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Trump on GOP War; McConnell Must Go; Drug Czar Withdraws; Trump and Greek Prime Minister at White House. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 17, 2017 - 12:00   ET



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

President Trump is embracing conservative talk radio today. And if you didn't know it already, you might come away not entirely sure here's a Republican.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The budget is phase one and the vote is phase two. And if the Republicans don't do it, it's -- it's -- it would be disgraceful to them.


KING: To them, the president says.

Plus, another embarrassing White House personnel setback. The president's choice for drugs czar withdraws, after a report showing he took tens of thousands of dollars from the pharmaceutical industry and then helped make it harder to fight opioid abuse.


SEN. JOHN MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: Over my dead body would he be the drug czar. And we bring somebody that's passionate and have the knowledge to stop and really fight this thing. But, Chris, I'm as outraged as you. We're all outraged. How can this happen?


KING: And President Trump calls it America first. Senator John McCain calls it something very different.


SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain the last best hope of Earth for the sake of some half-baked spurious nationalism --

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: We should let you know, we're waiting for the arrival of the Greek prime minister to the White House. We might see him and President Trump. We'll take you there when it happens.

But, for the president, it is prove at time, both for the president and his very public promise to work hand in hand with the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. And what better place to prove it than conservative talk radio, where Leader McConnell often ranks down there with Satan when blame is being assigned for the woes here in Washington. How, you might ask, can Republicans be unified and confident that the president has their back when he makes clear he accepts no blame or responsibility if they fail?


TRUMP: Now we are there and, you know, I think Rand will be there. And let's see what happens. But we have the votes coming up starting on Thursday. Budget is phase one and the vote is phase two. And if the Republicans don't do it, it's -- it's -- it would be disgraceful to them.


KING: We're going to keep hitting on that "them" part, "them." "Them," he says, not him, not all of us, but "them."

What a difference a day makes. Just yesterday, this portrait of happy partners. We are totally together is how Leader McConnell put it, Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, meeting with the president at the White House. The president called their relationship outstanding.

The big test, though, just ahead. The president referring there to a big budget vote, heads to the Senate floor Thursday. The president says he welcomes also a bipartisan fix for Obamacare. Both are potential land mines for the Republican Party and especially the leadership.

And set aside the policy seconds -- difference for now. We're going to show you pictures of the White House as we do. The Greek prime minister arriving. The president coming out there. Let's take a look.

A wave to thee cameras outside of the West Wing. The president and the prime minister of Greece now heading back inside there.

If we hear from the leaders a bit later, we'll take you right there.

Now back to what happened yesterday. The president, hand on hand, shoulder to shoulder with Mitch McConnell. Just a couple hours, though, just a couple hours after praising the man, who says McConnell needs to be deposed.


TRUMP: I know how he feels. It depends on who you're talking about. There are some Republicans, frankly, that should be ashamed of themselves.

Steve is doing what Steve thinks is the right thing. Some of the people that he may be looking at, I'm going to see if we talk him out of that because, frankly, they're great people.


KING: With us to sift all of that out, to share their reporting and their insights, Kimberly Atkins and "The Boston Herald," "The Wall Street Journal's" Michael Bender, CNN's Phil Mattingly, and Eliana Johnson of "Politico."

Help me square this circle. The president goes on talk radio today and he's back into talking about "them." "Them," the Republicans "them." Yesterday he's shoulder to shoulder with Mitch McConnell saying this is a great relationship, we get along fine, we're going to get the budget done, we're going to get tax reform done.

But hours earlier, he says of Steve Bannon, I completely get it. I understand where he's coming from. You know, the Republicans haven't got much done. Yes, in the Rose Garden the president tried to get Steve Bannon to back off a little bit. Don't go after all these incumbents. But how do Republicans get through the next few days, and then through the rest of the year, when a lot of them, frankly, don't understand quite where the president is and whether they can trust him.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ignore it is probably the best. And recognize that he's somebody that the beauty of not having loyalty to party or establishment or any kind of one entity in politics is that he can play both sides as much as he wants. And it appears that that's what he's going to be doing.

[12:05:09] Look, yesterday at the press conference, which I will tell you, the Senate Majority Leader McConnell's aides did not know what was going to happen, we not necessarily prepared for. However, the first ten minutes of that press conference with the president talking about how close he was with McConnell, talking about maybe backing Steve Bannon off, and perhaps, more importantly, talking about all of the great judicial picks that the Senate has moved through, talking about what they want to do in the future in the agenda, was dedicated to an audience of 51. The other 51 Republican senators in the conference.

