Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Acknowledges Russia Behind Nerve Agent Attack; Trump Deflects White House Chaos; Second Trump Organization Attorney Involved in Stormy Daniels Case; Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 15, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:33] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS, I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Tough new words from the Trump administration about 2016 Russian election meddling. But not from the president himself. Plus, lessons learned from Pennsylvania's stunning special election. Is Nancy Pelosi now OK if Democrats in some races decide to make her more of a villain than the president?

And it's "Everyone is Irish" week. A St. Patrick's Day tradition on Capitol Hill this hour and a reminder that there's putting on the green and there's putting on the green.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Mr. President, are you going to come visit us soon?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will. I love it. I love it. I have property there. And I may never get to see it again. But I will.


TRUMP: I will tell.


TRUMP: I do play golf and you play golf. Right?

LEO VARADKAR, IRISH PRIME MINISTER: I don't but I'm always willing to learn so if you can maybe take you for a few runs.


KING: Back to that in a bit. But we begin with important new efforts by the United States and key allies to isolate Russia in a subplot that is all too familiar. The new pressure campaign has two tracks. One, the Trump administration today made is most explicit condemnation of Russia's 2016 election meddling. And in doing so slapped new sanctions on the Internet operation and others who are at the center of the cyber attacks on American democracy.

Critics say the administration slow walked on this and that's a valid debate but the words today are important, overdue or not. The Treasury secretary calling the Russian meddling, quote, "malign, nefarious and destabilizing," and imposing sanctions on five Russian entities and 19 individuals, a clear message after months of muddle.

Track two is a new joint statement from the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Germany condemning the Russian government for a nerve agent attack on a prominent critic of Vladimir Putin. The four NATO powers essentially accusing Putin of attempted murder. Quote, "We share the United Kingdom's assessment that there is no plausible alternative explanation," the statement reads. "And note that Russia's failure to address the legitimate request by the government of the United Kingdom further underlines Russia's responsibility."

Remarkably direct and remarkably blunt words from the Treasury secretary in election meddling, and from that joint statement from the U.S., UK, France and Germany. The subplot, the piece that is missing once again, Vladimir Putin is in the global spotlight for reprehensible behavior and the president of the United States is saying very, very little.


TRUMP: I spoke with the prime minister and we are in deep discussions. A very sad situation. It certainly looks like the Russians were behind it. Something that should never, ever happen and we're taking it very seriously as I think are many others.


KING: Let's begin with the latest reporting, CNN's Jeff Zeleny live at the White House. Our Fred Pleitgen live in Moscow.

Jeff, to you first. Toughest action yet by the Trump administration. Explain why and explain why the president doesn't talk about it.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, it was the toughest action taken by his administration. The Treasury Department, if you look at the list of sanctions released this morning, it is a near mirror image targeting all of the individuals who are listed on the Mueller indictment from February 16th, just one month ago. It is very striking here that this investigation that the president has repeatedly described as a witch hunt.

His administration sees a lot of similarities but you're right, we did not hear the president talk nearly as forcefully as his own administration has in that statement from the -- France and Germany and the UK in condemning the attack but the president did for the first time say he believes it was Russia so, John, just one more example of the president often not speaking as strongly but no question today these sanctions are strong. Perhaps not as timely as some would have liked but certainly they will feel them -- John.

KING: Progress, one would say. Jeff Zeleny, thanks, at the White House.

To Fred Pleitgen now in Moscow. Fred, I'm assuming the Kremlin not happy?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No, they're not happy and we literally just got a reaction from the Russians as we went to air here. They're saying that they're calm in the face of these new Treasury sanctions, but at the same time they are already working on measures to hit back at the United States.

They've not said what exactly those measures are going to be but keep in mind, this comes as the Russians say they're also going to hit back at the Brits for just expelling 23 of their diplomats with that other things, poisoning that Russian spy on British soil using a nerve agent.

