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Kelly Defends Trump; Trump Spars with Congresswoman; Senate Passes Budget; Bush and Obama Warn Against Division. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 20, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:16] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

A big presidential promise has momentum today. The Senate passes a budget blueprint that allows a giant tax cut. Democrats say it helps the rich and explodes the deficits. Republicans say it will create jobs and is long overdue.


REP. KEVIN BRADY (R), TEXAS, WAYS AND MEANS COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: So the first action in 31 years since President Reagan's reforms in 1986, that begins very quickly.


KING: Plus, the FBI now helping investigate that ISIS ambush that left four U.S. servicemen dead. And the president's chief of staff, a retired general whose son died in Afghanistan, offers a stinging rebuke to anyone who suggests the president lacks compassion for the fallen.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: If you've never been in combat, you can't even imagine how to make that call. I think he very bravely does make those calls.


KING: And the ex-presidents club is exclusive and almost always above the fray. Not today.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you're not going to be able to govern them. You won't be able to unite them later if that's how you start.


KING: We begin the hour with a major development today in the investigation of that deadly ambush in Niger in which a band of ISIS terrorists killed four American service members. Sources telling CNN the FBI now on the ground to help find out what happened and to assess the threat environment. This as lawmakers on Capitol Hill say the White House is not being forthcoming, at least as quickly as they want, with information. Right now what we don't know outweighs what we do.

And as the president's chief of staff, a four-star Marine general and a gold star parent steps forward again to serve as character witness for a president whose character and compassion is being questioned.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.


KING: That was General John Kelly in the White House Briefing Room defending the commander in chief, defending his call to a widow of one of the Niger fallen. A Democratic congresswoman who listened to the call quotes the president as saying Army Sergeant La David Johnson, quote, knew what he signed up for, but I guess it still hurts. The congresswoman says it sounded cold and callous. General Kelly says her account made him furious and then he went for a walk among the heroes at Arlington National Cemetery to try to calm down. He says the president asked him what to say on these calls and then General Kelly recalled the message delivered to him by the Marine commandant just days after Kelly's son was killed in Afghanistan.


JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: He said, Kel, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do when he was killed. He knew what he was getting into by joining the -- that 1 percent. He knew what the possibilities were because we're at war. And when he died, in the four cases we're talking about in Niger, in my son's case in Afghanistan, when he died he was surrounded by the best men on this earth, his friends. That's what the president tried to say to four families the other day.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, Karoun Demirjian of "The Washington Post," Toluse Olorunnipa from "Bloomberg, "The New York Times's" Michael Shear and Mary Katharine Ham from "The Federalist."

There's a -- sadly that we're talking about this at all. That this -- we were saying all week, this should be sacred. This should be a conversation between the commander in chief and the widow and the family members. The president himself started this in the Rose Garden. So as the White House gets mad at these discussions, the president starts this. There's a lot of he said/she said between now General Kelly and the president and the congresswoman from Florida. We'll get into that as the new tapes come out and the likes of that.

But just the fact that General Kelly, normally a private man who does not like to talk about his own military experience, let alone the loss of his son, would come to the briefing room and defend the president, the president's character, the president's content on the calls, what did you make of that remarkable moment? Twice in a week now he's come into the briefing room to defend the president.

MICHAEL SHEAR, "NEW YORK TIMES": I mean, look, I was there and we were all very surprised and it really sort of had, I think it was 18 minutes long, but it had two distinct phases, right? There was a very emotional, very personal sort of searingly excruciatingly personal part in which he talked about his own son and he talked about the way that remains come back from battlefield packed in ice. And then there was the political part of it in which he really was clearly incredibly angry at the congresswoman, Congresswoman Wilson. And so those two pieces sort of melded together in this one kind of defense of his boss.

