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White House Weighs Replacing Tillerson; Corker Says U.S. Needs Tillerson; Fifth Woman Accuses Franken; Pelosi Calls for Conyers' Resignation; McCain's Yes on Tax Bill. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 30, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:07] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us. This one, full of breaking news.

Word the president is on the verge of a major administration shake-up. One that would force out the secretary of state and replaces him with the CIA director.

Plus, John McCain today becomes a "yes" on tax cuts. And because of that, Senate Republicans believe they will be able to pass their plan and keep a major 2017 promise by week's end.

And a new groping allegation against Senator Al Franken. Plus, a dramatic shift from the House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi after a woman who accuses Congressman John Conyers of sexual harassment bravely speaks out.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: It's very sad. The brave women who came forward are owed justice. I pray for Congressman Conyers and his family and wish them well. However, Congressman Conyers should resign.


KING: We begin an hour of breaking news with this breaking news.

The Trump administration could be on the brink of another dramatic shake-up. Multiple officials confirming to CNN the White House now considering a plan to replace the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. In turn, Secretary Tillerson would be replaced, according to this plan, by Mike Pompeo, who's currently the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. And to fill that vacancy at CIA, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas is the leading candidate to step in.

Moments ago, President Trump was asked about Tillerson's fate by reporters in the Oval Office.



QUESTION: Mr. President, should Rex -- do you have Rex Tillerson on the job, Mr. President?


QUESTION: Do you want him to stay in his job?

TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you.


KING: According to "The New York Times," which first reported this news, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly is orchestrating the plan and the idea is to implement it within weeks.

With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace of "The Associated Press," Perry Bacon of FiveThirtyEight, Olivier Knox of "Yahoo! News," and CNN's MJ Lee. We hope also Maggie Haberman of "The New York Times," who broke this news, can join us on the phone in a moment or two.

This -- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has had tensions with the president of the United States virtually from day one. But why would this happen now at a moment when you're in a stare down with North Korea, which just tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile, you're in major tensions with our biggest ally in the world, the U.K., which we'll get to the details of that in a few moments. Why now?

JULIE PACE, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": Well, there's never a good time if you're going to do this kind of shake-up. And the reality is that Tillerson and Trump have clashed for months. They have done some of that publicly. They have done a lot of that privately. Some face-to- face. Some to different allies in their different camps. It's just a relationship that hasn't worked.

Trump has liked the idea of Tillerson more than he has liked Tillerson himself. He's developed a really strong relationship with Mike Pompeo, the CIA director, who comes into the White House every morning to give Trump his intelligence briefing. That's a significant relationship that's developed.

And Tom Cotton, the senator, is someone who has been a pretty strong ally of this administration. Someone who has given them advice on people to bring into the administration, who has given them policy advice. So these are pieces that we've seen sort of circling around a change for a while.

The timeline, I think, is a little unclear. We've heard everything from a couple of weeks to perhaps even next summer. But once this gets out, once this is public, it's hard for Rex Tillerson to stay in this job for very long.

KING: Right. To that point, Olivier, as someone who's covered several White Houses, Rex Tillerson is there today because the prime minister of Bahrain is in town meeting with the president of the United States. So Rex Tillerson doing his duty as secretary of state, there, presumably, for those conversations, or is he in the chief of staff's office? I mean this is the president's chief of staff, according to very solid reporting, first by Maggie Haberman in "The New York Times," is cooking a plan to force you out. What do you do when you read that?

OLIVIER KNOX, "YAHOO! NEWS": Well, hold on, force him -- let's pause with force him out because there's been a lot of reporting throughout this year that Rex Tillerson himself was very unhappy and was looking to leave after serving a full year. So, let's hold off on that. It certainly looks that way from the reporting in "The Times" and elsewhere that this is -- that this is him being pushed. But, don't forget, he's -- this has always been an open conversation in Washington, D.C., that the calendar might be the one forcing Rex Tillerson out by end of year.

KING: Right. So language issues, but it's not being handled how I think most people would think it would be handled, in a -- in a professional --

KNOX: That statement from the president, Rex is here, is --

KING: Rex is here. And, Maggie Haberman is with us on the telephone.

