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Bush Attacks Divisive Politics; Bush on Foreign Aggression; Mattis Demands Answers; McCain on Niger Investigation; Budget Vote in Senate. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 19, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:11] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

And a busy day it is. Puerto Rico's governor at the White House this hour. He's been careful not to criticize President Trump, but he's at the White House with an urgent appeal, just 22 percent of the island's electrical grid is up and running a full month after Hurricane Maria hit.


GOV. RICHARDO ROSSELLO, PUERTO RICO: Recognizing that we're in this together. U.S. citizens in Texas, U.S. citizens in Florida, U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We need equal treatment.


KING: Plus, votes this hour in the Senate on a budget that allows for the president's bit tax cut. But don't expect a vote any time soon on a new bipartisan health care bill. The president pushed for it, praised it, then abruptly said he's against it.


SEN. BILL CASSIDY (R), LOUISIANA: When you have conflict legislation, can there be misunderstanding by those involved? Yes, there can be. But we have to, at some point, recognize that different presidents have different governing skills.


KING: And admitted debate about how the president deals with gold star families. Critical unanswered questions about an ambush in Africa that left four U.S. soldiers dead.


JOHN BRENNAN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: And it seems like they were ambushed by a larger group. So I know that Secretary Mattis and others are going to be looking into the details of this and how the approvals process, you know, were made. But there are questions about what was going on.


KING: We begin the hour, though, with a remarkable rebuke of the current Republican president by the last Republican president. George W. Bush, just moments ago last hour giving a rare speech in New York. And in it, the 43rd president never mentioned his name, but he went bullet point by bullet point rebutting the 45th president, Donald Trump, on issue after issue, including the foundation of the Trump presidency. Mr. Trump's promise to turn inward and put America first.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: We should not be blind to the economic and social dislocations caused by globalization. People are hurting. They're angry. And they're frustrated. We must hear and help them, but we cannot wish globalization away any more than we could wish away the agricultural revolution or the industrial revolution. One strength of free societies is their ability to adapt to economic and social disruptions. And that should be our goal.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights this hour, Margaret Talev from Bloomberg, CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Michael Warren of "The Weekly Standard" and "Politico's" Seung Min Kim.

Before we get to the conversation, I want to bring in one more piece of what we just heard. A remarkable speech. Remember, George W. Bush doesn't speak in public very often. George W. Bush tries to stay away from getting involved in the day-to-day politics. The former Republican president deciding, I'm told, after months of thinking about this, to deliver a very lengthy speech, doesn't mention Donald Trump. Listen here, Donald Trump, you think about how he came to power, a new domestic nationalism. The former president says, be careful.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: We've seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it could seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns to easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions, forgetting the image of God we should see in each other. We've seen nationalism distorted into nativism.


KING: Remarkable to hear from him anyway. But it's -- it is no hidden -- it's not hidden there. He doesn't use Donald Trump's name, but it is not hidden at all the point again the last Republican president is trying to make at a time his party is going through an internal tug of war over what to do about the current president.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No question. And I think his silence over these many months and years, in fact, make these remarks all the more louder and profound today. And again, as you said, he is doing this for a reason.

He has thought a lot about it. He has watched John McCain. He's watched other leaders step up. And he did come to the decision that he wanted to add his voice into that. And I think that is pretty extraordinary when you think about that.

But I was struck by the white supremacy line, calling it blasphemy.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: This is something that obviously is not in the news at the moment. This is several months ago. But he's been thinking about this. And it -- it just strikes me as I was watching him speak how far this Republican Party has come from the compassionate conservatism he ran on as president and he served with as governor in Texas, on immigration, on all these other issues. Incredibly interesting speech.

KING: All right, let's get to -- you just made that point, I was going to get to a moment, but about blasphemy and white nationalism. Remember, the current president of the United States roundly criticized by many members of his own party that his tone and the specifics of his remarks seeming to draw a moral equivalence after Charlottesville to the white nationalist, the neo-Nazis, and those who protested against the white nationalists, the neo-Nazis. Listen to the former president on that subject.

[12:05:07] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Our identity as a nation, unlike many other nations, is not determined by geography or ethnicity, by soil or blood. We become the heirs of Martin Luther King Jr. by recognizing one another not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. This means that people of every race, religion, ethnicity, can be fully and equally American. It means that bigotry or white supremacy, in any form, is blasphemy against the American creed.


