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Trump on Russia Probe; Trump Talks about Manafort; Trump Working with Democrats; Democrats to Win Trump Country. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired December 29, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:32] DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Dana Bash. John King is off today.

President Trump describes Special Counsel Robert Mueller as fair to a "New York Times" reporter at his Florida golf club, but listen to how some members of the president's own party describe Mueller.


REP. MATT GAETZ (R), FLORIDA: It's just outrageous to see this biased Mueller probe continue.


BASH: Plus, is the president's friendship with the Chinese president on the rocks over North Korea?

And, 2018 is just around the corner, but some of the biggest political stories of this year aren't going away.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: My Republican friends will ultimately pay consequences for this bill in 2018 and beyond. The Republican Party will never again be the party of tax cuts for middle class people.

Today will be the first day of the new Republican Party. One that raises taxes on the middle class, abandoning its principals, for its political pay masters.


BASH: Apparently the way to really underscore a point is to repeat it 16 times in 30 minutes. Unaccompanied by any White House staff in the center of the grill room at his Mar-a-Lago resort, President Trump insisted over and over, in an interview with "The New York Times," that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians who meddled in the 2016 election. Everyone knows it according to Trump, which is why he seemingly expects Special Counsel Robert Mueller to see his way to the only fair conclusion.

Here's what he said. I hope that he's going to be fair. I think that he's going to be fair. There's been no collusion. But I think he's going to be fair. Everyone knows the answer. There was no collusion. None whatsoever.

This litany of fresh denials comes after the president's lawyer huddled -- his team of lawyers actually huddled with the special counsel team sometime last week. Before that meeting, sources say, the president believed the investigation would end with his exoneration by Christmas.

Now the president won't say when he expects the probe to finish, only that he hopes it is soon. He said, I think it's bad for the country. The only thing that bothers me about timing, I think it's very bad for the country because it makes the country look bad. It makes the country look very bad. And it puts the country in a very bad position. So the sooner it's worked out, the better it is for the country.

Here to share their reporting and insights, Carl Hulse of "The New York Times." "Bloomberg Businessweek's" Joshua Green, "McClatchy's" Franco Ordonez. And "Politico's" Eliana Johnson.

Happy Friday, everybody. Thanks for coming in.


BASH: Carl, it was your colleague at "The New York Times" that scored this interview. I won't ask you for the back story. I won't ask you for your -- for your trade secrets. But, you know, obviously this was vintage Donald Trump acting -- never mind the content of what he said, but just on a whim, on an impulse, deciding, you know what, I'm going to talk to "The New York Times."

HULSE: You know, Mike is a very enterprising guy and he got himself --

BASH: He sure is.

HULSE: Insinuated into the dining room and managed to pull off a big interview. As I said, we should all thank him for giving us something to talk about, you know, in what's often the dead time in the news business.

BASH: And the president understanding a news vacuum and filling it.

HULSE: Right.

BASH: I think that what the interview said to me is, this is a reflection of Trump's confidence in himself. He just thinks that after his decades of jousting with the New York press, that he can sit down at an interview with "The Times" reporter and he's going to come out ahead and he can handle this interview. I mean that's up to every -- everybody else is going to have to make that adjustment today. There was an awful lot in that interview that you could pick up and run with, as everybody is. I mean on the health care, not just on Russia, but on the Russia investigation, you know, does he protest too much, right, you know, collusion, I don't know multiple, somebody said 16 times, no collusion.

BASH: Exactly. Yes.

HULSE: You know, I think he wanted this to be over by now and it's just not over. And I've talked to some of the attorneys about it very recently and they're expecting a slog this year. So I think, you know, some of that was wishful thinking. He's going to be fair. We're almost done. And it's just not happening.

BASH: Wishful thinking or pleas --


BASH: To the special counsel and his team.

[12:05:01] Let's dig into that issue. And, Josh, I want to put up something else that he said on the screen. He said, I have the absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department. And he went on to say, but for purposes of hopefully thinking -- I think he meant hopeful thinking there -- but hopefully thinking, I'm going to be treated fairly, I've stayed uninvolved with this particular matter.

