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Trump on Twitter Offensive; Kelly Brings Discipline to White House; McCain Talks Weakness; Pence Posturing for 2020; Mueller Russia Probe. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired August 7, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:13] DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Dana Bash. John King is off.

This morning, President Trump says he is hard at work on his vacation. And if Twitter counts, that is certainly true. The barrage of morning presidential tweets from his New Jersey resort show a commander in chief on the offense touting his accomplishments, insisting his base is stronger than ever and attacking a senator and, of course, the media.

Plus, unusually strong pushback from the vice president, who was pledging loyalty to his boss after a report alleges he's positioning himself to run for president just in case Trump doesn't.

Then, the U.N. hits North Korea with the U.S. -- what the U.S. is calling a gut punch, new, harsher sanctions, which the Trump administration hopes will pull Pyongyang back from the nuclear ledge.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: The best signal that North Korea could give us that they're prepared to talk would be to stop these missile launches.


BASH: And the Russia election meddling probe picks up speed, prompting a change in tune from the president's lawyers, and a public reminder for the special counsel.


ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: Bob Mueller understands, and I understand, the specific scope of the investigation. And so, no, it's not a fishing expedition.


BASH: With us to share their reporting and insights, CNN's Manu Raju, "Bloomberg's" Margaret Talev, Michael Warren of "The Weekly Standard" and Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast." Well, 200 days into the new administration, President Trump wants to convince you he has done a lot. In a tornado of morning tweets, the commander in chief gave himself his own report card. In his view, achievements abound from every corner of the administration. The base is stronger than ever. The stock market higher. Military might restored. Border security tighter. Jobs booming. His Supreme Court pick confirmed. Regulations slashed.

Well, on some of those issues, like the Supreme Court nominee, he certainly does get an a. On others, you might say the president is grading himself on a curve. Today at the 200-day mark, he signed only one major legislative item into law, a Russia sanctions bill he never wanted to reach his desk in the first place, calling it seriously flawed.

Now, it was just one week ago that the new White House chief of staff entered the West Wing with a mission to inject some military discipline into a chaotic administration. The dysfunction permeating the White House had no doubt contributed to the president's poll numbers at historic lows, along with the nagging Russia investigation the president routinely dismisses as a hoax.

On CNN's "NEW DAY" this morning, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal talked about the most consistent source of the president's anger. The ongoing special counsel probe, which sources say has expanded into a possible financial crimes investigation.

Well, Blumenthal's appearance was followed by this, a retweet, drive- by presidential attack on the Connecticut Democrat for being a Vietnam con artist who eventually, quote, "cried like a baby and begged forgiveness like a child." Well, the president was referring to the fact that Senator Blumenthal did have to apologize in 2010 for misrepresenting his Vietnam War service. But, Blumenthal, who was just elected to a second term as senator from Connecticut clearly got under the president's skin talking about Russia. And one of my takeaways from this is, Mr. President, thanks for watching CNN this morning.

We'll start right there. What do you make of -- Manu, of this -- of this tweet storm this morning? Is it just that he woke up on a Monday and, you know, frustrated by something he saw on CNN, or is it more than that?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think it's a variety of things. It's the 200-day mark. He knows that the press will be talking about his accomplishments, or lack thereof. It's the fact that the Russia investigation is still dominating the news. Something that, of course, is -- he continues to call a hoax, a witch-hunt, fake news. And it's also the story in "The New York Times" that he clearly read on Sunday suggesting that other Republicans are looking at his low poll numbers and thinking about whether to run and attacking "The New York Times" in that first tweet today and saying that, you know, his base is stronger than ever when, in fact, if you look at his poll numbers, his base is still at 36 percent, 37 percent.

But what his problem is, that he's losing support from other Republicans. BASH: Yes.

RAJU: And he certainly is not getting support from Democrats or independents, which would suggest he's expanding his base.

