Return to Transcripts main page


CIA talks about Trump's Remarks; CIA Denies Leaking Dossier; McCain on Vladimir Putin; White House Press Briefing. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 17, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:20] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

We'll take you live to the White House momentarily for the final on- camera White House briefing of the Obama administration. You see the Briefing Room right there. Josh Earnest about to give his last performance on behalf of the president. We'll keep an eye on that for you.

Also, another busy day at the U.S. Capitol. You see that behind me? Two more of President-elect Trump's cabinet picks, his choices to lead the education and the interior department, face this afternoon what promise to be contentious confirmation hearings.

The transition of power just three days away now, and it is hard -- very hard to overstate how strange and raw the mood is here in the nation's capital. More than 40 House Democrats now say they will not attend Friday's ceremony, and our new CNN poll out today shows deep political trouble for the least popular new president in history.

Take a look at this. Just four in ten Americans approve of how the president-elect has handled his transition. And a majority, 53 percent, say President-elect Trump's statements and actions since Election Day have made them less confident he is up to the job. The president-elect, for the record, says those polls, you guessed it, are rigged.

A lot to digest and discuss. With us to share their reporting and their insights, Jonathan Martin of "The New York Times," Julie Pace of Associated Press, CNN's Sara Murray, and Matt Viser of "The Boston Globe."

We'll take a deeper dive on our important new polling numbers in just a moment, but let's begin with what I'll call the world turned upside down nature of this Trump transition. Russia today praised the president-elect. And Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, turned the tables, accusing the Obama White House of trying to undermine the new president. Uh-huh.

The head of America's premier spy agency, on the other hand, delivered a scathing criticism of Trump, calling the president-elect's recent attacks on the intelligence community repugnant and destructive. Quick context, remember, Trump compared the intelligence community to the Nazis last week after reports, first here on CNN, that he had been briefed on unverified information that Russia might have compromising information about Trump.

It was not Trump's first attack on the intelligence agencies, nor was it his last, but the Nazi reference crossed the line with CIA Director John Brennan, who said this to "The Wall Street Journal," quote, "tell the families of those 117 CIA officers who are forever memorialized on our wall of honor that their loved ones who gave their lives were akin to Nazis. Tell the CIA officers who are serving in harm's way right now and their families who are worried about them that they are akin to Nazi Germany. I found that to be," Brennan went on to say, quote, "very repugnant."

Let's start there with our new president-elect and the fact that John Brennan, he serves in the Obama administration now, he served in the Bush administration before that. He is a public servant. He's also part of the Washington establishment. How much of this is that they are genuinely mad, angry, furious, and worried about the new president and how much is it that the establishment just can't handle that Donald Trump is going to do things so very differently?

JULIE PACE, ASSOCIATED PRESS: I think it's probably a combination of both.


PACE: But if you're someone like John Brennan, and you have worked in the intelligence community for essentially your entire career, to see someone like Donald Trump come out and really, I think, cross the line with comparing the intelligence agencies to Nazis, I think he just couldn't stand for that anymore. And I think he's trying to send a message to Trump that the intelligence community, even when he leaves, is going to continue to find ways to push back at this. Trump, I think, is learning that the intelligence communities have power. They have the ability to get information out. But then there is a piece of this that is just the establishment being uncomfortable with the fact that Trump is willing to say these things.

MATT VISER, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": I think, too, that these are -- these are things that -- these are discussions and animated discussions that took place before, but they were private.

KING: Right.

VISER: I mean they were in the Oval Office, or they were, you know, phone calls or personal meetings or during the briefings. This is extraordinary in the public nature of this rift that Trump cannot resist punching back at the intelligence community. So you're seeing them kind of come out and, like enough is enough for them, and they're going to respond to it.

KING: Right.

MARTIN: There are certain norms in American politics and the democracy that are just foreign to him, and he doesn't seem to be interested in adapting to them. I think that's why you've seen his numbers sink since Election Day. You don't call intelligence officers Nazis. You don't go after John Lewis' integrity. You don't spend King Day basically in your own office building and do nothing to honor it except for have some photo op. He doesn't really understand the fact that, you know, American politics and democracy is to rest on certain norms and traditions and evokes what -- and evoke what -- he just doesn't honor that because it's not something that he knows. He doesn't get why it's out of bounds. He's just popping off because that's how he's always done it. And, by the way, it worked in the campaign. So, to him, why stop now.

KING: Right. Right. And that's what -- is it that he doesn't understand or that he fully understands and doesn't care? That he thinks that's the problem in this town and I'm going to do things differently?

[12:05:02] MARTIN: I don't think he knows who John Lewis is, John.

