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Students Descend on Capitol Hill; Columbine Students Remember Victims; Democrat Poised for Stunning Upset; Trump Unhappy with Carson. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 14, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Brianna.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Republicans are in a panic today. A voter revolt in dep red Trump country feeds talk of a midterm blue wave.

Plus, as Republicans blame a chaotic White House for their problems, the president talks about even more big turnover.

First, though, this remarkable show of student protests unfolding across the country this hour. Parkland, Florida, is the scene. Columbine and other schools in Colorado reminding us that the trail of deadly school violence is far too long. Solidarity in New York City too, Chicago, and right here outside the U.S. Capitol.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have to stand up against the status quo and we have to call on Congress and keep calling until they hear our message. If you can speak, speak. If you can march, march. And when you can vote, vote.


KING: CNN's Ryan Nobles outside the Capitol. Scott McLean is in Littleton, Colorado.

Ryan, let's start with you outside the United States Capitol today. What are you seeing? What are these students saying?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, really an impressive showing by these young people who come mainly from Washington, D.C., northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. They started out at the White House and then made the trek here on a very cold day to end up in front of the United States Capitol.

They were expecting around 2,000 students to show up for this protest. They far exceeded those expectations. And what we're seeing right now behind me is a stream of Democratic lawmakers that have come out of the Capitol and made their way into this crowd to speak to these students. It's really a makeshift set-up here. There's no stage. They don't have microphones. They're basically just yelling into a bullhorn. And these students are responding.

And I've talked to a lot of students here today, John. Many of them skipping school. Some with the blessing of their principals, some with not. They're saying -- they're telling me, John, they want their -- this message sent to lawmakers in Washington that they want real change to happen and to happen soon.

KING: The question will be if they listen. Ryan, we'll keep track of that.

Scott, you're in Littleton. That's home of Columbine. Columbine happened back when Bill Clinton was president.

What are the students there telling you?

SCOTT MCLEAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, John, well, like clockwork, students are just starting to walk out of class right now. You can see a steady stream of them leaving the building and going on to the soccer field. School administrators, they are not officially supporting this walkout. In fact, we're not even allowed on school property. But they will excuse the absence if students are back in class by the time that it ends.

Columbine, obviously, knows all too well about school shootings. The students who attend here now, they weren't even born yet when the school shooting took place here in 1999, killing 13 people. But they've lived with the legacy ever since.

In fact, I spoke to one current student this morning who says that she cannot enter a classroom today without knowing where her exits are. Listen.


ABIGAIL ORTON, STUDENT, COLUMBINE HIGH SCHOOL: The first thing I do at any year is to find the best place to hide and the door in the case of an accident. It's just a subconscious reaction. Any doorway I walk through, that's the first thing going through my mind, just in case, what if. And it's a terrible burden to live with, but it's also better to be aware, to know where you'd go in case of that than to be caught off guard.


MCLEAN: And, John, the students who organized this local rally, this local walkout, went -- make one point crystal clear, and that is that they are not anti-gun. They are pro-Second Amendment. The reason being is that they don't want to lose the support of any students whose parents maybe carry guns or support gun rights themselves. They say the minute that this debate becomes a partisan debate, they've lost all hope of change. John.

KING: Scott McLean in Littleton. Our thanks to Ryan Nobles as well.

Remarkable student demonstrations across the country. We'll come back to that story a bit later in the hour though.

Now, though, to the other big story this hour, the panic in the Republican Party and the powerful new evidence, the revolt against the president, and against those in charge here in Washington reaches deep into Trump country. The evidence that the Republican majority in the House is now at profound risk. And the evidence, that the first big test of the 2018 midterms backs up all that talk of a potential blue wave.

Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, you see it right here, it's not officially settled yet. Democrat Conor Lamb, 627 votes. He has a narrow lead. Republicans now calling in the lawyers, raising questions about last night's count, raising the possibility of a recount.

