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Pennsylvania Race Shows Trouble Ahead for GOP in 2018; Latest Trump Tweet Attacks Mueller Probe; Trump's Lawyer Calls for End to Russia Probe; Turmoil in White House Over Potential Staff Shake-Up; Dems Look Ahead to November After Pennsylvania Result. Aired 8-9a ET

Aired March 18, 2018 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:13] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King.

To our viewers in the United States and around the world, thank you for sharing your Sunday. A lot to discuss.

The president's lawyer says the special counsel should close his investigation. And as the president praises a decision to fire the former FBI deputy director, critics see yet another effort to undermine and intimidate.


REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D), CALIFORNIA: I found him to be an honest, decent person who knew a lot about the president's ties to Russia and I just fear that this is a punitive act, a petty act, right before he's about to collect his pension, but more intended to send a message to anyone who would cross the president.


KING: Plus, the president now trying to silence Stormy Daniels. New court filings claim the porn actress could be forced to pay as much as $20 million for talking about her relationship with the president.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: We're not going to tolerate any nonsense with threats and bullying tactics. They will go nowhere with me and my client.


KING: And the first big vote of the 2018 midterm season sends a major message. Democrats ran strong in Trump country. Republicans now see their House majority in grave danger.


REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSLVANIA: We're running into a major storm, a big-time hurricane-force wind. And, you know, we are going to be defined by all of these issues swirling around us, unless we're able to enable our own brand and our own identity in our own districts. This is -- this is a five-alarm fire.


KING: With us this Sunday to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace of "The Associated Press", CNN's Manu Raju, CNN's Jeff Zeleny, and "Politico's" Rachael Bade.

The president says it's time for the Russian meddling investigation to shut down. The president himself tweets, it never should have started to begin with. Those tweets with both John Dowd's new statement and the new tweet from the president are laughable. And both twist the truth.

The president's own Treasury Department cited the work of the special counsel this week in imposing new sanctions on Russia. We also learned this past week the special counsel has obtained subpoenas for Trump Organization business records, bringing the investigation deep into the president's family business.

And now, new trouble for the president's 2016 campaign, Facebook late Friday announced it had suspended the data firm central to the Trump voter targeting, saying it improperly obtained and used information about millions of American voters. "The New York Times" has a fascinating and detailed report on how the Cambridge Analytica operation worked, and how it raises a number of new questions, not only about raising privacy violations, but also about possible violations of laws prohibiting foreigners from working on U.S. campaigns.

More questions and yet, the president and his lawyers respond by saying the investigation should be shut down or never should have begun to begin, just as the president launches new attacks on the credibility of the investigation and the investigators. Attorney General Jeff Sessions late Friday firing the former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, just hours before his retirement was to take effect. The attorney general says McCabe had made an unauthorized leak to the news media and misled investigators. McCabe says he's being singled out and punished for corroborating the former FBI Director James Comey's accounts of how he received pressure from the president.

CNN has told McCabe, like Comey, has detailed notes about his conversations with the president. And like Comey, McCabe has been interviewed by Mueller's team and shared his memos.

The politics here are beyond rich. The conservative Red State sees the firing as a way for the attorney general to inch back into the president's good graces, or as they put it, Andrew McCabe has died so that Jeff Sessions may live.

A lot to talk about. Let's start with the tone from the president and the president's lawyer. New information that proves the special counsel has a lot of work before him, a lot of legitimate work before him. And the president's lawyer says I pray he shuts it down. And the president tweets, it never should have started to begin with. JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, ASSOCIATED PRESS: I think the

main takeaway here is that the president is really agitated and really concerned about the fact that the Mueller probe is ongoing and seems to be with every step getting closer to either the president or people around him.

You mentioned the Cambridge Analytica story. That was a firm that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, worked very closely with during the campaign, the idea that Mueller is subpoenaing records from the Trump Organization. Trump is very sensitive about his business dealings. Russia contacts aside, he's very sensitive about his own personal wealth and his business history.

And he has been told by his lawyers repeat delay this was an investigation that was going to be over at the end of 2017. That certainly isn't the case. So, I think all of this taken together, you have a president who is really fuming over the fact that this circle seems to be forming around him right now. I think that there's a lot of concern, both within the White House and among Republicans on Capitol Hill that he could take the really aggressive step of actually trying to fire Mueller.

[08:05:07] RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: It seems like this was a trial balloon for that, right? The statement from John Dowd suggesting that the special counsel needed to wrap up its work. I mean, the president has sort of recently listened to his counsel and sort of stepped back and not taken an aggressive -- this aggressive approach that Republicans think will undermine their own credibility when they, you know, later on, when they could say, oh, the president was never charged with anything.

