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GOP Leaders Back Away from Wiretap Claims; Obama Irked over Wiretap Claims; WikiLeaks Dumps Alleged CIA Documents; Cuts to Fund Border Wall; House Debates Health Care Bill. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 8, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:30] JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. Thank you for sharing your day with us. I'm Jim Acosta, in for John King.

Conservatives Republicans in Congress are calling it Obamacare-lite, and I don't think they mean it as a compliment, while President Trump is warning of a bloodbath in the 2018 midterm elections if it fails. Right now two House committees are holding their markups on the new health care bill, but the president has vowed his full support behind the effort and repeal -- to replace the Affordable Care Act.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think really that we're going to have something that's going to be much more understood and much more popular than people can even imagine.


ACOSTA: What the president may not have bargained for, the fierce opposition from his own party.


SEN. MIKE LEE (R), UTAH: This is not the repeal bill that we've been waiting for, for all these years. This is a huge opportunity that's been missed.


ACOSTA: Another tough sell for President Trump, his stunning allegation that then President Obama wiretapped his Manhattan headquarters last year. But where's the proof? I asked Sean Spicer yesterday, and here's what he told me.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's not a question of new proof or less proof or whatever. It's -- the answer is the same. And I think that -- which is that I think that -- that there is a concern about what happened in the 2016 election. The House and Senate Intelligence Committee have the staff and the capabilities and the processes in place to look at this in a way that's objective, and that's where it should be done.


ACOSTA: With us to share their reporting and their insights, Molly Ball and Ron Brownstein from "The Atlantic," CNN'S Nia-Malika Henderson and Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg Politics.

Now, we should point out, sources close to former President Obama say he was irked and exasperated by his successor's accusation. And top Republicans won't back up President Trump's claims because there is simply no evidence.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You ever heard of this before the allegation from the president?


JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC ANCHOR: Have you seen any evidence whatsoever that Barack Obama ordered any wiretapping on Trump Towers?

REP. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: I have seen no evidence of that, Joe, but I would also say a lot of the anonymous sources in the media are stating things that are very precise and not exactly the full picture either. When, for instance, the president's spokesman denies that --


ACOSTA: So a couple of Republicans saying we don't know what the president is talking about either. Now, I should point out, we were able to confirm in the last hour or so from administration officials that the president may have shaken hands with the Russian ambassador, Kislyak, at that foreign policy speech last April. Obviously nothing illegal about that. But, again, it's another one of those drips that have been coming out lately in the Russia investigation.

Molly Ball, let me ask you first, what -- what do you think the president has been up to over these last 72 hours? I mean, you know, the White House press secretary told me yesterday they still have no evidence, no proof of any of this. What is going on here?

MOLLY BALL, "THE ATLANTIC": Donald Trump believes a lot of things that aren't true. That has -- I think that that has been abundantly clear since he began this campaign. And he is rather impervious to evidence about whether or not they are true. And the issue isn't whether his suspicion turns out to be true in the end. The -- the issue is that he says things that he has no evidence for. It reminds me very much of, you know, the illegal voters that he spent so much time talking about immediately after the inauguration, and you had Sean Spicer go out there with sort of I think commendable transparency and say, this is a thing the president believes.


BALL: It may or may not be true, but this is a thing the president believes.

ACOSTA: Ron, are we on the dark side of the moon here? Why --

RON BROWNSTEIN, "THE ATLANTIC": Well, I mean, there will come a point where -- there always comes a point where a president will need not only the country but the world to believe what they are saying. I mean there will come a moment in your presidency and --

ACOSTA: Like selling the replacement for the Affordable Care Act, for example?

BROWNSTEIN: Right, for example.

ACOSTA: Which we'll tackle later.

BROWNSTEIN: But maybe something bigger on national security, on the national security -- although that is certainly very big on the domestic side. And, you know, you -- by systematically over and again saying things that you can't support or certainly going out before you have any evidence to support what you're saying, you are devaluing that coin. I mean that is just simply -- you know, and, look, in this particular case, I mean the fundamental misconception here is, President Obama could not unilaterally order the wiretapping of anyone in the Trump orbit. If there was a wiretap authorized, it was because a court, a FISA court presumably, was convinced there was enough evidence to justify that. So being right is not necessarily better for Donald Trump here than being wrong.

