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Trump Wanted Gag Order Lifted; Trump Tweets about Collusion; Congress Works on Tax Reform. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 27, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Transparency. Democrats call it political meddling. President Trump personally intervenes to help Republicans in Congress secure testimony for an FBI source with information about an Obama era uranium deal with Russia.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: What's so striking about the president again intervening in the Department of Justice is it's part of a pattern of politization of the Department of Justice.


KING: Plus, a street level look at America's opioid crisis. And the big question, now that it has the president's attention, will there be new money to match the new promises of help?


GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: This is the medical crisis of our time. This is the AIDS epidemic of our generation, but even worse. And another thing I don't understand is, why aren't people marching? I'm old enough to remember the marches for -- by AIDS patients and the people who cared about that issue.


KING: And score a win of sorts for Democratic mega donor Tom Steyer. A presidential attack tweet proves Steyer's new ad was watched by the man it says should be impeached.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's brought us to the brink of nuclear war, obstructed justice at the FBI and in direct violation of the Constitution, has taken money from foreign governments and threatened to shut down news organizations that report the truth.


KING: A busy hour ahead.

We begin with an unusual push from the president, the Democrats call a Nixonian abuse of power, and Trump allies call nothing more than good government transparency. It involves Russia, Hillary Clinton and the House committee chairman who had to step aside from one investigation already because he was too cozy with the Trump White House. So we know from the get go sorting the facts from the politics isn't going to be easy.

At issue something very important, the president personally directing his senior White House staff to push the Justice Department to lift a gag order on an undercover FBI informant. Two sources telling CNN that informant played a critical role in an FBI investigation into a uranium deal with Russia back during the Obama administration when Hillary Clinton was secretary of state.

President Trump, absent any connect the dot facts, calls this deal a modern day Watergate. The House Intelligence Committee, just this week, announced it's going to go back and look at the deal. To do so thoroughly, it needed testimony from that informant, which is where the presidential nudge to the Justice Department comes in. It is within the president's rights. But there are White House guidelines urging a lot of caution before presidential meddling in Justice Department business. No big deal says Team trump.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: It is not unusual for a president to weigh in. This president, as you saw from everything with the JFK files to this particular ongoing investigation, Alisyn, is for transparency. And he believes, as many others do, frankly, that the FBI informant should be free to say what he knows. But this was made, let me repeat, the judiciary chairman in the United States Senate, Chuck Grassley, made this request to the Justice Department last week.


KING: Critics say the president's role is political meddling, not transparency.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: What's so striking about the president again intervening in the Department of Justice is it's part of a pattern of politization of the Department of Justice. He fired Jim Comey. He's interviewing U.S. attorney candidates in the southern district of New York, where he has property, and where there are investigations into money launders by his associates. So this kind of interference in the Department of Justice is deeply troubling to me.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights today, Karoun Demirjian of "The Washington Post," "Politico's" Seung Min Kim, Eliana Johnson also with "Politico," and CNN's Sara Murray.

So let me start with the question, which is it? It is unusual for a president to get involved. This testimony is critical if the House Intelligence Committee is to conduct a fair and thorough investigation of just what happened. Now, there are some people saying, why is the House Intelligence Committee going back to 2010? The Republicans have been in the majority since 2011 after the midterms. Now, why didn't they do it sooner if it was such a big deal?

Now, let's first start, though, the president getting involved in this saying his goal here is simply to free up testimony to help. Fair? Within the lines? Outside the lines?

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I guess fair except for this is not happening in a vacuum, right?

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: Because the characters here have been -- there was a preliminary act to all of this, which was that you had, you know, allegations that there was coordination between Devin Nunes, the House Intelligence chairman, who announced this probe getting resurrected this week in the House, and the White House when we were talking about the unmasking of names. The last time there was something that Democrats were pointing the finger and saying, you're just trying to distract from the -- the Russia investigation.

So now you have them both coming into the arena again saying, oh, this is nothing like the time before. Oh, no, we're not talking to each other about strategizing. We've just been working on this for months and we want to set the record straight and be transparent. They are saying all the right things, but all those questions about what the real motivations are, are there because we witnessed this same cast in a different, but similar, sort of scenario not that long ago.

