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Stormy Daniels Threatened?; Chaos in the White House. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired March 16, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: If you have General H.R. McMaster in your White House final four, you might have your brackets busted.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Much talk and reporting of more reality show-style firings that could come literally any minute, as President Trump is said to be itching to clean house. But is treating your national security adviser like Gary Busey really the best way to govern?

Stormy Daniels' lawyer dropping a brand-new bombshell right here on THE LEAD.


TAPPER: Is there anything in the litany of accusations -- you would call them facts -- that surround this case that happened while Donald Trump was president?



TAPPER: What might mean? Stay tuned.

Plus, are Moscow's hackers on the verge of hitting the off switch on America? The Trump administration accusing Russia of cyber-attacks on the U.S. power grid and nuclear plants, ones that theoretically could bring the U.S. to its knees.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the politics lead.

And could we just pause for one second to take a step back and consider that the notion that the presidency of one Mr. Donald J. Trump having become a nation waiting in suspense to see whom he will fire next, that maybe, maybe this wasn't entirely unpredictable.

But after the departures of top aide Hope Hicks two weeks ago and top economic aide Gary Cohn one week after that, then the ignominious Twitter firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, here we are all wondering who's next. Might it be National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster? Multiple sources telling CNN the president is ready to oust McMaster, but is waiting to give the general a soft landing. Or could it be Chief of Staff John Kelly amidst reports of the president's dissatisfaction with the retired Marine general?

President Trump told advisers today that Kelly is 100 percent safe, a White House official tells CNN, to which Kelly reportedly reaffirmed, "I'm in."

Or might it be the many Cabinet officials under fire, from the head of the VA, David Shulkin, to HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, EPA head Scott Pruitt?

The list is practically endless. But one thing is clear in all of this. According to sources familiar with President Trump's thinking, the president is enjoying this.

And why not? the ratings are through the roof.

Let's begin with CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Jeff, the White House said last hour that there are no immediate personnel changes planned at this time. A bunch of hedge words in there. Yet the president, of course, is fueling much of this talk himself.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jake, a lot of caveats, a lot of hedge words, but the real question in all of this is why after only 14 months on the job is there a need for new members of the Cabinet or other top advisers, after President Trump promised Americans he would hire the best and the brightest?


ZELENY (voice-over): After President Trump repeatedly fueled speculation about a West Wing house cleaning.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There will always be change and I think you want to see change.

ZELENY: So far, he's taken no action to back up his desire for new faces in the Cabinet or among his close circle of advisers.

At the White House briefing today, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tried downplaying how all this talk of turnover is causing turmoil.

(on camera): Why is it that there is still a need for change inside the president's Cabinet or among his circle of advisers?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Look, as we have said many times before, you want the right people for the right time. And as policy priorities change, there that means that sometimes you are going to have personnel change. That's not different are for this administration as it has been in any other administration. And we're going to continue to add new staff regularly.

ZELENY (voice-over): But it is different than any other recent administration. A new Brookings study shows that 43 percent of Trump's most senior staffers had quit, switch jobs or were fired, more than double every modern presidency.

Yet the revolving door of the Trump administration at the White House and across Washington is raising questions about the stability of government and the ability to fill vacant positions with qualified candidates.

The president made clear he's close, but not quite finished finding the team of loyal advisers.

TRUMP: I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the Cabinet and other things that I want.

ZELENY: The president has made little secret of his displeasure with National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

Several officials say he's on the verge of being replaced, yet Sanders said that wasn't true.

SANDERS The president said that that was not accurate, and he had no intention of changing, that they had a great working relationship and he looked for to continue working with him.

ZELENY: But the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week and the continued uncertainty surrounding the McMaster raises questions about the planning for that potential high-stakes meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un.


North Korea has yet to officially respond to Trump's acceptance of Kim's imitation. The president spoke with South Korean President Moon Jae-in today, the White House said, to discuss ongoing efforts to prepare for their upcoming engagements with North Korea.


ZELENY: Now, should that meeting happen, the White House is now saying it may take place at the end of May. Just last week, they were saying at the beginning of May.

Jake, so many things have to happen between now. And then, of course, the biggest question, who will be around to fill those positions? The confirmation for the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, if he's confirmed, that may take a number of weeks, of course, eating into all of this.

And as for other firings Jake, it is about an hour or so until the close of business here technically. We will see if any happen before the end of the day -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thanks so much. My political panel is here with me.

Very foreboding.

