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Flynn Wants Immunity; Nunes Gathers Intel; Trump on NAFTA; Trump Report Card. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 31, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks for sharing your Friday with us. It's another busy day here in Washington, one full of change. President Trump trying to shake off a slump and returning to an issue that helped him turn blue states red, signing two executive actions today designed to crack down on unfair trade.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a new surge in optimism which is sweeping all across our land.


KING: Syria's Basher al Assad has slaughtered his own people with Russia's help, but the new administration says it's dropping the U.S. demand for regime change.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The status and the longer term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.


KING: Plus, as the president stokes a Republican family feud on Twitter, some not so friendly advice here from a top Democrat.


JOE BIDEN, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: Grow up. Stop tweeting, you know, and start focusing.

The words of a president matter. They have enormous, enormous, enormous reverberating sounds around the world.


KING: This just in, Joe Biden still doesn't like Donald Trump.

With us to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, Margaret Talev of "Bloomberg Politics," CNN's Manu Raju, and Carol Lee of "The Wall Street Journal."

In a moment, the president's message on trade. Why he thinks it might help him get back a little momentum. But, first, spy games. There are a million careful cliches about - organized around the idea that loose talk might come back to bite you tomorrow.


LT. GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN (RET.), FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: The very last thing that John Podesta just said is no individual is too big to jail, that should include people like Hillary Clinton. I mean five people around her have had - have been given immunity to include her former chief of staff. When you are given immunity, that means that you've probably committed a crime.


KING: All right, President Trump echoing that same message back there in the 2016 campaign. Well, that was Michael Flynn, the Trump campaign adviser, who later became national security adviser. And then, of course, had to resign because, among other things, he lied to the vice president about conversations with Russia's ambassador. Flynn now wants you to ignore those words, that if you want immunity, you're probably guilty. Wants you to ignore President Trump said that too. He wants you to ignore that because, yes, Flynn now wants an immunity deal from the FBI, from the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Now, the president has - also has a new on this new take on immunity, tweeting this morning, Flynn should ask for it because, quote, "in that this is a witch hunt of historic proportions." Now if you read the president's entire tweet, you see there he blames the media and the Democrats for this. For the record, Republicans control the congressional committees investigating this. And FBI Director James Comey was a federal prosecutor and Justice Department official appointed by Republican presidents before he took over the FBI under President Obama. Just a little bit of a fact check there.

Carol Lee, you were part of the team that broke this story first yesterday. Michael Flynn says he has a story to tell through his attorney, but he says he wants immunity first. So far no takers. Do we know, A, what story he wants to tell, and, B, why they're so cool to taking this?

CAROL LEE, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": We don't. We know that he has a number of stories that he could tell. We don't know whether it's his story about his time on the campaign. You know, he's one of the few officials who was on the campaign. He was on the transition and he served in the White House and he was by the president's side almost every day during the campaign. And so he's very close to Donald Trump. So there's that piece of a story he could tell.

Michael Flynn also has a number of engagements that he's had in the past with the Russian government. He has been paid tens of thousands of dollars for - by the Russian - by Russian companies, by news organization that's state run, by Putin and he was at a dinner where he gave a speech and he sat next to President Putin. And so there's a number of different stories that he could have to tell. We don't know which one. And we also don't know what he's telling them that he has that would give them any incentive to give him immunity. And nobody seems, so far at least, to be willing to take him up on that.

The other thing is that if you're going to get immunity, you have to prove that you're going to be truthful. And so he has not shown a track record of that so far. And so there may be some skepticism there too.

KING: Skepticism and I think the key point is the incentive is sort of what's the gain for whether it's the House and Senate Intelligence Committees or the FBI? What's the gain? If we're going to give this up, because you lose some leverage, you give a witness immunity, but hopefully you get more candor. So when you think about this in the process of the reporting on the House Intelligence Committee, process and reporting on the Senate Intelligence, they clearly want to talk to Michael Flynn, but they don't think they need to give him immunity to come in right now, right? I mean among the questions, you know, what did the president know, if anything, about those election year and then transition contacts with the Russian ambassador in which sanctions came up, including on the very day the Obama administration was imposing sanctions? That's what the committees want to know.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes. They - yes, among that, among other things. It's way too early for the Senate or House Intelligence Committees to say that they'd be willing to accept such a deal. The Senate Intelligence Committee in particular, right now they are in a fact finding mission. They're trying to gather evidence. They're interviewing analysts, witness, other people who are part of the intelligence community.

