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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump Meets with Lawmakers on DACA; Dems See Midterm Openings; Trump Visits Tennessee. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 9, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:20] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

A critical hour here in Washington today. A group of bipartisan lawmakers at the White House as we speak for a show me meeting with the president. The pool of reports has been brought into that meeting. We'll have video from it at any moment. We'll bring it to you as soon as we get it.

The topic inside the room, a reprieve for the so-called dreamers. The White House has a big price tag, immigration policy changes that Democrats abhor, including money for the president's Keystone campaign promise, his wall along the southern border.

Speaker Paul Ryan telling reporters just this morning he wants a compromise. But look for give on either side, you'll find very little right now. The DACA drama has lawmakers sounding dejected, both about the prospects for a fix and what the failure to strike one would spell to the likelihood of government stays open when it runs out of money in just 10 days.

The number two Republican in the Senate says the chances of an agreement are, quote, pretty hard to hit by a January 19th deadline. A negotiator frames the situation more bluntly, saying, quote, it's a mess.

Listen here to Marco Rubio, senator from Florida, this morning on Fox News. Doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is this beginning to come together or fall apart?

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: I'm not sure. Here's the bottom line, though, you can't shut down the American government. You can't shut down the government of the United States over DACA. And you can't be against anything unless -- because of the building of a wall. The Democrats are the ones threatening to shut down the government because of the need to build a wall. That's absurd.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN's Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill.

Phil, I just want to remind you, if I have to interrupt if we get that tape from the White House.

But as we wait, you've been talking to members on both sides. Anyone expecting that perhaps the breakthrough comes at this White House meeting?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, the short answer is no. And when you get a look inside that meeting, when that video comes through, just take a look at one thing, how many members are actually inside the room. There's a very large number. The diversity of viewpoints and the divergence of viewpoints, not just between Republican and Democrat, but also intraparty between Republicans and Republicans, Democrats and Democrats, underscores what I've been hearing from aides on both sides, in both chambers over the course of the last 24 hours, that this meeting, they feel, is more for show than anything else.

Now, look, any time you get people in the room, particularly at the White House, people say that there's a possibility that something could happen. But the reality is, when you talked to Republicans and Democrat who are working on this process right now, that what they need is behind the scenes, the White House to come to the table and move a little bit from where they've started.

You talked about kind of the wish list that they've had, that they've had for the last couple of months actually and the fact that they haven't moved from that has left Democrats completely on the sidelines. And as long as that's the case, John, we've got seven legislative days now and there's no clear pathway yet on this issue.

KING: And, Phil, it's Tuesday. You have the Senate luncheon, Democrats and Republicans. Secretary Mattis heading up to the Senate this hour. Why?

MATTINGLY: He needs to sell the budget deal. Look, what's important, everybody's focusing on DACA right now, and rightfully so. This is kind of the key that unlocks a big deal. But there's a lot of other issues that are going on as well. There's a spending deal to raise the budget caps as they current stand for both defense and domestic spending. There's also the Children's Health Insurance Program. There's also a disaster relief bill that needs to get through.

What Secretary Mattis is going to the Senate Republican luncheon to say essentially is, the budget caps deal, it will increase federal spending a lot and that makes some conservatives very wary in both the House and the Senate. But the defense spending piece of that, which Republicans have been fighting for for years at this point is so crucial that a deal needs to be struck.

Now, again, when you talk to people that have been working on the spending side of this, they feel like the deal is there. They know what the deal is. They just need to get through the DACA process. But the secretary coming up to really emphasize that even if you're wary of the domestic spending increase, this is something we need to do. It's something you campaigned on. It's something you talk about regularly. It's time to close the deal when it comes to this spending caps deal, John. KING: Time to close the deal, you say. A few -- several very

interesting days ahead.

Phil Mattingly live on Capitol Hill. Appreciate it, Phil.

With us to share their reporting and their insights here in studio, "Politico's" Eliana Johnson, Jonathan Martin of "The New York Times," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, and CNN's MJ Lee.

We'll get the tape of the president any minute. I'm fascinated to hear what he says about the specifics and his tone because this was -- this was part of Donald Trump's calling card as a candidate. Politicians is stupid in Washington. Democrats and Republicans are both stubborn. They get locked in their boxes. They can't cut deals. That was one calling card. Immigration was the other calling card. What deal does Donald Trump want here and will he get it?