[12:05:03] KING: And that's one of the challenges for the president, as he does this. Let's assume, for the sake of argument right here, that the president's doing this because Chuck Grassley does want to talk to this informant. The House also -- he's on the Senate side. The House also wants to talk to this informant. Let's assume, for the sake of the conversation now, and I know that will Twitter will break out there with Democrats saying that's impossible. Let's assume the president is actually trying to do the right thing and nudge his Justice Department to have this witnesses -- I hope all witnesses. There may -- if there are witnesses that have a different view, they should testify fully too.

But the president has to know that among political journalists, among Democrats, and even among a lot of his Republican colleagues, Devin Nunes came across as a White House lackey earlier in the Russia investigation and so his credibility will be questioned from day one.

ELIANA JOHNSON, "POLITICO": Well, hold on. Let's assume that everyone's motives are impure. Do we -- let's assume Trump is trying to -- trying to give it --

KING: Isn't it striking that that's normally where we start in Washington now instead of the other way?

JOHNSON: Right, saying like -- let's assume that Trump is trying to get back at Democrat who have tried to slap him with -- with the Russia collusion. Let's assume Devin Nunes is acting in a partisan manner. Does this issue seem like something we should want to get to the bottom of? Does it seem like a big deal or not and put everybody's -- and just assume that everybody's acting in a political manner.

I think this does seem like kind of a big issue. And the fact that it happened in 2010, I think, makes it somewhat less relevant, but not irrelevant. It still seems like something that I think we should want to know the facts about and that there should be public accountability on and are willing to concede that everybody's motivations are purely partisan.

KING: I think that's a great point. If there is information, no matter how far back it goes, if there is new information not in the public light that sheds some light on this deal, favorable or unfavorable, raises questions or resolves questions that have been raised about this -- great, let's get it. The question is, to your point, can this cast of characters get us there?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But I also think it's why the president decided that he wants to put a finger on the scale in this particular case and what does that mean about other issues that the Justice Department is going to be facing, that he may decide he wants to weigh in. And we know that the president has sort of a fraught relationship with the notion that you don't necessarily meddle in what's going on with the Justice Department. Obviously, you know, he fired James Comey and set off a firestorm over that.

But it's interesting to see how sort of meticulously careful White House aides -- I'm thinking about Sarah Sanders right now at the podium -- the number of times the president has sent a tweet suggesting the Justice Department should do this or do that and Sarah walks to the podium and says, we're not going to weigh in on this. It's an ongoing investigation. It is not our job at the White House to tell the Justice Department what to do. We are not going to put a finger on the scale.

And here, you know, the president may -- may be within his right to do so, but it is a very fraught relationship. You have to be very careful.

KING: I think -- and Sarah Sanders, you know, if you're Jeff Sessions, you have to listen to President Trump probably a little bit more than Sarah Sanders, even though you probably wish you could listen to Sarah Sanders more than President Trump.

And here's another issue in this. But let's just, again, you corrected me on how Washington's reflection is. And that's actually sad. We're laughing about it, but it's sad. The Washington's reflex nowadays is that most people's intentions are partisan as opposed to, OK, let's have legitimate congressional oversight. Whichever party's in charge, whichever party has the White House, that would be a good thing.

One of the problems for the president is, he pushes the Justice Department, puts his thumb on the scale as you put it, to make clear this informant should be allowed to testify.

Now, is the president seeking new facts? Listen here. It already sounds like he has a firm view of how he wishes this ends up.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I think the uranium sale to Russia and the way it was done, so underhanded with tremendous amounts of money being passed, I actually think that's Watergate modern age.


KING: So it's the judge and jury have already decided before the witness gets to testify. That sort of complicates things.

DEMIRJIAN: Yes, it does complicate things. And, I mean, again, I mean, everybody really loves using the term Watergate right now. It's almost getting overused to the point of, you know, making this comparison because it's like, oh, that's the most sensationalistic thing possible. And, I mean, I'll just leave that out there.

But, you know, the president is not good at refraining from getting into the ring with all of these matters, especially when it gets into things that were being -- that he cared about during the campaign or the Russia probe. This seems like another one of those things, just to get back to Eliana's point from before, that it's -- there is an issue there that's a real issue devoid of the politics, but it's so, so completely taken over by the politics of the situation. You could say the same thing about the overall Russia probe and, you know, meddling in, you know, the security levels of our infrastructure systems and our election systems that people get obsessed about the finger- pointing part of it and we lose the other, more substantive problems to that point (ph).