Very -- I think there's so much to read into that sentence that he uttered there. First and foremost, that there's a warning. Remember, Justice Department/Bob Mueller, I can fire you tomorrow, but, you know, I'm going to stay uninvolved for now, you know, wink, wink, nod, nod.

JOSHUA GREEN, "BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK": There was so much packed into that quote.

BASH: Definitely.

GREEN: I mean he was essentially saying, look at me, give me credit for my good behavior. I'm not interfering. I'm calling Mueller a fair man. But, at the same time, he's reminding people that, hey, I am the president. I have the right to, you know, summarily clean out the upper echelons of the Justice Departments if I see fit and will do so if I'm not treated fairly. So it was -- it was bragging in one sense, but embedded within that braggadocio I think was a threat.

ELIANA JOHNSON, "POLITICO": Yes, but I think --


JOHNSON: Sorry. I think he's also picking up on what is a real controversy in legal circles, with this, does the president have total authority over the Department of Justice? Can he step in and fire an FBI director, say? Can he fire Bob Mueller? Would that be legal? And can a president obstruct justice? And he's seen on TV -- we've seen him tweet to Alan Dershowitz, who's become very skeptical of prosecutorial power, speaking up in the president's defense in this case. He's not a political defender of the president but he's a legal defender of the president in this case.

BASH: More important. JOHNSON: Yes, precisely. And so that's what he's getting at, which is the legal -- the legal defenders of his who say the president has absolute power over the Justice Department and therefore the FBI to shut things down.

ORDONEZ: And he's leaving that question out there about whether he would get rid of Mueller. A lot of people think that this would be the straw that broke the camel's back. But, I mean, this is the president who pardoned Joe Arpaio. This is the president who pre -- who asked about pre-pardoning his family. He has not done things the typical way.

I think he could potentially let Mueller go or try to let Mueller go if he crosses that, you know, red line that he's talking about.

GREEN: Well, in order to -- I don't think he could let Mueller go directly. He would have to clear out Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, in order to put somebody in place who would then -- who would then, you know --

BASH: It would be just like a Saturday night massacre.

GREEN: So essentially that was the threat that was implicit -- that I thought was implicit in his quote, that I have the power to do this should I choose to do so.

HULSE: Well, and he's already suggested, you know, let the door open to pardoning Mike Flynn, you know, before this gets going.

I do think it was sort of striking, though, how different his message on Mueller was from what we're hearing for "The Hill."

BASH: Definitely.

HULSE: And it's -- it's somewhat --

BASH: Why do you think that is?

HULSE: Well, I don't -- I think because he's trying to butter up Mueller, honestly, to be quite honest, and it sort of undercuts that Hill message that's, you know, that's been growing. And now well those Republicans are going to be saying, well, this is biased, he needs to go. But you could say, well, the president himself says I'm being treated fairly. So I think there was a mixed message there that didn't help The Hill allies right there (ph).

BASH: Speaking of buttering up, I want to show everybody what he said about Paul Manafort, who has been indicted. He said the following, I've always found Paul Manafort to be a very nice man and I found him to be an honorable person. Paul only worked for me for a few months.

Again, so much in just a very few words. But does it seem -- I mean the way I read that was that he's signaling to Paul Manafort, don't throw me under the bus if you have anything to throw.

JOHNSON: I actually am not quite sure how to read that. It's hard to distinguish what I think is the president's pension for repetition. He repeats himself a lot and he tends to say, you know, I think of him as epitaphs, but repeats the same sort of lines about people. I'm not sure that he is actually --

BASH: And so very nice a man (INAUDIBLE).

JOHNSON: Yes, an honorable man.

BASH: Yes.

JOHNSON: I'm not sure he's dumb enough to actually think saying nice things about Paul Manafort would prevent Paul Manafort from throwing him under the bus if he's in real legal jeopardy, but it is an interesting question.

ORDONEZ: I agree with you, Dana, I think it is -- I think he does speak through messages through the press. I think this is a -- this is potentially a way that he is delivering a message that he wants Paul Manafort -- he's reminding him of his loyalty or the loyalty that he has. He did not talk much about Flynn. I think that's a reflection of kind of the political danger that he sees. The White House itself has kind of talking a little bit less about Flynn. I think they've seen how this is a risk, a legal risk, that they need to be careful about, so they're taking -- taking more precautions on that one.