ELIANA JOHNSON, "POLITICO": Trump's changed his tune a little bit on what deal exactly he wants. He initially said that he really wanted to move DACA, though he didn't want it to be in executive action. He wanted the Congress to take care of it. And then he said, if the Congress doesn't take care of it, I'll revisit it and consider doing it by executive action.

I'm a little bit skeptical that Republicans and Democrats are going to fail to reach a deal. Trump now says he wants a wall built in exchange for moving on DACA. But, fundamentally, Republicans and Democrats want to get to the same place here. It's a rare instance in which they both -- the majorities of both parties want to move on this. And so I do think that they'll reach some sort of a deal in the end, whether or not they do it in exchange for building a wall, I'm not sure. But Republicans don't have a tough negotiating position when they're trying to get to the same place the Democrats are.

[12:05:24] KING: And that's an excellent point, and it's an important point. Majorities in both parties want this deal. They want to get this done. Most Republicans --

JOHNSON: As does the president.

KING: Yes. Most Republicans think the young dreamers brought into this country illegally, yes, but too young to be involved in any decision about that, they should be protected.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

KING: Republicans also want border security funding. But will a vocal minority in either party send this off the tracks in the sense that you have the conservatives who say it's amnesty, it's amnesty, it's amnesty, and you have progressives who are saying, don't give the president a dime for that wall.

ZELENY: I can't wait to see how Steve King reacts to three words that the president is going to say. We're getting the print (INAUDIBLE). And how that works is we hear from reporters in the (INAUDIBLE). He says he wants a bill of love. Let's see how Steve King and other far right immigration skeptics and critics react to that.

That is the challenge here, I think, for the president in this moment, how to corral and bring aboard, or at least quiet down the criticism from some skeptics here. And that is going to be the challenge.

We've seen so many presidents and so many Houses and Senates try and do this. The different equation here, of course, is Trump himself. So he is going to have to step up and maybe tell some people on his right flank to quiet down. We'll see if he does that.

I'm skeptical that it's going to shut the government down or anything, but I'm also -- we're not sure how the end is reached here.

KING: And this has been quick sand. Every time they have tried to touch the immigration issue in a big way, going back to the George W. Bush administration, has turned into quick sand. Is this -- I think it was Mary Katharine Ham here yesterday -- is this only Nixon can go to China? Can only Donald Trump build a wall on immigration? Get people, to your point, calm down, cut a deal?

JONATHAN MARTIN, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I mean I think it's possible because the whole issue with the wall is that the wall can mean a lot of things. I mean the wall can mean x number of dollars in physical improvements to current border barriers. I mean the wall doesn't have to be the kind of Trump fan thick of, you know, from California to Texas, like an actual 20-foot wall. Trump can basically declare a victory. It's Trump. I mean he's the master of showmanship, of selling stuff. I mean he can (INAUDIBLE) a wall, right?

So, I mean, I think from that standpoint, it's viable. And the question is, is -- to your point, John, can Trump convince the House hardliners to say, guys, bear with me. We'll call this the wall. Let's just get this thing done and kind of move on. And if he is able to convince them, I think that this is possible.

But I have to say real fast, Jeff just read that transcript from the president just now in the Oval Office -- or the White House, I should say, a bill of love. And I can't help but envision the Jeb Bush loyalist, right? The Jeb Bush people. Their heads are exploding right now all over America. Jeb Bush was fileted by Donald Trump and by many in the party --

ZELENY: Two years ago right about now.

MARTIN: Yes, for saying that immigration is an act of love. And now we're talking about a bill of love. So love is in the air here in Washington, John.

KING: But you make -- but you make a key point, though, about how much the times have changed in the sense that if Barack Obama were still president and he wanted a deal to protect the dreamers, he would probably accept some increased border security funding to get some Republican votes.

MARTIN: Of course. KING: If George W. Bush were president, Democrats would think, OK, we trust his heart on this issue. We'll -- if he needs that for Republican voters, whether it's a wall, a barrier, surveillance, whatever. But you have Democrat, who because it's Donald Trump, don't want to give him anything, including a penny for the wall that he said Mexico was going to pay for it. Now, at least in the short term, the U.S. taxpayers are going to pay for it.