I do think that Republicans on the Hill will shoot this trial balloon down very quickly.

KING: But why not immediately? Why not immediately, in the sense that when the lawyer came out yesterday, this has been a recurring story. When asked about, when asked about, they say, let Bob Mueller finish his work. But the attorney does this yesterday, then president follows up a few hours later, saying, this never should have begun to begin with.

In both statements, there are factual errors about how the investigation got started. Plus, we know, 13 Russians indicted, national security adviser flips, other indictments in the campaign. And yet, you have the Democrats, Mark Warner tweeting, the ranking Democrat in the Intelligence Committee, every member of Congress, Republican and Democrat, needs to speak up in defense of the special counsel now.

The Democratic leader of the Senate issued a statement. You're right. When you ask Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan, they'll say, let him finish.

Why aren't they out front?

BADE: They have never been out front in terms of criticizing the president. This is something that they just don't like to do. It's uncomfortable for them, and honestly, you know, a lot have criticized the Republican leadership saying they don't have the spine to stand up to Trump.

But, again, this week, I would expect when you ask them, they're going to say, no, this is a separate issue. McCabe's firing, they may have said, you know, it was justified, look, it was recommended by DOJ or FBI career officials, not politicians, who actually made that decision. But they'll say that is different than the Russia probe and the Russia probe needs to continue in the vein it is.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And it certainly represents the most confrontational tone yet that we've seen with the president's lawyers and special counsel. You know, for so many months, like we're going to cooperate, we're going to cooperate. I asked Sarah Sanders this week in the briefing room if this crosses the president's red line, so-called red line, subpoenaing the document, she said, we are going to cooperate. We'll see.

John Dowd said he was acting on his own on Saturday, sending out that first statement. I'm not so sure about that.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it sounded a lot like Trump's tweet.

ZELENY: Very much so.

RAJU: In fact, Trump almost said the exact same thing later in the day. And you mentioned the inaccuracies in that tweet. He's really conflating a number of things and suggesting all -- making false assertions, namely that this was started by the Steele dossier, this FBI investigation.

No, it wasn't. It was, in fact, what we know is that this investigation was ongoing when the dossier came to light. And that there was surveillance based on the dossier of his campaign. Well, actually, it was the FISA warrant in October, just a couple of weeks before the campaign, Carter Page was no longer part of the campaign.

He said the Mueller probe wouldn't have been started had -- wouldn't have been started. Well, the reason why the Mueller probe was started is because he fired James Comey, the FBI director. So, there are a lot of things that the president is conflating as a way to undercut the Mueller probe, more so than he's ever done.

KING: And there's the legal reason to say Bob Mueller should shut down, the president's lawyer speaking as a politician there, not as a lawyer. But the president this morning, right now, is attacking James Comey again on Twitter. I'm not even going to read the tweet. You can put on the screen if you want. Most of the president's tweets doing this are out of context.

This is online now. He's attacking James Comey. Yesterday, he celebrated the firing of Andrew McCabe, Comey's former deputy.

Now, there are some in the Justice Department who say there were grounds to fire Andrew McCabe, that Andrew McCabe crossed the line in terms of professional responsibility standards. We'll get the reports on that, we can look at all that. That's one issue.

Then the issue is, should the president of the United States be celebrating? Should the president of the United States be saying it is a great day?

And that's what the president said on Twitter: Andrew McCabe, fired, a great day for the hardworking men and women of FBI. And then he goes on to say: Sanctimonious James Comey.

Again, Comey is about to come out with a book. Comey and McCabe are now witnesses in the special counsel probe. If it comes down to their word against the president's, that's what the president is trying to do here. He's trying to say, these guys cannot be believed, if they tell you, I did something.

PACE: Right, this whole effort seems to be as undercut them as witnesses, as part of the Mueller investigation, which to Manu's point was started in large part because of the firing of Comey. And we know that questions about obstruction of justice are really at the center of what Mueller is focused on as it relates to Trump himself. I think with Trump, you often find yourself in this situation where there's a difference between what he can do as president and perhaps what he should do, politically.

McCabe firing seems to fit right in there. Certainly, Sessions had the authority to fire McCabe and certainly, there was a recommendation that he could take that action, should the president have done that? Does that help him politically? At least in the short-term, it doesn't seem like it will.

RAJU: It will be interesting to see if some of the things that McCabe said on Friday night actually turn out to be true. One of the things he did say is that after it was revealed by us in the press in December, what he said to the House Intelligence Committee, that he could corroborate James Comey's accounts, that the inspector general and the other investigations, internally, started to focus very intensely on him, because he believed he was being squeezed, he was being singled out because he could corroborate James Comey's accounts.

