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McConnell Wants "Less Drama From The White House"; Sources: Trump Gave Highly Classified Intel To Russia; McConnell: Garland's Background Ideal For FBI Chief; Trump Meets Turkish President In Oval Office. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired May 16, 2017 - 12:30   ET



[12:30:33] JOHN KING, INSIDE POLITICS HOST: Welcome back. As most of you know, Mitch McConnell is the senate majority leader and he's a master of understatement.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Well, I read "The Washington Post" story and I read General McMaster's response which tends to refute the story, rebut the story. I think we can do with a little less drama from the White House on a lot of things so that we can focus on our agenda which is deregulations, tax reform, repealing and replacing Obamacare.

KING: Today's drama of course sharing highly sensitive information with Russia joins a long list of episodes from the initial travel ban rollout to the shifting accounts of the why the FBI Director James Comey was fired, then raising basic competency questions about the President and his staff.


SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: You know, governing tweet storm to tweet storm is not a sustainable strategy. And the President has picked a lot of good people. There are number of really wonderful -- they're smart people and they're honorable people in this President's White House. And they have a really, really hard job because it just feels like Kiddie Soccer most days.


KING: Again, in the last block as well, a Republican senator, yes, a, you know, long time critic of the President, not a fan during the campaign, but saying how great most of the staff is and then talking about Kiddie Soccer day.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I mean, the point is Republicans control all ends of Washington, all corners of Washington. And the agenda is absolutely stalled. It was stalled last week with James Comey. Never mine the confirmation hearing for the replacement of James Comey is essentially going to suck up considerable oxygen this summer. So the timeline here is shrinking for the President and the Republican Party to get their agenda for it. So that is when I think Senator McConnell and others are really going to sort of hits their breaking point.

Never mind the matters of national security. He already talked to Republicans and swing districts that (inaudible) stock in Virginia, other places who are absolutely worried about this here. Ben Sasse in Nebraska has been on the leading edge of this. He didn't support the President. In fact, he didn't vote for the President. He voted for the Vice President, which also raises the question where is the Vice President?

We are told that he felt burned last week, he felt rattled by it last week and he has no intention of getting involved in this. We'll see -- I mean, sometimes, vice presidents have to do what they do but he is absent today for a reason.

KING: And, so you have the GOP jitters here at home. The President is about to take this nine-day trip. A critical trip, his first overseas trip.

Where I was in conversation with a couple of people who represent governments that he's going to meet on the trip, I can elaborate (ph) any more than that. We got some feedback that they're saying, what's going on here? What is he up to? Just reading a note from one of our State Department producer saying European diplomat says this raises questions about whether we can trust the President when we share intelligence.

And I want to go back to what General McMaster said at the briefing because it's critical. You all have this criticism. You hear the staff is great. Sometimes we worry about the President in his tweets or the President's discipline

Listen to General McMaster saying he believes what the President did in that meeting. He defends it as wholly appropriate. But then he added this very important nugget. The President shared intelligence with the Russians but wasn't completely aware on what the intelligence was.


H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I should just make maybe the statement here that that the President wasn't even aware, you know, of where this information came from. He wasn't briefed on the source or method of the information either.


KING: And that is only going to add to the questions about how this White House works. And what is the source of the -- in this particular dysfunction. NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Right. And can we believe what McMaster just said? I mean, who is he getting his information from? Did the President say he wasn't aware? Did the people who brief him say they didn't brief him? I mean, we just don't know. And again, I think it raises a lot more questions about how routinely is he getting briefed. How much is he paying attention to those briefings and whether or not people are keeping things from him or he is just missing a part of the briefing?

KING: And most elected Republicans have been relatively muted on this Orrin Hatch Center from Utah saying he think it's overblown. Mitch McConnell trying to move on, can we talk health care and tax reform? Those are some more -- suddenly more popular than what the President shared the information.