[12:05:07] So the Russians today right now very busy lashing out at the U.S. and its allies. We'll get you more once we know exactly what the Russians plan to do -- John.

KING: Fred Pleitgen in Moscow, appreciate the breaking news there. Fred, thanks so much.

With us here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace of the Associated Press, Olivier Knox with Yahoo!, Astead Herndon with the "Boston Globe," and Politico's Rachel Bade.

I want to get to the president in a minute but first I do want to get, Julie, it is important after months of muddled language, mixed messages about 2016 Russia meddling, if you read the Treasury Department statement released about an hour, a little more than an hour ago, it is clear, the language is blunt, the sanctions track the Mueller indictments and you have the administration, and again a lot of people will say where have you been, but we have the administration today on the record saying, this happened, it was malign, it was nefarious and we're going to do something about it. That's in and of itself is a big deal, right?

JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, ASSOCIATED PRESS: And that's what a lot of Trump allies on Capitol Hill have been waiting for, actually, for this president and this administration to come forward and not just accept the conclusions of the intelligence agencies about what Russia did in 2016 but also to take some action on this. And there's been this huge gap between the administration and congressional Republicans who are more hawkish on Russia.

I think that the fact that it took this long will still be an undercurrent but yes, we shouldn't take away from the fact that this is a tough action and I do think it's notable that these -- that clearly what the administration has been doing behind the scenes tracks so closely with what Mueller has been doing.

KING: And to that point, as everybody else jumps in, Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, smartly, politically, whatever your view on this, if you're him, this is smart politically, he issued a statement right away, the fact that the administration has issued sanctions against individuals and entities indicted by the Special Counsel Mueller proves that this investigation is not a witch hunt as the president and his allies have claimed. RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Right. No, this is

kind of the bare minimum I think that Hill Republicans and Democrats would say the president is doing. They would want him to do more. Chuck Schumer, beyond that statement, said this is point blank not enough. He said that, you know, the White House should be doing more to protect the midterm elections. Like what are they going to do to stop this in the fall when the elections are happening? And basically they said the president's silence on this speaks volumes in and of itself.

You know, I mean, they are taking action here, but we don't hear much from the president. Compare that to Theresa May who after, you know, the attacks in her own country was out there speaking publicly condemning Putin, condemning Russia. We are not seeing the same thing from the president at this point.

ASTEAD HERNDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE BOSTON GLOBE: That's an important point. I think that this is now retroactive sanctions, looking back at what they did in 2016. But when you look at what folks on the Hill are saying they wanted proactive measures to insulate and to protect the elections system going forward and we have yet to really see that. We have seen intelligence chiefs say they expect Russia to come back again and still we do not have those measures from the Trump administration to protect the American system going forward. So I imagine that congressional both Republicans and Democrats will still be looking for more but, as you say, this is kind of bare minimum stuff.

KING: And the riddle remains, Olivier, the president himself in the sense that he had a brief photo-op with the prime minister of Ireland who's here. We'll see the president on Capitol Hill. That's a much lighter event, people make jokes to "Everybody is Irish," celebrates St. Patrick's Day. But the president knows the media is coming into the room. He knows what his Treasury Department has just done.

He knows that his White House has joined a very strong statement, U.S., UK, Germany and France, essentially as I said, they don't say it so clearly but if you read the statement they're saying Vladimir Putin's government trying to kill somebody in a sovereign nation using an incredibly dangerous chemical weapon that hasn't happened since World War II and the president says nothing -- nothing tough.

He did say I talked to the prime minister and I agree but there's an opportunity to frame Putin for what he is and the president won't do it.

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, YAHOO! NEWS: Right. There are obviously two responses. One is the Trump response, the other one is the Trump administration response, and you've seen that over the past six months to a year. You're seeing the administration trying to provide Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons. The Obama administration have always held back on that.

