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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump Signs Tax Reform; Democratic Pollster on Trump; Key Battles Pushed to New Year; Pelosi on DACA; Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 22, 2017 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Says big infrastructure spending is his big new year's resolution. And he predicts, unlike 2017, there will be bipartisan dealing.

Plus, friend or foe. The president's United Nations ambassador says she's making a list and checking the votes.

And, it's official, the president signed the big Republican tax cut plan today. It also repeals the Obamacare coverage mandate, adding this 2018 election year challenge for the president's party.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Obamacare, essentially I think it ultimately leads to the end of Obamacare, essentially. I think Obamacare is over because of that. And we're going to come up with something that's really going to be very good. Many people thought it should have been overturned in the Supreme Court. Didn't quite make it. Almost, but didn't quite make it. But now we're overturning the individual mandate. The most unpopular thing in Obamacare.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We begin the hour with the president's big year-end achievement. Tax reform is done. The president signing into law, just moments ago, without the hoopla you might expect for what Republicans consider their 2017 legislative crown jewel. But the president had an explanation.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: When I watched the news this morning and they were all saying, will he keep his promise? Will he sign it by Christmas? You were one. But will he sign it by Christmas? And I called downstairs, I said, get it ready, we have sign it now. We were going to wait until January 7th or 8th and do a big, formal ceremony, but every one of the networks was saying, will he keep his promise? Will he sign it before Christmas -- before Christmas? And so I immediately called. I said, let's get it ready.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The president happy there to paint himself as a man of action after a curiously quiet morning from the White House about how this would all play out. Just 15 minutes before he was scheduled to fly off to Mar-a-Lago for the Christmas holiday. Without the normal trappings of a big, historic signing ceremony, without, for example, Speaker Ryan, Leader McConnell behind him. And with the stage to himself, the president put pen to paper and saluted what he says is this bill's greatness.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is the bill right here. And we're very proud of it. It's going to be a tremendous thing for the American people. It's going to be fantastic for the economy.

But I consider this very much a bill for the middle class and a bill for jobs. And jobs are produced through companies and corporations. And you see that happening. Corporations are literally going wild over this. I think even beyond my expectation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: In the Oval Office there and a bit earlier on Twitter, the president making clear he doesn't think he's getting enough credit for what he views as a pretty big first year in office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The country's doing very well. We've tremendously cut regulations. Legislative approvals, for which I'm given no credit in the mainstream media. We have I believe it's 88 which is number one in the history of our country. Second now is Harry Truman. Harry Truman had more legislative approvals than any other president. And a record long held. And we beat him on legislative approvals for which I get no credit. We have more legislative victories than any other president. Not including this. But this is the capper, because this is, again, the biggest tax cut, biggest reform of all time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: It's a big day.

With us to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Sara Murray, "Time's" Molly Ball, CNN's Manu Raju, and "Politico's" Rachael Bade.

Let's start with that moment and then expand out to what it means for the big moment, the end of the year, the president off to spend his holiday. Why did they do it this way? Why not a big signing ceremony? The president says he watched the news. He could have scheduled this differently.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He certainly could have scheduled it differently. It was actually funny. You know, normally you would be with Leader McConnell, you'd be with House Speaker Ryan, he would be signing the bill and maybe offering them pens. He actually offers the pens to members of the media who were in the room because he didn't have his partners in this legislating process with him. It was a bizarre kind of way to do this, but I think the president clearly wanted to get this done before he left for Florida.

It also seemed like an opportunity to be honest and dodge questions from the press. Part of -- sort of the hubbub of the last few days is whether he would do a press conference along with the signing of this legislation. So by doing it in sort of a quieter way in the Oval Office, inviting just the small pool of reporter in, he avoided kind of this broader scene with the press conference, which is something the White House had been toying with doing.

KING: All right. So some beginning of the year to the end of the year, we're not quite done yet. The president will have an active week, I'm sure, on social media, if nowhere else, while he's in Mar-a-Lago.

But he's different. He's different. He could have also -- you mentioned, he could have had a big signing ceremony at the White House. He could have also gone out to a small business somewhere in the country and tried to make the case that this is good for America.

