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Interview With Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro; Fighting in Iraq?; Senate Updates Trump-Russia Investigation; Trump Speaks at Women's Empowerment Panel; Trump: U.S. Fighting Like "Never Before" in Iraq. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 29, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: There's more talk about who is doing the investigating than what they are investigating.

THE LEAD starts right now.

The Senate says, we got this. With trust issues paralyzing the House side, the Senate Intelligence Committee comes forward to investigate Russia, the Trump campaign and the 2016 election.

Fighting like never before? The commander in chief's surprising remarks about Iraq raising questions about the role of U.S. troops. Is he on the same page as his commanders?

Plus, who knew the first lady appearing in Washington, D.C., would make headlines. Melania Trump leaves Trump Tower to honor some courageous women.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake today.

"We will get to the bottom of this." That is the promise from senators investigating any links between associates of President Donald Trump and Russia. That was the clear promise.

The clear message? Enough with the kids' table. The grownups are stepping in.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has invited 20 people to testify and is pledging to work together in a bipartisan way. That comes as we learn more conflicting information about the apparently stalled House panel's investigation, which is a partisan mess.

An FBI official tells CNN the House Intelligence Committee has not officially requested the FBI director to come testify, which is odd, very, considering that committee Chairman Devin Nunes said this week's hearing had to be rescheduled because the FBI director could not come in.

CNN senior congressional reporter Manu Raju live on Capitol Hill.

Manu, what's going on here? MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the House

investigation coming to a total standstill, John, over this fight between the Democrats and Republicans over the role of Devin Nunes, the chairman of the committee, who did say yesterday that he wanted to hear privately from FBI Director James Comey, but James Comey telling -- official telling CNN that he's actually not gotten that invite yet and does not want to be in the middle of this tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats about how to move forward.

Now, this is a marked contrast to what was seen on the Senate side today of the Capitol. The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee said they are conducting a thorough, deep dive into the Russian meddling in the elections, something that the chairman of the committee, Richard Burr, said is the biggest -- one of the biggest investigations he's seen in the last two decades.


RAJU (voice-over): The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee vowing to answer this fundamental question. Did the Trump campaign coordinate with the Russians to meddle in the elections?

(on camera): From what you have seen so far, can you definitively rule out that there was no coordination whatsoever between Trump officials and Russian officials during the election?

SEN. RICHARD BURR (R), NORTH CAROLINA: We would be crazy to try to draw conclusions from where we are in the investigation. I think Mark and I have committed to let this process go through before we form any opinions.

And I would hope that that's what you would like us to do. And as much as we'd like to share minute by minute, even the snapshots we get as a team going through it are not always accurate when we find the next piece of intelligence. So let us get a little deeper into this before you ask us to write the conclusions. That's clearly something we intend to do down the road.

RAJU (voice-over): And refusing to rule out if there are any direct links between Russia and the president.

BURR: And we won't take a snapshot in time and make any observations on it, but we know that our challenge is to answer that question for the American people in our conclusions to this investigation.

RAJU: The committee plans to interview 20 witnesses, including Jared Kushner, President Trump's son-in-law, as well as other Trump associates, and suggesting that Michael Flynn, the former Trump national security adviser, could face questions over his contacts with the Russian ambassador that led to his firing.

BURR: I think it's safe to say that we have had conversations with a lot of people, and you would think less of us if General Flynn wasn't in that list.

RAJU: The Senate leader saying the panel will go wherever the intelligence leads.

BURR: The staff has been providing an unprecedented amount of documents. Those documents include documents that up to this point have only been shared with the Gang of Eight and staff directors on the House and Senate side.

