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Gowdy on Mueller Probe; Trump Launches Attacks on Mueller and FBI; GOP Voicing Concerns Over Mueller Attacks; Austin Police Search for Serial Bomber. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 19, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:05] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

The president leaves this hour for New Hampshire. The policy goal? To discuss the war on opioids. The political backdrop? Fresh chatter about a 2020 Republican primary challenge.

Plus, some better news for the president in a new poll, and yet the numbers also suggest there's a big blue 2018 wave brewing.

And sharp new personal attacks on the special counsel have Republicans asking why and worrying the president might be about to cross a big line.


REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: If I were the president, I would be completely and utterly silent about the special prosecutor. You know, I -- he's not acting like -- he's acting -- he's acting like he's concerned about something.

REP. PETER KIND (R), NEW YORK: And the president would be making a serious mistake in getting rid of Bob Mueller. It would just leads to more problems and another special counsel and it will go on certainly for the next two or three years.


KING: We begin right there, with the new presidential attacks on the special counsel and the biggest of the many questions they raise. Just what is the president afraid of? "Witch hunt" was back in today's tweet storm. Over the weekend it was the first attack on Special Counsel Bob Mueller by name. His tweets are full of anger and full of factual errors wrapped into smears targeting Mueller, his team of prosecutors and the FBI investigators helping the investigation.

So, back to another version of that big question. Here, in the words of Republican congressman and foreign prosecutor Trey Gowdy, if there is no "there" there, then why all the fuss, Mr. President?


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Let it play out its course. If you've done nothing wrong, you should want the investigation to be as fulsome and thorough as possible.


KING: It's clear that's about the last thing the president wants. One of the president's lawyers, though, says it's silly to suggest this new tweet rage is proof the president wants to fire Mueller. Others around the president, they're not so sure. They say he spent much of the weekend stewing about the special counsel, the FBI and the headlines, raising new questions about the conduct of his 2016 campaign and his family business.

With us this morning to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Hirschfeld Davis with "The New York Times," "The Washington Post's" Karoun Demirjian, Seung Min Kim, also with "The Washington Post," and CNN's Kaitlan Collins.

Let's get -- the mindset from the president I want to get to in a minute, although it's part of this new tact. For months he had listened to his lawyers saying don't do it. Now he attacks Bob Mueller by name. He saying that there's conflicts of interest. There's no collusion. There's a mess.

What triggered the president crossing a line he had previously not crossed?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I mean for months his legal team has argued privately to him that this is going to be over, this is going to end, that this is, you know, Mueller is going through his evidence, he's interviewing his witnesses, and eventually, sooner rather than later, this is going to end. They said that in November, around Thanksgiving. They said it, you know, by -- maybe by the end of the year. Now it's March and he is well into his second year in office and it's not ending.

So that strategy of sort of lay off the special counsel, let him do his thing and this will all -- you know, the air will clear, clearly it has not worked in Trump's mind. And I think there's a lot of frustration there. And so I think to the degree that that strategy was predicated on this advice, you know, let's just hang back here a little bit, Mr. President, until the special counsel can do his thing, I think, you know, that's -- in Trump's mind that's over.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think it's that and he's also growing much more comfortable in his role and he feels blessed like he needs to listen to those lawyers, to those outside advisers, to not go after the special counsel.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I think you also can't discount what happened Friday night, which is that McCabe was terminated. Twenty-six hours shy of him being able to collect his full pension. That is kind of wind at Trump's back because even if it's an a-political recommendation that was made from the FBI to do that, that if you're a Sessions follower, it sparked this whole political discourse again about where the very fundamentals of everything that was going on at the top circles of the FBI, the Republicans would like to -- some would like to say it was corrupt. And the president kind of takes that moment and jumps off to do another really, really hard-hitting assault, basically, on the legitimacy of the Mueller probe, that started off -- there were tweets about McCabe at the same time. So it's kind of like a confidence boost for him to go back with this line of, this is all messed up, this is all wrong, it's all attack (ph) (INAUDIBLE).

KING: And yet that's the Trump paradox you hit on there, is the sense that he's looking down here. He wants to win the next "Sports Center."


KING: He wants to be leading in the score in the next hour, his view of how to keep score. And yet when he fired Jim Comey, it didn't work out all that well. That's what got you the special counsel.

Now they fired Andrew McCabe. You make a very important point. There may well have been justification for the decision, but the timing of it and then the president gloating about it. So he gloats about that. And then he moves on to Bob Mueller. To what end? And to the point a lot of Republicans are asking on Capitol Hill, Mr. President, you don't look like an innocent man here.

