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The Lead with Jake Tapper

Supreme Fight; Interview With New Jersey Senator Cory Booker; Kellyanne Conway Promotes Ivanka Brand; Putin Rival Convicted, Pres Bid Unlikely; Interview with Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey; McCain Battles White House Over Yemen Raid. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired February 09, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So, when did the White House Briefing Room become QVC?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Pitch woman. Top Trump adviser, federal employee, Kellyanne Conway standing in the White House, the people's house, going on television and telling people to buy Ivanka Trump's stuff. The White House this afternoon saying Conway has been counseled, but what does that mean?

President Trump unloading on Twitter against a senator after the senator revealed that Trump's Supreme Court nominee called attacks on judges disheartening. Here's a question. Will the judge's comments help him get confirmed?

Plus, cars skidding, tractor trailers jackknifing, flights canceled, thousands of travelers stranded as the winter storm furiously dumps up to two feet of snow on the Northeast.

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

We're going to begin with our politics lead. Today, White House counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway was -- quote -- "counseled" after she promoted Ivanka Trump's clothing and shoe line in a FOX News interview from the Briefing Room today.

Conway was talking about that clothing line, of course, after the president criticized Nordstrom for dropping his daughter's brand for what Nordstrom says were declining sales.

We're digging for more details on that story while the White House answers more questions about whether President Trump's Supreme Court nominee disapproves of the president's tweets attacking federal judges. The president is angrily disagreeing with that allegation.

And as you might expect, the president's disagreement, well, it quickly got personal.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta joins me now.

Jim, the White House says Judge Gorsuch was speaking only generally about attacks on the judiciary, not singling out the president's tweets and comments.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is Gorsuch a mess, Jake. The White House appears to be just fine with Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch after he expressed dismay with attacks on the judiciary in the wake of the president's comments on the judges handling the case of the administration's travel ban.

Instead, President Trump and his top aides are directing their outrage at the Senate Democrat who first revealed Gorsuch's remarks.


ACOSTA (voice-over): For President Trump's pick for the highest court in the land, it's a supreme turn of events. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was asked in a private conversation by Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal about President Trump's attacks on federal judges.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: There is no question that judge Gorsuch said to me that he found these attacks on the judiciary by the president to be disheartening and demoralizing.

ACOSTA: The president's response? He didn't go after Gorsuch; he ripped into Blumenthal, resurrecting the senator's past false claims that when he was in the Marine Reserves in the Vietnam era that he actually served in Vietnam and accusing him of misrepresenting what Gorsuch actually said, an attack the president repeated after meeting with Senate Democrats who are facing tough reelection battles.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: His comments were misrepresented. And what you should do is ask Senator Blumenthal about his Vietnam record that didn't exist.

ACOSTA: But the White House may be threading a needle, claiming Gorsuch was only speaking generally, pushing back on the notion the judge was being specifically critical of the president.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The judge was very clear that he was not commenting on any specific matter, right? And then he was asked about his general philosophy. He literally went out of his way to say, I'm not commenting on a specific instance.

ACOSTA: That may be a distinction without a difference. Even if Gorsuch was speaking broadly, the president's attacks on the judiciary would clearly meet the standard of disheartening and demoralizing, and it's at odds with what Blumenthal claims.

Blumenthal says Gorsuch told him there was no need to keep his feelings private.

BLUMENTHAL: In fact, Judge Gorsuch specifically said, you should feel free to mention what I said about these attacks being disheartening and demoralizing.

ACOSTA: As well as what a federal Republican said after he met with Gorsuch. SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: Disheartening is a great word. Judge

Gorsuch and I actually talked about that and frankly he got pretty passionate about it.

ACOSTA: Top Democrats are now signaling their new strategy for Gorsuch's confirmation hearing, insisting that the judge condemn the president publicly.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: To whisper to a senator, but to refuse to say anything public is not close to a good enough show on independence. So, for my view, not a good start for Judge Gorsuch. Not a good start.

ACOSTA: Senate Republicans are offering a glimpse of their talking points, too.

SEN. ROY BLUNT (R), MISSOURI: I think that what Judge Gorsuch is showing here is his independent character, the fact that as a judge he's going to call them as he sees them.

ACOSTA: Either way, the judge's comments are now a test for the White House, where the president is still praising his pick.

TRUMP: He will respect and very much respect the Constitution as written. And he will apply the law as written. He's a mainstream judge, very much mainstream, and I urge you all to confirm him.



ACOSTA: The White House also expressed frustration that President Obama was not scrutinized in the media when he criticized the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case.

