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Eight Attended Russian Meeting; Evidence on Russian Collusion; Secret Service Pushback; Opposition to GOP Health Bill; White House Discredits CBO Score; McCain Has Surgery. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired July 17, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:06] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

A few days from the six-month mark and President Trump is historically unpopular. Will a week-long focus on made is America help him improve his lousy poll numbers?

Plus, this was to be the big week in the Senate Obamacare repeal debate, but the vote is postponed as Senator John McCain recovers from surgery and the Republican policy divide is as great as ever.

We begin, though, with fresh evidence the president's attention is on the Russia cloud more than any big policy or political challenge. And this time it's extra personal. In a tweet just a short time ago, the president disserted most politician would have gone to the meeting like the one Don Jr. attended in order to get information on an opponent. That's politics.

With us this day to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of "The New York Times," NPR's Steve Inskeep, Jackie Calmes of "The Los Angeles Times" and CNN's Manu Raju.

That presidential tweet I just referenced, of course, references the June 2016 meeting organized by Donald Trump Jr. and attended by presidential son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner and the Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. Among those across the table at Trump Tower, a Kremlin-linked lawyer and a Russian-American lobbyist who's a former Soviet counterintelligence operative. The session with the Russians was set up after Donald Trump Jr. was told they wanted to share damaging information about Hillary Clinton.

There are many, many, many layers to this, including the president's mounting frustration, and this rather basic question, should we believe anything team Trump says about these meetings since for months they denied there were any such meetings?


JOHN DICKERSON, CBS ANCHOR: Did anyone involved in the Trump campaign have any contact with Russians trying to meddle with the election? KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: Absolutely not. And I

discussed that with the president-elect just last night. Those conversations never happened. I hear people saying it like it's a fact on television. That is just not only inaccurate and false but it's dangerous.


KING: And we start there.

I was off last week as all this started to break and you listen to this and you go back to those statements. And Kellyanne Conway, then president of the United States, or then candidate Donald Trump said the same thing, so this is not to pick on her. But people saying this on television, it's not true. Well, people are saying it on television, it's true. The president's son, Donald Trump Jr., not an unimportant person in Trump land, meets with -- has this meeting, was told coming into the meeting it is Russians who want to meet with you to talk about information they have damaging to Hillary Clinton.

Now you could say, if it was just Donald Trump Jr., he's the president's son. He's involved in the campaign but he's not official. But, Jared Kushner is there, has to amend his security clearance form because he didn't disclose the meeting as he should have. Paul Manafort, the campaign chairman, is there. After months and months of there were no such meetings, again, just -- there were probably more important questions to get to, but in basic terms of credibility, why do we listen now when they tell us -- now they tell us nothing bad happened at these meetings?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I mean, it also doesn't help that the first response we got from the administration on this was actually not a complete version of what happened. They said, oh, the meeting was just about Russian adoptions. And then they said, OK, well, maybe it was about more than that.

And then there's the whole question of whether the president knew this was going on and these discussions were happening. And it just puts the burden of credibility so much more squarely in the White House where they have had trouble responding to these questions from day one. And if they keep changing their story, that just -- that hole just gets deeper.

So they find themselves in a situation now where they probably need credibility more than any White House has ever needed it at the six -- near the six-month mark and they have very little to go on.

STEVE INSKEEP, NPR: And the president's tweet, John, shows another line of defense. Effectively acknowledging the meeting happened, that it was what it was, but then saying all politics is dirty. Most politicians would have done this. There are a lot of politicians who have on the record disagreed with that. And there are cases where there have been briefing books stolen and they were actually turned over to the FBI. So I'm not sure it's true.

But it is something I think that resonates with some Trump voters who shrug off allegations of corruption or misbehavior by the president because they just say all politicians are like that.

KING: All politicians are like that, but, and if you're a Trump voter at home and you've been conditioned by this president and his supporters to not believe anything you hear here, use your own search engine. Pick one. Go to any web site of your choice that has a search engine and type these names in. And forget the stuff that's been in the news the last week or so. Think of it, go back to the summer of 2016 and type these names in, works for the Kremlin, closely associated -- this is not a Republican from Idaho calling up and saying I have a file on Hillary Clinton. These are people with ties to the Kremlin. So would anyone have taken the meeting? To Steve's point, a lot of people say, not if I Googled these names and found out who they were.