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Exactly. And also -- but the bigger question is, when is the real breaking point for most Republicans on Capitol Hill? We did hear a lot of -- several Republicans speak out yesterday. And, you know, most notably Trey Gowdy. But, you know, Ryan -- Speaker Paul Ryan has said simply the Mueller probe should be allowed to continue.

Mitch McConnell has been silent about this. Probably will be silent about this until tomorrow when we question him about it at the mics. And I was just talking with some Republican sources this morning and they don't see this despite the vocal attacks that we're seeing from the president this weekend. They don't see this as a breaking point for congressional Republicans.

Also --

[12:05:14] COLLINS: Which is so interesting because the White House is saying he is not considering or thinking of firing the special counsel. We know he's already thought about that before. And if you notice, in the president's tweet this morning, he cited conflicts of interest in the special counsel's investigation, which would be a reason to be able to fire him. So he is building the case against why he could be able to fire him.

KING: Or -- yes, if you don't fire Mueller -- the president can't fire Bob Mueller, number one.


KING: The president would have to ask his attorney general, who is recused. So he'd have to ask his deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who last week was quoted yet again saying that Bob Mueller is not an unguided missile. Bob Mueller gets approval for everything he does from me and he -- I see no reason to stop anything Bob Mueller is doing. So the president's anger will get to Rod Rosenstein, I suspect.

But to the point you made about Republicans. I want you to listen here. This is -- this is a sampling of Republicans out on the Sunday shows. It is important, but to Seung Min's point, there's something very important missing.


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: To suggest that Mueller should shut down and that all he is looking at is collusion, if you have an innocent client, Mr. Dowd, act like it.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The only reason Mr. Mueller could ever be dismissed is because -- is for cause. I see no cause when it comes to Mr. Mueller.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Once he goes after Mueller, then we'll take action. I think that people see that as a massive red line that can't be crossed.


KING: It is beyond the pale of presidential conduct to have a president of the United States attacking the institutions investigating him.

DEMIRJIAN: That's right.

KING: It is beyond. And yet, to your point, the majority leader, quiet, answers these questions only when forced to answer these questions. The speaker put out a statement yesterday through his spokeswoman, only when people called up saying, do you have any reaction, not stepping forward.

They're afraid of the president. They're afraid of the impact on the primaries if they anger the Trump voters. What dissidence will that cause throughout the 2018 -- the primaries and then in the midterm election year.

To the point I made about the president, he's always looking down here, not up here. Are they looking down here and not up here to the future of the party?

DEMIRJIAN: Perhaps, but I'd have to point out that there's one other thing also that's missing from all of those comments you heard from the GOP members who actually even spoke to condemn these attacks, which is that there are bills kicking around Congress right now that they could act on that actually would put any decision to order the firing of a special counsel, through Rod Rosenstein, or moving people around or what have you. I think getting rid of Mueller would have to pass muster with a panel of three federal judges.

Lindsey Graham's the co-author of one of those bills. You did not hear him stumping for that. And his spokesperson yesterday was saying, I don't expect anything to change. Chuck Grassley, not pushing for it. You asked Paul Ryan's spokeswoman yesterday directly about that. She avoids the question. McConnell doesn't even comment. So Jeff Flake is the only person that's saying the word action, and he's got nothing to back it up, right?

COLLINS: Well, let's not -- what Rand Paul said saying, well, I wouldn't advocate for the firing of it.


COLLINS: He didn't draw any red lines or say what he would do if he did do it.

DEMIRJIAN: Yes. And they --

COLLINS: And that's why he (ph) wouldn't advocate for it.

DEMIRJIAN: Exactly. And they have a -- the ability to do something here and they're not doing it. So you can condemn a speech, and they are, but they're basically being like, oh, we won't really think he's going to take a step, so we don't have to take a step, because that would be a real political butting of the heads that they don't want.

KING: Right and some of this gets to the mindset, which we'll continue to talk about. I just want to get to some of what the president said in a tweet in which he finally called out Bob Mueller for the first time by name.

The Mueller probe should never have been started in that there was no collusion and there was no crime. It was based on fraudulent activities and a fake dossier paid for by crooked Hillary and the DNC, an improperly used FISA court. It goes on to say, witch hunt.

