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STATE OF THE UNION

Charging Into the Storm; Trump Attorney Calls For End to Russia Probe; Interview With Arizona Senator Jeff Flake; Interview With South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham; Interview With Kentucky Senator Rand Paul; Pennsylvania Race Shows Trouble Ahead For GOP In 2018; President Trump Celebrates McCabe's Firing; Hillary Clinton In India; March Madness In The White House In This Week's "State of the Cartoonion". Aired 9-10ap ET

Aired March 18, 2018 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:23]

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: McCabe is out, and President Trump is celebrating the firing of the ex-FBI deputy director. Now the president's attorney is calling for an end to the Russia probe.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I am concerned.

TAPPER: One of the president's most outspoken critics in the Republican Party, Senator Jeff Flake, responds next.

Plus: Battle brewing? President Trump's picks for secretary of state and CIA director could face confirmation fights.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I will oppose both Pompeo's and Haspel's nomination.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The president needs the team around him he feels most comfortable with.

TAPPER: Might a Republican tank Trump's nominees? Senators Rand Paul and Lindsey Graham weigh in ahead.

And charging into the storm? President Trump's attorney says a porn star might owe them millions of dollars for violating her nondisclosure agreement, but Stormy Daniels' lawyer says his client is the one who's been violated.

MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: She was physically threatened.

TAPPER: Might a lawsuit keep Stormy silent?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: Hello. I'm Jake Tapper in Washington, where the state of our union is waiting to see who might be fired next. It was a week of high-profile firings in Washington that ended with

ex-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe getting pushed out after FBI disciplinary officials recommended his firing for leaking and for a lack of candor during its internal investigation.

McCabe disputes this and says he was a Trump target after it became clear he would corroborate the testimony of former FBI Director James Comey in the Mueller probe as to whether the president obstructed justice.

President Trump has seized on the firing to attack the special counsel's investigation, tweeting late Saturday -- quote -- "The Mueller probe should never have been started, in that there was no collusion and there was no crime" -- unquote.

In another deviation from presidential protocol, President Trump is celebrating McCabe's firing just two days before McCabe's scheduled retirement, calling it a good day for democracy.

According to a source briefed on the matter, McCabe has already been interviewed by the special counsel's team about the firing of James Comey. McCabe also handed over memos detailing his own conversations with President Trump and what Comey told him about his interactions with the president.

In fact, just minutes ago, President Trump pushed back on that, tweeting -- quote -- "Spent very little time with Andrew McCabe, but he never took notes when he was with me. I don't believe he made memos, except to help his own agenda, probably at a later date. Same with lying James Comey. Can we call them fake memos?" -- unquote.

Joining us now to talk about this and much more is Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

The president also just tweeted this -- quote -- "Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big crooked Hillary supporters, and zero Republicans? Another Dem recently added. Does anyone think this is fair? And yet there is no collusion."

Obviously, the description he has of the Mueller team is much disputed. He doesn't mention, for instance, that Mueller is a Republican.

But, beyond that, do you think that -- that the president is laying the groundwork to fire Mueller?

FLAKE: Well, when the president said it was a great day for democracy yesterday, I think it was a horrible day for democracy.

To have firings like this happening at the top, from the president and the attorney general, does not speak well for what's going on. So, I don't know what the designs are on Mueller, but it seems to be building toward that. And I just hope it doesn't go there, because it can't. We can't, in

Congress, accept that. And so I would expect to see considerable pushback in the next couple days in urging the president not to go there. He can't go there.

TAPPER: So, just to ask about the McCabe firing, Attorney General Sessions has said that the recommendation came from the Office of Inspector General and internally, and it wasn't -- he suggested it wasn't because of anything President Trump said.

But, of course, there is this very politicized context. President Trump has been calling for...

FLAKE: Right.

TAPPER: ... McCabe's firing for more than a year. After the firing, he tweeted, as you note, it was a great day for democracy.

McCabe said in a statement his firing was driven by the president, writing -- quote -- "The Office of Inspector General's focus on me and this report became part of an unprecedented effort by the administration, driven by the president himself, to remove me from my position, destroy my reputation, and possibly strip me of a pension that I worked 21 years to earn."

So, you are not buying the Sessions explanation. You believe that he was fired because President Trump put pressure on the Justice Department to do so?

