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Senators Rail Against Trump; Flake Retirement Draws Criticism; Fighting Hurts Agenda; Funding for Trump Dossier; Flake Criticizes Trump in Speech. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 25, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:15] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

President Trump calls it sour grapes, but stung rebukes from two conservative senators have Washington and the Republican Party buzzing. They say the commander in chief lacks the character and class his office demands.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: We're nine months into the administration. Those who are hoping to see a pivot, I think, have realized that's not going to come.


KING: Plus, the president plays victim after a new report shows the Democrats, including the Clinton campaign, helped pay for a now infamous investigation of Trump contacts with Russians.


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), CHAIRMAN, OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE: But it is relevant who paid for the dossier. It's much more relevant who relied upon it. So my focus has always been whether or not the Department of Justice and the FBI relied upon an unsourced CI document to launch a counter intelligence investigation.


KING: And truth as redefined by the Trump White House. Even if there's video, and it proves you wrong, just say it doesn't.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I don't believe that General Kelly mischaracterized. He gave his account of what took place.


KING: Just his account of what took place. Now what is the big question in Washington and across the Republican

Party after two scathing rebukes of President Trump by leading senators of his own political party. The president chalks it all up to sour grapes and political weakness. Of Senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker the president tweets this, the reason Flake and Corker dropped out of the Senate race is very simple, they had zero chance of being elected. Now act so hurt and wounded.

It is true, both are ducking what would have been tough 2018 re- election primary challenges. But both say this is about much more than that. In their view, a freedom now to speak out about presidential behavior and character flaws they see as beneath the office of the president and which they see as a threat to their party and to the country.

Senator Flake predicting this morning they will soon have more company.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Obviously, privately, a number of my colleagues have expressed concern about the direction of our politics and the behavior of the president. I think in the coming months, you'll have more people stand up. I think the cumulative weight of all of this, there comes a tipping point where we realize we just can't continue to normalize this kind of behavior.


KING: In a moment, more on exactly what was said and why this is such an extraordinary moment in the debate about President Trump personally and on the Trump effect on the Republican Party and American politics.

But, first, the fallout, meaning the questions front and center this very busy day after. For example, will having two Republican mavericks, free of re-election worries, affect the big policy debates just ahead beginning with tax reform. It Senator Flake right, meaning will others now say publicly some of the eye-popping things said on a daily basis in private conversations about the president?

And the raw politics, Flake's decision to follow Corker into retirement is without a doubt a win for the president and his Breitbart wingman Steven Bannon, who vowed to purge the GOP of Trump critics. But the true test comes when replacements are picked. Will the long-term verdict be as good for Trump and Bannon, or will the Republican establishment or maybe even the Democrats end up winning in the end?

With us to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace of "The Associated Press," Carl Hulse of "The New York Times," "The New Yorker's" Ryan Lizza, and Laura Barron Lopez of "The Washington Examiner."

A lot to digest on this very busy day after. Senator Flake back on the network shows today. I want to get in a bit, as I said, to some of the damning things said about a president -- I've been here almost 30 years, never heard sitting members of a president's own party say things like this. But let's talk about the fallout this morning.

Carl, let me start with you. You walked the hills of Capitol Hill for a long time. Will they remain lonely voices or is Senator Flake right, are there others who -- we all know what the senators say privately, House members say privately, Republicans, about this president. It's pretty tough stuff. Will more have the courage to step forward?

CARL HULSE, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": You know, I'm not sure. I'm not seeing it. And as I try to look around the room, you go, who is the next person who's going to do this? I think you're going to continue to have people oppose the president, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski votes, but I don't see either of them taking that kind of tone with the president right now.

Now, there's a fair amount of panic on Capitol Hill among Republicans. Things aren't going very well. And the president has proven to be pretty effective at whipping people into shape.

Having said that, you know, that was quite a call to action really from Senator Flake. And I'm sure that it's weighing on some of his colleagues, like, well, Jeff Flake has the nerve to stand up there and say that. I say that all the time at home or to my colleagues when we're out for dinner. Do I need to start saying that? But right now I'm not so sure that there's going to be more.