KING: IF you're -- if you're not nice to me, I'm going to get you. If you don't, you know, kiss the ring, then I will attack you.


SARA MURRAY, CNN: I do think it depends on the issue. What -- first of all, when he's attacked, he doesn't care who attacks him, and he is going to hit back.

MARTIN: That's right.

MURRAY: But he is not good at finding a medium of hitting back. You know, we saw Mike Pence out there saying, I'm really disappointed in these comments by John Lewis. He's an icon. We want him on this (ph) team. I think he should recalibrate, re-evaluate what he said.

Trump doesn't know how to do that. He will hit back and call a civil rights icon all talk, no action. He questioned whether John McCain was a war hero during the campaign. He compares intelligence agencies to the Nazis, which, like the first rule of Washington is, don't compare things to Nazis. The second thing is, don't compare anything to rape. Those are the two things that will get you in trouble. Never say it. Never do it. And some of this stuff he knows and he just doesn't care about. Other things, you know, I agree, probably doesn't know all that much about John Lewis.

KING: And in this bizarre world we live in, remember, last week that whole Nazi thing came after Trump was briefed by intelligence agencies, and CNN was first to report it. We did not get into the details about this unverified document suggesting that Russia has some compromising information about Donald Trump. Well, the voice we hadn't heard from on the record, Vladimir Putin. He's the president of Russia. He said this morning the idea that this dossier exists is garbage. And then he went on to accuse the Obama White House of spreading all this talk to undermine the new presidency. And listen to the choice language here from the Russian president?


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The people who order false information and spread this information against the elected president, who fabricate it and use it in a political fight, they are worse than prostitutes.


KING: Wow. Anybody?

PACE: Well, it's -- it's ironic because in Russia they are so used to their intelligence agencies collecting --

KING: Right.

PACE: Incriminating information about people that they actually have a term for that procedure. You know, the idea that Russia wouldn't even consider collecting anything on a prominent American that comes to their country. Anybody who has traveled to Russia as a U.S. citizen with the president knows that this happens.

KING: Right.

MURRAY: Right. Last week --

KING: It happens to us. And ask any --

PACE: It happens to journalists.

KING: Ask any American businessmen or prominent American who's traveled to Russia --

PACE: Absolutely.

KING: In any years, but including in recent years under the Putin regime. Yes, good luck with that.

MURRAY: Russia said last week, oh, the Kremlin, they don't -- they don't collect information on people. They don't collect compromat (ph). There is a reason that there is a word for this in Russian, and it's because they do it.

PACE: Yes.

KING: Right.

MURRAY: And there is a reason that if you are traveling overseas to Russia and you work in the U.S. government, that they wipe your phone, that they give you a burner phone, that they encourage you not to take your actual computer with you. So the notion that Donald Trump would be so far beyond their purview is laughable.

KING: I like to put things in my suitcase so I can tell when I come back that they've been rearranged. That's one of the ways you can (ph) -- obviously, Donald Trump has said he wants to get along with Vladimir Putin, and he has -- Donald Trump has said, and, again, this is part of how Trump views things, that I might lift sanctions on Russia imposed after Russia took property from its neighbor, the Crimea, Ukraine. Donald Trump said, if I can get a good deal on nuclear weapons, maybe I'll lift those sanctions. That's how he views the world, make a deal. Listen to John McCain saying, no, not with this guy.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I just hope that the president-elect will listen to people like Mattis and Flynn and Kelly and a lot of the good people that I've known for years around him who clearly do not share that view. And my conversations with Mr. Tillerson, he doesn't share that view either. There's no moral equivalent there. Vladimir Putin is the guy that has sent airplanes with precision weapons to strike hospitals in Aleppo killing thousands of innocent men, women, and children. He's a thug and a butcher.


KING: A thug and a butcher. And it's just interesting that we're having this conversation. We're three days in advance of an inauguration. Normally you're upbeat. Washington's getting ready. We're getting ready to celebrate our democracy. Winner -- who -- no matter who won or lost. You're talking about the 100 day agenda. And we'll get to some of that. It's an important domestic agenda. But that the world is on edge as well and that the Republican -- the hawkish Republican establishment, like Senator McCain, continue. They thought after the election Trump would turn, pivot, say, OK, I get it, but they feel like they still need to remind him, Putin's a little different. That this guy is not somebody who you can just say, yes, we'll be friends now.