But what President Obama said is hardly the same kind of attack that President Trump leveled against the judge handling the travel ban when he said they would be responsible or that that judge and perhaps the appellate judges handling this case right now would be responsible if there is a terrorist attack -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jim Acosta, thank you so much.

Let's go back to that developing story out of the White House. The administration is now responding to questions about counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway for a sales pitch of sorts that she made on "FOX & Friends." Here is what she said this morning.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: They're using the most prominent woman in Donald Trump's most prominent...


CONWAY: And they're using her, who has been a champion for women empowerment, women in the workplace to get to him. So, I think people can see through that.

Go buy Ivanka's stuff is what I would tell you. I hate shopping. I'm going to go get some myself. This is just -- it's a wonderful line. I own some of it. I fully -- I'm going to just give -- I'm going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today, everybody. You can find it online.


TAPPER: Not a surprise. That's today's installment of conflict of interest watch.

And CNN money correspondent Cristina Alesci joins me now.

Cristina, the White House didn't clear up a whole lot, saying that she had been counseled.


And we probably shouldn't expect the White House to clear much up, because the administration, as we have been reporting all along, Jake, doesn't seem to care about a very blatant violation of ethical standards, norms, and in this case the law. Here's Spicer's response at the press briefing just a few hours ago.


SPICER: Kellyanne has been counseled. And that's all we're going to go on. She's been counseled on that subject. And that's it.


ALESCI: Now, critics are already saying his response was tepid in the face of public outrage that Trump still shows that, you know -- it still shows that the White House is taking Kellyanne's comments seriously, but perhaps they went too far.

Look, even Congressman Chaffetz, who defended the president for attacking Nordstrom's just yesterday on our air, he said at the time that Trump was being a doting father and said that Conway -- and today he said Conway's comments were wrong.

Look, people don't like the idea that the president and his aides are using the office of the president to defend and promote Ivanka's brand. They just don't like it. Phone lines at the Office of Government Ethics are flooded.

Their Web site crashed today and my legal and ethics sources can't believe what happened. But the blowback at the end of the day may not amount to much, because enforcement falls within the White House, and the most serious punishment for this kind of thing is dismissal. It's not a criminal offense, Jake.

That said, I have been reporting on how little separation there is between the president and Trump ward. Now the question is, does that apply to the entire White House staff? TAPPER: Interesting. And Conway suggested, and so did Spicer

yesterday, Sean Spicer, the press secretary, that Nordstrom's decision was politically motivated to drop her line, Ivanka Trump's line. Was it?

ALESCI: Well, Nordstrom says it was a purely business decision, that sales of the brand had been declining, to the point where it made good business sense to discontinue the line.

Now, look, I spoke to people at Ivanka's company a couple months ago. And they said the brand was targeting millennial women in urban areas. Guess who isn't a fan of Ivanka's brand right now? Millennial women in urban areas.

So, it's not hard to see why Nordstrom and now other retailers are backing away from their previous relationship here, Jake. And we can expect to see this play out over the next weeks and months because that online petition to boycott Ivanka's brand that started with a millennial woman seems to be gaining some steam here.

TAPPER: Interesting.

Cristina Alesci, thank you so much.

Let's bring in Democratic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker.

Senator, thanks for joining me.

I know you want to talk about Russia, and we will get to that. But first I want to talk about those two stories we just covered.

First, Kellyanne Conway, do you think she was breaking the law when she encouraged people to buy Ivanka's clothing? And are you satisfied hearing that the White House counseled her?

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, I actually pulled the law to look at it, what the actual rule was.

And it says very explicitly that some -- you cannot use your position to endorse merchandise or try to sell merchandise. It's clearly what she did. She clearly broke the law.

But I think that there are -- again, this is not a felony offense, and I think it's serious, but I think it speaks to a much larger issue which I think most Americans should be very, very concerned about. It's the fact that we still are now two, three weeks into the presidency and Donald Trump has not removed himself from his businesses.


There are serious conflicts of interest between him and the businesses now being run by his family members. And he clearly does not respect any line, nor does he respect the gravity and the seriousness of those conflicts. And now they're involved in international businesses. And Donald

Trump is our representative, the people's representative along the international stage. And there are clearly conflicts there. This is a clear and serious problem. This is just one small example of that, but this is unacceptable, and I believe in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the United States Constitution.

TAPPER: Senator, let me also ask you, there is a debate right now about whether when Judge Gorsuch referred to attacks on the judiciary as disheartening and demoralizing whether he was specifically referring to what President Trump did, or was he speaking more broadly?

Either way, does the fact that he would say this make you more inclined to support his nomination to the Supreme Court possibly?