That's actually not true. There are questions about the dossier. Republicans have every right to ask questions about the dossier. However, these -- the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign, because of questionable contacts with Russians and the Russian meddling, which is a separate issue, was underway before the dossier, and yet when the president attacks this, he continually speaks mistruths. And I'll use the kind word there. He knows -- he knows those things he says are not true, yet he continues to say them.

DAVIS: Correct. And, I mean, this -- they also -- it ignores the fact that there have been 19 people now indicted in this, you know, supposed witch hunt, that he's clearly glossing over the substantive facts of this investigation.

But I think more important than that, I think what you're seeing is, you know, he has his red line or said that he had his red line about if Mueller started to take a look at his finances. I think Republicans have a red line of, you know, really confronting the president on the issue of firing Mueller, in part because they're worried about pushing him over the edge.

We have seen time and time again that this president responds to external stimuli. When he feels like he's under attack, when he feels like people who should be his allies or protectors are not playing that role for him, he will push back. And I think there is a real concern that if Republicans started really pushing back on him, instead of just saying what Trey Gowdy said, if you're innocent, act on it, but really started to be aggressive about it, that he might lash out even further. And they're -- and they're suddenly (ph) trying to distance themselves from the issue because if he does end up dismissing the special counsel, Republican leaders want to be nowhere near that decision.

KING: Right, no they do not.

And you talked about the external stimuli. What about the internal stimuli? What do we know -- and it depends on who you talk to when the president gets on the phone and starts calling his friends and outside advisers. But what is it? What is it?

[12:10:01] And I always sit in this chair, I'm a broken record saying, he knows a lot more than we know. He knows they're negotiating with Mueller about a possible interview. He knows what Mueller wants to ask him about. He knows subpoenas were served recently on the Trump Organization about the family business finances. He knows -- and we'll get to it later in the program -- his campaign is back in the news about getting access improperly to reams and reams of Facebook data they had no right to have and then using it to target voters. What is it that he's worried about?

COLLINS: Well, we know that. We also know that he wants to speak to the special counsel. Something his lawyers have advised against, we know. And -- but as you just pointed out, he had been taking the advice of his lawyers by not going after Mueller, but he's not doing that any more. He's clearly abandoned that strategy. So it makes you wonder if he's going to say, no, I'm going to talk to the special counsel.

But we know that he was boasting over the weekend about the firing of Andy McCabe on Friday night, but even that was overshadowed by his growing frustration with this investigation because his lawyers can no longer pacify him by telling him that it's going to wrap up any day now. They no longer have that excuse and he's growing very frustrated about it. He spent the weekend complaining about it to his friends and it overshadowed how happy he was about the firing of Andy McCabe.

KING: Right. And, again, I'll just connect the dots, that we don't know what's in some of the dots. But he has meetings where he's going through, should I sit down, they say, Mr. President, he wants to ask you this, Mr. President, he wants to ask you that, Mr. President, he's concerned about this. And after those meetings, we get the lashing out on Twitter. That's why I say he knows a lot more than we do.

Coming up, more on the president's mindset. Why is he getting more personal in those attacks on the special counsel, or is some -- some say, why is he breaking free of a West Wing cage?

Up next, new information about what the police are now calling a serial bomber in Texas.


[12:15:37] KING: Back to politics in a moment.

But right now authorities in Austin, Texas, on the hunt for a serial bomber. Officials say the latest bomb, which detonated overnight, shows a higher level of sophistication than the previous three. It's the fourth explosion to shake the city in 17 days. Two of them have killed people. The city, obviously, on edge. The motives for the attacks, it's still a mystery.


CHIEF BRIAN MANLEY, AUSTIN POLICE: We were not willing to classify this as terrorism, as hate, because we just don't know enough. And what we have seen now is a significant change from what appeared to be three very targeted attacks, to what was last night an attack that would have passed -- that would have hit any -- a random victim that happened to walk by. So we've definitely seen a change in the method that this suspect -- our suspect is using.


KING: Let's go live straight to CNN's Ed Lavandera, who's on the scene.

Ed, when you hear the chief there saying a significant change with the latest, what are the investigators saying about this?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they're really taking a closer look, they say, after being able to get into the crime scene here this morning, in this neighborhood in southwest Austin, that there are indications that this crime scene, compared to the other three, that gives them reason to believe that the four bombings are connected to the same bomb maker. So that is one thing that authorities are coming out and saying this morning, even though they don't have any suspects or motive at this point.