[12:05:05] What they're not doing yet is talking to those Trump associates, people like Michael Flynn, like Carter Page, like Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, who they do intend to talk to. So they don't -- they're nowhere near the point where Michael - giving Michael Flynn immunity. Plus, it would have to - this would have to be in conjunction and in coordination with whatever the FBI is doing as part of their own criminal probe. And if the FBI is willing to give him immunity, maybe that would affect how - what he tells the House and Senate Intelligence Committee. It's much too preliminary, but a lot of skepticism. Democrats certainly, on the House Intelligence Committee, do not want to give him any immunity. It's unclear what Devin Nunes wants to do at this point. It's probably unlikely and there's - certainly there's no - no one's rushing to embrace this on the Senate side either.

MARGARET TALEV, "BLOOMBERG POLITICS": I do. And I think that's really the start (ph) of what you just said, that if you were looking at the one decision point for how serious to take an immunity request, it's Senate Republicans. If you're a Democrat, in either the House or the Senate, you see no incentive to do this. If you're a House Republican or the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, you're - that program has been so compromised with the kind of loop de loop that just happened where it appears entirely likely that it's the White House asking you to come and get information that you can give the president, that they could have given the president. So how would immunity work? Is immunity an effort to shield yourself from the actual real investigation by going over willingly taking part in a light investigation? Or is it more about saying, I want to be helpful, but I - it would be stupid for me to put myself in jeopardy? That explanation would be completely plausible if everything else up until now had been credible. But it's all - but it's so compromised and it's just very murky.

KING: Right, and before I got taken hostage here in Washington, I actually covered the courts for a while back in my prior life. And you grant immunity in search of a bigger fish.


KING: If you're going to give somebody immunity, that means you think that person has information that even if they're a subject or a target or a person of interest in an investigation, they have something that's more valuable to you. And the only way you're going to get it is to grant immunity. If you're - if you're thinking about this - we can't get inside the FBI investigation -


KING: But if you're thinking about the congressional investigations, which are in part political, even though they say they're bipartisan, they're being done (ph) by a bunch of politicians, are you going to do that now? You would only do that if you were stalled and need to jump start.

HENDERSON: Yes, I think that's right. And you think about who the bigger fish is here? Is it Paul Manafort? Is it Donald Trump? And so you have Donald Trump out there seeming to say, Michael Flynn, I'm still on your side. It's still us against the Democrats. Still us against the media.

And you saw that evolution I think in the White House, the keeping him on staff there for, you know, 18 days or so, even after they knew what Michael Flynn had done in terms of big dishonest, in terms of his dealings with the Russians. So I mean it still seems to sort of like keep your enemies close thing going on from the White House in terms of how they are framing this, at least Donald Trump so far. We'll see what Sean Spicer says today in the briefing.

KING: And so the only thing we know for certain right now is Michael Flynn has a good lawyer -


KING: Who's trying to get him immunity. That's - you mentioned it. I'm sure you learned that in high school, loop de loop. The highly technical -

TALEV: A term of art (INAUDIBLE).

KING: The technical term of art about (ph) - this about Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, who's been in hot water for the past week plus because - and we still don't know - we still don't know the critical important details as in what's in the documents we're talking about here. But Devin Nunes went to the White House and CNN has now confirmed reporting by "The New York Times" and "The Washington Post" that at least two Trump administration officials on the White House complex helped Devin Nunes get access to these documents. He studied them at the White House. He went home for the night. Then he came back and next day and briefed the president on documents that apparently he got assistance from Trump administration officials to see. Figure that one out at home. Why couldn't they just share it with the president? Key to this is, a, what's in the documents? Also the reasons Democrats are upset is he told no one else on the committee about the documents, Democrats or Republicans, before he went down and briefed the president.

But listen here as we try to learn more about this. This is Devin Nunes talking to Wolf Blitzer last week, being pressed on, where did you get this information? Who helped you?


WOLF BLITZER, ANCHOR, CNN'S "THE SITUATION ROOM": Did you meet with the president or any of his aides while you were there that night?

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: No. No. And, in fact, I'm quite sure that I think people in the West Wing had no idea that I was there.