If you look at Breitbart news, some of the other conservative websites, they are defending the President. It's an interesting moment because the allegation here is, the reporting, and that report suggest solid, that the President shared something with Russia that hasn't been shared throughout the United States government. Hasn't been shared with our western allies like the U.K., like Germany, and that's the big dust up. And a lot of the people are defending the President saying, no big deal, let's go back to the campaign where President Trump then candidate Trump was on the trail and the allegation was that by setting up a private e-mail server Hillary Clinton had put some things at risk.


[12:35:14] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Remember, Hillary Clinton was e-mailing about the drone program among many other extremely sensitive matters. This is yet more evidence that Clinton is unfit to be your commander-in-chief.


KING: I mean, they write an ad unfit as well to echo that point. I raised that. It's an interesting point here where, you know, if you're in our business and our business can be broadly defined, when something like this comes up, you see the reflex of -- the people who wanted Hillary Clinton to lock her up, impeach her, jail here, run her off the stage crowd doesn't even want to ask questions about this. They just want to defend it and make it go away.

ABBY PHILLIP, THE WASHINGTON POST: And they're making a very legalistic argument that as President of the United States he can't. It's not illegal for him to reveal classified information. He can declassify that at any point. But that says nothing about the propriety of it or the appropriateness of it --

KING: Or the domino effect.

PHILIPS: -- or the domino effect or anything like that. And it's very -- it's just very telling to see these folks just say, "Well, technically it's not illegal". To say nothing of the risks that the sort of information gathers might face as a result of it. I was e-mailing with some former Clinton folks last night and many of them are just saying, "This is literally what they were warning about Donald Trump and about his ability to contextualize information on the gravity of the job". Many of those folks are basically looking at the situation epileptic about what is happening right now and the sense of hypocrisy in those past statements.

KING: And 117 days in, the grace that Trump loyalists have asked for is he's never been in elective office. Most of his senior staff has never been involved in government. Give them time. They're smart people. They'll figure it out.

The question is after the Comey firing and after something like this in it -- I was watching the court hearing yesterday remembering the initial travel ban rollout, a lot of keystone cops and amateur hour there and again a lot of the administrations have rough starts and they learn from -- and then they recover from. But last night as this was playing out, I just want to read you the tweet from the BuzzFeed White House reporter. "White House comms staff just put the T.V.s on super loud after we could hear yelling coming from the room with Bannon, Spicer, Sanders."

If you still have this internal fighting in the White House, this internal bickering over how do we handle this, and you read the stories today, look at the reporting today, who's to blame? You know, fire Spicer. Who's to blame? Do this. I mean, what's going on?

HENDERSON: It's Trump. Right. I mean, it isn't all the people around him. He's put his people in a very difficult position. Because he can be impulsive in terms of how he goes about things. He basically has asked his people to go out on a limb. Then he cuts that limb off. And then he sort of blames them for falling, right? I mean, that's the situation that played out with the Comey thing. That's the situation that played out with this as well. So, all of these talk of a shakeup and we've reported some of that at "Times" and the "Post" as well. It doesn't matter, because the drama is in the Oval Office. The drama is Donald Trump.

ZELENY: Some of the yelling that's happening in the west wing it's important to point out. It's a very small place actually. So, when you're like standing in a hallway, you actually hear some things. And some of the yelling I believe I've been told is at the situation. They are frustrated at the situation that they are in now. But I think Nia is right. I mean, yes, at some point there will be new people coming in. It happens in every single administration.

We're told that they are interviewing a few people for potential jobs. A, this is the worst time to -- you won't have a wholesale shakeup. This is a critical moment for this President. We've seen how slow they are to fill jobs. But b, it is him. This is on him. This is not a staff responsibility. He was the one in the Oval Office. And his staff realizes that.

KAREN TUMULTY, THE WASHINGTON POST: But if you look at how he ran and what he ran as, he ran as a business executive who would bring sort of the crisp decision making. He also ran as somebody who would keep this country safe. And those are the two things that I think are exposed here. He -- The country wanted something different. They wanted a disrupter. The question is -- and his supporters are still very much with him -- but the question is, you know, are people right now thinking this is what they elected?