KING: And to be clear, for people at home who don't know Jeff Flake, this is not a milquetoast moderate. This is not somebody -- he does disagree with the president on immigration issues. He does disagree on tone. He is someone who believes in civility and bipartisanship. But he views himself, and has the right to view himself, as the heir to Barry Goldwater, a very conservative record when it comes to spending and taxes and conservative issues.

[12:05:18] You quote, Julie, in your article today, Trent Lott, the former majority leader, who had some problems in his party in his tenure. Not quite like this. But, you know, can the GOP survive the Trump presidency? Senator Lott too said the solution for conservatives is to stay in Trump's Republican Party, not walk away. You don't complain that there's not room for you in the party, you make room.

That is one of the big conversations today.


KING: If Corker and Flake believe it's so important to fight Trumpism, why not wage a campaign for the next year and a half? Why not fight in those primaries? Why not try to win those primaries and say, see, Mr. President, I'm right, you're wrong?

PACE: I heard this over and over again talking to people yesterday who were saying that the solution for people who view themselves as not moderate Republicans but the traditional, conservatives, people who may support legal immigration, who may support limited government, who may be fiscal conservatives, is to stay, to prove to Donald Trump and to Steve Bannon that they are essentially renting this party, they are not taking over the party. Because that's what's happening right now. Donald Trump, when he

blasted through that Republican primary last year, took over the GOP.


KING: Right.

PACE: And lawmakers accepted it. They said they were basically OK renting the party to him. The question now is whether the policy initiatives that he's pushing, this type of populism and nationalism that Bannon is trying to whip up as well becomes the new face of the GOP.

LIZZA: Yes. I remember talking to a senior White House official, who's very frustrated with Congress earlier this year and saying that the problem is, in the Republican Party, that Trump is a leading indicator of where the party is going. And they were, of course, frustrated by the lack of buy-in to what they saw as the nationalist, populist Trump agenda.

And the solution to them was over the next -- the course of the next two to four cycles, you have to start replacing these members -- these establishment members with more Trump-like candidates. So you -- you laid it out very well in the introduction, we're going to see now in the next few cycles, now that people like Corker and Flake leave, was Trump a one-off or was he a leading indicator where this party is going and are these establishment candidates going to be replaced by this new, nationalist Republican movement.

KING: Right. It's an excellent point in the sense that the president is always the leader of a party. And this is a conversation, like many about politics, that is very different in Washington, D.C., than I suspect it is around America, especially around red America where Donald Trump won.

I just want to show you some poll numbers that bring this up. If you are a Republican, let's assume you're a Republican member of the Senate. And there are many of them we speak to privately all the time who agree with Jeff Flake. Look at this right now. The president's approval rating among Republicans is 83 percent. If you challenge him, he's the leader of your party, most Republicans are going to say, what are you doing, the president is our boss. He's the leader of the party.

They -- "The Wall Street Journal"/NBC poll, that's their numbers there. They also asked this question. Among just asking Republicans, are you a Trump supporter or a supporter of the party, nearly 60 percent of the people who describe themselves as Republicans today, 58 percent say they're Trump supporters, 38 percent say they're supporters of the party. So if you step out and say, Mr. President, you're wrong, prepare for the buzz saw, not just in his Twitter feed, but from his voters.

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, "THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER": Right. Well, that's right. I mean, you know, when you look at Jeff Flake's polling, it wasn't -- it wasn't looking good and so -- KING: That was very polite of you. It was dismal.

BARRON-LOPEZ: It was. It was. It was very dismal. And so, of course, that went into his calculations. And that's part of what he said during his speech and during his interview when he first announced it that -- that, you know, I don't think there is a place for me or I would have had to run a campaign that I wouldn't have been proud of if I had, you know, stuck with this.

And also, even if he had made it to the general election and beat back Kelli Ward, you know, Kyrsten Sinema has a really good shot at winning this. So, you know, this could be a very calculated move on his part with, let me bow out on my own terms and maybe come back into politics if there ends up being room for me again in the future.

KING: Right.

