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Austin Bombing Suspect Dead; Trump Furious over Leak; McConnell on Mueller Probe. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 21, 2018 - 12:00   ET


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

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Brianna.

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

The president is described as furious, his chief of staff now scrambling to find the source of an embarrassing West Wing leak.

Plus, new attacks on the special counsel and a White House embarrassment of a different sort.

And all signs point to a big, blue midterm wave in November, but the president says he will help his party defy the odds.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This year, in this election, we are fighting to win and we are going to win. There's no reason why we shouldn't win with what we've done over the last year. No reason whatsoever.

They have gone so far left, we have to go a little bit further right. We're doing very, very well. And I think you're going to have something very, very special take place in a short period of time.


KING: To politics in a moment.

But, first, we're getting our first look at the man Austin police say carried out a string of package bombings before blowing himself up as authorities closed in early this morning. This footage is said to show 23-year-old Mark Anthony Conditt entering a local FedEx store. Our affiliates say the two packages he's seen mailing are connected to the recent bombing spree.

Police caught up with Conditt at a hotel in nearby Round Rock. They say he fled in his car, pulled over and set off an explosive inside his vehicle. It turns out, Conditt is from the area and lived in Pflugerville. There's been a good deal of police activity outside his home, where a

short time ago authorities ordered someone inside to come out. Police say while they're confident Conditt was the bomber, they can't be sure he acted alone or if he may have left other deadly packages around the area.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott echoing caution during an interview a short time ago.


GOV. GREG ABBOTT (R), TEXAS: We don't know if there are any other bombs out there. And, if so, how many and where they may be because this individual may have either by mail or by placement or whatever the case may be, have put other bombs out there. We need to go throughout the day to make sure that we rule out whether or not there was anybody else involved in this process.


KING: CNN correspondent Nick Watt is in the bombing suspect's neighborhood.

Obviously a heavy police presence there, Nick, outside the home. What is the latest and do authorities think this is the end or are they still looking for something?

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, as you mentioned, they are saying this investigation is ongoing because they -- they say that they are sure that Conditt was involved in all of the bombings, but they are not sure that he acted alone. There could have been other people involved.

Now, about a half hour ago, an armored SWAT vehicle pulled up alongside the home. They've now blocked our view of that. And somebody on a bullhorn was saying, come out with your hands up.

Now, this is the neighborhood that Conditt grew up in. He actually grew up a few blocks over there. His parents live over there. And we spoke with a neighbor who has lived next door to them for 17 years and here's what he had to say.


JEFF REEB, NEIGHBOR: I know they're church going people. I know that they're extremely good neighbors. I like them a lot.

It's extremely confusing and I don't make anything out of it because it just is -- it doesn't make sense. And I suppose this type of thing never does.


WATT: And as far as a criminal record, all we can find on Conditt is a traffic ticket from last summer for an expired registration. But as I say, that investigation ongoing. There was a suspicious package that police say is now been made safe at a FedEx locality near the airport. But, John, this investigation is still underway, even though that suspect is now dead.


KING: Nick Watt on the ground for us in Texas.

Nick, thanks for that reporting.

Now on to politics, and an angry morning across the West Wing. The president is venting at the special counsel, mad at Republicans who are now defending the Russian meddling investigation. He's more mad, furious top aides say, about an embarrassing leak detailing how he refuses to stand up to Vladimir Putin. Remember, it was this hour yesterday when the president disclosed, during an Oval Office meeting, that he had called the Russian president to congratulate him on his re-election victory. The criticism was fast and it was bipartisan. There is no one outside of Putin's inner circle who believes it was a free and fair election. Plus, the president, in his public comments, made no mention of a long list of big problems with Russian behavior.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Calling him wouldn't have been (INAUDIBLE).

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I wouldn't have a conversation with him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's also like congratulating the Harlem Globe --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is like congratulating Saddam Hussein when he got 98 percent of the vote in the Iraqi elections.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Should he have congratulated Putin or should he have not --



SANDERS: How do you do that? You've got a scam election.