Maggie, I hope you heard part of the conversation there. Number one, fabulous reporting. Number two, trying to get to the question, why now?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES" (via telephone): Well, I think why now, two operating theories. And thank you for having me.

One is that they recognize that the end of the year is near and they're going to have to make a change pretty soon one way or the other. Then the question is whether they are just going to tell Rex Tillerson this is the end of the line or whether they are going to let him resign. The other theory as to why now in terms of this news getting out is that, as you know, Donald Trump doesn't always like to fire people, despite the "you're fired" tag line. And I have some sense from people I have spoken to in the White House that they are trying to essentially push him towards making a decision here one way or the other.

[12:05:04] Now, this is the John Kelly essentially fantasy draft. Is the way this works is Mike Pompeo fills in a State, Tillerson departs at some point either, you know, towards the end of this year or at the beginning of the next year. And they then have Tom Cotton potentially replace Mike Pompeo at the CIA.

The Cotton piece is the least certain for a couple of reasons. Cotton has been a huge ally of the president's in the Senate, as you know, and they also don't want to create another situation with a messy election to fill a Senate seat the way you've seen with Roy Moore. So that's why this is all happening.

Now, the clock is -- the clock is ticking and I did hear somebody say that before. They have basically decided within the White House months ago that Rex Tillerson was going to have to go at some point around the end of the year. I'm not sure that Rex Tillerson's there yet. We're going to know more on that toward the end of the day.

KING: And, help me, because you make a fascinating point. Number one, we have seen the president's reluctance as president to fire people despite his role in "Celebrity Apprentice." Number two, when you mention the chief of staff, John Kelly, handling this, I find that part particularly fascinating because remember several months ago when we -- when Rex Tillerson was telling friends back in Texas he was so frustrated he might leave. We were talking about the Rexit (ph), if you will. It was John Kelly and Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, who got together with Rex Tillerson and they were viewed as and reported as the three adults who were saying, everybody take a breath. Yes, we're all frustrated. But let's get through this together. We need to stay. Our jobs are very important. That Kelly is now the orchestrator of this plan I find particularly fascinating.

HABERMAN: So I think that a couple of things have happened, John. But one is, I think that John Kelly has become persuaded by the president on some of his own frustrations on a number of issues overtime. I think that Rex Tillerson, initially people had been defensive of him, but they have seen him as ineffective. They have seen him as essentially burning bridges for no reason within the White House.

Kelly was concerned about continuity I think more than he was about the concept of the adults in the room. That may have been how he kept Rex Tillerson from marching off. But he has been concerned about preserving the existing cabinet through the end of this year that has gone not just for Rex Tillerson, but for Jeff Sessions. Somebody who you know very well. The president has been all over the map on whether he wanted to keep him or not. But the constant has been that he has been extremely frustrated with him since he recused himself from all Russia 2016 meddling matters.

So Kelly's goal is basically get through 2017. You can see 2017 is almost over. It's not a big surprise.

KING: Maggie Haberman, appreciate your taking time during breaking news today to share the reporting and insights with us and dial us back up if you get more as the hour unfolds.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

KING: We've got 50 minutes to go here.

MJ, you just came from Capitol Hill. You were up there mostly reporting on another issue, sexual harassment, which we'll get to in a few minutes.

But Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a man who has broken with the president of the United States and questioned his competency and the like, so we should put that out there, a Trump supporter will say who cares what Bob Corker says, but he said he had a long, frank conversation with Secretary Tillerson and that the United States needs Tillerson to stay in the job.

So if this is happening or just word that the president wants it to happen is going to cause another rift in the Republican Party, or at least with some senior members.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Absolutely. And, you know, one word that Corker used a lot repeatedly in this gaggle was the word distraction. He was being asked about Tillerson, but a number of other issues as well, including North Korea.

But I think that is sort of theme and the biggest worry that lawmakers on The Hill, Republicans on The Hill have when they see these kinds of headlines, you know, crop up. You know, Julie, you were talking about the obvious fact that President Trump and Tillerson have butted heads on some things. Their sort of tensions have been playing out in the public. That in and of itself was a distraction and I think with so many elements and issues that come up for this White House and this administration, you know, members feel like they're having to choose between two kinds of distractions. It's not that one option is perfect or another option is, you know, better. A lot of the times they just feel like they're going from one distraction to the next.