BLITZER: By holding the meeting on the White House grounds, it makes it appear that someone in the administration was coordinating the release of this information to you. Is that not the case?

NUNES: No, it's not the case.


KING: Now, we can have a semantics battle here, as we often do, when we have sensitive intelligence matters and lawyers involved and everything else. He's going to say the people in the West Wing didn't know I was there. I was across the driveway in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Wolf asked him specifically, Trump aides. Now he can - he can rationalize if he wishes the people who work on the National Security Council staff or this staff aren't presidential aides per say. That's Washington speak. If they work in the White House, they work for the president, and their office is across - look at your car out in the driveway. That's how wide it is between the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. How does he get away with this.

RAJU: It's very, very difficult. I mean he even told a Bloomberg reporter also that his source was an intelligence source, not a White House source. And it appears that it was - there were two White House sources and I -

[12:10:05] KING: Who may work in intelligence matters (ph). But, again, this is - this is -


RAJU: He can - so he can play this game.

KING: Right.

HENDERSON: Semantics, yes.

KING: Right.

RAJU: But I asked him many questions this week. I was pushing him on whether or not anyone in the White House was involved. And Thursday night - or Wednesday night, before this story broke in "The Times," he would not rule out it came from the White House. His story continually shifted and he continually dodged. He kept saying to me, I've answered the question over and over again. I'm not going to answer this question again. But he has not answered the question and it's a real concern for his own credibility and running this investigation that now is looking into Trump campaign associates. How do you do that while also not being (INAUDIBLE)?

KING: And how do you do that - I want you to jump in - but as you do, how do you do that when you mentioned his credibility's at stake and the democrats see this opening. Whether it's fair or unfair, they see Devin Nunes has gotten everybody trying to figure out, what is he up to, who is he trying to protect, the president or follow the facts. So, Nancy Pelosi deciding, maybe he got played by the White House.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: He was duped. Now, let's just give - that's the most innocent, most benign characterization, that he was duped, but he should have known better. I mean you're chairman of the committee. This is - you know, again, the Intelligence Committee is a small committee with a responsibility to the caucus, to the Congress, to the country, to protect - force (ph) protection of our troops. It's about having intelligence so that we can protect the American people, not protect the president.


KING: There's so much we don't know here. We don't know if he was duped. But it's hard to argue with Nancy Pelosi saying he's the chairman of the committee, he should have known better.

LEE: Look, this is - it's just such - the layers in this that we keep learning. I mean if you step back, you have the president kind of telegraphing that something was going to happen two weeks in advance. The press secretary giving similar kind of statements. Then you have, you know, what we now know is a staffer who - and I spoke to someone yesterday who was talking about the staffer who works for the National Security Council on intelligence but is a White House staffer who apparently - you know their story is that they - he took it upon himself to do research on wiretapping. And, I mean -

KING: That's what you do in the first 60 days of a new administration.

LEE: Yes, obviously, of course.

HENDERSON: Yes. LEE: After the president's tweet, he just, you know, freelanced this. And then comes up with this, starts finding things and then he hands it to another staffer who used to work for Nunes and he then calls Nunes and gives it to him. And it's like - and so then - and it's - and all of that is a White House inserting itself in an investigation that they potential lily could be part of. And it's just - sometimes I watch this story and I'm like, can you imagine if this was happening under the Obama administration -

HENDERSON: Obama, right.

LEE: If somebody had come down and given Benghazi report - or, you know, during the Hillary Clinton investigation. And it's just - it's really a remarkable thing. And I think it's going to be very hard for them to get out of.

KING: It's like the caboose taking over the locomotive of the train.

TALEV: And I think it explains entirely why you saw Senate Republicans kind of rally together this week and say -

KING: Right.

TALEV: We're going to start acting like this is in our hands now.


KING: Yes.

TALEV: We're taking this over. And it's only partly OK that they want to do the right thing, but like they need to insulate themselves from all of this. Turn the narrative around. What's happening in the House bleeds over, you know, across the - down the hallways of the Capitol into the Senate chambers and they made a concerted effort from top to bottom to put an end to it there.

KING: Yes, the Senate Republicans essentially in a sense were trying to say, OK, Washington looks like a day care center right now but there are some adults. There are some adults.


KING: All right, everybody, sit tight.

Up next, President Trump using the power of the pen once again today to take on unfair trade.


[12:18:00] KING: Welcome back.