I want to read one part of "The Washington Post" reporting on all the turmoil which squares with CNN's reporting -- quote -- "Trump enjoys watching his subordinates compete for his approval. Many of the rumors about departures, et cetera, are fueled by Trump himself because he complains to aides and friends about other staffers or muses about who might make good replacements."


KEVIN MADDEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think that's a pretty diabolical approach.

I don't think it actually engenders a whole bunch of stability. I think the problem is the White House keeps trying to push this off as some sort of creative tension. And that type of atmosphere -- I don't care if you're in the White House or wherever you are -- that has to have a very destructive effective on just the overall morale of the -- of the organization.

The bigger problem too is when you start firing people, who is next, what next? What person is looking around for a job saying, you know what I want? I want a job that has long hours, a lot of stress, instability and a possible need for a legal fund.

That's not happening. And I think that is problematic.

TAPPER: Right. And you might get fired two weeks later also.


I think in a sick way, I guess I will say, he likes to watch the drama unfold.

I think the other concern I have here -- and you heard Trump say this -- this is about what he wants. I think he sees some of these staff as a barrier, because they're telling him no or they're pushing back.

TAPPER: That's one of the reports about John Kelly is that he's frustrated because Kelly keeps telling him no.

MOOK: Right. And that's dangerous.

And I think we as Americans had some confidence in this administration, particularly as it relates to the military, because he had some of these figures around him. We have heard that he respects military officers.

Slowly, it seems they are peeling away. And I worry when we get to a really bad place, there's a really important particularly military decision to make, who's going to be there to tell him no? That's what I worry about. NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I think --

I have talked to some true blue -- or truly red, I guess, Trumpers would actually like this, like the idea that Trump is pushing out people who they feel like are too moderate sort of leftover Bushie or had been never-Trumps.

And they see this now as a chance to get in folks who they agree with, who Trump agrees with and kind of starting fresh. He in some ways in that first year was bowing to establishment pressure to put in folks like Rex Tillerson.

And he put in generals as well. He seemed to like generals. He seems in some ways be souring on them. Maybe they're too straight-laced for him. He doesn't seem to like the way H.R. McMaster doesn't laugh at his jokes and his briefings are too long, according to some of the reporting that's out there.

So in some ways it's playing well to some folks who just love Trump, probably not playing well to the broader audience, if you will, of voters. And we have seen some of that so far in some of these races.

TAPPER: General McMaster is very well-respected, but the reporting, as you note, is that President Trump sometimes finds his briefings interminably long and also he can be condescending in the president's view.

That he is on his way out has been now reported for several weeks by several outlets. About these reports, Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, last night tweeted: "Just spoke to POTUS and General McMaster. Contrary to reports, they have a good working relationship and there are no changes at the NSC."

Not really a denial of the stories. And I suppose whether or not they have a good relationship is in the eye of the beholder.

MADDEN: And it continues to feed the palace intrigue story.

TAPPER: Why even put out a non-denial denial like that?

MADDEN: I don't know.

Other than to try and prove that whoever broke the story didn't necessarily have it locked down, and it's not going to happen. And so much of that is about a tension between this White House and the press that covers it.

But it still leaves General McMaster hanging out there. And how is it that you walk into a staff meeting today with senior staff and really execute against the president's agenda when everybody sitting in that office has read this story and doesn't know if you're going to be there tomorrow?


It's very hard to do the job of governing.

MOOK: Well, I was just to say, I bet that is the best Sarah Sanders could do, because the boss won't let her back him up.

And we have just gotten to a place where we're not going to -- we're going to take as a non-denial denial and move on.

HENDERSON: It would different if the president himself came out and said that full-throatedly I support H.R. McMaster, I want him to serve to the end of my four years or eight years in office.

That is something that he hasn't done. So, the intrigue continues.

TAPPER: And take a listen to Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, talking to CNN about McMaster' potential exit.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I think he's been a stabilizing force in the White House and has I think pushed back on certain things that the president has wanted to do.

And I think that pushback has been needed and helpful. So I am concerned that whoever replaces him won't provide the same honesty.


TAPPER: And this is one of the big concerns is that Tillerson, McMaster are at least two of the three or four so-called axis of grownups, people who will tell the president, no, you can't do, that's not a good idea, et cetera.

So if McMaster goes, who comes next?

MOOK: Yes, I worry about that.

Look, if Mattis were ever to be talked about going, I think that would be really scary. And again this just gets back to when he says that McMaster is long-winded or condescending, I think what that really means is, he's precise, he's intelligent, and he's probably pushing back against the president.