[09:05:08]

FLAKE: Well, I'm certainly, like everyone else, waiting for the I.G. report to come out. And so I don't want to get too far ahead.

But I can tell you it will come out. And we in Congress have oversight in that regard. The Senate Judiciary Committee will be looking into it. So, I am just very surprised that the president would get so far ahead of this and take -- make the statements that he's made, because we will know.

And I just -- I'm just puzzled by why the White House is going so hard at this, other than they -- they're very afraid of what might come out. I don't know how you can have any other conclusion.

TAPPER: The president's lawyer John Dowd said in response to McCabe's firing that the Justice Department should -- quote -- "follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to the alleged Russia collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe's boss, James Comey" -- unquote.

Again, there are a lot of factual misstatements in there, but let me ask you. You have already said, based on President Trump suggesting the Mueller probe should end, that you expect to see pushback.

I don't know why you expect to see pushback, to be honest. I have been watching Congress now for the last year, and with the exception of you and maybe Ben Sasse and John McCain, I haven't seen a lot of pushback from Republicans.

Do you really think that Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan will stand up and say, no, Mr. President, you can't do this?

FLAKE: I hope so.

I mean, talking to my colleagues all along, it was, you know, once he goes after Mueller, then we will take action.

I think that people see that as a massive red line that can't be crossed. So, I hope that that's the case. And I would just hope that enough people would prevail on the president now, don't go there. Don't go there. We have confidence in Mueller. I certainly do.

And I think my colleagues do as well. So, I hope that the pushback is now to keep the president from going there.

TAPPER: Let's turn now to something else that Mueller's looking into which was covered in a bombshell report in "The New York Times" and another one in "The Guardian" newspaper.

The conservative data firm Cambridge Analytica, which worked with the Trump campaign in 2016, Facebook is now accusing the company of fraudulently obtaining data from more than 50 million Americans and then lying about it.

We know Mueller is looking into Cambridge Analytica as part of this Russia investigation. What questions might you have about this issue, especially when it comes to Russian interference in the election?

FLAKE: Right.

Well, certainly, who knew what when? This is a big deal, when you have that amount of data. And the privacy violations there are significant. So, the question is, who knew it? When did they know it? How long did this go on? And what happens to that data now?

I guess there's some discrepancy as to whether or not it's been expunged or given back, or if it's still held and being used. So, that was a big report, significant reporting.

TAPPER: You have also said that you're actively considering whether or not you're going to challenge President Trump in 2020. You have said you haven't made a decision, it's not likely, but you -- it is on the table.

FLAKE: Right.

TAPPER: You just gave a speech at the famous Politics and Eggs breakfast in New Hampshire, which is obviously the first-in-the-nation primary state.

I understand you're not going to announce that you're running for president right now, but when do you think you might make a decision one way or the other?

FLAKE: Well, all I can say is, I hope that somebody does challenge the president.

I think that -- and what I have seen out there, what I experienced on Friday in New Hampshire and what I'm seeing is that there is a crying need out there for some Republicans to stand up and say, this is not normal, this is not right.

We want Republicans who will take higher ground, and to see what's going on right now in terms of the chaos and these actions that clearly are not conservative on tariffs and whatnot. So, it's not just the policies, but the behavior as well.

People want to remember the Republican Party as the decent party. And it is not right now. And so what I'm seeing is, there's a crying need for that. I don't know who will step up in the end. I hope somebody does. I'm not ruling it out, but I certainly am -- I think the odds are long that I would do it.

TAPPER: But, just to be clear, it's not necessarily because you think that this person, whether it's you or John Kasich or Ben Sasse or whomever, would be able to defeat the president. It's just the point of taking a moral and principled stand, right?

FLAKE: Well, certainly right now, nobody would defeat the president, but, two years from now, we could have a completely different scenario.

[09:10:08]

Nothing focuses the mind like a big election loss, and what might happen in the midterms is that big election loss. As my friend Charlie Dent in the House said, this is a five-alarm fire after what happened in Pennsylvania, politically.

And, so, who knows what will happen, but it would be extremely difficult to defeat the president right now if the election were held in a Republican primary. This is the Trump party right now. I just am not sure that it will be two years from now.

TAPPER: Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, thank you, sir. We always appreciate your time.

FLAKE: Thank you.