MURRAY: And, yes, when you ask the president a question about Russia and he's like, no, no, no collusion, but look at this uranium deal.


MURRAY: That's the big problem.


MURRAY: You kind of lose the notion of, oh, this is a president who's just trying to do the right thing and make sure that the right information comes to light, rather than, this is a president who wants you to look at anything other than more questions about Russia collusion.

KING: Right. Would they be so transparent on all the documents behind the Comey firing and all the communications inside the White House. You're right, you can't -- selective transparency.

JOHNSON: Clearly that's not what's happening. But I am confident enough in the system of checks and balances, the Comey firing is a great example where the president was within his rights to do it, but he paid a huge price for it. And the president is within his rights to push the Justice Department here and he's airing his views in an unusual way. But that doesn't mean that Congress is going to find that this was the modern day Watergate.

[12:10:17] KING: And on the broader Russia investigation, the president weighs in, in a tweet this morning, which is how we usually get insights into what he's thinking. It is now commonly agreed, the president tweets, after many months of costly, all caps, looking, that there was no, all caps, collusion, between Russia and Trump. Was solution with HC, Hillary Clinton. That's about funning the dossier. The Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party have now conceded they picked up the funding of this dossier about Trump that was originally by one of his Republican opponents and a Republican entity.

Let's focus on what the president said. Is it now commonly agreed?


KING: It is not. I didn't think so.

KIM: And the investigations are still ongoing. And that's the other factor with the news we saw of the FBI informant and the uranium deal this week. I -- and you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel like this is a week where we really did start to see the congressional Russia's probes start to splinter a little bit because you saw not only did House Republicans launch a probe into the uranium deal, but a separate probe into Comey's handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation when they are -- and I've had Democrats tell me pretty frustrated saying, look, you know, Hillary Clinton's not the president of the United States. She's a private citizen now. We want to keep our focus on this current Russia probe. And you already are having congressional Republicans signal that their probe might be winding down, you know, by the end of the year, even though the major question, the question of collusion, still does remain unanswered.

KING: It remains -- Chairman Burr just said that, what, a couple of weeks ago, still an open question, he said.

DEMIRJIAN: Right. And I think these -- all the --

KING: He's a Republican. I just want to remind you that he's a Republican.

DEMIRJIAN: Right. And the Senate Intelligence Committee is the one committee that doesn't seem to have gotten completely swept up in this storm this week, although, you know, who knows exactly what's -- what's next.

But, yes, so they're looking into the home stretch of these Russia probes. They're trying to at least get something out by the beginning of next year because the primaries are coming and they are trying to at least say, OK, we have a responsibility to make sure this, you know -- at least we say something so that it hopefully doesn't happen again in 2018.

But this -- this whole common agreement thing is a little bit disturbing, frankly, because at the center of all of this has been this IC report, right, which came out in January with a public draft which pretty much every single one of Trump's nominees for a national security position that had to go before Congress said, yes, we agree with it. Almost everybody except for the president.

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: And this week you started to see a little bit of erosion of that. You saw Mike Pompeo speaking at a public event in which he said that the IC had said, oh, that there was absolutely no collusion between Russia and Trump, which the IC just never actually weighed in on that, right? Now you have the president talking about common agreement or whatever the exact term is, it's slipping my mind right now. What is that? Is it a replacement for the intelligence community? Because, if it is, then you're almost eroding the credibility of the IC, which has been a fundamental problem for this entire debate (INAUDIBLE).

KING: Right. We'll -- yes, and we'll see where the substance takes us and the Bob Mueller special counsel investigation much more important, not diminishing what's on Capitol Hill.


KING: You're right, the Senate Intelligence Committee still has more credibility, I would say, than the House side. But we'll see where the substance takes us. The politics of this, this week is, you know, he -- let's even assume that this investigation into the uranium deal is necessary and worthwhile doing, but it confusions people. What's going on about Russia? And now you see this pressure from the president to wrap this up. That's what the president's trying to say there, it's time to wrap this up by the end of the year.

A quick break. When we come back, strong economic growth numbers from the government. The economy is picking up steam. The president's message to Capitol Hill, the way to keep it going, send me a tax cut bill. But it's complicated.


[12:17:35] KING: Welcome back.