MARGARET TALEV, "BLOOMBERG": Right, but it's --

MICHAEL WARREN, "WEEKLY STANDARD": This is a -- this is an internal debate that's going on among conservatives and Republicans. It's this question of, you know, nationalism versus patriotism. Or, you know, is America a creedal nation or are we a nation of land and of the people who live here? And the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. But I think that President Bush sort of represents a view, you heard him say it, I mean the language is, is religious in nature, blasphemy, creedal. This is something that -- a viewpoint that he shares I think with a number of Republicans and he's looking at this as an opportunity to say, look, there's a different viewpoint of what it means to be American and what it means for Republicans and for conservatives to be an American. Let me give voice to that. Something that other Republicans have been saying. He obviously has a much louder voice.

KING: And more optimistic conservatism than he thinks he's hearing from the current president.

And to your point, there are a lot of Republicans who share the former president's views. And a lot of those Republicans have decided either to only on limited occasion speak out, or most of them to bite their tongue, hoping that Donald Trump is a one shot wonder, hoping that he's not here very long, that he is not the future of their party, and they sort of mute it because they don't want to deal with the backlash, they don't want to deal with the tweet storms, they don't want to deal with Breitbart.

WARREN: Or they think they can get something of it. They can get more judges or they can get their own sort of pet issue past.

TALEV: But some of them have begun to speak out. And we've seen it with John McCain. Then we've seen it with Bob Corker. This looks like the -- President Bush saying at this moment in time that it's important for him to step in and sort of join that chorus as well.

And I think, you know, he represents a Republican Party that is different than the way the Republican Party is trending today and he also embodies the establishment for good as well as for, you know, bad, you might say. Well, too much of the Bush dynasty, the Clinton dynasty. But the Bush family, over the years, has done a tremendous amount of public service and he believes in the value of establishmentarianism and it is his effort to defend, you know, the bulwark of everything that he and his family sought to build up legacy wise.

And I think to look at it in the context of this, he has had more of a bipartisan outreach since he's left office. He and President Obama have found common ground and we see Obama this week, of course, campaigning now in a couple of key races on behalf of Democrats. To see former presidents come out and try to box the sitting president in, even in a careful way, is a phenomenal and noteworthy turn of events.

KING: And as much as trying -- to use your words -- box the current president in, I think they're also trying to wake up the rest -- to Michael's point -- they're trying to wake up the other people. If you disagree with this, stop biting your tongues. Stand up and fight it. Have the argument. Have the debate.

Again, this -- the former president, I was reaching out to some of his people as I was listening to the speech. Number one, he's thought about this for a long time. Number two, he is reluctant to get involved in these things. He feels he has no choice. He speaks to his father frequently. You're right, he also speaks to the former president, Obama.

He speaks to his father and he speaks to the key players in the George W. Bush administration, most of whom are appalled by what they see in the Trump administration. He also speaks -- there aren't' that many of them left, but to some of the global leaders still in power, like the chancellor of Germany and others, with whom he served, with whom he served. And they -- on their reactions to President Trump. Imagine this, have you heard President Trump, since the election or

since he took office, despite everything his own intelligence chiefs tell him about the threat of Russian cyber interference in our elections, say something like the former president just said?

We don't have the sound. Here's -- I'm going to read you what the former president just said. My apologies for that graphic going up on the screen there.

America has experienced a sustained attempt by a hostile power to feed and exploit our country's divisions. According to our intelligence services, the Russian government has made a project of turning Americans against each other. Foreign aggression should never been downplayed or tolerated. It's a clear case where the strength of our democracy begins at home.

ZELENY: That is striking. President Trump has not said anything even close to that. He has said, it could have been Russia. It could have been someone else. He's never spoken out as clearly as this.

I was struck by so many things in President Bush's speech, but that certainly is one of them that effects what is going on. That is giving legitimacy to what the current president calls a hoax. This is giving legitimacy to anyone out there who may think that this Russia investigation is not worthy.

[12:10:06] So I think Michael's right about, you know, this is a chance to wake up some Republicans perhaps. You said he hears from his father. His mother as well. And you can almost hear Mrs. Barbara Bush in there as well, as well as his brother. So this is a moment for -- is it going to be a ground swell? I doubt it, because so many Republicans are afraid of the backlash. But it's incredibly striking.

KING: To your point about Barbara Bush. I hope we have it. The former president also talked about -- and he's watching this play out. He watched the beginning of the social media age when he was president of the United States. Now he sees what's happening under President Trump. George W. Bush wrote a document, a paper published today by the George W. Bush Library and Institute, that talked about how as we rethink what we should have as a democracy, think about young people and role models.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone. It provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.


