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Debate over Nunes Memo; GOP Cautions Regarding Mueller; Russia Not in Address; Trump Prepares for State of the Union Address; Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 29, 2018 - 12:00   ET


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

A key House committee could vote today to release a controversial, classified GOP memo that alleges the FBI abused its power in the Russia investigation. That as President Trump prepares for tomorrow night's State of the Union Address. We expect to hear from him this hour.

And the Grammys get political. From what instantly became an anthem for the Me Too movement, to a surprise cameo from the president's nemesis.


HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He had a long-time fear of being poisoned. One reason why he liked to eat at McDonald's. Nobody knew he was coming and the food was safely premade (ph).


BASH: We begin this hour with a looming confrontation inside the House Intelligence Committee that has serious implications for the Russia investigation. A potential committee vote tonight over whether to publicly release a memo written solely by Republicans alleging grave and politically motivated surveillance abuses. A source familiar with the document says the memo written by GOP staff accuses the FBI of using information gleaned from an unverified Steele dossier, one originally funded by Democrats to obtain a warrant to spy on former Trump adviser Carter Page. It's a serious charge.

And there's another one. That the deputy attorney general and deputy FBI director played roles in the process. The White House says you deserve to know what the memo says.


RAJ SHAH, WHITE HOUSE DEPUTY PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I'll say this, the constitutional process, as laid out, involves the House of Representatives, the House Intelligence Committee and the White House and the president of the United States. The Department of Justice doesn't have a role in this process.


SHAH: It could send a message of accountability. It could shed light on allegations that have existed for some time. Again, nobody has seen the memo at the White House. I certainly haven't seen it. We will see what's in it if the House of Representatives votes it out and --

CUOMO: Has the president --


BASH: Democrats see something very different in the memo. They see a brazen and partisan plot to smear the Department of Justice and undermine the Russia investigation, just as Special Counsel Robert Mueller nears an interview -- potential interview with the president.


SEN. MARK WARNER (D), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Since they've not been successful at the front end on trying to chop off the head of the investigation, the reckless behavior they're taking, which is now, well, let's just bloody up the overall reputation of the FBI and the Department of Justice. This is the ultimate kind of secret star chamber approach created by a subset of Trump zealots.


BASH: Here with me to share their reporting and insights, "The Weekly Standard's" John McCormack, Julie Hirschfeld Davis with "The New York Times," "Bloomberg's" Sahil Kapur, and Molly Ball with "Time" magazine.

Hi, everybody. Thanks for coming on.

And, Julie, I want to start just with the idea that, you know, obviously, there is so much partisanship with the notion of even creating this memo, much less releasing it publicly. And I think just the idea that the House Republicans won't even show the Senate Intelligence chairman, the Republican chairman, that says a lot.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": It's really extraordinary. The fact, as you said, that they set out to do this memo in the first place, the fact that they're focusing in on this very specific issue of the way in which this -- according to the reporting that we've all done around what this memo is, because as Raj Shah said earlier, none of us have actually seen the contents of the memo yet. But the fact that what we understand is that it focuses in on this very narrow issue of what was told to the authorities in order to obtain this Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant is really quite extraordinary.

And there is a turf battle going on, as you said, on Capitol Hill. There is certainly a partisan fight going on between Republicans and Democrats. But what I think is more extraordinary is the fact that you have the Trump administration, the Trump White House, essentially taking on its own Justice Department, which has actually weighed in and tried to say, hey, now, wait a second the process of declassifying these things, there is a process for a reason and it should be carefully done. They seem to be blowing past all of that, or at least getting ready to blow past all of that and making a case publically for why that's justified here.

BASH: And people might be watching and listening to this saying, OK, so tell me something I haven't heard before. There is a partisan fight about the nature of an investigation and whether to release a memo that was just written by one party.

But the context of this is that the intelligence committees, historically on both sides of the Capitol, even the House, which is a very partisan place, have been historically nonpartisan.

[12:05:01] JOHN MCCORMACK, SENIOR WRITER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Yes. I mean this is a deeply unsatisfying discussion, I think, because we're talking about a memo that no one has seen based upon an application of a FISA warrant that no one has seen. And so if they're going to go ahead and release this memo, they really need to release the underlying FISA application. And I don't know whether or not there are -- you know, it would compromise intelligence to do that. But I think that if we're going to have this discussion, we need to have a full discussion. It can't just be based on one party's take.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG POLITICS": This has really taken a partisan turn, I think, with the memo, the investigation. Mark Warner, the clip you just played there, nobody's idea of a partisan flame thrower on Capitol Hill, using some very strong language to talk about what his Republican colleagues are doing.