A strong economic report today that is very good political news for President Trump. The U.S. economy grew at a healthy 3 percent rate last quarter, despite the major hurricanes. Now, President Trump likes to say the economy never grew at that rate under President Obama. If you look at the numbers there, that's not quite true, but the president can still brag these are the two best quarters in a row, back to back, since 2014.

Now, part of the optimism in corporate boardrooms and in financial markets is based on the Republican promise of a big tax cut plan this year. There's momentum there too. Now, after that House vote yesterday, both chambers of Congress now have passed a budget that allows a big tax cut.

But the real work is just beginning. Now the House is working to turn the vague framework endorsed by the president and Republican congressional leaders into the detailed proposal. Among the questions to be answered by next week's rollout, will there be a higher tax bracket for millionaires? Will Republicans keep the state and local tax deductions, particularly important in some high tax states, like California, New York, New Jersey? Will Republicans reduce the tax benefits of your 401(k) plan? And, how much will this tax cut plan increase the deficit?

So now it's the fun work. But it's -- it is unmistakable that they have momentum. I would say more so than at any time during the Obamacare repeal debate or would I be going too far there?

KIM: It's not a bad assessment, particularly because, remember, some of the deals that they reached a couple of weeks ago where the House just decided to take up the Senate budget instead of going to a formal conference to take up the measure, that saved them a lot of times. Estimates of upwards of three or four weeks to work strictly on tax reform so people -- the Republicans do actually feel a little bit better on Capitol Hill these days and feel -- do feel that momentum.

But, again, the devil's in the details. And I think if you look at the narrow vote yesterday, 216 to 212 in the House, it shows there's still a lot of concern about those blue state House Republicans about the state and local tax deduction. And for Speaker Paul Ryan and leadership, I mean you don't want to start your whip count you know that many votes down. About a dozen Republicans from New York and New Jersey voted against the budget just because of that reason.

KING: Right. And I will show some who voted for it. You mentioned the ones that voted against it because they -- that was their last -- they thought of that as their last line of big leverage. We're going to vote against. We want you to know.

Here's some who voted for it from these high tax states. And essentially the argument to them was, we know this is hard. We're going to work this out. Somehow we're going to try to work this out in negotiations. We need your vote today. Give us your vote today. And these eight did. Now, if they keep that in there, that's a tough sell. You go -- some of these districts you're talking about a $6,000, $8,000, $12,000 that people back home deduct every year on their taxes, to vote to take that away. So now the challenge is, can they put it together?

[12:20:03] And this is where it is the Obamacare debate all over again. You have regional differences. You have ideological differences. You have the legitimate conservative concerns about the deficit. What happens?

DEMIRJIAN: It's going to be a bit of a free-for-all basically because -- so if they can get the standard deduction big enough that it actually covers the individual concerns for each of these representatives, maybe they will be willing to play ball. But the issues are going to come up when the representatives start not all being able to get what they want as the tradeoff basically in that bill. And then you're going to have all kinds of other inviting happening and this will slow down. And then the question will be, you know, does party loyalty win out over the actual, you know, the bottom line, best case scenario interest of the representative from that state. I mean you're covering it much more closely than I am, but it seems like it's inevitably heading towards intraparty fighting, basically, over what is the most sacred thing to preserve in exchanges for the changes that they're trying to make.

JOHNSON: Yes. I mean there is broad agreement among Republicans when it comes to cutting tax rates, but there are many disputes when it comes to how to make up the money lost or added to the -- when you're adding to the deficit. There is huge disagreements about how to make that up.

KING: And a lot --

JOHNSON: Whether it's through these deductions or cuts to what you can put away in your 401(k), you're never going to get agreement among Republicans about that. Or whether you simply add to the deficit, which is something that a lot of Republicans would like to do, but it's not allowed when you're dealing with the -- along the lines of reconciliation.

KING: Right, within 10 years you can't do that.

JOHNSON: Yes. Yes.

KING: And then there's the -- then there's the questions as, again, this is Obamacare deja vu for a lot of these people, a lot of Republicans, and for the leadership, that, you know, will the president help them or will he act in a way that undermines them? And that's why they were so nervous about his 401(k) tweet.

MURRAY: Right.

KING: That -- for the key junctions to the Obamacare debate, the president said things that were contrary to what was happening on Capitol Hill and (INAUDIBLE) the deal.