RAJU: The Senate probe gaining more prominence, now that the House investigation is in gridlock. At least one House Republican has lost confidence.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: My sense is right now that the House is in a situation where there's -- the issue has become overly politicized. They are kind of getting into a stalemate position, a bit paralyzed. The Senate is moving on a better trajectory. And I think we are going to have to rely on the Senate for a report on this Russian meddling in the election


RAJU: Now, the reason for that stalemate in the House is over Chairman Devin Nunes' decision last week to go and brief the president of the United States about surveillance information that he received before talking to committee Democrats, and then abruptly canceling a Tuesday hearing where several former Obama officials, including Sally Yates, a former Justice Department, senior Justice Department official, was expected to testify and talk about those Flynn-Russia connections.


That was suddenly canceled. Now, on the Senate side, they do want to look into some of the Trump financial ties.

But one thing, John. I talked to Richard Burr, the chairman of the committee, right after that press conference. He said that they are not going to request Donald Trump's tax returns, at least not yet -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Manu Raju for us on Capitol Hill, thanks so much.

For more now, I want to bring in a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas.

Congressman, thanks for being with us.


BERMAN: Can you help us clear up some confusion here?

Because we learned from an FBI source on background today, they are saying that no official request has come from your committee, the House Intelligence Committee, for FBI Director James Comey to come testify. That seems like it conflicts with what the chairman, Devin Nunes, said just yesterday.

Clear this up for us. CASTRO: Well, I know at least the House Democrats on the Intelligence

Committee have said that we would like to hear from Jim Comey and NSA Director Rogers. We're willing to hear from them.

What we didn't want is for them to come this past Tuesday, when there was an open hearing that was scheduled. And I think my sense was that the chairman wanted to replace that open session with a closed session with these gentlemen.

So, we very much want to hear from them. And my concern right now is that, because of the actions of the chairman, the committee has lost a lot of credibility in the public's eyes. I think the best thing to do right now is, number one, either go with an independent commission, which we have been pushing.

But if the speaker is insistent on not doing it, then the chairman should be replaced and this committee should get on with its work.

BERMAN: But the FBI saying as far as they know, he hasn't even been invited. Do you have any proof that he's technically been invited to come testify?

CASTRO: At this point, I can't clarify that either way.


Your Republican colleague Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania told me earlier today that, you know what, he thinks that the Senate should just take over, that the House Intelligence Committee investigation is such a mess essentially, he says, that let the Senate do this. Do you agree with him?

CASTRO: I disagree.

If we're going to have an investigation in the Congress, then both chambers of Congress should be looking into this. What the chairman did should not be an excuse for the House to give up on this investigation and just send it over to the Senate. In fact, the American people need as many eyes looking at this as possible.

BERMAN: So, is the House committee actually doing any investigating right now? What's the status of your work?

CASTRO: This week, there hasn't been any activity there. There was a Tuesday hearing, an open hearing that was, of course, called off, a closed hearing on Thursday that was called off, but I suspect that if the House is going to continue to investigate that we will start that again soon.


I mean, the FBI -- sorry -- the chairman of the committee suggested that maybe you wouldn't have hearings before the House recess, which could be, you know in, a week-and-a-half, and then you go away for three weeks. And it could be another month before you do any work? CASTRO: Well, if that's the case, then the chairman and Speaker Ryan

are abdicating their responsibility to the American people, who most of all want to know whether there were any Americans who conspired with the Russians, who interfered with our 2016 elections. And for them to not move forward on the investigation is really an obstruction.

BERMAN: FBI Director James Comey, you said you do want to talk to him again. He was supposed to be before your committee yesterday again, or the chairman has suggested that he might come in private.

What more do you want to ask him?

CASTRO: Oh, there's a whole host of questions that we want to ask him. A lot of that, he couldn't speak about in open session, but certainly a lot of the people that the Senate is talking to, we want to ask about.

You heard me in open session and others ask about some of those individuals. Hopefully, the director can be more candid in a classified setting.

BERMAN: Congressman, last question. When are you going to decide whether you are going to run for Senate in Texas?


CASTRO: Well, as you can tell, I have been very busy with a lot of Russia stuff lately. But I have said that I'm going to take until about the end of April to make a decision.

BERMAN: All right, well, we hope you will come back on the show and make an announcement then.

