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Interview with Senator Rob Portman of Ohio; Trump Open to Citizenship for Dreamers in 10-12 Years. Aired 4:30-4:45p ET

Aired January 25, 2018 - 16:30   ET



[16:31:28] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome back. We're back with breaking news.

Conspiracy theories and efforts to undermine the FBI seemingly led by members of Congress, the conspiracy theories seem to be falling apart right now.

Joining me to discuss this and much more, Senator Rob Portman, Republican of Ohio.

Senator, good to see you.

SEN. ROB PORTMAN (R), OHIO: Good to see you.

TAPPER: I know you want to talk about the opioid epidemic, and I do want to get to that. But before I do, I have to ask this -- sources now believe that the secret society text that was sent between these two FBI officials, that was a reference to a gag gift, Putin calendars given out to those working in the Russian investigation. What do you say to critics of both parties saying Republican office holders on Capitol Hill need to calm down and just stick to the facts here?

PORTMAN: Well, I think both sides do. I think we've got to rely on these investigations. I've supported the Mueller investigation from the start to get to the bottom of this. I also think that Senate Intelligence Committee's doing good bipartisan work.

I will say, Jake, I hope they report pretty soon, because, you know, I think the American people are looking for some answers here, but the underlying problem, as you recall, is that the Russians meddled in our election. We need to find out why they did it, how they did it, how we avoid it in the future, and there's a broader problem here, which is they're doing the same with a lot of our allies. And they're trying to disrupt our alliances around the world. They're trying to undermine our institutions, and that's a serious issue we've got to get to the bottom of it.

TAPPER: It's a huge issue, but a lot of your colleagues, not you, but a lot of your colleagues have been spending a lot of time and a lot of capital trying to undermine the Mueller investigation, not just oversight, which is, of course, fine, and just criticism, which is, of course, appropriate, but conspiracy theories, ands impugning the integrity of the entire FBI and of Robert Mueller, who you support. That must bother you.

PORTMAN: Yes. I mean, in terms of these most recent allegations, let's let the FBI look into these allegations of misconduct. It is clear to me that some of the people involved, some of the prosecutors had strong political beliefs. The question is, did they allow those political beliefs to influence their work? If they did, it's good they were booted, one, and Mueller took steps, as I understand it, to relieve one of them of his duties. But, second, we have to know about that.

But that's something the FBI ought to investigate. I'm sure that Jeff Sessions and the Justice Department would be are interested in doing that. So, I just think we have to kick this back into the process, and allow the American people to see a thoughtful nonpartisan report on this.

TAPPER: So, take a listen to President Trump in this impromptu conversation with reporters, asked about collusion. He dismissed the Russian investigation.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can tell you, there's no collusion. I couldn't have cared less about Russians having to do with my campaign.


TAPPER: Let's pause it for the sake of argument. There was no collusion. We still know that as you say, the intelligence community asserts Russians interfered in the election. We know that Russians reached out to the Trump campaign aide. We know Russians reached out to the president's son, Don Jr. Are you concerned President Trump doesn't take this seriously enough?

PORTMAN: Well, as I said in the past, I think he's been too defensive. In other words, he does not believe there's been any collusion. And, by the way, I've seen no evidence of collusion either. I don't think any of us have.

Let's allow this investigation to go through, and have the facts go where they may. But -- so he is responding to someone on the other side who are claiming collusion without evidence. So, yes, he's going to push back and say, I was there. There was no collusion.

But again, let's allow the reports to be completed. Let's allow the Senate Intelligence Committee to do its work, which is more focused on the Russian threat. Let's allow the FBI and the special counsel to do their work.

My understanding is he has offered to speak with the special counsel. I think that's a positive development. And, you know, I hope we can again have these reports come out sooner rather than later.

[16:35:01] TAPPER: Turning to the opioid epidemic, which is, of course, a huge issue in your home state of Ohio, where the Health Department estimates that today alone, some eight Ohioans will die because of the opioid epidemic. This week, Democratic congressman, former congressman, Patrick Kennedy, on the opioid commission, told CNN the president's, quote, emergency declaration helped little because there's no funding behind it. You can't expect to stem the tide of a public health crisis is claiming 64,000 lives a year without putting your money where your mouth is.

Is he right? And what more needs to be done?

PORTMAN: Well, sure, we need to do more. But we've actually done a lot in terms of funding and changing some laws already. As you know, I'm the co-author of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act which put more money against the problem. But more importantly, it's put it towards evidence based things that are actually working in terms of treatment and recovery and even prevention. Hundreds of millions of dollars more were spent this year than last year.

But we've got to do it again. We've got to actually up the spending further because the crisis has not abated. He's gotten worse, not better, Jake.

In my home state of Ohio, more overdoses this last year than the previous year, we believe, and the our biggest problem in Ohio now is not heroin, it's the synthetic opioid. It's coming through the United States mail system. That's what our report was on. It was issued last night, and our hearing was on today.

