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Trump Backs Down From Veto Threat, Signs Spending Bill; Ex- Playmate Details Alleged Affair With Trump; Critics Fear Bolton Hire Signals Hawkish Turn. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 23, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: As if you expected a Friday in the Trump White House to be any less exciting.

THE LEAD starts right now.

In a surprise appearance, President Trump comes out and completely trashes a spending bill he's about to sign. Was the threat of shutting down the government just all part of a show?

Just hours after a former Playmate of the year and alleged mistress suing for her right to speak apologized to first lady Melania Trump on prime-time TV, the first lady makes an appearance at a women's event. What did she have to say?

Plus, March for Our Lives. Some of the kids of Parkland, Florida, join me today with their message to lawmakers before leading thousands of students, teachers, parents and survivors in a march on the Capitol. Might this get politicians on Capitol Hill, might it get their attention?

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

We are going to start with some breaking news in the money lead, the Dow ending again in the red after a very turbulent week and fears of a trade war with China. Today's finish down more than 400 points. That follows yesterday's plunge of more than 700 points.

Let's get right to CNN's Alison Kosik at the New York Stock Exchange.

Alison, is this as bad as it looks?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: For the past two days, it has been. Get out your calculator, 700 points. Over 700 points yesterday. Over 400 today.

The Dow officially in a correction, meaning a drop of 10 percent from a recent high. Stocks, they couldn't find their footing today. They were bouncing from positive to negative, accelerating in the red toward the closing bell.

And investors are on edge about tariffs announced of course President Trump and then China. The worry is this trade spat will turn in to an all-out trade war.

One strategist saying, we just don't know the next shoe to drop on trade. And today is Friday, Jake, going into a weekend. Investors don't want to hold on to any risky bets, because anything could happen over the weekend when it comes to China.

Could they roll out another wave of tariffs? The cherry on top of this that is rattling investors even more? China's ambassador to the U.S. today signaling it could pull back from buying U.S. treasuries, meaning our debt. That could be seismic, because China, Jake, is America's biggest creditor -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Alison Kosik on Wall Street for us, thank you so much.

Turning now to our top story in the politics lead. After issuing a veto threat to the omnibus spending bill this morning, the president then suddenly announced he would hold a "news conference" this afternoon. It was called so quickly, White House staffers barely had time to set it up, except, I should note, with the exception of a couple questions from reporters on the president's way out the door, the president actually didn't hold a news conference at all today.

But that wasn't even the most unusual aspect of the non-news conference news conference. Dare I call it a fake news conference?

Nor was it a bill signing, although the White House did bill the event as that as well. The bill was not signed during the event. This was more of an airing of grievances, frankly, Festivus style.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are going to get to this ridiculous situation.

No, it's always been a problem for our country. And nobody more disappointed than me. Not happy with $1.6 billion.


TAPPER: The target of the president's ire was the omnibus spending bill just sent to the White House.


TRUMP: I say to Congress I will never sign another bill like this again. I'm not going to do it again. Nobody read it. It's only hours' old. Some people don't even know what is in it, $1.3 trillion.


TAPPER: President Trump is not wrong that the appropriations process on Capitol Hill is pathetically broken, and it has been for some time.

But the president's proposed remedies seemed a bit off. Take this one. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: And I'm calling on Congress to give me a line-item veto for all government spending bills.


TAPPER: OK, one small problem with this.

There was a Supreme Court case about the line-item veto. It was back in 1998, 20 years ago, Clinton vs. the City of New York. The line- item veto 20 years ago was deemed unconstitutional.

President Trump surely must know that. Either way, he also suggested this remedy.


TRUMP: And the Senate must end, they must end the filibuster and get down to work.


TAPPER: Here's the thing. You're not going to get the U.S. Senate to agree to ending the filibuster, since the filibuster rules allow the minority party to have some power, and every senator knows that soon enough that could be them.