[08:10:15] Now, we don't know if that's the case. There are a lot more in the McCabe matters that need to come out. But if that is, that's going to be a pretty remarkable thing --

KING: And as this drama plays out, I don't want to let the story about Cambridge Analytica go by, in the sense that months ago, someone told me what the special counsel is trying to do is he has the Russian targeting on Facebook, and he has the Trump campaign targeting on Facebook, and they're looking at the overlays of who he targeted to try to say, how similar are these? And if they are so similar, and I was told, they are very similar, how did that happen? Was that a coincidence?

If you read "The New York Times" story, it says, they essentially, improperly obtained all of this data from Facebook, used it to target voters. So, is it fair to say that the candidate from day one who complained about a rigged system, from day one, was cheating?

ZELENY: It certainly is, every month we've gotten more information, but this story, I believe, is -- it's incredibly explosive, because as Julie mentioned earlier, Jared Kushner was a deep -- he was deeply involved in Cambridge Analytica, was very proud of all of the work that they did there.

This is opening a whole new pathway, if you will, of places to go on this. And Bob Mueller is down the path and we're just always a few steps behind him, several steps behind him, seeing where they're going here. But I believe this is absolutely a very important development. And Facebook suspended them for a reason here on Friday.

So, this is, you know, a potential huge issue.

KING: It is the ides of March, as we track this Shakespearean drama. And to your point there, again, when you see the president's reaction, I'm a broken record on this subject, but he knows a lot more than we do. And when you see the mood he's in and the people he's attacking, that tells you he knows --

ZELENY: And firing.

KING: -- and firing. It tells you he knows something we don't know.

Speaking of firing, up next, the White House chief of staff tells aides to get to work and stop worrying about personnel chaos. But the big boss is still promising more changes.

And the politicians say the darndest things, here's "Saturday Night Live's" take on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' relief now that Andrew McCabe has been fired.


KATE MCKINNON AS JEFF SESSIONS: Look at me! I've still got a job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sir, sir, can you give us the exact reason McCabe was fired?

MCKINNON: Well, yes. Mr. McCabe was in clear violation, because of his lack of candor -- I don't know. I can't even dance around. Trump made me do it. McCabe, he saw too much, you know?



[08:16:39] KING: Welcome back.

When the White House chief of staff summons reporters to insist all is calm, one thing is certain, all is not calm. But there is a new piece or detente anyway between the chief of staff and the president. They had a clarity meeting Thursday night and Kelly is staying.

Plus, H.R. McMaster is still the national security adviser. There was a big buzz Friday morning he would be the next senior administration officials to be shown the door.

So, it was not fire Friday at the White House, as many anticipated. Yet, the West Wing remains on edge, because the president is openly discussing his desire for more big changes. So, where are we?

The mood in the building is one of anxiety, and that's a great understatement. We thought McMaster might be out by Friday. There was talk that Kelly might be out. It's Sunday, heading into the new workweek. But --

ZELENY: The president still says he wants change. He thinks change is good, talking about this in a good way. He was the one personally fueling this speculation last week.

He said multiple times, I almost have my team in place. Never mind that we're like 14 months into the administration. Why is there a need for a second round of players here?

But, look, people are on edge. I had phone calls from people at various agencies wondering if their cabinet secretary, any had heard anything, if they were in trouble. So, no one is up to speed on exactly what's going on.

The reality here is, there's probably going to be a firing of a cabinet secretary or so. It seems like V.A. Secretary David Shulkin is probably top on the list.

We'll see about H.R. McMaster. The reality here is they've not been able to find a replacement, necessarily, who fits everything he wants. It does seem the chief of staff is safe for now.

One of the big reasons, hard to find qualified, competent people to take these jobs now, because of the investigation, and everything else.

KING: It feels like an episode of "The Apprentice." Every week feels like an episode of "The Apprentice."

And you say that and you want to laugh, but then you can't laugh. It's the United States government. H.R. McMaster, key part, the South Koreans love him. We're supposed to have a summit with Kim Jong-un down the line, maybe.

You look at the Veterans Affairs secretary, one of the most dysfunctional agencies in government for quite some time, the question is, to the Trump administration's credit, they've tried to put attention to there to try to make it better. So if you're going to make a change, make a change.

PACE: This is why this is more than past intrigue and gossip in the West Wing. This is about the actual functions of the U.S. government. Jeff makes a really important point.