TAPPER: A Republican vowing to do everything in his power to block President Trump's nominees. Why is Senator Rand Paul so angry? He's here to tell us, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Jake Tapper.

President Trump says he is getting close to getting the Cabinet he wants. One Republican senator's response? Not so fast.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky says he will oppose President Trump's pick for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and his choice for CIA director, Gina Haspel.

In a blistering op-ed, Senator Paul wrote -- quote -- "This issue is much bigger than a simple disagreement over policy and far more consequential. These are dangerous appointments" -- unquote.

[09:15:07]

With such a slim Republican majority in the Senate, and with John McCain at home in Arizona battling cancer, Paul's opposition means President Trump might need Democratic support to move his picks through Congress.

And Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky is joining us now.

Senator, I want to talk about your opposition to President Trump's nominees in one sec.

But, first, the news that former FBI Director McCabe, Andrew McCabe, has been fired, the president and his lawyer are both using this as an opportunity to talk about why they think the Mueller investigation should be ended immediately.

What would your response be if President Trump ordered the firing of Mueller?

PAUL: Well, I have said all along I don't like special prosecutors. I think they have too much power and too much power to go far afield of the question.

I do think, though, that we have a real problem, in that the FBI and our intelligence agencies have become politicized. And even our founding fathers recognized that bias would be a real problem. Madison said that men are not angels.

And that's why what I have been advocating is for is a bigger reform to a bigger question. And that is that nobody be should be left to their own devices, McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page. They shouldn't be allowed to search databases on Americans without first asking a judge.

So, this goes to a real reform question, not just the politics of the day, but a reform question. Should individual agents who may be biased against President Trump or may be biased against Hillary Clinton, frankly, should they be able to use the apparatus, this powerful apparatus, to politicize a process?

Now, this is a real problem. I think James Comey started this when he went after Hillary Clinton, frankly. And now it's turned its head, and now they're going after Trump.

Really, the FBI needs to stay out of political affairs. Do we want to be a banana republic, where every time someone leaves office, we're prosecuting the people who left office? I think it's a terrible thing, and it's really hurt the FBI.

And I think it started with James Comey, frankly.

TAPPER: Those are all cogent points, but just quickly, would it bother you if the president ordered the firing of Mueller?

PAUL: You know, I wouldn't advocate for it, but I would have never advocated for the appointment of a special prosecutor.

And people asked me recently, should there be one for McCabe and Peter Strzok and Lisa Page? And I have said no, because I think what we have discovered is, first when they went after Bill Clinton, now when they have gone after President Trump, that the prosecutor has too much power to do whatever they want.

And they're looking at people's tax returns from 20 years ago. I really think that it -- the power is so unlimited that it's worrisome for the people on the receiving end.

I really think General Flynn was treated unfairly. I think Andrew McCabe did worse than General Flynn, frankly. Andrew McCabe lied about doing something illegal. He leaked classified documents.

General Flynn apparently did not state the truth about something he did that was legal. So, you wonder, how are we going to make this fair, how are we going to make this just?

TAPPER: Let's get to those new nominations by the president for secretary of state and CIA director. You have said you're willing to do everything you can to block the nominations of Mike Pompeo for State and Gina Haspel for CIA.

What are your objections to the two? And what does it mean when you say you're going to do everything you can do to block them?

PAUL: Well, you know, the president, one of the things I liked about President Trump, and still do like, is that he continues to say the Iraq War was a mistake.

But when you say it's a mistake, basically, what you're saying is that regime change in the Middle East leads often to unintended consequences.

Well, he keeps appointing people around him who loved the Iraq War so much, that they're ready for a war with Iran next. And so I don't think you really want people who are eager for war to be running the State Department. You want a diplomat.

I, frankly, think that Pompeo's positions are too much of an advocate for regime change, really everywhere, North Korea, Iran, Russia, you name it. And I think, really, we need to see the world as it is. It doesn't mean we need to support what happens everywhere in the world.

But I don't think our policy ought to be for regime change. And so I think Pompeo really isn't a good fit to be a diplomat or to be the chief diplomat. With regard to Haspel, I think that, you know, what America stands for

is not torture. You know, torture is the hallmark of totalitarianism. We should be that hope for the rest of the world that people who -- you know, who want to resist totalitarianism, that, you know, they want to be free from torture; they don't want to be free to torture.