I want to talk about the political context in which this is arising. There's a poll that was out just a few days ago by Quinnipiac that showed President Trump's approval rating among the overall public was 36 percent, among Republicans it was 86 percent. This is the sort of thing that creates a political incentive for Republicans on Capitol Hill to want to defend him. This is one of the reasons I think Devin Nunes has gone forward so emphatically by creating this sort of common narrative --

BASH: The House Intelligence chair.

KAPUR: Exactly, the House Intelligence chair has done that. And this is also the context in which the Senate Homeland Security chairman, Ron Johnson, last week seemed to get a little ahead of himself by talking about a potential conspiracy, a secret society based on one text message that now appears to be a joke. The final verdict of this Mueller investigation could come down to an act of Congress. And if Republicans believe, as many do, that this whole investigation is illegitimate, this creates an extraordinary situation, I think.

MOLLY BALL< NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": Yes, and I think that you also see a lot of this -- the -- that Republican approval rating coming out of -- the controversy about the memo really being generated in conservative media. And they've been pushing this very, very, very hard. Now, there is some virtue in having perhaps a minority report, right,

a group of partisans who are -- who can see the situation in a different way, interpret the evidence in a different way if, in fact, the evidence is legitimate, if it's not being distorted, there's a role for that. There's a role for partisan media to see the story in a different way. But I think we know that the president is an avid consumer of the partisan media, and as Sahil was saying, the aim is to create a common enemy and keep people in the tent who might be otherwise tempted to turn away.

BASH: And let's be fair. There has been partisanship on both sides of the aisle, on both sides of the Capitol, with regard to this Russia investigation, rather.

But let me just talk more broadly about -- beyond the memo, about what's going on with the White House and what your paper first reported last week on the president's attempt to fire Robert Mueller back in June.

And I want to show you what Ty Cobb, the White House special counsel, said about all of these stories. He said, we do not find it to be a coincidence that there is an onslaught of false stories circulating at what appears to be a coordinated effort to distract and deflect from new revelations about already reported bias and corruption.

First of all, I read this like three times. I still don't really understand what he's talking about, which is part of the reason why I wanted to put it up there. But I think, obviously, he's saying, you know, don't look over there. It's because I want you to look over here.

But also the stories were about what's going on inside the White House, which means that it is coming from people who are familiar with at least what's going on inside the White House. So does he protest too much?

DAVIS: Well, I mean, I actually thought it was very interesting the way in which he is protesting, because he is essentially arguing that, you know, the reason that we're seeing these stories now is because people are trying to distract. I think the reason that we're seeing these stories now is because we know that President Trump, who has long harbored these views, these worries about the fact that, you know, there are a bunch of people out to get him, both in the Justice Department and the FBI, certainly in the special counsel's office, and Democrats on Capitol Hill, of course, he is now actually engaging with that in a much more active way.

These have always been worries of his. He has, from the very beginning, tried to, you know, disseminate the idea that Mueller is maybe conflicted, that his team is conflicted, that is, you know -- and basically, as Warner said, muddy the waters to sort of undercut the very basis of the entire investigation. Now that this has progressed to a point where they may be actually -- or ready to interview him, now we're starting to hear a more active pursuing of what was before just some suspicions. Now he's actually starting to think, you know, maybe these are things I need to act on. And what our reporting showed about the Mueller situation was not only that he tried to fire him, but that he is still actively considering and sort of wavering on this question to this day.

BASH: Well, let's talk about that, because over the weekend we had some very strong warning shots on that idea from prominent Republicans, including on this network. Take a listen.


SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: It probably wouldn't hurt for us to pass one of those bills.

REP. TREY GOWDY (R), (INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I told my Republican colleagues, leave him the hell alone, and that's still my advice.

[12:10:01] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: And I've got legislation protecting Mr. Mueller, and I would be glad to pass it tomorrow. I see no evidence that President Trump wants to fire Mr. Mueller now. I don't know what happened back -- last year, but it's pretty clear to me that everybody in the White House knows it would be the end of President Trump's presidency if he fired Mr. Mueller. So I think we're in a good spot with Mr. Mueller.


BASH: I mean does everybody in the White House, like the guy who sits in the Oval Office, realize that it's a potentially huge, monumental mistake to do that?

MCCORMACK: Apparently not. I mean "The New York Times" report was widely confirmed, it was well sourced and the president responded to it by calling it fake news. And that was obviously just a blatant lie, which is not something new for the president, but it has prompted a lot of his supporters to say, hey wait a second, we can't let -- this guy cannot be -- the president cannot be let to testify with Robert Mueller because if he -- if he says a lie, you know, to a bunch of reporters, well, that's one thing. If he says it under oath, well, that's perjury. And so I think you've seen a lot of Trump allies, just over the last few days say, hey, you really need to think about it.