It is now day 71 and more than fair to say the Trump presidency is in a bit of a rut, especially by the way this town, Washington, keeps score. The embarrassing Obamacare repeal debate. The open feud between the president to fellow Republicans. Slumping approval ratings and daily, if not hourly, proof, as we just discussed, that that cloud of the Russian election meddling investigation isn't going to lift anytime soon.

Today, from the president, a deliberate turn back to the bread and butter of the Trump campaign and to the issue that helped the president turn these blue states red, put him over the top.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My administration is working every day to make it easier for manufacturers to build higher and grow in America. We're removing job killing regulations and lifting the burdens on American industry, like I would say have never been lifted before. We have done a lot of work over the last 60, 70 days and I think you're seeing some real production. Maybe - I think we could say this, Mike, like never before.


KING: Trade the issue there. The president quite subdued.


KING: This is one of his big passions on the campaign trail.


KING: I would posit that this is the reason he's president. I know immigration was a big issue in the primaries. But in the general election, his economic message, especially on trade, getting American jobs back, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan Wisconsin. He mentioned Wisconsin during this event.

These executive actions, one's a study. Study the - the - study the causes of the -

HENDERSON: Nothing says action like a study.

KING: Well, that's the point I want to talk about -

LEE: Ninety days, yes.

KING: Study the causes of the trade deficits. The other one says we're going to be more aggressive in enforcing laws on the books about duties and tariffs if foreign companies send products into the United States. But to the point about the study, in the campaign, this president was black and white, day one, I'm going to do these things. Part of the reality of being president is you can't do it so fast, right?

TALEV: Yes, that's right. But you can time your announcements, you know, to other things on the calendar. And I'm sure it's just coincidental that the Chinese leader is going to be here at the end of next week. This is a really big, important diplomatic visit. Officially it's mostly about North Korea, but, of course, trade and the economy and, you know, whose more in charge than the other guy, how's their relationship going to work, all come into play. The location of this, down in Mar-a-Lago, that's President Trump's home turf, not really the White House. I mean Mar-a-Lago's where he likes to do business and hold court. So the timing of all of this is really interesting to watch.

[12:20:20] HENDERSON: Yes. And he's been foreshadowing that this is going to be a tough meeting down in Mar-a-Lago.

KING: Right.

HENDERSON: Basically said Americans are going to have to figure out a new way to do business. But there is something of a pullback in terms of what he initially said about China, labeling them a currency manipulator. He, of course, had to kind of go back to China hat in hand after he implied or suggested that the U.S. would move away from the One China Rule, so he had some sort of kissing and making up to do around there.

But the kind of bluster he had on the campaign trail, ripping up NAFTA, you know, on day one, you think about where he is now, basically tweaking this stuff, commissioning a study, probably a blue ribbon commission of sorts, around NAFTA. You know, he's basically reverted back to Republicanism, right? I mean this is sort of standard -

RAJU: And - and will his core voters be OK with that?


KING: Right.

RAJU: I mean he did say, on his first day in office, he would label China a currency manipulator.

KING: Let - let me - I don't meant to interrupt, but let's go through this because I want to - first let's hear the president in the campaign.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I win, day one, we are going to announce our plans to totally renegotiate NAFTA. If we don't get the deal we want, we'll leave NAFTA and start over again and we will make much better trade deals.

NAFTA was a disaster. TPP is going to be worse and we can't let it happen, folks, because that will drain the rest of the jobs away. We can't let it happen. And if I'm president, the first day, boom, it's over.


KING: Now the president did quickly withdraw - announce the U.S. intention to withdraw from TPP. That had already essentially been done because Congress wasn't going to touch it.

TALEV: Yes. KING: But the president did follow through on that one. NAFTA, they say now, they're going to modestly renegotiate. He didn't rip it up. They are going to have negotiations with Mexico and Canada and the administration so far says it thinks it can get that through minor tweaks. To the China question you raised, he meets with President Xi Jinping next weekend. Here's what Donald Trump said in "The Wall Street Journal," "on day one of a Trump administration, the U.S. Treasury Department will designate China a currency manipulator." That has huge consequences if you do that. They have not done that.

LEE: Huge consequences. And he started to, on a number of things, including this, walk them back during the transition. And we've just seen that continue. The one thing he did, as you mention, is TPP, but that mostly symbolic. And, ironically, that also is something that China likes.