Congressman Joaquin Castro of Texas, thanks so much.

CASTRO: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right.

President Trump makes a bold prediction about health care.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And I know that we're all going to make a deal on health care. That's such an easy one, so I have no doubt that that's going to happen very quickly.


BERMAN: Now the White House says he was just having fun and his comments were -- quote -- "lighthearted."

This whole literal thing once again. Did President Trump really sound like he was joking there?

That's next.



BERMAN: All right. Welcome back.

You're looking at live pictures of the White House. Just moments ago, President Trump made remarks at a women's empowerment panel. This was in the East Room.

In attendance, the first lady of the United States, Melania Trump, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, the head of the Small Business Administration, Linda McMahon, the head of Medicare and Medicaid, Seema Verma, also Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

Let's listen to the president.


TRUMP: Well, thank you very much.

What an amazing audience this is.


TRUMP: So many young faces that represent the future of leadership in our country. So true. Melania and I are deeply honored to join you.

And, Melania, thank you for being here.


TRUMP: So, as you know, Melania is a very highly accomplished woman, and really an inspiration to so many. And she is doing some great job.

In fact, I shouldn't say this, but her poll numbers went through the roof last week. What was that all about? Through the roof.


TRUMP: She has to give us the secret, Mike, right?


TRUMP: Anyway, I appreciate it very much.

My Cabinet is full of really incredible women leaders.

[16:15:04] Administrator Linda McMahon who has been a friend of mine for a long time, long time.


Has done an incredible job in business, by the way. Administrator Seema Verma, Secretary Betsy DeVos and, of course, my

good friend from South Carolina who is a very tough competitor, I want to tell you, Nikki Haley, ambassador. She's doing fantastically well.


And we're also joined by Florida attorney general, highly respected, Pam Bondi. So I want to thank you, Pam. Thank you.


Elaine Chao, our secretary of transportation who is a real expert. You know, she was secretary of labor, but she said I really wanted to be secretary of transportation. That's her real expertise and she's doing incredibly. She would have been here, but she's celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Department of Transportation right now as we speak, and we're going to work on infrastructure, and we are going to put up one of the big and great infrastructure bills of all time.


We're going to get our infrastructure fixed in our country. And we're going to rebuild our country, and that's what we need. Lots of jobs also.

And I want to thank Ford. You saw their big announcement yesterday and so many others are announcing tremendous numbers of jobs.


They're not leaving our country anymore, folks. They're staying and they're building right here.

So, we really have these -- these incredibly strong and dedicated leaders, and they are with me, and they are with us, and I'm very happy about it, and I want to thank you as being representative very much of our group. Thank you all very much. Thank you.


And I'm so proud that the White House and our administration is filled with so many women of such incredible talent. This week as we conclude Women's History Month, we honor a great woman of American history. Since the very beginning, women have driven, and I mean each generation of Americans toward a more free and more prosperous future.

Among these patriots are women like the legendary Abigail Adams, right)


Who during the founding urged her husband to remember the rights of women. She was very much a pioneer in that way.

We've been blessed with courageous heroes like Harriet Tubman who escaped slavery. (APPLAUSE)

And went on to deliver hundreds of others who freedom, first in the Underground Railroad and then as a spy for the Union Army. She was very, very courageous, believe me.


And we've had leader like Susan B. Anthony, have you heard of Susan B. Anthony?


I'm shocked that you've heard of her.

Who dreamed of a much more fair and equal future, an America where women themselves as she said helped to make laws and elect the lawmakers, and that's what's happening more and more. Tough competition out there. I want to tell you.

From the untamed frontiers of the western plains to the skyscrapers of Manhattan, American women in every generation have shown extraordinary grit, courage and devotion. Our present generation stands on the shoulders of these titans, and that's what they were and are, titans, only by enlisting the full potential of women in our society will we be truly able to -- you have not heard this expression before -- make America great again.


Who could expect?

Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you.