PACE: Well, it gets to Carl's point, which is why it seems so unlikely that we're going to see this wave of senators, or certainly House members, coming out and following the example of Jeff Flake and Bob Corker because they want to win. They either want to stay on the ballot in 2018 or they're looking to their election beyond that and they see this political reality that Trump is popular. No matter what happens in Washington, no matter what kind of freak-outs we have when he says these things that seem so over top, he remains popular with the base. And what is particularly putting some Republicans on edge is what we saw coming out of Alabama, which is that the base is splitting Trump from the Republican Party.

KING: Right. And this is normally done when there's a question about who is the party, what is the party and who its leadership is, it's usually done in presidential elections. The president staged a hostile takeover of the Republican Party last year and blew out 17 people who had a combined, I think, 194 years of elected political experience. That should tell you something when that happens.


KING: A guy who had been a Democrat, had been an independent, comes into your party and takes it over.

[12:10:02] Bill Clinton took over the Democrat Party in 1992 by saying we're too liberal, we have to be different. It usually happens in presidential elections. The challenge for these guys heading into a midterm election, 2018, even those who fundamentally criticized Trump in every private conversation we have with them, he's not a conservative, he doesn't have class, I question his character, he shouldn't be saying these things about foreign affairs is, they not only have the president, those poll numbers we just showed you. The president also has on his support -- look at Breitbart today, we're winning, Flake out. Establishment Republicans fall like dominos. Luther Strange, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, gone. And then there's the echo chamber on Fox News. Listen to Sean Hannity.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS: For all you never Trumper senators that are headed for the exits, people like Corker and Flake, you know what, guess what, you guys, you know, take your other colleagues with you. Mitch McConnell, good-bye. Ben Sasse, good-bye. John Cornyn, good-bye. Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins.


LIZZA: It is --

KING: It's -- I --

LIZZA: It's bizarre to include McConnell on this list, I would say.

KING: Is it bizarre to --

HULSE: Or John Cornyn.

KING: Well, but he --

PACE: Or Cornyn.


KING: Right, but the number one and number two in the Senate, who Sean Hannity rails against all the time, he conveniently doesn't ask the president about them when he gets an interview with the president. He forgets that part.

But this -- but this is -- this is the test here now. Will it affect the votes on tax reform? You already see today John McCain, Bob Corker, saying, Mr. President, we sent you a law about Russian sanctions. It took effect in early October. You haven't done it. Do it. We sent you a law where the Congress -- so is it going to affect business or is this just a both personal feuds and a tug of war about the future of the party?

HULSE: Well, I think that it could affect the tax reform, but I also think that Republicans are in such dire need of an accomplishment that they can probably figure out a way to get this through. Bob Corker, and I've said this before, you know, he might not be getting along with the president, but he doesn't want to spite his party or his friends in the Senate. And he's got a lot of friends there. So I think that there's ways that they can get this done, but it's very ugly right now. And people are just sort of trying to get their heads around how they're supposed to move forward.

LIZZA: And he -- but he's laid down a marker that is conservative -- that any conservative could adopt to oppose tax reform. And that is if it explodes the deficit, then he's not for it.

KING: Right.

LIZZA: So --

HULSE: But he did vote for a budget that (INAUDIBLE) -- KING: Right.

LIZZA: He voted for the budget, but that's, Carl, correct me if I'm wrong, that's very often a party line vote.

HULSE: Yes. Yes. A hundred percent.

LIZZA: I mean just because you voted for the budget doesn't mean you're going to vote for everything else.

HULSE: And he -- and he -- he has said that.

BARRON-LOPEZ: He reiterated it again yesterday.

KING: We have a lot of TBDs on these issues that will be settled (ph). No, between now and the end of the year, the Congress -- they haven't done much this year and they want to do some big things between now and the end of the year. We're going to see if this stuff bubbles up.

We'll take a break. We'll come back to this conversation in a bit.

Up next, though, it's an old saying around politics, follow the money. New revelations, new questions about who funded that infamous Trump dossier.


[12:17:07] KING: Welcome back.

The trouble with truth telling, it seems, is a bipartisan affliction. During last year's campaign, reporter Ken Vogel had sources telling him the Clinton campaign was helping to finance that now infamous dossier researching Donald Trump's contacts with Russians. But Vogel tweets, when I tried to report this story, Clinton campaign lawyer, at Marc Elias, pushed back vigorously saying you or your sources are wrong.