[12:05:07] And, you know, it reminds you that how many norms have been shattered in the nine months of this presidency, right? Like there are lines that normally we don't remember as White House reporters covering the presidency, we don't remember those lines being crossed. And in this story of this week, it's just -- they keep being crossed. The congresswoman, you know, relates a conversation that normally would be private. You know, Kelly comes out in a way that chiefs of staff don't normally do. Now there's a continuing kind of political backlash and back and forth in a way that -- on a subject that you wouldn't normally have that kind of political discussion. And we're sitting around a table talking about something that normally would be relegated to a, you know, kind of a private moment.

KING: And the president had tweeted that her account was fabricated. From listening to General Kelly, it seemed what he was saying is that maybe the president didn't say this exactly as he wished, but, a, how dare you for listening, and, b, how dare you for trying to interpret the president's tone.

SHEAR: Exactly.

KING: That maybe he didn't say this. You know, maybe he wasn't scripted. Maybe he's tripped over his tongue a little bit, but how dare you. And essentially General Kelly was saying damn you for questioning the president's tone here.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, "THE FEDERALIST": Well, this is unfortunate because I don't think a highly politicized he said/she said is going to be resolved at this point. I think when the president said what he said about Obama's record on this without knowing the facts, he was taking it out of this very sacred and solemn realm that it's usually in. When the congresswoman then came forward with this conversation, she was also taking it out of that realm. And now we're here.

And I actually spent last night with gold star families who I spend a lot of time with and what I don't want is for that very tight knit community that transcends all of this and has experience this loss on behalf of all of us to start fighting each other. Like it is tragic to watch lines be drawn there if that happens. And I think some of the best of what America has to offer in this fight is actually could be detrimental to that.

And I also think that like all presidents deserve the credit of, look, we elected you and you care deeply about what these soldiers sacrifice on the battlefield. And I do think that, look, if it was reported that this is what he said, it was clumsy. This is a very, very hard call to make. I think he wanted to make the hard call probably because he wants people to know at the highest levels that this matters. And there's a way to say, it is remarkable that this country produces men and women who know the cost of going into battle and who do it anyway. And we thank you. But that is not how it seems to have come out of his mouth.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, "WASHINGTON POST": Also, it's not like that was the only element at play here, right?

HAM: Yes.

DEMIRJIAN: So we're dealing with a situation where it was a very long time before the president said something publicly about this and defends himself by pointing a finger at the last president where you have Congress that is up in arms because they had no details about what was going on in Niger in the first place and they are furious at the Trump administration generally. And this episode is really what lit that powder keg basically because now they're just saying, we want a new policy where you actually read us into all of this stuff. This is not OK. We might even threaten a subpoena.

I mean this a -- you're right, that this is something that was sacred before that was -- nothing is sacred I guess in this administration anymore. But this is also like a multi-front war now over this one tragedy that happened because nobody did anything --

KING: Right, the secretary -- to that point Secretary Mattis --


KING: I'm sorry to interrupt, Secretary Mattis going to Capitol Hill to see Senator McCain today, who's the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who says, you know, we have oversight authority here. You need to -- even if it's private, even if it's classified, we can keep secrets. You need to tell us what happened here.

Why does -- I guess is this a reflection of how the president handled this from the begin? Is this a reflection of just how the president has been for nine months, nine months ago today he took the oath of office? Is it General Kelly's special role? What is it that he needs General Kelly or that General Kelly, it's just the tone is so different?

Peggy Noonan writes this, the great power was you knew he was telling the truth. And in all specifics, Kelly comes to the podium and it was credible and you felt a kind of relief and respect and gratitude.

Why is it that the president of the United States needs a character witness in his own White House?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, "BLOOMBERG": Well, General Kelly has established himself as sort of the moral voice of this administration. It comes when -- at a time when the president has struggled to establish that voice as the moral voice of the nation. You know everything that president -- that General Kelly said was sacred yesterday, women, religion, gold star families, the president has attacked those things in the past. You know the "Access Hollywood" tape, the Khans during the convention last year, the Muslim ban that he supported on the campaign trail.