MOLLY BALL, "TIME": Well, it seems so typical of this president, right, the impulsiveness, the spontaneity, the short-term thinking and being extremely reactive to what he just saw on TV. I mean he is being actually extremely honest with us and with the American people saying, I saw something on TV. It bugged me. Darn it, we're going to do it now. And like I think that was literally his thought process.

[12:05:03] Now, as you mentioned, it also meant that it was -- that he did it alone. He didn't share credit with anybody. And to the extent that Republican leaders on The Hill felt that this was their achievement too, they did all the heavy lifting and then they don't get to stand there with the president while he signs the legislation as the result of all their hard work, I think there may be some grumbling about that.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And, John, you make a key point about why didn't he go out into the country and sell this? I mean that is going to be the challenge come 2018. They're going to have to sell this to the American public, explain why this major legislative victory actually means a lot, going to help voters, because their vehicle in the majority in a lot of ways this is going to be the one thing that they are campaigning on. They got this done. They have to convince a very skeptical American public that this is good for them and convince them to keep them in power right now because, as we know, things are not looking good for them come 2018. This is the one thing they have to sell and, you know, this is one way you could have done it, is going into the country and selling it that way.

RACHAEL BADE, "POLITICO": And I'm just going to go out on a limb here and say the president not only needs to sell this to the country, but there's also members of his own party on The Hill who are already losing this sort of euphoria that they were feeling on Wednesday. I was speaking yesterday to Tom Rooney when they passed this short-term government funding bill for three weeks, just a day after, you know, this ceremony at the White House on the tax bill and he was fuming. He was saying, this is the epitome of a government that does not work. We are here cheering a three-week government funding bill? How is this an achievement? They didn't pass disaster. They didn't deal with DACA. They didn't do a spending deal.

So I think that the president also has to be talking to his own party and reminding them, guys, let's talk about this instead of fuming about some other things.

KING: And so you can -- you hear the president's frustration. And if you're a Trump supporter out there, you blame us in the media for some of this, and maybe you blame something else. If you're a Trump critic, you think, you know, he's just full of hyperbole and he really hasn't done much. I'm sorry, Mr. President, your record does not match up to Harry Truman. A lot of those were big legislative victories. You have one signature achievement, the tax cut plan, unless you consider the Russia sanctions bill. That was the other major piece of legislation, but the president doesn't like that bill.

RAJU: They haven't exactly implemented it (INAUDIBLE).

KING: Yes, not -- they're slow-walking the implementation, that's true.

But what about the moment? He thinks -- you know, and they have done a lot from a regulatory standpoint. He did get a Supreme Court justice. He did set a record at lower federal court judges being appointed. Now he has this big tax cut and yet he goes to Mar-a-Lago as the least popular first term president in the history of polling.

MURRAY: And I think this is one of the things that's been extremely frustrating to him personally, this notion that he doesn't get credit for what he's achieved so far. But also the notion that he ran on a guy who is going to improve economic opportunity. You know, he sort of looks at his campaign as, yes, we talked a lot about immigration, but we talked about improving economic opportunity for Americans.

And so when he looks at the jobs numbers, when he looks at GDP, when he looks at where the stock market is at, when he looks at passing tax reform and reducing regulation, he says, I have had an extremely successful year on that part of the promises I have made. Why am I not getting credit in the media? Why am I not getting credit in Washington? And why don't people love me?

And the reality is that people have been unable to set aside some of their more visceral feelings about the president, about his style, about the way he behaves, about the things he has said about people to sort of embrace those economic accomplishments. And they are good economic numbers in the way that we would expect from a traditional president. Traditionally, if a president is looking at jobs numbers like this and economic data like this, they're sitting pretty well. And that's just not true of Trump.

KING: And it's a great point because it's almost the flipside of what we went through early in the Obama administration, the sense that a lot of the policy proposals were not popular with the public. But the president was personally popular. People liked him, so his numbers stayed up. With President Trump, they don't like him. And so anything with his name on it polls poorly. This Democratic pollster, Peter Hart, one of the smartest people in the business, wrote this in a year-end memo. He helps with -- he's the Democrat in the Democrat-Republican partnership in the NBC/"Wall Street Journal" poll, did a ton of focus groups across the country this year with voters. He writes this. Donald Trump lost the support and respect of a majority of Americans in his first year as president. In 2017, Americans hoped the Trump era would be about changing Washington and the old established order, but they did not sign on to the division and discord. Instead, 2017 has found Americans feeling that they are living constantly on edge. Instead of being a unified force or a stable leader, he has been an unnerving presence.