So while Lamb and the Democrats are claiming victory, the results might not be official for days, maybe weeks. But the giant message won't change even if this leader board somehow does. A Democrat ran even, likely a little better, in a district where Democrats didn't bother fielding a candidate the last two cycles, in a district the president won by 20 points just 16 months ago, in a district that is 94 percent white.

[12:05:08] Republicans should be able to win this district broke and blindfolded. Instead, they spent millions, and then millions more, and they were powerless to stop this. And this is what they're worried about. Allegheny County, right here, another case of a suburban revolt against the Trump presidency.

What happened? This is where Conor Lamb ran it up big, 57 percent to 42 percent over the Republican, Rick Saccone. The southern slice of Allegheny County in the 18th district.

Go back in time, just 16 months. President Trump, in this part of the county, in the suburbs, south of Pittsburgh, beat Hillary Clinton by four points. Those suburbs have now flipped.

And it is not just in Pennsylvania. Let's go back in time to 2017. Pull out to the national map. Alabama now has a Democratic senator for the very same reason. In the suburbs of Huntsville, of Birmingham, of Montgomery. You see that blue, a suburban revolt against the president and against the Republican Party. That's why it looks like Pennsylvania 18 will go blue and that's why Alabama went blue.

Not limited to Alabama. It's all over the country. Let's come up to Virginia. Last year's governor's race, switch here, same reason. Why did Democrats win? They win because of this, the Washington suburbs, the Richmond suburbs. Suburban voters revolting against the president.

That is what Republicans have to think about today, even as they weigh a recount, even as they weigh the possibility, maybe, they can take away Conor Lamb's lead. They know this is about the president. Conor Lamb, smart candidate, says, no, it isn't.


CONOR LAMB (D), PENNSYLVANIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: This is my home. So, you know, you call it a red district. I just call it western Pennsylvania.

There are plenty of people here who are still pretty supportive of him, from what I can tell. I think that his visits -- he came here twice. I think they probably did contribute to the turnout that we saw.

And, look, I was at a lot of polling places yesterday with cars parked outside of them that had President Trump's bumper sticker on them. So he's a popular person here. But I think that what happens when you campaign in real life as much as possible is that those divisions go away. Everyone gave me a fair shake. And I know that there are people that voted for the president who also voted for me. And, you know, I thank them for hearing me out.


KING: With us, and I'm grateful, on little sleep, to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, Jonathan Martin of "The New York Times," Eliana Johnson of "Politico," and CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson.

I do appreciate it. I know everybody's short on sleep on this day. But we are here and happy to work because of this. It's the drama. No matter who wins, we love a great story. And in this case -- in this case, we're going to see. The Republicans, they have the lawyers in now. They're going to triple check all the counts from last night, as they should. They're raising the possibility of a recount. Again, even if the leader board shift, the message here is unmistakable, correct?

JONATHAN MARTIN, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes, look, I don't think that it will make much of a difference whether or not Saccone can pick up a thousand votes to pull in the lead. Put aside the fact that, as we talked about earlier, this seat is going away because of the changing of the lines.

The fact that -- that he had to hustle and is now locked in a recount after his party, the Republicans, spent $10 million plus trying to bail him out, in a plus 20 Trump district tells you everything about where we are right now.

And if you look closely, John, as you did last night, at this seat, where did this happen? Where did this Democrat, Conor Lamb, get his votes? He got them largely from the upscale, high-educated Pittsburgh suburbs, Allegheny County precincts. That's where this revolt is happening. It's everywhere in this country where you've got moderate voters who were educated, live in suburbs. They do not like this president.

And, by the way, it's not issues or policy really, it's his conduct and his behavior and it's driving them into the arms of Democrats.

KING: Right. And so you're looking at the map and you're Paul Ryan, or you're -- or, more importantly -- well, Paul Ryan has to decide whether he's going to run. So let's actually -- let's leave -- let's leave Paul Ryan on that list.

