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New Questions About Steve Bannon's Future; Bannon Keeps Low Profile Amid Calls For Ouster; NYT: Murdoch Urged Trump To Fire Steve Bannon; ACLU: Trump Pardoning Arpaio Be "Endorsement Of Racism". Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 15, 2017 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:02] JOHN KING, INSIDE POLITICS HOST: -- is outside the Trump Tower where the President is. Jeff, lot of advisers there with the President. There's a big event this afternoon. Is Steve Bannon among them?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, good afternoon. Steve Bannon, the White House Chief Strategist is not here in Trump Tower. Of course, he spent so much time last year, the end of the fall campaign, helping Donald Trump. Helping him win the White House. He is not here in Trump Tower today. And, of course, in Donald Trump's orbit, proximity to power is very important.

So Steve Bannon, still White House Chief Strategist, that title still operative I'm told. He is keeping a low profile we're told. We believe he still back in Washington working out of a temporary office in the executive office building right next to the White House complex which is facing some renovations, John.

But so many White House advisers are here. The Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin just walked outside of Trump Tower just a few moments ago. We've seen other advisers coming and going all morning. Steve Bannon is not among them.

As you were saying in the intro there, so many people are urging the President to remove him. So many important voices the President listens to. There are also some voices I'm told that are urging the President to keep him onboard. Chief among those, conservative members of Congress. Like Mark Meadows of North Carolina. He is repeatedly, I'm told, urged the President to leave Steve Bannon in place to be sort of worried or wary of removing him because he is a link to the President's base.

So this is a decision the President is wrestling with. We do not believe he will make it anytime soon in the coming hours or perhaps even the coming days here, but Steve Bannon knows he is on shaky ground, if you will. But, John, as we've seen in this White House again and again, it often takes the President a long time to act on staffing decisions. Sometimes he doesn't act at all. Sometimes who are down now, maybe up in the future. Steve Bannon is certainly on that list. John?

KING: Jeff Zeleny outside of Trump Tower. Keep in touch, Jeff, as the day continues. Let's bring the conversation to the room to the point Jeff just made. A lot of conservatives use Steve Bannon as their conduit and, frankly, very suspicious of the New York crowd. Reince Priebus was the establishment contact. Sean Spicer, his deputy, they're gone. Will the President -- I mean, you hear this all the time and we've heard it before -- is the President ready to do this?

MOLLY BALL, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: I -- no. My answer is no. If he were ready to do it he would have done it. There's clearly -- the President is clearly of two or maybe more minds about this and this does go to the conflict we've been talking about within the White House but he has not.

We have never seen Trump sort of go full Bannon in policy. And we also haven't seen him choose the other side. The wild card here is now that John Kelly is the Chief of Staff. Will he be fully empowered to turn the Trump administration into what he sees it as?

I think, you know, we have not -- we've almost never seen Trump directly confront and fire people. The question is, what has he empowered John Kelly to do? And certainly part of the calculation is, if you kick out Steve Bannon, then what does he do?

KING: But what does he do. And I think you raise a great question. We have the new Chief of Staff. Everyone said this man is going to bring order and discipline, military discipline to the White House. Obviously, there's been a lot of disappointment in the President himself. Last week he was tweeting some things that people thought weren't exactly military discipline, to be kind.

If you're John Kelly, if you look at his record, Homeland Security, he and Steve Bannon are probably on the same page on a lot of tougher immigration enforcement and those kinds of things. But if you're John Kelly and your goal is to bring order to this chaotic White House, and you have Bannon fighting jarred, you can't fire the President's family. Is that part of the choice here?

ABBY PHILLIP, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: I mean, this is kind of like whack a mole. It's like -- if you're John Kelly, you're trying to --

KING: The President's administration was still playing whack a mole.

PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, you're trying to slash one kind of drama which might be replaced with another kind of drama. And so, it seems a little unclear whether, whatever problem needs t o be solved will be solved by excommunicating Steve Bannon from the White House.