That was a very important moment that the Senate majority leader was very happy to have happen. Because I can tell you in reporting, in talking to aides, in talking to senators behind the scenes over the course of the last four or five weeks, many of the Republican conference meetings have centered on what the heck is the president doing, how are we going to protect ourselves from primary challenges. This isn't how it's supposed to work. Very uneasy Republican senators. So that was important.

But the idea that he's going to backtrack the very next day, continue to talk about them, the reality, when you talk to senior aides on Capitol Hill is, they understand this, we need to put our heads down and get things done, because that's the only way to back off the pressure and the challenges that we're facing and that starts this week with the budget talks.

KIMBERLY ATKINS, "BOSTON HERALD": And that's what Mitch McConnell tried to impress upon thee president yesterday. And that was his number one job is to say, look, you need the Republican Conference to get your agenda passed and there's no way to do it without it. No matter what Steve Bannon says. No matter what anybody else says. I -- he understands the pull for Trump to try to throw red meat to his base and really embrace Bannon and sort of -- that led to this vacillation that we saw in a matter of an hour saying, oh, I understand Steve Bannon. And then after talking to Mitch McConnell, saying, oh, you know, I might get him to pull back a little bit. It's this pull that the president is in between and McConnell is trying to make him understand that you need him.

KING: Team Bannon says it won't (INAUDIBLE).

ELIANA JOHNSON, "POLITICO": I'm going to totally rain on this parade.

KING: Good. Please do.

JOHNSON: I think yesterday made zero difference for anybody because I think it was akin to the president going down to campaign for Luther Strange where -- in Alabama, the establishment candidate there -- where nobody was convinced that his heart was actually in this. I don't think there's one voter in the country who believes he actually likes Mitch McConnell. And I don't think it actually mattered that he went out and said in a half-hearted way that he has a good relationship with Mitch McConnell in the same way that when Rex Tillerson went out, nobody believed that he actually likes the president and thinks he's a smart guy.

I think these things are transparent theater. And if the president tells Steve Bannon to stop doing what he's doing, I don't think that matters at all.

The Trump base is where the Trump base is. It's very anti- establishment. And I should say, this is years in the making. We had the Tea Party that was whipping up the Republican base, campaigning against Mitch McConnell. And I don't think that one show of theater where the president comes out and stands with Mitch McConnell is going to set back or calm down a Republican base that since 2009 has been whipped up really -- has made Mitch McConnell the whipping boy.

KING: Right. I don't -- I don't say the Satan thing I said about talk radio is a joke. If you listen to talk radio, it's hard. The Democrats fare better than Mitch McConnell on conservative talk radio.

JOHNSON: And I would say, Trump won the campaign by outflanking Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Mike Lee and all these guys go -- it just doesn't seem to me that in a 45 minute press conference he can undo that.

KING: But to Kimberly's point, though, that they do need each other. They don't have to like each other. They don't have to get along with each other. They don't have to see the world the same way, Donald Trump and the Republican establishment. But if he wants tax reform, the only way to get it is through a Republican Senate and a Republican House.

You heard in that sound in "The Mike Gallagher Show," he says, I think we'll get Rand. One of the frustrating things for Mitch McConnell is, the worry is, will it be just like Obamacare again. Mitch -- Rand Paul says he's not ready to vote for the budget. Rand Paul wants some changes, including less defense spending. Rand Paul tells reporters he's working with the White House on that. That's what scares Leader McConnell because that's what happened during Obamacare. Whether it was the speaker, whether it was in the House, or the majority leader, it was in the Senate, to say, Mr. President, we may need you to make a phone call, but let us do the details.


KING: When you hear about this back channel and you have a vote on Thursday and they don't have the votes right now, that's what scares them that this could be Obamacare deja vu.

BENDER: Yes, and I think some of these things coming from Trump aren't necessarily in conflict with each other. I think he very much sees this as in the moment and as a way to sort of use his, you know, the bat to keep Republicans inline.

You know, he praises Bannon on one hand for his energy and his willingness to fight for the Trump agenda. But, you know, he also, you know, shows his willingness that -- to sort of pick and choose, that he thinks maybe Bannon is wrong in a few cases, not all instances. But the problem here is the follow-through for Trump. And, you know, Mitch McConnell was asked about this yesterday and I actually thought it was kind of a bad look for Mitch McConnell in that news conference yesterday when -- when he said, well, it's my job to keep the majority.

