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White House under Fire for Limiting Transparency; Sen. Cotton Booed over Trump's Tax Returns; High-Stakes Election for GA Congressional Seat. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired April 18, 2017 - 10:00   ET

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


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[10:00:13]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Poppy Harlow. It is Tax Day in America. Have you filed?

BERMAN: Indeed I have.

HARLOW: All right. Also, the Trump administration facing new concerns over a lack of transparency, not just about the president not releasing his tax returns.

BERMAN: Yes. Also on the list of things you will not learn -- who is visiting the White House, who is golfing with the president. And that may just be the beginning. What we do know is that the president is going to Wisconsin today. He's trying to turn the focus back to some of the issues that got him elected and some of the places that got him elected. Joe Johns at the White House. Joe, the president headed to Wisconsin.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. He's headed to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Among the things he's doing is he's signing an executive order in line with his "Buy American, Hire American" initiative. "Buy American" refers to federal procurement laws and "Hire American" refers to bringing skilled workers in the United States from other countries.

Now, the president's trip to Wisconsin comes at a time where his job approval ratings appear near the bottom of the list compared to some other modern presidents. Want to call up the graphic now. Trump at 39 percent. President Obama was at 61 percent around this time. George W. Bush 55 percent, Bill Clinton 49 percent, George H.W. Bush 56 percent and Ronald Reagan actually topping that list at 67 percent. While the president is out in Wisconsin today, some of his very top aides will be back here at the White House debating whether the United States should stay or depart from the Paris Climate accord.

Now, this is a very hotly debated topic here at the White House and elsewhere. Our graphic shows that Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator and Steve Bannon, the chief strategist, oppose staying in the agreement, while you have three people, including the Secretary of State and Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner who want to stay in the climate accords. So, a very hotly debated topic here at the White House and we'll wait and see what happens. John and Poppy, back to you.

HARLOW: All right, Joe Johns at the White House as the president heads to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Thank you.

New this morning, Vice President Mike Pence speaking exclusively with CNN about the rising tension between North Korea and the U.S., calling North Korea's continued defiance, quote, "The most ominous threat in the region." He says North Korea is getting the message, though, that the Trump White House will take action, if necessary.

BERMAN: North Korea is getting the message. Listen to CNN's exclusive interview with the vice president. Dana Bash is traveling with him in Tokyo.

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DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: The North Koreans have noticed the things you've been saying while you have been here in Asia. In fact, the deputy ambassador to the U.N., from North Korea said that you and the administration, but was clearly responding to your words, you're creating a dangerous situation in which "thermonuclear war may break out at any moment." Would you like to respond to that?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, my hope is that the wider world and that the leadership in North Korea's listening to what President Trump and the world community is saying, that the time has come for them to abandon and dismantle their nuclear and ballistic missile program. My presence here, which the president strongly urged, even in this challenging time, is really to deliver that message. That we've really moved beyond the "era of strategic patience." We've moved beyond the failed dialogues of the past and now we've moved into an era where President Trump is absolutely committed to marshalling the energy of the world community, of countries in the Asian pacific, to use economic and diplomatic power to isolate North Korea and achieve the goal of a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

BASH: And they are listening. And the ambassador -- the deputy ambassador said that it sounds like you and the administration are insisting on "gangsterlike logic," that the idea of an invasion of the sovereign nation -- he was talking about your remarks, clearly about Syria and Afghanistan is -- it decreases the likelihood that this could end peacefully. Are you concerned that what you are saying is being taken in North Korea as saber rattling, despite the fact that you're also talking about diplomacy?

PENCE: I think what the president is concerned about, what countries that we've visited are concerned about, are the reckless and irresponsible actions of the regime in Pyongyang, another failed missile attempt notwithstanding this weekend, an unprecedented number of ballistic missile tests, testing nuclear weapons twice in the last year.

[10:05:11] The time has really come for North Korea to get the message. As the president says, it's time for them to behave, to listen to the world community and to set aside their nuclear ambitions, their ballistic missile ambitions and be willing to join the family of nations.

And for my part, in some odd way, it's encouraging that they're getting the message. And my hope is that they will continue to get the message, not just from the United States, here in Japan and in South Korea, but on an increasing basis from China and countries all over the world that long ago, committed to a denuclearized Korean Peninsula.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: All right, David Rohde is with us, our CNN global affairs analyst and national security investigations editor for "Reuters." Nice to have you here, I mean, the headline out of that is Pence says North Korea's getting the message. Really? I mean, what tells you that?

DAVID ROHDE, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: They're basing this all on the hope that China is going to do more to pressure North Korea.