It is outrageous to me that as a government, we're not pushing back more on that. We know for a fact that this opioid problem is being made much worse by synthetic heroin made in China, shipped through our mail system to our citizens' houses and we traced this. We have a shocking report last night, showing how this is happening. How easy it is to buy the stuff, and how the U.S. mail system is being used as a conduit.

TAPPER: All right. Keep up the work on that important topic, senator, thank you so much for your time. Appreciate it.

PORTMAN: Thanks, Jake.

TAPPER: It's always good to see you.

PORTMAN: Likewise.

TAPPER: Is President Trump practicing the art of the deal by not showing his hand on immigration reform or is he just changing his position on a whim, causing confusion as lawmakers try to reach their own agreement?

Plus, she was supposed to go to Davos with her husband, but instead, first lady Melania Trump is taking a surprise trip to where?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:41:09] TAPPER: For more than a week now, the president has been confusing Republican lawmakers when it comes to his precise position on immigration reform, during this increasingly bitter muddled negotiation on Capitol Hill. Multiple Republican senators and members of the House publicly complained they cannot negotiate a path forward without knowing what President Trump is willing to sign.

Now, a key question has been whether the president is even willing to sign any legislation that includes legal status for the Dreamers, the 690,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

In November, the president described the Democrats' push for Dreamer protections as, quote, Dems shouldn't hold troop funding hostage for amnesty and illegal immigration. Then, a few days ago after Democrats forced a government shut down over the status of the Dreamers, the president tweeted, quote, Democrats are holding our military hostage over their desire to have unchecked illegal immigration. Can't let that happen.

And the Trump campaign released a web ad casting the debate this way.


AD ANNOUNCER: Democrats who stand in our way will be complicit in every murder committed by illegal immigrants.


TAPPER: But last night, the president walked unexpectedly into the press room saying Dreamers should qualify for a path to citizenship.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Over a period of 10 to 12 years, somebody does a great job, they've worked hard, it gives incentive to do a great job. If they do a great job, I think it's a nice thing to have the incentive of after a period of years being able to become a citizen.


TAPPER: And needless to say, this stunned observers especially since his timeline of 10 to 12 years roughly matches up with the bipartisan agreement that the Gang of Six senators has been working on. It's the same framework the White House had declared dead on arrival yesterday. There are other significant differences between the two proposals, but the fact is the confusion over what precisely the president is willing to sign into law has been difficult for those negotiating.

Now, some Republicans have been saying that the president has been an unreliable partner. You might recall earlier this month as Congress worked towards a bill that would give the Dreamers a pathway while increasing border security measures, President Trump invited officials to the White House to hear what he envisioned. He called it a bill of love, just come to an agreement on any bill, he said, and I will sign it. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I'll take the heat. I don't care. I don't care. I'll take all the heat you want to give me. And I'll take the heat off both the Democrats and the Republicans.


TAPPER: The president stuck to that pledge until he felt the heat two days later, when suddenly he backed away from the agreement that some members of that bipartisan group came up with, while also making clear he wanted more people from Norway and fewer from what he called s-hole countries in Africa coming to the U.S. The president's Congress last night proposing a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers appeared to come as a surprise to even White House staffers who had said earlier that day they would reveal next week, on Monday, a legislative frame work emphasizing border security measures on the wall. And it resulted in fringe far right sites like "Breitbart" calling the president "Amnesty Don".

So, the question now, of course, if the president feels, again, might he change his position again?

I want to bring back my panel to discuss this.

So, Tara, let me start with you. The president's already feeling heat from supporters. You saw "Breitbart" calling him Amnesty Don. Obviously, there are people on the right of his party who don't want anything for the Dreamers.

Were you surprised with his comments last night?

TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Not really because he's vacillated on this issue so much. Maybe if he had not said the bill of love thing about two weeks ago, possibly, I would have been like, oh. But I can tell you, as someone who worked on the immigration issue for many years on Capitol Hill, I was there during the 2007 fight about comprehensive immigration reform, the last time we really had any substantive debate about this legislatively, and I can tell you that the Republican hard-liners on this, this was a collective thump from them falling over.

Amnesty, pathway to citizenship, those terms are anathema to this discussion. So, particularly when the message was supposed to be border security first, then we can discuss whether it's legalization or the pathway, that's secondary. We have to have border security. That was the messaging that the Republicans in the White House were seemingly on, and then Trump comes out and does this. This does not help their position because it opens the door for Democrats to say, oh, see, this is what we wanted. I don't see how the hard liners in the House are going to be very amenable to this citizenship aspect of it. And you already had in the Senate side Ted Cruz coming out and saying absolutely not, Marco Rubio is saying absolutely not as well.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Joan, is this strategic do you think or does he just says what's on -- JOAN WALSH, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He just says what's on his