KING: I mean think about that. Think about that. Some of the -- the Trump presidency is like a blur some days and we look at the president's Twitter feed every day and we decide which of the tweets we want to pay attention to. Some of them are caustic. Some of them, including the retweets, are highly critical of people. Provides permission for cruelty and bigotry. Compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

WARREN: It's striking. But the other side of this is that we talked about sort of waking up that side of the Republican Party that George W. Bush represents. This could also be a shot in the arm for those forces within the party that were opposed to George Bush that gave the Trump presidency, you know, its energy. And they hear language like that and I think they think, well, that's going back to the time when Republicans didn't fight back against all these liberals and all the bad forces within our society. So I think in a way to get away from just simply the uplifting language of this former president, this could also help stoke the fires in this GOP civil war that continues from the 2016 primary.

KING: There's no question, he's trying to get -- Bob Corker spoke out. There was narrowly an echo. There was crickets. Silence.

SEUNG MIN KIM, "POLITICO": To that point, though, we had a -- we had an intensive sit-down with Senator Jeff Flake this week, who has been one of those Trump critics, even though he has his primary challenge next year. We asked about the Corker comments. He says, I agree. He's completely right with those sentiments. I share those concerns. A lot of us share those concerns. And it's fascinating how he, while, you know, refusing to embrace Trump and still being a critic of him, he really sees his re-election race, his primary challenge as a test of whether this Trump fueled part of the party will, you know, eventually prevail.

KING: Right. And that's -- it's a key point. The former president making the point in the big speech, Jeff Flake will test that point at the ballot box, which is a key point.

KIM: Yes.

KING: We've got to take a quick break. It's a busy day.

The governor of Puerto Rico is at the White House right now. We hear -- we may hear from the president on that subject moments away.

Also, tough questions for the White House now about how those four Americans were killed in Niger, what the administration knows about it, what was the intelligence failure, and how the president relates to gold star families. We'll be right back.


[12:17:34] KING: Welcome back.

A few moments from now we should get some tape. The president is with the governor of Puerto Rico at the White House discussing the response to Hurricane Maria, speaking to reporters now. We'll bring you that tape as soon as we get it.

Another big story today, the administration is under pressure to answer questions about that ambush on U.S. troops in Niger that led to the deaths of four soldiers. What happened? Why were the American soldiers there? Why was one left behind?

Three senior U.S. defense officials telling CNN that Defense Secretary Mattis dismayed by the lack of detailed information he is getting about the raid. Senator John McCain says the administration is not being forthcoming about the attack. He told reporters, quote, that's why we're called the Senate Armed Services Committee. It's because we have oversight of our military. So we deserve to have all the information.

Plus, as this plays out, as those questions remain unanswered, President Trump getting what you might call a fact check on his claim that he's been more attentive to his predecessors when it comes to the families of the fallen.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": Mrs. Murphy, did you hear from the White House? Have you heard from the White House at all?

SHEILA MURPHY, MOTHER OF SPECIALIST ETIENNE MURPHY, KILLED IN SYRIA: No, I haven't. I haven't. But it's OK. It doesn't matter if I hear from the White House or not because it's not really about --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, we haven't. No.

MURPHY: Like I said, a call or a letter. I just want people to remember my son, Specialist Etienne Murphy, and all the other gold star moms.


KING: God bless those families.

Remember, it was just days ago the president claimed he's more attentive to this solemn task than his predecessors were.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I write letters and I also call. Now sometimes, you know, if you had a tragic event with like -- it's very difficult to be able to do that. But I have called, I believe everybody, but certainly I'll use the word virtually everybody.


KING: This has become the conversation in Washington, the political conversation, because of things the president said that don't hold up to the facts about his predecessors. But the other questions are about what happened. And, again, these are special operations forces. We're not supposed to know some of this or some of it is supposed to be kept private. But, just now, Senator John McCain telling reporters he may actually require a subpoena on Niger if he doesn't get answers from the Pentagon. Says he's had a good conversation with H.R. McMaster, the president's national security adviser. But maybe the public doesn't get to know all the details, but the public deserves basic details. Four Americans were killed in a dangerous overseas military operations. One of the soldiers who was killed, his body was left behind for two days. It took two days to go back and recover that body.

If the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman can't get basic information and he'll get classified information that maybe none of us, because of the sensitivity should see, we have a problem here.

[12:20:06] ZELENY: I think that's right. And I think, you know, despite the back and forth very unfortunate and unseemly in many respects of the phone calls, the reality here is what's important I believe, or the most important, is what happened on the ground in Niger. And, yes, there is a Pentagon review of this, but the White House has been unusually silent about this. And the president, we are told, had a draft statement after "Politico" first reported this and we confirmed it, as did others, that he had a draft statement on his desk that he was going to release the day after when there were three dead for sure and did not release it. The White House decided not to release it. So far they say because Sarah Sanders, the White House press secretary, wanted to do it from the podium.

But to not have a statement like this in the president's name, it's very interesting. He'll be answering for this for a while. But, again, the basic question, there seems to be so much confusion over this. This is the biggest attack on his watch as commander in chief. The deadliest, you know, as Republicans called for questions in Benghazi, you know, the same is due here.