BOOKER: Well, it doesn't make me more inclined to support him because of his judicial record.

But I tell you what. It makes me respect him, because I think that, like many of my Republican colleagues, we clearly understand that many of the things that Donald Trump is doing in a short-term presidency are undermining the very basic institutions of our democracy.

And so whether it's one day he's insulting the judiciary as a whole or another day he's insulting the sanctity of our electoral process by making an outright lie and claiming that there is broad-scale millions of people voting fraudulently, Donald Trump is not just whacking in a political way.

He is whacking at the very roots of our democracy, what makes us strong, the judiciary, the electoral process, and even his attacks on John McCain. We are an Article I branch of the government. We are put first for a reason.

We have an obligation to provide checks and balances with the administration. Every time a United States senator takes issue with a policy, be it a foreign policy or a domestic policy, and Donald Trump wants to turn that into an ad hominem attack and come back in a petulant way, again, to me, that is insulting.

So, here is somebody, not just insulting. It's wrong. It undermines the way our democracy is set up. So, Donald Trump seems to have no respect for our traditions, but actually seems to be dedicated to attacking the very institutions that make us a great and free country.

TAPPER: Senator Booker, don't go anywhere. We're going to take a quick break.

The Senate just held a hearing on the United States' relationship with Russia. Several Republican lawmakers went after President Trump's comments about Putin and Russia.

Senator Booker, stick around. We're going to discuss that next.


Our world lead now: Vladimir Putin may have an easier path to reelection or whatever passes for the electoral process in Russia. Russia's most prominent opposition leader was convicted of embezzlement this week, surprise, surprise, a conviction that likely bars him from running against Putin in 2018 as planned. Alexei Navalny said the charges against him were fabricated.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Cory Booker is still with us. He sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which just had a hearing on Russia.

Senator, I don't know your reaction to this news out of Russia about Putin's potential opponent being convicted of embezzlement or if you have a broader look at Putin and the electoral system.

SEN. CORY BOOKER (D), NEW JERSEY: Well, Vladimir Putin has proven himself to be someone who has no respect for democratic traditions and we see what happens to opposition leaders in his country. They are poisoned, they are killed, or they have trumped up charges like this one appears to be.

We had a hearing today which was probably one of the best notes of bipartisanship I've seen in these days since Trump's inauguration where Senator Corker, a Republican from Tennessee, spoke with some conviction about the need to get to the bottom of the influences that Putin has had in this country in terms of our electoral process which one Republican senator likened to the Cuban missile crisis in term of the potential of the gravity of the threat, but also trying to understand how we could have a president that makes a moral equivalency between the United States of America and Vladimir Putin --

TAPPER: And, in fact, Senator, let me just interrupt you for a second. We have some of the sound there. Let's play that and get your reaction to it.


SEN. BOB CORKER (R), FOREIGN RELATIONS CHAIRMAN: I see no moral equivalence, none, between ourselves and the actions that Russia has taken. And I agree with you, those comments to me do not reflect certainly most members of the United States Senate, I would say all, but I think at least most.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: So, we're going to try to cut a deal with a guy who thinks he's winning, has no internal pressure and wants us to give up everything in exchange for him doing what he claims to be doing anyway. So, maybe I'm a little harsh, but I think that's a really stupid deal.


TAPPER: Were you surprise today to hear such strong condemnations of the president's comments and the president's plans from your Republican colleagues? BOOKER: No, I wasn't surprised at all. I've been having lots of

conversations with everybody from John McCain and Lindsey Graham to many of the senators that are sitting on the committee.

We understand that the United States of America was attacked in a very serious way. They went after undermining our elections, spreading fake news, injecting propaganda into our internal systems. In addition to that, within these hot spots where we're trying to bring about peace, you have Russia acting in egregious ways in areas like Syria, or attacking Ukraine and encroaching on their borders in grievous ways. I sat down with ambassadors from Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, yesterday and to see the fear that their country has because they are experiencing serious Russian interventions, trying to undermine their democracies.

This is one of the worst actors on the global stage that is doing very serious things, now not just globally where in the European parliament is taking action, but also here in the United States. And we need to treat it that way.

I do not understand, I have no explanation of why our president seems to be cozying up to someone who is causing so much global chaos, terror, violence, and crimes. I do not understand. There's no explanation possible for why we should be doing this.

[16:20:02] What we should be doing right now is stepping up our actions against Russia, whether it be added sanctions or more continued support for those trying to literally defend themselves from Russian encroachments like the Ukraine.