mind. And when he gets home and he talks to President Kelly and Vice President Stephen Miller, he's going to be in a lot of trouble because this was not authorized. This is -- this is -- I don't know if it's what he really believes.I have no idea what he believes. I have no idea what he really believes. He does vacillate back to this point periodically, but he will go back to the hardline and he will deny saying this, and they will -- they will get him in line. He's just wandered a little bit too far.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, no one knows what he believes on immigration because he contradicts himself all the time. If you go back to the campaign, he said he was going to terminate DACA the minute he got into office because it was an abuse of power by the Obama administration and was illegal. Then he waivered on it. I asked about this almost every single week during the first six months of the Trump administration, and he never did anything about it. And then he rescinded the program, but only because he has his hand forced and tasked Congress with coming up with a solution to it. So this is not the same president. He doesn't have any immigration policies at all. Look at what we've had with the wall. It's gone from who's going to pay for it, what's it going to look like, where is it going to be? And that's changed on a consistent basis. This President does not have an immigration policy.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. She was supposed to be in Switzerland with her husband and the President, so why did Melania Trump just make a surprise trip to Florida? That's next.


[16:50:00] TAPPER: President Trump is spending the night in Davos without the First Lady. At the last minute, Melania, at Trump's office announced she would skip the trip to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Instead, the First Lady made an unexpected trip to West Palm Beach, Florida today after spending her morning at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I want to bring in CNN's Kate Bennett. Kate, do we know why Melania Trump went to Florida and not to Davos with her husband, the President?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: We really don't, Jake. In fact, this whole day has been sort of an unannounced mystery from Melania Trump. We didn't know ahead of time that she will be going to the Holocaust Museum here in Washington. We learned about that via Twitter from her Communications Director and later from the First Lady. Saturday is Holocaust Remembrance Day, and this is why she went, but we also didn't know she would be taking a plane down to West Palm Beach. We happened to notice the plane and tracked it, that it was a military plane, and it turned out that, yes, our law enforcement sources did say that the First Lady did get off the plane. So, you know, again, this is the First Lady who doesn't put out a regular guidance on her schedule. She does not let us know with a big head's up what she's up to, and especially this past couple of weeks. She's been laying low.

TAPPER: Well, I would think so, because, of course, there's been some cringe-inducing stories in the first few weeks of this year, including particularly former adult star Stormy Daniels, who according to the Wall Street Journal, her husband's lawyer paid money to exchange for her silence about their alleged affair.

BENNETT: Right, it has to be a difficult time. You know, 2018, so far, she kicked off with hiring three new staff members and sort of felt this momentum, but then shortly thereafter, as you said, the story broke. She was going to Davos. She was going to be there when the President gave a speech, and CNN was told she wasn't going to Davos. It certainly has been sort of a rocky road. And we can only look at those clues like last Saturday when she posted on Twitter the anniversary of the inauguration with herself and sort of a military escort from that day, not her husband, no mention of her husband, and, certainly, you know, this has been sort of a trying time, and when you don't hear from her a lot, and we just look at these non-verbal cues, or at her schedule or what she's up to, it's not on us to infer, but one can imagine that these headlines of Stormy Daniels have not made it for -- an easy time for her.

TAPPER: I would think not. Kate Bennett, thank you so much. I appreciate it. And in the "MONEY LEAD" today, if you dread flying, there's a little good news today, Southwest and American Airlines announced they're flying bigger planes on more rounds. That means more seats on more flights. So theoretically, prices could drop. United made the same announcement on Tuesday, and if you get stranded because of bad weather or maintenance problem, American and Delta are teaming up so you can rebook with either of them instead of having to stick with the same carrier. We're going to take a quick break. We will be right back. Stay with us.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: We have some breaking news just in. The White House has presented Congress with an immigration reform outline that offers a path to citizenship for 1.8 million people including DREAMers. The Diversity Visa lottery according to this plan would end. And in terms of border security, there would be a $25 billion trust fund set up for the wall and technology, plus, more money for personnel. In addition, there would be a move to close legal loopholes, according to the White House, and that they are targeting. We have just a few seconds to talk about this. But I guess the White House's hands were forced when President Trump came out last night and basically talked about some of this.

COLLINS: Yes, exactly. It shows how the President contradicts his own spokespeople because, at the press briefing, Sarah Sanders said she was going to save the fund for Monday. And then in an immigration briefing last night with a senior administration official, the President popped in and started telling reporters about his $25 billion to the wall, the pathway to citizenship. So they went ahead and briefed reporters on this today. But it'll be interesting to see how it plays out on the Hill, what the Hill thinks of it because they've been butting heads over on immigration plan for the last -- the entire presidency, but the spotlight has been on the last while.

TAPPER: We only have 20 seconds so very quickly, but you say there are hardliners in the House Republican Caucus that are not going to like this?

They're not going to like the pathway to citizenship part of this. And I can tell you that even on the Senate side, they're working through it, but Hill staffers aren't going on any kind of vacation this weekend.

TAPPER: Thank one and all. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm turning you over to Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM." Thanks for watching.