GREEN: Well, and the difference though with Flynn -- I mean Flynn has turned and is cooperating with Mueller. Manafort, I think, by sending these positive vibes --

BASH: Exactly.

GREEN: You know, he's hoping that Manafort might get the idea in his head, well, maybe I don't want to go that route. And if I hold out, I'll get a pardon, should I need one.

[12:10:03] JOHNSON: He undercuts his message by saying, I barely knew the guy. He barely worked for me. So I don't think his messaging on Manafort is totally clear, in the same way it has been on Flynn.

BASH: Right.

JOHNSON: He's been completely loyal to Flynn the entire time.

BASH: That's true.

HULSE: And that -- that was funny. I just like the Paul who -- well, he worked for Reagan.

BASH: And McCain.

HULSE: Yes, that was a pretty good -- a pretty good reach.

BASH: She did but -- all right, so this is one of my favorite quotes from your paper and from the interview that Schmidt (ph) got. Number -- this is about how much the Republicans love him. Number one, I have unbelievably great relationships with 97 percent of the Republican congressmen and senators. I love them and they love me. Fact check, Carl, go.

HULSE: You know, I will say that the relationship has been much improved by the tax bill. You know, everyone loved the outcome there. He's had terrible relations with some of the Republicans. But the president has shown this real capacity to look past anything that's happened before and just focus on the immediate, and Mitch McConnell even said at the end, well, I've kind of gotten to like the tweeting, which he's really -- I, you know, as usual, it's overstated and we'll see how 2018 works. I think you'll probably see a little less love from some of the Republicans on The Hill.

ORDONEZ: I think you're seeing the difference between love and fear. And this is a situation where some of this is fear. The Republican Party, I do feel, is embracing the president. Poll numbers show or approval numbers among Republicans, not nationwide, but among Republicans it's 80 percent approval ratings. Which I think is pretty stunning considering how low national approval ratings are.

BASH: Yes.

ORDONEZ: But, I mean, as we've seen, those who speak out against the president, Flake, others, they get -- they get smacked and they get hurt.

GREEN: Well, the other way in which they have shown their love, and Trump alluded to this in the interview, is they've been very critical of Mueller, of the Department of Justice, of the FBI and essentially created political space for Trump to have a kind of Twitter tantrum about how he's been treated by the special prosecutor, by the FBI, something that's been very much on Trump's mind. Even though in the context of this interview, you know, he presented himself as the reasonable leader, the good guy who thought that Mueller would be fair to him.

BASH: That's very true. We're going to have to take a quick break. I love your love versus fear because I think we can all agree that in power, especially in political power, fear is more powerful than love. But, OK, we're going to take a quick break.

Coming up, there are 12 House Democrats in districts that voted for President Trump. What can the party learn from their success? I went to rural Illinois to find out.


REP. CHERI BUSTOS (D), ILLINOIS: I think there's a feeling among the working class folks that we -- we're not focusing on what's important to them.



[12:16:27] BASH: President Trump is blaming Democrat for the lack of bipartisanship, saying they talk about working together but don't follow-through. In that interview with "The New York Times," the president mentioned Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He said, Joe's a nice guy, but he talks and he doesn't do anything. He doesn't do, hey, let's get together, let's do bipartisan. I say, good, let's go, then you don't hear from him again. I like Joe, you know. It's like he's a great centrist, but he's not really a centrist.

Later in the interview referring to Democrats, he said, they should definitely come to me on health care, he said, because we can do bipartisan infrastructure and we can do bipartisan DACA.

Let's get back to the panel here.

Very interesting that, first of all, I had heard that he was telling people privately that he was really going to try to pivot more to the center in 2018. The fact that he's saying this so aggressively, never mind who he blames, is noteworthy.

HULSE: Well, I mean, he obviously wants to start looking bipartisan after having such a partisan year. I think Joe Manchin would probably say, you know, he's the president. It's really not my responsibility to go to the president. The president needs to reach out to me.