It's not as though Trump can fire people in these high-profile roles and quickly get somebody to slip in who is well-qualified because there simply isn't an appetite among a lot of Republicans particularly in the national security sphere to step into this administration, knowing everything that you're going to put on the line in terms of an investigation that is ongoing and just your own dealings with the president.

They look at someone like Jeff Sessions, the first senator to endorse President Trump. And look at the relationship he's in with the president. How would it be any easier for someone who comes in and doesn't have that pre-existing relationship?

KING: And, Jeff, I want everyone to listen. Jeff put this question to Sarah Huckabee Sanders during the week here about why, why, why do you need all this change 14 months in? Here's the answer.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: You want the right people for the right time. And as policy priorities change, that means that sometimes you're going to have personnel change. That's not different for this administration as it has been in any other administration. And we're going to continue to add new staff regularly.


KING: So what policy priorities are changing? In a sense, we do know Pompeo is more of a hawk on Iran than Tillerson.

[08:20:01] The president wants that. The president has every right to want that. The process was messy. He has every right to want this team.

But what are we supposed to be looking here?

BADE: Yes, with every change in each agency, you're going to see a bunch of policy changes as well.

But I think that the interesting thing about -- President Trump may want to play musical chairs with his cabinet, but he's going to run into a big problem and that is the Senate. The Senate moves very slowly. This is an election year. Every one of these guys got to be confirmed, and that's going to take time, it's going to be a political fight that they don't want to have in a contentious election year.

Already, they're going to have -- Gina Haspel -- this is already becoming a huge issue on the Hill, the next potential CIA director, who -- you know, is she even going to get confirmed? I know you might be able to speak to this better, but it seems like even Republicans are wary of her because of her background with torture and they're concerned what she's going to do.

RAJU: Yes. And even Pompeo is going to face a big fight. I mean, confirmation battles are not insignificant, particularly for significant --

KING: It's an evenly divided Senate. RAJU: It's an evenly divided Senate, an election year, these are huge

undertakings to get someone through. There's no real desire, particularly if someone -- if Jeff Sessions were to be fired, that would cause a huge uproar in the Russia investigation. Republicans themselves are warning that a replacement would be very difficult, if not impossible to replace.

But, John, you asked about shifting policy priorities and why the president is doing this, really what the president ultimately values is loyalty. And if you don't show loyalty to him in this administration, the chances are you could be on the chopping block.

ZELENY: And there's a lot more to ask Mike Pompeo this time around that there was a year ago, because he has been the one member of cabinet who every day sees the president, spends one-on-one time with him. And there are a lot of things to ask about that.

One thing that Sarah Sanders said, it's the same as every administration. It is not the same as every administration. A Brookings study shows that 43 percent of senior staffers have either moved to a different job, been fired, or quit. More than double any modern American presidency.

So, that's something to keep in mind. This is not normal.

KING: And we talk often about the pig jobs, national security adviser, secretary of state, secretary of veteran affairs, secretary of housing, they still haven't replaced the communications director. They still haven't permanently replaced the staff secretary.

They have a number of -- I'd call them a worker bee jobs. But they're critical jobs in the administration, whether at the White House or the departments, the people who do the work every day, those are all open, as well. So, this does -- it's not just keeping up with the Kardashians and like, it's not just reality TV, it matters for the government.

We'll take a break. When we come back, next, Democrat breakthrough in Trump country and Republicans shift their 2018 outlook from worry to panic.


[08:26:51] KING: Welcome back.

The first big contest of 2018, Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district, not officially settled yet, but the message is cleared nonetheless. Democrats are ecstatic, Republicans despondent.

Let's take a look at why.

Number one, the Democrat is in the lead, likely to win. Again, this one hasn't been certified yet, but the Democrat in the lead in a district President Trump carried by 20 points.

Another reason Democrats are happy, the suburban revolt against the president, which we saw throughout 2017, has carried over into 2018. This lower slice of Allegheny County going for Conor Lamb. The president carried this slice against Hillary Clinton.

Here's another reason. Because of the results here, Democratic intensity, the big turnout, the Democratic success in Trump country, CNN has changed its characterization of 17 more House districts. Now, these numbers may mean nothing to you.

But last week, there were more seats solid Republican, more seats likely Republican, more seats lean Republican. This week, more toss- ups and a better outlook for the Democrats. Democrats now, if they can run so strong in Trump country, have better odds of getting the House back. That's one way to look at it.

Let's me go to the map a little bit. Take you back in time a little bit and come out to the national map here. This is the House of Representatives across the country right now. This is how it ended after 2016. You see all that red? That's Republicans.

Here's another way to look at this. If you look at Pennsylvania 18, these are 20 other districts that are a lot like it. Same kind of voters, same kind of economy, same kind of demographics, overwhelmingly white, for example.