TALEV: It's also just enough off of the radar screen of most Americans, that people have basic questions about, what's our mission in Niger? What were we really trying to accomplish there? It's right by the Mali border. What was the role of the U.S. versus the French? Who was in charge of this operation? Were these the right type of special operations folks for the mission? Did they have the support that they need? Was this well-coordinated? Was it just inherent in the dangers of this sort of mission or was there a problem with the mission?

And how does it fit into the big picture of operations around the world? I mean we know what we're doing, sort of, vis-a-vis Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. That part of the fight with ISIS. But, obviously, and this maybe just peels back the cover on it, the U.S. operation against ISIS is much more nuanced and complicated and widespread than what is in front of us most of the time.

KING: Right. That's a key point because this is Madeleine Albright, the former secretary of state. Now, she's a Democrat, if you're watching. You might think anything she says is going to be critical of the Republican administration. But administrations do put out a document called a National Security Strategy.

To Margaret's point, the administration can rightly claim today, for example, success in Raqqa. ISIS has lost a key piece of real estate in its so-called caliphate. It is lost. That's a success for the Trump administration.

There have been other successes on the ground too. But do the American people know that they're fighting ISIS affiliated --

TALEV: And al Qaeda --

KING: ISIS related, al Qaeda affiliated, you know, gang and militias in Africa? The American people don't know a lot about that. Listen to Madeleine Albright make the case. The commander in chief needs to at least broadly explain to the American people why U.S. troops are in these places.


MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: The thing that really bothers me, we have no explanation of any kind of strategy of what the president, what this administration is thinking about in terms of our overall national security strategy. I mean I try to follow this fairly carefully, but in most regions, we do not know what the overall plan of the Trump administration is.


KING: Now, she doesn't mean -- the president likes to say I want to be unpredictable and she doesn't mean the president says we're sending x amount of troops into here to attack on this day or this (INAUDIBLE). It's just a broad strategy that, here's where ISIS is around the world, here's where their giant, here's where they're medium, here's where they're moving and evolving and here's what we're doing to fight it. But we don't have that form this administration.

WARREN: Right. We have it, as you say, from -- in other parts of the world where American soldiers and American intelligence operations are operating. We had a big speech on the South Asia policy. I think there are these questions that -- again, the White House is being very reticent to talk about what exactly is going on here. We know a little bit about a sort of -- the French are very heavily involved in counterterrorism operations here. But there are all these question.

And I will say this about the question. The White House is saying this issue over the statement is sort of much ado about nothing. That this is essentially a communication decision that was made that they drafted a statement and then decided, you know, it was a better communications strategy to have Sarah Sanders say it.

But I think that the sort of general, overall feeling with this particular action is that the White House just simply isn't being forthcoming and we have less information than we think we should. I think the White House would say it's a little more complicated than that, but --

TALEV: Yes, because they may have less information than they thought that they needed to have in order to even to make the basic phone calls.

WARREN: Exactly. ZELENY: But the reality is, this is a president who talks about

everything under the sun.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: About the NFL and everything else. He's very communicative.

WARREN: That's right.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: He tweets. He talks. To not -- of course he's not going to explain the admission, or if there was like a problem with it. But to not put out a statement in his words, that's what the question is here, I think, And he only talked about it this week after our Sara Murray asked him about it in that extraordinary Rose Garden news conference on Monday, you know, which is what started this whole thing. So --

KING: Yes, she asked him a general question and he went on to attack his predecessor for what they did -- that was not in the context of the question.

We're going to take a quick break. Again, we're waiting, the president of the United States talking to reporters at the White House where he's meeting with the governor of Puerto Rico.

[12:24:52] Also important to the president today, you might call it a vote-a-rama in the United States Senate. It's on the budget, which is the key vehicle for the president's tax cut plan.


KING: Welcome back.

I want to remind you, just moments away from hearing from the president of the United States, meeting with the governor of Puerto Rico at the White House.

As we wait, you probably already know this, nothing is ever easy on Capitol Hill. That's especially true when the president can't seem to make up his mind. Tuesday, President Trump said he was for it. The "it" we're talking about, a bipartisan plan to stabilize the Obamacare marketplace. The president asked Senator Lamar Alexander to broker the deal. Then yesterday, the president tweeted that he's against it, which appeared to doom the whole thing.

But now this. About an hour ago, from a frustrated sounding Senator Alexander.

[12:30:03] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER (R), TENNESSEE: I talked to the president last night for the fourth time in ten days on the subject. And he encouraged me, as he has from the beginning, to proceed with this. He said he's perfectly willing to consider it.