And, you know, I think Bannon in general, you're right, might have some policy alignment with Kelly on certain issues, but the biggest problem, organizationally, is that he's seen as a force behind a lot of the factions that are ripping the White House apart. And John Kelly wants to get a handle on that, but it's really not clear to me, and clearly to Trump, that getting rid of Bannon will do that.

The idea that the base is going to go into uproar, if Bannon is nixed is, I think --I can kind of see that. I think there's a certain online element of the base that will go into uproar but there's another argument that if you go and talk to Trump voters around the country, most of them have no idea who Steve Bannon is and they probably never will. So, that might be a little bit overblown by his echo chamber of kind of the Breitbart world on the internet.

KING: And does the Charlottesville impact this? We were hearing this well before Charlottesville happen and now you have people who don't like Steve Bannon to begin with saying that, you know, he's sympathetic to the alt right. He's too sympathetic to this white supremacy.

[12:35:03] You know, is he the guy behind the scene who delayed the President coming out? We don't know answers to any of that. But people are stepping into this political opportunity. Among them, Carlos Curbelo, Republican Congressman from Florida. Listen him here saying, you know, he didn't like Steve Bannon to begin with and especially now he should probably go.


REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA: Steve Bannon is the most prominent. I think a lot of these ideas that you see coming from Stephen Miller are also associated with these groups, and that's unfortunate. Look, I'm not saying these people are racists. I'm not saying that they want to advance a racist agenda, but it is pretty clear that they believe that these groups should be accommodated.

KING: So does that dynamic -- is that the last straw? Or we've seen the President in the past. He deals with these things slowly. To your point, he doesn't like to fire people in his own circle. He's been very reluctant to do that but we also know that he doesn't like being told what to do.


KING: And so, when he hears this from the outside, is this going to help Steve Bannon --

SHEAR: I think it does. I think -- I mean, look, we don't know and maybe he could, you know, he could fire Steve Bannon in an hour and -- but I think more likely is the situation that he gets his back up, that he says to himself, I don't want to be told by a bunch of liberals or a bunch of establishment Republicans who I can and can't have around me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Including Murdoch (ph) he just dismissed summarily.

SHEAR: Exactly. And so, you know, I think the greater possibility is that it sort solidifies Bannon's position but what it doesn't do is it doesn't resolve either the ideological fight which we already talked about. And also, you know, look, he has to -- in theory, President Trump has to get re-elected and he's got to figure out how to build a coalition that brings back, that holds on to that base and then expands it beyond the 38, 36, whatever it is, to 50, and how you do that in a white house that's so divided between these ideas.

KING: So divided. So before you jump in, I just want to go back to something. This is on "MEET THE PRESS" on Sunday with Chuck Todd. This is just remarkable. We know that Steve Bannon has been at odds with the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.

Again, we're seven months into the administration. That's Abby's very well way of putting it. He's playing staff whack a mole. Listen to this.


CHUCK TODD, MEET THE PRESS HOST: Can you and Steve Bannon still work together in this White House or not?

H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: I get to work together with a broad range of talented people, and it is a privilege every day to enable the national security team.

TODD: You didn't answer. Can you and Steve Bannon work in that same White House?

MCMASTER: I am ready to work with anybody who will help advance the President's agenda and advance the security, prosperity of the American people.

TODD: Do you believe that Steve Bannon does that?

MCMASTER: I believe that everyone who works in the White House, who has the privilege, the great privilege every day, of serving their nation should be motivated by that goal.


KING: Nice try, Chuck. Strike up the band. That was -- what was that?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, THE FEDERALIST: It wasn't clear about, where he stood on Bannon specifically.

SHEAR: Well, I think it's vague (ph).

HAM: Well, I think --

SHEAR: Maybe he's getting pretty clear.

HAM: It's not by name. Look, I think, it's so hard to tell because there's been 1,000 rumors about 1,000 people getting fired and some have not gotten fired. But there is an element to those where I think the building buzz sort of reaches a crescendo and then Trump either at that point decides he's done with this person, he's not doing him much good, in his view, or he gets his back up and decides to go the other way. We might be at that deciding point right about now, because there has been a little bit more noise about it.