JACKIE CALMES, "LA TIMES": Right. And the fact that the president said that in a tweet today, this is just days after his nominee for the FBI testified before Congress that if this had happened, that if anyone in a campaign had a contact like this, they should call the FBI immediately. So he's rebutting, refuting his own FBI nominee.

[12:05:01] KING: Right.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: And the shifting explanations, too, are only going to add fodder to these investigations that are happening.

CALMES: Right.

RAJU: Not just on Capitol Hill, but Bob Mueller's investigation almost certainly is going to look into this because you can't necessarily trust what the White House is saying publicly because the information that keeps coming out changes repeatedly. I was talking to Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee on Friday. He was not aware of all the people in this meeting. He was not even aware if this Russian-American lobbyist, who allegedly has ties to Russian intelligence, whether or not he does, in fact, have ties to Russian intelligence. Those are questions now that congressional investigators are going to dig on and almost certainly Bob Mueller will as well.

KING: Right. And I have sat in this seat over the past several months and several times said, are the Democrats out too far over their skis when they say collusion because we've heard smoke and talk and meetings. You know, Jeff Sessions met with the ambassador. Jared Kushner met with the ambassador. Is that collusion, that meeting with the ambassador? So to the Democrats who at times may have been, I think, out there over their skis saying we have collusion, this is the opening that many of them -- again, we'll find out what happened in the end. It could be a knucklehead meeting and that could be it. But the Democrats see an opening.


SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: There seems to be a convenient pattern where all of the senior officials of the Trump campaign forget about their meetings with Russians, don't put it on their forms until evidence comes out and then they have to amend.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: Well, they can call it a fishing expedition. They can call it a witch-hunt. It's all in a lined message for (ph) the White House. But, nonetheless, real evidence is coming forward that just can't be ignored.

REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: This investigation, his, you know, the continuum of saying, no Russia, no collusion, to where we are today saying, essentially, so what, this is opposition research. The distraction has affected our ability to work for those people, especially his ability to deliver on the promises he made.


KING: This -- I don't -- I can't count how many times I've asked this question. Let's just say during the campaign they had these meetings. They decided, we're not transparent. We don't care about you in the news media. We're not going to tell you these things.

Once they realized this was a big deal that impacts the president of the United States. Forget us, impacts the president of the United States' ability to get things done, why didn't they call everybody into a room, get a list and documentation of all these meetings, do the traditional Washington thing and during the transition or very early on in the administration just put out a file. Here are all the meetings. Here are all the meetings. We're sorry we didn't disclose them. We did nothing wrong. Maybe we shouldn't have taken this one or that one, but here you go.

RAJU: And not just that. And also -- specifically also on Jared Kushner himself having to --

KING: Right.

RAJU: First he sent his security clearance form that had no meeting listed of foreign contacts and it says explicitly on that form you have to list any foreign contacts. That is required by federal law. He didn't do that initially. They said it was a premature submission of this form. But then having to amend it on multiple occasions to now include this meeting, it raises suspicion, even if they say there's nothing there.

KING: And listen -- I want you to listen to Jay Sekulow, one of the president's private attorneys, out yesterday. Now he makes clear, he does not represent Donald Trump Jr. But talking about this meeting, how could it have happened in Trump Tower in the middle of the campaign, he says this.


JAY SEKULOW, DONALD TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: Well, I've wondered why the Secret Service, if this was nefarious, why did the Secret Service allow these people in? The president had Secret Service protection at that point. That raised a question with me.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: And so let me raise this question back. The United States Secret Service says, "Donald Trump Jr. was not a protectee of the United States Secret Service in June 2016. Thus we would not have screened anyone he was meeting with at that time."

Jay Sekulow knows that, or if he's a good attorney, as he claims to be, he should know that before he goes on television. This is part of their strategy. Throw stuff up that they either know or should know is not true to try to get their people to go, oh, well, if the Secret Service let them in, then it's all fine.

CALMES: Well, it is -- it's more than that. They throw things up that they know aren't true and they're provably untrue. So when Jay Sekulow says something like that on a Sunday television show, he should know that the Secret Service is going to come back and refute him or is going to be asked, and when asked, is going to refute him. It happens time after time.