MARTIN: And this collision, I think, is coming between McCain and Trump. And there's no real love there, you can tell. And I think for now Trump is appealing to his party and his base because he, as my colleague (INAUDIBLE) says, is hitting two of his favorite chew toys, the media and Democrats. The second that that stops and the conflict moves to Trump and his own party, whether it's with McCain and Graham on Russia, whether it's with more small government conservatives on health care law, that's when this is going to be a much more fascinating dynamic because right now Trump has a sort of measure of goodwill from his own party because the base still likes him and because, again, he's focusing on the media and Democrats mostly. Let's wait until that changes.

KING: It's interesting to watch. The vice president of the United States is in Ukraine today saying you need to keep the sanctions in place. That is very rare, three days before the next inauguration --


[12:10:03] KING: That the sitting administration sends its number two to the neighborhood essentially again to say that, a, to tell them, we're going to try to work this guy to keep the sanctions in place, but, b, as a message to Donald Trump. And then the question is, you heard McCain, they like -- the Republicans like the national security team. They like -- they're going to approve Rex Tillerson. They have some questions about him. General Mattis, they like. The homeland security, General Kelly, they like. But the guy they have doubts about is General Flynn, who will be the national security advisor. General Flynn's son this morning tweeted this. Michael Flynn Jr. tweeting, "General Flynn's proposals to reform intelligence by (INAUDIBLE)," he says essentially read this analysis. That's great. He's helping his father. Well, the guy whose analysis he's saying there is a 9/11 denier essentially. He wrote "The Big Lie," saying that he thinks 9/11 could have been a plot concocted by the United States government. I put this in the "with friends like these" file. I mean what are they thinking?

PACE: And we don't know what Flynn is thinking because he doesn't have to go through a confirmation hearing, like Mattis and Tillerson have. They've been able to get out in public, say things that are reassuring to some Republicans. Flynn doesn't have to go through this process, so we take our cues from things his's said and written during the campaign, things his son is saying on Twitter, which are anything but reassuring for a lot of supporters of (INAUDIBLE).

KING: He's a -- he race baits -- he race baits on Twitter and he circulates crackpot conspiracy theories. You would think the general would say, son, please.

VISER: It's also an open question I think among, you know, sort of how much Tillerson, you know, or Mattis sort of fight with Trump in the Oval Office or in the situation room. I mean we see -- we saw it from their confirmation hearings --

MARTIN: Totally agree.

VISER: That they are completely opposite from the person that they are serving, you know, the president. And so how much -- what is that dynamic going to look like, and how much of that was sort of for show to get through the confirmation and how much of it is going to -- that has (INAUDIBLE).

MARTIN: There's two very different world views --

KING: Creative tension, we call it.

VISER: Very different.

KING: We lived in -- we lived it in the campaign. It's creative tension. Sometimes it's good. Sometimes it's not. We're about 72 hours away from finding out.

We're waiting for the last White House briefing. Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, due in that room any minute. We'll take you there live when it happens.

Next, inside the numbers, confidence in the president-elect taking a hit during his transition as he prepares to take office as the least popular president in decades. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:15:04] KING: Live now to the White House Briefing Room. Josh Earnest, his final on-camera briefing for the Obama administration.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I don't actually have any announcement at the top. But -- but -- but because today marks my last briefing, I hope you'll indulge me. A couple of personal thoughts before I go to your questions.

As I prepare to stand here at this podium for the last time, I thought a lot about the first time. It was 16 years ago this week. It was January, 2001. I had just moved to Washington, D.C. and I got on a West Wing tour with a friend of a friend. We walked through the halls of the West Wing on that tour. We saw tired White House staffers lugging boxes of their personal belongings out of the building, much the way that people who on West Wing tours today see.

And on the tour, I smiled for a photo that a friend took of me standing behind this very podium. I had been in D.C. for a grand total of two weeks. I had no contacts. I had no job prospects. I had no relevant Washington experience. I was sleeping on the floor of a college buddy's apartment that had a spare bedroom. And by spare, I don't just mean it was an extra bedroom. It was an empty bedroom containing only the items that I had managed to load into my car when I moved here from Texas.

So it's fair to say that there weren't too many other people on the tour that night who thought I would stand here in front of you as something other than a tourist.

So it's been an extraordinary journey, and this has been an extraordinary chapter. This is the 354th White House daily briefing that I have led as the press secretary. Mark can check me on that number.


Not every briefing started exactly on time.


There might have been a briefing or two that went a little longer than you have preferred. But you have to admit, there was a lot to discuss. We had plenty of shameless plugs for the Kansas City Royals to squeeze in. There was, of course, the Freedom Caucus's infamous Tortilla Coast gambit. There was Congressman Steve Scalise who reportedly compared himself favorably to David Duke. There was the reintroduction of the word "snafu" into the political lexicon as we were working to pass TPA.