I wonder if that was accelerated by the fact that perhaps Jared and Ivanka who tweeted quite clearly, very quickly after the Charlottesville incident, and Bannon might have been on the opposite side on how that statement went down. And then there's an element, too, where with discussions sort of trial of wound (ph) about -- not of his travel -- their mean travel of getting rid of Sessions that conservatives and I would say a different section than would be supporting Bannon said, hey, like, back off on this.

KING: Yes, no way.

HAM: He's doing the work. He listened to that. And that story changed. So we'll see.

BALL: Well, and Donald Trump, you know, likes to test people. He likes to torture them a little bit. He likes to hang people out to dry. There's a hot seat in the White House. Somebody's always in it. Jeff Sessions had his turn in it, despite all of his loyalty. This may just be Bannon's turn in a hot seat.

KING: Next week, on real staff force, Trump edition. All right, it's only been a week. For President Trump's tough talk on China, North Korea seems a little dated.


[12:43:23] KING: Welcome back. Tough Trump administration talk at China and North Korea is, well, so last week. Remember fire and fury? Locked and loaded? America's top generals in the region right now sounds far more diplomatic than their boss, the commander in chief.


GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: The focus today is on peacefully resolving this crisis through diplomatic and economic means. That is the focus, and I wouldn't speculate on what might happen. Should our diplomatic and economic efforts fail?

KING: The President is also dialing it back, though, he won't come out and say so. At the White House yesterday, he staged an event sold as keeping his campaign promise to crack down on Chinese unfair trade practices.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And we will protect forgotten Americans who have been left behind by a global trade system that has failed to look, and I mean, look out for their interests. They have not been looking out at all. This is what I promised to do as a candidate for this office, and this is what I am doing right now as president.


But listen to the President himself explain what he's actually doing. His talk may be tough, yes, but the order he signed does nothing but ask for yet another government study and report.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: Washington will turn a blind eye no longer. Today, I'm directing the United States trade representative to examine China's policies, practices and actions with regard to the forced transfers of American technology and the theft of American intellectual property.


KING: Candidate Trump didn't say he was going to study this. Didn't say they would ask another government agency to look into it. This is a punch, right?

[12:45:05] BALL: Yes. You know, in Trump's defense, what his supporters will say is that his rhetoric is strategic. Is that by engaging in this kind of bluster particularly in North Korea, that gives space to his diplomats to do the kind of things they've done at the U.N. to conduct diplomacy where, you know, kind of like the whole Richard Nixon Madman Theory. They can say, look, we don't know what this guy's going to do. You guys better come to the table and give us something and that has worked as well. We should point out.

You know, Kim Jong-un did back down, did say he is not going to hit Guam. So, you can make an argument that this is working. It's interesting to me that you don't have Trump out there taking credit for that.

KING: Right.

BALL: But --I would just say that is the case for the kind of things --

KING: On the North Korean side I think I can see it more. But didn't he promise these people currency manipulator day one, come out of the box against China?

PHILLIP: Yes. I mean, I think this has been a story of the entire administration up until point. There's been a lot of -- there was a lot of talk in the campaign, and there are been a lot of executive orders kind of like this signed that basically just create a study in order to look at something at a future date and report back in 60, 90, 120 days. That's reflective of the limited nature of some of his powers in the executive.

And, you know, I've talked to Republicans recently who were saying, OK, we feel like Congress needs to get its act together, but we're kind of concerned that he's falling into the same Obama-like trap of trying to use the executive branch to do all the things that should really be done by the Congress, or done more fully, and done with more force. So it's limited. It allows him to go out there and make a big statement. I think a lot of people received that as Trump doing something to fulfill his promise, but in reality it's actually a reflection of a certain kind of weakness.

BALL: It's the opposite then to talk softly carry a big stick. It's talk bigly and carry a small stick.

KING: That's interestingly. Well everybody sit tight. When we come back, is the first part of the Trump administration going to go to a man who gives his inmates pink underwear? Calls himself America's toughest sheriff.