But, more importantly, if you're in a district that Trump carried, the Republicans in districts Hillary Clinton carried are already nervous. If you're a Republican in a district Trump carried by eight or ten points, now you're looking at this district and you're saying, huh?


KING: And you're not only looking at this suburban revolt, which is the most important part of what's happening in American politics right now is the suburbs saying, sorry, Mr. President, and sorry, Republicans, because we associate you with the president. But Conor Lamb also ran stronger in the rural counties. So the margins matter in a close race and he ran stronger in the rural counties.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I just -- I just got a text from a Republican strategist who put it this way. I thought this was kind of genius in the way to describe it. If you're sitting on a beach and you see a tsunami coming, there's only so much you can fortify. The best strategy is to evacuate.


BASH: And that's pretty much what it is possible that we're going to see, even more from Republicans. Already we've seen 38 House Republicans say, I'm out of here. I'd rather leave than be involved in a very tough race that I'm probably likely to lose. Even with the power of incumbency. So that really tells you a lot.

[12:10:02] And the notion that we're hearing from Republicans, including the House speaker today, that this is a one-off, that this is a unique district, that this is a unique candidate, Conor Lamb --


BASH: It's just not true.


BASH: It's not. This is more -- this is potentially and historically a lot less competitive than a lot of the races that we're looking forward to November on. And there are other Conor Lambs out there being run by the Democrats against Republicans.

KING: Right.


MARTIN: John -- HENDERSON: And that's the thing. You know --

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": And this is why -- well, this is why I think this is a larger problem for Republicans. There have been a swath of retirements and now open seats for Republicans. And they have an enormous recruitment problem. When you look at Rick Saccone against Conor Lamb, this is a clear case where candidate quality really mattered. And Republicans say, OK, we had a weak candidate here, we had a weak candidate in Alabama. Well, they're having a tremendously difficult time recruiting quality candidates because they don't want to compete in a difficult election cycle.

KING: And it got a lot harder -- it's a lot harder today than it was -- it was hard yesterday. It's a lot harder today.

JOHNSON: And -- absolutely. Absolutely. You're right. And whereas Democrats really have an advantage. They were able to recruit Conor Lamb, an excellent candidate. And now their -- their problem -- like their position got much easier. Somebody with the military background who's young and so on. Republicans have been in this position before where they got Cory Gardner on the field and others who were young, forward looking and so on.

BASH: Exactly.

JOHNSON: But Democrats certainly have the advantage in more than one way going into the midterms.

KING: Right. And to that point, there's a Democratic question too I'll get to in a minute, will they -- will they learn the lessons from this as Republicans try to study it.

This is Erick Erickson, a conservative activist, again, often a Trump critic, but sometimes a Trump supporter, he's just looking at the environment. Quote, Democrats are hungry for wins and the GOP is not. That's a problem. Also, yes, the president's popularity matters. And while you may like President Trump, the most energized voters in America hate him.

HENDERSON: Yes, and you saw that energy. I was talking to folks on the ground in Pennsylvania. They started organizing the week of Donald Trump's victory because they wanted to put a candidate in this race. Democrats hadn't really put anybody up in previous races in 2016 or in 2014. So they are running candidates and the DCCC is very mindful of the fact that they want to match people with these districts. If you look at their red to blue program, I mean you've got a lot of military folks. You've got people who are highly rated by the NRA who the DCCC is endorsing. So they are, I think, to Eliana's point, they're a little smarter in terms of trying to recruit folks.

KING: And so one of the hopes on the Republican side was, well, we saw this Democratic over performance, this Democratic intensity in 2017, even in those House special elections that the Democrats loss, Kansas, Montana, South Carolina, their performance was way up. Oh, that won't last into 2018. Now they have 2018 proof in the midterm election year. Guess what, it

carried over. And it carried over in a plus-20 Trump district, as you say.

So here's what they're thinking about today. I was told even before this vote, at least -- watch for at least four or six more retirements. This morning everybody's a panic. So don't trust any numbers you get today because everyone's going to say calm down, give it a day, give it a week, give it a month, try to calm down.

