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GOP's Flake, a Trump Critic, Won't Run Again in 2018; Flake Says, "I Will Not Be Complicit or Silent"; White House Briefing After GOP Senators Flake, Corker Blast Trump. Aired 3:30-4p ET
Aired October 24, 2017 - 15:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[15:30:00] MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: -- right now, where there's so much divisiveness in the country. There's so much divisiveness amongst our own selves. There's so much divisiveness within each political party that something has to break. Jeff Flake just said he decided he couldn't do it anymore. He had to step out and I do think that this is a moment right now and a very big moment for our country, given everything that has happened, to stop, think about what direction we're going in and try to readjust our course.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Manu?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, this is a bombshell in the Senate. No question about it. Members from both parties stunned and even disappointed on the way in to the speech, Brooke, I caught up with Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, and he choked up for several seconds. He almost broke down in tears talking about Jeff Flake. Because they've developed a close, personal relationship. He's called Flake a constructive member of the Republican Party. Somebody who likes to try to figure out a way to solve problems in a bipartisan basis. And he said that if senators like Flake cannot run for re-election and cannot serve in this body anymore, then the Senate will be worse off, according to the words of Chris Coons, a Democrat, talking about a Republican retiring.
That is a sentiment that's really felt by Republicans as well and you heard from Mitch McConnell immediately after. While McConnell then voiced the same frustration publicly with President Trump, he does have a lot of affection for Senator Flake because of the way he's conducted himself in the Senate as someone who has tried to deal amicably with his members and not be afraid to speak out from time to time.
But, Brooke, also, this will have a huge effect on the race for the Senate majority. Next year Democrats already have a candidate in the race, Congresswoman Christine Cinema is running. She'd already had a pretty good shot. Jeff Flake's primary opponent Kelly Ward may -- other challengers may try to seek that seat as well because Republicans are worried that Ward would not be able to win in a general election as well and Flake alluding to the fact that he would have a hard time winning the primary the way the politics are shifting nationally and in his state, supporting immigration, supporting trade. It'll be difficult for Republicans like him to win showing how much the party has shifted but also a major impact here in the Senate as well -- Brooke. BALDWIN: Sure. Could open the door for a Democrat to pick that up on
this speech. Bianna, what did you think?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: You know, well, I agree with Mark and Gloria and Manu. I can't help but think that this is a moment where the President feels emboldened. Where Steve Bannon who has already tweeted, or made a statement saying another scalp. The President has publicly warred against these two Senators that are now not seeking re-election. I think the President is going to feel more emboldened and possibly talk more about the stock market hitting a new high. And Tweet about either these representatives getting on board with his plan or leaving, or jumping ship.
And on the other hand, you have no legislation that's been passed by this President. I don't see how you get tax reform going off of news like this today. Off of the morose temperature in the room, just the emotion that you saw from Mitch McConnell who you never see him emotional. And I do think a lot of pressure now turns to the House Speaker. I think Paul Ryan -- there's going to be a lot of pressure on him. There's been a lot of people already asking when are you going to say something beyond just saying "I don't respond to tweets." And this may be the moment. I mean, where do you put legislation versus a real divide within your own party.
BALDWIN: Comeback to the scalps comment in just a moment. But Doug Heye, you just sat down, and you said to me, I was just last night emailing with the chief coms guy or gal --
DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Guy.
BALDWIN: -- guy in Senator Flake's office asking about the race in Arizona. No mention of this.
HEYE: No. Look, I think this comes from, one, his internals had him down double digits to Kelly Ward, which is important. But there is also to what Manu was referring to the concern that Republicans will have about how to keep this seat. And this is several years in the making. I was communications director at the RNC in 2010 when Republicans nominated Christine O'Donnell. We lost that seat. We nominated Sharon Engle in Nevada. We lost that seat. We've seen Todd Akin. We've seen Richard Murdoch.
This has happened time and time again. If Republicans had nominated good smart Republicans who could win those race, we would have repealed Obamacare by now. We would have done tax reform by now. This is the problem that Republicans are facing. And this is from Donald Trump's initial four-way into the race. If you were going back a year ago, the Republican race was going to be -- a year and 1/2 ago -- I thought mom and dad having the fight in front of the kids with Ted Cruz and Rand Paul over here and Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio over here, Donald Trump came in and caused a 17, now an 18-person food fight. Republicans not only have to answer what they do next, but when they're going to be able to come back.