No, I don't think that technically is his job. I think that's technically Cory Gardner's job. McConnell's job is to get this legislation through the Senate to lead his party. And, yes, the Bannon approach has not been successful time and again for Republicans and the right wing.

[12:10:02] But the one thing that the Bannon approach has shown success for almost every cycle since 2010 is fundraising and, you know, and the party's fundraising was down last year -- over the summer. It's come back a little bit. But, you know, these dynamics are going to, you know, keep -- are going to be problems for the Republicans over the next few weeks. And any, you know, no consistency from Trump is just going to contribute to it.

KING: Right. And to Eliana's point, to the idea that Donald Trump could stand there in the Rose Garden, number one, the question is, did he mean it? Was it authentic? Does he really like Mitch McConnell or at least -- at least an effective working partnership. You don't have to like people to have an effective working partner. And, b, will President Trump standing there send a signal to the base that, oh, this is OK. Maybe we should go a little easier on Mitch.

Listen to Mark Levin on the radio saying, sorry, Mr. President, but that guy you were within the Rose Garden, got to go.


MARK LEVIN, TALK RADIO HOST: But for the conservative movement, but for the Tea Party movements, there wouldn't be a majority of Republicans in the United States Senate today. He opposed Rubio. He won. He opposed Mike Lee. He won. He opposed Ted Cruz. He won. He opposed Rand Paul. He won. In the last election he did nothing to help Ron Johnson, and he won. This is why McConnell must go.

The United States Senate is not going to move. It's not going to embrace conservative principals. It's not going to embrace the Constitution. It's not going to deal with the debt. It's not going to deal with the border. The United States Senate is not going to move from its current position unless Mitch McConnell is thrown out.


KING: Now, again, there are a lot of establishment Republicans in Washington who say oh that's just some guy on the radio. When you travel the country, talk to grassroots Republicans, conservatives, especially Trump voters, that's what they channel. That, why do we -- why do we keep winning and getting nothing for it? When are we going to get something for winning?

JOHNSON: I think there's a grain of truth in that, in the sense that, let's stipulate that President Trump and Mitch McConnell got along famously. Would health care have gone through the Senate? I'm not sure.

I think there is some internal problems with the way that the Republican majority is governing itself in terms of -- there was a broken process on this Senate bill. I'm not sure how the process on tax reform is working. There are problems in the Senate that have nothing to do with Trump and would John McCain have voted "yes" if Mitch McConnell and President Trump had gotten along? That's not totally clear to me and that's another reason that I think it's far from clear that were the relationship between these two guys to improve, a lot of legislation would be getting passed.

MATTINGLY: Yes, look, when you only have a two-seat majority, things are pretty difficult. When you're working in the U.S. Senate, things are pretty difficult. This isn't the first administration to be frustrated with the U.S. Senate. It moves slowly. It's infuriating.

KING: It won't be the last.

MATTINGLY: It's really, really frustrating. There's no question about it.

I don't think what we saw yesterday had anything to do with Trump's base or the Republican base or talk radio or anything like that. Again, just from -- in talking to senators, well, yesterday, why it mattered was two-fold. One, again, they don't have to be best of friends but they've got to work together if they want to do tax reform. They need to be unified. They need to be laser focused on just tax reform, not other things.

And, two, that was for an audience of 51 senators. There is a lot of discomfort right now in the Republican conference. They don't expect the president to always be behind them. They don't expect the president to be necessarily even be campaigning for them perhaps at some point. What they want the president to do is lay off them to some degree as they head into 2018. And I think that's why the Senate majority leader did what he did yesterday and I think that's why people are pleased, if they don't think it's game or base changing, at least it was better than sitting there attacking them for the entirety of the afternoon.

BENDER: It is --

ATKINS: And I think they also realize that the timeframe for this could be short. The president is known for vacillating. I think one thing yesterday showed is it gave a lot of credence to the theory that the president is most influenced by the last person he speaks to. He -- when he was on full on Steve Bannon support and that he had an hour long lunch with Mitch McConnell and then he comes out, you know, Kumbaya-ing with the Senate majority leader. I'm not sure how much credence people are putting into all of that. I think you're right, it was an audience for 51, but, you know, it didn't last the full 24-hour news cycle.

BENDER: It just seems like this is going to get worse before it gets better, to sort of wrap with what you're saying here. Eliana's point on the process. That clip from Mark Levin. If conservatives are going to turn Mitch McConnell into the lightning rod they've turned Nancy Pelosi in, if Steve Bannon is looking for pledges from incumbent challengers to go after Mitch McConnell, this just seems like it's headed down the worst path. This is going to get worse before it gets better.