KING: Right.

LEE: But he - you know, this meeting with Xi Jinping I think will largely be about North Korea. That's the most important thing. But I think to most Americans what we're going to talk about here is the issue of trade in China and taking their jobs. And, you know, the president has been very, I don't know, much more respectful, or however you want to put it, towards the Chinese since he took office, and yet he's tweeting in advance of his meeting and the Chinese don't like that. So it will be a really interesting meeting to watch.

But we had a story, as you - going back to NAFTA - this week that, look, said that the draft of what they want to do to NAFTA is very modest. And so you're starting to see a pattern here in the White House saying, well, it's not final, but it's showing you the trajectory of where they're going. And I think it's just another example of where you have a president who said things. It was, you know, right or wrong, black or white, during the campaign. And now it's trying to govern and really has to modify and -

KING: And he - and he believes and his team believes that the best thing he has, for all this dysfunction in Washington and they guy who didn't win the popular vote, has low approval ratings is to get economic growth. And if you blow up NAFTA, you lose growth. You blow up the relationship with China, you lose growth.

LEE: That's right.

KING: Let's just look at the trade deficit. It's not the sexiest subject in the world but it's important. If you look at this, $500 billion U.S. trade deficit last year, almost all of it, do the math, almost all of the trade deficit from China and Mexico, the two countries the president has talked most about.

It's interesting, though, to hear him say he was subdued today. What - obviously, if you're a Trump voter, if you're a Trump voter, the president signed the end of the war on coal, as he calls it, reverse Obama climate change this week, and now he says he's dealing with this stuff on trade. If you're a Trump voter, you're happy because he's at least kind of keeping the promises in the campaign, but is there a risk for the president in that those coal jobs are coming back.


RAJU: Yes.

KING: And in this trade - in this trade thing, sure, he's trying to boast American manufacturing. I think more of that would come from the tax changes that they make and the regulatory changes that they make than anything you can do in trade. But is there a risk that not tomorrow but six months and a year from now that Trump voters say what happened, where are the jobs?

LEE: Yes.

RAJU: Yes, especially in the rust belt states. I mean automation has caused jobs, not necessarily the extent of free trade deals. Those just pulling back from those deals would not necessarily bring those jobs back. And he's not going to pull back from NAFTA. And if he were to get out of NAFTA, that would create a huge war with his own party. That could probably hurt him even more politically in the business community. So there are - it's saying things on the campaign trail, turning out a lot more challenging than governing.

LEE: I think -

TALEV: It's a calculated risk, but it's - but his playbook is tactical. And I think at this point they believe it's better to have a rhetorical victory in hand now and worry about what could happen three years from now when we get closer to three years from now. I think there's also a bet that the messaging to the base can coexist with what you actually tell the leader when they're there. But those can be two different things. And the base is not necessarily watching, you know, the nuances of the coverage of an actual summit.

[12:25:23] KING: But his hands on the economy is his greatest strengths if you look at his poll numbers are terrible, but if you look at a new McClatchy Marist poll, 45 percent say Trump has strengthened the economy, 39 percent says he hasn't. That's not gangbuster. But look at this report card overall. Fifteen percent of Americans gave him an A, 22 percent gave him a B, 15 percent give him a C, 15 percent give him a D, 32 percent give him an F. So you can - if you're watching at home, if you're a Democrat, you're probably down in the F grade. If you're a Republican, you're probably up there in A, B, and C land. But that - it's 70 days in. That's a tough start.

LEE: It is a tough start. The one thing I would say about him and the economy is, he has economic growth on his - the economy's going in a direction that's only going to benefit him.


LEE: And it really angers the Obama folks because they feel like he's not -


LEE: And now it's happening, he's not getting the credit for it.

KING: Right.

HENDERSON: Yes, they did it (INAUDIBLE) -


HENDERSON: And he - I mean and he is literally taking credit for stuff - stuff that happened on -

LEE: He is. I mean he -


KING: And he's not unique - he's not unique in that regard.


LEE: No.

KING: Bill Clinton balanced a budget in part because the George H.W. Bush tax cuts. I don't ever - or tax hikes, I mean. I don't ever remember Bill Clinton giving him credit for that. That part's how that works.

Everybody sit tight.

Up next, we map out the president's war with his own party. Is threatening to oppose Republicans the way for a struggling administration to get back on track?