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Trump Grades Himself; Trump/Russia Probe; Complicated Health Care; Trump's Speech to Congress; Bomb Threats Against Jewish Centers; Trump Delivers First Address to Congress. Aired 9:30-10a

Aired February 28, 2017 - 09:30   ET

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


[09:30:00] SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Independent review. He says that the intelligence committees up here on The Hill are handling this. He said, that is our job to do.

John and Poppy.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Sunlen Serfaty for us on Capitol Hill, where all the action is happening today.

Thanks so much, Sunlen.

All right, let's discuss further right now. Joining us, Republican Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah. He is on the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R), UTAH: Good morning.

BERMAN: So before we get to the matter of the Intelligence Committee, the issue you're facing with Russia, I do want to talk about something the president said this morning when he was giving himself grades for his first month in office.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Yes.

BERMAN: Let's listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, in terms of achievement, I think I'd give myself an "a," because I think I've done great things but I don't think I've - I and my people, I don't think we've explained it well enough to the American public. I think I get an "a" in terms of what I've actually done, but in terms of messaging, I'd give myself a "c" or "c plus."

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, how are you going to change that then?

TRUMP: Well, maybe I change it during the speech.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BERMAN: All right, congressman, an "a" in terms of what he's done, but a "c" to "c plus" in terms of messaging. Do you think those grades are fair?

STEWART: Gosh, I don't know, I was never a school teacher. I'm not used to giving grades. I do think you can say that the president has been aggressive, though. He has done what he said and what he campaigned that he would do. You know, some of the regulatory reform, which I think is so important, some of the rescinding the president - previous president's executive orders, which again I think is so important. But we're just barely getting started. We're a little more than a month into it, I think, maybe. We'll withhold a grade for four years and then see what the American people think.

HARLOW: All right, so, congressman, let's get to the probe on the Trump campaign and alleged ties to Russia. This is your committee investigating this. You guys are starting all of this. But there's a big divide between the chairman, Devin Nunes, and someone who sits on the committee, congressman, the Democrat, Adam Schiff. He says you guys haven't seen any evidence yet, but Nunes came out and spoke to reporters and said basically you haven't seen any evidence that would tie the Trump campaign to Russia. Have you guys seen any evidence at all?

STEWART: Well, yes, we've seen a lot of evidence. And, by the way, I was in Moscow last August and I came back and did some media interviews and said even then, look, Russia's going to interfere with our elections. There's just no question. They're going to try to meddle. It was obvious. It wasn't based on any particular intelligence and analyst reports, it was just obvious that they would, and they did. But I think both the chairman and ranking member are right, Devin is right when he says at this point we haven't seen any evidence that there was direct communications. But Mr. Schiff is right as well in saying, you know, we're still early. We - and there's more that we might learn. And I can tell you that -

HARLOW: But that's not what Schiff said. But that's not what the congressman, Schiff, said. He said last night with Erin Burnett, we haven't seen anything at all.

STEWART: Well, I don't - I didn't see the interview. I'm not sure what he means, we haven't seen anything at all, because we've been looking at this. We've had hearings on this since September. So we clearly have seen some things. We've seen initial analysis and we've talked with many of the players in this. But, you know, we'll continue to investigate.

And, by the way, the Intelligence Committee is such a good forum for this. It's not in front of cameras. We have a reputation of being very bipartisan, which I think is so important at a time when - let's realize this, we have some members, and some other Democratic leaders, who are calling for impeachment already. I just think that's outrageous. It's just crazy to think that they've already jumped to that conclusion. And the intelligence committees are better at keeping it bipartisan and doing a serious investigation. If it's done in the public, it's just going to be taken over by public relations and people grandstanding, I'm afraid.

BERMAN: There are some Democratic critics who say that the one who's jumping to conclusions is the chairman by saying no evidence yet when the investigation is still underway. That's what Adam Schiff said. Let me - let me push this - let me just push this -

STEWART: Well - well, (INAUDIBLE) -

BERMAN: Go ahead.

