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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Saudi Arabia Denies Any Role in Journalist's Disappearance; Trump, Kanye West Meet at White House in Surreal Scene; Conservative Commentator: Trump Exploited Kanye West; Melania Trump: I'm The Most Bullied Person In The World. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired October 11, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): U.S. official says such a plot would need the approval of Saudi's crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS -- someone warmly embraced by the Trump administration.

[16:30:05] Earlier this week, MBS placed a direct call to President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, according to a person familiar with the call and denied any involvement in Khashoggi's disappearance. Kushner took an unannounced trip to Saudi Arabia in 2017 to meet with the young prince. Months later, MBS apparently boasted that Kushner was, quote in, his pocket, which Bin Salman denied.

Now as the U.S. mulls an investigation into Khashoggi's fate, senators are calling for answers.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: The intel point directly at them and them thinking about this in advance. The administration will have to pay attention to that.

DAMON: And President Trump is declining to point fingers.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're looking at it very strongly, we'll be having a report out soon, we're working with Turkey, we're working with Saudi Arabia. What happened is a terrible thing and assuming that happened. I mean, maybe we'll be pleasantly surprised, but somehow I tend to doubt it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DAMON: Jake, you'll remember a few days ago, the Turks asked and received permission to actually search and conduct their own investigation in the Saudi consulate and the consul general's home, but then the Saudis asked that it be postponed. This is obviously a highly politically charged investigation, and now, we've heard from a Turkish presidential spokesman that there will be a joint working group established between Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

TAPPER: Oh, good, a working group.

Arwa Damon, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Let's talk about it with the experts. And, Bill, let me remind people what president Trump said just a few

minutes ago when asked about what kind of punishment the U.S. could mete out towards Saudi Arabia including suspending arms sales.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion, which is an all-time record, and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money. So, what good does that do us?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: What do you think?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: The Saudis over the decades have bought an awful lot of influence in Washington and America. Now they are politic reasons for going along with policies and with a regime that we don't like in many ways, that exported terrorism, has horrible human rights records at home and so forth. But the main reason was oil, but we don't depend on Saudi oil today and the world depends less on Saudi oil than it used to.

What's the other reason? They are such a great stalwart ally against Iran? I don't buy that. What are they really doing against Iran? They are fighting a horrible war in Yemen which maybe -- we might be sort of on their side, but they are doing it in a way that's antagonizing everyone there and elsewhere.

So, I think maybe, I've been sort of anti-Saudi vaguely for 25, 30 years, but I finally feel -- I feel this might be the occasion, a horrible tragic moment where people might say, might reconsider the whole relationship.

TAPPER: And let's not forget in 2015, President Trump, then candidate Trump, talked about his feelings towards Saudi Arabia. There happened to be other influences in his mind and his pocket. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Saudi Arabia, and I get along with all of them. They buy apartments, spend $40 million, $50 million. Am I supposed to dislike them? I like them very much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: I mean, this is one of the reasons why people thought President Trump should divest any of his holdings because obviously if he depends $40 million, $50 million a year from the Saudis, it could influence his view of foreign policy.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Absolutely. And you still have those questions lingering, in all fairness, he also has talked about China, for example, being a landlord to one of the Chinese banks in New York. But the real issue here is that the president and Jared Kushner have really hinged so much of their policy on this -- on MBS and on the --

TAPPER: The new crown prince.

DIAMOND: -- and the new Saudi Arabia that is emerging under the crown prince, and so this is throwing all of that into question. And it's not just the alignments between the U.S. and Saudi Arabians in terms of confronting Iranian influence, which is both the president's policy, Jared Kushner's policy, John Bolton's policy, the national security adviser, but it also affects another key priority for the president and Jared Kushner which is Israeli-Palestinian peace.

When you ask administration officials what the one difference is as far as why they can now perhaps solve this decades long crisis, they talk about Saudi Arabia. They talk about the emerging alignment between Saudi Arabia and Israel and other key players in the region, and so, there's more at stake here than simply the U.S./Saudi relationship. There's all these regional dynamics at play.

