news: The White House assigns the Department of Homeland Security to help bolster its case for the travel ban, but some in the intelligence community are not having it. What's this dissension about, and what is the case the White House wants to make?

Plus, it's been called the underground railroad for undocumented immigrants, churches offering sanctuary, churchgoers offering their homes, as President Trump today calls his crackdown a military operation.

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

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer just wrapped up his press briefing, where he spoke more in-depth about President Trump's decision to withdraw federal protection for transgender students.

CNN's Sara Murray is at the White House for us.

And, Sara, Spicer was pressed on whether this decision was in any way a civil rights issue.


And it's a question that the White House press secretary repeatedly dodged. He was asked if this issue, allowing transgender students to choose whichever bathroom they feel most comfortable in, is a civil rights issue. And he repeatedly refused to answer that question, just saying it's a states' rights issue.

He was also asked what the president's personal belief is on this. Remember the president said Caitlyn Jenner, for instance, would be free to use whichever bathroom she wanted in Trump Tower. Spicer just said the president has been clear on that, but he did not elaborate on what that means.

TAPPER: And, Sara, earlier today, there appeared to be some confusion when President Trump referred to his push, his immigration crackdown as a military operation.

Hours later, his director of homeland security, General Kelly, said that's absolutely not true. It's not a military operation. This seems to now be standard operating procedure for the Trump White House. The president says something and then he's immediately contradicted by his own senior Cabinet officials.

MURRAY: Right, very different tone, very different vocabulary coming from the president and coming from Secretary Kelly today.

I want you to listen to what both of them had to say about this issue.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're getting really bad dudes out of this country, and at a rate that nobody has ever seen before. And they're the bad ones. And it's a military operation.

JOHN KELLY, U.S. HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: No, repeat, no use of military force in immigration operations. I repeat, there will be no use of military forces in immigration. At least half of you try to get that right, because it continually comes up in the reporting.


MURRAY: You can see, Jake, why people might be mistaking this since the president is calling it a military operation. But from a purely factual standpoint, it's not a military operation.

ICE is a law enforcement agency. It is not a military agency. That is who is enforcing these rules at the border. Today, Sean Spicer was asked about that in the briefing and he said the president was just using military as an adjective to describe that they were going to implement their immigration guidance with precision -- back to you.

TAPPER: Huh. Maybe General Kelly should voice his frustration to someone other than the media on that issue. Sara Murray, thank you so much.

Former Breitbart chairman Steve Bannon once said that he wanted to -- quote -- "destroy all of today's establishments." Now that the former outsider is the ultimate insider, however, with a vast portfolio as the White House chief strategist, the big question, have his views changed at all?

Well, this afternoon, the public got some insight into Bannon's thinking when he joined White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at the Conservative Political Action Conference, when the two went to great lengths to dispel any rumors that they don't get along.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is covering CPAC in national Harbor, Maryland, for us. And, Phil, what was the main point of what Mr. Bannon had to say

today? What caught your eye?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it was really him laying out his world view.

And, Jake, as you noted, we all had a good sense of what it was coming into the White House, but nobody has really spoken to him at least publicly on a stage like this since he's been there. And kind of spoiler alert, nothing's really changed in his world view.

And I think this is why it's an extremely interesting moment, extremely interesting development, because you recognize Steve Bannon, one of President Trump's closest advisers. And, today, he laid out the three pillars of this White House as he sees them, economic nationalism, national sovereignty and -- quote -- "the deconstruction of the administrative state."

Sounds pretty familiar to what he said before he was in the White House. His top-line point, Jake, there's been a lot of debate over whether to take Trump seriously or literally over the campaign. Steve Bannon says it's the latter. Take a listen.


STEVE BANNON, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: He's laid out an agenda with those speeches, with the promises he made. And our job every day is just to execute on that, is to simply get a path to how those gets executed.


And he's maniacally focused on that. All of those promises are going to be implemented.


MATTINGLY: And, Jake, obviously, you mentioned there's been no shortage of stories, no shortage of advisers, of GOP officials talking about potential strains in the relationship between Steve Bannon, between Reince Priebus, the two of them showing a united front today, trying to make clear that that doesn't exist.

Doing a little kind of buddy comedy routine here. And I think the reality is they are two prominent individuals, prominent positions inside the White House, and they come from two very different world views inside the Republican Party.

But at least for the moment, at least for today, as the Trump administration kind of launches a full blitz at this conservative conference, they say they are on the same page, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Phil Mattingly at CPAC for us, thank you so much.