BASH: One of the most -- and we're going to talk more about the vice presidential part of that, but one of the most telling quotes from that piece was from John McCain. And I think we have it. We can put it up on the screen. That kind of tried to sum up the reality of what's happening. He said, John McCain said, "they see weakness in this president. Look, it's not a nice business we're in." Ouch.

[12:05:01] Margaret, you and your colleagues at "Bloomberg" had a great story yesterday about the guy who is now the chief of staff, the retired general, John Kelly, who is trying to get order into the White House. But you had something that was very prescient from your reporting in your piece and I want to put it up on the screen.

"Trump has made it clear, however, that he reserves the right to ignore advice on tweets." You think? "Since joining the social media platform in 2009, he's sent over 35,000 of them."

And I think that that is sort of an interesting kind of dynamic here that, you know, John Kelly is going to control what he can control. And I think, you know, he's not -- he's going to -- he's defining the mission. And the mission is, don't even go there on the president's tweets. That's clearly what you're hearing from your sources.

MARGARET TALEV, "BLOOMBERG POLITICS": So it's -- it's a little bit of both because I think you have seen the president restrained in some foreign policy areas in his tweets over the course of the last week. Maybe it's just a coincidence. We'll know after two weeks, three weeks, four weeks, you know. But our reporting, you know, told us that on a couple of really hot button issues, whether it's Venezuela, Russia and North Korea, the new chief of staff and the team, you know, between the national security staff, the legal team and the new chief of staff, has been able to offer some alternatives on language, that sort of thing, and you can see the president's tweets really dialed back.

Part of me wonders if among the other factors in this morning's constant Twitter storm, besides the 200-day mark, besides the Pence story, was the fact that after a weekend of coverage about how John Kelly is beginning to tame the president, maybe that's not --

BASH: I'll show you who's boss.

TALEV: Like a real calibration of the message here.

BASH: Yes. Yes.

TALEV: Because I think the president and his team do want the news out that they're getting their house in order, that the whole chaos story line is old and tired and they're putting it behind them. But, on the other hand, everybody knows that, you know, the president, and presumably the new chief of staff, do not want anyone on the tam to upstage the president.


BASH: Well, and I just want to add in here that our own Kevin Liptak had some great reporting this morning saying that Kelly doesn't view managing Trump's social media as his chief responsibility and that Kelly has spoken with Trump about Twitter and offered suggestions but doesn't have any expectations that he is going to completely change the way that he tweets.

WARREN: Yes, this suggests that General Kelly came into the job with clear eyes --

BASH: Yes.

WARREN: Right, because this is -- this what never going to change. This is a part of who Trump is.

So let's look at what Kelly has actually done to change things in the West Wing. And I think they're going to be a lot more substantive than whether or not, you know, Donald Trump is tweeting things that a normal president might not.

We have the call to Jeff Sessions essentially assuring him that he's safe in his job. You have to think that was, of course, a precondition for taking the job. You have H.R. McMaster, you know, who -- really being pillared by Bannon folks --

BASH: Big time.

WARREN: Allies outside of the White House, basically also secure in his job.

Got a presidential statement out there saying, you know, that I support H.R. McMaster.

I think that is really what John Kelly's been brought in to do and so far he's been successful.

BASH: Yes.

WARREN: We can -- we can laugh, I think, appropriately at the tweets, but that doesn't seem to be what -- John Kelly's worried about everything else below the chief of staff, not above it.

BASH: Which is -- which is a big, big thing --


BASH: To try to organize the White House that was not properly organized.

On that -- or I shouldn't say properly. Not traditionally organized.

WARREN: Traditionally, yes. BASH: Rahm Emanuel, who is now mayor of Chicago, was chief of staff,

the first one, for President Obama. I want you to hear what he said about being chief of staff on CNN this morning.


MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL (D), CHICAGO: Look, I mean, first of all, if you ask me as a former chief of staff, anybody who's been a chief of staff, it's more a helmet than a hat and it's more a jersey with shoulder pads than anything else.