INSKEEP: And let's remember what's being distracted from here. One thing, anyway. We spoke this morning with Will Hurd, he's a Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, one of the committees looking into this. He's concerned about the next election, as many people are. Russian meddling in 2018, 2020, and he's concerned that a message is not being sent strongly enough that Russia should not meddle.

And let's remember, from what's been reported of President Trump's meeting with Vladimir Putin, he asked the question, were you involved with meddling? And said Putin was very strong in denying it and so he asked him a second time and then let it go.

We don't have an indication that Russia was warned at the very top that there would be consequences if they were to continue to meddle in U.S. elections. And it's not entirely clear that message is being sent. When I asked Hurd directly, is the president sending that message at all? He said, well, the U.S. government more broadly is sending that message.

KING: Yes, more broadly. And the other issues. We're about to hit the six-month mark. And if you had a question at the beginning of the year, when would this be resolved, as we learn new things every week, it tells you that the House Intelligence Committee investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, the special counsel investigation, forget 2017. They're carrying over to 2018 and beyond.

DAVIS: Well, and now they have -- just now the president has just now named someone for inside the White House, Ty Cobb, to handle these inquiries, to work with his private outside counsel to try to address some of these questions. That should have happened months ago, as you suggest. They should have realized that they needed a more fulsome response. They needed someone inside the White House being able to field these questions and actually being forthcoming about them, instead of constantly changing their story and then throwing out all of these sort of red herrings. The president did it himself in Paris last week when he talked about how Loretta Lynch was the one who let this Russian Kremlin tied attorney into the United States. It's everybody's fault but theirs, and that is clearly not how you deal with a crisis like this one.

[12:10:34] KING: Well, Ty Cobb is known as a pro. What see if he has that meeting where he calls everybody in and says, what else don't we know? Let's get it over with. We'll see if that happens.

Everybody sit tight.

Up next, one senator's absence forces a delay in the Obamacare repeal schedule. Will that help or hurt chances of rounding up the votes Republicans need?


[12:15:11] KING: Welcome back.

What was supposed to be a big week in the Republican Party's repeal Obamacare mission is instead another week of giant uncertainty. And much more than health care is caught up in the chaos. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had planned to push for a vote this week, but is now deferring that plan because in part Senator John McCain cannot be in Washington this week. McCain had surgery Friday and is out for at least a week. So will that time help or hurt as McConnell tries to bridge giant policy differences in his search for 50 votes.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: You can't take more than $700 billion out of the Medicaid program and not think that it's going to have some kind of effect.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I think the longer the bill's out there, the more conservative Republicans are going to discover that it's not repeal, and the more that everybody's going to discover that it keeps the fundamental flaw of Obamacare.


KING: CNN's Phil Mattingly live for us on Capitol Hill.

And when you listen there, Phil, to a key moderate and a key conservative in this debate, sure sounds as if they are nowhere near a deal?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we have work to do is the message I got from one senior GOP aide this morning. There's a recognition that they aren't there yet and, granted, they knew Rand Paul and Susan Collins were likely to be no. They publicly stated last week that they would likely be no, at least on the procedural vote. So they weren't exactly targets. But the recognition that they could only lose one more, even when Senator John McCain comes back, is very real.

And I think this is the interesting element her. I have been told by at least two GOP aides right now that it's not just the usual suspects, the usual holdouts that are problems. That it is deeper than that. There are eight to ten senators that have very real problems with this bill right now. And while they aren't publicly announcing opposition or even publicly listing their concerns, they could be very problematic for leaders going forward.

Now, with that in mind, here's what I'm told those individuals are being told right now by Senate leaders. Keep your powder dry. Come to them behind the scenes with your concerns. If nothing else, this kind of delay will give them a period of time to try and address those concerns. That might mean changes to the bill. But don't come out publicly in opposition. As one aide told me, John, every day without that third no vote is a good day. So low bar, but that's really what they're working with right now.

KING: Every day without that third no vote is a good day. The bumper stickers are being printed right now.

Phil Mattingly live on Capitol Hill.

Phil, thanks very much.

But, again, to that reporting, to that -- you know, you get to that level of detail, is that if you're Mitch McConnell, and everyone says, if anyone can pull the rabbit out of the hat it's Mitch McConnell. This is a mess. It's a -- and it's not a mess -- I often refer to Congress sometimes as a day-care center. And sometimes it is. But this is in part because you have very legitimate, philosophical policy differences about government spending, the role of government, how much should the government be involved in this. But the question many Republicans have is, OK, we've had those for seven years. We've promised for seven years we would do this. Why is it so hard?