Now to the world lead, where once again we see this dynamic playing out of the president coming in like a wrecking ball and his Cabinet secretaries coming after him to clean it all up.

This afternoon, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is meeting with Mexican President Pena Nieto in Mexico City. This meeting, of course, coming just weeks after Pena Nieto canceled his visit to Washington, D.C., insisting his country would not pay for the border wall that President Trump promised.

This time, the Mexican president was at least willing to speak with President Trump Trump's top diplomat in person.

Let's go live to CNN's Leyla Santiago, covering today's meetings in Mexico City.

Leyla, Secretary of State Tillerson had a list of topics to discuss. Is there any middle ground between these two on any of these fronts?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Listen, they both acknowledge that they need each other.

And in sort of a change in tone, both sides actually acknowledge that the problems down at the border are not a one-way street. We heard Secretary Tillerson say, hey, there is a problem when it comes to illegal money and arms flowing south, as well as human and drug trafficking flowing north.

Now, what you did not hear, you did not hear them talk about the wall at all or who is going to pay for it, but that likely forced them to then acknowledge that there is a difference, that they don't agree on everything.

Let me let you listen to what else Secretary Tillerson said.


REX TILLERSON, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: Our visit was forward- looking, focusing on common interests that would advance security and economic well-being. In our meetings, we jointly acknowledged that in a relationship filled with vibrant colors, two strong, sovereign countries from time to time will have differences.


SANTIAGO: OK. And so that was Secretary Tillerson.

We had much stronger words coming from Kelly, who addressed something that the foreign minister has been saying now for a full 24 hours as he has been reacting to the guidelines on implementation to deportation and immigration policies from the Trump administration.

Listen to how Kelly addressed that.


KELLY: Let me be very, very clear. There will be no, repeat, no mass deportations. Everything we do in DHS will be done legally and according to human rights and the legal justice system of the United States.

All deportations will be according to our legal justice system, which is extensive and includes multiple appeals.


SANTIAGO: And so that is what with the foreign minister was waiting to hear. Really, that's what Mexico has been waiting to hear, saying that that was a top priority.

By the way, Jake, at this very hour, the secretaries are meeting with President Enrique Pena Nieto. And one of the moments that I found very telling that was off-camera was when Kelly and the secretary of government here in Mexico began to approach the podium.

You saw Kelly sort of pat his back and there was even an exchange of laughter. So, clearly, they are somewhat getting along and willing to work together. What we have to now wait and see is if their presidents will be able to do the same.

TAPPER: All right, Leyla Santiago live for us in Mexico City, Leyla, thank you so much.

The White House is asking the Departments of Homeland Security and Justice to find evidence to back up its claim that the travel ban on those seven countries is necessary to keep America safe -- why some intelligence officials are concerned about this request. We will have that breaking news story for you next.



TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We have some breaking news now on our politics lead. CNN has learned that the White House requested the Department of Homeland Security, working with the Justice Department, to help them build a legal case for President Trump's temporary travel ban on individuals from seven Muslim majority countries, those countries, of course, being Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Libya, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

A senior White House official tells CNN that the two agencies -- quote -- "are working on an intelligence report that will demonstrate that the security threat for these seven countries is substantial and that these several countries have all been exporters of terrorism into the United States. The situation has gotten more dangerous in recent years," the senior White House official says, "and more broadly the refugee program has been a major incubator for terrorism" -- unquote.

Now, this report was requested in light of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' conclusion that the Trump administration -- quote -- "has pointed to no evidence that any alien from any of the countries named in the order has perpetrated a terrorist attack in the United States."

But CNN has also learned that some current intelligence officials in the Trump administration are concerned about this assignment. First, some disagree with the Trump White House's position. Sources telling CNN that the Department of Homeland Security's in-house intelligence agency, which is called the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, or I&A, has filed a report disagreeing with the view that blocking immigration from these seven countries strategically makes sense.

Some DHS officials have said they do not think that nationality is the best indicator of potential terrorism. Now, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security confirmed this report to CNN, saying -- quote -- "While DHS was asked to draft a comprehensive report on this issue, the document you're referencing was commentary from a single intelligence source vs. an official robust document with thorough interagency vetting."

[16:15:02] Interestingly, the Department of Homeland Security went on to disparage its own intelligence division's report saying, quote, "The I&A report does not include data from other intelligence community services," DHS spokeswoman told CNN. "It is incomplete. Pointed internal discussion about the merits of various intelligence products and whether they have sufficient supporting data from the broader intelligence community is an integral part of developing any official DHS intelligence assessment."