The most important thing is not what he does as head of the staff, but also as chief, which means it is first among all equals to the president. If the president trusts him, that's 99 percent of the game right there.


JACKIE KUCINICH, "THE DAILY BEAST": And it seems like right now the president does. We haven't seen any indication otherwise. He's always talked up. I keep on trying to call him secretary and general. Chief of staff John Kelly.

And John Kelly has gone to bat for the president publicly be it on the wiretapping issue, be it on the travel ban. So he has sort of earned the president's trust at this point.

Now, the longevity of that, we'll have to see. And another thing about these tweets I think that was interesting, the tenor they took, they kind of -- it kind of was old favorites. It was the media. It was other -- it was Democrats.

Now, he could have, with this Pence story, gone after Ben Sasse, gone after some of the -- other Republicans that were named as sort of -- sort of seeing theirs blood in the water and going to Iowa.

BASH: Right.

KUCINICH: He didn't. He didn't. You know, I --

TALEV: He could have gone after his vice president.

BASH: Well, on that --

KUCINICH: He could have done that, too.

BASH: Instead he went after "The New York Times." Let's look at one of those tweets from this morning.

The failing "New York Times," which has made every wrong prediction about me, including my big election win, apologized, is totally inept.

OK, never mind that he talks to "The New York Times" more than anyone else. We'll just leave that aside.

RAJU: (INAUDIBLE) apologized. [12:10:02] BASH: Yes. But this is also following on something that was

really extraordinary yesterday. The vice president of the United States releasing a formal statement saying that "The New York Times" story, saying that he basically -- the shadow campaign getting ready for 2020 to run for president is wrong. And I just want to read the vice president's statement again.

"Today's article in 'The New York Times' is disgraceful and offensive to me, my family and our entire team. The allegations in this article are categorically false and represent just the latest attempt by the media to divide this administration."

So that added a lot of oxygen to the story. And just from my reporting, my understanding is that people in Pence world understood it was going to add oxygen but they felt that on balance they'd rather add oxygen and at least try to put an end to it for the boss and for the vice president at least his veneer of loyalty than anything else.

TALEV: Yes. Well, for Pence in particular, is such a core part of his brand, the idea of both loyalty and propriety, not getting out in front of your skis, being modest. This is like the Pence brand.

But let's get real for a second. Everybody's always running for president. The question is, when, what year, how proactively? Are you really just keeping your options purely in reserve, versus kind of nudging out there? So for them it was important, I think, to maintain that core part of the brand, partly for that audience of one, but and partly for everyone else, too. How unseemly would that look, right?

BASH: And the way that they're doing it is remarkable. Mark Lauder (ph), wo is the vice president's press secretary, was on Fox this morning. He's doing CNN tonight on Erin Burnett.


BASH: He did MSNBC. I listened to him on Patriot Radio coming in this morning. I talked to him. I said, how many hits are you doing? He's like, I don't know, I lost count, because they have such an offensive to try to put this to bed. But, again, the more they talk about it, the more they are just breathing oxygen into the notion that -- into the idea that originated with the story that the vice president is -- is, you know, courting donors and getting -- and getting ready -- if not -- I will just say, just briefly, that another White House source said that the -- told me that the -- you know, what the response should have been, which is the idea that he's running for himself is not true, he's just running for the 2020 ticket and then leave it at that.

WARREN: Right.

RAJU: Yes.

WARREN: The Kellyanne Conway message, right?

BASH: Oh, yes, exactly. WARREN: But let's think -- let's unpack that. Mark Lauder being on all

of these stations and sort of pushing back on this. This is a professional political operation that Mike Pence has. He's -- this is not his first rodeo. He knows what he's doing. He ran for Congress several times. He ran for governor. I mean this is -- whether or not he is actually seriously -- which I think, you know, despite the statement saying that it was categorically false, I don't think anything in that "New York Times" story about what Pence -- what Pence world is doing is false. I mean it just reveals that this -- they are looking at the Mueller investigation. They're looking at all of the -- the struggles that this president's had over 200 days and are having -- (INAUDIBLE) political (INAUDIBLE).