And it remains to be seen whether the administration is going to determine that what happened to this journalist is enough to let all that have unravel.

TAPPER: Although it seems as though, at least with members of the senate, that Saudi Arabia may have crossed a line here. They are now pushing for an investigation to find out if there should be sanctions against Saudi Arabia for this alleged murder.

Take a listen to the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CORKER: My instincts say that there's no question that the Saudi government did this, and my instincts say that they murdered him. It will hugely undermine that relationship at least with Congress, and the administration will have to pay attention to that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[16:35:08] TAPPER: Now, you served in the Obama White House and Obama State Department. What do you think the Senate should do and what the White House should do?

NAYYERA HAQ, FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE SENIOR DIRECTOR: The White House should have spoken out earlier than it did and part of the ability to get away with murder is because of the White House's own crackdown on media. For example, the White House has not released any of the recorded statements of conversations between foreign leaders. We don't have daily press briefings and we find out through the president's offhand comment that Jared Kushner had already spoken with MBS a couple of days ago. We don't know what the content of that conversation was but I surmise, given their close crown prince to crown prince relationship that it was more likely about how do they cover each other and help each other out than it was about using U.S. power to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for any of its human rights violations. We're now looking at Senate having to take up that role of diplomacy

that's been abdicated by the Trump White House.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And the letter that triggered this investigation inside the White House from Congress was signed not only by Bob Corker but also by the man, Jim Risch, who would take Bob Corker's place should Republicans retain control next year, also Bob Menendez was a co-signor on that letter.

TAPPER: Every member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee except of Rand Paul, right.

KUCINICH: Yes, and the likelihood that Rand Paul will be heading up the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that's not going to happen and this is not going to go away and one thing that the mid-terms aren't going to solve.

KRISTOL: And the act that's being invoked in the letter that Jackie mentioned is the Magnitsky Act, which is named after a Russian journalist killed by Putin. So, maybe we should have, you know, get serious about not coddling to dictators of very kinds and standing for human rights, especially in this case, a man who is a permanent resident, a legal resident of the United States, I believe. I think his children are U.S. citizens who was living here, who goes to the -- an embassy and ally, a NATO ally in Turkey, and the Saudis decide to abduct him or whatever they decide to do and they end up killing him apparently. I mean, that's pretty terrible.

HAQ: And we can't continue to outsource U.S. power to places like Turkey, for example, which has its own extreme records of violations against journalism. At the height of Erdogan taking control, 150 journalists detained, more than 150 media outlets shut down. We can't be relying on a country like that to be standing up for the rights of journalists to be covering these types of regimes. And also, they're problematic general.

This is why we have U.S. intelligence services. We're hearing about all the reports because of the resourcefulness of American reporters. The White House could easily have turned on some of our assets and intel sources in the region to get to the bottom of what's been happening with Khashoggi.

TAPPER: But, Jackie, am I overly skeptical, overly cynical because I think 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudis, al Qaeda was partly founded by Saudis, we didn't do anything then. Why are we going to do something about this journalist who's not even an American citizen?

KUCINICH: It's a really good question. The Saudis do wield a lot of power, have and continue to in the U.S. government. Let us not forget, it's the first place that Trump went abroad.

TAPPER: The very first stop.

KUCINICH: The very first stop was Saudi Arabia.

So it's hard for me to think, and I also don't mean to be cynical, that this is really going to be the thing that really alters the U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia.

TAPPER: All right. Everyone, stick around, we've got more to talk about because, of course, Kanye went to the White House today. What exactly did he say in that ten-minute speech, tirade that managed to keep President Trump quiet even?

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:44] TAPPER: And we're back with the politics lead. In one of the most bizarre on-camera scenes in the Oval Office and an administration not without its share of bizarre on-camera scenes, Kanye West delivering a ten-minute impassioned soliloquy next to the president of the United States right in front of the resolute desk, touching on criminal justice reform, Kim Kardashian who is his wife, and the powers he gets from his MAGA hat. He says it makes him feel like Superman.