But primary deadlines are coming up.


KING: Filing deadlines are starting to come up.

MARTIN: Some have already passed.

KING: And so Republicans are looking at what just happened in Pennsylvania, and they're looking at this. The president's approval rating, this is an average of the five most recent polls, is 39 percent. The president's disapproval is 55 percent.

You are a Republican looking at what just happened in a plus-20 Trump district. You're looking at that approval rating. You're looking at all the turnover in the White House. President Obama had a 47 percent approval rating at this point in 2010.

MARTIN: Right.

BASH: Exactly.

KING: We know what happened.

HENDERSON: A shellacking.

KING: He was up 47 and they lost the House huge.

MARTIN: Yes. Overwhelmingly. And so I came back from Pennsylvania this morning and I went up to Capitol Hill and I talked to House lawmakers as they were coming out of their weekly caucus meeting on the Republican side. And, John, I was so struck by the level of denial about the president's role in this. And I get party loyalty. I understand they have to be good soldiers here and they have to find sort of a reason to sort of rationalize what happened last night. But it's -- it couldn't be more apparent that the president is firing up Democrats and is sending independent voters fleeing from the GOP coalition, yet they don't want to confront that when they're asked about it. And --

KING: It's almost impossible. You understand that. Democrats ran from Obamacare, they still got punished.

BASH: Right.

KING: So what is the balance? How do you find the sweet spot when (INAUDIBLE)?

MARTIN: What -- well, and that's what -- that's what Patrick McHenry told me. He's a part of the leadership. He said, you know very candidly he said, it doesn't get us anything to move from Trump because we can't win without getting our base out.

BASH: And that's the contrarian theory.

MARTIN: And if you flee Trump --

KING: And yet it doesn't get you anything to hug Trump in most of the country.

BASH: But --

KING: And it actually could hurt.

BASH: But the contrarian view here --

KING: So is there --

BASH: The contrarian --

KING: Is it evacuate the only --

BASH: Well, or not or run towards it, you know?


BASH: I mean, because it's coming.

KING: Right.

BASH: So the contrarian view to that is -- sounds like it's what Patrick McHenry told you, which is -- I talked to some Trump loyalists this morning who say that the mistake wasn't sending Trump in on Saturday. The mistake was not sending him in earlier.

[12:15:02] HENDERSON: And often.

BASH: And often because the Democrats, the independents, the anti- Trumpers, they're already fired up. So the mistake that many believe was not firing up the pro-Trump side of things.

KING: In that -- in that kind of a district there.

BASH: In that kind of a district. And I -- it won't happen everywhere. I mean you can't -- you can't do that in the suburbs of Philadelphia necessarily. But in places like this, you can, and that is actually one of the things that Republicans are looking at. It doesn't make sense on its face, but it does in that there is still that core, small core, but a core who really like Trump and you've got to get them out --

MARTIN: But they were all there, Dana. I mean Ivanka -- HENDERSON: But they -- yes, yes, he -- yes, Ivanka (INAUDIBLE) in. Donald Trump Junior --

MARTIN: Ivanka Trump was there. Don Junior was there. The president was there twice.

BASH: True. But the president -- true.


BASH: But this president, not unlike President Obama, it's very hard for him to translate his appear.

KING: Right.


HENDERSON: And that's what they're finding. And --

MARTIN: It's about (ph) him. Yes.

KING: All right, we're going to talk -- yes, we'll talk much more about this, including trying to take what happened in Pennsylvania and project it out into the country. Where are the other 10, 15, 20 districts that look a lot like that where Republicans are having some meetings today. Let's put it that way.

Throughout the hour, we're going to keep an eye on those student walkouts happening throughout the country. It is remarkable. Whatever your position on gun control and gun violence. We love democracy. We're seeing it across the country. Students protesting. The principals might not like it, but the students are protesting across the country today.