Well, we know today Ken's sources were right. A source now confirms to CNN a development reported last night by "The Washington Post." Both the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee helped fund the dossier research. Now, to be clear, we've known for some time now the firm behind the dossier, Fusion GPS, was first funded by anti-Trump Republicans. Then the funding picked up by the Democrats after Trump won the nomination.

But now, for the first time, we have an idea of who those Democrats were, how far up this reached and we have a better idea of how those writing the checks denied it during the campaign, or, as Maggie Haberman of "The New York Times" eloquently puts it, folks involved in funding this lied about it and with sanctimony for a year.

Is this a big deal? Obviously the president this morning tweeting. This is good for him in the sense that he can say now that Democrats put money behind this dossier, which includes some salacious things that have not been confirmed, and include some other things about x met with y, y met with z, Russian contacts that the FBI took seriously enough to include in its counterintelligence investigation. The president says, Clinton campaign and DNC paid for research that led to anti-Trump fake news dossier. The victim here is the president at Fox News.

So the president is now claiming -- you know, agreeing with Fox News that he's a victim here.

PACE: Well, look, it's always a big deal when you get into a situation where someone denies involvement in something and then you realize that they actually were quite involved in it. And I think it does raise questions about why the Clinton campaign and the DNC when this dossier came up during the transition weren't just up front with the fact that, yes, we were -- we were paying for opposition research. It's something that every campaign does. It's actually not that scandalous.

KING: Right.

PACE: So this -- I will say, this doesn't fundamentally change where we are on the Russia investigations. Bob Mueller is not in place because a dossier exists that was funded by a Republican and then a Democrat.

KING: Right.

PACE: He's there for various other reasons. It doesn't change the fact that reporting shows that there are aspects of that dossier that have been confirmed by intelligence agencies. There are other aspects of it that have not. So, yes, I think Democrats have questions to answer, but it doesn't change the situation that the president is in as it relates to these investigations.

KING: The president will disagree with you, but you're absolutely right.

PACE: Sure.

KING: It doesn't change the fact that the attorney general of the United States met with the Russian ambassador during the campaign and didn't disclose it in testimony in Congress.

PACE: Right.

KING: It doesn't disclose that Jared Kushner, the president's son-in- law, now senior adviser, met with Russians during the campaign, including a banker close to Putin, didn't put it on his forms. So there are a lot of other legitimate issues to be reviewed. But, politically, it's kind of embarrassing for the Democrats, isn't it?

BARRON-LOPEZ: No, it is embarrassing. It's another thing that's added to the long list of, why can't the Clinton campaign, you know, say what they're doing or be honest about something? You know, it adds to the whole stigma of her campaign and the candidate herself.

[12:20:09] You know, that being said, though, again, as Julie said, you know, Mueller is still conducting this investigation and if a vast majority of the dossier ends up becoming, you know, verified by Mueller's investigation, then who paid for it may not be as pertinent.

KING: Not as pertinent.

Just before you jump in, Ryan, I just want to play Brian Fallon here. He was the campaign's chief spokesman at the time. He says he doesn't know about this funding. He says he doesn't know if Hillary Clinton knows about it. He said he can't answer that question.

To Julie's point, it would have been negligence. Remember, Donald Trump's alleged contacts with Russians, business deals with Russians, were part of the questions about him during the Republican primaries. If Republicans brought it up would have been negligent if they didn't look into it. Here's Brian.


BRIAN FALLON, CLINTON CAMPAIGN PRESS SECRETARY: I think it's important to remember that, A, opposition research happens all the time in campaigns. B, before -- the reason the Fusion GPS had a head start on this and basically came to the campaign and pitched us was because they already had been commissioned and hired during the Republican primary.


KING: I just don't get if something is, A, the smart thing to do, which it was --


KING: And, B, they inherited something. They essentially bought a project -- bought into a project that starred a Republican -- why not just say so from day one?

LIZZA: They should have disclosed it. They should have disclosed it. I think -- I think Julie's right about the fact that -- the fact -- oppo research goes on all the time. That's not necessarily the issue. The Mueller probe probably would not be different knowing this fact.