You saw that remarkable attack apparently spurred on by Russia in Syria against U.S. allies there and U.S. forces repelled forcefully. Now you're seeing -- today's briefing was really interesting. They talked about these sanctions in three buckets. Election meddling will get the top billing, of course. But they also talked about a Russian cyber intrusion into the energy grid and they talked about the NotPetya malware which spread all over Europe and cost tens of billions of dollars.

This used to be an escalating confrontation with Russia here. It bears noting watching very, very closely but I don't know that we're ever going to hear the president come out and do this forcefully. He's resisted for the last 14 months.

KING: To the escalation, you mentioned, though, is it at least evidence that the people who work for the president, maybe they were timid about going after Russia in the first place because they knew they might draw his ire? If they did so, if they talked openly about meddling, if they talked openly about active measures as the intelligence community calls it, is there at least more confidence in the ranks that they can do this despite the president? Is that the right way to put it?

[12:10:03] PACE: I think despite the president is the right way to put it. I think that there is still a difference in terms of the way that Cabinet officials sometimes approach this versus some of the rank-and-file who are actually having to implement these policies. They're clearly getting signals that they should move forward on some of these punishments. But if you look at someone like Mike Pompeo who is going to be nominated to be the next secretary of State, he's someone that is very attuned with what the president wants to at least hear on Russia.

He will say things like yes, I accept what the intelligence agencies have said happened during the 2016 election but also Russia has been doing that for years. That's happened previously. Trying to draw this distinction between the idea that Russia was meddling in the election but not doing it to help Donald Trump. So he's someone, again, who is very attune to what the president wants to hear on this. And he's going to be, presumably if he can get through confirmation, our top diplomat dealing with the Russians.

KING: To the bigger question of Russian behavior, though, if you're the president and you don't like to talk about election meddling because you think somehow you're undermining your victory, the president has an opportunity now. The current allegations against Putin, Putin's government about this spy poisoning in Britain, continued Russian aggression in eastern Europe, Russian -- the malware you mentioned in Europe, attacking the economy in Europe.

The president has a broader case now he could make against Putin and yet he doesn't. He doesn't. And so is it because the critics say aha, Putin has something on Trump or is it just because Putin often says nice things like this?


VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Despite the fact that he's a first-time president, still he's a quick study after all and he understands very well that this level where we are engaging in mutual accusation and insults, this is a road to nowhere. He clearly has leadership qualities. They're clearly present because he takes response for making decisions.

Again, whether or not someone likes his decisions or not, he makes them nonetheless. That is undoubtedly a sign of having these leadership qualities.


KING: We know this president likes to be flattered. But is it that simple? I call it the (INAUDIBLE). I don't see the political downside for the president being tougher on Putin and yet 14 months in, he won't.

KNOX: Well, you know, you made a good point about the letter that Steve Mnuchin signed that lays out all the sanctions and a lot of the accusations. They directly blame the GRU, one of the military intelligence agencies in Russia for the meddling. Tied them directly to that. That would lead us naturally down to the conclusion that Putin himself signed off on all of this but the letter doesn't really explicitly go there, and I don't think the president will either.

I think one of the things that the president wants is he wants to be guy who fix the relationship.

KING: Right.

KNOX: He wants to be the guy who fix the relationship with Putin, it went south under George W. Bush, it went south under Obama and he wants to be the guy who brokers some kind of U.S./Russian detente.

PACE: One of the things that I think the president just can't really get his head around is that until he comes forward and forcefully denounces these actions by the Russians. Until he comes forward and forcefully denounces Putin himself, the questions about his potential connections to Russia will never go away. This is always going to be the undercurrent and it's confounding why he can't square this. He complains about the continued questions but he could do a lot by simply coming forward and being more forceful.

KING: And to both points, especially yours, in a sense, that yes, the president wants to be the guy who fixed the relationship but sometimes you have to decide I don't want to fix this relationship given the current Russian behavior, the escalation, the no signs of any better behavior from Vladimir Putin, why would you want to fix the relationship at this moment I think is a question.