And so I really think that she -- it's inappropriate to put someone at the head of the CIA -- they have so much power, power to assassinate, power to spy, power to collect all the data on everyone in the world. I don't think the person running that agency should be someone who ran a secret prison in Thailand.

TAPPER: Will you filibuster these nominations on the Senate floor?

PAUL: I will do whatever it takes, and that includes filibuster.

I will try to make a point to the American people. And maybe the American people will rise up and say, you know, we stand in solidarity with those who -- who seek freedom from torture, not the freedom to torture.

It's just inconsistent with who we are as a people to have someone run our spy agency that has all this enormous power who was intimately involved with torture and, from everything we're reading, was supportive of the policy.

[09:20:05]

And so, no, I can't support that. And I will do everything I can, including filibuster.

You know, a filibuster doesn't stop anyone. The only way I would stop anyone is if we convinced enough senators. And it would take actually a majority, I think, in this case to actually stop their appointment.

But when you read through the torture report that Senator Feinstein put forward, I would hope that she will stand up and say, enough is enough. We're not going to appoint people who made fun of the process.

And, really, one of the worrisome something about Gina Haspel is, she was also involved with destroying the tapes. There were actually videotapes of trying to drown these people and torture them. And these videotapes were destroyed years later.

So, first, she was involved with the water-boarding, and then years later, she was involved with destroying the tapes. There's no way in the world that she should be running our spy agencies, with all of their power.

TAPPER: And here's the pushback you're going to get.

Congresswoman Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, tweeted about you this week, saying -- quote -- "Gina Haspel has spent her career defending the American people and homeland. Rand Paul is defending and sympathizing with terrorists" -- unquote.

Your response?

PAUL: You know, juvenile.

But I think the Cheneys, both father and daughter, could spend a lifetime trying to justify the thousands of soldiers, thousands of Iraqis who died in the Iraq War, which was an necessary war, made the Middle East less stable, emboldened Iran, and really have been wrong about every foreign policy decision of the last four years.

So, I think when they're done explaining why people had to die in Iraq, why people had to be maimed in Iraq, and why it really made the situation worse, the Cheneys can then stand up and try to make some points about other foreign policy.

But until they have proved that they know anything about the world, I think, probably, they ought to just be quiet.

TAPPER: Let's turn to what we learned on Friday when Facebook suspended the social media data firm Cambridge Analytica, which was used by President Trump's campaign.

It was revealed that the group fraudulently obtained private information from more than 50 million Facebook users.

You have talked a lot about the need for privacy, not only by -- from the government, but from corporations.

Do you think that the American people can trust that these massive social media companies can safeguard their privacy? And, if not, should there be regulation?

PAUL: I'm very concerned about privacy, primarily from the government, because I think the government takes it from you unwillingly.

The Internet does trade information. And so if you order a pair of shoes line, you will -- those shoes will pop back up if you didn't pick them. Or even if you did pick those shoes, you get more shoes.

So, there's a certain amount of personal information, but it's consistent with your agreements.

The main thing I say is that we ought to be very, very careful about the government collecting that data from private entities. With regard to private entities, they can break the law also. And I'm not sure of the specifics of this. People will have to look into it.

But whether or not it broke the law, absolutely, the privacy of the American consumer and the American individual should be protected.

TAPPER: Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, thank you so much, sir. Always good to see you.

PAUL: Thank you. TAPPER: Coming up, a very different perspective on Haspel and Pompeo.

Trump ally and confidant Senator Lindsey Graham is frustrated with Senator Paul's threat to block the nominees, and he's here to respond coming up next.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:27:55]

TAPPER: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Jake Tapper.

We just heard Republican Senator Rand Paul vowing to do everything in his power, including a filibuster, to block President Trump's nominees for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, and leader of the CIA, Gina Haspel.

Joining us now is a Republican senator with a very different take, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

You just heard Rand Paul...

GRAHAM: Thank you.

TAPPER: ... talking on why he opposes Mike Pompeo and Gina Haspel.

What's your response?

GRAHAM: I think he's an outlier, Senator Paul, certainly within the Republican Party.

My response is that Mike Pompeo is a highly qualified person to be secretary of state, number one in his class at West Point, Army officer, member of Congress, CIA director. He's close to the president.