RAJU: And the one thing we do know, too, for -- what's been incredibly important for President Trump is loyalty. And if he senses that the vice president is not loyal, that could mean big problems for the vice president. And it's interesting, we'll have to learn whether or not they had conversations about this pushback as well.


BASH: Which is a big question.

OK, everybody stand by. We have a lot more to talk about.

And up next, President Trump calls the Russia investigation a witch- hunt and a hoax, but his secretary of state has a much more serious assessment of Moscow's meddling.


[12:17:44] BASH: Depending on which Trump administration officials talking Russia meddling in America's election ranges from fake news to something pretty serious. Consider these comments from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who just met with his Russian counterpart for the first time since President Trump signed a new sanctions bill punishing Moscow.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We talked about it in the discussion we had with Minister Lavrov yesterday, and trying to help them understand just how serious this incident had been and how seriously it had damaged the relationship between the U.S., the American people, and the Russian people, that this had created serious mistrust between our two countries and that we simply have to find some way to deal with that.


BASH: So there you have the top American diplomat describing Russia's election meddling as serious, yet just last week Tillerson's boss, the president, called the Russia story a hoax and, as for new sanctions against Russia that Congress basically forced him to sign because it passed with such broad bipartisan support, the president blamed lawmakers for damping ties with Moscow, tweeting, quote, "a relationship with Russia is at an all-time and very dangerous low. You can thank Congress, the same people that can't even give us health care."

And, Jackie, John McCain tweeted back, oh, no, you can thank Russia for meddling in elections. What do you think about that really big mixed message?

KUCINICH: It seems to me there's just different audiences at this point. Tillerson is talking to the international community. He's talking to allies. He is reeling a conversation he just had with Russia. Whereas the president is messaging to his base. He's messaging to Democrats in defiance. And in terms of -- and to Congress, who challenged his executive power. And I don't think any president would really react well to what Congress did in this instance.

So that seems -- that would explain the disparity to me.

RAJU: And also the president himself is almost on an island when it comes to Russia in this town.


BASH: He is on an island. Yes.

KUCINICH: Very true.

RAJU: I mean even with his own party, with the Democrats, he's the -- one of the only people who questions whether or not Russia did in fact meddle in the elections, saying perhaps China was involved too. Not saying it as nearly as definitively as his own intelligence committee has been saying.

[12:20:07] So the president, even if Tillerson, Nikki Haley over the weekend taking a tough tone, as she did on North Korea and she has done in the past on Russia, the president himself saying something differently, almost undercuts the message that his own cabinet officials are sending.

WARREN: Well, it's almost as if the president is sort of conflating the question of Russia meddling with trying to meddle in the election with somehow taking away from his own election win.

BASH: That's his -- that's his consistent problem. He hears Russia meddling and he hears, they don't think I'm a legitimate president.

WARREN: Exactly. But you have administration officials who are looking at intelligence, who understand what actually did happen. And really are concern about those concerns, right, of whether or not his election was legitimate. They know that it was legitimate. That's why you're hearing this -- you're right, Manu, he's on an island of one about this and it just has this weird, cognitive dissidence effect.

BASH: And, meanwhile, let's -- exactly. And let's talk about the probe. CNN reported last week that the special counsel has expanded to look at financial investment ties with the president, his family and aides. And Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who appointed this special counsel, did his first big interview over the weekend and talked about the scope of the investigation. Listen to this.


ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: The special counsel is subject to the rules and regulations of the Department of Justice and we don't engage in fishing expeditions. Now, that order that you read, that doesn't detail specifically who may be the subject of the investigation because we don't reveal that publically.

But Bob Mueller understand, and I understand, the specific scope of the investigation. And so, no, it's not a fishing expedition.

