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INSIDE POLITICS

White House Explains Trump's Wiretapping Charge; DOJ Need More Time To Probe Trump's Wiretap Claim; Empty Cabinet Seats Frustrate Trump; White House Pressed on N.Y. Prosecutor's Firing; Trump, Saudi Prince Meet At White House. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired March 14, 2017 - 12:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:30:28] JOHN KING, INSIDE POLITICS HOST: Welcome back. Now, a little Rosetta Stone Trump edition. A week ago Saturday, President Trump launched a pre-sunrise tweetstorm attacking his predecessor. Here's one of them. "How low has President Obama gone to tap, two piece, my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon, Watergate, bad or sick guy." Here's another. "Terrible, just found out Obama had my wires tapped in the Trump Tower just before victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism.

That's the President of United States so we can go Saturday. It took 10 days. But yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered this explanation or translation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He doesn't really think that President Obama went up and tapped his phone personally. I think -- but I think there's no question that the Obama administration, that there were actions about surveillance and other activities that occurred in the 2016 election. That's a widely reported activity that occurred back then. The President used the word wiretap in quote to mean broadly surveillance and other activities during that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: If that was -- after 10 days, if that was supposed to make things more clear, I, for one, vote it didn't. Any takers?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, initially, Sean Spicer said the tweets will speak for themselves. The White House will have no more comment. But yesterday, sitting in that briefing room, you could almost feel the evolution here. And the walk-back of exactly what the President meant in terms of wiretapping. But -- of course, coming at the same time, yesterday, the Department of Justice was supposed to turn over any evidence, if any existed, to the House Intelligence Committee. They didn't. They asked for more time.

We don't know if they're slow walking this. There simply isn't evidence, or what. But The House Intelligence Committee yesterday, the chairman, Republican chairman, said that they want to see any evidence if there is any by next Monday or they will potentially subpoena them. So this is still escalating, air quotes or not.

KING: And a key point, I want to keep making, that this is the Republican chairman, Devin Nunes, who is large even a Trump defender here.

ZELENY: In every where.

KING: In every where. But they're frustrating because they're trying to do stuff, whether it's the intelligence investigation or Russian meddling, whether it's health care and tax reform or other stuff, and they keep getting asked about tweets from the President that they just don't know where they're coming from. They don't know what galaxy they're coming from. They don't know what the facts are.

(INAUDIBLE) in the justice department leaders (ph). Let me put that in the record here. The deadline was yesterday. The House Intelligence Committee and a judiciary subcommittee on the Senate side asked for this information. This is the Department of Justice. This afternoon, the Department of Justice placed calls to representatives of the chairman and ranking member of the United States House permanent select committee on intelligence to ask for additional time to review the request in compliance with the governing legal authorities. And this is the key part, and to determine if any responsive documents may exist. So an if and a may.

JULIE PACE, ASSOCIATED PRESS: It really underscores how isolated the President has been on this point within his own administration. You have the Justice Department that's saying we don't even know if we're going to build to have anything to turn over to the House and Senate committees.

And then you now have his team, after 10 days, saying well, he's not exactly talking about what you all thought he said and what we let you think he said. There is no evidence at this point. If there is evidence, I'm not sure that helps his case, either, because that would suggest that there was a reason why the Obama administration through likely the normal FISA court process or other processes had a reason to tap phones within Trump Tower that going to help it.

JACKIE KUCINICH, THE DAILY BEAST: And in the record, answers are on the way. Because there is a hearing in the House Intelligence Committee on March 20th. FBI Director Comey will be there. He will be asked about this. I think Adam Schiff, the ranking member, has already said he's going to ask him. So there will be something on the record, not on background, on television that will give an explanation here.

KING: And the Justice Department is either by being there or through a representative, some Republican quotes is going to either say, we gave them another week and they haven't sent us anything.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: And in the meantime, what has this done to the President's credibility and the credibility of people around him? I mean, he had Kellyanne Conway go out yesterday and talk about microwaves turning into cameras. Sean Spicer there yesterday talking about air quotes. And then a real question about whether or not, when do we believe the President? I mean, when we do need sort of the Trump translator to figure out what he means. So I think it's been a damaging stretch.

KING: And for the President and for Sean Spicer, I want to play a little bit more of this because again he's trying to defend his boss. It's a tough job. I covered the White House for nearly a decade. The White House press secretary under any circumstances has a very difficult job.