KING: And I would add to the question is will we see at some point evidence that he's learning from experience, including learning from mistakes? Because all new presidents make mistakes.

Everybody sit tight. We'll switch gears a little bit. The search for new FBI director, and some tough words from the former acting attorney general about how the Trump White House dealt with the Michael Flynn saga.


[12:43:33] KING: Welcome back. Pictures here outside the west wing of the White House just moments ago. The Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan arriving, greeting by President Trump outside of the west wing. You see the marine standing by there. The two gentlemen now having meetings inside the Oval Office. We expect joint statements from them.

Stay with CNN and we'll bring those to you live. A lot to discuss. Security arrangements, the battle against ISIS, the political situation in Syria. We'll get back to that meeting as soon as we see the two leaders.

Now back to other news. A heads up. That's how the White House described the February visit from then acting Attorney General Sally Yates to share information about National Security Adviser Michael Flynn with the White House Council. Yates you'll recall told Congress last week it was much more serious than a heads up. She says she delivered a stern warning Flynn was lying about his Russia context and in a way it could open him to Kremlin blackmail. The White House waited 18 days to fire Flynn and only then after media reporting about the blackmail worry. Tonight she shares more in an exclusive conversation with CNN's Anderson Cooper.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Was the underlying conduct illegal? Was it illegality involved?

SALLY YATES, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: There's certainly a criminal statute that was implicated by his conduct.

COOPER: Sean Spicer said on the day after Michael Flynn resigned that it was a trust issue that led to his resignation, not a legal issue. Do you agree there was no legal issue with Flynn's underlying behavior?

YATES: I don't know how the White House reached the conclusion there was no legal issue. It certainly wasn't from my discussion with them.

(END VIDEOTAPE) KING: A number of things jump out for this. And you want to watch Anderson tonight to see the entire conversation.

[12:45:05] But legal issue. Certainly a criminal statute that was implicated by his conduct. Number one, that she's raising those stakes. And number two, that she's doing so publicly.

PHILLIP: Well -- I mean, now that she's out they can't really control what she says about the situation. And also the White House has sort of tried to impinge her character. So she's in a position where she wants to defend herself and also point out some of the things she mentioned in her testimony, which is that -- which contradicts what the White House is saying.

Essentially, she gave them multiple warnings, met with them in person multiple times. And also gave them access to the underlying materials as soon as the Monday after she told them. They didn't access that material for several days and then didn't fire Flynn until weeks afterwards. So, there's a clearly distinction here between what she's saying, what the White House is saying. And, you know, we can't adjudicate that fully but I think it's fair for her to put it out there.

KING: It's fair for her to put it out there, but I'm struck, Sally Yates, Director Clapper, General Hayden, and Clapper and Sally Yates, both serving for at least a few moments. I guess Clapper left right around the inauguration. But people who -- as the President complains about leaks and we heard his national security advisor complain about leaks -- veterans on the National Security Intelligence apparatus continue to speak publicly where normally they go back into the shadows. But to me it's them serving notice. You continue to trash us, we are going to continue to speak publicly and hold you accountable.

ZELENY: Which is why one of the reasons the White House is still frustrated is because of leaks. But -- I mean, the reality here is this town is filled with dedicated professionals who do their jobs every day. And they are alarmed at what they're seeing.

So -- and there are a lot of them, a lot more of them. I mean, we'll have a chilling effect. But I think her whole interview I'm told is even more fascinating than that. So, we should watch them.

HENDERSON: And in some ways the leakers are like Donald Trump's advisers. I mean, they know that when things land in the paper before --

ZELENY: Some are his advisers, actually.


HENDERSON: And they know that Donald Trump reads the paper. He watches cable news. And that's in a way the way you get his attention, to leak to the press. I mean, obviously some of those people aren't in the White House. They're in the FBI or DOJ or whatever. But, you know, this is a strategy that they're employing to try to get the President to behave differently.

TUMULTY: And also I think that some of these people are defending institutions that they believe have held this government together through thick and thin through very dangerous times. And that really they believe need to be preserved for the future.