[16:05:00] BALDWIN: Listening to all of this and, Gloria, back over to you. I printed out the seven-page speech that presumably the Senator himself wrote. Put this in perspective for me. I mean this came today literally hours after Republican Senator Bob Corker went after the President as well.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. And after a Senate meeting with the President of the United States where you saw a group of men coming out and saying, you know, we had a productive meeting with the President. They didn't touch upon what happened with Senator Corker. They touched upon the legislation they want to pass, mainly tax reform. In the one thing that struck me about the speech is that Senator Flake said, stop it. This is enough. In his line which is where he said, I must say we have fooled ourselves for long enough that a pivot to governing is right around the corner, a return to civility and stability right behind it. We know better than that. By now, we all know better than that.
And what he's saying to the senators is, it's not going to happen. You know, you're putting yourselves on the same side of Donald Trump, but understand, understand that in doing so you've become complicit to all of the issues he said were demoralizing and demeaning to our values and the way Republicans regard governing. And so, I think that his appeal was not only in explaining why he basically didn't want to do it anymore and feels out of step with his own party, but he was also making an appeal to his own Republicans. And when Mitch McConnell stood up as you guys were talking about and gave that emotional, for Mitch McConnell, speech to Flake. I thought to myself, McConnell knows exactly what he's talking about and probably agrees with him. But he finds himself in this position as the leader of the Republicans, and there's not much he's going to do about it. And that's the problem.
BALDWIN: This could, Bianna, made a good point. Mark Preston, that this could embolden the President. Let me read what we have. This is from our White House reporter Kaitlan Collins. An ally of former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, had this to say of Senator Flake's decision to not seek reelection in 2018. The quote is this. Today, Steve Bannon added another scalp to his collection as another establishment domino falls. Another scalp Mark.
PRESTON: Right, another scalp. And again, terminology being used in this day and age, as he said, we should not look at the new normal, language like that has become the new normal. I think as a father -- I believe he has five children -- as a father, you've got to wonder what Senator Flake has been thinking this whole time. You know, we know he wrote a book and he was very critical of President Trump. But this isn't about politics. We have not discussed is a fight between Republicans and Democrats. The only thing we heard when it came to issues is that Senator Flake said that the traditional conservative has a narrower path to victory. That's basically all we've heard about politics.
So, when people look at this and they see us talking about Senator Flake, the walkaway should not be, oh, listen, they are just against Donald Trump. That's not the case. The case is that Senator Flake eloquently laid out there in very simple terms is that the conduct in office is not acceptable and we should not accept it. BALDWIN: Keep in mind, also, as I'm listening to every single one of
you so carefully, but we are minutes away from this White House press briefing. We thought today was a huge day with this back and forth over Twitter and then on TV between the President and Senator Corker. Now you have this historic extraordinary fill in the blank additive that we just saw from Senator Flake. How do you think Sarah Sanders spins this -- Doug Heye?
HEYE: I don't think she does spin this. I think this is a good day for the White House. They have gotten another scalp. This is somebody who's obviously going after the President quite a bit. I think the challenge for Republicans is that if you go back to when we had the government shut down in 2013, I was in so many meetings where you would have Republicans stand up and say we need to fight more. We didn't hear offers for solutions or how we were going to win the fight. Just that we needed to fight more. That's the divide. That's the tribalism in the Republican Party right now.
If you spend your time in Washington and New York you hear that it's wrong to just want to fight, you want to hear solutions and answers. If you go out in the rest of the country our voters are angry. They want to see you fight more. They want to see that you're putting it to the Democrats. That you're investigating Hillary Clinton. I was in North Carolina last week. I've heard more Republicans tell me about the need to investigate Hillary Clinton than anything about Donald Trump.
BALDWIN: Let's hit pause just for a second and hold that thought. Quick break. We're waiting for this White House briefing to begin any moment now. Historic times in this country. We'll be right back.
[15:40:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
BALDWIN: We are back here live on CNN. You have just witnessed an extraordinary and historic moment really in American politics. As we just saw Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake there are in a Senate floor announcing really to the world that he will not seek re-election at the end of his term on January 2019 and essentially in a blistering critique of the executive branch and, specifically, of President Trump. So, we have some news from Kaitlan Collins, our reporter over at the White House, ahead of the briefing beginning. We see Jeff Zeleny there standing by in the briefing room to see how the White House reacts to this stunning news. But Caitlan, first to you, you have heard from a friend of former White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. What did they share?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, Steve Bannon's world is very pleased with this news that Senator Flake is not going to run for re-election in 2018. Actually, an ally of Steve Bannon just recently texted me not long ago and said that today Steve Bannon added another scalp to his collection as another establishment domino falls.
As you know, Brooke, since Steve Bannon left the White House, he's been targeting some of these establishment candidates and promising to primary them. These candidates who are up for re-election who could be down in their home states. One of those we saw the most recently was that Alabama senate primary race between Luther Strange and Roy Moore. As you know, the President had endorsed Luther Strange and even came down to Alabama to campaign for him at a rally.