Now, a second issue for many in the intelligence community, sources tell CNN is the notion of the Trump White House seeking an intelligence report to fit its policy instead of the other way around, having policy fitting the evidence. Sources are also telling CNN's Pamela Brown that there are those within the Department of Homeland Security who have concerns that intelligence at the department is being or might be politicized, though the department called that accusation, quote, "absurd and not factually accurate."

According to the senior White House official, however, the president and his team are determined to prove that the 9th Circuit argument is wrong as are those in the media and Democrats who have made the same argument, such as, for instance, Congressman Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York who appeared on CNN last month and said this.


REP. JERROLD NADLER (D), NEW YORK: The various people who have, in fact, committed terrorist acts in this country from 9/11 onward, none of them came from any of the seven countries that are the subjects of the president's executive order.


TAPPER: Now, the senior White House official tells me that that argument is, quote, "using the most narrow definition of the term you can use," unquote, meaning that that definition of terrorist attacks refers only to those attacks in which an innocent civilian in the United States was killed.

That definition, for example, would not include the Ohio state attack last November when Somali born Abdul Razak Ali Artan after arriving in the U.S. in 2014 attempted to run over and stab 13 innocent people on campus. It was not a successful attack. Nobody died, so it wouldn't fit that definition, although obviously it was a terrorist attack.

The White House intends to bolster its case for the travel ban using this broader definition, including nonlethal and failed terrorist attacks, as well as investigations and convictions of individuals attempting to join or support terrorist groups. And we will bring you that information when it comes.

TAPPER: Joining me now to discuss this and other issues, Congressman Dan Donovan, Republican from New York, on the House Foreign Affairs and Homeland Securities Committee.

Thank you so much for being here.

Let me just ask you for an instantaneous reaction. When you hear that the Trump administration is hoping to make this case but that some intelligence officials are concerned about the way that they are being asked to do this, what's your response?

REP. DAN DONOVAN (R), NEW YORK: I think what they're doing is they looked at the decision by the 9th Circuit and taking into account where the failures were in the first roll out of the first executive order and trying to make sure that they do the next executive order within the constitutional boundaries. This was a list of seven countries, Jake, that President Obama had listed as war torn countries, four of which we don't even have embassies at, that the vetting process of people wanting to come to our country is inadequate.

And the president has asked for a 90-day pause. Let my secretary of state, let my secretary of homeland security look at the vetting process, how can we tighten it up so make sure people presenting themselves are the actual people who deserve -- have a right to come to our country.

TAPPER: We've seen some bad things happen in the United States, especially with foreign policy when intelligence is politicized, whether it's by Democrats or by Republicans. When you hear that there are people in the intelligence community who are concerned that might be happening at the Department of Homeland Security right now, does that concern you?

DONOVAN: I think we should take a look at that, absolutely. Our intelligence community should be nonpartisan, not bipartisan, should be nonpartisan. They should take data, they should take information, shouldn't interpret it in a political way that Democrat or Republican, and just provide the president the information he needs to make decisions to protect our country.

TAPPER: Now, you represent Staten Island and also some parts of Brooklyn that have big Muslim and Arab-American populations, including Syrian immigrants. What is your response to them when they say, how can you support this travel ban, you're discriminating based on nationality as opposed to people who are -- you know, have some sort of record or history of being interested in terrorism or extremism?

DONOVAN: Yes, again, it's a pause, Jake. We need to make sure that the people who deserve to come to our country -- we're a compassionate nation. We need to help the Syrian refugees get out of harm's way. They're being attacked by terrorists. They're being attacked by Assad, their own government, and we have to get them out of harm's way.

But there is a way to do that, at the same time, make sure our national security is intact. Put the people in safe harbors in the area, and hopefully, one day, that conflict in Syria will end. And it's the Syrian people who are going to build their nation back. They want to go home. That's their home.

So, we can both be compassionate and help them get out of harm's way and at the same time, make sure our country is safe.

TAPPER: This -- the ban on immigrants or refugees from Syria, that's indefinite. That's not the 90-day ban. That appears to be in perpetuity. We don't know when it would be lifted.

DONOVAN: Yes. Until at such a time where we can secure that those people -- when people are fleeing their home from their aggressors, whether they'd be terrorists or their own government, they don't go home and make sure they have their proper papers with them.

[16:20:07] TAPPER: Right.

DONOVAN: There's about 250,000 Syrian passports that are missing right now and we know Assad and the Syrian government sell credentials to people as a form of generating revenue.

So, anybody who presents us with a Syrian passport, we have to make sure it's their passport and not one of those stolen ones and make sure they didn't buy their credentials from the Assad government.