Yes, a handful of seats up here match the demographics, essentially. Will Democrats run stronger here because of that? Maybe.

But if you're one of these Republicans, you're looking at Pennsylvania 18, calling your pollster and campaign team and saying, can that happen to me? The climate getting more favorable for Democrats. The Democrats' joy in fact reflected in this, the Republicans made Nancy Pelosi a big issue in the Pennsylvania race, this has a modest budget, this ad, but call it an effort to turn the tables.


AD NARRATOR: As Republican house speaker Paul Ryan tools around Washington, who does he think about? The Wall Street millionaires that Ryan gave billions in tax breaks? Whoever Speaker Ryan thinks about, it probably isn't you.


KING: Again, that's a poke. There's not a lot of money behind it. It is airing in Milwaukee, so that people in Paul Ryan's district see it. It's the Democrats' way of saying, you try to make Nancy Pelosi the issue? We won. Ha-ha, Mr. Speaker.

The mood -- we're talking about this during the break. A lot of Republicans publicly seem to be in denial. When you talk to the smart ones privately, they get it. They think -- actually, a lot of think the House is gone. They almost think there's nothing they can do between now and November.

BADE: Yes. This should have been a gimme election. I mean, this is a camp -- district that Trump won by 20 points. It's been in Republican control for 15 years.

And if you think about it, there are something like 75 to 100 districts around the country that are even more competitive for Republicans, more Democratic leaning. So, if they're having an issue here, they're obviously going to have a huge issue in the midterms.

Another big thing was you mentioned, Pelosi. The Nancy Pelosi bogeyman strategy was one of the top strategies that Republicans had laid out.

[08:29:50] They had sort of counted on this notion that they can go back to their districts and say, vote for me, or vote for a Republican, or you're going to have a potential Speaker Nancy Pelosi again. And nobody wants that, is what they're going to say.

But Conor Lamb showed that he's not afraid to basically throw Pelosi under the bus. I would expect a lot of Democratic candidates and challengers to start doing that. And so that really undercuts a top strategy for Republicans.

KING: That dynamic you talked about pulled together quite well, if you look at the "New York Times" today. Jonathan Martin, our friend, Alexander Burns -- two great political reporters. They talked to a number of Democrats who have gone on the record, which is rare.

After this election, more Democrats now willing to go on the record saying, you know, run from Nancy. Maybe she won't be the leader. But -- but that's an internal Democratic dynamic.

The question is, you know, is it enough? Republicans can celebrate that, but they just lost.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right, she used to be sort of the big shiny object. Donald Trump is a much bigger energizing factor for Democrats and Independents probably than she is. But if it was just Pennsylvania 18, this would all be overblown because Democrats do not have that many people like Conor Lamb. He's a unique figure in some respects.


KING: Center-casting (ph) candidate, right.

ZELENY: Central casting, without question. There is so much more going on here at play.

And Republicans, if you talk to them in some of those red districts like you talked about are very worried about this. The question is, what does the President do? Is the best use of his time to be behind closed doors at fund-raisers or out there on rallies?

He's clearly energizing the other side as well. He wants to be out there in the fight, in the mix. Unclear if that's helpful.

JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Well, it's in part because when he goes out to campaigns for these folks, he's actually not talking about them very much. He goes out and does an hour-long rally and he barely mentions their name.

He throws out ten different things that could be really controversial and then drive the news cycle for another week or so and where does that actually leave that candidate? And I think Jeff's right. It can have the effect of actually energizing Democrats in that district more than the Republicans.

KING: And that -- to that point, the "National Review" capsulizes this quite well. The suburban revolt, we saw it in Virginia, we saw it in New Jersey last year, we saw it in Alabama. Alabama has a Democratic senator. You need to say no more. Alabama has a Democratic senator because of the suburban revolt against President Donald Trump. We saw it again in Pennsylvania 18.

The "National Review" calls it this way, talking about the coming shellacking in 2018. "There's essentially only one issue on their minds this year, it's the personality, stupid. The Chernobyl cloud of noxious presidential behavior is poisoning the party from coast to coast. That -- talk to any Republican involved in a race who does focus groups, especially in the suburbs, and they might not use that language, but they would agree.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: And, you know, Trump cuts both ways for a lot of these Republicans and puts them in a very difficult position. Look what happened with Dean Heller in Nevada last week. At one point last year, he looked like he was going to be a thorn in the President's side, and then the President threatened to go after him. Then he starts to fall into line behind the President, really backed his agenda, stopped criticizing him.