[15:45:03] But Steve Bannon, that former White House chief strategist, who we know still speaks to the President on a semiregular basis was on the side of Roy Moore and had endorsed him. Roy Moore was that very controversial candidate who had been kicked off the state bench in Alabama twice. Once for refusing to take a statue of the 10 Commandments out of a state building. And another time for refusing to uphold a supreme court law that made gay marriage legal. So, a very controversial candidate that Steve Bannon was on the side there. And he was promising to primary Senator Jeff Flake if he ran for re- election. So, they're counting this as a win in their book -- Brooke.
BALDWIN: So, let me take that and pose this Jeff Zeleny, to you. If this emboldens the President is saying to he or the spokeswoman tries to spin this in their favor, he will not like the fact that Steve Bannon allies are taking credit for it?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, sure. And I think if you take a broader view of this, Brooke, I mean, the challenge for a state like Arizona, it is indeed on the verge, if it's not already, a swing state, essentially. Just the demographics of that state. So, the big question here is will the Republican majority hold. Of course, there's a long away between here and November 2018. But there's no question at all, the Democrats also see this as a potential boom for them.
And this raises deep questions about the President's agenda. Course, he was on Capitol Hill to meet with Senate Republicans to try and revive the tax plan. To try and revive the one last hope for a big legislative accomplishment this year. So, the question is, how much does all of this complicate that? And that in terms of the President's legacy, in terms of what he's hoping to achieve with any type of a legislation is the central issue here. It was a stinging rebuke and I think that the White House, you know, will probably dismiss that. There's no question that the President and Senator Flake are hardly fast friends or close allies. But the question is will there be a continuing of dominos falling. Brooke, if you take it together what's really happened in the last several hours, the President has been involved in extraordinary exchange with the, you know, essentially the elder statesmen of the Republican Party here. And that is the question. How long can that be sustained? But this is something that is happening in real-time, unfolding in real-time and we'll see how this impacts the midterms because it certainly will -- Brooke.
BALDWIN: We will see how the White House responds in the more immediate. We're standing by for that briefing. You're in the room, my friend. Quick break. Live pictures. We're waiting. Be right back.
[15:50:00] (COMMERCIAL BREAK)
SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Thanks Halley. Unless you want to trade places, I'll let you come up here and I'll ask questions. No? All right. I thought it was worth a shot. Good afternoon. All right.
President Trump had a productive meeting at today's Republican Senate Caucus. The President discussed the urgent need for the Senate to focus on cutting taxes for hardworking American families. We must also make American companies more competitive, so they can create more jobs and boost wages for American workers. And we must simplify the burdensome tax code that is currently rigged in favor of the wealthy and well connected.
As the President tweeted this morning, the market continues to hit historic highs, and unemployment is at a 16-year low. There is a spirit of economic optimism sweeping the nation, but our economy cannot take off like it should unless we deliver historic tax cuts and reforms. This is the President's top legislative priority, and he was encouraged today by the show of unity by Republicans on the Hill about getting this done.
During the policy lunch, the President also discussed the urgent need for the Senate to confirm his slate of eminently qualified nominees, in spite of Democratic obstruction, so that they can get work on behalf of the American people. The President will continue to work closely with the Senate to deliver on a legislative agenda that puts the interests of the American people first.
This morning, the President welcomed winners of the Minority Enterprise Development Week awards. This awards program is designed to celebrate the outstanding achievements of minority entrepreneurs, as well as individuals and organizations that are leading the way in advancing minority business enterprise.
The award winners who visited the White House certainly meet that criteria, and the President was proud to host them. He's laser- focused on building an economy that works for all Americans and delivering tax cuts and reforms for these hardworking entrepreneurs by the end of the year.
On the national security and foreign policy front, for the eighth time, Russia has blocked U.N. Security Council action to hold accountable those who use chemical weapons, including terrorists and the Assad regime. By blocking the extension of the Joint Investigative Mechanism, Russia has once again demonstrated it does not care about stopping the barbaric use of chemical weapons in the world and will do whatever it takes to protect its ally, the Assad regime.
Blocking the extension of the investigating authority means nothing less than Russia's endorsement of the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons against innocent women and children. We will continue to push back against this.
And with that, I'll take your questions.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah, President Trump previously tweeted that Jeff Flake is a very weak and ineffective senator. Do you know if he has any reaction to Flake announcing that he won't seek reelection? SANDERS: I haven't spoken with him directly since the announcement by Senator Flake, but I think that based on previous statements and certainly based on the lack of support that he has from the people of Arizona, it's probably a good move -- Matt.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks, Sarah. So, we have two Republican Senators now, just today -- Senators Corker and Flake -- calling the President's behavior unacceptable and dangerous, saying that he regularly tells untruths. Senator Flake just called on his fellow Republicans to end what he called complicity and accommodation. I'm wondering, what's the White House's response to this criticism coming from two Republican senators?
