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White House Fires Aide Who Put Out Statement On Tillerson's Dismissal; GOP On Edge As PA Voters Cast Ballots in Special Election; Russia House Intel Probe Ends Along Partisan Lines. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired March 13, 2018 - 12:30   ET



[12:30:50] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Back to our breaking news.

Fallout now from the firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The White House has now fired a State Department's spokesman who put out a statement this morning defending the secretary's work and expressing surprise at how the secretary found out. His name is Stephen Goldstein. He's the secretary of state for diplomacy and he has been fired.

He is the official -- we read you a statement a short time ago, who put out a statement saying, "The secretary had every intention of remaining in the job." You see the statement there, and went on to essentially question the president's manners, saying the secretary did not speak to the president this morning and he's unaware of the reason for being fired.

On the one hand, you would say a quick-acting White House, an act of -- what they view as defiance, firing somebody at the State Department.

OK, Admiral, I want to start with you just because of your experience working in these kinds of jobs, in these buildings, at a top political moment like this. Does it shock you the secretary goes?


KING: Clearly he had -- the secretary had something to do with the statement issued, essentially saying I was doing a great job. I don't know why I'm being fired and I don't like how it was fired. And now the guy who put it out under his name is gone, too.

KIRBY: Right. But there was long simmering tensions, I think, between Mr. Goldstein and the White House officials. He was a -- he's a political appointee hired in. He came in to really try to revamp the communications process at stake, get Tillerson out a little bit more.

So he has been -- and he's been on-the-record spokesman for Tillerson particularly on these trips. He's been seen as sort of Tillerson's voice. And when Tillerson pushes back against the president it is usually in Steve's name. So, it doesn't surprise me that this has actually happened. And look, I can speak from experience. I worked for Secretary Chuck Hagel when he was (INAUDIBLE) by President Obama. Guess who was out on the street looking for a new job, you know?

So I mean, when you're a spokesman in this town, you're tied to the principal. And so when your principal goes, you have to expect that you're going to go. This was pretty fast, but given the tensions I know had existed, I'm not really surprised.

KING: I just -- as you jump in, I just want to read the statement again because it's unusual. It is unusual and Mr. Goldstein clearly expressing his loyalty to Secretary Tillerson here and then paying a price for it.

"The secretary had every intention of remaining because of the tangible progress made on critical national security issues. He established and enjoyed relationships with his counterparts. The secretary did not speak to the president this morning and is unaware of the reason."

Went on to say that he's grateful for the opportunity to serve. So this is essentially as -- Mr. Goldstein issued the statement but it's Secretary Tillerson essentially saying, I was doing a good job, I don't know why you fired me, and you really handled it in a lousy way, in my opinion.

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, that's all (INAUDIBLE) but, you know, Mr. Goldstein works for the president of the United States and he should be putting out a statement for the president, not criticizing the president, number one.

This goes to a broader problem. I think it stank, but in a lot of other departments, which is the battle between the Trump loyalists and those who -- the secretary who was certainly not a Trump loyalist, Rex Tillerson, and bring in a whole bunch of new people. And there was a war going on (INAUDIBLE) of just throwing all these trump people out just indiscriminately of the positions.

They landed on the (INAUDIBLE), they had -- he sent people over there and systemically Rex Tillerson has just thrown them out. You may recall about six months ago Tillerson was in an argument, one that was well reported in the White House. It was about staffing at the State Department because of what he's doing and getting rid of all the Trump people.

So, I think you're going to see a lot more of this in the days ahead at state.

KING: (INAUDIBLE) a lot of this at state, our Jim Acosta also reporting don't be surprised if you see more other staff shakeup in the days ahead not just at the State Department.

Again, I don't mean to say in a flip way but we're 14 months in and we're going through all of these turnover and turmoil. It affects how you can do your job day to day at these agencies which are doing important business. And so I thought this was supposed to be the I hired the best people administration.

DAN BALZ, CHIEF CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST: I mean, what I was going to say is, it's not just what the senator is talking about at state. I mean, the State Department has been decimated over the last 15 months. And there has been an exodus of career foreign service officials, and morale is very, very, very low at the State Department.

