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Interview with Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska; Sessions Ends Obama-Era Policy On Legalized Pot. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired January 4, 2018 - 16:30   ET



[16:32:25] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: We're back with our world lead.

A new book paints the Trump White House in utter dysfunction and the president at times completely disengaged. But this comes as the Trump administration is facing a number of foreign policy challenges including a nuclear standoff with North Korea, thousands of protesters taking to the streets in Iran, and escalating tensions with Russia.

Joining me now to talk about this is Republican Senator Dan Sullivan of Alaska. He serves on the Armed Services Committee and he's currently a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, and he's fought all over the world.

Senator, I want to ask you any number of questions. You just came back from the White House to a meeting with the president. What was he focused on?

SEN. DAN SULLIVAN (R), ALASKA: Yes. Well, first, happy New Year, Jake. Happy to be back on the show.

TAPPER: You as well, sir.

SULLIVAN: We had a very good discussion. The president was focused, engaged. We're talking mostly about the 2018 agenda. Growing the economy, energy -- which is important certainly for Alaska -- infrastructure, permitting reform. There's wide ranging discussion, trade.

But look, the president and the Congress just came off a historic tax reform that we think is going to really grow the economy. So, there was a lot of I think good feelings in the meeting with a couple other senators. It was good meeting.

TAPPER: Well, let me ask you, because you just heard Jamie Raskin, the Democrat from Maryland, talking about the president's fitness. And you were just there in a room with him.

SULLIVAN: Yes. Look, Congressman Raskin I think needs to focus on the economy, right? When I'm back home in Alaska, people aren't talking about, you know, the stories like the book that just came out, which, you know, is not making -- most people aren't focused on it. They're focused on growing the economy, creating better jobs and, you know, in this regard, the president, his team, and the Congress are starting to put some points on the board, important points.

So, I think that's where the American people are focused. Those kind of issues. Not some of these inside-the-beltway issues that gets a lot of attention.

TAPPER: Let me ask you about North Korea.


TAPPER: You're on the Senate Armed Services Committee and, obviously, Alaska has concerns about North Korea and their missile abilities. President Trump says he's the reason for the diplomatic opening. He tweeted, quote, after claiming that his -- oh, I'm sorry, that's not -- after claiming that his nuclear button is bigger than Kim Jong- un's, he said his critics are fools.

And here's how your colleague, Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas responded to the president's tweet. He said: It's a very serious issue, and I don't know how anybody's interests are served by escalating the rhetoric. That's the original tweet about his, his nuclear button is bigger.


TAPPER: Do you agree with Senator Cornyn?

SULLIVAN: Look, I think it's difficult to conduct effective foreign policy by tweet and particularly with regard to North Korea, if you look at the leadership of that regime over the decades, they're always putting out bombastic language. I think trying to keep up with them is not the way we should be focused.

[16:35:01] To the Trump administration's credit, and what the tweeting does, it actually takes away from the focus on the actions. And the administration has made a lot of progress with three U.N. Security Council resolutions that have been unanimously passed in the Security Council, economic and diplomatic isolation, getting China engaged, and as I talked about before, building up our nation's missile defense.

So, in terms of action --


SULLIVAN: -- I think we're making good progress, but, you know, we've got a long way to go. This is a huge challenge that's bedeviled, you know, numerous administrations and now, it's in the Trump administration's lap.

TAPPER: And there are a lot of people who think the national security advisor, General H.R. McMaster, thinks that war is inevitable, thinks that a strike is inevitable. Listen to what McMaster recently told the BBC about North Korea.


LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, UNITED STATES NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: We're not committed to a peaceful -- we're committed to a resolution. We want the resolution to be peaceful. But as the president has said, you know, all options are on the table, and we have to -- we have to be prepared if necessary to compel the denuclearization of North Korea without the cooperation of that regime.


TAPPER: Not committed to a peaceful resolution, just a resolution and have to be prepared to compel the denuclearization. And McMaster has also said he doesn't think that Kim Jong-un can be deterred.


TAPPER: That sounds like somebody who thinks that U.S. strikes against North Korea and thus war is inevitable.

SULLIVAN: Well, look, every president prepares for credible military options and this president is no different. As a matter of fact, I've had numerous discussions with General McMaster, with Secretary Mattis on these issues and in some ways have incredible military options makes diplomacy more effective.

And you're seeing effective diplomacy right now with Ambassador Haley, Secretary Tillerson. But I think it's an important topic to also raise, if part of those credible military options include a preventive ground war on the Korean peninsula, that is an issue for the Congress. That is an issue that needs to be authorized by the Congress, under Article I of the Constitution, and that's a discussion I've also had with the administration both in public and private.

TAPPER: Do3 you think they respect it. Do you think they would bring it to Congress?

SULLIVAN: They respect it, most respect it. As a matter of fact, in General Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, reconfirmation hearing just a couple of months ago, I asked this question to him in an open hearing, and he said having the American people backing them is very important. So I think that that's an issue that -- you know, the Trump administration should want Congress supporting it, it'll be, you know, a robust debate.