[12:51:18] KING: Welcome back. Politics is filled with characters and sometimes crooks. Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio fits both bills. The self-dubbed toughest sheriff in America faces time behind bars after being convicted of violating a court order and continuing conduct to judge role, it was patrols, illegally targeting immigrants.

Now Sheriff Joe has a big friend in the Oval Office, the President, who reportedly now is considering sparing the Arizona lawman from going to jail. Here it is. "I am seriously considering a pardon for Sheriff Joe Arpaio." The President told Fox News, "He's a great American and I hate to see what has happened to him."

The President said a pardon could come, right away. Maybe early this week. Arpaio reacted with relief, "I'm happy he understands the case. I would accept the pardon because I am 100% not guilty," Sheriff Arpaio telling Fox News. Is this would be the first pardon of the Trump presidency if he means it and does it quickly? Is this a serious proposal that has been vetted through the Justice Department process that these things usually take? Or is this catnip to the base from the President?

HAM: Which do you think it is? Pretty sure it wasn't that. I think the latter would be my guess. I mean --

BALL: The other thing is he always -- if you ask, are you considering x, he almost always say he's considering it, and it doesn't necessarily mean it's something he's going to do.

PHILLIP: And usually -- I mean, there is a process for some of these things, because you want to avoid pardoning someone who --

KING: And (INAUDIBLE) or somebody like that.

PHILLIP: Yes. Like someone who's going to end up causing you some problems down the road. I think this is literally a pardon for that reason. Like, because it would help him politically with a certain segment of his base, and to hell with all the other people who are upset about it. It doesn't really matter. In fact, that's kind of the point. So, who knows?

But it's entirely possible that he's seriously considering but, no, I don't think that it's going through any sort of process.

KING: And if you're unfamiliar with Sheriff Joe over the years, I visited him several times at Maricopa County. He had an outdoor prison. He gives his inmates and most of them illegal immigrants in his view anyway. Some people challenge him said, no, he targets all Latinos. Give some pink underwear.

Here's here some highlight from Sheriff Joe over the years defending his behavior. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO, MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA: They want to monitor, to control my activities, my policies and how I operate, including tents, pink underwear and everything else. I'm the elected sheriff. I report directly to the people, and I'm not going to be subservient to the federal government when they have come up with no proof.

We are more concerned with the rights of illegal aliens and criminals than we are with protecting our own country. That must change.


KING: Now, that's Donald Trump's convention, the last bite. So you understand the affinity with the President between the two men? They agree on certain issues.

The ACLU says this if the President were to give Joe Arpaio a pardon. "He would undo a conviction secured by his own career attorneys at the Justice Department. Make no mistake. This would be an official presidential endorsement of racism."

SHEAR: Well, and that's what Donald Trump likes about the idea, I'm certain, is the idea of poking the liberal establishment and the -- what he considers to be the kind of ACLU view of the world, and poking them in the eye. And that's what this would be. I mean, I think as we've said like it probably doesn't have any substantive impact on policy.

He's not the sheriff anymore. But the idea of making a statement probably appeals to Trump. The question is whether, as we've talked the entire show, whether the people around him who might think better of it can talk him out of it.

BALL: Well, and it does makes a -- it does have a substantive impact on the idea of rule of law in this country. I mean, the President does have absolute power to pardon people, but this is a man who federal courts repeatedly told to do one thing and he repeatedly defied them.

[12:55:07] And that's what he's been now convicted of is refusing to follow the constitutional processes of the courts in this country and by pardoning him you're saying that that doesn't matter. That that conviction doesn't matter as long as you're friends with Donald Trump.

HAM: Well, and he's ironically also an avatar of toughness and of rule of law, and of straight talk about immigration. He's also a symbol of when that goes too far and becomes not lawful anymore.

KING: Well, would he --


BALL: And he lost his last election too.

KING: He lost his last election which is important. We'll keep an eye on the President re-tweeting today the Fox News story about the President's interview with Fox News saying he might do this. We'll keep an eye.

All right, thanks for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS. See you back here this time tomorrow. Wolf Blitzer takes over after a quick break.