HARLOW: So they hope North Korea --

ROHDE: Yes, yes. Sean Spicer said there was very encouraging signs from China. And there was the tweet over the weekend where President Trump said he didn't want to label China a currency manipulator while China was helping on North Korea. So that's the bet they're making. --

HARLOW: It's just not actually North Korea doing anything different.

ROHDE: No, I don't -- I mean, unless there's some intelligence they know, but I don't think so. They tried this missile test that failed. So they're giving China time and space. Very different approach than during the campaign when we -- you know, Trump criticized China, but that seems to be what they're doing is trusting Beijing.

BERMAN: Do you think there's any sign that this administration is -- other than tweets, other than some harsh words in tweets here or there -- that the administration is really doing anything different qualitatively toward North Korea than the previous administration?

ROHDE: Not specifically towards North Korea, but I do think the Syria missile strike and to a lesser extent, this big bomb in Afghanistan, showed that they're more willing to use force than the Obama administration --

BERMAN: And that's connected to North Korea, you think?

ROHDE: I think it was, yes -- it was unspoken, but it was a signal to North Korea and I think to China also, that there could be military conflict and that will possibly lead the Chinese to do more to resolve this diplomatically. HARLOW: Something very important happened this week in Turkey and that is that President Erdogan, who the U.S. under the Obama administration when he came into power really looked at him as a good sign, an ally, you know even a fighter for democracy and sort of the opposite has turned out to be the case. He's gotten a whole lot more power because of this, even though the results are not fully tallied, gets rid of the prime minister, et cetera.

And then President Trump calls him to congratulate him. And on the White House, that the call there is not one mention of the fact that there are a lot of concerns about how this election was carried out. This main opposition party is calling for a recount on this referendum, that a number of his opponents were physically intimidated and jailed. Does that strike you as not just odd but concerning?

ROHDE: Well, I think it is part of a pattern. President Trump invited President Sisi of Egypt to the White House. Obama didn't do that because of sweeping repression by the Egyptian government. So, this is another signal that Trump is not -- he's going to value military cooperation against terrorism over even publicly talking about Democratic norms. Past presidents haven't done that but he thinks, you know, military might is the way to counterterrorism.

And I just want to add, most experts disagree. It's a combination of military force and better governance in these countries. And you know, for the more liberal opposition, some space to operate. So you know, Trump is betting that military force alone is what matters -- you can crush ISIS with Turkey's help militarily, you can crush ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula with Egypt's help militarily.

BERMAN: This is not a policy, by the way. This is almost as explicit as it gets. When you call someone who won an election that many people think was rigged and the results of the election are controversial to begin with because it's granting him more power, I mean, that sends a very clear signal.

ROHDE: It does. And this -- you know and he ran on this. He's being very consistent. He is not talking about human rights. He is not talking about Democratic norms. He's talking about military force, you know, counterterrorism. Again, my broader concern is will military force alone and dictatorship crush ISIS? I don't think it will.

HARLOW: This is someone who's turning Turkey away from the secular and seeing more and more support from this president in doing so. Fascinating.

ROHDE: Yes, more authoritarian.

BERMAN: David Rohde, great to have you with us. Really appreciate it.

HARLOW: Thank you.

BERMAN: A lot going on this morning.

President Trump says that Americans don't care about his tax returns. In a poll, 68 percent of Americans say they do and this Republican senator found out when people booed him over it.

HARLOW: And the nationwide manhunt for a suspected killer. The search is intensifying as the victim's family says they already forgive the man who posted the murder of their loved one on Facebook.

Also, immigration arrests surging under the young Trump administration, but who is the United States kicking out? You're going to meet the people heading home.

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[10:13:53] HARLOW: It is Tax Day in America, as you all know and some Republicans might be ready to head back to D.C. with this type of reception at home. Senator Tom Cotton asked about the president's tax returns and all of that last night. Watch.

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SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: As far as I'm aware president says he's still under audit and he says he's going to release them.

(CROSSTALK)

The president, though -- the president is also right, this is not a secondary or a style in the campaign. It was a central issue in the campaign. Hillary Clinton and her campaign repeatedly criticized President Trump and he won despite all this. And as far as your points about his relationships overseas, I'll just make two replies.

First, every federal officeholder, every candidate for office follows a financial disclosure statement that shows your assets and your liabilities. And second, it doesn't take a lot of effort to find out where Donald Trump has connections overseas. He normally puts his names on buildings.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[10:15:04] BERMAN: I don't know if it's just me, but you get the sense the crowd did not like the answers that Senator Tom Cotton was giving there about President Trump and his tax returns.

Joining us now, CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, he was an adviser to many, many U.S. presidents, CNN political commentator John Phillips is here, radio talk show host and a political columnist, and CNN political commentator, former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, Angela Rye.