But I think the Article I powers of Congress should have that authority with us, and that's important.

TAPPER: Coequal branch of government.

Thank you so much, Senator. Good see you as always. Happy New Year.

SULLIVAN: All right. Happy New Year.

TAPPER: Pot sales generating millions of dollars a year for some states coffers. And the big question is, is a new move by the Attorney General Jeff Sessions is going to send those earnings up in smoke?

We'll take a look next. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:41:30] TAPPER: We're back with the national lead.

As a candidate, Donald Trump said that he would take a hands-off approach, letting states to decide what to do about legalizing marijuana free from federal interference. But today, his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, is singing a different tune. He's rescinding the Obama era policy and returning to what Sessions called the rule of law, a move outraging even some in the Republican Party.

CNN's Tom Foreman joins me now.

Tom, was this expected?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was in some ways and in other ways not. That's the only way to describe it, because the legalization of marijuana has been spreading like wild fire across this country and you're right, Donald Trump gave no hint when he was running that he was opposed to that, and yet, now his administration has growers and sellers in dozens of states alarmed.


FOREMAN (voice-over): For a president who has relentlessly promised to get the federal government out of the way of states, businesses and individuals --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For every one new regulation, two old regulations must be eliminated.

FOREMAN: -- the new stance on marijuana seems a sudden turnaround and an outrageous one for some.

On Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Cory Gardner from Colorado erupting.

SEN. CORY GARDNER (R), COLORADO: And we were told that state rights would be protected.

FOREMAN: Saying he was promised no such move was coming.

GARDNER: I will be putting today a hold on every single nomination from the Department of Justice, until Attorney General Jeff Sessions lives up to the commitment he made to me.

FOREMAN: President Obama often criticized the enforcement of pot laws.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT: When you end up having very heavy criminal penalties for individual users that have been applied unevenly, and in some cases with racial disparity, I think that is a problem.

FOREMAN: And the nation has clearly been moving his way. Gallup found a record 64 Americans in favor of legalizing pot last fall. And in the 22 years since California approved medical marijuana, the National Conference of State Legislatures notes 28 more states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have enacted similar laws, including Colorado which is one of a handful allowing recreational use. The pot industry there has now valued well over a billion dollars, generating hundreds of millions in tax revenues.

Did candidate Trump want to interfere with that?

TRUMP: I wouldn't do that, no.

REPORTER: So you think Colorado should be able to do what it's doing?

TRUMP: No, I think it's up to the states, yes, I'm a states person. I think it should be up to the states, absolutely.

FOREMAN: But now that he is president, some who staked their livelihoods on the burgeoning business are at best bummed.

AARON SMITH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL CANNABIS INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION: We fully expected the president to uphold his campaign pledge to stay out of the way of these laws that are working so well in the states across the country.


FOREMAN: Now, Attorney General Sessions did not go as far as some advocates feared. He stopped short of explicitly directing more prosecutions, resources, or other efforts to take the industry down as a whole. Nonetheless, on this very cold day, his words are having a chilling effect.

TAPPER: All right. Tom Foreman, thank you so much.

Lots more to talk about. This just in: Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer tells CNN that he quote, screwed up.

Don't go anywhere. We'll have more on that.



[16:45:00] SEAN SPICER, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY, WHITE HOUSE: There were times where I screwed up. There's no question about it.

S.E. CUPP, HLN HOST: Give me one.

SPICER: I mean, the inauguration. You brought it up. I would say that's first and foremost. There was an event where I was trying to talk about how evil Assad was.

CUPP: Right.

SPICER: And I screwed that up royally.

CUPP: In front of Hitler, right. SPICER: Thank you for reminding me. But those were days where I went back, and look, I'm a self-critical person. And I sat back and said, you know, it's not my credibility. I honestly went out every day to do the best job I could for the President of the United States who gave me an unbelievable honor and to basically do the best job I could for the American people. Because that's ultimately who you serve. So when I screwed up, yes, it felt really bad.


JAKE TAPPER CNN HOST: That was former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer talking with our own S.E. Cupp on HLN finally admitting some mistakes that he made. I want to bring in my panel. So the Sean Spicer redemption tour, I don't know, maybe there's Americans out there who kind of miss Sean Spicer.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, Sean -- think of the millions or thousands of things they say on a daily basis, weekly basis, and monthly basis, sure they're going to screw up. I think we all make mistakes and I think bravo for him for pointing it out. I think what really hurt him more than anything is when it wasn't an honest mistake, it was pushing out information that just wasn't factually accurate and that hurts him more long-term than making an honest mistake.

TAPPER: But here's a defense of Sean Spicer, is the fault the salesman or the product? I mean, like, he had to defend things that President Trump said that weren't true.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But he chose to do that, right? So if you decide to work for somebody who's going to make you go out there and say things that aren't true, then I do think you're held accountable for that. But I'm not saying I think -- look, I mean, Sean Spicer made mistakes, if he's sorry, I'm all about forgiveness because I need so much forgiveness in my own life. I'd like to give it to other people and there's nothing wrong with that. But I do think he has to kind of own up to the fact that he did choose to work for this person who asked him to go out and say things that weren't true. Like the thing -- yes, the one example that he talked about was an honest mistake I think when he was talking about Assad. The other one, he went out and intentionally pushed the story. You know --

[16:50:31] TAPPER: The lie about who had the bigger inaugural crowd.

