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Border Security Plan; Border Crossing Surged in March; Pruitt Controversy; Mueller Questioning Oligarchs. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 5, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:15] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

The Dow is up as investors liven to the White House economic team on China trade, instead of the president's tweets.

The EPA administer says it's wrong to even ask him about a $50 a night rent deal from a lobbyist. But the White House says the president is not happy.

And the same White House can't answer the most basic questions about the president's calls for troops at the U.S.-Mexican border. But it does have tough words for border state Democrats who think it's a terrible idea.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If that congressman's so concerned, maybe he ought to show up and actually support legislation that would fix these problems instead of blaming the president, who's actually trying to do something about it. We'd like to see him work with us in partnership and actually do something instead of just complain about it.

REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: I will gladly work with the president when his ideas aren't stupid and detrimental to the United States.


KING: We begin with that debate and mixed messages from the president about the U.S.-Mexico border and the White House now scrambling to come up with a plain for a troop deployment the president announced before his team had any time to think it through or to consult those most closely impacted.

Here's the mixed or the odd message today. A morning tweet praising the government of Mexico for disrupting a caravan of people making their way toward the United States border. That, a day after the same president insisted the threat of that caravan is among the reasons there's a border crisis that warrants deploying the United States military.

Now, the administration says the troops are coming, but that it can't answer the most basic questions is proof of chaos yet again after another presidential announcement not worked through the normal policy process. For example, fair question, right, are we talking about armed troops or just logistical support?


KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I mean what I'd like to hear from the governors is, what it is that they want. That's not anything that we have proposed. But we -- we want to get to border security. So I think what we're seeing here is we're going to do everything we can to do it until -- until and when Congress acts.


KING: Let's try another question. If the president announced a plan, the administration must have a number of troops in mind, right?


NIELSEN: We don't. And that's just because we take each mission set, each location and then work with the governor on how many people. So we'll let you know that as soon as we can.

QUESTION: Do you know when you'll know that number?

NIELSEN: I'm going to get on phone calls right now.


KING: I'm going to get on the phone right now.

With us to share their reporting and their insights, Margaret Talev of "Bloomberg," CNN's Phil Mattingly, Astead Herndon of "The Boston Globe," and Jackie Kucinich with "The Daily Beast."

Help me understand -- I'll start with you, Margaret, since you cover the White House every day -- the president this morning praising the governor of Mexico for taking steps the administration wanted, please break up this caravan so these people don't make it all the way to the border. Saying that, you know, yes, it's unacceptable, but border crossings are actually pretty low historically. I thought you deploy the National Guard in a crisis. That doesn't sound like there's a crisis.

MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "BLOOMBERG": So I think -- again, I'm not sure -- I think what we're seeing here is a little bit of a couple of different forces at work. And one is the president's desire to return to kind of the 2016 election base message that he felt was core to his election, core to his support, kind of core to his ideals.

But the other is an understanding that there are multiple things tied to your relationships with another country. Everything from NAFTA and trade, to being able to do a big hemisphere trip in a week or so and wanting to be in a decent position with Mexico. And so you see this desire to tack back to the base and back to the core of the election kind of colliding with the reality that you're action in one spirit attaches to your relationships in kind of a broader, more vocal spirit. And so there is a lot of mixed messaging both by the president and inside the administration about precisely, you know, how this is going to work. And I think that's what we're seeing right now.

KING: Is it nuts to think -- people in the country, people involved, they can have a debate about, do you need the National Guard. You can have a debate about, is there a crisis at the border or is it just a problem at the border, is everything great at the border. We could have a debate about that.

But is it too much to ask that if you're going to say, we're going to ask men and women who serve in the National Guard to go down to the border. We're going to ask the governors involved to activate those troops because that's how the process works. So, as you do that, make that announcement, shouldn't you know how many you need, what they're going to be doing, whether they bring guns or not or whether it's just logistic support? Or, what is the help me with the process for the president announces something and then his team says, oh, now we've got to figure out how to do it.