Listen to Cezar Vargas, Dream Action Coalition, progressive activist, going after his own Democratic leadership. Senator Schumer needs to step up his game. At this point we're seeing very armature deal making skills from supposedly the master strategist.

They don't want to give their guys any leeway to negotiate.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: That's right. And I think it's almost a guarantee, to Jonathan's point, that whatever deal ends up being reached, Democrats and Republicans are going to spin it in different ways. Democrats are not going to want to say anything about funding for a wall. Republicans will. Instead, Democrats will focus on, you know, securing the border.

I think as far as Republicans go, the question isn't necessarily, is there going to be some kind of coalition around reaching some deal on immigration. It's going to be timing. You know, you talk to folks who are, especially the more vulnerable House Republicans, who are worried right now about this being punted a little bit more. They were promised by leadership that this was going to be dealt with as soon as they got back to Congress this year, and now they're feeling like, well, is there going to be talk about separating out the funding issue from the immigration issue.

The closer that they get to November, the harder they feel like they can run on the tax cuts that they voted on. And because they know that there are going to be a lot of global reports about people in their districts, their constituents losing their jobs, people who are fearing deportation and the closer that, you know, this gets to November, the harder it is going to be for them to have a clear message to run on.

[12:10:07] KING: And I'm glad you mentioned that. I'm going to be a broken record to those of you watching at home. Between now and November I'm going to sound like a broken record in the sense that every decision made in this town is made in the prism of the 2018 midterm elections. Yes, there are big policy issues that probably should be considered just on the merits of the policy. But it doesn't work that way in Washington. There's an election this year, so everything is going to be considered impact.

Let's look at this one. If you're a suburban Republican, you want the president to cut this deal. You're fine with increasing border wall, your increased border security, but you want to be compassionate to the dreamers if you're a suburban Republican or a Midwestern Republican. If you're a southern Republican and you campaigned on this and you said this was amnesty, what do you do? What do you do? Just today -- we may get to this later in the program -- Joe Arpaio,

the former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, says he's going to run for Senate. I don't think he's going to win that race. I don't think he's going to win that primary. But you know Joe Arpaio, who gave immigrants, arrested them, gave them pink underwear, put them in an outdoor prison. He's not going to like any deal that protects the dreamers.

ZELENY: Not at all, and we'll see what the president does. That's going to be the test -- the first test for the president of, is he going to stay out of the primaries or not?

KING: Is he willing to stand up to his own base? Do people who helped him get elected say you're wrong on this?

ZELENY: And that is the question. And that is the question. He is uniquely qualified, I think, to do that because he's been on sort of all sides of this issue. But he did campaign aggressively on that. But that will be a telling sign.

His role in the midterm elections is the central story this year. If he softens a little bit on this, it will be a sign that he is willing to sort of change for the good of holding that House in Republicans hands. That's the biggest achievement that he wants at the end of this year because it means that fewer investigations, no chance of impeachment, et cetera, here.

But immigration is a -- a first test for him to see if he's grown in office, which president's often do, or not.

KING: If not. And if he views 2018 differently. His posture is different in the even numbered year, election year, than it was last year.

ZELENY: Right.

KING: We're going to sneak in a quick break. We're waiting to hear from the president. The pool reporters in with him at the White House. They've been in there for quite a long time. So this could be interesting. Please, don't go anywhere.

But, up next, history says the party in the White House stumbles in the midterm elections, especially if the president's approval numbers are low. So why are Republicans suddenly trying to sound -- at least trying to sound confident about 2018?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:16:19] KING: Welcome back.

I want to remind you, we're waiting to hear from the president of the United States. He's at a very important meeting, a consequential meeting with bipartisan lawmakers at the White House discussing immigration issues, principally how to protect the so-called dreamers and how to perhaps try to strike a deal as part of a bigger deal to keep the government up and running 10 days until the government runs out of money.

All this taking place early in the midterm election year at a time when the members, a long list of numbers, do not look good for the president and his party. One number Republicans are looking at, the growing number of retirements. Just yesterday, Ed Royce, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, announcing his resignation.

He is one of these. He is one of the 23 lawmakers who are Republican members of the House from districts carried by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Three of them now that you count Chairman Royce and the three of them have already announced they are resigning. Keep an eye on the rest. These are the most competitive races as the Democrats try to take back the House.

