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Census Dirty Trick?; Trump Silent on Stormy Daniels; Trump Administration Toughens Stance on Russia and Putin; States, Civil Rights Groups Vow to Fight Census Plans. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired March 27, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Is the counterpunching president turning the other cheek for a change?

THE LEAD starts right now.

So far, President Trump is sticking to the sound of violence, giving no response to detailed allegations by adult film actress Stormy Daniels. The White House says he's too busy running the country to respond. Has that stopped him before?

And what opponents claim is a dirty political trick, the Trump administration wants to ask people their citizenship as part of the next census. The huge impact that could have on upcoming elections.

Plus, disturbing new charges tied to the largest child sex abuse scandal in sports history. Instead of protecting students from abusive gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, Nassar's boss now charged with sexually assaulting female students himself.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake today.

And we begin with the politics lead.

The White House forcefully defending the president's uncharacteristic silence on Stormy Daniels, as the adult film actress and her attorney continue to go public with her account of an alleged affair with Donald Trump.

Today, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders insisted the president doesn't always counterpunch against his critics because he -- quote -- "has a country to run."

But just in the last week or so, the president has found time to attack the Democrats, Robert Mueller, Andrew McCabe, lying James Comey, crooked Hillary, and crazy Joe Biden.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House for us today.

Jeff, when you pressed Sarah Sanders about this today, we were watching, she said the president he addressed the Stormy Daniels saga in the past. What response, though, is she referring to? .


We did ask Sarah Sanders about this and she said the White House has extensively answered all these questions, but the reality is, several questions remain, including, did the president know or authorize that $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels in the days leading up to the election back in 2016? Still unanswered.

One thing that's clear through all this, the president is doing something he rarely does. He's staying quiet.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump out of sight once again today at the White House. For a president who finds virtually no subject off- limits, his silence so far this week is deafening amid allegations about sex and hush money from adult actress Stormy Daniels.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Sometimes, he chooses to specifically engage and punch back and sometimes he doesn't.

ZELENY: White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders repeatedly declined to say why this moment is different.

(on camera): I still don't know that I understand why the president's response has been so different in this case. On October 13, 2016, he said this claims are all fabricated. The next day, he said, I have no idea who these women are. They're lying. Mrs. Trump has said he will push back 10 times as hard, no matter if you're a man or a woman. He treats everyone equal.

Why the silence? Is someone advising him to be silent?


HUCKABEE SANDERS: I don't think it is silent when the president has addressed this. We have addressed it extensively. There is just nothing else to add. Just because you guys continue to ask the same question over and over and over and over again doesn't mean that we have to keep coming up with new things toy say. We have addressed it. We have addressed it extensively. And there is nothing new to add to this conversation.

ZELENY (voice-over): The president's silence also extending to the coordinated campaign against Moscow after the U.S. joined two dozen other Western countries in expelling Russian officials in retaliation for poisoning a former Russia spy in Britain.

From the residence of the White House today, Mr. Trump spoke by phone with two key allies discussing the expulsion of Russian intelligence officers with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It is the toughest action yet against Russia. But the president's words for Vladimir Putin have not matched the administration's actions. The White House defended the president's response. HUCKABEE SANDERS: We're certainly applying pressure on Russia. We're

certainly encouraging and working with our allies and partners.

ZELENY: All this as two more attorneys today declined to join the president's legal team, the latest in a growing string of lawyers and law firms telling the world's most powerful man they won't represent him in the Russia investigation.

CNN has learned the president has also privately floated the idea of the Pentagon paying for a wall on the southern U.S. border, which he long promised Mexico would pay for.

HUCKABEE SANDERS: The wall is continuing to be built currently, and we are going to keep pushing forward until it's fully completed in the way that the president feels is necessary to defend the country.


ZELENY: Now, that wall, of course, one of the president's top campaign priorities.

But you will remember last week, when the president was threatening a veto on that spending bill. One of the reasons? His wall was only given $1.6 billion, a fraction of the $25 billion he actually asked for.

One of the reasons he's trying to find more money from the Pentagon budget. One problem here is, Jim, it is Congress that appropriates and decides how the money is spent, not the president. He does not of course have line item veto authority here. So this all came as a shock to members of Congress. Don't expect this to happen any time soon -- Jim.


SCIUTTO: I think there's a line about that the Constitution.

Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.

My political panel joins me now for more.

So you all heard Sarah Sanders today about how the president doesn't always counterpunch, which is an interesting argument to make in this White House. But as we noted there, it certainly hasn't affected the president's own attacks, tweets in the last week about Joe Biden, crooked Hillary Clinton.

And look at this one from February about another woman who has spoken of a personal relationship here. He said -- quote -- "A woman I don't know and to the best of my knowledge never met is on the front page of the fake news 'Washington Post' saying I kissed her for two minutes, yet in the lobby of Trump Tower 12 years ago never happened!"

Jackie Kucinich, why his sudden silence here on Stormy Daniels?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it seems like he is actually listening to his advisers on this one.

Behind the scenes, he's being told to wade into that it is just going to cause more trouble than it's worth. "The Washington Post" did a story that said he is venting about this to friends and colleagues behind the scenes, but at this point it does seem like he's avoiding making this more trouble than it's worth.

That said, the president -- it's always the president's prerogative to get on that Twitter whenever he feels like it.

SCIUTTO: Why, Bill Kristol, would he listen to his advisers now? Because we have heard countless times about his advisers counseling him to stay quiet on this, particularly when legal issues are involved?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Is it your suspicion that he's gotten strong legal advice here not to dig in deeper?

He may know that Stormy Daniels -- Ms. Clifford has told the truth, and that there is a civil lawsuit going on and that anything he says could be the object of -- subject to further depositions and things he might get asked under oath.

I don't think it's out of the question that the question of whether she was intimidated in that parking lot I guess in Las Vegas, as she claimed in the interview, when she had a little toddler with her, or infant, I guess, whether that could come up.

I mean, Mueller seems to have asked -- don't we know -- don't we think we know that he asked one of the witnesses something about that? So I wonder if he's very worried about her testimony is opening a door that he can't so easily bluster. Someone says you kissed her in a lobby for two minutes 12 years ago, it is kind of a he said/she said thing, presumably, right, unless there's video or something like that.

Anyway, honestly, it's a kiss. This is little different, there's an actual lawsuit, so maybe he's worried about it.

SCIUTTO: "Washington Post" reports the following. It says the president "has griped to several people that Daniels is not the type of woman he finds attractive."

Karine and Jackie...


KRISTOL: You two should discuss this for awhile.

SCIUTTO: It's not only not a satisfying answer, Karine. It's an offensive answer, isn't it?

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, it's incredibly offensive.

Look, Donald Trump, as we all know, has a horrible, awful history with women. So this is not the first time. Clearly, this is just another example. And I think as we talk about this, because I know the Stormy Daniels, a porn star, is very salacious, is very interesting, but we should always also talk about the 20 women that have accused him of sexually -- sexual harassment, sexual assault.

And I think they deserve their front page in a "Washington Post" and a "New York Times" and also their sit-down interview for "60 Minutes."

But this is the same old thing with Donald Trump. You hit -- this is another part, right? She said, I'm not attracted to you and what does he say?

SCIUTTO: Privately in this case.


KUCINICH: And to your point, if we take the sex out of this, right, this is about the president potentially not telling the truth, potential endorsing someone being stalked in a parking lot through his attorney.

And potentially violating FEC rules. And I know that sounds wonky, but it does matter. It is important. And so when you take kind of the salacious part out of it, to your point, there are some very important underlying issues here.

SCIUTTO: You must have read "The Wall Street Journal" today too because quite a strongly worded editorial from "The Wall Street Journal" today making a very similar point.

I'm going to quote from it: "The Stormy Daniels case is typical of Mr. Trump's pre-presidential behavior in thinking he can with enough threats and dissembling get away with anything. He's never understood that a president can't behave that way and this may be the cause of his downfall."

Bill Kristol, that's a remarkable phrase to hear in "The Wall Street Journal," the Murdoch-owned conservative "Wall Street Journal," about this point, that the Stormy Daniels issue, particularly when get into legal territory, could be very dangerous territory for him.

KRISTOL: Yes, there's an actual on going lawsuit, as I understand it, civil lawsuit, which he may be forced, he may be deposed in.

And that is, as we know from the experience of Bill Clinton, the charges that were made against him, that's what makes it dangerous. You can bluster your way all around. You can lie about other -- what other women have said if you're not in a court of law.

At the end of the day, the voters hold you accountable or they don't.

This is a little different. So I do think it's serious.

SCIUTTO: Look up the case of William Jefferson Clinton, right, the impeachment case in terms of lying about.

On another issue, we learned today from "The New York Times" or rather yesterday that the president has spoken privately, Jackie and Karine, about bringing back Rob Porter, we will remind our viewers, was accused by two ex-wives as well as a girlfriend of physical abuse during their relationship.


And the president talking about bringing him back.

KUCINICH: I just think -- taking the fact that -- the idea of bringing this person back into the White House is just -- is abhorrent.

He couldn't get a White House security clearance. That's why he was let go. That's how we found out about all the abuse, because he couldn't get a security clearance. As far as I know, that haven't changed.

JEAN-PIERRE: And can I just add like he doesn't belong in the White House? He belongs in front of a judge. I mean, this is a man who has been accused of abusing two of his wives, formal wives.


JEAN-PIERRE: And a girlfriend. Right.

And only in a Donald Trump administration would that -- would even he considered to come back into the White House after learning that.

SCIUTTO: On the issue, because you have -- with the president himself, beyond Rob Porter, you have a number of women, as you have both said, making these allegations against him.

And in our new CNN poll, it shows that 63 percent of Americans believe -- this is men and women -- believe the women who are making these charges here.

Bill Kristol, as we head into the midterms in particular, does this have a political effect?

KRISTOL: I would think so, but I would have thought it would have more of an effect in 2016 than it did.

And he's not on the ballot, I suppose. I do think Trump's general approval has an effect. I think this -- all these charges obviously hurt him. They don't hurt him quite as much as I would have thought they would have.


KUCINICH: Trump is different than GOP candidates.

And we're seeing women are energized. They're not too pleased with the president. We see it in some of these special elections. That may be the difference here.

SCIUTTO: As a motivational issue, and you certainly saw that turnout, as you said, in a number of special elections.

Stay with us. We have a lot more to talk about.

They kicked out dozens of Russian diplomats. Now the Trump administration is sending another message to Russia, and they are not sending it with love.

That's right after this.


[16:16:09] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: In our world lead today, the Trump administration talking tough on Russia.

First, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley blasting Moscow over its role in the Syrian civil war, calling it a day of shame for the U.N. This as Defense Secretary Mattis blamed President Putin himself for Russia's alleged role in the poisoning of an ex-spy inside the U.K., saying, quote: Certainly he is responsible as the head of state, you know, I think we can all draw our own conclusions.

All of this coming the day after the president announced the largest expulsion of Russian diplomats in U.S. history.

I want to bring in Michelle Kosinski at the State Department.

Michelle, what did Haley say today about Russia and Syria?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: She excoriated Russia. And we should say, this is nothing new, of course, for Nikki Haley. We've heard this kind of tough talk from her on Russia before, maybe even more so for other instances. You could even say that she's built a career for herself as the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. by having these no holds barred statements, where she calls people out. She puts other countries on notice. Those are words she's used before.

But the timing of this makes it more forceful. You know, one day after these expulsions, the scope of which surprised so many, here she is blasting Russia. But not even on the poisonings in the U.K. or Russia's behavior as it relates to the U.S. This is all about a completely other topic, Russia's use of a ceasefire that was supposed to happen in Syria to further its own goals and those of the Assad regime.