KING: And, remember, Perry, Secretary Tillerson did a round of Sunday shows that was viewed largely as him trying to make it up to the president after it was reported that in a private meeting, I'll just say politely, that he questioned the president's intelligence.


KING: That he quested the intelligence of the president of the United States. Here's a little snippet. This is Secretary Tillerson back in October.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: I'm not going to deal with petty stuff like that. I mean this is -- this is what I don't understand about Washington. And, again, you know, I'm not from this place, but the places I come from, we don't deal with that kind of petty nonsense. And it is intended to do nothing but divide people. And I'm just not going to be part of the effort to divide this administration.


KING: This has been almost from day one an interesting -- because Julie made the point that Trump saw, this is what I want. When we go back to picking the cabinet, I always talk about, you know, Trump looks for people out of central casting, CEO, strong guy, this is who I want to represent us around the world. And yet there's been dysfunction in this one from the beginning.

[12:10: 10] BACON: It's also been a policy too, I would say. It's like Tillerson has become someone who's more of a mainstream kind of, you know, he's been more for the Iran deal than Trump is (INAUDIBLE). So I do think Pompeo, and particularly Cotton, remember, they reached out to Cotton for advice on Iran because Trump wanted someone who he agreed with on the issue to help him out with his own team. So I think in this case it may be more Trump year one as a -- you know, had a lot of different people, had a lot of wings (ph) in the White House. Now let me align myself with people who actually agree with me on policy to be my (INAUDIBLE). It actually makes a lot of sense to me.

KING: That's an excellent point. And you do see shake-ups in a lot of administrations after year one because we've had -- the national security adviser had to resign. You've had other shake -- people leaving -- other people leaving the White House. Cabinet secretaries having to resign. This one, it seems like you're getting more than normal turmoil. One cabinet member at the end of year one would not be a big deal if we didn't have all the other stuff that has happened in the rear view mirror.

I want to just bring this in from Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary. This is from the pool reporters at the White House. Quote, there are no personnel announcements at this time. Secretary Tillerson continues to lead the State Department and the entire cabinet is focused on completing this incredibly successful first year of President Trump's administration. That is a quote from Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Some of it might not pass the fact check. But we'll get -- of course they're not going to publically --

PACE: Classic White House dodge.

KING: Classic White House -- classic --

BACON: He'll be out tomorrow and basically (INAUDIBLE).

PACE: Yes.

BACON: I mean that was --

KNOX: That statement's a fact, right? Yes, he does continue, in fact.

BACON: Right, right, yes.

KING: Right, he does.

PACE: At this moment.

BACON: At this moment, yes.

KING: But it is not, the White House press secretary saying, this is foolish nonsense.


BACON: Right.

KING: The secretary -- the secretary has the full confidence of the president.

BACON: Of the -- yes.

PACE: Absolutely, which is -- which is a classic Washington line that is always used. You have not seen them actually say that in a couple of different occasions with Tillerson, in part because he doesn't have the confidence of the president.

BACON: Right.

PACE: It would actually not be honest to say that. They have clashed, as Perry said, not just personality-wise, but on policy. And, actually, if you think about this year, it's pretty darn lucky for this administration that they have not dealt with a major foreign policy crisis. North Korea is looming. Obviously there have been a lot of different issues with different allies. But they have not dealt with a major attack in the United States, for example.

KING: Right.

PACE: A major conflict overseas. It is pretty amazing given the conflict within this national security team that they've kind of gotten away with a lot over the -- over this past year.

KING: That's a great point. Just one footnote I'll put on this and we'll continue to track it throughout the hour in case there's more. Remember, it was back in October when Rex Tillerson was in China and he had -- he publicly said that they were working on diplomacy with North Korea, something a big deal, and the United States directly talking to North Korea about trying to deescalate the nuclear tensions. I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful secretary of state, he's wasting his time trying to negotiate with little rocket man. Save your energy, Rex. We'll do what has to be done.