So the president himself does not necessarily have that moral authority. But General Kelly has it in spades given his family's sacrifice and his ability to talk about how his son and other gold star families and other members of the military have sacrificed for this country.

KING: It's a great point. Let's listen to that longer segment because there's so much power in what General Kelly said. There's power in his personality. There's power in his personal tragedy, the story of his son. Standing in the briefing room, you could see the emotion he had there. Nobody can doubt that. Whatever your political views, nobody can doubt that and nobody dare question it because of his service and his family's experience.

But listen to the longer part Toluse was just talking about.

[12:10:05] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: You know, when I was a kid growing up, a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred. Looked upon with great honor. That's obviously not the case anymore as we see from recent cases. Life, the dignity of life, is sacred. That's gone. Religion, that seems to be gone as well. Gold star families, I think that left in the convention over the summer. But I just thought the selfless devotion that brings a man or woman to die on the battlefield, I just thought that that might be sacred.


KING: So there's great power in that message and a great reminder to all of us to maybe sometimes turn the volume down, take a breath, think before you speak. But there's also a problem in the message, to Toluse's point, that his own boss, the guy whose office is a few steps away from the briefing room, has stepped over all of those lines General Kelly himself was saying we used to have in society and they've been blurred. Was he denying those? Or was he also sending a message to the boss?

DEMIRJIAN: It's -- it's -- well, it's two parts, right, because in one sense he's sending a message to the boss. But the other sense, I don't know how you all heard it, but this is a little bit like that whole make America great again idealism that, you know, yes, that women were sacred, but women didn't have it that great back in the '50s. You know, there were a lot of other sides to that. You know, religion, sure, except for not all religions. I mean like there's two sides of every coin. And this is like the

gilded side that he's put -- laying out there. And that's the way that Trump has presented things too, and not looked at his own commentary in the present day. So it could be sending a message to the boss or it could be kind of echoing this general presentation of the way things were and don't pay attention to the way things are now and what we're seeing now.

SHEAR: I also -- I also think that there's a way in which this is a perfect example of how America and the sort of divided America sees things through completely different lenses, right? So when he's talking about the gold star families in there, in his view of it, I think, I mean this is supposition, but I think his view of it is that the Khan family crossed that line when Mr. Khan decided to step up on the -- step up on the stage and become a kind of political animal -- you know, political person, you know, testifying on behalf of Hillary Clinton.

But there's a whole other part of America that looks at it and says, no, no, the Khan episode, the line was crossed when President Trump, then candidate Trump, attacked the Khans. And so there's -- you have the same incident, the same moment in time, and yet it's being looked at in different ways.

HAM: Well, I also think we're assuming quite a bit about how Kelly feels about that particular incident.

KING: Right.

HAM: I mean there were plenty of people right of center who know many gold star families who say, look, they have earned the right to speak out.

KING: Right.

HAM: And so I don't want to assume that that's what Kelly thinks and that he's on that side of things. And I think he's being fairly vague in this section of the speech and perhaps with reason to say -- to lay down a marker that says, like, I actually am on this side of these things. So --

OLORUNNIPA: There's -- but there are different ways, right.

DEMIRJIAN: It's actually -- but without any -- again, the question is, you know, who gets to define what the sacred is, the thing that's supposed to be sacred, which is a person in each of those cases, or the person that is standing at the White House and being very protectionist about all of that and trying to define it.

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: That's not necessarily the most fair thing either, right?

KING: That's the -- that's the tough part of the week, that we have politics and partisans and loyal people and deputies and people who believe they're absolutely right speaking about something that 365 days a year should be off to the end.

And to that end, the friends and family of Sergeant La David Johnson will be gathering tonight in his hometown for the viewing tonight. We should be paying tribute to a hero.

There is some politics involved and we can't avoid it. We shouldn't avoid it if it's right up to the presidency. But what's most important is that the country honors the services of that fine young man and the three comrades who died with him in Africa.