That's a harsh verdict. Now, Peter's a Democrat, but when he writes these things, he's looking at the data and he's giving a pretty straightforward assessment there. Ouch.

BALL: Well, and I think that is what you see. I mean that's what I hear talking to people around the country. And that's what you see in a lot of these polls that despite the economic stability, people really feel the sense of uncertainty. People -- there's a huge number of American who feel that the country is on the wrong track. That number has increased since the election. It hasn't gone down.

A huge majority of Americans feel that the president is dividing the country rather than bringing the country together. And we see Trump's support softening even as the opposition to him hardens. That strong disapproval number in some polls over 50 percent. That's really remarkable. And so, you know, people are not able to ignore the way -- the ways that the president behaves. And, you know, given that the president is the one in charge of his behavior, I'm not sure why he would expect them to.

[12:10:09] RAJU: And he's not -- he hasn't really done much to try to bring the country together. In fact, he's gone after his opponents when they've come after him in rater stark terms.

In the legislative achievements that have occurred are ones that his base loves and the one reason why they've been very happy with him. He's still at 30 to 35, 36 percent of hard core supporters. Judicial nominees, that's loved by the conservative base. Getting Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, loved by the conservative base. The tax reform bill is something that the core constituency appreciates as well.

So what he has accomplished as done well for his supporters. But to the middle of the country, the folks who are in the middle who are not Democrats, not liberals, those independent voters, they are not sold yet.

KING: But are -- do we know, as he goes off for Christmas, reflecting he's got another month of his first year, but he goes off to the holidays to reflect, assuming he does reflect, are there lessons learned? Do you see -- you know, Speaker Ryan says he thought he learned a lesson in the tax cut debate, that he stayed out of the minutia. During the Obamacare debate, the president, on several occasions, sent things off the rails a little bit by getting involved when the leaders didn't want him to get involved, or getting involved in a way the leaders didn't want him to get involved. Did he learn that lesson, how to be a better dealmaker, a better legislator.

And, more importantly, you see all these accounts today in "Politico" and "The New York Times" and elsewhere about this contentious meeting with the White House political team about how to handle this going into 2018. What should the strategy be? How much should the president travel? They're still having a lot of back stabbing and infighting.

BADE: I would say, from The Hill standpoint, I've heard Republicans give him compliments in terms of how -- lessons learned on legislation on the tax bill in particular. He tried to take a more aggressive approach in terms of campaigning and talking about the tax bill around the country and he didn't do a lot of attacking when he heard people were not going to vote for this bill. Instead he tried to get them to come around.

Senator Corker eventually came around. The way he worked with Susan Collins was particularly interesting. A moderate who obviously had problems with the Obamacare repeal bill. He wasn't attacks her. Instead, the White House worked with her and said, listen, if you vote for this tax bill, we're going to back the idea of propping up the Obamacare subsidies next year. So that was more of a cooperation approach it seems like for the tax bill.

RAJU: It's going to be fascinating to see how Trump goes on the campaign trail and decides which races, particularly on the Senate side, he thinks he will be valuable -- the candidates will think he's valuable. People like Dean Heller in Nevada, who needs Trump presumably to get out of the primary, but Trump could be a significant liability in a general election. How do you balance that? That's going to be a remarkable thing for the White House to decide on how to deploy Trump.

KING: Right, and that's the perfect segue.

Up next, the president touts what he's got done in 2017, but Congress has a lot on its plate early next year. Republicans want to get an early start. Maybe they meet with the president over the holidays.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Do you have any plans to visit Mar-a-Lago over the holidays?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: No. No. The closest I'm going, I'm going to a bowl game in Jacksonville.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:17:03] KING: Welcome back.

Congressional Republicans made a tactical choice this week, celebrate now and suffer later. By choosing to keep the government open, the Republicans gave themselves a Christmas present, a prolonged victory lap on tax reform. But they set the stage for a rude return to Washington early in the new year, a long laundry list of unresolved issues with a history of cracking the veneer of Republican unity. Look at it there, spending issues, more spending issues, immigration issues, government surveillance authorities.