RAJU: It's going to be even -- you know, even if they go behind the scenes and try to get some changes to the bill, there are going to be tweaks. This isn't going to be -- they aren't going to be major wholesale changes. The one reason -- big reason why the delay hurts them is that Senator McConnell added a provision to this bill that was drafted by Senator Ted Cruz that essentially allows insurers to provide coverage outside of the rules of the Affordable Care Act, such as covers pre-existing conditions.

Now that Cruz provision was not going to be scored by the Congressional Budget Office in time for when they initially planned to vote on this procedural measure. That was supposed to be a Tuesday vote. Now with the delay, that score could come back. It could be very negative. It's expected to be, especially in light of -- insurers are blasting that as an unworkable amendment and that could presumably hurt them with votes on the floor. So you talk to Republicans. They don't like the delay because it -- it's going to make it much harder to get their caucus on board.

INSKEEP: Susan Collins hit something quite important there also when she said that there is a $700 billion cut in Medicaid. That's something that does not change in the Senate bill compared to previous bills. And when the Congressional Budget Office scored -- Office has scored that, they found 14 million, 15 million people lose insurance. And so we know, regardless of what the scoring is, for the rest of the legislation, many millions of people are going to lose insurance and that has been very bad for Republicans prospects every time the CBO has come back with that finding. DAVIS: Well, and we saw this extraordinary op-ed over the weekend

where you had White House officials -- top White House officials, Mark Shore (ph), the head of legislative affairs, and Brian Blaze, who's on the NEC, who handles health care, basically decrying the CBO score as fake news, which is an extraordinary thing to see.

KING: Right.

CALMES: Right.

DAVIS: But really they realize that they have to pre-butt this because it's going to be a huge detriment to them being able to round up the votes. And what Phil was describing there is eight to 10 -- a group of eight to 10 senators who are now, you know, behind the scenes going to raise their concerns. That's the reason that this delay is a problem for them because the more time there is for that, the more people are going to kind of read the fine print and think, well, gosh, I mean this isn't what I want. I think no Republican feels like this is a bill they would have written. And so this is now more time for them to raise those concerns and try to get something more into the bill.

[12:20:06] KING: And this is not a CBO -- Congressional Budget Office for those of you watching out in America who don't understand Washington speak -- this is not a Nancy Pelosi holdover. This is a CBO office, the -- Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House, appointed the leader of the CBO. The Republican leadership appointed the leader of the CBO. This is not a Democrat hiding behind the curtain up in Congress cooing these books.

Go ahead.

CALMES: In consultation with former Congressman Tom Price of Georgia, who at the time was the House Budget Committee chairman --

KING: Right.

CALMES: And is now Donald Trump's secretary of Health and Human Services.

KING: Right. And so this -- this -- the politics of this, the policy differences are real and huge and significant, and that's what's most important to people out there wondering how it's going to affects their health care.

But the political fight in this is crazy. If you look at the Cook Political Report went to (INAUDIBLE), which tracks political advertising spending. $5.8 million spent by -- on television ads by those who oppose repeal of Obamacare or oppose the Republican repeal plan. $354,000. That's like going into a fight with both hands tied beyond your back and you're already bleeding at the start of the fight. So never mind the merits of the argument. How do you win when you're getting pummeled like that?

RAJU: And it's so different than 2009, 2010 when the -- the White House aggressively was pushing this. Obama was out there on giving events. He spoke to a joint session of Congress. There was support from even the big drug companies that cut a deal with the president on Obamacare. They were advertising his support of this. There is nothing on the outside giving Republicans political cover, and it's hurt the --

CALMES: Right.

KING: Because they don't like the plan. It's not just -- it's not like they're sitting on a stack of money --

RAJU: Yes.

KING: But the hospitals don't like it. The insurers don't like it. The conservative groups don't like it. The Tea Party groups don't like it.

RAJU: And the White House doesn't know -- and the White House isn't pushing the message either because they're dealing with all the Russia controversy and everything else.

CALMES: They are for fixing Obamacare. They're not for this new plan. And it's very different from -- go back to 1994, what defeated Clinton care was --

KING: Right, Harry Louise (ph).

CALMES: And who paid for -- helped pay for those?