So the president has gone out of his way -- gone out of his way to publicly sometimes -- call that humiliation, call that challenge, pick your word for it. We'll keep an eye on this story but -- major reporting, Secretary Tillerson could soon be out.

Up next, Nancy Pelosi now saying Congressman John Conyers should resign over sexual harassment allegations. Her sudden rebuke coming right after the 88-year-old lawmaker checked into a hospital.


[12:17:08] KING: Welcome back.

The reckoning over sexual misconduct escalating on Capitol Hill just a short time ago. The House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, now said John Conyers, the longest serving member in the House of Representatives and a Democrat, must go.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: It's very sad. The brave women who came forward are owed justice. I pray for Congressman Conyers and his family and wish them well. However, Congressman Conyers should resign.

QUESTION: Just to clarify, you did just call for Conyers to resign?

PELOSI: I said he should resign.

QUESTION: Have you relayed that to him?

PELOSI: I'm saying it to you right now.


KING: That dramatic statement from the Democratic leader coming just hours after we learned Conyers checked into a hospital. He had returned home to Detroit to decide whether to bow to pressure from other colleagues calling on him to resign.

Marion Brown is a former congressional staffer. One of several women who have filed complaints against Conyers. That congressional process required her to sign a non- disclosure agreement. But, today, she decided, very bravely, to speak out.


MARION BROWN, CONGRESSMAN CONYERS ACCUSER: I am taking a risk. And the reason why I'm taking a risk, it is important to the -- I want to be a voice.

It was sexual harassment, violating -- violating my body, propositioning me, inviting me to hotels with the guise of discussing business and then propositioning me to, you know, for sex. And he's just violated my body. He has touched me in different ways. And it was very uncomfortable and very unprofessional.


KING: A powerful statement there.

On the other side of the Capitol, important CNN reporting this morning regarding Senator Al Franken. An Iraq War veteran says Franken touched her inappropriately during a USO tour back in 2003. Stephanie Kemplin now the fifth woman in two weeks to accuse Franken of inappropriate touching. Kemplin says she was a Franken fan because of his role on "Saturday Night Live," but that when taking a photo Franken, then a private citizen, reached around and groped her breast. Kemplin telling CNN's MJ Lee, quote, I was in a war zone. You were on a USO tour. Are you trying to boot the morale of the troops or are you trying to boost your own?

MJ Lee is with us, of course.

Let's start with that reporting and we'll come back to the Conyers situation. A very powerful account. You have been doing a lot of reporting on this. The response from Senator Franken's office?

LEE: Well, I -- let me just read the statement that we got from the spokesperson. It said, as Senator Franken made clear this week, he takes thousands of photos and has met tens of thousands of people and he has never intentionally engaged in this kind of conduct. He remains fully committed to cooperating with the ethics investigation.

I think the question that this statement raises is, how long can this be his response if there are other women who come out? He has said all along that none of this behavior, this kind of behavior, was ever intentional. But I think you have to ask the question, if you never behaved this way intentionally, then why are we now hearing for five different women who say that they were touched inappropriately by the senator?

[12:20:18] And you look at sort of the different accounts that have come out and there is sort of a pattern of behavior. They are often -- I think almost always in all five of the cases, if I am remembering this correctly, there is a photo op. People are meeting him because he, you know, has a celebrity status. They're excited to meet him. And then they sort of realize that this is happening, perhaps wonder for a few seconds, is this an accident, is this really happening, and then they often don't confront him on the spot because that is a very, very difficult thing to do.

I will also note that I reached out to Senator Schumer's office and no response from him. I think that, you know, he has to be watching what is going on over on the House side this morning, the fact that Nancy Pelosi is calling on John Conyers to resign and just wondering, you know, is there a point that you get to with Senator Franken where it just becomes impossible to continue supporting him?

KING: Right. And let's go back to the Conyers situation, because as we were speaking here on the air, his attorney, Arnold Reed, was giving a press conference out in Detroit. He was asked the question, now that Nancy Pelosi, as well as the Republican speaker, but Nancy Pelosi more significant in the sense that she's the Democratic leader, she's the leader of the -- John Conyers's party, Nancy Pelosi says the congressman should go. Here's his attorney's response.