We'll be right back.


[12:17:54] KING: Welcome back.

Republicans, including the Republican president, hungry for a legislative win. Well, they cleared a big hurdle last night in their quest to overhaul America's tax code. The Senate passed a budget late last night. That's a big deal because it includes language that allows Republicans to add a tax bill and pass it with a bare majority, meaning without the support of Democrats.

If last night is any indication, though, still a steep hill ahead. Every Democrat and independent voted "no." The only Republican "no" vote, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky. That's because he says the GOP tax plan would increase the deficit by more than $1 trillion.

President Trump applauded the vote tweeting, the budget passed late last night, 51-49. We got zero Democrat votes with only Rand Paul. He will vote for tax cuts. Voting against. This now allows for passage of large scale tax cuts and reform, which will be the biggest in the history of our country. That's how the president puts it.

The House Speaker Paul Ryan also weighing in this morning.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: And we're really, really pleased the Senate did their heavy lifting on the first stage of this.


KINNG: Doesn't sound like the speaker's saying much there, but he has been harping against the Senate for a long time that we keep passing bills in the House only to watch them go -- fall into the abyss of the Senate.

It is a big deal. This is a key Republican priority. Again, the president was inaugurated nine months ago today. Obamacare's still the law of the land. Infrastructure will not happen this year. There's still a question, Mary Katharine, they've got the budget framework, the House will adopt it, we expect in a few days, now they have to get to the details of tax reform, though, which you have the same ideological, geographic, philosophical, internal Republican debates as you had in Obamacare. HAM: Yes.

KING: Will it happen this year?

HAM: That's always the rub.

You know, you've already got Rand Paul saying "no" to something. In the end, I would imagine, you might have Rand Paul saying no because it's not conservative enough or Mike Lee saying no because it's not conservative enough. And then, well, I don't know, a Collins saying no because it's not liberal enough. So they will face the same problems.

And I would also caution that this is -- it is important that it's moving forward and that they're making steps, particularly in the Senate, where it's harder to do that. But all of this policy, if it is like grand sweeping policy, if it is enacted with 51 votes, just as Obamacare was, it will be easier to get rid of it eventually should they lose. And it just -- like that kind of policy doesn't win a lot of support and doesn't stick, which is actually what you want a tax reform to do. You want it to be something that ends up being popular that people go, oh, I like that this is more simple and this is making my life easier. And it's just tougher to make that sell when you're doing the 51-vote game.

[12:20:26] OLORUNNIPA: And the other --

HAM: One of the reasons Obamacare has not been popular.

OLORUNNIPA: Right. And the other way to make something stick is to sell it around the country, have people rallying around it. They haven't put out an actual bill yet and it could be weeks before we see actual legislation and they want to pass this before the end of the year. So there's not much time to get the country rallying around whatever --

KINNG: Engage the American people in a debate that effects every single one of them? What a novel thought. What a novel thought.

And to that point, you mentioned the Obamacare, which has been turmoil since the day it was passed and even when it was being considered. In the middle of this, Republicans are trying to pass tax reform this year. Even members of the president's cabinet saying it might slip into 2018.

But imagine that, a Republican president, all Republican Washington, Obamacare's still the law of the land, no infrastructure, no other big legislative initiatives. This is it. If you're going to get something big in 2017, this is tax reform.

But the White House says it's open to also revisiting health care, won't take the bipartisan plan as is that was announced the other day, which is essentially restoring those subsidies to the insurance companies.

But listen to the president's point man, his legislative director, saying we'll take that if you add this. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: The gist is, we believe that the individual mandate should be repealed, employer mandate repealed, and allow Americans to contribute to health savings accounts. That is important. It provides freedom. And it actually provides you to do with your taxpayer dollars what --

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST, "THE SITUATION ROOM": So you want to go back to repeal and replace, is that what you're saying?