That's what's scary about this. And the other piece of this is, the president has continually demonstrated he doesn't know what he's doing. I mean, North Korea is the perfect example.

He just -- he was manipulated by the people involved, both allies and North Korea, I would argue, and just took the bait.

HENDERSON: The timing here in terms of North Korea, the idea was he wanted Tillerson out because he wanted Pompeo in, even though Tillerson was in many ways very involved in North Korea.

It is not clear that Pompeo is going to be even in place by the time this happens. It is certainly going to take up a lot of time to get his confirmation hearings done.

Whatever kind of careful preparations, they're going to be behind in. But it's also true that the president is his own adviser, right? I mean, even if there is some massive preparation that needs to be done, you feel like he's going to go into that meeting and kind of wing it because that's who he is.

MADDEN: Just real quick to the substance of us Senator Flake's remarks, he's very easily and accurately labeled a Trump critic, but even the president's most ardent allies do see folks like McMaster and Mattis as stabilizers.

TAPPER: No, absolutely.

Everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

The president has not fired anyone from the administration yet today, at least before this panel started. And I looked at my phone. But he did just convince someone to quit. Who? That's next.


TAPPER: We're back with the politics leading continuing the conversation with my panel. I did a tease about President Trump convincing someone to quit. So who am I talking about? Well, it looked as though Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller was going to face a primary challenge from Danny Tarkanian. But President Trump tweeted this morning, "It would be great for the Republican party of Nevada and its unity if good guy Danny Tarkanian would run for Congress and Dean Heller who's doing a really good job could run for Senate unopposed." And literally minutes later, Tarkanian did that and announced he was going to run for the House. So here we do have President Trump being a -- a party leaders and it's having a good effect.

MADDEN: Yes. Well I don't think it was -- I think it was pre-cooked. I think there were a lot of conversations going on. But yes, I mean, the President --

TAPPER: You're breaking my heart.


MADDEN: The President was smart to own this. So I think one of the first lessons I learned in city politics, if they're going to run you out of town get in front and make it look like you're the grand marshal of your own parade. So the President owning this is smart. It -- it -- for a moment there is some unity out in Nevada. There has been a little bit of a civil war particularly between these two candidates. And, you know, it's got things pointed in the right direction. And I think it's also showing that the President does recognize he has a lot invested in 2018. If he has a Democratic Congress or a Democratic Senate there could be bigger problems for him ahead. So --

TAPPER: And speaking of 2018, I want to get your guys thoughts on this. After the Pennsylvania race with Connor Lamb being the apparent winner, although they're still counting military and provisional ballots, CNN is making changes to it's rating of 17 House races, all of them in the direction of -- of Democrats. This is similar to what other political prognosticators are doing. Suggesting it is a more favorable environment for Democrats coming up in the mid-term elections.

HENDERSON: Yes. And I think Pennsylvania was a sign of that. Obviously, Alabama was a sign of that too. Democrats are over performing and a lot of these special elections and many of them they didn't win. But in the case of this special election 18 in Pennsylvania, they did win. A lot of the energy, on the ground is with Democrats. Even in that special election in Pennsylvania, they started organizing in November of 2016 to get someone to run in that seat.

And -- and in talking with folks in the DCCC, they don't care if folks who are running in these seats have been bashed by the NRA. If they are running against Nancy Pelosi, as we saw at least with --with Lamb in terms of firing a gun in one ad and -- and running against Nancy Pelosi. They feel like they're seeing the -- not only the energy on their side but a break-up of this Trump coalition. Of, you know, suburban white women, of union workers which showed out are really big for Democrats in -- in the Lamb race. So yes, they're feeling good. But caveat is always Democrats -- can (ph) Democrat and -- meaning that they can sort of snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory and so early.

TAPPER: You're the Democrat at the table what do you -- what do you make of that?

[16:19:55] MOOK: Well, I don't -- I -- I don't think that will happen. I -- I think -- I think we've got a lot of wind behind our back. But there -- look there were two things that really made this win possible. First, you had people who typically voted Republican, Donald Trump won this district by 20 points who switched over and voted for a Democrat, and then you had a -- a nice surge in turnout among Democrats. That's -- that -- that surge in turnout is what's really been helping us in these other special elections, where we're winning deep red seats by huge margins.

The question for us in the midterms is can Donald Trump get his party to turn out too? We saw in that Georgia special election that was a while ago, both sides really turned out. There was so much saturation, so much coverage. So, for Democrats, I think we're going to have to look at definitely turning our base up, persuading enough people so that if Trump can drive his base out. If the Republicans can find some trick in Washington, some budget battle or something to really charge people up, are we -- are we still going to have the votes to overcome that?