David Gergen, we heard that response that a Republican senator was getting from a crowd there, a town meeting in Arkansas. I wonder if that surprises you and if there is any real pressure, real pressure on Republicans to do anything about this?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST AND FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER TO NIXON, FORD, REAGAN AND CLINTON: It did surprise me. Tom Cotton is a popular senator across much of the Republican ranks across the country and he's been strong in Arkansas. So to see that, it's almost a flip, isn't it? Of what we used to see in Tea Party days when they showed up massively and were booing Democrats, but here you've got people showing up.

John, the population generally wants Trump to release his tax returns, but it has not been a major priority on our politics. Now pressure is mounting. We have 100,000 people or so in the streets this past weekend demanding that. And Democrats have now found an issue that they can use in pushing on tax reform and what will have to come out of the Congress.

The Democrats now think they have leverage on this issue and that they can shape the president's tax reform ideas in a way that they favor and it may also influence their capacity to have some greater say on health care reform because the president says I need to get health care reform done before I can turn to taxes. So --

HARLOW: Whether or not --

GERGEN: It's going to be a big story.

HARLOW: Whether or not -- you know, the Democrats can actually use this to their advantage in shaping what tax reform will look like -- I don't know about that, but I do know that, John Phillips, this did not hurt the president one ounce, one ounce, in the election. I mean, this was the rallying cry, this was the chant. It didn't hurt him then. Is there any reason to think it hurts him now?

JOHN PHILLIPS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND TALK RADIO HOST: I don't think so. In looking at that clip, I think it was much ado about nothing. There's more drama on any given United Airlines flight than we saw, that town hall meeting with Tom Cotton. These are people who didn't vote for the president. They didn't like him back during the campaign. They don't like him now. --

HARLOW: That's not totally true. That's not totally true. I mean, you've got, you know, more than a dozen Republican lawmakers who have called on the president to release his tax returns. It's not much ado about nothing. The question is does it hurt the president?

PHILLIPS: That crowd did not look like a bunch of Trump voters to me and --

HARLOW: What do Trump voters look like? Hold on, hold on. What do Trump voters look like then, John?

PHILLIPS: Not screaming about taxes!

HARLOW: OK.

PHILLIPS: I've spoken to many of them on the radio show. Very few of them, if any, have ever brought it up. But look, what these ginned-up audiences can produce more than anything is trouble for the Democrats electorally in the midterms. They're not likely to flip. They're not likely to go from Trump to voting for the Democrats in the midterms. These people are much more likely to cause trouble in the Democratic primaries and push the Democratic Party to the left. They are much more likely to primary Joe Manchin in West Virginia, Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota and that's a huge problem for the Democrats if they succeed. They'd better worry about the monster they're creating.

BERMAN: You see what John Phillips just did there, Angela? He said the tax return -- hang on David, one second. Angela Rye, John Phillips is saying the tax return from the president is going to hurt Democrats. Do you agree?

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS: I don't agree and actually, I think that this is a unifying issue not just Democrats but for more moderate Republicans. I also think it's interesting that he's forecasted his -- he's got telepathy, he said he knows what a Trump voter looks like, from who calls in the radio show. John, kudos to you. But I think it's really interesting to me that if over 60 percent of the American people say, this is an issue that's important to them. It's not --

BERMAN: 68 percent.

RYE: 68 percent. It's not just about the tax returns. It's what it means about his character, about the lack of transparency, that's why this is a big issue for Democrats. It's not about going back to campaign issues. They're saying, hey, this is becoming pattern and practice of this administration. There are a lot of things going on that we don't understand and it's time for some answers.

HARLOW: So, I've been looking for this all morning. We were talking before the show. It is the case that the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, David Gergen, do have the subpoena power to subpoena the president's tax returns. So, Democrats can make the argument that if you put us in power, right, if you put us in power in the midterms, we can do that. We can bring this transparency.

GERGEN: Well, yes, but the truth is, of course, the Democrats don't control the committee. The Republicans do.

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HARLOW: Right, they're saying --

GERGEN: So they're using the subpoena power --

HARLOW: Right --

GERGEN: -- is extremely unlikely.

HARLOW: They're saying that -- if they do take power, right? If they do control these committees down the road, then they will be able to do things like this.

GERGEN: I think that's right there. Well, of course, if the Democrats take over the House.

[10:20:01] They're going to be able to do a lot of things. They're going to be able to block Trump's legislation. They're going to be able to put -- you know, do things like issuing subpoenas. And some Democrats think they could potentially start some sort of impeachment hearings. But that's a long, long way down the road. I think we have to get here to 2018.