And what did the President do to reward him last week? He cleared out his primary field by convincing his primary challenger to instead run for the House instead of against him. And that helped, probably going to help at least his re-election chances by not having to shift very far to the right.

So the President, while a lot of them they want to run away from him, they do need him ultimately to help with the base and help with some of their primaries.

KING: Let's show the President's tweet. I just want to put the tweet up there because it was an interesting move by the President, who Steve Bannon when he was in the White House and even when he left the White House was encouraging challengers like Danny Tarkanian.

And so the Bannon era in the Trump White House is over. You see this tweet from the President. "It would be great for the Republican Party of Nevada and unity if good guy Danny Tarkanian would run for Congress and Dean Heller, who is doing a good job, could run for senate unopposed."

Danny Tarkanian took the hint and he says, he didn't like it but he took the hint because of the President's popularity. That to me was crystal clear proof that for all of the faults of the President in terms of 2018 politics the McConnell team got to him and said, sir, we're going to lose the House, you better not also cost us the Senate. ZELENY: And said stay out of primaries. It's so important this week.

One other thing, I think we have not seen how it's going to develop and Pennsylvania 18 doesn't tell us, what happens in Democratic primaries. There is I think one of the biggest untold stories in Washington because there simply isn't enough oxygen here with the President.

The Democratic Party is going through its own identity situation, crisis, whatever. So if the progressives win a lot of Democratic primaries that could help Republicans, of course.

That is something to keep an eye on, which Democratic candidates emerge. There wasn't a primary, of course, in Pennsylvania 18.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: So Democrats have some issues of their own; certainly, though, not as many as Republicans.

RAJU: I mean that's the thing, if you talk to Republicans about the one way they can hold on to the House this year, as things are looking so dire for them is the primaries nominating far-left candidates.

And if they can get their message back on the tax law, which they believe can ultimately deliver them the President or keep the House and keep the Senate. But, of course, the constant controversies out of Washington, the President constantly undercutting their message on taxes, and as you said, when he goes on the campaign trail, he doesn't talk about that, he talks about a whole wide range of issues. And that hurts their --

PACE: There's been almost no oxygen for the tax bill. I mean when was the last time you actually saw something on the tax bill breaking through either nationally or in a race right now?

BADE: Not from lack of trying.


BADE: We talk about it every single press conference.

[08:34:59] KING: And some people argue when there's a way that will carry even bad candidates over the line but if you're Mitch McConnell, you say, Todd akin, Christine O'Donnell could have been the majority leader earlier, in the first tea party cycle of 2010 had we not done some things. That's his argument to the President about getting involved.

We'll see early in this year if Pennsylvania sends us a fascinating message but a long way to go. >

Up next, the President tries a new tactic to silence the porn actress, Stormy Daniels.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [08:39:58]KING: Hope you're enjoying your Sunday morning.

The President of the United States spending it attacking the special counsel Robert Mueller, the former FBI director James Comey, the former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe -- just about anybody it seems who might be investigating or providing testimony against the President in the special counsel investigation.

I want to read you something from the President, tweeted just moments ago. "Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats, some big crooked Hillary supporters and zero Republicans. Another Dem recently added. Does anyone think this is fair? And yet there is no collusion."

Again another tweet from the President of the United States that flunks the fact-check, flunks the fact-check. Bob Mueller is a Republican. The special counsel is a Republican. Served as FBI director, served in Democrat and Republican administrations but is a prosecutor with a Republican pedigree. Everything he does is approved by a Republican, the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.

So the President again trying to undermine the credibility of the special counsel; the question is, what does he know that we don't know?

All that playing out -- attacks on the special counsel, the integrity of the Russia meddling investigation as the President is now also directly involved in efforts to silence the porn actress, Stormy Daniels. The President filed legal papers Friday trying to move her lawsuit from a state court to federal court.

Daniels, if you hadn't been following this, alleges she had an intimate relationship with the President for several months starting in 2006. Her California lawsuit asks that a nondisclosure agreement be ruled invalid because Donald Trump never signed it. The aggressive new response from the President and one of his personal attorneys says Daniels should be forced to pay as much as $20 million for speaking out. And it asks that the fight be sent to private arbitration, taken out of the public legal system.


MICHAEL AVENATTI, ATTORNEY FOR STORMY DANIELS: They are trying to hide the facts and the truth from the public. It is clear as day. It is part of the process by which they want to muzzle my client.


KING: So two issues that involve lawyers. Let's start with Stormy Daniels here. I want to circle back to the attacks on the special counsel, because I think they're important.