ARNOLD REED, ATTORNEY FOR REP. JOHN CONYERS: First of all, it is not up to Nancy Pelosi. Nancy Pelosi did not elect the congressman and she sure as hell won't be the one to tell the congressman to leave.


KING: Defiance there. And the congressman is -- he went home and he's apparently exhausted from all of this. His people are calling it from the media attack. But these are legitimate questions about the congressman. He is hospitalized right now. Now that the speaker of the House and, again, more importantly, because he's a Democrat, the leader of the Democratic Party in the House have said, sir, you're not welcome here. Can John Conyers come back to Washington?

BACON: It's un -- it's not like the news media because you cover -- talked about in the -- the NBC News fired Matt Lauer yesterday. No one can fire John Conyers in that way.

I mean there's been some reporting already and the rumor is that he won't run in 2018 for reelection. That's maybe -- and they've already pushed him out of the head of the Judiciary Committee, the ranking member. So the Democrats have already done something.

But in reality here, Pelosi doesn't have the power that if she, you know, she doesn't run the Congress in the same way that a private executive would run the -- run a company. But I do think MJ's getting at the right point, which is that the Democrats in the House have taken one action. It's going to be harder for those in the Senate to, at this point, Franken with five women. I do think that today's was important because Conyers now had a woman on television in a video in great detail speaking about what he did. I thought Pelosi's mission was -- her comments on Sunday were problematic. They became untenable, I think, this morning.

PACE: And one of the things though I think that we have to consider here is, yes, there is obviously a difference. The leadership cannot fire their members. But these are people who are elected to represent their constituents. And so it's incumbent on them to make a decision. Am I representing my constituents in the best way right now? If you are someone who has a constant stream of accusations coming at you with a lot of corroborating evidence, are you the best person to be representing your constituents? Only they can make that decision, but it's a very real decision that I think that Conyers certainly at this point is going to have to make.

KING: Right. And you had the specifics of these cases, Franken on the Senate side, Congressman Conyers on the House side. Because there is new information about specific accusations to them, I'm not even going to have the conversation because I don't -- it's because I don't want to diminish the specifics of these claims, especially the powerful woman who came forward on television and in your reporting today (INAUDIBLE).

There's the separate conversation or the accompanying conversation is, politically, what does this do to your party? A great conversation that you were a part of on FiveThirtyEight about that today. I don't want to discuss it here publically because I don't want to take away from the issue.

I will say, as we go to break, Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas telling "The Dallas Morning News" he will not seek reelection. You might recall Congressman Barton caught up this week when a woman, with whom he had had a relationship, a consensual relationship, and sent a photograph of him nude, put that photo into the public sphere. Congressman Joe Barton telling "The Dallas Morning News" he will not seek reelection in 2018.

Up next, we shift to taxes. A key senator crosses over to the "yes" column and Republicans are happy.


[12:28:49] KING: Welcome back.

Big news today that dramatically increases the likelihood Senate Republicans will have the votes to pass their tax cut plan this week. The measure got a thumbs up from Senator John McCain, who, you might remember, delivered that dramatic thumbs down that doomed the GOP's Obamacare repeal promise.

I believe this legislation, though far from perfect, would enhance American competitiveness, boost the economy and provide long overdue tax relief for middle class families, Senator McCain saying in a statement as he officially became a "yes."

Last night, another frequent Republican wildcard, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, said she too is in the "yes" column.

And Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a persistent thorn in the side of leadership, said this morning she's hopeful.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I believe that we can stimulate economic growth and job creation if this bill is done right. I need to wait to see what happens. But I am encouraged by the receptivity to the proposals that I've been putting forth.


KING: When you have McCain, Murkowski, yes, Collins clearly intimating she wants to get to yes. There are a handful, a half dozen of other Republicans who have concerns about this. But everything about the body language and the words tells you they're going to get here.

[12:30:06] BACON: Yes. This is big. This is a -- this is a big thing.

KING: It is a big thing, right.

BACON: I mean this is a huge bill that changes the tax code as we know it. It also has a -- our Obamacare repeal in it.