And my argument is I don't think -- I think it is right that the tax returns did not -- cost Trump much during the elections. But I think that the atmosphere has changed. A sense of secrecy in the Trump administration, the sense that his family is enriching themselves and now, when you get the tax returns, people are going to ask about, well, if we get rid of the estate tax, if we change the laws with regard to real estate, is that going to enrich the Trump family or not enrich the Trump family? And don't we have to see the tax returns in order to make a decision on that? And by the way, would the tax returns tell us whether or not he's ad hoc to the Russians. And whether that has something -- those are the kinds of questions that the Democrats are now seizing on and you can see the landscape changing. It's not intense pressure yet on the president, but it is building.

BERMAN: John Phillips, you like transparency, correct?

PHILLIPS: I do.

BERMAN: And you would agree that this is not the most transparent White House we've seen in, say, the last you know, 20 years, let alone the last six months?

(LAUGHTER)

PHILLIPS: Look, I don't think we've had very many transparent White Houses in the last 20 years.

BERMAN: But this one is particularly nontransparent. I guess opaque would be the word there, correct?

PHILLIPS: I'll say this. Maggie Haberman of "The New York Times" said this is the most accessible White House that she's ever covered.

BERMAN: There is that. She did say that. I mean, that you know the people in the White House -- the White House staffs are there. But Angela Rye, last word to you on transparency.

RYE: Yes. I think, again, you know David hit the nail on the head, I mentioned it earlier. There's an issue with secrecy. There is an issue with some -- there are seemingly a number of people in the Trump sphere that have connections that are troubling to Russia, the fact that he won't release his tax returns, the fact that this was a campaign issue that didn't stick, but it's something that may stick now because the culture has shifted.

BERMAN: Yes. I mean, it hasn't yet. Let's just be clear, it hasn't stuck once as far as we know, so the next time it sticks will be the first time. Angel Angela Rye, David Gergen, John Phillips, great to have you with us.

There is other big political news today, the biggest election, no doubt, since the one last November, a House race that Democrats desperately want, Republicans fighting furiously to keep it. Which way will it go? We'll tell you next.

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[10:27:02] HARLOW: So, right now the polls are open in a high-stakes special election in Georgia, a slew of candidates running for an open Congressional seat. A top contender, Democrat Jon Ossoff, he has certainly had celebrity endorsements, a ton of money pouring in and he is giving Republicans a run for their money in a seat that Republicans have held since the '70s.

BERMAN: Yes, this morning the president took aim. He wrote "Democrat Jon Ossoff would be a disaster in Congress. Very weak on crime and illegal immigration, bad for jobs and wants higher taxes. Say no." And last night, again, Republicans were clearly nervous, released this robocall.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Only you can stop the super liberal Democrats and Nancy Pelosi's group and in particular Jon Ossoff.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: The menacing, purple squiggly line. CNN's Jason Carroll covering this for us in Georgia. Jason, the polls are open and people are out.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They are open and people are out and a lot of people are watching in terms of what's going to happen here at these polls. And all eyes seem to be on this man, Jon Ossoff, political novice who has managed to raise more than $8 million for his campaign. Unheard of, considering this is someone 30 years old, again, political novice, someone who has managed to tap into some of that political angst among Democrats over Donald Trump.

The question is can he do it? Can he pull out enough here to avoid a runoff? And that's still very much a question mark here. Certainly, a number of GOP candidates say he doesn't have what it takes to ultimately win here in this district, which has been overwhelmingly Republican for decades. But you look at what happened here, John and Poppy, in November. Donald Trump won this district narrowly, just by 1 percent. If you look at what happened here in 2012, when Mitt Romney won the district by some 20 points.

So, you can see there's been a very big difference here. Jon Ossoff has made this campaign basically a referendum on Donald Trump. Donald Trump doesn't mind that at all. In fact, he's been tweeting about it. You saw that there. He talked about it again this morning. Ossoff, for his point, talked about what it's like to be called out by the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JON OSSOFF (D), GEORGIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: I appreciate the president's interest. It sounds like he's misinformed about my priorities.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: What makes you think you have a chance to win?

OSSOFF: Well, the polling and the early vote numbers show that we're within striking distance. We are certainly going for an outright win here today, but a special election is special. It's notoriously difficult to predict. It's all going to come out to turnout.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CARROLL: Well, he needs 50 percent or more of the vote in order to avoid that runoff. And the GOP candidates are expecting that this will end up in a runoff election and they say one of the GOP candidates will eventually pull out a win. John, Poppy?

BERMAN: All right, Jason Carroll for us where the action is happening in Georgia. Joining us now, someone with a keen interest in this race, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Congressman Steve Stivers of Ohio. Congressman, thanks for being with us. It is your job to re-elect Republicans, to get new Republicans in office.