ACOSTA: And, Nia, just -- let me just pause for a second here because there were a lot of striking reactions to all this up on Capitol Hill. I think one of the most striking responses was from Devin Nunes, who is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, a Republican, who described the president as a neophyte in politics. Let's play that, and then I'll get you to comment on the other side.

[12:05:20] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CALIFORNIA: The president is a neophyte to politics. He's been doing this a little over a year. And I think a lot of the things that he says you guys sometimes take literally. Sometimes he doesn't have 27 lawyers and staff looking at what he does, which is I think at times refreshing and at times can also lead us to have to be sitting in a press conference like this answering questions that you guys are asking.


ACOSTA: Nia, is that a good excuse that the president is new at this?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: No. No. I mean it's pretty terrible, I mean this idea that he doesn't have 27 lawyers. Apparently they just hired a bunch of lawyers at the White House. And he could have 27 lawyers reviewing what he does. He could talk to folks and figure out what the deal is in terms of this wiretap. One of the things that's interesting in terms of what the White House

is doing here, is they're essentially saying that what the president says shouldn't be taken at face value. That it needs the credibility of Congress, the credibility of Republicans on The Hill to back up what he says, which is sort of an interesting place for the White House to be.


HENDERSON: That he, you know, that what he says needs more backing. And you saw Sean Spicer sort of dance around the press conference yesterday and you imagine he's going to be doing this for a while.

I guess we don't know how long the questioning is going to last. I think Sean Spicer is hoping, as you said yesterday, that this would be Groundhog Day every day, and people would get sick of it and maybe people wouldn't ask about it. But with the drip, drip of all of this stuff going on with Russia, you imagine it will keep coming up.

JENNIFER JACOBS, BLOOMBERG POLITICS: Just don't overlook -- don't overlook the fact that this really indicates how much President Trump relies on the conservative media for his information. When we asked on the very first, you know, morning after he tweeted these tweets, where is he getting this from, an aide pointed us to the Breitbart article and said, did you read this? And so they haven't really admitted for sure that that's exactly -- that's the only place where he's getting this intel from, but that's what we've been led to believe. It just (INAUDIBLE) that --

ACOSTA: They're -- they're not even -- but they're not even sure where he's getting it from. They're saying, well, Breitbart talked about it. And Mark Levine talked about it.

JACOBS: Right, but he does -- we believe -- right, we believe that Trump watched either Levine or read the Breitbart piece. And he truly believed that enough -- he had enough faith in that, that he was willing to spout off on Twitter immediately.

BROWNSTEIN: And just think about how different this is than the usual process. I mean we've all covered other White Houses. The first White House I covered was Ronald Reagan. And you think about the process that goes through the assembly line, the assembly belt that has to progress before a word comes out of the president's mouth. All the people who are usually involved in kind of developing the policy and making sure all of the nuances are right, particularly on foreign policy, and then you have Donald Trump who seemingly circumvents all of that. You know, when he misspells "tap" in a tweet, or when he misspells "unprecedented" in a tweet about China, you can assume there are not other people who are kind of proof reading that and kind of fact checking it.

And so you have just this incredible process, as Nia said, in which -- and they're almost beginning to treat it as though it is disassociated from the actual policy making, you know, OK, that's just something, you know, that's just something that he's saying.


BROWNSTEIN: But this is extraordinarily different. And the reason it's extraordinarily different is because what presidents say matter.

ACOSTA: Yes, and I -- and I have been told, by the way, that sometimes the president dictates those tweets to a staffer who will then put it out. And so you have to wonder, is the spellcheck working on the iPhone or android --


ACOSTA: Or whatever the device.

Let's play a little bit of what Adam Schiff said yesterday because he had an interesting comment on all of this, and I -- and I -- it tees up a question I want to ask. Let's play that.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: But the president has said that this is a scandal that dwarves Watergate, that his predecessor engaged in an illegal wiretap of his campaign. That is one potential scandal. The alternative is a different kind of a scandal, and that is a scandal of a sitting U.S. president alleging that his predecessor engaged in the most unscrupulous and unlawful conduct. That is also a scandal if those allegations prove to be false.


ACOSTA: And Congressman Schiff also said that he welcomed this investigation. He was basically saying, OK, let's bring it on.