Another dynamic so far, 31 Republican members already, 31 Republican members, we're in January of the election year, have already said they're retiring, resigning or leaving the House to seek some other office. Some running for senator. Some running for governor.

Also interesting, seven of them, including Ed Royce, who I just mentioned, who announced yesterday, are chairman. Some of the most powerful members of the House. Chairman of key committees deciding I've had enough. Either run for something else or simply want to go home.

Those are important numbers. But here's the most important number. A midterm election year, especially a president's first midterm election year, is generally defined by this number. What do the American people think? Do they approve or disapprove of the president's job performance? And this president remains historically unpopular, 37 percent, to begin the election year.

Remember that number, 37 percent. In 2010, the first Obama midterm, he was at 46 percent right around Election Day. President Trump has time to recover, but he is nine points below where President Obama was in 2010. President Obama's party lost 63 seats in the House and they lost control of the House to the Republicans. That is what Republicans are worried about.

Democrats think, make this about Trump, we take back the House. So listen to Republicans here trying to make it about somebody else.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE SCALISE (R), MAJORITY WHIP: We know that we are going to have a tough election cycle later this year. We're preparing for it. But we're going to work hard to make sure we keep this majority. I think there are a lot of people out there that understand just how devastating it would be to our country to have Nancy Pelosi as speaker and they don't want that to happen. They saw how bad it was when she was speaker for four years and what it did to our country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A valiant effort by the whip, Steve Scalise there. But, no, I mean you get -- you know, Republicans need to come up with something. Generally the one thing Donald Trump defied history in 2016. The 2017 off year elections ran pretty much according to history.

MARTIN: Yes.

KING: The president's approval ratings down. Your party gets shellacked. That's what Republicans have to think as they're in January, trying to plot a path to November is that we've got to try to -- any time we can make it not about President Trump and make it about something else.

MARTIN: And they're in a bind because even though the president's numbers are consistently in the 30s, the bulk of the most partisan activists in the party, the kind of people who are going to show up in a midterm election, are still with him. And I talked about this challenge with folks who worked for Gillespie in Virginia. They said, look, we talked about the challenge. The problem we had is you can't abandon Trump even though we know we're going to get pilloried for it, especially in the (INAUDIBLE) parts of state because if you do that, not only do you anger a lot of your voters, you lose all your volunteers. It's impossible to run a campaign if you don't have a volunteer base. If you don't have folks knocking on doors for you and making phone calls.

And, guess what, that component of the party base still likes this president. And so what do you do if you're running in one of these states or seats where the bulk of the population is down on Trump, but your activists aren't.

[12:20:00] KING: And the calendar is ticking, Jeff, in a way that Republicans -- Ed Royce, thoughtful guy, whether you agree or disagree with his politics, thoughtful guy, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, back in September when the DCCC put him on a list of guys they thought were thinking of retiring, they said, no way, he's 100 percent -- one of his aides --

MARTIN: They always say that.

KING: One hundred percent running for re-election. But you say that in September and then you get into October, November, December, you start polling, you start checking out your district and you start thinking, do I really want to lose?

ZELENY: This holiday gift was a poll that he got, I'm told, over the weekend in recent days. It showed it was very, very difficult. So what -- I mean this year definitely is reminiscent of 2010, as you were showing on the numbers there.

But, again, one difference is Trump here. And Jonathan's absolutely right about his base. His base is, you know, completely with him.

We are about to see more gymnastics and more Republicans making the decision if they appear with Trump, if they don't appear with Trump. People always put themselves through knots over this.

The reality is, some people believe the best strategy is just to double down. You can't run away from him. He might as well double down and try and keep his base supported. But party recruitment is a big thing here. And Democrats it seems are

doing a good job of this. But, you know, it is very early in this year to know if history is going to repeat itself. Only in 1934 and 2002, in the wake of 9/11, how the president's --

KING: Right.

ZELENY: Party held both seats for both the House and Senate.

KING: Right. Right.

JOHNSON: I think --

ZELENY: So we'll see if it repeats itself this year. It seems impossible.

KING: Yes, and more -- yes, and, more importantly, in the modern age, in the television age --

ZELENY IN the modern age.

KING: The Internet age, only after 9/11. But only after -- the one -- the one if you think about the TV age, the digital age, you just look at only after 9/11. In every other one, in recent years, the president's party has been shellacked.