Up next, then and now. President Trump changes his tune on his cabinet and -- but signals more big changes might be on the way.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There are those that are saying it's one of the finest group of people ever assembled as a cabinet, as a -- as a cabinet. And I happen to agree with that. Of course, I should agree with that.

I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that I want.



[12:20:51] KING: The president tweeted again today about his cabinet. Here's the breaking news. It was all praise. No, you're fired. Not yet anyway. The praise was for cabinet members up on Capitol Hill today to talk infrastructure, but other cabinet members are on edge, and who can blame them after the secretary of state was tweeted out of his job.

The president is talking publicly about more changes, and administration sources suggest at least one cabinet shuffle could happen any time. The president, we are told, is discussing replacing his secretary of Veteran Affairs, David Shulkin, perhaps with the energy secretary, Rick Perry. And new CNN reporting could land the housing secretary, Ben Carson, back on the hot seat. Remember that $31,000 dining set at HUD? Carson aides insisted career staffers made that call. But CNN's Rene Marsh reporting today that HUD e-mails show Carson and his wife personally selected the pricey furniture.

The president talked openly about it yesterday, actually laying out the standards.


KING: A combination of low energy and bad headlines and you're in trouble?

BASH: Well, I mean, it's like he was describing Ben Carson.


BASH: I'm sorry. I'm sorry to say that. I am.


BASH: That maybe sounds mean, but it's true.

Look, he's obviously grateful to Ben Carson for dropping out and then supporting him, but that ability to be grateful only goes so far. I point --

JOHNSON: He was great -- maybe grateful to Jeff Sessions.

BASH: I was just going to say, I point you only to Jeff Sessions to make -- to make my point.

So, look, this is bad. There's just no question, it's bad. And we have recent history and a recent example of the president not having any tolerance for this kind of thing --

HENDERSON: With Tom Price.

BASH: With Tom Price. The fact that he fired his HHS secretary for lavish flights on the taxpayer dime.

KING: But you have this collision -- you have this collision underway. The president's 14 months in. Every president has a learning curve. President Trump will never say that publicly. Every president, they have the job for a year. And Bill Clinton, some of the Arkansans went away. In George W. Bush's White House, some of the Texans went away. In Barack Obama's White House, he had never been CEO before, they reshuffled some things. It happens to every president.

It's happening on a bigger scale for this president. I just want to put up -- now, not all this is true. Not all this will happen. But this is what White House officials, other administration officials say, well, it could be John Kelly on the hot seat. It could be the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster. The attorney general lives on the hot seat. I must mentioned Secretary Shulkin. Secretary Carson. They were mad at Betsy DeVos. She did a "60 Minutes" interview. They didn't like it at the White House so they're grumbling about her. Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt among the cabinet secretaries who's spending and travel have come in.

I assume we're not going to see all of those people go, but --

HENDERSON: But possibly some of them this week maybe. Who knows? I mean it's all up to the president.

I talked to some people sort of in and around Ben Carson's circle. I mean they have seen what happened with Tillerson, right? He basically woke up and there was a tweet firing him. So they wonder too, is Ben Carson going to wake up one day and see the similar tweet?

You talk to people familiar with the White House's thinking, particularly with Ben Carson. They say, well, he's somebody who hasn't really disagreed with the president. He's kind of mild mannered. He's not necessarily an alpha male. So maybe he won't be on the chopping block.

But, again, who really knows what the president may wake up and think and want to do one day. That's -- that's --

KING: And then you had the collision of timing is what makes it interesting to me. Talk to Republican pollsters who were doing races in the suburbs about their focus groups.


KING: Suburban women don't necessarily complain about taxes or complain about this or complain about that, they complain about chaos.


KING: They say, I run my household.


KING: I get my kids to school. I take care of the bills. I have a job. I have civic responsibilities. I do chartable work. I do this, that and the other thing. I watch this White House and I go, huh?

MARTIN: Right.