KING: Right.

CALMES: The insurance industry.

KING: Right.

CALMES: The insurance industry is behind Obamacare.

DAVIS: Right.

CALMES: They just need it fixed.

INSKEEP And as you point out, John, a lot of Republicans don't like this bill. They've made some very difficult promises. Not just repeal, but repeal and replace. Not just replace, but replace with something better. And you have a group of Republicans who philosophically don't believe in getting that involved in the insurance market to begin with.

And there's another quieter group of Republicans that my former colleague, Julie Rodner, who covers these issues, has for many years, points out, there are some Republicans who just do not want repeal at all, which is, of course, something they have not actually publicly said or been able to say for years.

KING: Right, because it's been the Republican bible for seven years now that we will repeal.

INSKEEP: Yes. KING: To your point about fixing, just as we go to break, look at this poll number here. Which do you prefer -- this is the ABC/"Washington Post" poll just out -- the current law, which is Obamacare, 50 percent, the Republican plan, 24 percent, neither, 13 percent. So that right there, Obamacare, been controversial since the day it was passed. Even during the whole debate about it. But at the moment, it outweighs what the Republicans are trying to do in its place.

Ahead, though, the president hits the six-month mark this week and his numbers are bleak.

But next, Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins us with a closer look at Senator McCain's surprise surgery.


[12:27:03] KING: Welcome back.

Senator John McCain's office says the Arizona Republican will be back to work as soon as possible. This after what it describes as a, quote, "minimally invasive craniotomy" at the Mayo Clinic Hospital in Phoenix. That was on Friday. The procedure the senator's office says was performed following a routine annual checkup.

Let's get more on what this procedure entails and the average recovery time from our own in-house neurosurgeon, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

So, Sanjay, how serious is this for anybody and is it more so because we're talking about an 80-year-old man?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA (R), CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think we're definitely -- it's more serious because of his age and I think this is more serious than a -- the original descriptions that this procedure would have you believe. They made it sound like, look, it was a little incision in his eyebrow and had a blood clot removed.

To be clear, what they did here, and I'll -- I just have this skull model. If you feel your own eyebrow, there's bone underneath there. And that's this bone right over here. They actually removed that portion of bone. That's called a craniotomy. And that's to gain access to the brain.

So if you can see that, that area of bone was removed over there, just above his left eye. And on this brain model, it was basically to gain access to this part of the brain. It's a -- as far as brain surgery goes, it may be more minimally invasive, but you are still exposing the brain, you're still under general anesthesia. It's a serious thing for anybody. And as you point out, given that he's 80-years-old, it's even more serious. And I don't want to overdo this, John, but from here to here, from the end of the ruler to my finger over here, that's basically the size of what this was as well, five centimeters, about two inches. So not a small abnormality either. They're calling it a blood clot, but we don't know for sure what it is yet, John.

KING: And how do you get there in the sense that they say Senator McCain was going in for, you know, routine screenings. You don't, forgive me, drill a hole in somebody's skull at a routine screening. They had to be looking for something, right?

GUPTA: I think there's no question. Why would you get a scan in the first place? And I think this really has to do with something that you -- you and I have talked about over the years, and he has a pretty strong history of melanoma, including invasive melanoma, and including invasive melanoma right in his left temple region. That was back I think around 2000.

When somebody has an invasive melanoma like that, part of the follow- up is, we've got to just be diligent about checking. And that involves scans of the brain. Has this moved in some way? That's the big concern.

Again, John, no one is saying that right now. No one says this could just be a blood clot. He may have hit his head, done something even in the past and developed a little blood collection. That would be good news because you take that blood clot out, that should be the end of the story. Right now the pathologists are looking at this to see, are there any melanomas cells in there? Is there something else that we should be concerned about? And how is that going to affect his recovery, his follow-up, and any treatment that he might need in the future.

KING: Right. And when you mentioned that, obviously the health of Senator McCain is priority one, two, three, four and five. In Washington the conversation is, when can he come back for the health care debate? What is reasonable to expect somebody who has this procedure, somebody his age who has this procedure? How long till they're up on their feet and how long till they're -- they can come back to a grueling Senate schedule?

[12:30:07] GUPTA: You know, it's -- there's no hard and fast answer to that. I will tell you that the -- you know, being up on your feet, he obviously was able to go home.