But more of his answer here, Peter Alexander of NBC News is asking this great question, can we trust the President. Here's more of the answer.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: And I think if you look at the President's tweet, he said very clearly, wiretapping in quotes.

[12:35:05] There's been substantial discussion in several reports that Bret Baier from Fox, on March 3rd, talked about evidence of wiretapping. There's been reports in "The New York Times" and the BBC, and other outlets about other aspects of surveillance that have occurred. The president was very clear in his tweet that it was, you know, wiretapping. That spans a whole host of surveillance type of options.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PACE: He wasn't clear.

KING: He wasn't clear. And none of those reports -- there have been no definitive reporting about wiretapping at Trump Tower. There was some talk back -- there was some odd communication between a Russian bank and a computer within the Trump Tower complex, and the presumption is that someone looked into that at some point. But he lists these reports as if there's a thick, well documented reporting of surveillance of Trump Tower. There's no such thing.

PACE: There's not. And some of the reports that he's referring to make clear that some of these communications that apparently the FBI is looking into may have been picked up through regular monitoring of foreign governments.

KING: Right.

PACE: So that would be a totally different way of picking up communications. But, look, they're in a really tough spot. The White House does not want to come out and say the President was wrong. That would not sit well with the boss. But they also have nothing to -- no ground to stand on here because again there is no evidence.

KING: This is not silly argument about a crowd size. That's, you know, whether you want to call that an ego argument or whatever. This is about saying the former president of the United States did Nixonian, McCarthy, apparently, at least if you read the tweets, illegal, something illegal.

ZELENY: And the reason it matters now, ever since he has sent that out, for 10 days now or so, the President has been as quiet as we've seen him since he got into this business of politics. It has made him small. It has made him unable to use the bully pulpit at a time when he needs it most to change the conversation. No one can change a conversation in this town, in this country, or the world indeed than the president of the United States, and his bully pulpit. It has been nonexistent over the last 10 days, largely because he'll be asked something like this.

KING: He is trying today, to your point. He is trying in his quiet way. We don't have access of changes. Obviously, he's been tweeting all morning about economic news. First, screen grabs from the Fox Business Channel, now some other Bloomberg reporting as well. Jobs, jobs, jobs, that President is tweeting this. So he is trying to get into the mix, maybe to encourage some people to think not about the health care report, about -- not about wiretapping or anything like that.

Everybody sit tight. Next, empty chairs at the first Trump cabinet meeting and empty offices across Washington. Who's to blame?

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[12:41:55] KING: Welcome back. President Trump held his first cabinet meeting yesterday. And he wasn't happy about the empty seats.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Unfortunately, not all of our cabinet members could join us. We have four empty seats, which is a terrible thing. Because the Senate Democrats are continuing to obstruct the confirmation of our nominees for the Department of Labor, the Department of Agriculture, the Director of National Intelligence, and the United States Trade Representative. Somebody I want very badly. We're in the midst of getting going, Wilbur, and they won't approve somebody who is very qualified, and everybody understands that. The main victim of this very partisan obstruction is the American public.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The President airing his grievance there. He's complained about this repeatedly. His trade representative nominee, by the way, Bob Lighthizer, has a confirmation hearing today. As he mentioned, his agriculture secretary, Sonny Perdue, that's not the Democrats' fault.

Sonny Perdue, he's the former governor of Georgia. He has not filed his ethics paperwork yet. He has a family business. He has to go through this process, you know, what will you divest or how you avoid conflict of interest (ph). That paperwork was not in filed yet.

In the case of Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, that paperwork has been filed long time ago. We're still waiting on that one. But this -- yes, the Democrats are stalling every bit as they can, but not in every case.

HENDERSON: Yes. And with Acosta, Alexander Acosta who is the labor nominee, apparently, that confirmation hearing was supposed to be tomorrow. But instead of doing it tomorrow, Acosta is apparently going to Nashville for this rally. So again, that probably wasn't the Democrats' doing. It was probably Donald Trump, who said, hey, come along with me to this rally. So --

KUCINICH: And Perdue is still very much tied up in his businesses.

HENDERSON: Yes.

KUCINICH: The Daily Beast has a story today about how his -- some of his businesses have already benefitted from some of the regulations that the president has rolled back. So yes, he's got paperwork to do at this point. And that's not the Senate's fault.