The Grammy Award winning artist has become an ardent supporter and defender of President Trump. The meeting ended with a presidential hug of sorts. President Trump declared himself to be impressed.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House.

And, Kaitlan, you've covered President Trump on the campaign trail and since. Where does this rank in the weirdness scale?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's definitely up there, especially for a White House like this that has surreal moments on a pretty much daily basis. This was one of the most surreal, Jake.

Now, they hadn't even made it to lunch yet which is what Kanye West was here for, and President Trump already seemed to be at a loss for words.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KANYE WEST, RAPPER: Let me give this guy a hug right here.

I love this guy right here.

COLLINS (voice-over): That embrace coming after one of the most surreal days 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has ever witnessed.

President Trump and Kanye West seated across from each other in the Oval Office.

TRUMP: You're in the Oval Office. How does it feel to be in the Oval Office?

WEST: Oh, it is good energy in this.

TRUMP: West, wearing the president's signature red "Make America Great Again" hat --

WEST: It made me feel like Superman.

TRUMP: -- was there to talk criminal justice reform but went on a free-wheeling performance in front of the cameras.

WEST: Trump is on his hero's journey right now, and -- and he might not have expected to have a crazy mother (EXPLETIVE DELETED) like Kanye West run up and support.

COLLINS: West praised Trump repeatedly --

WEST: If he don't look good, we don't look good. This is our president. He has to be the freshest, the flyest.

COLLINS: Lashed out at Democrats.

WEST: People expect that if you're black, you have to be Democrat.

COLLINS: And pitched a replacement for Air Force One.

[16:45:00]

WEST: This right here is the iPlane One. It's a hydrogen-powered airplane.

COLLINS: The rapper, who once famously said President George W. Bush didn't care about black people was asked if he feels the same way about Trump.

WEST: As black people, we have to take a responsibility for what we're doing. We kill each other more than police officers.

COLLINS: His monologue even seemed to put the president out of loss for words.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This was just set up to be a lunch.

COLLINS: Asked if he thought Kanye should run for president, Trump sounded encouraging.

TRUMP: Could very well be.

COLLINS: While West promise not to run against him.

WEST: Only after him.

COLLINS: As major headlines flashed throughout the world, the stock market dipping, questions raised about the death of a Saudi journalist, and recovery underway in Florida, it was another day of reality television at the Trump White House.

TRUMP: I'll tell you what, that was pretty impressive. He could speak for me anytime he wants. He's been a great guy, smart cookie.

(END VIDEOTAPE) COLLINS: Now, Jake, that meeting generated a lot of laughs and raised a lot of eyebrows but the point of it was is that the President has a really low approval rating when it comes to African Americans and he think Kanye -- he thinks Kanye West can help improve that approval rating. Whether or not that's true, Jake, we'll just have to wait and see.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: All right, Kaitlan Collins, thanks so much. Everyone, take a listen to how Kanye wrapped up his speech, pardon the pun.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

WEST: What I need Saturday Night Live to improve on, what I need the Liberals to improve on is if he don't look good, we don't look good. This is our president. He has to be the freshest, the flyest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: The basic argument here is that this is our president, we need to support him. Everybody needs to stop mocking him. Everyone needs to stop covering him critically, etcetera.

NAYYERA HAQ, FORMER SENIOR DIRECTOR, OBAMA WHITE HOUSE: That could have been a valid point had he not continued to then justify his support for all of Donald Trump's policies. There is -- there is a deep sense of betrayal among people who follow hip-hop and rap. Kanye was supposed to be this harbinger of conscious rap, and instead, he's now caping at the White House for a president who is systematically denying black people the right to vote and purging voter rolls and who stands as an allied to white supremacist by calling them very fine people.

So this is not part and parcel with a lot of the policies that black communities or any minority community expects to hear from the White House let alone somebody who's supposed to be a genius. And that John Legend probably said it best about this whole situation with Kanye that artists can be great at developing and thinking new worlds but they also have to acknowledge reality.