But in this Stormy Daniels case here, the President now directly involved. Before, the White House said this relationship never happened. Sarah Sanders did disclose that one attorney representing the President went to an arbitration hearing. Now the President's directly involved in attorney filing papers on behalf of the President of the United States. Saying take this to federal court and asking the federal court then to send it back to arbitration so that nobody in the public hears about it.

ZELENY: This escalates it dramatically from what the White House had been saying that this was asked and answered in the 2016 campaign. Of course, it hadn't been.

We don't know where this is going actually but the President now being directly involved in this means that he will be asked about this directly. He is still yet to be asked directly, because he doesn't have press conferences or give interviews, he is yet to be asked about this directly. He, of course, will be.

We'll see what his reaction is to all of this. But I'm not sure that voters actually -- I mean his supporters certainly don't mind this. Other voters, he is not a choir boy.

But in a legal sense, what does this mean for him legally if he's ever, you know, deposed or anything? I think that it's become more significant. Otherwise, they wouldn't have weighed in like this.

KING: And I just want to show, and some people will find this distasteful especially on a Sunday morning, this is the cover of "New Yorker" this week. You're right, Trump core supporters probably are saying, whatever, not a choir boy.

But at a time when we know more than six in ten American women disapprove of his performance as president, when we have seen the results of the elections so far especially in the suburb, the continuation of this story and images like that -- sorry, incredibly politically damaging to the President and then raises a big legal question.

If her case gets standing, if they don't move it to federal court and she gets standing, could be depositions.

BADE: It also raises a question of, why would they need to sue Stormy Daniels for $20 million to talk about something that never happened if that is the case, right?

KING: Nice question you raised there.

RAJU: Why not go for slander or something like that, you know?

PACE: Right.

BADE: Well, I just think it's a test case, too because clearly something happened and there was an agreement. She was paid money to stay silent. And now, you know, her lawyer and she want to talk about something that they took money for to not talk about.

If there are other women, if there are other cases, if this goes through and she is able to work out some sort of deal where she's able to talk, other women who have this sort of agreement might come forward, if there are other women, and her lawyer suggests it.

PACE: Well, she's trying to undercut the whole Trump strategy, not just as it relates to women, but broadly, Trump has used NDAs throughout his career to try to tamp down things that are embarrassing, that could be in this case politically damaging to him.

And I think there's a fear that if one of these NDAs falls apart, that it could really open the floodgates. And then what does that do to his support? One woman coming forward like this I don't think is going to undermine his core supporters but would a broad -- a broad brush work?

KING: And then quickly -- I just want to circle back just quickly before we run out of time. Why does the Mueller team have 13 hardened Democrats? Again, I've always thought no, there's no way he will do this but a couple of days after -- a day and a half after the attorney general fired the deputy FBI director we know the President fired James Comey.

Is this a sign that the President of the United States would actually take the step of firing Bob Mueller or firing Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who approves everything he does, including these subpoenas for Trump family business records?

[08:44:56] RAJU: I think it's certainly possible. I mean, this new, more confrontational approach is something we have not seen the President do. Oftentimes when he criticizes just the witch hunt he doesn't directly go after Bob Mueller.

This is the first time we've seen this aggressive posture towards him. And this comes, of course, in the wake of those subpoenas issued to the Trump Organization. Perhaps that got under the President's skin.

KING: And negotiations about testifying --

ZELENY: Exactly.

KING: -- in which Mueller has been pushing back to the President's lawyers essentially want a softball set or a limited set of questions, and Mueller has been pushing back.

ZELENY: Exactly. And we don't know. The President has said "I want to talk. I want to have this conversation." His lawyers do not want him to have this conversation.

Now, one theory that's floating around -- if he's not going to fire him directly perhaps he can get a new attorney general to do it. If the President is truly in a firing mood, the one member of his cabinet who is still furious at is Jeff Sessions over recusing himself.

So if he would be out, there is a line of thought, as Manu and I reported this week and others, Scott Pruitt, the EPA director could become acting attorney general and could make moves at the Justice Department. It's something that's being discussed at the White House. We're in the early phases here.

But if the President is in a firing mood here, perhaps this week ahead could be an even more explosive one.

KING: Then there must not be silence by Republican leadership then. That would go from embarrassing to shameful if that were to continue.

Our reporters share notes from their notebooks, next including why the timeline for the President's big meeting with the North Korean dictator just might be slipping.


KING: Let's head one last time around the INSIDE POLITICS table, ask our great reporters to share a little something from their notebooks and help get you out ahead of the big political news just around the corner.

Julie Pace.