We discussed at length the various ways you can catch Zika; the various ways you can catch Ebola; and the various reasons scientists recommend you vaccinate your kids so that you don't catch the measles.

John Stewart lit me up as I struggled to explain to Jon Karl why a couple of our political ambassadors for some reason had no idea what they were doing. (LAUGHTER)

At least the Stewart segment made some of my friends laugh.

President-elect Trump, of course, took advantage of the opportunity to light me up as a foolish guy who makes even the good news sound bad.


And I have to admit, that even that one made me laugh.

But it wasn't always fun and games around here. There was the time that I tangled with Senator Schumer about DHS funding for New York City, and the time that I tangled with Senator Schumer over the Iran deal.


And the time that I tangled with Senator Schumer over the JASTA legislation. And the time I tangled with Senator Schumer over the wisdom of passing Obamacare. And the time I tangled with Senator Schumer over trade promotion authority legislation. And to think, we actually spent most of the last two-and-a-half years complaining about how unreasonable Republicans in Congress are.


The daily briefing, of course, is the most high-profile part of the press secretary's job, but it's not the only part that matters. The more important part, in many ways, is working with all of you and ensuring that the freedom of the press -- and ensuring the freedom of the press that keeps this democracy vital.

When I first entered this role, I worked closely with the White House Travel Office and the Department of Defense to reform the billing process for your flights in military aircraft, including Air Force One, making those bills more transparent and smaller. In the last two- and-a-half years, we've cajoled governments in China, Ethiopia, and Cuba to host news conferences on their soil, allowing the leaders of those countries and their citizens to see first-hand what it means for independent journalists to hold those in power accountable. Of course, it was the end of the year news conference that the president convened in this room in 2014 that got as much attention as any other because President Obama called on eight journalists, all women.

And finally, everything about this final week makes me think of all the incredible people whom I've been blessed to work with these past eight years. I only have this opportunity because Robert Gibbs pulled me aside on election night, 2008 in Chicago as the returns were coming in to tell me that he wanted me to come work with him at the White House. I'm only here because Jay Carney, Jennifer Palmieri, and Dan Pfeiffer supported and encouraged me when I was the deputy and advocated for me when Jay stepped down.

[12:20:05] I've also benefited from a kitchen cabinet of senior White House officials who've got a lot of other important responsibilities who are part of their formal job description but stepped in to help me out every time I asked for it. That's people like Denis McDonough and Susan Rice and Jennifer Psaki and Liz Allen, Jesse Lee, Cody Keenan, and of course Ben Rhodes.

And I've only been able to do this job because I have an incredible team around me. My assistants over the years, Jeff Tiller (ph), Antoinette Rangel, and now Desiree Barnes, all patiently supported a guy who, let's face it, sometimes isn't so easy to assist. The White House stenographers, Dominique Dansky Bari, Beck (ph) Dorey- Stein, Amy Sands (ph), Mike McCormick, Caitlin Young, and their tireless leader, Peggy Suntum.

They work as hard as anybody at the White House and complain about it less than anybody at the White House.


Applause is appropriate at that point. I think the only team that may contend with them might be the research department here at the White House that's led by Alex Plotkin (ph) and Kristen Bartoloni. But I hope you get a chance over the course of the next week to thank the stenographers for their important work because I know they make your lives a lot easier too.

The same goes for Peter Vells (ph), Brian Gabriel and Sarah Rutherford who are stretched as thin and who are at least as effective as any team of press wranglers we've ever had here at the White House. My colleagues at the NSC including Ned Price, Emily Horn (ph), Mark Stroh, Carl Wuge (ph), and Dew Tiantawach patiently explained to me things that I didn't know so I could in turn explain them to you.

My team in lower press, Patrick Rodenbush, Katie Hill, and Brandi Hoffine is as talented and as dedicated as any press team in this town. I begged Brandi to join this team when I first got this job and her performance has far exceeded the sky high recommendations I got from people all over town after I interviewed her. They are all, Katie, Brandi, and Patrick, as they say, going places.

Eric Schultz is simply the best deputy that anyone in any field could ask for. He shows up early, he stays late, he's deft - that's an inside joke.


He's always prepared, he's unfailingly loyal, his judgment is sought after throughout the halls of the White House not just by me but by various members of the senior staff. And I'm sure that it will be sought after in his bright post-White House future too including by me. When you're president of the United States and widely regarded as among the most thoughtful and eloquent speakers on the planet, it must be hard to watch someone go on TV and speak for you.

I suspect that's why when the president offered me this job, he said he wouldn't watch my briefings.