Up next, two Trump Cabinet members facing scrutiny on Capitol Hill right now as the president says again this morning more change might be coming but he insists talk of White House chaos is exaggerated.


[12:17:46] KING: Welcome back. An always fun annual tradition playing out on Capitol Hill this hour, the Irish prime minister comes to Washington, there's a big Friends of Ireland luncheon at the capital in honor of St. Patrick's Day which comes up this week. The president of the United States speaking moments ago, making a joke.


TRUMP: It's an honor to have you with us. And I look forward to seeing you often. Wherever there's a problem, you call. We'll solve it. OK? Except for trade.


TRUMP: They got those taxes so low. You're a tough one to compete with, with the taxes but congratulations. Great job. Thank you very much.


KING: Good natured joke from the president there on an issue that's always on his mind. I just don't know if the prime minister took it as a joke but we shall see.

As the president is on Capitol Hill, so, too, are two of his most embattled Cabinet members. Rumors swirling about possible changes in the Cabinet including these two gentlemen right here, the Veterans Affairs chief David Shulkin and the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke both facing questions about how they're spending taxpayer money. Democrats quick, especially, to pounce on Zinke.


REP. PAUL GRIJALVA (D), RANKING MEMBER, NATURAL RESOURCES COMMITTEE: These reports have raised significant questions about your stewardship of taxpayer dollars and I believe the public deserves a detail accounting of these questionable expenses.

REP. JARED HUFFMAN (D), CALIFORNIA: In so many ways right now this great agency is mired in chaos, cronyism, and at least the appearance of corruption.


KING: Now the secretary has not had a chance to respond to the Democratic criticism yet. We're monitoring the hearing. We'll bring it to you if we can.

Shulkin, meanwhile, did say he's sorry that his conduct has raised so many questions.


DAVID SHULKIN, VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: Let me just say that I publicly acknowledge that the distraction that's happened that you've talked about is something that I deeply regret. I've come here for one reason and that's to improve the lives of veterans and that's what I'm focused solely on doing.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: Now both on Capitol Hill at a time you hear especially in Shulkin's case that the president has already been talking about maybe taking the Energy Secretary Rick Perry moving him over, although those stories got some play in the last 24 hours, and then the administration says no, no, at least not imminent.

What are we to believe about these constant rumors of more and more shakeup coming?

Well, we don't know. I mean --


HERNDON: It's a tough one. This is certainly a president who loves shakeups, who loves the kind of chaos and we know that this week there was an idea that let's do it all at once.

[12:20:08] Let's make sure that we get all these changes in and out and the president said that -- you know, that he has -- he's getting close to the Cabinet he wanted which implied that he certainly wasn't there and that we could expect some shakeups in the future but when you look on Capitol Hill there's not really an appetite to go through a nomination, confirmation after confirmation and so there's a mismatch between the president who kind of wants a revolving door of Cabinet members and the Congress that wants to focus more so on issues outside of personnel and does want those --


KING: And Republicans in Congress who think beyond the specifics, just the churning, the constant turnover.

HERNDON: Exactly.

KING: Chaos is one of the things that's hurting them out in the election especially in the suburbs. The president talked about this, this morning. He lashed out at somebody's reporting. There have been about 647,403 stories about White House chaos in the last 48 hours or so and the potential for a turnover. Here's the president's take on one of them. You decide.


TRUMP: So there will always be change but very little. It was a very false story. It was very -- a very exaggerated, a very exaggerated and false story but there'll always be change and I think you want to see change and I want to also see different ideas.


KING: Again, part of the fascinating ripples of these stories is the president starts on this, when he gets to the phone with friends. You talk to his outside friends -- you talk to his outside friends and they say he's about to dump Sessions, he's mad at the VA secretary, he's going to do this, he's going to do that, he's asking me who would be a good choice to be the next chief of staff. He starts it and then he gets mad about it.