STEWART: But that's not jumping to a conclusion. He's just stating a fact. He's just stating, this is what we've learned to this point.

BERMAN: OK.

STEWART: That's not saying that we won't learn more. He's just saying at this point we haven't seen any evidence. And again, that's not jumping to a conclusion, that's just stating what we know at this point.

BERMAN: Understood. Then along those lines, given that there is still an investigation going on inside your committee, is it appropriate for the chair of the committee to be coordinating messages with the White House, which at least in some ways is more than tangentially being investigated by the committee?

STEWART: Well, once again, I think the chairman made it clear, he was requested on that yesterday, he wasn't coordinating messages, he was just asked to speak to reporters. The same thing I'm doing with you right now. I think we should be as transparent as possible. I think we should be transparent and open with the American people. And I think that's what the chairman is trying to do.

HARLOW: All right, before we let you go, we want to get your take on the record on health care replacing - repealing and replacing Obamacare. Just listen to what the president said on that yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have come up with a solution that's really, really, I think, very good. Now I have to tell you, it's an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[09:35:05] HARLOW: OK, your reaction to him saying no one knew it could be so complicated. And I'm also wondering if you're getting on the same page as some of your Republican colleagues, Representative Mark Sanford, Representative Walker and others who are now saying they cannot back the repeal bill that has been leaked, namely because they think it just adds to entitlement spending?

STEWART: Yes, and I will - I will agree to disagree with my president on this, and that is, it is very complicated. There's no question about it. And this is going to be a heavy lift. I think many of us in Congress recognized that this was going to be a

challenge. But we're committed to doing it. We promised the American people that we would. And the bottom line is, we can do better. And that's the thing is, we can do better. We can help more people. We can do it more efficiently. We can do it without disrupting the lives and insurance of other families. And that's what we're - we're trying to do here.

But, look, it's not easy. There's no question about it. And there's going to be varying opinions. Mr. Stanford and others hold a certain view. I may agree or disagree. It depends as we begin to see the details. But I really believe we're going to work our way through this.

BERMAN: I just couldn't hear your answer there, are you a yes or a no vote as it stands right now?

STEWART: I haven't seen all the details. We're undecided. There's a lot left to learn.

HARLOW: All right -

BERMAN: Fair point.

HARLOW: Yes.

BERMAN: Always good to wait until you do see what's there.

Congressman, thanks so much for being with us.

STEWART: Thank you both. Appreciate it.

HARLOW: All right, coming up for us, President Trump aiming for a sunny and optimistic speech tonight in his first joint - address to a joint session of Congress.

BERMAN: Rainbows and unicorns.

HARLOW: Only.

BERMAN: Only.

HARLOW: We're going to ask a former Bush speechwriter and a former Clinton speechwriter, what makes a speech work?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:41:04] BERMAN: In his speech before Congress tonight, the White House says the president plans to lay out a bold, optimistic vision. Now, the optimistic part, many people suggest, will be something of a departure from his inauguration speech about 40 days ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Rusted out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape, and the crime and the gangs and the drugs. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Here to talk about the tone of what to expect tonight, what has worked in the past, what has fallen flat, Michael Waldman, former chief speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Nice to have you both here.

Well, you're both Michaels, so, Michael Gerson to you. Let me begin with this. About the inaugural address some 40 days ago, you described it has blunt, flat, devoid of craft, devoid of generosity, humility and grace. All right, you didn't love it, so -

MICHAEL GERSON, FORMER SPEECHWRITER FOR PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I was mixed, yes.

HARLOW: Yes, it was a little mixed. It was a mixed review.

GERSON: Right.

HARLOW: What - so what do you think that the president should bring tonight and what will he bring tonight?

GERSON: Well, I do think it's very hard for him to change tone. His whole argument through the campaign and the early parts of this presidency has been America is in decline, it's run by losers, you know, besieged by the threats of the world and he is the man who can save us. He's a strong handed leader. That's been his whole argument. In order to be more optimistic, he would have to have a different rational for his presidency. I don't expect to see that.