If he finds evidence of a crime that's within the scope of what Director Mueller and I have agreed is the appropriate scope of his investigation, then he can. If it's something outside that scope, he needs to come to the acting attorney general, at this time me, for permission to expand his investigation.


BASH: He was very lawyerly with those words, but it sounded to me like permission has been granted.

TALEV: I mean, yes, he's not saying he wouldn't grant the permission, that's for sure.

But, I mean, look, on the Russian election meddling, there are two tracks, right? There's what the administration is doing behind the scenes, both defensively to protect for future elections and offensively in terms of anything classified that they'd be considering that they're not going to be talking about with us, and then there's the public messaging. And the White House and the president may have calculated that it really doesn't matter what they say to the public. What matters is that they're protecting our future elections, if in fact they are.

But the real rhetorical problem for this is that calling out the Russians on what happened in the election is not the same thing as delegitimizing the president. And if you behave as though it is, you link these two when, in fact, if nothing weird happens, they're not linked. So --

BASH: Exactly.

TALEV: It --

BASH: And there's a lot of pushback -- even more pushback. And I want to bring this to you, Manu, beaus you are CNN's eyes and ears and pretty much the world's on Capitol Hill when it comes to Russia because you are everywhere at once. Thom Tillis, who is a Republican who is working on bipartisan legislation to make sure that Bob Mueller has his job, listen to what he said this weekend about how he views the investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEN. THOM TILLIS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: I'm not sure that I agree with the witch-hunt and we'll let the facts lead us to whether or not it was a hoax or a distraction. But we are where we are and I want to see this investigation concluded so that we can get on to doing the good work the president's already started with regulatory reform, health care and tax reform.


BASH: He's hardly an outlier as it refers to Republicans pushing back on the president calling his a witch-hunt.

RAJU: Absolutely. And just the fact that he has come out with this bipartisan bill to say essentially, if you do fire the special counsel, there has to be some sort of judicial review to make sure that this is actually done legally and that there's some sort of recourse to prevent them from doing that. It shows that there is significant concern about the president taking the steps, something that they claim that he has not discussed, but he has not ruled out.

The question for me is, does this actually get a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee? Does Chuck Grassley, who's been willing to take on the president on some key issues, is he willing to take this up and will Mitch McConnell put this on the floor? I think if there's more concerns that the president may takes these steps with Bob Mueller, you could see action on this bill.

BASH: Preventative action.

WARREN: Could I say real quick about Rod Rosenstein?

BASH: Yes. Real Quick. Yes, please.

WARREN: I thought that was a very significant moment for him to say that.

BASH: Why?

WARREN: We, in the media, like to think that we know everything that's going on. But we don't. And the fact that you've got folks, you know, allies of the president saying, this is a fishing expedition because it's going into the finances. Well, Rod Rosenstein is the one who wrote that memo. Every time I ask the special counsel's office, they say -- they just say, look at the memo. Look at the memo. That memo --

BASH: The memo that defines parameters.

WARREN: The memo that defined what the special counsel is.

BASH: That's a great point.

WARREN: We don't know exactly what -- why Rosenstein set up the special counsel entirely. We know bits and pieces of it, but we don't know everything. And that's something very important to keep in mind.

[12:25:09] BASH: I'm glad you added that. Everybody stand by.

Up next, lawmakers are back home for the rest of the summer. Will Republicans be able to convince frustrated voters that their agenda is on track?


BASH: President Trump isn't the only elected official taking a so- called working vacation. Capitol Hill is empty, too, except for some staffers who get to come to work in jeans because Congress is out of session, although our congressional reporter Manu Raju didn't get the memo. He's in a full suit.

As for lawmakers, they are making rounds back home and promoting their movements on social media. Alaska's Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski tweeted, after ten hours flying cross country, it was good to get out biking and end with refreshments at neighborhood lemonade stand.

[12:30:04] Here's Senator Susan Collins mingling with staff at a lodge in Maine over the weekend. And Senator Jeff Flake, he tweeted about the view in his home state of Arizona.