He shares the president's world view that North Korea is a dangerous threat to the homeland -- homeland, that we need a better deal with Iran, and I think he can do an outstanding job explaining to the world President Trump's foreign policy.

He's very much in the mainstream as a Republican, someone you would expect the Republican to pick for this job. And he will get confirmed. Fifteen Democrats voted for him for CIA director. And these are dangerous times, Jake.

We're about to enter into negotiations with the North Koreans. And this president, like every other president, deserves to have a qualified Cabinet helping them navigate the dangerous times in which we live. So, he will be confirmed.

TAPPER: You addressed Gina Haspel's nomination to be CIA director this week, saying that water-boarding was...

GRAHAM: Yes.

TAPPER: ... a -- quote -- "authorized program at the time" and that if she makes clear that water-boarding is not legal now, that would be enough for you.

Your close friend and colleague Senator John McCain, who obviously survived torture as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, he has said...

GRAHAM: Yes.

TAPPER: ... he needs an explanation on her past.

GRAHAM: Yes.

TAPPER: What do you say to your good friend about why the Senate should look beyond her story?

GRAHAM: Well, no, I think John is right.

I believe that water-boarding was illegal at the time. I helped write the Detainee Treatment Act with Senator McCain, been a military lawyer for 30 over years.

But, at the time, the Bush administration viewed it as an authorized interrogation technique. After the passage of the Detainee Treatment Act, it is clearly not authorized. And I'm looking for her to acknowledge that this behavior is no longer allowed and that she will adhere to the law as it exists.

[09:30:08]

She, again, is very highly qualified. Mr. Clapper supports her. Leon Panetta supports her. Mr. Hayden supports her. She is excellent at what she does, but she will have to adhere to the law as I believe it exists today. And that will be the test for me.

TAPPER: What about Paul -- Rand Paul's objection that her name was on the cable ordering the destruction of the videotape evidence of the water-boarding? Does that concern you?

GRAHAM: Well, we will look back and see what she did and what role she played.

But I'm looking forward. At that time, the Bush administration, I think, had the wrong view of the law. But the law is now very, very clear, thanks to Senator McCain and others. And I will be looking for her to understand that the law has changed and she cannot engage in these interrogation techniques.

I think it undercuts our national security. But, in terms of her qualifications to me, they're second to none.

TAPPER: Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe on Friday night, two days before he was set to retire from the agency and receive his pension.

McCabe says this was a politically motivated effort driven by the president himself, and though there was this, of course, inspector general recommendation that he be fired.

But President Trump was calling for the firing months ago.

GRAHAM: Yes.

TAPPER: He celebrated it on Twitter after it happened.

Do you have any concern about the way that President Trump personally has politicized Andrew McCabe?

GRAHAM: I think President Trump believes that he's been put upon by the FBI.

He reads the texts between the two FBI agents in charge of the Clinton e-mail investigation showing a bias against him and support for her.

And Mr. McCabe, the Office of Professional Responsibility, has recommended that he be dismissed.

But to the average American -- I think we owe it to the average American to have a hearing in the Judiciary Committee, where Mr. Sessions, Attorney General Sessions, comes forward with whatever documentation he has about the firing, and give Mr. McCabe a chance to defend himself.

I believe, when it comes to this issue, we need as much transparency as possible to make sure it wasn't politically motivated.

TAPPER: Take a look at what the president's personal lawyer, John Dowd, told CNN yesterday after McCabe was fired -- quote -- "Speaking for myself, not the president, I pray that acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Responsibility and Attorney General Jeff Sessions and bring an end to alleged Russia collusion investigation manufactured by McCabe's boss, James Comey, based upon a fraudulent and corrupt dossier. Just end it on the merits, in light of recent revelations."

Obviously, there's a lot to fact-check in there that I'm not going to spend the time doing...

(LAUGHTER)

GRAHAM: Yes.

TAPPER: ... but a lot of questionable assertions.

But, since then, the president has tweeted this morning and last night questioning Mueller's team, saying that -- quote -- "The Mueller probe should never have been started."

You have said in the past that, if President Trump were to order the firing of special counsel Mueller, that would -- quote -- "be the end of Trump's presidency."

Are you worried or concerned at all that he's preparing to fire Mueller?

GRAHAM: Let me be really clear about this.