And I don't know where that ends. I mean if the president refuses to testify, what could be done to compel him? Obviously in the past with Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, they've been compelled by the Supreme Court rulings. Whether the facts in this case would be different or similar, I have no idea.

BASH: Do you think that -- do you think that the legislation that has just kind of been on ice for a few months, which is bipartisan, to make it impossible for the president to fire Robert Mueller, the protect Robert Mueller act, is going to see the light of day now?

KAPUR: Well, one of the authors of that is Senator Tom Tillis of North Carolina. And his office told "The Daily Beast" a few days ago that he doesn't see it as urgent, that President Trump, by all indications, is not trying to fire Mueller now. So I think it is -- you know, it has hit a wall. I think, as I mentioned, the politics of this on the Republican side are certainly a factor. Nobody -- no Republican legislator wants to be seen as taking an action that could be, you know, argued by the White House as a direct affront to the president.

The legal question I have about all of this is that, if the president does at some point make the decision to fire Bob Mueller, can that bell be unrung? Because you have people like House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy saying it's not something that is urgently needed now. I think he said that yesterday on the Sunday shows.

But if it's not needed now and the president takes that action, what can be done? What is the theoretical recourse, if the firing was found to be eventually improper?

BASH: All right, everybody stand by. We're going to take a quick break.

But up next, President Trump is preparing for his State of the Union. We'll talk about that next.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We worked on it hard. Cover a lot of territory, including our great success with the markets and with the tax cut. But we have a lot of things to discuss and we'll be discussing them. And I hope you enjoy it.



[12:16:46] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: From now on, America will be empowered by our aspirations, not burdened by our fears, inspired by the future, not bound by failures of the past, and guided by a vision, not blinded by our doubts.


BASH: That was President Trump last February addressing a joint session of Congress just a month into his young presidency. The speech earned him rare praise from the right and from the left. But the year that followed was mired by trivial and non-trivial fights and partisan squabbles.

Tomorrow night, President Trump again has a chance to give his State of the Union Address and change the tone while doing so.

Let's get straight to senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny, who is at the White House.

Now, Jeff, I know you have been talking to your sources and have new information about what the president will or will not say about Russia.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Dana. I mean one question here has been, will the president talk about the

Russian investigation. He talks about it so much. He's called it a hoax. He's called it a witch hunt.

And when I asked a senior White House official if he will mention it, flatly the answer was no. So the plan here at the White House is for the president to not dwell on or perhaps even mention at all the Russia investigation. And here is why. The White House believes that this is an opportunity for the president to reset his message with a broad swath of the American public. This will be one of the largest audiences he ever has as president. That's what State of the Union messages are for, people are watching who aren't following the daily machinations here.

So the plan is for the president to speak in a more bipartisan, optimistic approach. Talk about the economy. Talk about the tax cut pledge he signed into law last year. Talk about immigration. Talk about infrastructure. Officials here say the president won't -- and, Dana, they actually hope the president won't talk about the Russia investigation as well.

Of course, that is the elephant in the room, if you will. There are Senate committees and a House committee investigating this. Of course the special counsel is as well. But at least as of now it's the hope of officials the president will not talk about it at all. But as we know, the president can sometimes go off script here, so we'll see if he does that tomorrow night.


BASH: We'll all be watching. Thanks for that new reporting, Jeff. Appreciate it.


BASH: And I want to revisit one other memorable moment from the president's speech in 2017. Listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The time for small thinking is over. The time for trivial fights is behind us.


BASH: But if you watched the president's Twitter feed the very next week, he did the following. He belittled Arnold Schwarzenegger for poor ratings on "The Apprentice," he accused former President Obama of wiretapping him, and he demanded an investigation into Senator Chuck Schumer and Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi for alleged ties to Russia.

So, is this year going to be any different? That is the key question.

Molly, it really, obviously, is always fascinating to watch and listen to the atmospherics up on Capitol Hill. I've been to more than I want to count State of the Union Addresses. But he does tend to, at least in the only address that he's given of this nature, stick to script and deliver a message that is more traditional than we normally see.

[12:20:20] BALL: Yes. Well, and we saw this in the speech in Davos last week as well. And we've -- I've seen this on a number of occasions. The guy can give a formal speech. He can read off a teleprompter. He doesn't go -- he doesn't tend to go off script unless he feels like that's what the audience wants.

BASH: Right.

BALL: So more -- It's more generally if he's at -- in rally-like atmosphere where he wants to kind of give the people what they want, the red meat. That's obviously not what the Congress wants, and the Republicans in Congress want, and I think he can read that the room is a formal setting and that's what's expected. But it is funny to me how the expectation for him now is so much that he is so unpredictable that people are always impressed when he does the give a formal speech thing.