Moreover, is that really the problem with this bill? According to a senior Senate Republican aide -- quote -- "Ending the filibuster isn't the problem. Because the House Freedom Caucus crowd refuses to vote for any spending bills, House Republicans need Democrat votes."


And that's why the bill was.

Now, Republicans on Capitol Hill today were frankly confused by how upset the president was, given that, according to one senior House Republican aide -- quote -- "White House officials were in the room for every negotiation. Nothing was agreed to without the White House on board."

President Trump seemed most upset perhaps about the fact that Democrats balked on a deal for DACA. That's the program that benefits undocumented immigrants brought into this country as children.


TRUMP: DACA recipients have been treated extremely badly by the Democrats. We wanted to include DACA. We wanted to have them in this bill, 800,000 people. And actually it could even be more. And we wanted to include DACA in this bill.

The Democrats would not do it. They would not do it.


TAPPER: OK, so one other pesky little fact here. It is true the Democrats did not go along with the deal offered them by Republicans to fund the border wall in exchange for legal status for dreamers. That's accurate.

But President Trump is the one that ended the DACA program with the self-imposed deadline.

So, to sum up, the news conference that was held today, the president's continued battle with facts continues unabated, starting with the very basics about what the event was, continuing to the substance of the legislation, and ending with some basic misunderstandings of governance.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House for us.

And, Kaitlan, it was an unusual signing ceremony, to say the least. The supposed deal-maker essentially admitting that he got played.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a venting session, but no veto there, Jake.

And despite the fact the Republicans control the House, the Senate and the White House, the president spent roughly 30 minutes complaining about this 2,200-page bill that he had just signed.


COLLINS (voice-over): Just four hours after he threatened to veto the $1.3. trillion spending bill to fund the federal government through September, President Trump called the press in for a last-minute venting session Friday and issued a stern warning to Congress.

TRUMP: I say the Congress I will never sign another bill like this again. I'm not going to do it again. Nobody read it. It's only hours' old.

COLLINS: The president expressed his disdain for the budget-busting bill, calling the whole process ridiculous.

TRUMP: There a lot of things that I'm not happy about in this bill. There are a lot of things that we should not have had in this bill, but we were in a sense forced if we want to build our military, we were forced to have.

COLLINS: But he backed away from his threat this morning delivered by tweet that he might veto the bill.

TRUMP: I looked very seriously at the veto. I was thinking about doing the veto, but because of the incredible gains that we have been able to make for the military, that overrode any of our -- any of our thinking.

COLLINS: The bill includes huge increases in domestic and military spending the Trump has lobbied for. TRUMP: Ships, planes, helicopters, tanks and submarines. We have

submarines being built the likes of which there's nothing anywhere in the world like the submarines we have built.

COLLINS: But it only allocates a small portion of the $25 billion the administration asked for to build a border wall.

TRUMP: Not happy with $1.6 billion. But it does start the wall, and we will make that $1.6 billion go very, very far.

COLLINS: All this as the president is creating chaos elsewhere in the White House with his surprise decision to replace National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster with the more hawkish John Bolton, making this his third national security adviser in just 14 months.

That after he fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week, leaving the Cabinet with just one moderate voice in his defense secretary, James Mattis. The president's later personnel moves could signal a sharp shift to the right in his foreign policy, ahead of a potential meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, an upcoming deadline on the Iran nuclear deal, and a looming trade war over tariffs.

TRUMP: China is going to end up treating us fairly. For many years, they had free rein. They don't have free rein anymore.

COLLINS: But, wait, there's more. President Trump's plan to shake up his legal team is already facing challenges, with two sources familiar with the matter telling CNN that newly hired attorney Joe diGenova's role is in flux, one source claiming he hasn't even officially been hired.

DiGenova has pushed conspiracy theories the President Trump was framed by the Department of Justice.


COLLINS: So, Jake, it was a fitting end to a very chaotic week here at the White House, an especially chaotic week.