TAPPER: Now, during the campaign, you objected to President Trump's call for a ban on Muslims entering this country. Well, how do you respond to people who say this isn't a ban on Muslims, it's a ban on seven countries? Obviously, Muslims from other countries are allowed to come in. But these are seven Muslim majority countries and they're seven countries that people are fleeing from because they're failed states or in some cases terrorist safe havens and the net effect is something of a Muslim ban even if it's not the widespread Muslim ban.

DONOVAN: You're absolutely right. There's about 45 other Muslim predominantly countries who are welcome into our country without being subjected to this pause. And you're right, when the president during the campaign as a candidate said he wanted to impose -- ban Muslims from our country, our country is based on religious freedom. Our forefathers were smart enough to put it in the First Amendment, not the 13th or 18th Amendment.

People who created our country, who founded our country, who are fleeing religious persecution from their own homelands, we will never ban people because we are grateful to come to New York, have raised their children here, start their businesses here. It's not the Muslim community that we're concerned with. We're concerned with terrorism. They're our enemy and they have compromised the refugee program in Syria and they've used those seven other countries not only to harbor terrorists but to come into our country through there.

TAPPER: I wanted to ask you about the fact that there were some protesters outside your office this week, a lot of Congress people, especially Republicans, facing some tough crowds at these town halls demanding answers.

You're the lone Republican representing New York City in Congress.


TAPPER: Do you have any plans to hold a full town hall and listen to the concerns from your constituents, some of whom might be a little angry?

DONOVAN: They are angry. Many people are angry. And I have listened to my constituents.

We -- I went to an event for the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, 150 members of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce went to hear how we're going to repair our broken health care system, how we're going to repair our broken immigration system, what are we going to do about tax reform and the event was overtaken by disrupters, 40 of which had to be removed from the police.

Myself, I'm a public official. I could take the hits. People can yell at me. I felt bad for those 150 people who came to actually hear what was going on with our country and how we're going move forward and never got that opportunity.

So, instead what I did was I held a teletown hall meeting, spoke to 14,000 families in one evening, allowed them to answer questions. Anyone who didn't get a chance to answer a question can send it to us through the internet through our website.

And that was much more productive. It wasn't disruptive. People actually got to exchange ideas.

TAPPER: All right. Congressman, good to see you. Thanks so much for coming from the great --

DONOVAN: Good to be with you.

TAPPER: The great island, Staten Island.

Here are some of the other lawmakers getting an earful. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm an angry constituent. You work for us.



TAPPER: Immigrants, Muslims, people with sick loved ones, Democrats, progressives, activists, they continue to pack town halls across the country and they're not using their inside voices.

And then a possible private meeting between a Ukrainian lawmaker and associates of President Trump, were they working on a back room deal to end the fighting in Ukraine?

Stay with us.


[16:28:11] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Let's stick with politics now and hear from the voters. Many are using their members of Congress as sounding boards or punching bags to voice outrage, frustration, fear about policies they see forming under the Trump administration.

Today, protesters shouted at Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as he arrived for a luncheon with voters. Once inside some hecklers had to be escorted out after disrupting his speech.

Over in Iowa, Senator Chuck Grassley faced a tough crowd as he took questions in his town hall.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We the people are your boss and rural America is mad as heck that you aren't listening to us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Social Security would be fine if you all hadn't stolen it.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think your answer to my question is going to be a big determinant in whether this is your last term.


TAPPER: CNN's Ryan Young was also at that town hall in beautiful Charles City, Iowa.

And, Ryan, some lawmakers are taking heat for cancelling town hall, some not planning town halls at all.

RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Jake. People are fired up about this. In fact, even here people were talking about lawmakers who were skipping out on their constituents.

I have to show you this video of Marco Rubio who just got back to Miami after a trip and listen to this exchange.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Senator, I thought you were in Europe.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thought you were in Europe. I saw these missing child posters all over town. Are you going to host a town hall?


YOUNG: So, the reason why those missing photos were up for Marco Rubio, apparently, Marco Rubio was in Europe. He said he had a business meeting and he might skip in his town halls. Of course, people were reacting posting these posters and also trying to find him. So, you saw that conversation that just happened.

Of course, here there were a lot of people who were ready to have the meeting they had today, this morning who showed up maybe hours early to be here, Jake.

TAPPER: And, Ryan, tell us about the town hall you attended today in Iowa.

YOUNG: Looking right behind us in the courthouse, standing room only, people filled in there more than an hour ahead of time.