And, Molly, one thing that I thought was interesting yesterday is that Devin Nunes said that at this upcoming hearing he plans to hold on all of this, the former DNI, James Clapper, will be there, the former CIA director, John Brennan, will be there, the FBI director, Jim Comey, might be there. Even Sally Yates, who stepped down from being the acting attorney general, may be there. It strikes me as this might be something Democrats are really going to be looking forward to in a couple of weeks here.

BALL: Well, sure. But, I mean, we have seen --

ACOSTA: I mean the White House -- the White House says, well, yes, let the -- let the intelligence committees investigate this. Let's -- let's have them look into this. We don't want to reveal our sources and methods if we bring in a special prosecutor. But do they really want public hearings where all these officials come in and say, no, no, Mr. President, there was no wiretap at Trump Tower?

[12:10:06] BALL: It's potentially very -- it's potentially very embarrassing for the White House. You know there were reports over the weekend about clashes between the FBI and the Justice Department. And we have seen quite a lot of willingness to speak independently, whether through leaks or even publically, on the part of top intelligence officials, top national security officials. They've been pretty clear when they have disagreed with the president and that it's been a lot.


BALL: So a hearing like this could potentially expose a lot.

ACOSTA: And I want to pivot very quickly because of this WikiLeaks dump that revealed all these sources and methods that the CIA apparently is using where they can -- they can -- I guess they can make their way into your phones and spy on you and perhaps even your self-driving cars. It seems like the sky is the limit here. Here's what the FBI director said about this earlier today about what Americans can expect in terms of their privacy.


JAMES COMEY, FBI DIRECTOR: There is no such thing as absolute privacy in America. There is no place in America outside of judicial reach.


ACOSTA: Nia, that doesn't give me a great feeling.

HENDERSON: Right. You know, I mean, in some ways he's right. I mean he's saying that a court can compel you if there is reason to believe you know something about a crime or committed a crime, the court can compel you to tell them things, to let you -- let them into your house. So in that way he's right.

I do think it is ironic that we find ourselves here, obviously concerned about privacy, but Americans are so willing to divulge all sorts of things about their lives on any given platform, whether it's Twitter, whether it's SnapChat, whether it's Instagram, whether it's FaceBook.


HENDERSON: I mean pictures of their kids, what they had for dinner, whatever it is. So we seem to, at this point, be willing participants at this point in terms of giving (INAUDIBLE).

ACOSTA: But, Jennifer, you know, the one thing the White House has been worried about, Jennifer, is that the president's security when it comes to his phone.

JACOBS: Right.

ACOSTA: And so, you know, having the FBI sort of acknowledge like, listen, folks, your expectations of privacy may not be where you think they are.

JACOBS: And the White House phones are very secure. And as we all know as reporters, their phones cannot receive or send text messages. But we also know that the president still has access to his old phone. He's able to -- to use and call and tweet on -- and text on his old phone.


BALL: Well, and a through line here, just to connect this to the discussion we're having about potential wiretapping of Trump Tower, this is why people believe Donald Trump when they say things like that because there is a feeling that surveillance is everywhere, that they're in your phone, they're in your house, they can hear everything you say, they can read all of your text messages. So when Trump says, my phone's being tapped in Trump Tower, I think there's a lot of people who believe that because they feel like there is nothing that our intelligence agencies --

ACOSTA: All right, yes, I've got to take a -- I've got to take a quick break, though. I have to respect that process that we have here.

Up next, we're learning our -- one way the president could pay for that wall on the southern border. Republican lawmakers aren't exactly excited about the idea. We'll talk about that on the other side.


[12:17:07] ACOSTA: Welcome back.

Candidate Trump promised Mexico would pay for a wall on the southern border. That's very much a non-starter with our neighbor to the south, obviously. So in the meantime, President Trump may have the Coast Guard foot some of the bill. Sources tell CNN that the president's budget would dramatically slash the services funding $1.3 billion worth of cuts. Sources say that money would then be redirected to the Department of Homeland Security.

Already some lawmakers on Capitol Hill say they're not happy with the idea. Congressman Duncan Hunter, an early Trump supporter, Republican, wrote a letter to the president saying the cuts would, quote, "severely undermine U.S. national security." That is not a ringing endorsement. So we're seeing some Republican pushback on the president's priority here for building the wall.

Ron Brownstein, I mean it seems to me that every time we talk about this wall and who is going to pay for it -- obviously Mexico is out of the equation -- they're having to, what, look under the cushions in the sofa at the Oval Office?