I think the Democrats are in a pretty good position here. They can hopefully, from their perspective, do some deals with the administration. But if they don't, and they don't get what they want, they can say, well, they didn't want to work with us going into the election. I think that's what we'll see.

JOHNSON: You know, like I -- the president's not entirely wrong here. Like all relationships, I think these things go two ways. And the energy in the Democratic base has been and continues to be really filled with anti-Trump fervor and there's not a huge amount of incentive for them to work with Trump. So -- and I -- but I do think the president, in saying that he wants to have a more bipartisan year, is acknowledging a political reality in that the issues he's got to pivot to --

BASH: Yes.

JOHNSON: Infrastructure and DACA, he needs to work with Democrats on. So I don't think it's that he just feels in his belly that he is liking Democrats more. He's really acknowledging the underlying political reality.

BASH: And there's that, that there's such fervor in the base, even in places like West Virginia, where the president won by like a billion points. But -- but also it's the idea that the Republicans decided to do things that no Democrat could go for.

GREEN: Right. Exactly. I mean the one factor that Trump doesn't seem to recognize in this interview is that, you know, bipartisanship isn't a matter of loyalty to the president or, you know, being nice, as the president likes to put it. It's about policy. And a lot of these Republican bills were so heavily skewed to the right that had provisions in them.

Take the tax reform bill, which early on some Republicans thought a Democrat could back. The fact that it repealed the Obamacare individual mandate, that it skewed so heavily towards the very wealthy made it impossible, even for a centrist like --

BASH: Never mind repealing the individual mandate.

GREEN: Never mind repealing the individual mandate. Exactly.

BASH: Yes. Yes. All right, we'll --

ORDONEZ: I think --

BASH: Go ahead.

ORDONEZ: I was just going to say, I think there's a little more oxygen for some bipartisanship after Alabama, after Virginia, after tax reform is done now that maybe he can pivot a little bit.

I think the operatives that I have spoken to who are connected to the White House say there is interest. There is a lot of interest, for example, in getting DACA, as well as infrastructure.

HULSE: But on that same point, though, at the same time he's saying let's do DACA, he's saying, but we're going to have this wall and increase --

BASH: But I think that's a negotiating tactic.

HULSE: But he still is saying it --

BASH: But he is saying it.

HULSE: And they're not going to go for that. So --

BASH: He is saying it.

All right, everyone stand by because Senator Manchin is just one of a small band of Democrats who are urging the party to learn from its mistakes in 2016. First and foremost, the sin of losing working class voters who are traditionally the backbone of the Democratic Party. Now there were some exceptions. Democrats who did well with what we now call Trump voters.

[12:20:18] Congresswoman Cheri Bustos is one of 12 Democrats who won districts that Donald Trump won as well. I visited her recently in her northern Illinois district to see firsthand how she did it.


BASH: Why do you think the Democratic Party is losing so many white, working class voters, the very voters that were the backbone of the Democratic Party for generations?

REP. CHERI BUSTOS (D), ILLINOIS: I think there's a feeling among the working class folks that we -- we're not focusing on what's important to them. And that is, you know, are we talking about making sure that their wages can go up? Are we talking about the strength of the middle class and do we have the policies that support that? Are we acknowledging that their wages aren't what they were when we had better times around here?

BASH: And the answer is no.

BUSTOS: No, they don't feel that way.

BASH: For your colleagues who are trying to figure out what your secret sauce is, how you talk to a Trump voter and relate to a Trump voter in the way that Democrats have not been able to do, what's the answer?

BUSTOS: Be in the moment. Listen to people. You know, I like to say, you know, we've been made with two ears and one mouth. And we should use that proportionally.

BASH: A lot of Democrats come from districts -- most Democrats come from districts where the left rules and where racial politics are real and identity politics are real.

BUSTOS: Well, what I would say to that, if we, as a Democratic Party, want to perpetually be in the minority, then ignore talking about jobs and the economy, because that's how we will perpetually be in the minority. And we actually have this program called Build the Bench that I was vice chair of recruitment the last election cycle, so I was traveling all over the country working with candidates and recruiting candidates to run for Congress. What we discovered is that we were really struggling in some of these districts to find candidates that really fit the -- those districts.