KING: Help me with the tea reading of the search for the new FBI director. Susan Collins said, it shouldn't be her colleague John Cornyn and number 2, normally she said she would be for a Senate colleague who has law enforcement. She said these are not normal times.

And here's Mitch McConnell this morning. Remember he held up, locked a vote on Merrick Garland, the President Obama's choice to be on the Supreme Court. Listen to Mitch McConnell here saying, "I think he'd be a great FBI director".


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: I recommended Merrick Garland.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It might surprise the people.

MCCONNELL: Yes, may surprise people but he has a deep background in criminal law. He was the prosecutor in the Oklahoma City bombing case. And I think it would make it clear that President Trump will continue the tradition at the FBI of having an apolitical professional.


KING: We actually note a source close to the judge says thanks but no thanks. I have no interest in being --

ZELENY: It would also create an opening on the bench which McConnell would love to see that.

HENDERSON: I mean, this is kind of cruel, right? I mean, there is Mitch McConnell. He blocked Merrick Garland from the Supreme Court. That would have been his dream I'm sure to be on the Supreme Court. And now, he's like, "Oh, you can serve --

KING: Now you can have dinner with the President Trump and ask him to pledge your loyalty before you take over the Russia investigation.


ZELENY: But the reality here is the President I'm told wants to try and make a decision before Friday, before he leaves and really for almost a week and a half. The Attorney General Jeff Sessions came over to the White House last night about an hour before this McMaster statement to update him on the interviews and things. So, the President I'm told is going to meet with a couple finalists. We're not sure exactly how many one, two, maybe three and make his decision. Mike Rodgers is the choice of the FBI rank and file. We'll see if he's the choice of the President. We don't know that.

HENDERSON: Yes. And speak with Mike Rodgers, and one of the things he said that he --

KING: Just disqualified him?

HENDERSON: Yes, yes. That's correct. He was saying that he, you know -- as I'm sure this is the way that all of these folks are saying this, can they be independent? Can they do their job without interference form the President?

KING: Yes. That's what the interim is probably out too for what he said about the White House and Congress reputation in Congress.

All right, we're standing by. Turkish President Erdogan is at the White House, he's meeting with the President. The two leaders are about to speak publicly. "Inside Politics" will be right back. We'll keep an eye on that.


[12:53:57] KING: Let's listen to the President of the United States at the White House with the Turkish leader.

TRUMP: It is a great honor to have President Erdogan from Turkey here. We're going to have long and hard discussions. I know that they will be very successful. We've had a great relationship. And we will make it even better.

So we look forward to having a very, very strong and solid discussions. We'll be having lunch in a little while and we'll actually be making a statement right after this in the Roosevelt Room. Thank you very much.


TRUMP: Thank you very much.



[12:55:02] KING: You see President Trump with President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in the Oval Office. A little bit of time left here.

Sarah Murray of CNN three times tried to ask, did you share classified information with the Russians. The president did not answer the question. It certainly -- we'll see if they take questions. They'll going to have joint statements in just a few minutes and CNN will bring you to that live. We'll see if the president takes questions as he tried to defend this (inaudible).

ZELENY: He's not scheduled to at this point and I would see if -- I would be surprised if he would at this point. They're trying to let the national security advisers words speak for them but we know that changes a lot because the president always seems to have the final word.

KING: And quite as often thinks he's his best communication adviser.

PHILLIP: And he sometimes gets his in own way like he did with Comey last week talking about Russia, talking about all kinds of things that his staff had determined not to their advantage to do. I think it's a real risk to have Trump out there answering questions.

HENDERSON: And the question of what Donald Trump is going to say in this meeting with Erdogan. It sort of hangs out there about whether or not he shared classified information.

KING: He shared classified information about that. He also mentioned the hard choices among in the United States deciding to arm some anti- Assad Kurdish rebels inside Syria. The Turkish government does not like that.

That's it for "Inside Politics." Again, just moments away from joint statements from President Trump and the Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. They're be speaking live. Wolf Blitzer will be in the chair to bring you that when it happens.