Republicans know they're walking straight into quicksand. And the pessimism, quite palpable. Listen here, the Freedom Caucus chair, Mark Meadows, sounds somber already, telling this to "The Wall Street Journal." I'm not optimistic there will be a whole lot of conservative wins in the month of January. And that was a conscious decision.

Let's get our tax cut bill and celebrate. Let's do, as you just noted in the last bloc, a three or four week keep the government spending open. That's not exactly your government at work.

But when they walk back, in an election year, the Republican Party, right out of the box, is going to have to deal with immigration, the so-called dreamer fix, spending levels, deficits, children's health care funding. The president again today in the White House saying we have to come back at fixing maybe Obamacare. Not exactly what conservatives want to do any time, let alone an election year.

RAJU: Yes, it's hard to see, even if they get these bipartisan deals and it becomes law, that you'll see that kind of ceremony we saw earlier this week where every Republican were hanging out in the White House praising the president for this deal. The party's going to be divided over these things. They're going to be divided over a fix to deal with DACA. It's a huge issue among conservative voters in particular.

They're going to come back. They're going to have to deal with a lot of these things. And as Rachael noted earlier, this is going to distract from the big victory they have on tax reform given all of the mess that they're going to have to deal with. And who knows what will happen. Maybe even a government shutdown, which would be even worse for them politically. So there's a lot on their table that they're going to deal with.

BALL: Can I say though, that quote from Mark Meadows is really interesting to me because in a way the best case scenario for the House Republicans is that the Freedom Caucus, led by Mark Meadows, is resigned to not winning a lot of these battles. If they are in fact signaling that they are willing to play ball and compromise and not put up a fight, if the conservative wing is willing to go along with the majority of the House caucus and the moderate and even sort of liberal Republican members, that makes things a lot easier for Paul Ryan.

You know, the problem is if the conservatives put up a big fuss, as they did a lot when a Democrat was in the White House. A little bit less, though, with a Republican in the White House. So, you know, on these spending things and certainly on immigration, it's going to be, do conservatives put up a big fight against these things that leadership wants to do or not.

KING: It's a fascinating point because when we get into 2018, again, we're going to have a lot of national conversations and some of them are frankly useless. You have to look at a map of congressional races, and where are the contested congressional races? And if you're a suburban Republican who needs moderate Republican votes and you watched what happens in New Jersey, Virginia, and even Alabama, you're saying, let's do DACA, let's do children's health care funding, let's move toward the center, if you will.

If you're a southern Republican or a more conservative rural Republican, the DACA fix is amnesty. That's what you've been telling your voters forever. And do you want to demoralize the Republican base, your conservative base, heading into a midterm election year?

[12:20:08] That's the challenge they're going to have on every one of these issues. There are some Republican in one place, other Republicans in another place. The question is, does this happy Republican Party, after cutting taxes, turn back into the chaos party?

BADE: Yes. I think January's going to be particularly ugly in the House where the conference is really divided. I think a majority of the House Republicans do want to tackle these issues or, you know, take a hard line on DACA, do not raise spending without making some sort of offsets. And they think that if they do this, they will sort of rally the base and say, we stuck it to Democrats and, you know, that will help them in 2018.

But there are a lot of swing state Republicans in the House, and a bunch of senators, who say this is just not realistic. Also, the Senate majority is now, what -- is going to be 51 members. I don't see how they do anything like entitlement reform. Things that would really make the base happy. They're going to have to move to bipartisanship.

KING: Well, on that point, Speaker Ryan says we're going to do entitlement reform. We're going to talk about welfare reform, Medicare reform, maybe Medicaid reform.

Listen here in the Senate now. Remember, these House members, most of them come from relatively safe -- a lot of them will be on the ballot next year, but 500,000 people, 600,000 people, in an area, the lines drawn mostly by favorable Republican legislators. Senators have to run state-wide. Paul Ryan says we'll do entitlements. Mitch McConnell says, uh-uh.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Here is my only observation about entitlement reform. I have been here a while and the only time we've been able to do that is on a bipartisan basis. And it was a long time ago.