What Mr. McCabe did has absolutely nothing to do with the Mueller investigation. The dossier, I think, was mishandled by the FBI. I think it was inappropriately used and presented to the FISA court.

That's a separate issue than the Mueller investigation of the Trump Organization regarding Russia. They're separate in time. They're not connected in any way.

The only reason Mr. Mueller could ever be dismissed is for cause. I see no cause when it comes to Mr. Mueller. He needs to be able to do his job, independent of any political influence.

I pledge to the American people, as a Republican, to make sure that Mr. Mueller can continue to do his job without any interference. I think he's doing a good job. And everything about McCabe and the FBI handling of the dossier has nothing to do with the Russia investigation regarding Mr. Mueller.

TAPPER: Are you worried that the president is preparing to order the firing of Mueller? It sure looks that way from his tweets.

GRAHAM: Well, as I have said before, if he tried to do that, that would be the beginning of the end of his presidency, because we're a rule of law nation.

What I saw at the FBI and the Department of Justice regarding the dossier really bothered me. It was a paid political document, unverified, used inappropriately by the court. The two FBI agents investigating Clinton had a bias against Trump, in favor of Clinton. All that needs to be looked at. That's why I want a separate, second special counsel.

But when it comes to Mr. Mueller, he is following the evidence where it takes him. And I think it's very important he be allowed to do his job without interference. And there are many Republicans who share my view.

TAPPER: In addition to Russia's recent nerve agent attack in Great Britain, we also learned this week that Russia has targeted American power grids.

GRAHAM: Yes.

TAPPER: White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders on Thursday did not take a stand when asked at a briefing whether Vladimir Putin was a friend or foe.

[09:35:02]

Is Vladimir Putin a friend or foe? GRAHAM: Oh, he's an enemy of democracy.

This is why I want Pompeo to be secretary of state. Mike understands Russia is an enemy of democracy. Mike understands that the North Korea nuclear program can never be allowed to mature to hit the American homeland with a nuclear-tipped ICBM.

He understands the Iran nuclear deal is a terrible deal in its current construct. You cannot argue that Mike Pompeo is out of the mainstream when it comes to somebody a Republican president would pick to be secretary of state.

So, Mike gets Russia. And I would urge the administration, particularly President Trump, to sanction more people. This first round is good, but there are inner circle members around Putin, oligarch types around him, that need to be sanctioned, because Russia is on the move throughout the world.

And we need to push back more aggressively. And I think Pompeo would do that.

TAPPER: All right, Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, it's always good to see you, sir. Thanks so much for joining us.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

TAPPER: A blue wave rising? Democrats feeling good about their chances in upcoming midterms. Could even top Republicans be in danger?

That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:40:23]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: We just had a special election on Tuesday. And all of this continuing chaos and drama that we're seeing with the Tillerson firing, the McCabe firing, Stormy Daniels, all this stuff. This is having an impact on Republicans down-ballot.

If people didn't get the message on Tuesday, I hope they get it now.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: That's Republican Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, issuing a warning to his fellow Republicans about the special election on the other side of his state, the western part of it, where in Pennsylvania 18, Democrat Conor Lamb appears poised to become the next congressman from a very, very solidly conservative district.

Let's talk about it all with the panel. Senator Santorum, you used to represent Pennsylvania 18. It looked a little different, it was shaped a little differently, but you know those voters. Are you concerned?

And I understand Conor Lamb didn't run as a liberal Democrat. He ran as a moderate or conservative Democrat. But are you concerned that this does indicate something about a potential a Democratic blue wave for the midterms?

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There's no question about it. If there wasn't a wave out there, as good a candidate as Conor Lamb was, he wouldn't have won that district.

The thing that Donald Trump does and has done and I think will continue to do, if he continues to do what he did today, is really energize the other side. I mean, all of these tweets, all of this personality stuff that we're seeing, just really pumps up the other side.

And on our side, you know, personally the president went in there and I think the president helped him. I think the president going in the weekend before actually got our side a little bit more energized. But he can don't do that before the congressional districts the weekend before the election in November, number one.

Number two, he's got -- he's got to continue to try to work to deliver for the Republican base. And I believe personally the biggest thing is health care. The fact that the Republicans in Congress are thinking of actually propping up Obamacare and putting more money into Obamacare will be another death well of enthusiasm on the right and more energy on the left.