: they'll get there eventually. You know, it just takes some time. A couple days, a couple phone calls. Look, in --

KING: It's different.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's different. And, look, this has been the case with you name the number of issues, trade being I think the most recent on some of the tariff stuff that we've seen where the president has an end game. And I think more importantly than whatever the end game is, the president wants action, right? And if you look at, when it comes to the border, when you look specifically when it comes to sending the National Guard to the border, there is an option on the table that has been utilized twice since 2006, once by President Bush, once by President Obama, to actually make this happen, so as long as you get the governor to sign off to send the troops.

[12:05:04] Now, I think the interesting element here is, you know, I was talking to folks on Capitol Hill yesterday. They had a briefing. What are you hearing right now? Do you have numbers? Do you have cost? Do you have duration? And the answer was, no. People were speculating, trying to kind of say, well, this is what happened in 2006, and it seems like this is the operation that they're modelling things off of in terms of cost and numbers. And then I asked, well, OK, so is that what they're telling you right now? No, that's just what we're going off of from what we heard from the press briefing.

So there's a lot of people trying to figure out what the actual answers are. I think the difference perhaps in this case than others is, there is a model out there that they can pretty much kind of almost cookie cutter and shift into that, so long as they get the governors to sign off. And I think that's what everybody's waiting for, particularly when it comes to (INAUDIBLE).

TALEV: Although it's not supposed to be a permanent -- when you deploy the National Guard, it's not supposed to be like your policy going forward. It's supposed to be a temporary --

MATTINGLY: It's supposed to be a stopgap, right.

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE DAILY BEAST": Well, and -- and -- I mean eventually he's going to have to go to Congress to get funding. I don't think that he can just think --

KING: Right. The governor are only going to do it if --


KING: The governors -- the governors -- the Republican governors in those states are happy to help the president. They also say there should be tougher border enforcement, but they're not going to do it unless Washington pays.


ASTEAD HERNDON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": To put it in broader context too, this comes after that omnibus signing, which the president and the White House were very aware that members of their base weren't happy with how that went. And then you had immediately after the president going above and beyond from those advisers and making those tweets doubling down on this border security message, which he knows they like. And so it comes at a time which they knew that there was some pushback from those core base members, which they care so much about, and then he went back to the red meat in terms of immigration.

KING: Well, even a lot of Republicans concede that it's more that. It's more of the political incoming the president took than the fact that he sees this -- pictures of a caravan that now has been an annual event for five years --

TALEV: Right.

KING: Coming north. True, that he's getting this political pushback. "The New York Times," in an editorial, put it this way. Mr. Trump has long stoked a xenophobic fear of newcomers among his political base. Ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, he seems increasingly desperate to find ways to compensate for his failure to deliver on a promise to build a big, beautiful border wall on Mexico's dime.

But to you point, the president did just sign this spending deal. And in the spending deal, he got a small down payment on his wall. And many Republicans say -- even the Republicans say it's not really going to be -- it will be a lot more fencing than it will be big, beautiful wall.

MATTINGLY: I mean he certainly didn't get the $25 billion that he wanted. And I think this was one of the main pieces of frustration. And you can even go back to the immigration debate, which failed so disastrously, I think, regardless of what your position is on immigration. All four proposals failed. Everything that the president wanted, whether it was interior enforcement, whether it's more money on the border for technology and personnel, or whether it's the wall itself hasn't come to fruition up to this point.

Now, it's worth noting that when you talk to Republicans they say, look, we got 33 miles of new construction. We've got $1.6 billion, $640 million for construction at the border. That isn't nothing given where Democrats have been.

KING: Right.

MATTINGLY: But when you're the president and you're hearing from, as Astead was saying, the base, when you're hearing from Fox News, when you're hearing from people saying, this is not only a waste of money, but this doesn't do anywhere near what you promised on the campaign trail, when that was the bread and butter gut check issue that he believes got him into the White House, that becomes a problem.

KING: Right. And so the mixed messaging point, the president tweeted in February, 45-year low on illegal border crossings at the border. The president's trying to say, hey, my administration's doing what it promised. We're getting tough at the border. Plus, just the perception that we're getting tougher is keeping people from coming north.

Now -- then the president tweeted more recently, our country's being stolen by all the illegal immigrants. I want to put up just some of the numbers here. The thing that the administration has tried to say, this is the month-to-month numbers from February to March. There was a big jump if you look at the most recent numbers, but that's because they went down so much in the first year of the Trump presidency. If you see 2017 right there.

In the first year, all the numbers were down. I think there was anticipation. This president campaigned on immigration. This president is going to be tough. We better be careful if we're going to come illegally across the border to the United States. So those numbers dropped.

But if you look at them historically, I get the president's point, he has every right to say that's still unacceptable. That one is unacceptable. He can make that point. The question is, is it at a point where you activate the National Guard, which is normally for emergency circumstances?

TALEV: This is a political move. I mean clearly this is a political move, but it's a political move that comes around the timing of this DACA situation, where the president spent months promising that he wanted to protect these people, that it was the Democrats' fault that they didn't get protected. And he got such a backlash among, again, that core consistency among his base that, you know, he seems to be compensating for it.

And, at the same time, I think when you see the calibration on using the words for Mexico, it is an attempt to preserve a relationship on the trade front now that he's got Larry Kudlow coming in and so many aspects of a new team coming in to try to direct his economic policy, it's to find that balancing point where he can make the domestic argument to his audience, I'm doing what I promised I was going to do, while preserving enough wiggle room on the -- on the global front, on the foreign policy front, to try to maintain that relationship with Mexico.

KUCINICH: He's also tried to link DACA to this influx of immigrants allegedly coming over the border, which isn't true.

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: He's also tried to link DACA to gang violence, MS-13. That's not true either. So he's made -- even -- even if he decided he wanted to do DACA, he's made it even harder for himself by linking it to all of these things that his base are up in arms about.

[12:10:14] KING: And to your point about the base, there's no question the president is responding to criticism from his base here. And welcome to the election year, the Democratic governor of Oregon, do your geography, Democratic governor of Oregon, you won't find that along the U.S.-Mexico border. It's a little bit more to the northwest.


KING: Says if real Donald Trump asks me to deploy Oregon National Guard troops to the Mexico border, I'll say no. As commander of Oregon's Guard, I'm deeply troubled by Trump's plan to militarize our border.

So, you know, welcome to the midterm election.

TALEV: A bold, courageous pronouncement, right? Yes.

MATTINGLY: Put that one out there.

KING: Yes, Democrats -- jump in, please.

HERNDON: It also stands in contrast with what national Republicans want to make their messages for the midterms.

KING: Right.

HERNDON: I mean there was talk about running on the tax bill, running on kind of the financial issues on the health of the economy, and then you have the president doubling down in tweets on those kind of base read meat issues, on immigration, on DACA, on gang violence. And so we see that incites a backlash on the liberal side that has hurt them in these specials.

KING: And he thinks, just like in 2016, he thinks he's right and the establishment is wrong. We will -- we will see in November. Won't be here soon enough for me.

Up next, the embattled EPA chief struggles to quiet critics over looming ethics questions. Are Scott Pruitt's days numbered, or does the president still have his back?


[12:15:31] KING: Welcome back. Scott Pruitt losing one of his closest aides in the Environmental

Protection Agency, as the chief tries to survive mounting questions about his ethics and agency spending decisions. The EPA's deputy administrator for policy, a key player in the rollback of several Obama era environmental policies, is resigning. That a day after the White House made clear it's not happy with Pruitt. Atop the complaint list, his decision to accept a low-rent deal from an energy lobbyist. Now Pruitt, watch here, bristles at the suggestion his $50 a night condo deal is any kind of an ethics lapse.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Trump said he would drain the swamp.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is draining the swamp renting an apartment from the wife of a Washington lobbyist?

PRUITT: I don't think that that's even remotely fair to ask that question.


KING: Of course it's more than remotely fair. Pruitt ignoring the lobbyist part says it's just like renting a room on Airbnb. We'll know soon whether the president sees it that way.