[12:05:00] KING: It is not that criticism that has the president and his chief of staff furious today. Their anger at a West Wing leak to "The Washington Post" first detailing how the national security staff specifically told the president on his notes to prepare for that call, not to use the word congratulations. The leaked details also included how the president ignored notes suggesting he make plain to Putin the United States is unhappy with, for example, continued election meddling here and the recent nerve gas attack on a Putin critic in the United Kingdom.

Why the president refuses to stand up to Putin is a fascinating question. Also fascinating, the hunt now to trace that leak. CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at the White House.

Jeff, the White House suspect the leak came from within or where?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, the White House does suspect the leak came from the inside, likely from the national security realm here. There was a very limited number of people who were involved in the briefing of the president before that phone call. Now, he made that call from the residence of the White House here, which he often does. So that limits the scope even more.

But the reality here is, as the White House is trying to focus on the leakers, there are still many Republicans and Democrats, as you played right there, who are actually trying to focus this on the substance of that phone call. The White House, of course, more interested in focusing on the leak there.

But the reality is, there is someone inside this White House, there is someone inside perhaps the National Security Council who does not like how the president is dealing with Vladimir Putin, so they decided to leak that to "The Washington Post." It certainly is something that has sparked somewhat of a witch hunt around here. I'm told the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, is furious about this, as is the president. The president is in the residence at the White House right now. The White House is technically not holding any public events today. Most people are not here because of the snow day here in Washington. But there is still a hunt on for who did this. One official telling us, it is likely a fireable offense and could be against the law as well, John.

KING: Jeff Zeleny for us at the White House.

Continue your reporting, Jeff. Come back if you get more.

With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, "The New York Times" Michael Shear, Carl Hulse, also of "The New York Times," and Catherine Lucey of "The Associated Press."

This is a fascinating story, both on the substance and now on the leak. Not defending the president or defending the president's conduct with Vladimir Putin, but if you are the boss of any organization, you should be able to conduct your business without people who work for you, people on your staff, to have access to this information, to know that level of detail. This is somebody very close to the president, and it shows you a continued unhappiness with the president and his refusal, but also is it chaos in the White House? We know he's been unhappy with his national security adviser.

MICHAEL SHEAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": He's been plagued by this particular problem, with information leaking out about his calls to foreign leaders since almost the very beginning of the administration, and even probably before that in the transition.

You know, part of that, as you say, is, you know, on the people who are the leakers. But, you know, the other thing that he has consistently done in conversation with foreign leaders is just not pay attention to the briefers and what they want him to say or not say. We've had so many examples of calls which are normally very highly, you know, planned and prescribed. That's the normal way it would happen in a White House. And they just veer off the rails because he just kind of goes with his gut and says what he wants to say. And I think there is a level of frustration, again not to defend the idea that you sort of leak about your boss, but there's a level of frustration inside the national security apparatus, both at the State Department and inside the White House, with the fact that the president just doesn't listen to them.

KING: And I guess that makes it a two-track story in the sense that, you're absolutely right, especially when it comes to Putin, there is continues Russian election meddling. His own homeland security adviser just said it minutes ago up on Capitol Hill. There is Russian activity in Syria that is counter to U.S. interest. There's the poisoning, the nerve gas agent used against a Putin critic in the U.K. There's more and more and more. We could go on about Vladimir Putin's bad behavior in the last two years, five years, two months, 20 minutes. So there's that. They don't think he's tough enough and that bothers the national security apparatus.

But to have a leader in your midst, now, there are a thousand leak investigations and often they're just for show. You never really find out who the leaker is. How serious are -- how serious is the chief of staff about this one?

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": They certainly seem to be taking this one serious today. There was, you know, tough language today about this being a fireable offense, concern about whether this, you know, could be criminal. I mean, so I think that's certainly their message today.

But to Michael's point, we've seen leak after leak after leak on both big, serious issues and often sort of small, more petty issues, and not necessarily a ton of follow through.

KING: I want to go back and listen to a little bit of the president yesterday. We talked about it when it happened. Oval Office tape. The president sitting next to the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, also not exactly a beacon for democracy and human rights. So you're sitting in the Oval Office with somebody who does not have a -- anywhere close to a good record on the issues of democracy and human rights and you say this about Vladimir Putin's election win.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I had a call with President Putin and congratulated him on the victory, his electoral victory. The call had to do, also, with the fact that we will probably get together in the not too distance future so that we can discuss arms, we can discuss the arms race.


[12:10:20] KING: This is the question that is mind boggling to Democrats and Republicans, even people who support the president deeply. Why can't he say, look, we've got a lot of problems from election meddling to what just happened in the U.K., to the Ukraine, to Syria, but he's now going to be president for six more years and we need to try to figure this stuff out. Why can't he just say that? What's so hard about that?

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, that's what feeds all the -- I don't want to say conspiracy theories, but I guess I will, about what is driving his relationship with Putin. So everyone looks at this and says, there's been all these events, you have to call him on it, and he didn't. And I think that's why this leak is so bad for them. It's not only that he go out and say that he congratulated Putin. It was the fact that he was told -- they knew going into it, don't say congratulations. So I think that really sort of doubled the impact of this leak.

And I think that they're probably pretty serious about this. Of course it's a fireable offense. I mean if you -- if you did that and weren't fired, I don't know what you would be fired for. But I think that they'll probably bear down. And it's different from a -- like a leak investigation of a journalist from an agency. This is the inner, inner circle. And it's the most -- and it's just another one from recent days. As Mike said, there have been a couple that, you know, somebody who's been around here for a while, like, wow, that is an amazing leak that it came out that fast.

SHEAR: Right.

KING: All the way back, I think it was the first week --


KING: The Australian prime minister, wasn't that in the first couple days even, first 72 hours. Now, some Republicans are screaming double standard. I want to read you a line from a printed White House readout from the Obama White House the last time. This is from March 9, 2012. President Obama called Russian President-Elect and Prime Minister Putin to congratulate him on his recent victory in the Russian presidential election. So there's a --

HENDERSON: Yes, it --

KING: There's a congratulations there.


KING: That statement does goes on -- does go on to say, we've got to talk through some issues.

HENDERSON: Yes. And it was before the invasion of Ukraine.

KING: Right.

HENDERSON: It was before what happened on British soil with the nerve gas. It was also before the meddling in the Russian election.

KING: 2016, right.

HENDERSON: So it was a different time.

And it's also, you know, obviously, you had Republicans heavily criticize Obama back then for him, you know, kind of leading from behind and being soft on the global stage.

One of the things that I first thought of when I read this story in "The Washington Post" is that North Korea is coming up, right? This is a highly sensitive meeting that he could have -- we don't know if it's going happen -- with the North Korean leader. And the fact that he couldn't follow or wanted to ignore these very simple directions in terms of his engagement and phone call with Putin suggestions people are concerned and worried about what might happen in that face-to-face meeting, which is much more delicate, much more involved, will likely be a longer meeting than this phone call. So you imagine that folks in the national security community there are trying to, in some ways, send up red flairs in the same way that they were doing initially with this president essentially saying, he wasn't quite ready. And a year later they're -- they're sort of saying the same thing.

KING: Right. It's just -- it's a fascinating question.

John Brennan, the former CIA director, saying this morning on CBS, he thinks maybe the -- he says, I don't know this, maybe he does know this, but the Russians have something on the president. That's the -- you mentioned conspiracy theory. That's the kind of chatter you get when the president won't simply say, hey, look, you know, he's going to be president. There's nothing we can do about that. We're mad about this, this and this. We're going to try to do business on that, that and that.

SHEAR: Well, and the thing is, any normal politician, given the set of circumstances that we've had over the last 14 months, would bend over backwards to take the opportunity to be critical just to prove the critics wrong, right?

LUCEY: Right.

SHEAR: And so the --

HULSE: Well, and, also, he brought this on himself. He announced this himself at that event.

SHEAR: Right.

HULSE: And that's -- you know, it's like --


HULSE: Yes, so and -- but that's the inexplicable part of all this and why people are scratching their heads.

And as to the Obama thing, I think George W. Bush also had congratulated Putin. It was a different time. And he did whacked around for it. KING: Right. I was there in Slovenia when he looked into his soul at the beginning of the Bush -- at the beginning of the Bush administration. He -- Donald Trump not the first president to make a mistake about Vladimir Putin. The other ones changed their course. We'll see if he ever can.

Next, from an embarrassing leak to an embarrassing tweet. The president attacks the special counsel and in the process fails a third grade spelling test.


[12:18:37] KING: Welcome back.

The president went after the special counsel by name again today, proving his weakened shift in strategy was no fluke. Attacking Robert Mueller by name goes against the advice of the president's lawyers. So when he does it, we learn about his anger with them as much as with the investigation. There's no staff around when the president watches the morning cable shows and lashes out, and apparently no spell check or grammar police.

Take a look here. That's a D or an F if this were a spelling or grammar quiz. He gets the word whether spelled wrong. Mistakes council, c-i-l, for counsel, an attorney, s-e-l. It goes on and on. You can study it if you want.

Why the rush to rage? The president is mad at his lawyers because they've been unable to make Mueller disappear and because he doesn't like the questions the special counsel has outlined in negotiations over a possible presidential interview. He's also mad, to put it mildly, at a new wave of GOP support for Mueller, including this from the Senate's top Republican.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: Bob Mueller should be allowed to finish his job. I think it was an excellent appointment. I think he will lead -- he will go wherever the facts lead him. And I think he will have great credibility with the American people when he reaches the conclusion of this investigation.


KING: Excellent appointment.


KING: Great credibility. Will go where the facts go.

[12:20:04] Number one, that's very significant. Mitch McConnell waited a couple days. The president started over the weekend. A lot of people were saying, why is the leader silent. The leader was silent for a few days, but when he did speak, excellent appointment, great credibility. The Republican president of the United States has to take that --


KING: As a shot across the bow.

SHEAR: Well, and that goes -- that goes so contrary to everything that Donald Trump has tried to do since the beginning of the investigation with his tweets, which is to undermine the credibility. Their -- his whole strategy, whether it dove tails with the -- his -- the strategy of his attorneys is unclear. But his strategy from the beginning has been, do everything you can do to disqualify the investigation -- the legitimacy of the investigation. And so to have the top Republican in the Senate completely demolishing that argument and saying, no, no, this will have credibility when it ends.

KING: And a man who, the president wings it sometimes. We just know that. That's his style.


KING: But Mitch McConnell does not.

HULSE: Now, that's a nice way of saying it.

KING: McConnell chooses his words very carefully.

HULSE: Yes, those were-- those were -- they didn't probably focus group them, but they knew exactly what they were saying. And I think that's where the importance comes in there.

And Paul Ryan said similar things.

KING: We often talk about the audience of one. Mitch McConnell was talking to reporters on Capitol Hill there, but no he wasn't.


HULSE: Right.

KING: He was talking to the president of the United States --

SHEAR: Right.

KING: Saying, back off, don't do this. Do not put us in the position. Do not go after Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general. Do not go after Bob Mueller. Do not risk putting us in this position because you won't like the response.

HULSE: And he doesn't want to be there in that position either. Mitch McConnell and Republicans don't want this to happen because it's such a hassle for them and it puts them in a bad spot. So they're saying -- you know, they're waving the caution flag, don't do this.

LUCEY: But we know --

HENDERSON: Yes, so we have people like Jeff Flake talking about the "i" word, impeachment, that that could be a possibility if he moves forward. Lindsey Graham sounding pretty tough as well. Not surprising that they have sounded tough. But certainly surprising that Mitch McConnell used that specific phrase, credibility, because, as you said, the president is on a branding campaign when it comes to Bob Mueller and this investigation. And that's what he does, he brands things, whether it's little Marco --

KING: He also brands -- he also brands himself when he does this.