KING: Worse before it gets better out on the trail. We'll see what happens Thursday, if they bring the budget vote up, a gateway to tax reform. It will be a fun week ahead. Everybody sit tight.

An embarrassing personnel loss for the White House. The president's choice for drug czar pulls out, just as the president is prepared to declare a national emergency to deal with the opioid crisis.


[12:18:45] KING: Again, the president of the United States meeting with the Greek prime minister. Some comments in the Oval Office. We may bring you tape of some of those earlier. The president talking, among other things, about Obamacare.

But for now, let's shift to this. President Trump's drug czar nominee is out, just two days after a "Washington Post/"60 Minutes" investigation into his ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Pennsylvania Congressman Tom Marino pushed a bill that helped limit the DEA's authority to oversee drug companies. Critics say it made the opioid crisis worse by making prescription pain killers much easier to obtain.

The president announced on Twitter that Marino asked to withdraw his nomination. Quote, Representative Marino has informed me that he is withdrawing his name from consideration as drug czar. Tom is a fine man and a great congressman. That's the president's tweet earlier today. In a radio interview this morning, the president said the "Post"/"60 Minutes" story raised too many questions.


TRUMP: He told me, look, if there's even a perception that he has a conflict of interest with insurance companies essentially, but if there's even a perception that he has a conflict of interest, he doesn't want anything to do with it.


KING: Well, there's a perception. There's more than a perception.

Embarrassing personnel failure for the administration. They should have vetted this. They should have figured this out. The congressman was an early supporter of the president.

BENDER: Another one.

KING: That matters. Another one, you're right. We'll get to that in a second. An early supporter of the president. Loyalty should matter in politics. There's nothing wrong with rewarding loyal supporters. But if you're going to put them in sensitive jobs, you should vet their backgrounds and see if you can have backgrounds like this.

[12:20:07] I would also say, before I open it up to discussion, this is a victory for good journalism in this age of, quote/unquote, fake news. "The Washington Post" and "60 Minutes" doing a very thorough investigation here that lays out not only a problem with Congressman Marino being in the drug czar job, but a problem with the law that was passed by the Congress and signed by the previous administration that apparently makes it a lot harder for the country's senior officials to do what they need to do to fight this.

BENDER: Yes, there -- I mean this was a victory for journalism and "60 Minutes" at that. I mean it was a joint effort from "The Washington Post" and "60 Minutes." But the president, I think, puts a lot of stock in what he sees on "60 Minutes." I mean he's attacked "The Washington Post," rightly or wrongly. But "60 Minutes," I think, speaks to -- directly to Trump. And I think that contributed to his decision to let Marino go here.

And you saw yesterday that he would -- this was on his mind yesterday morning. H was -- he was already thinking about a, you know, a way out for Marino early yesterday.

MATTINGLY: Don't under estimate the issue as well, what this was actually about. KING: Right.

MATTINGLY: And in terms of, if you covered the campaign, I think all of us did at one point or another, the opioid epidemic, particularly in -- once you got to New Hampshire, but then when you started traveling around when you got to states like Ohio, Massachusetts, places like that, and you realized on the road and we were realizing in real time with the candidates where you recognized, holy cow, this is horrific. You know, 500,000 drug epidemic deaths in the last 10 years. The vast majority of them opioid related. Opioid deaths up four times what they were just 15 years ago.

This hit home with the candidates, with the campaigns, with the Trump base. And while the president, he speaks about this a lot. Obviously he has claimed multiple times that he is going to announce that this is a national emergency. Apparently he's going to do that next week. His White House, Kellyanne Conway, his daughter, have focused on this immensely. They've had roundtables. They've talked about this. Former HHS Secretary Tom Price.

This issue, they recognize, is both very important and very potent when it comes to their base, the voters and, frankly, how serious it is around the country and how widespread it is. So I think you combine a damning story with an issue that's very important and this is the result.

KING: Sadly.

Stop for one second. Apologize for the yo-yo. But when we get comments from the president, we like to bring them to you right away. Here you go.

TRUMP: At best you could say it's in its final legs. The premiums are going through the roof. The deductibles are so high that people don't get to use it. Obamacare is a disgrace to our nation. And we are solving the problem of Obamacare.


Thank you all very much. Thank you. Thank you.