They are very concerned about what could very well be now the random nature. They say that the fact that in this particular bombing, in this explosion, there was a trip wire that was used, that that changes the situation here. As you heard the police chief there mention what appeared to be in the first three bombings perhaps a targeted attack on three specific people, this seems much more random and willing to injure or maim or kill anyone who happened to walk by this particular explosive device for -- so from that standpoint, it becomes much more nerve-wracking from what we've been able to get the sense from investigators here in this neighborhood in southwest Austin, John.

So they are pleading with whoever is behind this to reach out to them. Investigators want whoever the perpetrator or perpetrators to reach out to them, explain what it is, their message is, and what their motive is behind all of this. And they're hoping that message gets through.


KING: It's a fascinating and a troubling story.

Ed Lavandera on the ground in Austin.

Ed, keep up the good reporting. We'll check back with you as developments warrant.

Back now to our top political story in Washington, saying and doing just about whatever he wants is, of course, a Trump trademark. And yet, up till now, there was one area of restraint, relative restraint anyway, for months, as we talked about a little bit earlier, stern advice from his lawyers. You can be mad about Robert Mueller's mission, but don't call out the special counsel himself. President Trump tossed all that out the window this weekend.

This nugget from Maggie Haberman of "The New York Times" as she explored the mindset behind the shift. Some of Mr. Trump's allies have said that Mr. Trump was trapped in a West Wing cage built by Mr. Kelly and has finally broken loose.

Kaitlan, you talked a little about this earlier. When I was talking to some people who talked to the president himself a couple days ago, they said often it's anger and rage when he talks about the investigation, but they say this time he has a bit of a swagger to, that he's finding his feet, he has his mojo. Is that safe or risky when it comes to something in which there's obvious legal peril?

COLLINS: Well, it could be risky for the president. Obviously that is what our sources often say that he does not realize what it exactly does entail to sit down with the special counsel and do an interview with them. And clearly he's continued to attack them.

And the reason his lawyers have advised him against going after Robert Mueller specifically is because they don't want to alarm the Republicans on Capitol Hill, or Republican leadership, even though it doesn't seem to be doing much of that. But they also don't want him to antagonize the investigators, which is what precisely he seems to be doing when he's calling him out.

And as you notice, a lot of his statements you said had misstatements and then mistruths. One of those was that it was all Democrats that are on the special counsel's investigation, when we know that Robert Mueller himself is a Republican. So it's all of these things shaped into one. But the president does seem to be coming more confident.

KING: And if you know Mueller's history and his reputation among people in town, criticisms not going to change him from doing what he thinks is the right thing to do. Praise is not going to get him to do something otherwise differently. And yet we see this from the president. Which is the question I will ask forever, because I'm not sure anyone knows a definitive answer, to what end? Is it just venting? The president vents about a lot. He has a visceral temper. It's a strength and a weakness. But he just vents a lot. Or is he trying to make a run at, if not Mueller, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, or is he just trying to create this atmosphere that nobody knows what to believe. That -- so if Bob Mueller does indict somebody else, if Bob Mueller does have a report or some charge that comes closer to the president, closer to the president's campaign, that at least his slice of the American people say, oh, come on? [12:20:18] DEMIRJIAN: I mean with each progressive week that goes by,

the stakes for Trump to actually do something to get rid of Mueller are higher and higher, and the political stakes of that too, because the blowback would be really, really bad, right? So we've seen him, though, play these sorts of parlor games before where he's kind of, you know, hiding, you know, who it is that he's upset at this week. Who might be the next person on the chopping block? What might he do to try to keep everybody a little bit scared, a little on their toes, a little unsure. And even in that -- doing that, he ends up sewing doubt in the public about who should be believed and who should be trusted.

And so it's kind of a -- a weirdly winning strategy, even though it doesn't necessarily lead to any specific end in due time.

KING: Republicans already think they're probably going to lose the House. If the president fires Bob Mueller, he might have an all- Democratic Washington.

But, I'm sorry, you were about to make a point.

DAVIS: Well, no, I think there's something to that, that, you know, to the degree that he's sowing uncertainty and keeping people off balance about what's going to happen next and what his strategy might be, that's -- he thinks that's a good thing. But I do think a lot of this is driven by impulse --


DAVIS: And his lack of understanding and really lack of regard for the conventions of his office.

And we saw the last time that he actually broached the subject of getting rid of Mueller last year, which we reported on recently, where he said to his White House counsel, Don McGahn, get rid -- let's get rid of him. Tell Rosenstein to get rid of him. Later on, when McGahn and he had occasion to talk about that again, he said something to the -- to the -- to the effect of, well, I didn't tell you to fire him. And McGahn said to him, well, in having that conversation with me, that's the logical result of that. That's what would have happened. And a lot of times the president does not understand the details of that.