KING: And beneath the headline here, there have been -- you've heard complaints, whether it's from Sean Hannity or even Chad Griffin, Sean Spicer at the White House. Mark Levin on the radio (ph) has about this alleged Deep State. You know, people in the government.

No question there are hold overs, civil servants, bureaucrats, Obama administration, political appointees who realize there's going to be a changing of the guard and take civil servants jobs in the government. There's no question they exist, but there are more than 500 positions across the government where President Trump has not even named anybody. And these are the deputy secretaries, the assistant secretaries, the people who are in charge of those people.

ZELENY: Right.

KING: The people who can say, you know, listen, no, that's not our new policy. So that's the President. That's on him and his people. That they haven't even named people for these jobs.

PACE: And in some cases, these are jobs that actually do more of the day to day work than the actual cabinet secretaries do who are traveling around, promoting the President's agenda but aren't necessarily in the building making the day-to-day decisions. And the President has suggested that with some of these jobs he's actually not even interested in filling them. And that is causing a lot of concern at the agencies because they're essentially on hold. They hear overall broad messages from the President, but the actual work that they're doing, which spans, you know, not just what happens in Washington but what happen across the country it basically stalled.

ZELENY: I would argue that the empty seats that are a bigger problem are not the ones in the cabinet room, although, you know, it's certainly an issue and that's prerogative have his cabinet but it's the number two positions at state, at defense, at treasury.

[12:45:09] Still not even nominated because there is such a, you know, a rigorous, I'm told, process here to go through. If you've said anything against this President or administration, you might be out the door. You might gnaw be, like Jon Huntsman is an example. Who, you know, has certainly had his point of view, but the bigger problem here is the -- all these agencies, people like you said, hallways literally are empty in some of these suites, which is an issue if you like government or not.

HENDERSON: Yes. And is it on purpose? I mean, is this part of their plan to sort of shrink the footprint of the federal government and, you know, so they can control most of the work of the government in the White House and with a few key people in the cabinet? And also, I think you have to wonder if it's going to be a problem to fill some of these positions, given the record of the White House over these last many days. 50 days or so. Do people really want to go and work for this White House and this president?

KING: And if it is by design --

HENDERSON: Yes.

KING: -- they're right, they won the election. They can staff the government at any pace they want and any way they want within, you know, the reasons of the positions. But they have to stop complaining about the bureaucrats doing things counter to the boss --

HENDERSON: Yes.

KING: -- if they don't have a boss, if they don't have a supervisor to tell them what to do. One of the personal issues that have gotten attention is the firing of these U.S. attorneys around the country. Now, one of them in Manhattan, Preet Bharara met with the President just after the election, went to see him at Trump Tower. Came down and talked to reporters in the lobby and said the President of the United States had told him he wanted him to stay on the job, even though he's a Democratic appointee and told him to stop and tell the reporters, I want you to say on the job.

Now, he said he wouldn't resign. The Justice Department called and said you must go. So he said he was fired. Preet Bharara is gone. Sean Spicer was asked yesterday, what about the President's promise?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Did the President change his mind about keeping him on or was it only supposed to be for a finite period of time? Can you just fill us in?

SPICER: I'm going to refer you to the Department of Justice on that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Preet Bharara came down to the lobby of Trump Tower and said that the President had made that commitment. Did the President, in fact, make that commitment to Preet Bharara?

SPICER: I don't think it really matters. At the end of the day, the attorney general followed a practice that existed for the last several administrations and asked every attorney general in the last administration to submit their resignation.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: I don't think it really matters.

PACE: The president's word.

KING: The president's word -- I mean, if the President changed his mind, fine. But explain the President changed his mind. I don't think it really matters. So we're told, wiretapping.

ZELENY: And that what matters.

KING: And it doesn't matter what the President says to a federal prosecutor. His word doesn't matter.

ZELENEY: And that's not a mistake. Sean Spicer said that several times. That was the message that it doesn't matter. So, by all account, yes, he was offered the job. So what is changed (INAUDIBLE)? Things have become much more acrimonious.

This was a Senator Schumer hire. I've used to work for Senator Schumer. At the time, it almost seems, you know, I'm so rosy (ph) and nice now that Senator Schumer was going to be, you know, so close to this President.