I don't know what secretary-designate Pompeo will do about that or if he cares about that. But that's another factor that he's going to have to deal with as he comes in along with these policy issues.

KING: At a moment when he's facing media challenges.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, THE FEDERALIST: Yes, I think the statement you read plays sort of as a blaze of glory play for me and (INAUDIBLE) within their rights to show him the door after that.

[12:35:03] But it speaks to how things go differently in this White House than you've seen. And this is like the online dating app for White Houses. There is a lot of fire at the beginning, little thought to compatibility. Not very much (INAUDIBLE) and at the end you get text message that you're dumped for good.

This is not a great way of doing business, but the other part of it is, the folks who are career respond to this upheaval in ways that are unprecedented as well. And I actually don't think that is effective in countering the Trump White House. Things like this actually don't help you out.

KING: You speak American so you'll never get a job at Foggy Bottom, I can tell you that. I just want to read you, this is Mr. Goldstein's statement, the gentleman who was just fired at the State Department. He says, "This has been an honor of a lifetime and I'm grateful to the secretary and the president for this opportunity. I wish everyone well and look forward to getting more rest and perhaps winning an indoor rowing competition. We will see what happened next."


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think it's worth mentioning here, what a lot of this comes down to, you know, to Mary Katharine's point, the way that this is done, President Trump does not like to fire people. He does not like to pick up the phone to someone who is his secretary of state, you know, in the line of succession for the presidency and say, you're fired.

KING: Well, he did pick up his phone.

PHILIP: He just didn't pick it up to make a phone call, that's true. I mean, it's a problem. I mean, Rex Tillerson is someone who is a head of a major multi-national company. He came into this administration at the urging of his friends.

The president, by all accounts, picked him because he felt like he had the stature to be in a job like that. And then to be dumped on the side of the road unceremoniously is one of the reasons that you'll get statements like that. It's one of the reasons that you'll get loyalists to Tillerson saying, you know what, I'm willing to put my job on the line in order to stand up for this guy who I worked for.

That's the pattern of behavior that we keep seeing over and over again at the president not being willing to give his subordinates a certain kind of respect on their way out.

HAM: (INAUDIBLE) that the screaming irony of the guy whose catch phrase is "you're fired," not wanting to fire people to their faces?

KING: That has been one of interesting (INAUDIBLE) from day one. All right, we'll keep an eye in all the turnover, set reporting. See if there's any more to come today. But when we come back, voters who are at the polls. About 7 and a half hours left in Western Pennsylvania.

Again, it's one congressional seat but there'll be a giant national message.


[12:41:50] KING: First big test of the 2018 election climate now underway right now in Western Pennsylvania. It's just one congressional seat. You see it right here, the 18th congressional district, but it's a giant test of Democratic voter intensity and whether the president is a midterm help or a midterm drag, especially in Trump country.

Let's look at this district right here. For Conor Lamb, the Democrat tonight, the key is right here. This slice of Allegheny County in the northern part of the district, the lower part of the county, 42 percent of the vote.

This is where you find, a, the most Democrats in the district and suburban Republicans. If you watched the Alabama Senate race, the 2017 special elections, suburban Republicans bolting over to the Democrats, it's key part of that. We'll see if it happens tonight.

If you're Rick Saccone you have to run it up in places like Washington, in places like Greene County, over here in Westmoreland County as well. You have to run it up in the reddish areas, the Trump areas of the district.

Why are people watching this so closely? Let just go back in time. Let's look at this congressional district. Bring it back up from 2016.

This is the district that Donald Trump carried by 22 points, by a vote margin that made up and more of how he won Pennsylvania statewide. So if the Democrats can win in Trump country, they think they can carry it over to other districts like this and of course districts that are more leaning toward the Democrats.

As everybody watches tonight, here's the two candidates making a final push. The Republican says, help the president, the Democrat says, who? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK SACCONE (R), PENNSYLVANIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: He needs some help down there. He's getting beat up in Washington as you see from the media, and from the bureaucracy, and from Hollywood. And he needs a good wing man and as an air force guy, I want to go down there and protect his six and help him implement that very agenda.