BERMAN: Michael Waldman, this is a speech before Congress, the first speech before Congress from this president. When you are addressing Congress, what is the balance between addressing the people in that room, the members of Congress, and addressing the American people watching?

MICHAEL WALDMAN, FORMER CHIEF SPEECHWRITER FOR PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well you know that you've got both the opposition party and your own party in the Congress, and you're speaking to them, but you're also speaking to the public. And I agree with Mike Gerson, that was the darkest and most divisive inaugural address in American history. I've looked at them all.

And then the other great ritual of the presidency was the East Room press conference, and it was the angriest and most self-absorbed one of those we've ever had. The press release may - and the leaks may say it's going to be optimistic in tone, but it would be really somewhat surprising if it was. Among other things, we've learned that the guests sitting in the gallery with the first lady will be the victims, as I understand it, of families -- families of victims of crime who were not legal immigrants. And while we feel terribly and care deeply about anybody who's a victim of crime, that sort of very much goes to the kind of dark American carnage immigrants are coming to kill you themes that propelled him into the presidency.

HARLOW: So here's the thing. I just would know a lot of his supporters after the inaugural address, ones that I spoke with afterwards, they loved it, and they didn't understand what the media was saying and what the, you know, establishment was saying. So I just wonder if there is any limit to how far you think, Michael Gerson, you know, is there a limit to the president and when he cannot take such a dark and dystopian tone because it - it worked for him all the way through the campaign and it worked for him among his base and supporters all the way through the inauguration?

GERSON: Yes, no, I certainly agree to that - with that. He does have historically low approval ratings for a president at this point in his presidency. So I think he has a core of supporters that have become very loyal. You know, they view the media as the enemy. He - but I'm not sure that includes most Americans. These numbers don't indicate that. And, you know, I - the measure of a good first speech to Congress, it's a budget priority speech. He actually needs to be clear and realistic on his goals for the country, not in his description of the past. And that, I think, is going to be the measure.

[09:45:11] BERMAN: The challenge, though, is the speech before Congress, the people whose support he needs to pass legislation are the people that he talked about during the inauguration, the people who reaped the rewards of government, prospered at the expense of the people, celebrated while families struggled and are all talk and no action, Michael Waldman, those are the people who are going to be sitting right in front of him.

WALDMAN: Yes.

BERMAN: Frankly that line I do think played very well across the entire country, not necessarily just his supporters. People loved to hate Washington. But when Washington is sitting in front of you, it's harder to say that, maybe.

WALDMAN: Presidents and new presidents often find a way to kind of playoff against Washington and playoff, gently, against the people sitting in the room. It's much harder to do it like you're kind of a talk show host on a rant and expect it to look well. But these speeches are policy documents, that's exactly right, and there are questions about health care and are they really going to try to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act right now? What are they going to do about taxes? What are they going to do about trade and other issues like that where Congress is sort of bumper car, they're sort of spinning around, and where the president so far has only given campaign level generalities. So, you know, these speeches, among other things, in the past, in all administrations have been carefully fact checked, rigorously screened by economists and policy experts, and I don't know that that's what we're going to hear tonight, because, of course, that has not been the way he's talked before.

HARLOW: Yes, that - that is if he stays on prompter, which he will for some of it, I doubt for all of it.

Michael Gerson, finally to you. You say this is an impossible task for him tonight on the policy front. And what you mean, I assume, is to actually explain how the budget deal would work, how you add that much to military spending, cut taxes and don't touch entitlements. However, this - he has never been the details guy. He's never been the policy details president. And Paul Ryan said this morning on the "Today" show, leave the details to the folks who know what they're doing. Why should we expect him to have it all make sense detail wise tonight?

GERSON: Because the broad outlines of the budget don't work. You have massive increases in spending, on infrastructure and on the military, taxes are decreased, entitlements are not touched, which really throws Paul Ryan under the bus, since he has raised those issues in the past, and he's proposing massive decreases in discretionary spending, things like medical research at NIH, or AIDS drugs in Africa. It's obscene and unrealistic. So his outlines don't work, not just the details.