BROWNSTEIN: The first point is, the wall has never had majority support of anything (INAUDIBLE) to it. I mean in polling consistently from the beginning, a majority of Americans have said they oppose the wall. You had a number of Republicans on The Hill who have said this is just not the most efficient way to do this, even if you -- first of all, the problem itself is enormously different than it used to be. The net -- there is no net migration from Mexico. In fact, the evidence that there's net migration back to Mexico at this point. So you had even Republicans from Texas and elsewhere say, do we really want to spend all this money, do we really want to go through all of the eminent domain fights that may be necessary to build a wall?

ACOSTA: Such an uncovered story.


ACOSTA: All of those Texas landowners that are not going to want to give up their land to build a wall.


BROWNSTEIN: Do not -- do not want to give up their land to build a wall.

And then, you know, yes, they are looking for ways to ultimately penalize Mexico, as you saw in that -- you know, in one of the executive orders from the, you know, General Kelly was about finding all of the payments, all the ways that we could squeeze Mexico to ultimately kind of offset this in an accounting way. But if you've got to come up with the dollars up front by taking away from other programs, I think given the doubts about the wall itself, both in public opinion and even among experts, that's going to be a big hill.

ACOSTA: But, Jennifer, you know, President Trump was warning yesterday, if they don't do Obamacare, there's going to be a bloodbath in 2018. Can you imagine if we're hitting the fall of 2018 and there has not been any construction done on the border for this wall?

JACOBS: Well, you know, we're all -- the reason it was interesting that you brought up the infrastructure money and how they're going to pay for it with the Coast Guard money. It's interesting because infrastructure is such a -- like a policy black hole for Trump right now. We're just not sure where the money's going to come from.

But what I can tell you is, they're having a meeting right now.


JACOBS: Rick Perry, the former governor of Texas, who is, you know, theoretically an expert on the wall, is one of the people there. They've been meeting for three and a half hours this morning. So that just tells us one thing, I mean, this is really important to Trump given everything he's got going on with Obamacare and everything else that he's got cooking with the Russians and now the investigations. He's set aside three and a half hours, called in his cabinet secretaries, not all of them, but several of them, including Rick Perry, to talk about this for three and a half hours, and then they're going to lunch with the president today. So I have a feeling the wall is going to be coming up. We'll be checking in on that later to see what details came out and whether they're advancing.

[12:20:05] ACOSTA: Nia, this promise is so central to his brand.

HENDERSON: It is. It is. And he -- he imagines, I think, in some ways, because he keeps referring it to his -- you know, to it as the great wall.

ACOSTA: Great wall.

HENDERSON: But, yes, sometimes he says it's the great, great wall. And you almost think that he is thinking of the Great Wall of China when he thinks about it. And you wonder if there's some sort of like wall- lite where it's not quite a wall, it's more like a fence. It's not the over the expanse of the border, because eminent domain comes in. Whether it's --

ACOSTA: Perhaps you could sign you are for Obamacare-lite at wall-lite or something like that.

HENDERSON: Yes. Yes, yes, exactly. And, you know, you're basically completing what Bush wanted to do and hasn't been able to do --

ACOSTA: Right.

HENDERSON: You know, 200, 300 miles of fencing, and whether or not that will satisfy Donald Trump, maybe not, because he seems to envision something big, beautiful even with a door --

ACOSTA: With a door.

HENDERSON: That's 40 feet tall, that's concrete, and that's where you get all the expense.

ACOSTA: Molly, do conservatives take him at his word when he says there's going to be a great wall on the border?

BALL: I think it depends which conservatives you're talking about.


BALL: I mean -- but -- but I think the bigger question here is -- which is similar to the Obamacare question is, how much is Donald Trump willing to compromise? How much are the hard line positions that he's set out at the beginning negotiating positions that he will dial back because he did say during the campaign everything is negotiable. Just going to get in the room and bang heads together until we find a place where everyone can agree. Is the wall something where, you know, if you -- if you are a good negotiator, you do take a really extreme stance early on so that you can come back with it later. I recently did a real estate transaction, and it was the same thing. So --

ACOSTA: The art of the deal, Molly, is that --

BALL: So is Donald Trump --

ACOSTA: How'd you do?