BASH: Why is that? Did they just not identify as Democrats?

BUSTOS: Well, in some cases, they weren't made to feel welcome by the Democratic Party. I don't believe in a litmus test. I believe that, you know, we -- we are a big tent party and we ought to act like that. And it doesn't mean we're going to be on the same page on every issue.


BASH: We're back with our panel.

Carl, you were nodding your head.

HULSE: Yes, I think that you have to get Democrats to fit the district. I think what you're going to see from Democrats, like Cheri Bustos, is, they're going to saying, look at what Trump and the Republicans did. The promised you that they were going to be for the working class and they passed a tax bill that really helps the super rich. And I think, you know, Democrats feel that they lost that message during the last presidential election and they're going to reinforce that again.

And I do think that there are people in the Democratic Party that say, hey, you know, in some districts we need to get people who support gun rights.

BASH: Yes.

HULSE: WE need to get people who are anti-abortion and we can work from that. And they did it in the past with Rahm Emanuel when they did win the House back.

BASH: They did back in 2006. It's a very different -- different time now. But how big of an issue is this still? 2016 now seems like so long ago and trying to learn the lessons for it. But the fact of the matter is, Donald Trump is president because a lot of traditional Democrat, who voted for Cheri Bustos, voted for him. How do you -- how do they get them back?

GREEN: You know, I actually think it's less of a problem this year than it looked like a year ago because -- I mean the brilliance to me of kind of the Trump-Bannon message in the presidential campaign, it was built around economic populism. We're going to make America great again. We're going to bring back jobs. And yet if you look at what Trump has done in his first year as president, primarily it has satisfied the desires of establishment Republicans culminating in a corporate tax cut, skewed towards the very wealthy. That has left open the playing field for economic populism. If you look at where the energy in the Democratic Part is with Bernie Sanders, with Elizabeth Warren, that is the message that Democrats are pushing. And I think that can mean a successful one in the midterms.

BASH: And, meanwhile, in the short-term, in the mid-term, you have people like Cheri Bustos and others arguing, we need a strong economic message to counter the Republicans in the short-term. The former DNC chair, Howard Dean, is saying, oh, no, we don't need that. We just need to do this. In the off year elections for Congress, he said, your message is, I'm not the president, and that is all you need. Take a listen.


HOWARD DEAN, FORMER DNC CHAIRMAN: In the off year elections for Congress your message is, I'm not the president.


DEAN: And that's all you need. In 2018, not being Donald Trump is enough.


BASH: Is not being Donald Trump enough if you're a Democrat?

[12:25:00] ORDONEZ: I think if you listen to Bustos, that is not -- that is not enough. It's not enough just to be against Donald Trump. If you were just against Donald Trump, would Doug Jones have won in Alabama? I think what Bustos is saying is that you need a bigger message. You need to go after jobs. You need to go after the economy -- talk about the economy. The Democrats need a message and they need to bring something more to the table and not just being the anti-Trump party. JOHNSON: I think Bustos is talking about the long-term and she is

talking about the party identity, you know, for the next 10, 20 years. Howard Dean is talking about 2018 and he's saying that the antipathy to the president is so strong that Democrats have to do little more than essentially have a pulse in the mid-term elections to succeed.

But I do think that Cheri Bustos is getting attention, you know, aside from being an impressive politician, for making an argument about what the identity of the Democratic Party should be, whether it should look more like Hillary Clinton or more like, you know, Cheri Bustos.

BASH: All right. Well, speaking of the president, as we go to break, we want to show you that we have brand-new video of President Trump back on the golf course today at Trump International in Florida. I believe we have it. There you see it. It's day 89 of his presidency that he has spent on the golf course. And he invited members of the U.S. Coast Huard to golf with him. Again, it's totally fine. I think nobody argues with the idea that a president, probably more than anybody, needs to blow off steam and golf. But -- and it's actually nice when he does things like invite people from the Coast Huard and other services who are defending and helping this country.

OK, up next, is the presidential bromance cooling off?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's an honor to have gotten to know you. We are developing and have developed a wonderful relationship.

My feeling towards you is an incredibly warm one. As we said, there's great chemistry.