The speaker and the president and I are going to talk about this whole area in a couple of weeks and we'll have more to say about what the agenda is now (ph).

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: In other words, I'm not doing entitlements. I'm not making my guys and gals who have tough elections next year cast a vote on entitlement reform if they have to run state-wide in places like Nevada you mentioned earlier.

But a lot of this in the House will be -- maybe this is overly snarky, but theater, right? If you're a House number, you want to go home and say, I voted for it, even if it doesn't pass. You want to go home and say, I voted for this thing.

MURRAY: Sure. And, of course, I mean, you can have the debate. There's nothing wrong with having the debate. There's nothing wrong with having the vote. But the notion that somehow they are going to get entitlement reform under a president who has vowed not to touch entitlements with a 51 vote majority in the Senate and with Democrats who have no inclination to participate in bipartisanship on something like that, I mean it's a pipe dream.

And that's a great thing for Paul Ryan to stick around for and try to fight for. We know it's one of his own personal passions and maybe a reason for him to stick around as House speaker longer than he would otherwise. But, come on.

KING: And the pressure on Democrats --

RAJU: Right. (INAUDIBLE) --

KING: I hate to interrupt. I just want to get this (INAUDIBLE). Pressure on Democrats too, though. Listen to Nancy Pelosi here. Democrats promise the president opened the possibility of doing this dreamer deal, to let the dreamers stay, give them some sort of legal status. They thought they were going to get a deal with the president this year. Democrats promised that to their base. But --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: I fully intend that we will leave -- we will not leave here without the Dream Act passing with a DACA fix. And I've made that very clear.

QUESTION: The party's been insisting that the DACA issue be addressed this year, and this is the last week.

PELOSI: Well, this is the last year of -- that they kick the can down to -- for the omnibus (ph) into June -- January. It's this year extended. That's what it is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: She's just trying to -- this year extended, wave it off, but the progressive base is furious.

RAJU: This is a real --

KING: And they want results, just like Republicans. They want results quickly in the New Year.

RAJU: This is a real problem. I mean Pelosi and her Democratic caucus did not vote for the short-term spending bill because they did want DACA included in this bill that ended -- kept the government open. But Senate Democrats were split on that, particularly Democrats who wanted to not be tagged with voting for a government shutdown effectively by opposing this spending bill.

So this is going to be a real problem -- issue for them, especially if they get a bipartisan deal in the Senate. You could presume that that's not going to satisfy a lot of these progressives in the House. It's going to be -- it's going to require some consensus. And there's been no consensus on this issue.

KING: One of the big questions here, what does the president want? Border wall funding. What else? What do Democrats have to give to get will be a big question early on.

Up next for us, a past bombshell in the Russia investigation gets some new attention.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:28:42] KING: Welcome back.

The former FBI director, James Comey, getting what you might call an early Christmas gift from the halls of Capitol Hill. Sources tell CNN, the deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe, told congressional investigators behind closed doors that Comey did inform him of conversations he'd had with President Trump soon after those conversations happened. Over the course of 16 hours, in front of three House committees, McCabe's testimony suggests he could corroborate Comey's claim that President Trump asked him early on for a pledge of loyalty. President Trump, of course, has strongly disputed that account, which is central to the question the special counsel is now exploring, whether the president's decision to fire Comey was part of an effort to obstruct justice.

And, speaking of the House investigations, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi says she's worried about the state of those probes, sending this letter to the Republican speaker, Paul Ryan. Quote, Democrats are deeply concerned by the majority's efforts to curtail the House Intelligence Committee investigation and its overall failure to address Russia's meddling in the 2016 election. We expect you will take urgent action to ensure this investigation can continue and justice can be pursued unhindered.

Back into the room.

Manu, let's start, you're part of the reporting on Deputy Director McCabe. A, we're told it was contentious behind closed doors. Republicans want to get at him. They think he was biased for -- toward Hillary Clinton and against Trump. Let's get to that in a minute.

In terms of backing up Comey, how significant is that going forward?

[12:30:00] RAJU: It could be very significant because as this investigation, the Mueller probe goes forward, undoubtedly he's going to try to figure out what Comey said to other people in the -- after these conversations allegedly took place.