PACE: If you thought the outcry over President Trump's steel and aluminum tariffs was intense, get ready for the potential fallout over the next economic proposal that he's considering. These would be broad tariffs on Chinese imports. Both Republicans and business groups are bracing for tariffs that would hit everything from electronics to apparel -- really just all consumer goods that are imported from China.

The scope of what the White House is considering is still under debate right now. Obviously, the President has been known to back off of some of these issues before, but the Chamber of Commerce last week put out a pretty extraordinary statement that said that this kind of tariff could end up hitting the U.S. with $60 billion that would be passed down to consumers. They say that would just be devastating for the U.S. economy.

KING: Welcome to the White House, Larry Kudlow.


RAJU: Last week, we saw the break down of the House Intelligence Committee's Russia investigation, after Republicans said that there was no more to investigate. They concluded there's no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. They also said that the intelligence community's assessment that Vladimir Putin tried to help Trump win the election, they could not validate that.

Well, on the Senate side, you may eventually see a similar split emerge. Last week, I talked to both Mark Warner the top Democrat in the committee, Richard Burr the chairman of the committee. Burr told me that he has not seen collusion yet in this investigation. He also said that the intelligence community's assessment also, at this point, cannot be substantiated.

And that is much different than what you're hearing from Mark Warner. He said there are growing questions and signs of possible collusion. He also says that there's nothing to doubt the intelligence community's January, 2017 assessment. And the two men are at odds over exactly whether or not to bring back some of these Trump associates for further interviews like Michael Cohen. Richard Burr does not want to bring Michael Cohen back, Mark Warner does.

So while the Senate committee will do something on a bipartisan basis as soon as this week to try to shore up election security, those big questions about collusion and whether Russia tried to help Donald Trump win the presidency, they're not on the same page yet.

KING: Yet? Maybe, never.


ZELENY: It's been about a week and a half or so since the President stuck his head into the White House briefing room, surprising all of us, saying that talks with the regime of Kim Jong-un are on. What has happened since then? There's been no public acknowledgement of this, except we are seeing movement this morning; so certainly, very interesting here. Is Sweden playing a role?

But at the White House specifically, they have shifted the time frame back a bit. They were saying this meeting should happen by May. Now they're saying by the end of May. But still, this is very important.

But confirmation hearings are going to play a role in all of this. Mike Pompeo at the CIA is playing a lead role in this. Of course, he's also going to be busy in his new job as Secretary of State, possibly. These confirmation hearings may hold all this up.

The question here is, is the President going to be embarrassed if this meeting does not happen? The White House says absolutely not because he's trying something. But keep an eye on that date. It may keep slipping here.

But this is, again, one of the most fascinating real things that's going on inside the White House.

KING: Worth watching every day.


BADE: There is another covert spending war brewing on Capitol Hill right now but this time, Trump is taking on his own party and very quietly. So government funding runs out this Friday, right now the President in recent days has been calling Speaker Paul Ryan and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to say he wants his wall money in there and is willing to do a short-term DACA deal.

The Republicans are telling him, there's no way Democrats are going to agree to this right now, just drop it. And he's not listening at this point.

Another point of this is the New York Gateway project, which is this big infrastructure plan that Trump promised New Jersey and New York Republicans just a few months ago, that he was going to fund. And now he's taking it off the table.

Peter king, a Republican from New York, told me he used the Irish lunch this week to basically elbow Trump on this and say, Mr. President, you promised me you were going to do this. Please keep your word on this. But right now, they're nos until they get that money and that could be a math problem on the floor.

KING: Midterm election funds still, and a big week ahead. We'll watch that.

It is only mid-march, but New Hampshire having a little 2020 buzz these days. President Trump visits Monday to discuss his ideas to combat the opioid crisis.

[08:54:56] Arizona Senator Jeff Flake was there on Friday. He's a fierce conservative critic of the President, and was well-received while testing the first in the nation primary waters.

And that's not enough. Ohio Governor John Kasich, due for two days in early April. The state has a strong anti-Trump Republican camp, but yet also has quite a vocal pro-Trump core. So a challenge would be a very steep hill.

One key would be attracting Independents to cross over and vote in the Republican primary. That's down the road a couple of years. Another more important right now might be winning the backing of the conservative "Union Leader" newspaper. Its outspoken publisher is not a Trump fan, to say the least. And Republicans in the state who want to see a tough 2020 primary challenge to the President are watching now to see how much the "Union Leader" wants to stir the pot. 2020 -- yes, keep an eye on that.

That's it for INSIDE POLITICS. Again, thanks for sharing your Sunday morning. Hope you can catch us weekdays as well. We'll be here tomorrow, noon eastern.

Up next -- "STATE OF THE UNION" with Jake Tapper.

Have a great Sunday.