I was in Davos last week and speaking to so many of the business and other leaders who go to that conference, they really didn't know that Trump even had it in him to read a 15 minute speech off a teleprompter, even though it's something he's done a number of times.

BASH: What are you hearing from your sources, Julie?

DAVIS: Well, the big thing about Trump I think in a lot of these settings, whether it's a rally or a State of the Union or a joint session of Congress is, he reads the room. He really does read the room. And that is something he's very good at.

He's also very good at spontaneously, you know, reacting to a queue in the room. And that's, I think, where the risk is for him because we know that in past states of the -- State of the Union Addresses there have been these moments with a member shouting something, or a, you know, a member of the cabinet shaking his or her head, or a Supreme Court justice. You never know. And if something like that were to happen, I think Trump might find it hard to restrain himself.

But he knows that what's expected of him here is to read off the prompter. He can do that.

I do think that Davos, in some ways, was -- and, you know, sources told me that this was supposed to be sort of a warm-up for him. Like, OK, this is -- this is the dress rehearsal and the State of the Union Address is going to be the main event. What he hasn't done is schedule any of the kind of sort of fly around the country --

BAS: Right.

DAVIS: And hammer his message that you would expect -- that other presidents have done. And that's where I think you get into the tweeting and the sort of getting -- veering off message because what is he going to be doing instead? We know he'll have Twitter. But if he's not traveling around to a bunch of events to say, this is my message and I'm sticking to it, what are we actually going to -- how can he sustain it? BASH: You know, that's such -- that is such a good point because it is something -- I mean there has been a script for modern presidents. State -- you give the State of the Union Address. You list off some of the things that are on your agenda and then you travel around for the following week or so and you -- and you keep promoting what you talked about before Congress. He hasn't done that. And -- I mean obviously this is his first formal State of the Union address, but just look at tax reform. I mean he had a very big legislative victory and he didn't go around promoting it, much to the chagrin of a lot of Republicans I've talked to. I'm sure you as well.

MCCORMACK: And I think you'll hear him say that. You know, look at your paychecks. These are -- the withholding tables are just starting to change and people are finally getting to see that, well, you know, the sky didn't fall. Not -- the majority of people did not have their taxes go up. The majority got a tax cut.

But I do think the most important thing will be whatever he says on immigration. You know, with the government funding deadline coming up just a little over a week after this speech, everything's going to be overtaken by that. So does he set any red lines? Again, this president changes his mind in his statements. But, again, with 20 to 30 million people getting a chance to actually hear what he's offering, his proposed compromise, I think a lot of Americans will be surprised that he is, you know, given what everyone's heard, his vulgar comments about immigrants, the fact that he will seem, I think, to a lot of people reasonable that he's willing to give on DACA, on dreamers, in exchange for some tough changes to the immigration policy.

BASH: And, remember, we, obviously, have a very important legislative fight before us and he has it before him. But, remember, we are in an election year.


BASH: And our friend Amy Walter wrote something that I think is very -- is really spot on about this year. She said so too State of the Unions are always overhyped. We can talk about that later. But here's the key. Given the deeply polarized electorate in Congress, I don't know of a time when disconnect between what Trump says Tuesday and what actually happens in '18 has been larger. I think that's a really good point.

KAPUR: Yes. I mean I think President Trump is perfectly capable of performing well in these settings. He doesn't have to fight for the limelight. He gets to be the alpha and the omega for an entire hour and a half and he's capable of being likeable and funny and even charming.

The difference is, nothing is going to change. He'll still going to wake up tomorrow morning or the morning after, turn on his favorite cable news network and start tweeting. In terms of impacts on the State of the Union, it doesn't have much of an impact. And we've seen this over and over again in modern times, it doesn't move public opinion much, especially less likely to be the case now in these polarizing times that we live in. It doesn't lead to members of Congress changing their opinions and moving toward legislation that they had previously opposed. So it's unlikely to have a long term sort of impact. But, you know, in the moment, I think President Trump loved that sort of setting where he gets to -- he gets to be the center of attention for an hour and a half, say what he wants.

[12:25:10] I'm told, in addition to what Jeff reported, I'm told by a White House official it's going to be heavily focused on economics. He's going to talk about not only backward looking but forward looking in terms of infrastructure and further deregulation plans and he's going to talk about the impact of the tax cut, connect that to the economic successes.

BASH: OK, everybody stand by. Up next, the White House tells Democrats their immigration plan is as good as it's going to get, while the music world stands up for dreamers.


CAMILA CABELLO, SINGER: I'm here on this stage tonight because, just like the dreamers, my parents brought me to this country with nothing in their pockets but hope. That is just like dreams, these kids can't be forgotten and are worth fighting for.



[12:30:08] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Are you going to bring Senator Schumer down here again?