TAPPER: And then of course Kevin, one of the challenges for Democrats is, they're going to need Trump voters to vote for the Democrat running for the House. I mean, that's how Connor Lamb won. He was not particularly harsh or aggressive or acerbic about President Trump. So that's going to be a -- a difficult dance. You want to get out the progressives who are all fired up, but not alienate the Trump voters.

MADDEN: They are. They're going to have to create a certain level of buyer's remorse with -- with a sector of the electorate. And I think Nia is -- is right about some of those voters in the suburban areas. They have tended to turn out stronger in some of these special elections for Democrats. But yes, they're going to need a more centrist economic message. One of the big problems is they've done very poorly in special elections where it's been a referendum on Nancy Pelosi and the progressive left lean of the Democratic party. That's one of their big challenges coming up.

TAPPER: Everyone stick around. We've got a lot more. You've heard the allegations about the porn star and Donald Trump before he became President. Well what about after he became President? You'll be surprised at what Stormy Daniels lawyer had to say to me. Take a listen after this break.

[16:25:55] TAPPER: We're back with our Politics Lead and new, stunning charges from adult film actress Stormy Daniels who's attorney now says she has been physically threatened. And she was physically threatened to stay silent specifically about her alleged affair with President Donald Trump. It's a shocking allegation. Who made these threats? How? When? Michael Avenatti who is representing Stephanie Clifford also known as Stormy Daniels joins me now. Michael, thanks so much for joining us.

AVENATTI: Jake, thanks for having me.

TAPPER: So you say that your client Ms. Daniels felt physically threatened to stay silent about what she knew about Donald Trump. If she felt physically threatened, did she go to the police?

AVENATTI: Well I didn't say that she felt physically threatened. What I said was, she was physically threatened.


AVENATTI: And she was.

TAPPER: Did she go to the police?

AVENATTI: I'm not going to comment on whether she went to the police or not. I think that's probably going to be addressed during her interview on 60 Minutes.

TAPPER: So, let me just try to put this on a scale. There's a big difference between a -- a random physical threat from someone, which everyone in public life experiences. I'm sure you have. I have. There's a big difference between that and threat from somebody that you know or you know of, or somebody specifically affiliated with President Trump. And then also, in addition to that, a threat affiliated with the President to force someone to do something, such as sign a non-disclosure agreement. Can you shed any light on where this threat on that scale from an anonymous, random threat of physical violence to a threat from somebody affiliated with the President to do something such as signing an NDA?

AVENATTI: Here's what I will say Jake. I think that when the American people hear from my client, who will provide details, very specific details relating to this threat. They will conclude as I have that this was not a random threat by some wing nut if you will. But that's not a legal term but I'm going to use it anyway. That this was a threat not by some wing nut out of the blue and that's all I'm going to say.

TAPPER: You say that they will believe her because she has details. Does she have proof? Does she have a recording? Does she have text messages or emails?

AVENATTI: I -- I'm not going to answer those specifics. But what I am going to say is, there is little doubt in my mind that when my client is able to speak openly to the American people and answer questions by Anderson Cooper. When the American people observe those answers and observe her body language and the like and are able to learn of the details relating to the threat and other issues, I am highly confident that the American people are going to find her to be vastly credible.

TAPPER: But you understand why I would try to push for more because, you know, this is a very serious allegation. And the question about who made -- who made the -- the threat, the physical threat to your client, to Stormy Daniels is important. You said it's not some random person. It's not some wing nut. That would suggest it is somebody that might be affiliated in some way with -- with President Trump or the Trump Organization.

AVENATTI: Well Jake, what I'll say is, we've been asking very serious questions now for some time for the better part of two weeks if not longer in connection with this case and the issue of this hush payment, where the money came from, etcetera. I mean, you and others across the media spectrum have been asking very pointed, simple questions of Mr. Cohen and the White House and they are no where to be found. They claim they've answered the questions.

They haven't answered any questions. And it -- it -- frankly is remarkable to me that we haven't had definitive statements issued by Mr. Cohen and by the White House refuting a number of things that have come to light in the last two weeks. So I don't think this is the only serious question. I think is one of many serious questions.

TAPPER: Did Michael Cohen threaten her with -- with -- physically threaten her?

AVENATTI: Again, I'm not going to answer any further questions relating to the specifics of what transpired.