But, to me, what we're now in the end of October and we still don't have a full accounting of the relationship between what Russia did in the 2016 campaign. And, to me, this is just another leak, another piece of information. It should have been disclosed. We should know about it. And it just -- it adds to this entire atmosphere of confusion about what happened last year.

KING: And in the world --

LIZZA: And of all people that should have been -- come clean and disclosed what they knew about this, the Clinton campaign should have. Because now it just gets processed through the partisan lens where conservatives will say, aha, and exaggerate how this makes, you know, exonerates Trump on everything.

KING: Right. LIZZA: And Democrats will defend it. And it just, to me, it suggests we need a one comprehensive accounting so the American people have a clear idea of everything.

KING: Right. Amen. And what it does is with this partisanship, when you get that accounting at the end, no matter what it says, and we don't know what it's going to say, will people view it credibly whether they've lived in their partisan silo being told either that, you know, Trump broke every law under the land or this is all Democrats faking.

HULSE: Yes, this gives them a great talking point. You know, another way to undermine whatever comes out. I agree with everything people said.

You know, Brian had a good line last night. I didn't know about this, but if I had, I would have gone over and helped. Well, they maybe should have said, too little too late.

LIZZA: They should have --

KING: Yes.

HULSE: They should have said that back then. It would have been a good response.

KING: Yes. Honesty on day one as opposed to in hindsight helps quite a bit.

Up next, the significance and the consequence of sitting U.S. senators from the president's own party condemning his character and suggesting his politics threaten the very fiber of America.


[12:27:24] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: We were not made great as a country by indulging in or even exalting our worst impulses turning against ourselves, glorifying in the things that divide us, and calling fake things true and true things fake. And we did not become the beacon of freedom in the darkest corners of the world by flouting our institutions and failing to understand just how hard won and vulnerable they are.


KING: Stunning denunciation there of the president from a retiring Republican senator. Senator Jeff Flake bluntly criticizing President Trump's character, his divisive rhetoric, and his overall fitness to be commander in chief. But it doesn't stop with the president. Senator Flake also calling into question the state of the Republican Party, encouraging his colleagues to, quote, no longer remain silent. None of which should be taken lightly.

We focus -- the Trump presidency is such a blur. There's 100 tweets a day. There's this. There's that. That sometimes we don't step back.

I mean I've been in this town for 28 years. I have -- do -- have no recollection of within a short period of time George W. Bush, former president of the United States, Senator John McCain, elder statesman in his party, and now bob Corker and Jeff Flake saying -- saying such things about publicly about the president of the United States. It is unprecedented, at least in my lifetime. The question is, what -- where does it go and what does it mean?

PACE: I don't think we know the answer to that right now. I do think it is important to put it in context. I mean the types of things that we're hearing, you would think that we are at the end of a presidential term when it's clear to the party that this president is not going to be able to win a second term.

We're in the first year.

KING: Right.

PACE: This is when Trump should be at his most powerful. This is when he should be able to leverage the fact that Republicans have control of both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

But in terms of the fallout from this, I think it is just wildly uncertain. We don't know what's going to happen with some of these candidates that Trump via Bannon are going to be supporting in some of the primaries. I think the first place you're going to look is tax reform, though, when you -- to look for a true impact. Will Bob Corker actually vote against a package? Trump can't afford to lose a lot of Republicans on this. And every Republican that I talk to says that 2018 looks really good except if they don't pass some kind of tax reform package.

LIZZA: Yes. No, go ahead.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Well, that's right. Look, Corker reiterated yesterday after the meeting with Trump, I'm firm on the deficit. That's not something that he's going to waiver on. But he still is gettable. And so is Flake. They're -- at their core they are conservatives. They do tend to vote party line. But it doesn't mean that Flake's speech and Corker's, you know, back and forth with the president is normal at all. It isn't. It's something that's very different. And maybe, as Flake said, it will bring out more Republican senators. But it remains to be seen.

[12:30:06] KING: But -- yes. And even beyond those votes, though, the votes that are coming in the next couple weeks, I mean, they want the party to somehow reach out and take the party back from the president. I mean how do you --