PACE: Right. That's exactly right. I mean, the president calls people up, he floats names, he asks for opinions. He says I'm not liking this guy right now, what do you think about this guy, did you see him on TV? Then those people go and talk to reporters who then report that the president is considering making changes. Sometimes we've seen those changes come to fruition quickly. Sometimes, like poor Reince Priebus, he was having these kind of conversations, Trump was, with people for quite a long period of time.

KING: And Rex Tillerson.

PACE: And Rex Tillerson before he actually went through with it. But so much of this is generated by the president's desire to bounce things off of other people. I do think that this is a good point that he is trying to get to a place where he feels like his Cabinet will actually reflect what he wants them do. And he has felt over the last couple of months that that hasn't been the Cabinet that he's had. As certainly as president you are entitled to have the Cabinet be made up of people who back your policies.

KNOX: Yes, I mean, the president forcefully denounced reporting that -- last fall that he was looking at a plan to replace Tillerson with Pompeo. Well, OK, so take these denials with a boulder of salt that they require. And also it's not like the narrative of the administration hasn't been total chaos for the last 14 months.

KING: Right.

KNOX: I mean, if you sit down and you make a list of all the people who quit, were fired, were mired in scandal, I mean, the list really stretches long so you've got -- and the president just last week said he likes conflict, you know, he likes -- he sort of embraces this kind of -- I guess you would call it a dynamic White House so I don't know how to -- I don't know what to think of it. but he denied the Pompeo story and here we are so.

KING: So it's a couple of weeks away is what you're saying.


KNOX: Possible. Possible.

KING: We'll keep an eye on that.

Up next, new documents reveal new links between the Trump organization and the adult film actress Stormy Daniels. Yes, they do.


[12:27:32] KING: Welcome back. New documents make it even more difficult for the president to keep his distance from the Stormy Daniels saga. Documents from the porn actress' lawyer reveal a second Trump Organization attorney was involved in arbitration proceedings over an agreement designed to keep Daniels silent about an alleged affair with the president. CNN's MJ Lee joins us now with the documents. And MJ, what do they

tell us?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, John, what we have now is one more link between the Trump Organization and the Stormy Daniel legal battle. These documents obtained by CNN yesterday are dated February 22nd of this year, so they're very recent and they say that Jill Martin represents EC LLC. This of course is Essential Consultants, the company that Michael Cohen set up in 2016 to pay Stormy Daniels $130,000.

Now Jill Martin's title is vice president and assistant general counsel at the Trump Organization. And if you look there, the address that is listed on those documents is the address for the Trump National Golf Course in Los Angeles. And she's not just any lawyer of the Trump Organization, you might remember, John, that she spoke on behalf of candidate Trump throughout the 2016 campaign and she is now the second Trump Organization employee to have a direct involvement in the Stormy Daniels legal battle.

Now she did send a statement and I just want to read it quickly from last night. She says, "The Trump Organization is not representing anyone and with the exception of one of its California-based attorneys in her individual capacity facilitating the initial filing, the company has had no involvement in the matter."

Certainly raising new questions, John, about Michael Cohen's previous statement that he acted alone in all of this.

KING: MJ, you laid it out clearly, though the documents say her name, her title, where she works but she's not involved. I got it. I got it. MJ Lee, thanks for that.

Joining our panel to discuss the legal issues involved, here's CNN chief legal analyst, former federal prosecutor, Jeffrey Toobin.

To that point, I'm being snarky about it but I think I should be snarky about it in this case. I'm sorry, help me through canon of ethics, whatever it is, she's a major attorney in a major corporation signing this with her address and her title and we are to believe this is her doing this in her spare time, it has nothing to do with the Trump Organization?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, you know, she can say that but,. you know, the fact is she did -- you know, there are a lot of lawyers in Los Angeles. Out of all the lawyers in Los Angeles that they got to participate in this arbitration they pick someone from the Trump Organization. Again, and you know, why this matters is that Michael Cohen's position from the very beginning has been this was purely his involvement with Stormy Daniels an act of altruism on this part.