BALL: Practicing the art of the deal, or the other thing that he has sort of hinted that he likes to do is sort of bully people into submission, right?


BALL: Tweet at people who are obstructing him, get his followers who are the vast majority of Republican primary voters, to go after whoever's getting in his way -- ACOSTA: Right.

BALL: And just gets them to bow down.

ACOSTA: But, Ron --

BROWNSTEIN: There will be more wall than there is today. That's -- that's clear.

HENDERSON: Yes, I mean --

BROWNSTEIN: Whether there will be a wall, you know, from sea to sea, you know, from Texas to California, that's another question.


ACOSTA: But, Ron, you've done this for a long time. By the fall of next year, if there's a couple of miles of wall on that border --


ACOSTA: With no -- any kind of plan in sight in terms of building the rest of it, how bad is that going to look?

BROWNSTEIN: No, and, you know, I think they are --

ACOSTA: Heading into 2020 --

BROWNSTEIN: Look, they put a lot of stock on the idea of, we are delivering on our promises, whether you like them or not. It's kind of like -- it reminds me of the Bush 2004 argument and Mark McKinnen once saying they could not get to 50 plus one in support of his agenda, but they could get to 50 plus one by saying that whether you agree with him or not, he's a strong leader. I think you see elements of that in what Donald Trump and their team are trying to, you know, position him as. You may not agree with all of this, but he's not a typical politician. He's doing what he said. He's a man of action. He's getting things done.

So, yes, in that context, getting -- you know, having a piece of this done is very important. But I do think there's a lot of -- there's a lot of gray between the complete wall and no wall, and they may have well a lot -- they may well have enough to buy 2018 (INAUDIBLE).

ACOSTA: I -- I have to say, I was at almost every one of those rallies during the campaign, and to think that Donald Trump would settle for anything less than an actual physical wall that rises up from, you know, the land that stretches from Texas to Arizona --


BROWNSTEIN: (INAUDIBLE) scrub in west Texas --

ACOSTA: From the tumble weeds and so --

(CROSS TALK) ACOSTA: I just -- that, to me, would be the ultimate --


ACOSTA: It would be, read my lips, no new taxes all over again. If he does not have a wall, that is a promise broken.

OK, coming up next, after years of protests and promises, the repeal and replace battle officially begins on Capitol Hill.


[12:27:48] ACOSTA: Right now on Capitol Hill, the slashing and chopping and changing has begun on the newly released health care bill that aims to push out and replace Obamacare. Two separate committees are marking up the proposal. That -- they started this about two hours ago. House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke to reporters a short time ago and said he's working hand in glove with the Oval Office and the Health and Human Services secretary to make good on the promises they all made before Election Day.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Are we going to stay with Obamacare and ride (ph) out the status quo? Are we going to just let this law collapse and whatever happens happens? Or are we going to do what we said we would do? Are we going to repeal and replace Obamacare with something better? This is the covenant that we made with the American people when we ran on a repeal and replace plan in 2016. This is what our bill does.


ACOSTA: Not everybody feels so good about this. Senator Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican, not as confident as the House speaker. He doesn't see the new proposal making it out of the House. Here's what he had to say.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I don't think they have the votes now. So I think there's going to be some head counting going on. And I think the bill, as it stands, really is dead on arrival. I don't think it's going to ever arrive in the Senate. I think it's dead on arrival in the House.


ACOSTA: So is this bill dead on arrival? DOA? Say it ain't so. Didn't this just start not 24 hours ago?

BALL: We don't know yet. We don't know yet.

JACOBS: We don't know.

BALL: It just started 24 hours ago. It has been very interesting to see the conservative uprising against this bill.

ACOSTA: Right.

BALL: And that, I think, makes it clear how little consultation was done with the kinds of interest groups that really could lend crucial political support to this group. You know, groups like Heritage and Cato that are saying that this bill is not conservative and they will absolutely campaign against it, they are -- they could have been brought into the process.


BALL: This could have been done in a different way. The decision was made to drop the bill first and then do the negotiating. The sort of more normal process is, first you do the negotiation, getting everybody in the room, trying to -- trying to cook the thing and then you serve it.

[12:29:59] ACOSTA: And I should point out that my colleagues, Sara Murray, over at the White House, is saying that she's hearing from administration officials who are already frustrated with the House Republican effort.