BERMAN: It will be interesting to see how he sells it tonight and beyond. Michael Gerson, Michael Waldman, the two Mikes with us here, great writers. Intimidating to be with such great writers. Thank you, gentlemen.

HARLOW: It is indeed. Thank you, guys, very much.

WALDMAN: Thank you.

HARLOW: Still to come for us -

BERMAN: Tombstones vandalized. New Jewish schools and community centers threatened. What is behind what's going on across the country?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:52:33] HARLOW: A new wave of bomb threats across the country at a number of Jewish centers.

BERMAN: This time JCCs and day schools in a dozen states were targets in just one day. Brynn Gingras here with the details.

Brynn, what are you learning.

BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And we're actually getting new information about just the past two months. The numbers are staggering. Now we have 100 incidents at 81 Jewish affiliated locations in 33 states.

So here's the thing. The number of bomb threats to these Jewish community centers just keeps going up and the organization has now experienced its fifth wave of threats. Yesterday centers in a number of states were affected. And while these have all turned out to be hoaxes, the JCC Association says it's never experienced anything like this before. So, again, here are the numbers. Again, we just got these new numbers. One hundred incidents at 81 Jewish affiliated centers in 33 states.

Now, it's hard to pinpoint why this is happening. The FBI tracks hate crimes but does not yet have national statistics for the time period since the election. If you look, however, specifically to New York, the NYPD released a report that does show a rise in hate crimes against Jews so far this year.

I've also had some conversations with the Southern Poverty Law Center which tracks hate groups. A spokesperson there told me it started unofficially keeping tabs on hate crimes reported in the U.S. since the election because they felt they were seeing an increase, though they don't have numbers from previous years to compare. Also, we should mention, in general, authorities do say hate crimes are hard to track, many times because they just go unreported in many communities across the country.

We do know the president has denounced the people or groups committing these anti-Semitic crimes. In the meantime, though, while these bomb threats unfortunately do keep happening, the ADL has issued an alert to Jewish institutions, check their bomb threat procedures because unfortunately it just keeps happening.

BERMAN: It does. And, you know, and I've - you know, I've heard from people, you've heard from people also, you know, it's terrifying when you're targeted, especially because -

HARLOW: (INAUDIBLE) school. I mean schools.

BERMAN: Exactly.

HARLOW: You're sending your kids to these schools.

GINGRAS: And some places more than once in two months.

HARLOW: Yes. Yes. Unbelievable. Brynn, thank you. Stay on it for us. We appreciate it.

GINGRAS: Yes.

HARLOW: All right, just moments from now, a live look at where House Speaker Paul Ryan and other members of the GOP leadership will speak. This, of course, is ahead of the president's big address to a joint session of Congress tonight.

BERMAN: Happening now.

HARLOW: As John likes to say, this is happening now, folks. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:59:04] HARLOW: Good morning, everyone. Top of the hour. I'm Poppy Harlow.

BERMAN: I'm John Berman. Thanks so much for being here.

New this morning, a presidential report card. This morning the president gave himself an "a" in achievement for the first month in office, but a c-plus in messaging. No word in art or AP physics yet.

The president's speech before Congress tonight is a huge moment in his presidency. A new moment. Maybe a fresh start in what would be a departure from previous speeches. The White House says it will strike an optimistic tone.

HARLOW: Indeed all sunshine coming tonight? Possibly.

Meantime, on Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan and other House GOP leaders about to speak to the media. Sources just telling CNN that Ryan has indeed been briefed on what the president will say tonight and he has been importantly reinsured that the White House will embrace much of the House GOP plans for repealing and replacing Obamacare. That is key to get them all on the same page. We will take you to those comments live when they begin.

[10:00:01] But let's start this morning at the White House with our Joe Johns.

So what more do we know about that, Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, we know a few things and not so much, Poppy, quite frankly. We know the president says he wills speak from the heart. We know he says there's