CONOR LAMB (D), PENNSYLVANIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: I'm really excited for this race and I'm happy their voices are carrying around the world today. But this is a local race. People are either voting for either me or Rick Saccone.


KING: Back with our panel. Senator Santorum, this used to be your House district by name. The lines are different. The district is more Republican now actually.

When you first won -- and it was a stun, you won a Democratic district back in the day. Number one, what are you hearing from your friends and sources back in the area? And number two, what is the national message from a guy who knows the area, knows the district if the Democrats weigh in, in what is clearly Trump country?

SANTORUM: Yes. I'd say first the national message is, that if you want to win a district in Trump country, you have to run as a Republican if you're a Democrat. I mean, he's running as a Republican light. He's saying he won't vote for Nancy Pelosi, he doesn't agrees with Trump on (INAUDIBLE).

He is -- he's saying this is a local race. Remember, there's 70,000 more registered Democrats in that district than there are Republicans. And a lot of Democrats at the local level still win.

In fact most of those rural counties you looked at still have very heavily Democratic-elected officials at the local level but they don't vote Republican at the national level. And if Rick Saccone was running against a Hillary Clinton clone, we wouldn't be here talking about this race and I think this would be close.

But he's running against someone who is running against the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. And so the message is, if they run somebody that is Trump light and not critical at Trump at all, then they can probably pick up some of these seats.

Now, how they vote when the come here we'll wait and see whether they stand up to the party that is becoming the more progressive party.

[12:45:03] As far as the race is concerned, I would say a week ago everyone I talked to in the district felt like this had gotten away from us. And that it looked like this was going south and there was no way to get it back.

I think the president coming in this weekend has shown that intensity of Republican voters has gone up in the last week or so. There was about a 20-point gap between intensity between Democrats and Republicans in that district. And so I think now they're saying, hey, you know, we might eke this out on election day.

KING: All right, so we'll count their votes tonight. Everybody should stay with us. And Phil Mattingly, when you walked the halls on Capitol Hill, we've already seen a very high number of retirements.

The Republicans should know it's a bad climate. They worry this is a disastrous, it is a horrible climate.

I was talking to somebody smart last week who does this (INAUDIBLE). He says he thinks they'll get at least four maybe, and if they lose this seat, maybe six or eight more retirements.

Is that the conversation or other Republicans whether they're from New Jersey or California or Texas, are they watching this race?

PHIL MATTINGLY CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No question about it. And look, there is a reason why Republicans have dumped millions of dollars into this race for a candidate that most, even some on the record right now are more than happy to go out and nuke, and say he was a terrible candidate. He never should have been running. He hasn't done anything we've asked him to do. Which is kind of covering themselves in the wake of everything.

But they recognize that this race is more important for the narrative and for going into November than it is for a district that's not going to exist in a couple weeks or more. They recognize that what this means for the current Republican conference and what this means for candidates whether they're trying to come to congress or whether they're seeking re-election, coming to November is it's extremely important.

Heading off the momentum or even perceived momentum and perhaps most importantly even media coverage of what this race means, that's more important right now to Republicans that I've been talking to. And Republicans on Capitol hood trying to figure out if the they actually going to make and take the plunge in November than perhaps anything else about this race.

KING: Is that your sense, Dan, about the national message we're going to watch tonight?

BALZ: Yes, I think so. I mean, I think -- I mean, there are a couple of things that we will learn about this and we'll all interpret it as we do on any special election. But nonetheless, one is clearly the ongoing issue of Democratic intensity versus Republican intensity, which the senator just talked about.

How much can Donald Trump change that gap that exists? Because we know it exists. So that's one issue.

I think the other is the degree to which Democrats can run candidates who fit the districts that they're trying to pick up. And that could be an ongoing issue. We see some potential problem for the Democrats in Texas from those primaries. Democrats that may not quite fit the mood of the broader electorate in a place like that. In this case -- I mean, on trade, you know, Conor Lamb is actually with the progressive wing of the Democratic party, not the Republican party on trade. So there is, you know, there is a lot of mix-up on what those issues are.