KING: I put the tweet back up there. He brands himself when he does this. I hate to do this. He's the president of the United States. Whether you agree or disagree, he's supposed to be an example to our children, to our -- for our country. That's horrible. That's horrible. That is -- that is -- he has -- I assume he knows better. He says he went to the best schools. I assume he can spell. I assume he knows basic grammar. But that is just rage. It's just -- he's sitting there in what they jokingly call executive time in the morning watching cable television. Nobody around. I guess the -- I was about to say the president of the United States needs supervision?

LUCEY: No, he watches those --


LUCEY: Well, he watches TV in the morning. He gets frustrated. We see these tweets early. And, of course, the spelling and grammar mistakes are not anything. We see those all the time. It suggests he is doing this himself perhaps.

But we know what he's saying privately. I mean privately the president is telling his aides and his confidants that he thinks this investigation is going to choke the life out of his presidency. And so he is furious. And it's -- it's unlikely that he is going to stop these kinds of tweets, but it's (INAUDIBLE) commentary.

KING: And the question is if -- to that point, the president thinks it's going to choke the life out of his presidency, meaning there's something there or meaning there's nothing there? Obviously you saw from Mitch McConnell, other Republicans, Nia mentioned Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, sending a clear message to the president, don't cross the line. Be as mad as you want to be, I guess, but don't go after -- don't fire anybody.

This is Byron York writing in "The Washington Examiner." It's an interesting perspective. Again, a conservative saying, you know, all -- this is about the investigation so far. All have faced charges and none of those charges, at least so far, has involved allegations that Flynn, Manafort, Gates or Papadopoulos played a role in a scheme of collusion or coordination or conspiracy or whatever it is called. To put it briefly, what kind of collusion scheme between Russia and the Trump campaign could have existed without Michael Flynn being part of it? What kind of collusion scheme could have existed without Manafort and Gates?

Now, at least so far is an important part of the Byron York column. But a thoughtful conservative who's making the case, if Mueller has something, it's veered off the original mandate, which is an interesting conversation, however, conservatives weren't that unhappy when Ken Starr veered off his original mandate.

SHEAR: Well, and I don't think we -- I don't -- I mean, all due respect to that point of view, I don't think we know that that's the case.

KING: Right.

SHEAR: We just don't see evidence of it publicly. It is entirely possible that -- that the special counsel has more on the substance -- on the underlying substance of collusion or, you know, some sort of conspiracy then we know.

KING: Right, Flynn, Papadopoulos, now Gates cooperating with the special counsel.

SHEAR: Exactly.

KING: The special counsel has laid down some markers, but he's also left a lot of mystery as to what he has. And the president knows --

HENDERSON: And the president knows some of that.

KING: Again, the president knows a lot more than we do --


KING: Because he has -- he has some notes saying, this is what he wants to ask you about, and he doesn't like it.

HENDERSON: Yes, and obviously the subpoena of the Trump corporation and any documents relating to Russia or other things. He knows what those other things are. He knows what they want to ask him. The sort of topics. And he know what's happened in the past to folks who have gone in and perjured themselves. That's certainly a fear of this president. And that's one of the reasons why they want to limit whatever the topics are and how he answers them.

So, yes, I mean, you can imagine that this is a president who's looking at this investigation, that he has no control over, that can go into all sorts of areas he doesn't want to go into.

[12:25:04] KING: Important message from the Republicans on The Hill, Mr. President, you're not quite alone, but almost alone when it comes to attacking.

Up next, three days until the government shuts down. Congressional negotiators say they have a deal. Yes, they do. They say they have a deal. Now, can they pass it?


KING: Welcome back.

Today, budget negotiators on Capitol Hill say they have a deal to keep the federal government open with three days to spare. Forty days after the last government shutdown crisis, an agreement in principle, fresh hope Washington will stop short of careening into another shutdown. Still, there are always hurdles and there are some here. And, remember this, the Republican leadership promised -- promised they would be adults and return to regular order, that things would work again. Now listen to that same Republican leadership telling taxpayers, none of the failure is our fault.

[12:29:59] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), MAJORITY LEADER: If I were the Democrats, knowing what they want, I would have taken that deal. Sometimes I wonder if some of them want to just keep a problem out there.


MCCARTHY: Almost make it political instead of solving a problem.