Here's part of what she said.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES: Cynical accusations of bad faith from Russia will not stop us from speaking out. And their blatantly false narratives will not keep us from telling the world about Russia's central role in bombing the Syrian people into submission. This should be a day of shame for every member of this council.


KOSINSKI: We also heard criticism of Russia today coming from the State Department, from the White House press secretary who said relations with Russia aren't going to improve until Russia changes its behavior. However, that's a little different from what we heard from somebody else at the White House, the spokesperson for the president's National Security Council, who said in answer to questions over why are President Trump didn't call out Putin in a phone call over the spy poisoning in the U.K., his response was that Trump believes by having some relationship with Putin, and being able to talk cordially, that that could further U.S. interests, Jim.

SCIUTTO: And it was interesting, we heard the same from the White House podium yesterday, the spokesperson, deputy spokesperson saying that they want to keep the own line to Russia in effect, they want to work with Russia where they can.

Michelle Kosinski, thanks very much.

I want to go to back to our panel now to discuss this.

Bill Kristol, you've been a critic of the president's softness on Russia, his reluctance repeatedly in public to call out Putin and others for election interference, among other things. Is this a new and tougher approach by President Trump that deserves credit?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I think he deserves credit for the expulsion and are more importantly credit for coordinating with our NATO allies. He's a guy who hasn't been big on the alliance structure and has derided many of our allies, and here we have the alliance acting together, which is itself a good thing. But it's a pretty minimal thing, honestly, and there's a lot more we could do with sanctions against Putin's cronies, against Putin himself, locking up assets here, if we're serious about punishing Putin for his actions, leaving aside what we could be doing in Europe or Syria itself where there's an actual policy vacuum.

So, no, it still remains all together a soft policy towards Putin I think.

SCIUTTO: There have been remaining questions about why the president himself hasn't publicly blamed President Trump for these attacks or even raise it in a phone call with Putin last week specific to this poisoning of the U.K. ex-spy.

[16:20:04] Here's how Michael Anton, national security spokesman for the White House, responded to that question.


MICHAEL ANTON, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SPOKESMAN: The reason he didn't bring out the poisoning in the conversation with Putin is because this U.S. action was in motion at the time they had the conversation. As President Trump has often said, he doesn't telegraph his moves or telegraph his punches when he's about to make a move.


SCIUTTO: Do you buy that, Jackie?



KUCINICH: No, and, you know, I think the other question, removed from this, is it would have been nice if the president had the same sort of reaction for when the Russians meddled in U.S. elections. There really wasn't any kind of -- the level of repercussions. I mean, Democrats and Republicans are praising this action and I think at the same token, Democrats and Republicans are left questioning whether there were no repercussions for what Russia did to this country.

SCIUTTO: Yes, it's a fair point, Karine, is it not? I mean, this is largest expulsion of diplomats that did not happen when Russia interfered in America's most sacred democratic process.

KARINE JEAN-PIERRE, MOVEON.ORG: Right. Look, I think the action is wonderful and it's great and I'm glad that the administration did this. But words matter as well, and you need both. The bully pulpit of the president is incredibly powerful. He should be using it.

And it would be different if it was an isolated incident, like he -- this is the first time he hasn't said anything. But this is a repeating -- he keeps repeating this same behavior of not commenting on Russia and what they did to our elections.

And so, it's incredibly problematic. If you look at past presidents, they would have said something. From Ronald Reagan, to Bush one, to Bush two, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, they would have used that bully pulpit and spoken to the American people at the same time.

SCIUTTO: It is an easy thing to do, isn't it? Britain is America's closest ally.

JEAN-PIERRE: That's exactly.

SCIUTTO: I mean, beyond the former Russian spy and his daughter, there are dozens of other people, the U.K. prime minister, said who had secondary contamination from a nerve agent.