MURRAY: But it was both sides of that. I mean, on the one hand, the president was not out there for much of the time talking about the health care plan, selling the health care plan. They couldn't convince Americans that this was a plan that was going to benefit their lives. So they do want the president, as they're talk about tax cuts, saying this is going to be good for the economy, this is going to be good for your bottom line.

What they don't necessarily want are tweets like him weighing specifically in on what to do, how to treat 401(k)s, how to treat x and y provisions. They don't necessarily want him inviting or calling members from the White House and say, OK, I'm willing to give you this in exchange for this so that his legislative affairs staff and the legislative affairs staff of other senators, Republican or Democrat, can find those details out later. And that is the risk of this president because he does believes he's the ultimate dealmaker.

KING: Doesn't want the House plan -- let's assume the House can pass a plan, to be great the day it passes and then mean as the Senate debates it a few days later.

MURRAY: Sure. (INAUDIBLE). KING: Paul Ryan said he was joking, but he wasn't joking when he said the president -- happily the president will be in Asia next week when they start to get into the details of some of this.

JOHNSON: He still can tweet from Asia, though.

MURRAY: I actually did laugh when Ryan said that.

JOHNSON: Hopefully the president will stick to tweeting about how great the economy is performing.

KING: Well, just -- don't underestimate the economics. This is good economics for the president. You say this and people say, oh, you're normalizing Trump. He's the president of the United States today and the economy grew back to back quarters at 3 percent. The job growth is still sluggish, still a little behind actually the same months last year. Some other things still sluggish. But the basic trajectory of the economy is good -- when it's going that way, it's good for any president. And it's going that way, which is good for the president.

For the Democrats here, they think if the Republicans mess up tax reform, that's their ticket. You couldn't repeal and replace Obamacare. You didn't even touch the president's infrastructure promise. If you mess up tax reform, then you essentially go zero for what you promised would be your big three in the first year of all Republican Washington. They believe that gives them the wind at their back in 2018, which is why Nancy Pelosi is baiting the members we just talked about.

There are 35 House Republicans from those high tax districts who are worried about the state and local tax deduction. Nancy Pelosi says, walk the plank.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: What -- what these members walk the plank for is something they're going to have to answer for back home and hopefully I think that the ability to have leverage would have been to defeat this and then go to their speaker and say, we want something different. In fact, they have enhanced. They've given leverage to the exploiters.


KING: This reminds me, you know, some of you call it obstruction. Democrats call it worse than that. But Mitch McConnell set a goal pretty early in the Obama administration, I'm going to try to block everything I can.

This is a giant test for the Democrats. Can they message? Can they work the halls? Can they work the public? Can they work their constituencies? And they've got a couple of weeks here that, you know, as -- the Republicans have the bigger test. And we've put together this bill and pass it with our narrow majorities. But this is a giant test for the leadership of the Democratic Party for their political goals. DEMIRJIAN: It definitely is and it is a lot on the messaging front

too. And I'm glad that you mentioned Mitch McConnell because that's the trick really for the House all the time, which is that the House members can sometimes take votes that they might not otherwise take if the klieg lights were on them alone because they know there aren't the votes for it in the Senate, or there are the votes. The Senate's weird math does provide some interesting protection and makes it a not true test of things sometimes in the House, which then puts the onus on the Democrats to craft the message in a way that really, really pinpoints and gets Republicans between a rock and a hard place if they want to actually pin this on.

[12:25:14] In a situation like tax reform, the difficulty for Democrats is that there is always something else they can argue for to explain why you voted a certain way. It is not a one off, you know, yes, I like immigrants, no I don't like immigrants sort of a deal. It's like a DACA, you know, extension.

KING: Right.

DEMIRJIAN: But it's a really massive, really complicated bill. So you can say basically like, well, I took this vote because on balance here's all these things, even though, yes, you're right, I didn't like stomaching this one aspect that you're trying to pin me on.

KING: From a policy standpoint, break out your calculator. An interesting couple of weeks ahead from a politics standpoint. It's going to be fascinating.

Up next, we shift gears. President Trump vowing to end the opioid epidemic. A look here at the people he's promising to save.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I didn't grow up thinking I was going to be a heroin addict. Like, this isn't exactly what I want to be. Like --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What are your hopes and dreams?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: To get sober. To have a family. I, at one point, I thought I was going to and I lost the love of my life. We both overdosed. And when I woke up, he was dead.