It's been a lot of fun. And we didn't get that one from Madison Avenue, right?

My administration will work every day to ensure that our economy is a place where women can work, succeed and thrive like never before. That includes fighting to make sure that all mothers and all families have access to affordable child care.


[16:20:11] We want every daughter in America to grow up in a country where she can believe in herself, believe in her future and follow her heart and realize her dreams.


And we want a country that celebrates family, that celebrates community and that creates a safe and loving home for every child, every child. That's what we want.

(APPLAUSE) Early this year I met with a remarkable group of leaders. They were women entrepreneurs from all across the country. They started their businesses from absolutely nothing and today have grown them into successful enterprises that employ hundreds and in certain cases even thousands of people. Just think of what our country could achieve if we unleashed the power of women entrepreneurs nationwide. Think of that.


So as a man I stand before you as president, but if I weren't president, I wouldn't be happy to hear that statement. That would be a very scary statement to me because there's no way we can compete with you, so I would not be happy.


Just wouldn't be happy.

One of the business owners I met, Lisa Phillips, used to be homeless. She's now the owner of an event planning company and trains homeless youth in Baltimore for good-paying jobs. Lisa had a message for all of us. As she put it, "This is a country of chances. If you're willing to work hard, you'll get the chance," and she means it, and she's become very successful. She's terrific.

Lisa is right, but we have to fight to ensure that more people have the chance to succeed. To do that, we must believe in each other and we must dare to dream of a better, brighter and more prosperous future for all of our citizens. We have no choice. That's what we have to do, and to be honest, whether you're a woman or whether you're a man, you have that same dream. You want to be able to dream. You just have a big advantage over us. You know why? Right there?


There's a lot of truth to that, Mike, right?

That's what I want for each and everyone, and each and every one of our daughters and our granddaughters, and I know together, we will get there. I want every young person in the audience today and watching from home, and they are all over the place, those cameras are all over, to know that the future truly belongs to you. We are Americans, and we will not stop until we have achieved our dreams.

I want to thank very much for being here. It's my great honor, I will tell you, to be here. In fact, Melania said this is something I just have to be at. She feels so strongly about it. She feels so strongly about it.


So thank you, God bless you and God bless America. Thank you very much. Thank you.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: President Trump speaking moments ago at a women's empowerment panel in the East Room of the White House. He talked about the need to unleash women entrepreneurs in the country. He also praised many of the women who fought for freedom in this country over the past 200 years, and he talked about his wife, Melania Trump, who said needed to be there, wanted to be there no matter what.

We're going to talk much more about Melania Trump coming up in a little bit. She gave a very rare speech today and a rare appearance in our nation's capital.

Meanwhile, some comments the president made overnight about U.S. troops in Iraq. He said they are fighting like they never have before, a statement that has some of questioning both his timing and his strategy.

Stay with us.


[16:28:52] BERMAN: Back now with our world lead.

President Trump raising some eyebrows right now saying U.S. soldiers are fighting like they never have before in Iraq. That's interesting in and of itself. Also, with no reference to the military commander that is potentially responsible for an airstrike that killed more than a hundred innocent civilians in Mosul last month.

CNN's Barbara Starr joins me now live from the Pentagon.

And, Barbara, today, press secretary -- White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the president is pleased with the progress in Iraq and thinks the campaign against ISIS is going well, but this is a bit of a different assessment than before he was president.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, it is, John, and I think it's beginning to raise an interesting question here. Is President Trump's military strategy really any different than President Obama's?


TRUMP: We're doing very well in Iraq.

STARR (voice-over): Rare comments on the war in Iraq from President Trump. He may have meant them as morale booster in chief but the timing seemed peculiar.

TRUMP: Our soldiers are fighting and fighting like never before.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: In this particular case, he was ignoring the fact that the really hard fighting occurred with the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and 2004 and 2007. STARR: The comments also come just after word of a formal

investigation into U.S.-led airstrike in Mosul, after more than 100 civilian deaths.