And the president and the first lady depart here in the next hour to go to Palm Beach, Florida, where he's going to spend the weekend.

And we will see if, as he leaves the White House, he takes more questions from reporters than he did in his -- quote -- "news conference" earlier.


TAPPER: Fake news conference.

Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

My political panel is here with me on this busy Friday.

[16:10:00] Where to begin?

Let me just start with you, Amanda.

What is the point of issuing a veto threat and having the bill come in there saying you're going to sign it and then attacking it? I mean, it doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He's trying to have it both ways.

But I think Republican voters who believed that Donald Trump would be the one to finally give them the wall and deliver that promise are heartbroken right now.

I actually thought it would have been pretty good politics if he did veto the bill under the pretense of wanting to secure DACA, but actually getting funding for the wall. I thought that was pretty brilliant he had the nerve to go through with it.

But he caved. And Republican base voters can see that he caved. And now Republicans are going into the midterm elections with about three things to brag about. You got the tax bill. You got some regulations cut. And you have a judge. I'm not sure that is enough.

TAPPER: Except, I mean, one Republican said to me got, Robby, that their members are going to go back -- not all of them, but most of our members are going to go back and talk about all the great things in this legislation, the tens of billions of dollars more for defense, that most of what the president wanted is in there.

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right, because he helped negotiate it.

TAPPER: Right, because the White House was there every step of the way.

And this senior Senate aide said to me this is no way to win a messaging war.

MOOK: Yes, it's interesting.

I used to think that the president wasn't plugged in to what was going on. I don't think he cares. I don't think he's checked in on the substance. There's no way he didn't know that his people were helping to negotiate this. And there's no way he wasn't briefed.

I'm starting to wonder -- and we're seeing the more and more -- he talked to someone on the phone who just talked him into opposing it and then he just says that on Twitter without talking to his team. I think this is that erratic temperament that that we have seen so many times.

And I totally agree. He caved. I mean, he said it was -- well, there's so many good things for the military, we have to move for forward. The real thing was I'm sure his team convinced him, sir, if you do this, you will single-handedly shut down the government. It would have been a big loss. I think he made the right choice, but he was in this situation in the first place because of that temperament. I bet he got an early morning phone call.


BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I don't think it was a phone call. I think he was watching "FOX & Friends."


KRISTOL: And Pete Hegseth, who the president knows and is a regular on "FOX & Friends" and is being considered for VA secretary apparently, went into a big denunciation of this bill, which was sort of the Trumpy point of view among people outside.

This is the swamp. This is McConnell. This is budget-busting. The Democrats got too much. You didn't get the wall. What a disgrace. The president said, well, gee, Pete Hegseth thinks it's terrible, I better say it's terrible.

Since Trump doesn't care about the Republican Party in Congress, is this so bad for Trump? He sort of signals his base that he doesn't like this kind of stuff. He is not going to do it again. He is sort of a tough guy, but he grudgingly does what he has to do to accommodate people.

I think you can see where Trump is going to in this November, especially if the Democrats win the House, which is he's going to run against both parties. Trump is watching out for Trump, not for the Republican Party.

TAPPER: Well, especially in the midterms. I mean, this could be something that the Republicans could go home and brag about, at least tens of billions of dollars more for the military.

One thing that was interesting in addition to apparently not knowing that the line-item veto was already been declared unconstitutional back when you were like in grade school, that wouldn't even have impacted his displeasure with this bill.

The line-item veto theoretically would allow a president to remove things. That has nothing to do with him wanting DACA in the bill or wanting billions of dollars more in the bill. The line-item veto would have nothing to do with that.

CARPENTER: Or had him calling on this planet to eliminate the filibuster rules, so you can pass everything by majority vote, which I kind of joked around about Twitter, oh, great, you do that just in time for the Democrats to take control of Congress and pass universal health care and anything on their wish list.

He's just setting up someone to blame for the fact that the bill spends more than he wanted to -- I actually don't think he cares, but he doesn't want to be blamed for this. He wants to be the deal-maker and he did not make a deal OK.

TAPPER: OK. We're going to take a very quick break.

And when we come back, we have lots more to talk about.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon saying that if John Kelly is fired, President Trump will not replace him. Yes, you heard that right, a Trump White House without a chief of staff. How would that work?

Stay with us.


[16:18:09] TAPPER: We're back with the politics lead.

My panel is back with me to continue the conversation.

So, so H.R. McMaster, the lieutenant general who was the national security adviser, is on his way out the door and, Bill, I know you are a fan of his. What do you think the president is losing with the departure of McMaster? Why does it matter?

KRISTOL: McMaster took over one month in from Michael Flynn, and for the last year, I think for people like me who live it this way, we've had a non-disastrous foreign policy, even some reasonable -- as a reasonably successful efforts around the world, but certainly not the things that look like they might happen in terms of the destruction of NATO, the -- you know, despite canceling TPP, the Asia alliance is in decent shape and not everything has been done very well, but the tougher stance on Iran and North Korea but no -- nothing wildly and it was irresponsibly, provocative.

I think McMaster deserves a huge amount of credit for making that happen, taking over a totally dysfunctional National Security Council, a president who was as full of impulses and doesn't know much about foreign policy and making the system work.

So, I think he will get a -- we'll never know, maybe well know in 10, 20 years, how much -- how many bad ideas he stopped and how many things he made happen beneath the surface that helped keep things on a reasonably even keel. But I think he deserves a lot of credit for serving the country over this last year, under very difficult circumstances.

TAPPER: And John Bolton is set to replace him. Democrats and some moderate Republicans sounding the alarm.

Senator Chris Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, tweeted: The person who will be first in, first out of the oval office on national security matters passionately believes the us should launch pre-emptive war against both Iran and North Korea with no authorization from Congress. My god.

Now, that's actually based on things that Murphy -- that John Bolton has said or written publicly. AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I would hope that

there's a contrast between Bolton says as a TV pundit and commentator and the advice that he would give the president. But, listen, people are saying -- oh I can't believe that Donald Trump is surrounding himself with so many hawks, well, listen to how we won the primary.

[16:20:05] He accused Ted Cruz of being a kitty cat for not wanting to engage in torture, he said he wanted to bomb the crap, not really crap, out of ISIS. And so, he wants somebody who has a very brash style.

That said, I do think Bolton is competent. He has a lot of experience in the executive branch, but I am concerned about the rollout. He was announced a day after it was released in the press that Donald Trump congratulated Russia for the election.

I mean, the fact that in Bolton was rushed in so fast that he was in a TV studio sort of reacting to the news not knowing his appointment was real rather than engaging in meetings getting to know staff, that gives me pause. I wish them all the best, but that just seems very shaky to me.

TAPPER: I mean, there was this "Washington Post" story that that repeated that the president had been briefed in all caps "do not congratulate" to Putin, and there was a lot of concern in the White House about that being leaked. I have no evidence that McMaster had anything to do with the leaking of it, but according to Kaitlan Collins, President Trump was asking people if McMaster or McMaster person had something to do with it.

ROBBY MOOK, FORMER HILLARY CLINTON CAMPAIGN MANAGER: Yes, I think he was looking for an excuse. I mean, I wouldn't know, I would tend to agree with you. He probably didn't leak that. There were so many other things I assume we'll find out about in a few decades that could have leaked and didn't.

I'm slightly optimistic as it -- let me explain --

TAPPER: About John Bolton?

MOOK: Well, as a Democrat, I'm horrified that he might be the national security adviser, just to be clear. It's horrifying literally. However, I -- with Mattis there, I don't know that we're going to see missiles taking off anytime soon, we still have a wall. It is less strong than it used to be, but I still believe that Mattis will protect the republic so to speak.