All that is out the window, of course, but there are some other larger further examples of questions of cases that he had in his office that he's investigating things. Is that why he's being let go, or is it simply, you know, a time to clean house? But that phone call between the President and Preet on Thursday, Sean Spicer said he simply wanted to call and say you've done a good job. He didn't call any other U.S. attorney who was shown the door. So, this is very interesting.

KING: It's interesting, and again, could be a perfectly innocent explanation because he had made the promise, he felt he owed him a phone call. They don't say that. They have -- we're waiting, by the way, the President of the United State is meeting with two visiting Saudi dignitaries, Saudi officials in the Oval Office. We're going to see that tape in just a second (ph).

But again, if they wanted to, they just -- they get started -- here we go, let's take a look at this right here. This is President Trump. I'm not sure -- let's listen. See if we hear.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK, guys --

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This way, please. (INAUDIBLE) thank you so much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: As you can see the President not taking questions from reporters there. Meeting with two members of the Saudi royal family. Important ministers in the Saudi government. This was supposed to be a luncheon. The President clearly decided to bring them in the Oval Office and get this photo app out there.

It's interesting as we watch in. This is the day we were supposed to have the German Chancellor Angela Merkel in town here in town. But she postponed it by a couple days. She'll be here at the end of the week.

But it is interesting if we only go through the nitty-gritty of health care, of the nitty-gritty of the President's promises and everything. We are only 60 days in. It's still interesting to see the President when he meets with different visiting foreign leaders and dignitaries how he likes to handle it.

PACE: Yes. It's really fascinating to watch this guy who has not been in politics at all who -- but is also so well known, who we're used to CNN television to watch him in these settings in the Oval Office. He's very proud of the Oval Office. He's often bringing visitors in there, spending lots of times in these listening sessions.

[12:50:01] But this meeting with the Saudis is a really crucial meeting, given what's happening in the Middle East, given a lot of U.S., ties with Saudi Arabia. I think it's fascinating to a point that Jeff made earlier, though, about the President trying to avoid questions. We've had a lot of sprays like that over the last several weeks where the President will take a question from the press, will take a shouted question on and off-topic matter.

And for the last 10 days, it's been silence when we've asked those questions. You saw that again there.

KING: Silent again there again. Also it was -- a chance if he wanted to nudge the health care ball forward to say something there. Silent again. That's an interesting dynamic again (INAUDIBLE). We'll take a quick break. "Inside Politics" back in just a second.

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[12:55:03] KING: A little short on time. Let's go quickly around the "Inside Politics" table, ask our reporters to share a nugget from their notebooks. Julie Pace?

PACE: One part of Trump's agenda that does appear to be on track is his nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. You're not hearing a lot coming out of Gorsuch's meetings on Capitol Hill with senators and the White House likes it that way.

The Democrats really have an earth any major vulnerability that could fix (ph) the nomination. There will still be a lot of grassroots pressure on Democrats when Gorsuch ends up in his conformation hearings, but the White House is increasingly confident that this could be a pretty straightforward process.

KING: Airing is next week. Jeff?

ZELENY: The calendar says 2017 but it's re-election time apparently for Donald Trump tomorrow night in Tennessee. He'll be holding a re- election rally that's paid for and sponsored by his re-election committee. He's going to be selling health care. The question is why have a campaign rally as opposed to an official event. A couple reasons we're trying to find out

The -- and answers are in short supply on this. One, they want to control the event, to try to limit protesters and things. And two, they want to use their list of supporters that they have from the campaign to pack the auditorium tomorrow night downtown in Nashville. But interesting that we have a president already campaigning. I recall him criticizing the last president for campaigning.

KING: That was then, this is now.

HENDERSON: Yes. An official event tomorrow in Michigan. He'll meet with Rick Snyder, of course, is the governor of that state. One tough nerd, that was his selling point. And also car company CEOs, he's going to be talking about rolling back Obama fuel standards. That will give him a chance, obviously, to be out of Washington, in the Midwest, and to focus on things he wants to focus on. Jobs and rolling back regulations.

KING: Jackie, quickly.

KUCINICH: Speaking of Michigan, it's one of the Republican states that has Medicaid expansion. I'm watching Snyder and 16 other -- or 15 other governors who are in the states who might not be happy about this bill.

KING: Might not as very kind of you. Thanks for joining us. We'll see you back here tomorrow. Wolf Blitzer up next.

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WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello. I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. in New York. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for --