KING: And so listen to these Republicans here, with all this chaos, all this turmoil. The president talking publically there will be more Republicans saying, sir, it's an election year, please.


REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: So there's a lot of chaos and anarchy. And this is just more of it. This type of instability and uncertainty is really not helpful for America or for the administration.

GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: I mean you have to have some stability to get things done. So I look at it and I'm just like, wow, I mean, where is this going?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: You find out if you've been fired by tweet is not exactly reassuring in terms of the conduct of government.


KING: The Republicans are saying it's bad for governing. They also understand it's bad for them politically.

[12:25:03] BASH: And it's probably no accident that the three Republicans that we showed are either leaving voluntarily or wanting the president's job.

KING: Right.

BASH: But having said that, those -- to be fair, those are the people saying so publicly because they're unshackled. Many, many, many other Republicans are saying that and more privately, they're just a little bit more worried about the political (INAUDIBLE).

MARTIN: You touched on something that is so vital, because the Republicans you talk to will always point to, well, the economy's humming. This is not like 2010 where we're still getting out of the recession. It's not like '06 when we were in the sort of depths of the Iraq War. I think the politics (INAUDIBLE) are aside (ph). And there's truth to that.

But here's what's scary for them. Voters don't care because they're not voting on policy or substance or issue differences this time around. They're reacting based on the president's conduct, which last time I checked is not going to change between now and Election Day. And so, you know, unless you can make him not be Donald Trump, I don't see how the kind of moment changes.

KING: But he's president because people thought Washington was a mess.

MARTIN: Right.

KING: And that Hillary Clinton was not going to change it.

MARTIN: Right.

KING: But now isn't part of the problem that he's them?

HENDERSON: His own mess. Yes.

KING: So he's them. But he's one of them now.

BASH: Well, it's a different kind of mess.

KING: It's a different kind of mess.

MARTIN: Yes. Yes.

KING: IT's a different kind of mess, but they're still mad at Washington and they don't see order, they just see churning.


JOHNSON: And the other factor here is this. I think, John, you mentioned Bill Clinton getting rid of the Arkansans and Barack Obama kind of coming into his own skin and learning how to be an executive. And I think there's some of that going on with Donald Trump, where he's been in the job a year and he now feels like he knows what he's doing and he feels emboldened to make some of these changes. His hand was forced with Tom Price and some of the others that he's gotten rid of so far. John Kelly came in and cleaned house. But Rex Tillerson, that was somebody that he had wanted to get rid of for a long time but I don't think he had felt confident enough to simply fire.

Now, when you heard Donald Trump come forward yesterday, he said, look, I simply didn't have chemistry with the guy. And he brought in Mike Pompeo, somebody he really does have chemistry with. And I think that's important.

But I think what people fear is that Trump is somebody who turns on a dime on people, and his feelings about the sort of chemistry he has with people change very quickly.

KING: Right.

JOHNSON: And I think you will hear people say, look, it's good. He needs to have chemistry with his secretary of state. But there's worry that his feelings about the rest of his cabinet can shift so quickly that this guy will be firing people, you know, like it's "The Apprentice."

HENDERSON: Yes. Yes, and that's the thing, yes.

MARTIN: And it's all the media coverage. It's all media coverage.

KING: Bad -- bad headlines, low energy.

MARTIN: Not to be, you know, self-absorbed here on a -- being all journalists -- but it's true. He responds to coverage. You showed that list of cabinet folks. Of those that you flagged on the screen, looking at all their faces, almost all of the problems that they've found themselves in, the problem isn't the actual substance of what they purportedly did, is that it got reported in the press. That's what Trump cares about is the coverage of the action, not the action itself.

KING: Right. We've got to take a break from that, but we'll keep an eye on it. Again, some turnover, we're told. We'll look for some more as early as this week.

When we come back, Republicans want to say Pennsylvania 18 just one race, doesn't have any national impact. We'll map out when we come back just why they could be very wrong.