KUCINICH: One of the things that is unique to Trump, what he says, it could be different from what the actions of the U.S. government or his various secretaries say. So, what the president says actually what matters more, you could argue, than even these other presidents, because it can't diverge. We don't know what the president himself is thinking because no one speaks for him except of the president himself.

KRISTOL: But in this case, we know what he's thinking. He wants a dovish policy towards Putin. I mean, he said that. He's defended it. Michael Anton defended it.

He believes not worth to upset about things like democracy and human rights. He doesn't seem very upset about the intervention in the election. He congratulated Putin on his election and he congratulates Putin on his election, doesn't worry about Putin's intervention in our election.

So, that is his view of the -- it's not just -- I mean, maybe it's election interference related. But that's, of course, a broader view of his, about dictators around the world whom he seems to be not think it is wise to take on, let's put it in the nice way or maybe is intimidated by or sort of seems to admire a little bit, right? Xi Jinping and Putin.

SCIUTTO: Yes, exactly. It is not confined to one authoritarian. There's a consistent message from him. I mean, there's a bigger issue here that says what's going to work, right? Because the U.S. has tried sanctions and expulsions for election interference.

We saw Obama do that in December. Since then, we've seen additional sanctions. You know, additional blacklisting in effect of many senior Russians for election interference, for its interference in Ukraine. And yet, Russia still continues to interfere in the U.S. election. That's what Director Pompeo and others have said it, Russia is still in Ukraine.

Why -- should there be an expectation that these expulsions are going to change Russian behavior on this?

KRISTOL: I mean, no one I know who studies this and follows Putin closely thinks that Vladimir Putin is sitting there and thinking, boy, this really has got me worried. I've got to pull back on what I'm thinking of doing in Ukraine or in interfering in other elections or what I'm doing in Syria, or what I'm doing and throwing my weight around in the world or throwing my weight around at home.

They had a fake election there. We could have spoken up. There are dissidents, there are brave people in the streets of Russia, there are brave people voting against Putin. We've done nothing to help --

SCIUTTO: That's been a consistent position of Democratic and Republicans, calling out Russia and other countries frankly for unfair, un-free elections.

KUCINICH: What could be done on this side of the pond is preparing various government agencies for hacks that could happen in the 2018 elections. And another thing Director Pompeo and others have said is that there has been no direct --

JEAN-PIERRE: That's right.

KUCINICH: -- yes, there's been no direct instruction from the president.

JEAN-PIERRE: From the president himself.


JEAN-PIERRE: And that's where it starts. It starts from the top. And if you have the person in the Oval Office who is not directing his folks to do that, then it's a problem.

SCIUTTO: And that election is, what, four, five -- a few months away.

Karine, Jackie, Bill Kristol, thanks very much.

Multiple states are banding together on sue the Trump administration over the upcoming U.S. census. Why the outcome could have an enormous impact on your community.

Stay with us.


[16:28:55] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

Multiple states from California to New York plan to sue the Trump administration over its decision to add a citizenship question to the next U.S. census. Critics say it violates the U.S. Constitution, puts national security at risk and most of all could lead states with heavy immigration population to lose seats in state legislatures and Congress.

CNN's Kyung Lah is live in Los Angeles.

Kyung, why is a question like, are you a U.S. citizen such a hot political issue?

KYUNG LAH, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the political stakes here, Jim, are really what is important and what is being bandied about. This is more than just a form, a federal form that you fill out. We're talking about billions of federal dollars that flow into various communities around the country, but ultimately, seats in Congress, representation and Electoral College votes in the presidential election.


XAVIER BECERRA, CALIFORNIA ATTORNEY GENERAL: We're not going to stop. And we're going to defend every one of our rights to make sure that every one of our people who's worked hard to make California the sixth largest economy in the state is counted.

LAH (voice-over): California's attorney general suing the Trump administration over that count. The U.S. Census, the form you fill out. Making sure the country has an accurate count of the people who live here.

The Justice Department requesting a seemingly simple question be asked, asking, are you a U.S. citizen?