(LAUGHTER) But I know that he saw parts of them on those very rare occasions that he watched cable TV and he never second guessed me. Not once. He didn't just give me the opportunity of a lifetime, he had my back every single day and I'm grateful for it. But there is one person who contributed to my success more than anyone else and she doesn't even work at the White House. My wife Natalie was six months pregnant with our first child when I got this job.

She was home with the air conditioning repairman when the president of the United States called me into the Oval Office to offer me the job. When I got back to my desk, I saw that I had several missed calls on my cell phone from her. I quickly called her back, I told her that I was sorry that I missed her calls, but that I had the best possible excuse for missing them.

Since then, she's extended to me more support and understanding than I could ever ask for, even as she was becoming the best mom any two year old kid could hope for. When I missed the mark up here, she didn't hesitate to tell me about it. And when I got it right the next day, it was usually because I followed her advice. So thank you, sweetheart, for your patience, your loyalty, your counsel, and your love. Without it, I would not be standing here and I'll never be able to make it up to you but I look forward to spending some more time with you and Walker so I can give it a shot. Serving as the White House press secretary under President Obama has been an incredible honor. I've had the opportunity to advocate for his vision of the country, the same vision that deeply resonated with me when I signed up to work for him in Iowa in March, 2007.

And while those of us who have been fortunate enough to serve him here will go on to make a difference in new ways, I take heart in knowing that all of you will still be here. I draw confidence in knowing that you are driven by the same spirit that prompted those young kids that I mentioned at the top of my briefing a couple of weeks ago to move to an Iowa town that they'd never heard of to organize support for the Obama campaign.

You have the same determination as the young people who are moving to Washington D.C. today with no job, with no contacts, and no prospects who are hoping to work in the Trump administration. You're motivated in the same way as the career civil servants, like the ones at the department of Education who is trying to stretch her agency's budget to ensure as many Hispanic kids as possible can get a decent education.

You have so much in common with these people because each of you and what you do every day is critical to the success of our Democracy.


There will be days when you'll show up to work tired. I know the same was true of those Obama organizers in Iowa. There will be days where you will feel disrespected. And I know many of the young Republican staffers who moved to Washington looking for a job will feel that way at times. It's hard to pound the pavement in this town when you don't know anybody. There'll be days where you'll - where you'll wonder if what you're doing even makes a difference and I know that our civil servants sometimes wonder the same thing. But I assure you; if you, the most talented, experienced, effective press corps in the world didn't play your part in our Democracy, we would all notice.

Your passion for your work and its centrality to the success of our democracy is a uniquely American feature of our government. It's made President Obama a better - a better president and a better public servant and it's because you persevere and you never go easy on us. So, even though it's my last day, you better not let up now.


So, in that spirit, let me say for the last time standing up here, Josh (ph), you want to get started with questions?

QUESTION: Sure. Thanks, Josh.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I - I am - I'm not interrupting because he was saying nice things about you guys, because I largely concur. When I first met Josh Earnest, he was in Iowa. I think he was wearing jeans. He looked even younger than he was. And since my entire campaign depended on communications in Iowa, I gave him a pretty good onceover. And there are a couple things I learned about him right away.

Number one, he's just got that all-American matinee (ph) good- looking thing going.


That's helpful, let's face it. Face made for television. Then, the guy's name is Josh Earnest.


Which, if somebody's speaking on your behalf, is a pretty good name to have.

But what struck me most in addition to his smarts and his maturity and his actual interest in the issues was his integrity. You know there are people you meet who you have a pretty good inkling right off the bat are straight shooters and were raised to be fundamentally honest and to treat people with respect. And there are times where that first impression turns out to be wrong and you're a little disappointed and you see behind the curtain that there's spin and some hype and you know, posturing going on.

But then there's others who the longer you know them, the better you know them, the more time you spend with them, the more you're tested under tough situations, the more that initial impression is confirmed. And I have now known this guy for 10 years almost and I've watched him grow and I've watched him advance and I've watched him marry and I've watched him be a father and I've watch him manage younger people coming up behind him. And he's never disappointed. He has always been the guy you wanted him to be.

And I think that, you know, if you're the President of the United States and you find out that this is the guy who has been voted the most popular press secretary ever by the White House Press Corp. That may make you a little nervous because he's thinking well maybe the guys kind of being too solicitous towards the -- towards the press. But the fact is is that he was worthy of that admiration.

He was tough and he didn't always give you guys everything you wanted but he was always prepared, he was always courteous, he always tried to make sure that he could share with you as much of our thinking and our policy and our vision as possible and tried to be as responsive as possible..


And that's how he trained the rest of his team to be.