SHORT: We're saying we want to reduce costs and right now the plan, as is constructed, does not do that.


KING: So the president was for Alexander/Murray, as it's called. Then he was against Alexander/Murray. Then he was sort of ambivalent about it. But now the White House says he's against it again. We assume he's going to stay there unless they add more conservative proposals to it because the conservatives had revolted saying, sir, do not push us to vote to fix to Obamacare. We are not going to vote to fix Obamacare after seven years of promising to repeal and replace. Can they thread this needle to get a couple of more conservative pieces in there or will they just lose to Democrats then and the whole thing blows up and maybe takes tax reform with it because they open the poison well again?

SHEAR: Well, the problem is not only individually on that piece do they have that needle to thread, but we're barreling towards a December where they've got the tax reform fight if they try to push forward with it. They've got this health care question and what do they do about that. We have the DACA thing that the president -- you know, having to do with the dreamers and whether or not to deal with dreamers. And there's another sort of, you know, do you make it more conservative, do you make it less conservative, and how do you build that coalition. And all of that they expect to be sort of happening in one kind of big mishmash of legislation that there's going to be -- there's going to be people bolting and coming back constantly. I mean it's really going to be a challenge.

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: There are fewer people, fewer members of Congress at this point than there were at the point which we were starting the health care debate that feel a particular affinity to the president. And tax reform is a bigger and more complicated issue. There are other things that are shifting around. There are people speaking openly about, you know, how this is going to be a mess already. And so to actually build cohesion -- OK, so you've got the cohesion around the vote last night, right, because everybody wants to start the process. But to assume that this is going to be -- you know, that everything will get better now when it's actually been getting progressively -- there's more, you know, (INAUDIBLE) that's been in this situation as we've been moving along.

KING: You're suggesting the sheep have been herded but perhaps temporarily. That's what your suggesting?

DEMIRJIAN: No, I'm saying the sheep used to be very -- very herded and right now he -- the -- he -- if Trump is the good shepherd, he's having to chase at least five more sheep than he had to several months ago, you know.

KING: Right.

HAM: Congress likes to start things. Start the project.

KING: Congress likes to start things. Yes.


HAM: Start the project, yes.

KING: All right, we'll take a quick break.

When we come back, the ex-presidents club is exclusive and it has a pretty long standing rule, stay out of the current president's business. Yesterday, a bipartisan violation.


[12:28:04] KING: Tomorrow, a rare meeting of a most exclusive club. All five living former presidents teaming up to headline a hurricane's benefit concert in Texas, non-partisan, not at all controversial. That's normally the prime directive of the ex-president's club. But these are not normal times. And the president who won the White House by bending and breaking the normal rules of politics and civil discourse, was on the receiving end of the new normal yesterday. Both presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, delivering public rebukes of President Trump, though they never mentioned him by name.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: If you have to win a campaign by dividing people, you're not going to be able to govern them. You won't be able to unite them later if that's how you start.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, 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: What to make of this? Coincidence? Both men are out on the same day. President Bush at a Bush Institute event, releasing a report. His aides would say everything he said in that speech are his long held views. That's true. But he said it and he said it publicly in the middle of the past nine months and we know that he disagrees with this president, this Republican president, the Republican president after him, he's the last Republican president, disagrees with him on just about everything. Obama was back out to be on the campaign trail in New Jersey and Virginia. Big deal? Medium deal? Just interesting? OLORUNNIPA: I'm not surprised. As we talked about earlier, everything that is sacred is no longer sacred. I mean President Bush felt strongly about some of the things that President Trump has been saying. And you have to remember that President trump has broken a lot of norms. I mean recently he's attacked John McCain, who's, you know, a POW fighting brain cancer. So those types of things compel former presidents to speak out.

[12:30:00] And President Obama, we know he has been wanting to get back on the campaign trail and try to right some of the wrongs that were done, some of the losses that were given up during his presidency and we're not necessarily so surprised that