TAPPER: Nina, let me ask you, because Conor Lamb, he didn't run as a progressive Democrat. He ran as union Democrat, but he appeared with an AR-15 in a commercial. He said he was not going to vote for Nancy Pelosi to be the Democratic leader.

Are you concerned as a progressive, that there will be too many Conor Lambs running -- too many conservative Democrats, which could upset your hopes for a progressive agenda?

NINA TURNER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I hope the Dems don't go that way. I mean, certainly, Conor Lamb had some things that progressives would like, but the AR-15, that kind of stuff, especially in the midst of what's going on in this country with the Parkland shooting is really an uncomfortable position to be in.

But progressives, by and large, you know, and when the senator says, health care, I think we're going to disagree on that, to the extent that I do agree that health care is the thing but Medicare for all is what is needed and I hear that all across the country, the data shows that. So I don't think that nationally it is in the best interest of Democrats to run more centrist. They need to run aggressively progressive.

TAPPER: You are on the ballot coming up, Congressman. Are you concerned about a blue wave coming? You're in a traditionally Democratic state.

REP. MIKE GALLAGHER (R), WISCONSIN: Well, I think history suggests that the midterm year for a president's party is always difficult. So as the old saying goes, there's only two ways to run, unopposed or scared. So I think all Republicans should take what happened in Pennsylvania, also in the state Senate race in Wisconsin, and learn some lessons from it.

I also think we would do well to do two things. One, see if we can recruit young 9/11-generation veterans on the conservative side to run. I think they have an opportunity to transcend certain parts of the divides.

And also, to just do our job. Just lock us in the House and Senate floor until we get some of this stuff done. That's that I hear more than anything else in my district.

We want you guys to stop tweeting, stop yelling at each other, just do your job, keep the country safe, keep the economy moving, do your job.

TAPPER: Are you -- do you think Nancy Pelosi is a drag on Democrats?

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: She can be. I think that she's somebody who doesn't get nearly enough credit for making health care law. And that's a reality. At the same time, if you talk to Democrats on the Hill, there's a movement among 30-somethings on the Hill, among newer members who want new leadership at some point.

Does that mean they want new leadership in November? It's a little bit unclear. But I think that is coming.

So I think the question is, is she going to do that on her own terms? And the bigger question is probably, who's going to challenge her? Which is what would also keep her in leadership, in her position, because nobody is going to challenge her.

There's infighting within the Democratic Party.

TAPPER: I want to turn to the McCabe and the Mueller debate going on right now.

After a tweet from President Trump, calling the day that McCabe was fired a great day for democracy, the former CIA director, John Brennan, responded on Twitter, tweeting -- quote -- "When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history.

[09:45:19]

You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America. America will triumph over you."

SANTORUM: This is what I was just talking about. Donald Trump just really energizes the other side. I mean, because he makes everything personal about him. Instead of looking at what actually happened, the process within the FBI, that recommended that he get fired. Had the president just simply stepped back, let the process get out there, let the evidence of McCabe get out there, that he should have been fired, then you have no issue.

I mean, there will been an issue, people will scream that he shouldn't have been fired, but it wouldn't have looked political and it wouldn't have looked like it was about Donald Trump. He injects himself, get the other side fired up, and what does it do to our side? Well, maybe his hardcore base likes it, but the rest are like, why is he doing this?

It's energizing their side and it's depressing (ph) our (ph) side (ph).

TAPPER: And we should point out the inspector general who recommended the actions against McCabe was appointed during the Obama years.

When you see a tweet like this from Brennan, though, I have to ask you, Jen, at a time when all these Republicans are saying, look at how politicized the intelligence community was during the Obama years against Trump. This is exhibit "a" for them.

PSAKI: Well, first of all, John Brennan is hardly a card-carrying Democrat.

I think most people who worked with him and know him would assume he's a Republican. He served for decades in the CIA, served for decades in government. And he's someone, I think, who looked at this.

I haven't talked to him about this. But my guess is, looked at this firing of McCabe and said, you know what? Enough is enough.

This is going after the law enforcement agencies, this is going after men and women who have served for decades. And I'm just not going to stand by.

And so, it stands out for that reason. Because he's somebody who goes out and marches or protests or goes on television all the time. This was the case where it stood out for his language and I think he thought, enough is enough with the firing.