POWERS: Yes. That was clearly untrue and continued to do it and was very kind of self-righteous about it. So I would have been interested to know like what led you to do something like that? Why were you -- was the President bearing down on you? Was he threatening you? What would make a person go out there and do that, to say something that's so obvious --

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, COLUMNIST, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Well, I think a lot much reporters probably take issue with many things that say Sarah Huckabee Sanders has said from behind the podium as many press secretaries have said things that -- I don't know if that's true. But my perception, she still has a relatively good relationship with these reporters even if it's sort adversarial on television a little bit. At least behind the scenes, it's very positive which my sense from the stories you hear reported about Sean Spicer is that that was not always necessarily the case with him.

TAPPER: Speaking of Sarah Sanders, she was asked earlier about Steve Bannon and his future at Breitbart where I believe he's the CEO. Take a listen.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Should Breitbart part ways with Steve Bannon after the comments in the book?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, PRESS SECRETARY, WHITE HOUSE: I certainly think that it's something they should look at and consider.


TAPPER: So that is the spokesperson for the United States Government for the Trump White House saying that Breitbart should consider and look at firing Steve Bannon or parting ways with Steve Bannon. We should point out, she said the same thing about Jemele Hill, the ESPN Anchor, after Jemele Hill was critical of President Trump. But I will bring up now as I I brought up then, is it appropriate for a White House to weigh in on who a private business employs.

ANDERSON: I think the correct answer in that situation is, the White House is not taking a position on who private companies employ, period. Whether it's ESPN or whether it's Breitbart, but I will say it's very interesting, amongst conservatives who are not really fans of this administration, there has been a lot of hand-wringing in recent months and years that Breitbart has itself gone far away from the mission that Andrew Breitbart himself had sort of stood for. And just today, you had Donald Trump Jr. sort of tweeting that same thing. The sort of statement you would have seen from a never Trumper over the last year or two about sadness at the direction that Breitbart has gone, now seeing it from the Trump family themselves is a very interesting development.

STEWART: Well, what happens obviously is you know, Bannon has said a lot of critical things since he's left the White House. But once it got personal and this information came out him talking about Jared and about Melania and about the family and about what happened on election night, then all the gloves were off at the White House. They were going to attack him every which way they possibly can. And now there's an opportunity to get him in the pocketbook at Breitbart. An I'm not surprised she answered the question that way and I think it's going to continue to be more negative comments about Bannon as we move forward.

POWERS: Yes, you have to color me a cynic on this whole he's upset because the family got attacked thing because I think what really bothers him is that Bannon was talking about the fact that Bannon won the presidency and that he portrayed the president as not being in charge. If you look at the statement, there's nothing about the, oh my children, it's all about how useless Bannon is basically.

TAPPER: All right, we're going to take a quick break. Coming up, for your consideration, how late night comedians are vying for top out honors from the President in his made up fake news awards show, stay with us.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: Our "POP CULTURE LEAD" now, you might have missed it since it came in between the President's tweet in which he claimed his nuclear button was bigger than Kim Jong-un's and the maelstrom of news surrounding the book that prompted the President to attack his former Senior Strategist Steve Bannon, but, President Trump earlier this week said he would on Monday announce, "the most dishonest and corrupt media awards of the year. Subjects will cover dishonesty and bad reporting in various categories from the fake news media, stay tuned." Now just as real movie productions are buying those for your consideration ads and Hollywood trade papers, this awards season, T.V. comedy hosts are now hoping to receive a nomination for what they're calling the fakies. Let's night, Stephen Colbert even made his pitch on air. Here are some of the categories he hopes to be nominated in.


STEPHEN COLBERT, COMEDIAN: At least Breitbarty, the Eric Trump memorial award for disappointment, fakest dishonesty, corruptist fakeness, dishonest discorruption and smallest button.


TAPPER: The Daily Show Host Trevor Noah tweeted and add @realDonaldTrump listing his critically acclaimed dimensions over the last year, there's Breitbart news calling his show political propaganda disguised as entertainment, Fox And News once asking isn't the Daily Show a fake news show? The New York Post calling him a monotonous liberal dogma. Our friend Samantha Bee Host of Full Frontal on our corporate cousin TBS tweeted, "nice try Colbert Late Show and the Daily Show but we're sweeping the dishonesties this year. P.S. @realDonaldTrump, how about a female host next time?"

Now, we should note when President Trump attacks fake news, he often means actual breaking news stories. Well-reported and accurate that he doesn't like. So we're not sure if Colbert and Noah and Bee really qualify. But nonetheless, we wish them good luck and Godspeed. Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or tweet the show @THELEADCNN. That's it for us today. I'm back at 10:00 p.m. Eastern for our last special prime time edition of THE LEAD this week. I turn you over now to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer, he's next door in a place I like to call "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.