KING: That's the president there during a photo opportunity in the Oval Office with the prime minister of Greece. Once again, not a lot of news there. We like to bring you remarks from the president as soon as he gives them.

The president doesn't like Obamacare. That's not going to qualify as breaking news. I'm sorry to tell you that, but there we go.

Let's come back to this conversation. You were making the point, if you went to a town hall in 2016, you go to presidential town halls during the campaign, voters stand up, they ask a question, it's often about their health care. Maybe it's about, you know, getting veterans benefits or Social Security benefits or are you going to cut my taxes, or maybe some people get up and say, you going to raise my taxes. (INAUDIBLE). It was stunning how many people got up -- and it did shock the

candidates -- get up and asked a questions asked somebody in their family who was dealing with one of these problems, or a nurse, somebody, a caregiver would stand up and say, how are you going to help me.

Just look at this, drug overdose surging in 2016. Pennsylvania, drug overdose deaths, up 37 percent, in Ohio, up 33 percent, Indiana, 28, Missouri, 26, West Virginia, up 15 percent. And you mentioned New Hampshire. Just pick a state. We just picked these to show you some of the statistics. But you can go anywhere. And if it's up 2 percent somewhere, that's a problem. But those states that are high right there.

I want you to listen here. Again, the result of good journalism. It's thee deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, speaking a bit earlier today, promising the administration will do a lot more to fight the opioid epidemic. But also look at this new report and go back to that law and say, what did Congress get wrong? What do we need to fix?


ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: And I'm very concerned about it. I learned about that, as many of you did, over the weekend. We're going to review it. I'm not prepared to answer that question right now. But we are going to look into these issues as Mr. Patterson mentioned about what tools the DEA has available to it. And if we conclude that they don't have the appropriate tools, then we'll seek more tools.


KING: Amen. Amen to that.

And the president said yesterday, and this is the hard part for the president, you lose your nominee for drug czar, for good reason, but you have this vacancy now at the top job. Your ambassador essentially on this issue when you're about to declare it a national emergency, which is something the president did spend a lot of time on this in the campaign and a lot of people from the campaign are saying, Mr. President, where are you? Why are we waiting nine months? Let's get it. Let's get to it.

The president says there are bureaucratic reasons to build this up. We'll let that go. He's going to announce it next week. How much harder is it to get the job done when you don't have a drug czar?

JOHNSON: Well, can I just dodge your question for a second?

KING: Please.

JOHNSON: I've got to say, I think this "Washington Post"/"60 Minutes" story goes so far beyond this one nominee for the DEA. But it really sheds so much light on how broken the law making process is in the country, without getting too much into the details of it.

KING: Right.

JOHNSON: I -- it seems -- I was somewhat confused by it because the law in question greatly curtailed the enforcement ability of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and yet the story stated that nobody at the DEA complained about the law. Nobody at the Justice Department complained about the law. The White House then signed it into law and -- after both houses of Congress passed it basically without objection.

[12:25:20] And so this goes so far beyond one member of Congress who supported this law.

KING: Right.

JOHNSON: It is the entire law making system of the U.S. government, which leads me to believe there's something more to this story that we don't know yet. And I really wonder what that is. It seems like there's more good journalism to be done here, or there's something very, very wrong with the way that laws get made and with the larger federal bureaucracy.

KING: Well, I --

ATKINS: And there's also -- yes, there's also the big problem of lobbying. This was the result of the pharmaceutical lobby getting in and getting what they wanted and pulling the strings and it worked. And I think that's really shocking that most members of Congress didn't even realize what this law was going to do when they approved it. And I think that that does leads to the question of Obamacare, now that Congress is taking on fixing that, to what extent is the pharmaceutical lobby influencing whatever legislation comes out of that? How much are -- how much power does the pharmaceutical industry have in Washington, D.C.? And I think that's something that is really shocking to a lot of people from this report.

KING: Well, it's -- it's -- to your point, and it's an example, we have a lot of whys to deal with. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Who were the -- yes, who --

JOHNSON: Right. And in the stories, we've seen the comments of every agency and every -- in the Obama White House officials passing the buck to every other agency was just shocking.

KING: Right. Right. This is, a, why people don't like Washington and, b, there's -- we live in a democracy. The Supreme Court says it's free speech. These companies get to spend their money. But we should maybe follow the lonely voice when they stand up against these things a little bit more.

When we come back, another solemn story. A tribute to four green berets killed overseas. But paying tribute to them turned into a bit of a political football here in, where else, Washington.