TAPPER: I do want to get to one other thing in the news, which we haven't had the chance to talk about yet on the show which is Hillary Clinton appeared in India and she was asked about some of the reasons why Donald Trump won.

Here's a brief excerpt of her remarks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So I won the places that were optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward. And his whole campaign, "Make America Great Again," was looking backwards. You know, you didn't like black people getting rights, you don't like women, you know, getting jobs, you don't want to, you know, see that Indian-American succeeding more than you are. Whatever your problem is, I'm going to solve it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What's your response when you hear her talking like saying that?

TURNER: Well, my state is one of those states. So in defense of Ohio, that voted twice for President Obama in 2008 and 2012, the quintessential swing state, no Republican has ever won the presidency without us. And President Obama won my state.

So it was very hurtful to lump all Ohioans and all people -- in politics, we should not criticize the voters. The onus is on the person that is running for office. And just to do that just continues to divide and malign people.

TAPPER: What do you think?

GALLAGHER: I think it's rare for Nina and I to agree wholeheartedly on something, but that's an area where I agree.

I mean, to suggest that the people of Wisconsin are somehow backwards --

TURNER: Yes.

GALLAGHER: -- or on the wrong side of history, it not only misreads history, it misreads the present moment. And I always remember when I would campaign in blue parts of my district I knocked on this one door and I gave my whole spiel, Mike Gallagher, running for office, and this lady says to me, I'm not voting for you. I don't like Republicans. And I said, I'm sorry for your time, madam, I'll leave.

And then as I walk away she yelled at me and said, but I am voting for Donald Trump, because he's going to shake things up. And that (INAUDIBLE) with the status quo. I think (INAUDIBLE) vote Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders at the same time and Clinton fundamentally misreads the moment.

TAPPER: Do you want to weigh in?

PSAKI: Look, I think we looked very closely at what happened post election. And I think I said on your show before, there are counties and states like Ohio but also in Iowa where there was a massive flip from supporting Obama to supporting Hillary Clinton.

And that just doesn't justify what she said. So it doesn't validate, I guess I should say, what she said. There were a lot of dynamics in the race, no question, but I don't think you can blame it entirely -- you shouldn't be blaming it on the electorate and there was a larger issue with the campaign, how it was run, and frankly her candidacy.

TAPPER: Thanks one and all for being here. I know you want to weigh on this, but I have to cut to commercial break.

It's March Madness in the White House. Who will be out next? Who will make it to the final four?

And, of course, always keep an eye on the spoilers. That's the subject of this week's "State of the Cartoonion."

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:54:03]

TAPPER: Welcome back on March Madness. Unpredictable, tension- filled, the stunning upset leaves to a top pick ousted. And now some are placing bets on who will be the next to go, and that's the subject of this week's "State of Cartoonion."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER (voice-over): It's March Madness in the White House. The chaos league versus the Russia league. Who will emerge victorious?

TRUMP: He is a stone-cold loser. He chocked and when you're a choker, you can never give a choker a second chance.

TAPPER: This round's loser is Rex Tillerson beat out at the buzzer by Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo.

TRUMP: I have worked with Mike Pompeo now for quite some time. Tremendous energy. We're always on the same wavelength.

TAPPER: Who else might be on the bubble? Some say it doesn't look as though National Security adviser H.R. McMaster will be able to find a way out of this round.

TRUMP: We have a bunch of losers. They are losers.

TAPPER: Might Jeff Sessions be ejected?

[09:55:02]

TRUMP: I'm very disappointed with the attorney general, but we will see what happens. Time will tell.

TAPPER: Is chief of staff John Kelly the ringer the president once thought he was?

TRUMP: Is this more fun than the basketball game? Madness, it's madness.

TAPPER: Whoever you're backing it does look like the final contest will be a Russia showdown.

TRUMP: No collusion. There is no collusion.

TAPPER: Although keep in mind in March Madness --

TRUMP: We want winners, right?

TAPPER: -- anything can happen --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please welcome Stormy Daniels.

TAPPER: And surprises always emerge.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TAPPER: President Trump shocked leaders around the world by firing his secretary of state on Twitter. Will the new secretary of state who is more aligned with president's world view have greater success? That's next.