So he goes on impulse. He lashes out. He takes an action and he doesn't think two, three, five, 10 steps down the road. But Bob Mueller is thinking all of those steps down the road.

KING: And Bob Mueller doesn't speak publically. They speak in court when they charge people. Or they speak in statements when they charge people or they cut deals with people. But this is what Mueller has done. Whenever this comes up, there's a next development, you have guilty pleas from Michael Flynn, from Rick Gates, from George Papadopoulos, from Alexander van der Zwaan and Richard Pinedo. The latter two lesser figures. But Michael Flynn, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, all people who worked in the Trump orbit, in the Trump campaign. Michael Flynn was the national security adviser to the president of the United States. Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman, has a court date. He's charged. Thirteen Russians have been indicted.

And so you -- Bob Mueller says, look at what I've done. This is not a witch hunt.

And the -- I want to come back to the president's attorney, John Dowd's statement, though. Speaking for myself, not the president, I pray that Acting Attorney General Rosenstein will follow the brilliant and courageous example of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility -- I'm going to stop reading. It's an attack -- it's -- it's a -- it's a political statement, not a legal statement, from an accomplished Washington lawyer. But it's a political statement. It's not a legal statement. And it goes after Rod Rosenstein again. Because Rod Rosenstein is the gatekeeper to Robert Mueller. He is a Republican. He has served in the Justice Department for years. He's a man that's viewed as a man of great integrity. And he has said, every time Bob Mueller wants to issue a subpoena, every time Bob Mueller wants to go off on something that's non-Russia, he has to come to Rod Rosenstein. Rod Rosenstein has given it its blessing.


KING: So who's the bigger presidential target, Bob Mueller or Rod Rosenstein?

DEMIRJIAN: Well, I mean or Jeff Sessions, right, one or the other.

COLLINS: Rod Rosenstein. The president strongly -- OK, he does very dislike Jeff Sessions. It's really hard to understate just how broken their relationship is. But I think he has an understanding that he can't get rid of Sessions and that's why he instead just publically bashes him.

But Rosenstein really has his ire too and he feels more like he can go after him. (INAUDIBLE), he's no friend of mine. He really, really dislikes him. So I think he would be more of his direct target.

But that statement from John Dowd there, the reason the White House had to put out a statement saying that he's not considering firing the special counsel is because of that statement and those -- Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer inside the White House, said that it was because of media speculation. But the only reason the media was speculating about it is because the president was directly attacking him.

KING: Right, the president's tweets, the statement by the president's lawyer, it's -- no, there's reason to -- all right, it's going to be an interesting week.

Up next, the whistleblower. The big accusation. The Trump campaign's data firm took information from Facebook that it never should have had.


[12:28:24] KING: Welcome back. There are fascinating new questions about how the Trump campaign used data to score its upset 2016 election win. The questions coming from a series of startling accounts in "The New York Times," "The Guardian" and "The London Observer" about Cambridge Analytica. That's the Trump campaign's data firm.

A whistleblower says the company harvested the data of 50 million plus -- 50 million plus Facebook users without their consent to develop what they call psychographic profiles. That's a window into your mind, into a voter's mind. Internal documents from the firm say that information would allow Cambridge Analytica to predict how someone in Michigan or Ohio votes, or the likelihood that they like guns, or don't like guns, or what kind of music you listen to, and much more. It's obvious why information like that would be gold in the hunt to reach and then sway voters. It's also obvious now the Trump campaign targeted --- targeting benefited from reams and reams of data it never should have had.

Facebook now under fire, both here in the United States and the United Kingdom, where Cambridge Analytica has ties, for allowing this to happen. And the Trump 2016 targeting operation run by the man in charge of the 2020 re-election campaign now also being looked at, not just in congress, not just in the U.K. parliament, but by the special counsel.


BRAD PARSCALE, TRUMP 2016 CAMPAIGN DIGITAL DIRECTOR: I understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win. Twitter is how he talked to the people. Facebook was going to be how he won.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And Facebook is how he won.

PARSCALE: I think so. I mean I think Donald Trump won, but I think Facebook is -- was the method. It was the highway on which his car drove on.


KING: The highway on which his car drove on.

[12:30:00] It -- look, big data is -- big data is the wave of the future in every business, every business, period.