TAPPER: S.E. Cupp said something really interesting, Bill, after the meeting. I want you to take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

S.E. CUPP, CNN HOST: I think you had there a man who's clearly not OK and a president who's willing to exploit that. And worse to exploit that under the auspices of race relations.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Obviously, nobody wants to -- and I don't think she was -- belittle Kanye's struggle, mental health struggles, although he raised them in the Oval Office meeting. But what do you think of that, the idea that this is -- the President is taking advantage to somebody who is clearly you know not 100 percent well right now. BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Well, he started

taking advantage of him in the sense that he has him in the Oval Office which is OK, I guess there's a bunch of them. And then all of a sudden all of these cameras are here. I mean, why? This did not -- the President is able to meet with whoever he wants and can meet with a wide variety of people in the Oval Office, but yes, when you put on camera you're making a public thing of it, and then you're sort of responsible for --

HAQ: And Donald Trump is very artful about that, right? I mean even in the campaign he had Steve Harvey in for a private meeting and oh look, there happen to be cameras on his way out and Steve Harvey then spent three days on radio apologizing to his people for effectively endorsing Donald Trump and his policies. And Kanye clearly likes the attention right now and it was nice for a change to see Donald Trump have to listen to somebody else ramble in many different directions. We can only hope that he deletes his Twitter account just like Kanye did.

It is so interesting that when you look at the difference between the Kanye West visit to the White House and the Kim Kardashian-West visit to the White House, Kanye's wife. When she showed up, she met with the president largely privately. There were pictures released after but you didn't have this grand show that you saw today with Kanye West. And Kim Kardashian was actually able to get something substantive. She got the President to pardon Alice Marie Johnson who is in prison for nonviolent drug crime serving a life sentence.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Kanye West's visit, however, was completely jumbled. There was no central theme to it. There was nothing that he was trying to accomplish as far as a mission. The stated goal was to talk about jobs in Chicago, you know, criminal justice reform, but none of that was really the focus and you don't get the sense coming out of this that there was actually anything substantive. And frankly, it just comes back to the idea that the President at the end of the day likes to promote people who like him. And that is what Kanye West has been over the last several months particularly a black person who likes him. And so the president is willing to put that person on the --

TAPPER: The same thing with Jim Brown from your home state of Ohio.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, Jim Brown. Where do I start? But yes, I don't think celebrity endorsements really make much of a difference with the exception of I guess Taylor Swift this week. A lot of people registered to vote as a result of what she said. That said, this is also a president in his former life who always really wanted to be accepted by the A-list and be accepted by other celebrities and never was. So this is someone who is A-list, likes him, accepts him, wants to talk about him, and I think the President wants to show that off.

Now, the real question how is this used in the future. Is he going to be at a campaign rally? I mean, really, I'm not really even joking. How much is the president going to you know have Kanye onboard at this point? [16:50:38] KRISTOL: And the notion and the -- what does show I think, is the notion that Chief of Staff John Kelly has things under control. You know, no one gets in the Oval Office without going through a proper screening and thinking through whether this is a good idea or not. I think we're -- that's kind of out the way.

TAPPER: Did you see Olivia Nuzzi -- I was thinking of Olivia Nuzzi story in the -- in The Daily Beast -- no, no, New York Magazine. New York Magazine, I'm sorry, in which --

KUCINICH: She's an alumna though.

TAPPER: She's an alumna. In which -- in which she talked about -- she was working on a story about chaos in the White House by President Trump seeking people to replace John Kelly and all of a sudden she's assured into the White House and into the Oval Office and spends half an hour with President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, Chief of Staff Kelly, all of them you know, trying to convince her not to write this story. That doesn't really sing this is a White House that has its priorities straight. And Olivia's great, don't get me wrong, but what's -- why spend half an hour to try to kill a story about John Kelly not being Chief of Staff.