TAPPER: Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey -- thank you so much for your time. We always appreciate it. Don't be a stranger, sir.

BOOKER: Thank you very much.

TAPPER: The White House is demanding an apology from Senator John McCain after he criticized the raid in Yemen where a Navy SEAL was killed. What about all the times Mr. Trump attacked military operations and raids?

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

[16:25:00] We're going to stick with our politics lead because there have been new developments on Capitol Hill after President Trump tweeted a shot at Republican Senator John McCain for calling the recent Yemen raid a failure.

The operation was President Trump's first known crack at being commander-in-chief and resulted in the death of Navy SEAL Ryan Owens and at least 20 civilians according to the Yemeni government. Although the Pentagon says that al-Qaeda terrorists were also killed and intelligence was gathered. President Trump tweeted, quote, "Senator McCain should not be talking

about the successor failure of a mission to the media, only emboldens the enemy. He's been losing so long he doesn't know how to win any more. Just look at the mess our country is in, bogged down in conflict all over the place. Our hero Ryan died on a winning mission according to General Mattis. Not a failure. Time for the U.S. to get smart and start winning again."

The notion that the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator John McCain, not to mention Navy veteran and former POW, and a war hero, the notion that he should not be talking about the success or failure of a military mission, that's an interesting one, especially for a president who has spent many of the last few years criticizing various U.S. military missions.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is live for us on Capitol Hill with all the latest developments.

Phil, CNN caught up with Senator McCain today on the Hill. What do you have to say?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's exactly right. And as the president was clearly moving to escalate the situation round about 17 of the back and forth between Senator McCain and President Trump over the last 15 or 16 months, Senator McCain took a different tact. The first when I caught up to him, he declined to comments on camera about the tweets at all.

And then I caught up to him and he made, Jake, a similar point to what you're making. He's the Senate Armed Services chairman. He's going to continue to do his job. Take a listen.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: That's what I have to work, it's my responsibilities as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and that's what I'm about. Nothing more. There's nothing more to answer.


MATTINGLY: So, not willing to engage in the tit-for-tat there, Jake. And one thing to keep in mind, though, his colleagues more than willing to jump in and it wasn't just Republicans defending him or Democrats attacking Donald Trump. We saw it from both parties today, including his very close ally Lindsey Graham, who made a very important point. Take a listen.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: One thing I would advise the Trump administration is don't oversell success. It's a never a failure when you engage the enemy. And when you lay down your life in the homeland, you're a hero in every sense of the word. And I don't think anybody in the body has been more supportive of our troops than Senator McCain. (END VIDEO CLIP)

MATTINGLY: Now, Jake, advice to the Trump administration, but also that key point about Senator McCain, and you noted, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, he is a key piece of any plan moving forward on national security policy. He is a key senator on any issue that the Trump administration would like to move forward on when it comes to defense issues. He's better inside the tent than outside the tent, a valuable ally and one that President Trump just continues to attack. We've seen it for the last, I don't know, 15, 16 months, Jake.

TAPPER: Yes, it started with him saying that Senator McCain wasn't a war hero. He was in a Vietnamese POW camp for 5 1/2 years. I'm not exactly sure what President Trump was doing at that time.

But let's turn to his cabinet nominees because many Democrats today came out strong against a couple of the president's nominees.

MATTINGLY: Yes, that's exactly right. And the interesting issue here, and this is particularly pertaining to Andy Puzder, the nomination to be labor secretary. It' not just Democrats who feel they have an opening with this nomination. It's Republican who behind the scenes are telling me several Senate GOPers that they recognize this is the most problematic nomination they've had.

And the reasons are multiple. There have been a lot of former workers for Andy Puzder who have come out and complained about his tenure, running a restaurant group. But there has also been the admission that he employed an undocumented immigrant for several years.

Now, that has been the type of thing that has sunk other nominations in the past. But it's important to note, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell behind the scenes has been telling his members that this is a nomination they have to get through. This would be an excellent labor secretary.

Senate leadership, Jake, still saying that they believe they will get the requisite 51 votes to get him through the Senate.

But as I said, Senate Democrats think they have an opening here. They think this is their best chance to sink a Trump cabinet nominee. But for them to be able to do that, they need Senate Republicans to come over. Why they have confidence right now? At least four have said they are withholding their support from Andy.

His nomination or confirmation hearing, Jake, which has been delayed three times up to this point, is now finally on the books. It will happen next week. It will be one that we should all keep a close eye on.

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill for us -- thanks so much.

The heaviest snow moving in, millions bracing for more than a foot of snow. A look at the storm creating a travel nightmare up and down the East Coast.

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