And I don't -- I feel like Bolton is more bluster than real bite here. And so, I'm optimistic -- I'm hoping although, it will degrade our alliances around the world, that we won't see the kind of fundamental shift some of us are afraid about.

But I mean, again, to be clear this is an awful choice and it's going to set us --

TAPPER: Once again, we have invoked the axis of grown-ups of -- now, two of them gone, McMaster and Rex Tillerson although Mattis is there and John Kelly.

But take a listen to Steve Bannon the other day talking about what might happen if John Kelly, the chief of staff, were to go.


STEVE BANNON, FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF STRATEGIST: If General Kelly at any time does decide to leave, the president decides it's time for him to move on, I don't believe there'll be another chief of staff. I think that they'll be direct -- I think there'll be five or six direct reports like there was in Trump Tower.

I think the president is a very hands-on manager and he feels more comfortable with that. I think the structure and process that General Kelly put it was probably too much.


TAPPER: How's that sound to you, Bill?

KRISTOL: That's going to be just great. I mean, I agree with Amanda and actually Robby that John Bolton, I worked with him when I was in government. He's a serious, hard-headed guy who pushes hard for his point of view, but he was a Jim Baker guy after all at the State Department. He worked under George W. Bush and did a pretty good job on nonproliferation issues.

So, I'm not sure he will be as different from McMaster as people think, but I still think McMaster did an awfully good job.

Yes, no chief of staff, that'll be great and all these -- it will be like Trump Tower, right? I mean, Trump just calling up people and making random decisions, but I do think the important thing Bannon said for me was that Trump is on the warpath against --

TAPPER: Against Mueller.

KRISTOL: Against Mueller. I take that pretty seriously. I mean, the notion that Trump couldn't really fire Mueller, really, he just fired his national security advisor an the secretary of state within 10 days, and he just fired John Dowd and brought in Joe diGenova as one of his lawyers who sort of thinks the whole thing is a conspiracy to get Trump, there's nothing there to investigate.

TAPPER: Almost as if he has experience and enjoys firing people that nobody could have ever anticipated.

KRISTOL: And Congress is going out of town for two weeks which there'll be a bad time to, you know?

TAPPER: Yes, the show is not going to go on hiatus.

We'll keep this conversation going. Can the Iran deal survive? John Bolton, the former secretary of defense and former head of the CIA, Leon Panetta joins us next. Stay with us.


[16:28:00] TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead.

The president has replaced his national security advisor, Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, with defense hawk and former U.N. ambassador under George W. Bush John Bolton. How might that affect how the United States interacts with the rest of the world?

Former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Leon Panetta joins me now live.

Secretary Panetta, always good to have you on the show.

I want you to -- I want to read you what former Bush State Department official, Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted about the Trump presidency now. He wrote: Trump is now set for war on three fronts. Political versus Bob Mueller, economic versus China and others on trade, and actual war versus Iran and/or North Korea. This is the most perilous moment in modern American history and it has been largely brought about by ourselves, not by events.

Do you agree?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF, PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I think Richard Haass has hit the nail on the head. I think we are in a very dangerous and disruptive time with an awful lot of threats that we're facing abroad, but this president has also added now a trade war and at the same time is -- by virtue of the moves he's making, indicating that there could be a pre-emptive military action that we could get involved with as well.

So, it is -- it is without question a dangerous moment. I don't -- I don't think we ought to take any of this lightly.

TAPPER: So Trump campaigned as you recall as a non-interventionist. He said he was opposed to the Iraq war, opposed to U.S. involvement in Libya. He told me one time that the Middle East would be better off with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi and Bashar al-Assad all remaining in power. You see John Bolton and perhaps even incoming Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushing him in a more interventionist, aggressive, pre-emptive position?

PANETTA: Well, I -- you know, I'm not sure I know where President Trump stands on anything to be truthful. I mean, I -- you know, he did come in on the basis of kind of retrenchment, falling back from leadership in the world, not getting involved in wars in the world.