DIAMOND: You know, it seems to be the perfect encapsulation of where the president is right now. This week we have seen him almost every single time that he has left the White House to board Marine One. All the reporters, you know, we all gather to see the President, he doesn't always stop. This week he has stopped every time but once and he has had several rallies, he has done multiple interviews local and national. He spent 45 minutes on Fox and Friends this morning.

Clearly, we are seeing the president back in campaign mode I think. And that includes not only the rallies but these lengthy rambling interviews that he has done. And so to see him in the Oval Office of all places bringing in Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, all of these folks for the goal of one single story shows that the President is once again focused on his image.

TAPPER: And if you look at the President six years ago, this time was lambasting President Obama for A, campaigning and B, hanging out with I guess, it was Jay-Z instead of paying attention to people hit by a hurricane or superstorm Sandy. Obviously, in the last day the president has campaigned in Pennsylvania and he's hanging out with Kanye. Not the same thing as Jay-Z but I think the same kind of idea.

A rare conversation with the First Lady, what she said about infidelity, distrust, and why she believes she's one of the most bullied people in the world. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:55:00] TAPPER: First Lady Melania Trump today claiming she's one of the most bullied people in the world, pointing to the harassment that she and her son have received after she launched her Be Best initiative to combat online bullying. But as CNN's Kate Bennett reports, critics were quick to point to the First Lady's husband as perhaps one of the biggest perpetrators of online bullying.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Melania Trump, one of the most private First Ladies in modern history, speaking out in her first solo on-camera interview in almost a year saying her public role has now made her the most bullied person in the world.

MELANIA TRUMP, FIRST LADY, UNITED STATES: I could say I'm the most bullied person on the world.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You think you're the most bullied person in the world?

M. TRUMP: One of them. If you are really seeing what people are saying about me.

BENNETT: In Africa last week addressing her own experience by being on the receiving end of criticism. How that led to the creation of her kids' campaign Be Best and a focus on bullying, despite her husband's continued habit of name-calling.

D. TRUMP: Lying, crooked Hillary.

BENNETT: A change from just two years ago during a bruising presidential campaign when she brushed off critics.

M. TRUMP: I have a thick skin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It doesn't bother you?

M. TRUMP: It doesn't bother me, and it's very nasty, but I have a thick skin. I can handle it.

BENNETT: That comes after a year of headlines about alleged infidelities, her health and everything from her wardrobe to her parents' citizenship. The First Lady confirmed she is one of the president's most trusted advisers. Asked if he listens to her 100% --

M. TRUMP: Oh, I wish. I give him my honest advice and honest opinions, and then he does what he wants to do.

BENNETT: That advice also includes telling the president who he should trust in his inner circle and who she thinks doesn't have his back. Trump taking his wife's advice to heart.

M. TRUMP: With some people, they don't work there anymore.

BENNETT: Mrs. Trump also agreeing with the president in other ways, saying that while she believes women who allege abuse should be heard, she also says she supports men who have been accused, but adding a female victim should have "hard evidence" if they come forward.

M. TRUMP: You cannot just say to somebody I was, you know, sexually assaulted and -- or you did that to me, or -- because sometimes the media goes too far. BENNETT: Melania Trump likely referring to the dozen or so charges of

alleged sexual misconduct levied against her husband. But in Egypt last week asked if she believed Christine Blasey Ford's testimony during the Kavanaugh hearings, Trump wouldn't say.

M. TRUMP: We need to help all the victims no matter what kind of abuse they had, but I'm against any kind of abuse or violence.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BENNETT: Though Melania Trump says she supports women but she also says they must have evidence to come forward. Jake, a very rare public statement there. If you noticed in front of the Sphinx, she known as the Slovenian sphinx, it's all very interesting. And again, you know, hearing from the First Lady is very, very rare.

TAPPER: And of course, as a factual matter, you don't actually have to have evidence to come forward with an allegation.

BENNETT: Of course not.

TAPPER: Kate Bennett, thank you so much. Follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER or tweet the show @THELEADCNN. Our coverage on CNN continues right now.