MARTIN: And the grim news --

JOHNSON: I mean --

MARTIN: Yes, go ahead.

JOHNSON: Well, the dynamics of if and whether the president endorses candidates are going to be so complicated because he's totally unpredictable. And I know that Mitch McConnell is telling candidates that he strongly believes if certain races stay localized, Republicans have a pretty decent chance at winning them.

But Mitch McConnell cannot keep the president out of races, nor can he keep the president from flying in to campaign if not with candidates, essentially holding a rally for them, even if they don't attend them. So it's going to be really tricky for Republicans.

And I think the other x factor is that the economy is doing pretty well and will that counter balance the president's abysmal approval rating? I think Republicans feel that it can't, but it's -- it's another unknown factor.

KING: They have to try that. Democrats will raise your taxes. Democrats (INAUDIBLE) --

JOHNSON: And they're going to be selling it hard. I mean they're going to be selling the tax cut and linking it to the performance of the economy hard.

KING: All right, so let's take this -- let's take this in reverse order. I want to get to the president in a minute because we don't know how much he's going to be out there. We don't know how much he'll be welcome out there. We do know the Republicans want to raise as much money as possible because money from a president always helps.

But the vice president, in an interview with "The Wall Street Journal" yesterday, these quotes saying, Mr. Pence envisions a game plan in which he helps raise money and makes early visits to competitive districts and states with Mr. Trump following up with appearances to draw large crowds and stoke voter enthusiasm. A person familiar with the strategy called it a two-step.

If you're a White House, you can plan a two-step. You can plan whatever you want if you're the White House. You have to get an invitation.

MARTIN: Yes.

KING: But now I think the vice president will be welcome almost everywhere, but what about the president?

LEE: Well, I mean, I think, anecdotally, when you talk to some of these Republicans who have announced their retirement, I think it's hard to overstate just how deeply exasperated they are with how Congress is functioning right now. I know that there are others around the table who have covered Congress a few years longer than I have. But I think it's safe to say that you have not seen sort of this level of chaos, this level of partisanship, the short attention span. A lot of it which is fueled by Donald Trump on any given day, asking members to respond to the daily tweets from the president. I think all of this has grown -- has made a lot of Republicans really wary.

And just in terms of the position that leadership finds itself in now, I think it is kind of difficult for them to talk to member who might be wavering, talk to members who might be on the fence and come up with something to say to convince them to stay. I think up until this point, they could have said to them, look, we really need you for the tax reform vote. Now that the tax reform vote is over and it's not really clear what is on the agenda for the Republican Party --

JOHNSON: On the agenda.

KING: Right.

LEE: Not really clear what the talking point is.

KING: And you make a key point, the president is the driving factor in a lot of this. But there are also regional, ideological, fractional, generational fracturing in both parties that are sort of under the surface and right now we focus so much on Trump, we don't pay attention to the (INAUDIBLE).

MARTIN: Yes.

KING: All of them are bubbling up as we go (INAUDIBLE) the thought.

We're going to take a quick break. Again, we're waiting to hear from the president of the United States. He's having a big immigration meeting at the White House. Early in this election year, where one of the big questions, as we were just discussing. When we come back, what kind of stages will he like? Where will they be? What will he say?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:28:52] KING: Welcome back.

If we've learned anything about this president in the last year or two it's this, if you want to cheer him up, send him out on the road. Put him in front of a crowd. And where he goes this year is a huge part of the midterm election debate. So consider these early weeks of 2018 a test phase of sorts.

Yesterday it was Tennessee, the state Trump won handily back in 2016, yet a state where Democrats think they have an outside shot at a Senate seat this year. Tennessee, therefore, is a grab laboratory for this question, was Alabama's recent Senate race an aberration or is the president so unpopular that Democrats can play in places once thought to be beyond their reach? Nashville and its suburbs are worth watching, therefore, as 2018 plays out.

While there last night, the president much more interested in looking back at 2016.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Oh, are you happy you voted for me. You are so lucky that I gave you that privilege.

The other choice wasn't going to work out too well for the farmers, I hate to -- or the miners or anybody else.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Consider it humor, consider it not so humble, consider it what you will.

[12:30:00] MARTIN: It's Trump being Trump. He's doing his stand-up, you know? I mean that's a little bit of (INAUDIBLE) there and that's just how he rolls. And the crowd loves it.

KING: Right.