But, you know, this is an important race, but it's one of a series of data points that we continue to watch heading toward November.

PHILIP: And to the degree that Democrats -- Democratic intensity can support almost blue dog Democratic candidate, that's probably an OK thing for the Democratic Party. If their progressive base can get behind a guy who is Republican light and allow him to win.

SANTORUM: Remember, the Democrats pooled their money, so even thought if he can win, they have not jumped in with both feet to help.

KING: All right, we'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

The best part of any day like this is we can stop talking about the election and pretty soon start counting the votes. Be back in a minute.


[12:52:42] KING: Welcome back.

Fresh evidence today that Congress really can't do anything important right. The House Intelligence Committee investigation into Russian meddling is over. There will be no bipartisan findings, no bipartisan report despite the gravity of the questions at hand.

In fact, Republicans released their conclusions to the media even before sharing them with committee Democrats. The GOP members say they found no evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. And, breaking from the view of the U.S. intelligence agencies, the committee Republicans said they saw no evidence that the Russian meddling was designed to favor Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton.

The president celebrates these findings as vindication. But listen here, a Republican member of the committee calling it a waste of time.


REP. TOM ROONEY (R), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: We've gone completely off the rails and now we're just basically a political forum for people to leak information to drive the day's news. So we've -- as you alluded to, we've lost all credibility and we're going to issue probably two different reports, unfortunately. So in that regard, that's why I called for the investigation end.


KING: I know we live in a hyperpolarized world. Is it not possible to get 15 to 20 people on a bipartisan basis to get in a room and say, this is actually a really big important deal for the country? And a big question, did a foreign power try to meddle in our elections? If so, did they try to help one candidate over the other? Can we come to a bipartisan conclusion? Why is that so impossible?

PHILIP: On this issue, absolutely not. It's not possible.


MATTINGLY: No, look, and I think you heard from Congressman Rooney --

KING: Then why do it at all I guess is my question? If it's a waste of time, the waste of taxpayers' money, why even bother?

MATTINGLY: I think if there is a positive thing to take from the report, as partisan as we will be on both sides is that, there will be a heavy emphasis, you can see from the summary, it'll be a 150-plus pages on protecting the next election. There is a recognition of something happened in 2016, something is clearly going to happen in 2018, and people need to take it seriously and pay attention to it and perhaps that ball has been dropped up to this point.

Anybody who's been paying attention to the House Intelligence Committee over the course of the last, I don't know, 14 months, 12 months, knew this was the only way things were going to end. And I think this underscores the importance of the Senate Intelligence Committee an the importance of the Mueller probe.

KING: The Mueller probe is the big one. And I want to say, you know, Chairman Devin Nunes who had lead, the speaker pushed him out. That was kind of a clown call but it's not just the Republicans.

[12:55:00] Adam Schiff within weeks of the start of the investigation on "Meet The Press" said, I see evidence of collusion before they had heard from many wit -- even if you do see it, just shut your mouth and get to the end of the investigation.

HAM: And the interesting thing about the Senate committee hearing or the investigation and Mueller is there is less leaking. It was politicized and weaponized in the House committee on somewhat on both sides and that's why things fell apart, because you get this lack of trust between the two parties.

PHILLIP: What it also reveals is that when it comes to President Trump and Russia, there are only two sides. You're either for him or you're against him.

I think Republicans recognize that President Trump is not going to look kindly on anyone who gives, you know, an inch on this Russia issue, and that's why we are where we are. The Mueller probe is important because that's about legality, and I think at the end of the day, this is what it will all come down to.

KING: It used to be when you're on an oversight committee that your allegiance was to the facts, not to the president regardless of your party?


KING: I'm going to go find the mud pits. Thanks for joining in the INSIDE POLITICS. We'll be with you before the mud pits tonight throughout the election counting.

Wolf starts after a quick break.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks --