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Senator Ted Cruz Launches Re-Election Big; Ex-V.A. Secretary: I was Fired, I Didn't Resign; Sen. Sanders: Trump Wants To Privatize V.A.; Dems Says She Wont Resign House Seat Over Abusive Staffer. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired April 2, 2018 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:02] MICHAEL WARREN, SENIOR WRITER, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: -- in the oval office. So in that sense, it doesn't really change. I think the difference is the sort of stabilizing forces, as you called them, within the White House who sort of tamp down what he may be hearing from outside voices who don't always have all the information that the White House does.

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO: I agree with what Mike said. I think the difference is that at this point the President has more people he relies on outside the White House and trusts more than inside the White House because he's lost so many people inside the White House, and that makes him more unpredictable to his advisers inside the White House which has serious costs. And I think you're seeing that in the firing -- the way that the firing of the Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin went down which came at an unexpected time to many agents at the White House. This stuff is not entirely unprecedented because he's always leaned on people outside the White House, but it is becoming more unexpected, more unpredictable. The President is sort of becoming more himself.

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, ASSOCIATE PRESS: The other thing you're seeing, too, I think is the people that he's bringing in are tending to be more people in line with his thinking, people he feels like line up more with what he wants to do, so that's maybe going to change how he thinks.

JOHNSON: I think it's typical. When the people around him day to day inside the White House feel out of touch with him and unprepared for what he's going to do.

WARREN: Demoralizing to those --

JOHN KING, CNN INSIDE POLITICS ANCHOR: Let's show to Catherine (ph) but let's show some of the people on the rise. Larry Kudlow has first end the job today. Now, he's more of an establishment Republican, an economic policy, now a huge fun of tariffs. He comes in to the -- he walks in and first end the job, he's in the middle of what could be a rising trade war. John Bolton more of disruptive hack boys, we'll see how that one goes.

Peter Navarro who does agree with the President on tariffs and trades, Stephen Miller who's been there from Day 1, hard line on immigration. I should think Kellyanne Conway who came to Trump as more of an establishment Republican campaign operative but who knows the President personally very well.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. The interesting part of this administration right now is that we're reaching a point where Congress is not going to do a whole lot more until the rest of the year. They're going to be in chief campaign mode. He's at a point right now where a lot of the decisions are going to be administrative decisions, things that he can do on his own without Congress.

These voices that he's relying on, what they ultimately tell him to do can be rather insignificant because he doesn't necessarily need Congress to at least push the agenda items that he is hoping to achieve in the next couple of months.

KING: And the drama never stops about the internal west wing politics. Ron Kessler, former journalist, now he's an author by -- he's writing a book, the new Trump book where he says Kellyanne Conway, he was (INAUDIBLE) says Kellyanne Conway is the leaker in chief inside the Trump White House. Kellyanne Conway this morning on Fox fired back.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: The President and I talked at length last night about a number of issues, he's talked about that very briefly because there were so many relevant things happening. He knows, and he has said publicly and privately who the leakers and the liars are and have been, that those of us who actually having access to him working here every single day, which I know inspires a lot of jealousy and back biting itself, survived a lot of people and continue to be here.

Leakers get great press, and one day, Abby, I will have my say?


KING: Whoever you believe, it is just remarkable to talk about the President knows who the leakers and the liars are. And I work in a place that inspires a lot of jealousy and backbiting.

WARREN: Yes, those happy hours after work must be you, it's really fun. No. I mean, this is a constant problem. It never really gotten better or worse, maybe ups and downs and it all comes from ultimately at the top. The President likes to talk to reporters. You could say he's the leaker in chief, and I think that approach just trickles on down.

RAJU: If you like that -- throughout of his career is like to have factions within His own camp and that's exactly what happened in this White House. It's been one faction versus another. We'll see how the staff shake-up how it affects those factions ultimately, but you're seeing it still play out.

KING: It still plays out. We'll see. Kellyanne Conway among those who might be the next communications director. If the President decides he needs a communications director? Stay tuned. Next episode.

Up next here, a message on race relations for the President from the only African-American Republican in the United States Senate.


[12:38:48] KING: Topping our political radar today, Senator Ted Cruz officially launching his reelection campaign. The Texas Republican will make stops in Beaumont, Tyler and Waco for the official kickoff event in the Houston suburb of Stafford this evening. Cruz warning against Congressman Beto O'Rourke of El Paso, O'Rourke, trying to become the first Democrat since 1988 to win the Senate in Texas.

An early glimpse here whether President Trump is vulnerable to a 2020 primary challenge at least in the first in the nation primary state. Look here, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona gets 33 percent support but still trails in a head to head match up by 16 points. That's according to a new American Research Group poll out of New Hampshire.

Ohio Governor John Kasich who visits New Hampshire tomorrow wins 42 percent support. That's a big number. Thrills the President the incumbent President by just six points. And those protests continue over the police shooting of an unarmed African-American man at Sacramento. One Republican says racial polarization is one of the greatest national security challenges facing this country.

Senator Tim Scott was also asked about the President's handling of racial aided violence this during an interview with CBS.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: After Charlottesville you said the President is not a racist but he is racially sensitive.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is that still what you believe?

SCOTT: Absolutely. Yes, the President is not a racist, but is he racially insensitive? I think the answer is yes.

[12:40:04] The fact is that the policy position of the administration is moving this country in the right direction economically. We still have to work on the tone, in the rhetoric.


KING: What's the make of that? It's an election year. A lot of people said Tim Scott said that before. He said it right after Charlottesville, no big deal. I think it's a big deal when you have an African-American -- the only African-American Republican Senator saying the President's policies are good, but he's insensitive, has to work on his tone.

RAJU: Yes, he's send a message to the President. And this is -- you know, he's not going to go as far, he's not going to go as far as lot of Democrats would like him to go, but it is a significant thing for him to say, look, this is a President who has not made race relations a top tier issue. He does tend to talk about racial issues. He tries to gloats about the African-American unemployment rate. He takes credit for that. He does not try to promote necessary policies that would be beneficial to African-Americans and of course the big controversies when he use a derivative word and talk about African countries.

So, Tim Scott is sending a very clear message of questions of what will the President listen?

WARREN: I think he's also sending a message to other potential Republican voters. You know, there was this sense that Scott sort of represented that new generation of Republicans all before the Trump presidencies or the Trump phenomenon, I think that's a big part of what he is trying to say as well.

KING: But do we make anything this New Hampshire numbers? Trump over Flake by 16, Trump over Kasich by just six. If there's anyplace, it's only 2018 not 2020. But if there's any place where any incumbent president particularly this incumbent president could get a shocked, maybe not get beat, but go back to George H. W. Bush, 1992, the Patrick Buchanan to get Bruce (ph), it will stir the conversation up there. Is that it or is there anything else to it?

JOHNSON: Yes. I think that the pretty clear message is that there is room to disagree with the President in the Republican Party, but there is not room to make your identity anti-Trumpism if you want to win a political campaign as a Republican.

KING: That would be a hard one. In New Hampshire, unique. We have to see how the Democrats are running. But the undeclared or independents could vote in either primary so depending on who runs the Democratic primary, might be an opening to people of (INAUDIBLE) Republican primary. One of these early conversations --

LUCEY: Those are early day on polls.

KING: When you called INSIDE POLITICS every now and then. You kick around the poll just to lay out a mark and you'll come back it in a year or two.

Up next, David Shulkin says the President fired him as V.A. Secretary. The White House says no, he quit. It's important. We'll tell you why.


[12:46:41] KING: Welcome back. We know today David Shulkin is no longer in the Trump cabinet. But was he fired his Veterans Affairs Secretary or did he resign? The answer could be a big deal because of a federal law governing how to fill important vacancies. Shulkin says he was fired.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) DAVID SCHULKIN, FORMER VETERANS AFFAIRS SECRETARY: I would not resign because I'm committed to making sure this job was seen through to the very end.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: So you were fired.

SCHULKIN: I did not resign.


KING: The White House is doubling down today, insisting Shulkin offered his resignation during a phone call with the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly last Wednesday. Again, Shulkin says that's not what happened.


SHULKIN: There was no reason why I would resign.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So why you just say you were fired?

SHULKIN: Well, I think that's the alternate to resignation. I received the phone call saying that the President wanted to make a change, and that's certainly his prerogative to do that and that's what happened.


KING: Now, he's not the Veterans Affairs Secretary. To many people out there, that's the issue. However, if you're a veteran and you depend on care in the V.A., this is a big deal. Because there is a law called the vacancies act. And if he was fired and did not resign, there will be a court case.

The Trump administration had said the Defense Department official Robert Wilkie end as the acting secretary. The vacancies act says if you are fired, the deputy in place at the department, Thomas Bowman, should be next in line of succession. Again, sounds like a Washington story, however, for thousands and thousands of veterans, this department could be held up now in a months of chaos.

LUCEY: It absolutely contributes to the uncertainty around this process. It's not really clear how this might --

KING: So how can the White House not handle this right? How can the White House not -- I get the President has every right to his team. But why can't the President bring in the Chief of Staff, the White House Counsel? Do they have nobody on board who understands we better do this right or else we can't take that back to the Pentagon?

LUCEY: Well they're saying -- I mean, they're still saying that he resigned. So --


RAJU: That was my ultimate question here. I mean, you have to think also this has a lot to do with the fact that there's been a lot of turnover and a lot of firings that there aren't many staff to manage a very difficult process -- I mean, difficult but a rather obvious process. And there's also have people in step that have a lot of legislative background who could presumably discuss the implications of such a decision. And this is also partially because the President makes decisions in a vacuum in a large way, doesn't fill in a lot of people and staff may advice them of the implications of some of the decisions he may expect the gut.

KING: Even the President has H.R. rules and laws that applied to his conduct and does he have -- is there such chaos at the White House that there is no grown-up to say, get it, but you have to handle it this way.

JOHNSON: Well I think this goes to what we were talking about previously about the people closest to the President not knowing what he's going to do and when he's going to do it. What we do know is that David Shulkin, the now ousted V.A. Secretary, spoke to John Kelly last Wednesday morning at Shulkin's request, POLITICO has reported this, and said he heard a rumor that he was going to be fired by tweet at 2:00 p.m. last Wednesday afternoon. And John Kelly told him that he wasn't aware of any plan for that.

Now, Kelly had to call Shulkin again hours later and say that plans had changed. That's the phone call that you heard Shulkin talk about. So I don't think Shulkin had the chance to submit a resignation letter before the President issued a tweet at 5:31 p.m. that afternoon.

[12:50:09] The White House had wanted the President to hold up on firing Shulkin because they wanted to fire his deputy, Bowman, who would go into that top job if he fired Shulkin rather than Shulkin resigning, because they've had a lot of problems with him in terms of his loyalty to the White House, his reality (ph) to the Trump administration's agenda. Now they're in this mess, because people closest to the President were not aware he was going to fire off a tweet getting rid of Shulkin when he did.

KING: And now they're in this mess and nobody knows how long the mess goes on because the President's choice, if there's going to be a blow point, if the Senate would come back in and confirmed the President's choice, the White House decision, Dr. Jackson, however, a lot of veterans groups raising concerns and vet saying their deputy concerned about the nominee. Veterans' lives depend on this decision. Trump administration needs to substantiate that this active-duty Navy officer is qualified o run a $200 billion bureaucracy. The VFW (ph) raising similar concerns there.

There is Senator Bernie Sanders who's a Democrat, yes, who is independent, decides with the Democrats but also have been very prominent for a long time on veterans issues.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VETERANS AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: He has no experience in this area, but I would strongly suspect that if you get rid of Shulkin who oppose privatization and you put Dr. Jackson and that is what his mission will be. Without exception the major veterans organizations say we have got to strengthen the V.A., not dismember it, not privatize it


KING: There are some exceptions concerned veterans for America which is back by the Koch brothers does support the President's pick here, so Senator Sander is a little off there. But 51-49 Senate, a lot of questions about whether he's up to the job. Dr. Jackson is known as a good man, he's obviously served his country. Can he run this department? So there's a 50-50 odds he will be the Veteran Affairs Secretary.

When that will happen? Who knows?

RAJU: Yes.

KING: So department in chaos for how long?

RAJU: This process takes -- well confirmation process takes some time. Any individual senator who can slow up the process on the floor assuming you get -- there's nomination advances. We don't know if you'll get confirm because we have to see and we does in this confirmation hearings and that's going to take some time. And if he does stepping it during the confirmation hearing, he's going to have a hard time getting the votes. But, you know, ultimately this is an election year, and there will be some Democrats who will feel the need to vote for him to advance his nominees.

LUCEY: He's also not the only confirmation before the Senate. There's a -- it's only be a pile (ph) of the people that they have to get through.

JOHNSON: I think that helps him because the Democrats can't vote down every one of these cabinet nominees that are coming up before him including new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, new CIA Director Gina Haspel. And now they've got a V.A. Secretary, so I think with the midterms approaching, it would be very hard for Democrats.


KING: They could trade an opinion, it might be the right opinion here. You're right as when they go home, they're not going to hear about CIA director. If there's a problem at the veterans hospital in their state, somebody in the balance going to hear about that. It's a great point.

Up next, the Democratic Congresswoman facing calls for her resignation. She makes a direct appeal now to her House colleagues.


[12:57:08] KING: Connecticut Democratic Congresswoman Elizabeth Esty says she will not resign her seat despite calls from summon her own party to step aside. That after reports that she kept the top aide accused of abuse on her team for months. She says the best way to clear this up is for the House Ethics Committee to investigate her.

"Although we worked with the House Employment Counsel to investigate and ultimately dismiss this employee for his outrageous behavior with a former staffer, I believe it is important for the House Ethics Committee to conduct its own inquiry into this matter." She said, "That's an statement today. I have apologized for my mistakes in the handling of this matter. I feel terribly for the victim of abuse. In seeking this inquiry, I want to clarify whether there was any wrongdoing on my part."

Members of her own party worry the longer she holds onto the seat, the higher changes Democrats because lose it in November. What is this one going?

RAJU: I'd be surprise that she survives this. It feels that there's going to be a significant pressure campaign for her (INAUDIBLE). It's a good compression of campaign for the drop off. Democrats don't want her to cost her a seat when they can take back the majority this year. I'd be very surprised if she -- perhaps she stays in the seat and decides not to run for reelection -- I mean, it would be a big surprise if she didn't.

KING: Quiet pressures from the leadership.

RAJU: No question.

KING: Clean this up in a day or two, or don't cost us a seat. In this tough year, we need to keep all the ones we've got. We're going to take some away from Republicans but she's escalating this. This is a dear colleague letter written today. "How did I not know? How did I not see it? What I do know is that this wasn't an isolated incidence on Capitol Hill and that we can and must do better on ensure a safe environment for our employees. In the coming days and weeks, I'm interesting in working with you on specific actions we can take to foster a better working environment."

She's actually saying, OK, I may have a problem in my office. But there are a lot of problems like this on Capitol Hill. That is bring down the House, is that what way to put it?

JOHNSON: Let's just nail when you're calling for an ethics investigation into yourself, the situation probably isn't great and then when your responses, well I did something bad that suited everybody else, I think the future is probably not bright for --


KING: I have to assume that some of her quote unquote dear colleagues, don't appreciate that.

WARREN: I mean, not at all. But, I mean, this is a big problem and a, you know, this maybe a self-interested move on her part. But I think there, you know, there are a lot of unturned stones out there in Congress that I think a lot of members must be worried about and certainly concerned about, and it would be nice to know a little bit. KING: Interesting dates here just as you watch this play out. Now the Connecticut deadline for filing candidates is June 12. To Manu's point, she could announce something else by now. We'll keep an eye on this one as it plays out.

An interesting story in a year where every seat counts. Thanks for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS today. See you back here at this time tomorrow because we're back after week off.

Wolf starts right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington, 8:00 p.m. in Damascus, 1:00 p.m. Tuesday in Beijing --