SANDERS: I think that we support the American people on this one. I think that the people both in Tennessee and Arizona supported this President, and I don't think that the numbers are in the favor of either of those two senators in their states. And so, I think that this was probably the right decision -- John.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah. Sarah, why is the President involved in this feud with Senator Corker? Is there some concern on Capitol Hill that what you should be focused on is getting your agenda of tax reform through, and that petty feuds like this just distract from the bigger issue? So why is the President engaging in this?
SANDERS: Look, the President is focused on doing this. That's what he spent the majority of his day talking about. He went to the Hill and met with Republican senators to talk about tax reform, to push his legislative agenda. That's what he's spending a good bit of this week doing and will continue doing next week until we get the job done.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But why does he engage like this?
SANDERS: Look, you've got an individual in the President -- he's a fighter. We've said it many times before. The people of this country didn't elect somebody to be weak. They elected somebody to be strong. And when he gets hit, he's going to hit back. And I think Senator Corker knows that, and he's maybe trying to get a headline or two on his way out the door -- Jon Decker.
[15:55:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thanks a lot, Sarah. Since the President has taken office, and the politic as you know, two Republican senators, Senator Corker of Tennessee and Senator Flake of Arizona, have both announced they're not running for reelection. In your view, is the President remaking the Republican Party? And if he's doing that, is he remaking it in a positive way?
SANDERS: I wouldn't say necessarily he's remaking it because you have a couple of individuals that are no longer running for office. Look, he's got a great relationship with a number of Republican senators. He's going to continue working with them and make sure that we get things done for the American people.
He wants people to be in the Senate that are committed to actually moving the ball down the field, and I don't think these two individuals necessarily have been as focused on that. The President wants to get things done, and that's what we're going to work through, through the fall -- Jon.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah, I understand that neither of these two senators that we're talking about now have been allies, to say the least, of the President. But this has been an extraordinary series of attacks on the President from major figures in the Republican Party, not typical political attacks. I mean, saying that the President is responsible for the debasement of the nation, that a breakdown of civility is the fault of the President, and that enough is enough.
We've seen similar remarks from John McCain, the party's former nominee. In any of this -- does any of this make the President pause and wonder if he is doing anything wrong. That he bears any responsibility for what these senators are saying is a breakdown of civility in our country?
SANDERS: Look, I think the voters of these individual senator's states are speaking in pretty loud volumes. I think that they were not likely to be reelected, and I think that shows that the support is more behind this President than it is those two individuals.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why is there so little pushback from other Republican senators on this? I mean, Mitch McConnell is the Republican Leader. Bob Corker is still a committee chairman. Should there be --
SANDERS: Look, Leader McConnell stood with the President just last week here at the White House and talked about how they were working together, how they were getting things done, how they were focused on actually moving the agenda forward. And so, I think that's a pretty clear indication of where his support lies and what we're working to do -- Steven.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If I could just pick up on what Jon was talking about. One of the criticisms from Senator Corker today was the idea that history will most remember President Trump for "debasing" the country. And you hear, in Senator Flake's remarks, the idea that he seemed to be writing it for history. How do you think history will view not only the remarks of the two senators today, but also former President Bush last week?
SANDERS: I certainly think history is going to look at this President as somebody who helped defeat ISIS. Who built an economy that was stronger than it's been in several decades. Who brought unemployment to a 16-year low. Who's created over 1.7 million jobs since being elected.
I think those are the things that people actually care about, not some petty comments from Senator Corker and Senator Flake. And I think they're a lot more concerned about the big policy initiatives that this President is driving, including historic tax cuts, which we're going to get done by the end of this year, and then start focusing on some other things. Those are the things this President will be remembered by, and I think those are pretty good -- certainly good facts, and ones that we're happy to standby -- Peter.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you, Sarah. The President at lunch today asked the senators for their -- a show of hands on two candidates for Fed Chair, Jerome Powell and John Taylor. Since being that Powell and Taylor are the President's favorites for the Fed Chairmanship, then why would he ask input from the Senate on this?
SANDERS: Those are certainly individuals that he's looking at. And as we've said, we don't have any announcements on that at this time. But the President is taking that decision extremely seriously, and he's being very thorough in the process. And he'll have an announcement on it soon.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sarah, is the White House concerned at all that these conflicts, which keep escalating, could impact the President's agenda? In specific, it could -- for example, Senator Corker, if the President continues to lash out at him like this, could that prompt him to do things that would be detrimental to the tax cut?