QUESTION: Why is the president OK with this?

SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president's not. We're reviewing the situation. When we have had a chance to have a deeper dive on it, we'll let you know the outcomes of that. But we're currently reviewing that here at the White House.


KING: Currently reviewing that here at the White House. And "The Washington Post" has some new reporting on this, including this. Josh Dossy (ph) tweeting this, and it's in this article in "The Washington Post." The White House told Pruitt not to do TV, but he forged ahead per senior officials. Fox interview seen as a disaster in the building, meaning the White House. Senior White House officials believe he was involved in some staff raises, contrary to what he said.

Rutrow (ph)?

TALEV: Yes, a little bit. You know, the president -- we reported, "Bloomberg" reporting yesterday President Trump was asking lawmakers -- had begun asking lawmakers, what do you think about Pruitt? At this point, no indication that he is planning to cut him loose, but if you look at some of the past patterns with some of the high-ranking staff or cabinet members that have kind of faced a turn in fortune, usually at some point early in that process you have the president letting it be known that he's reached out to lawmakers or other influencers to ask what they think about a person.

KING: And to the fact -- and kudos to Ed Henry for asking the right questions and not for -- for not backing down when Administrator Pruitt says, oh, I can't even believe you'd ask me that question. What do you mean? He's a public official who leads an agency that spends taxpayer money. He is subject to ethics rules. He's renting a condo from a lobbyist. What do you mean that's an inappropriate question?

KUCINICH: I don't -- I can't even think of what $50 would buy you in Washington for an Airbnb in a normal situation. I shudder to think, frankly, what that would buy you. But, I mean --

KING: Even if it's a fair price, it's a lobbyist's building (ph). I mean give me a break.

KUCINICH: It's a lobbyist. No, no, no, you're totally right. You're totally -- I was just -- I was just joking.

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: But, yes, it's a lobbyist. Not only a lobbyist, but a lobbyist that donated money to his AG campaigns in Oklahoma.

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: And "The Daily Beast" reported yesterday that John Kelly, that phone call, wasn't as nice as the White House would let you -- would lead you to believe. He was basically saying, is there anything else we should know? And the fact that you have Pruitt going out not only with these pay raises or he went around the White House apparently and gave them raises anyway, now this report about him defying the White House and going out and doing these interviews, that's not going to sit well with this president for sure.

KING: Likely not. And let's listen to that point a bit because in addition to taking about the condo deal, Ed asked him about the raises. Which, again, Scott -- they tried to get raises for a couple of top officials at the EPA. The White House said, don't do it. There was some process where they went around that, found money in a different fund to give them raises. Listen to Scott Pruitt. He said, I had nothing to do with this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why did you go around the president and the White House and give pay raises to two staffers --

SCOTT PRUITT, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: I did not. My staff did. And I found out about that yesterday and I changed it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Will somebody be fired for that?

PRUITT: That should not have been done. And it -- it may be --


PRUITT: There will be some accountability.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A career person or a political person?

PRUITT: I'll have to -- I don't know. I don't know the --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You don't know? You know names? You don't know who did it?

PRUITT: I found out about this yesterday and I corrected the action.


KING: This is the "I don't know." He is the administrator, meaning the CEO. Things happen. Things happen. But if you're going to sit down for an interview, you might get asked about it, you should find out the answer before you do.

Is this enough because we all know the president himself and Republicans on Capitol Hill, they like the job he's doing. Democrats don't like it. Some moderate Republicans don't like it. But most Republicans and most business think this is great, rolling back water standards, rolling back clean air standards, the recent auto emissions. They like the agenda, they don't like some of the personal conduct, the ethics questions, the spending.

If the president were to remove him, he's waiting to confirm a new secretary of state, a new CIA director, a new secretary of Veteran Affairs, in an election year. All three of those are dicey. Add EPA?

MATTINGLY: Yes, so I asked a senior Republican about this and Margaret makes the point that the president was calling lawmakers and trying to get a sense on The Hill kind of where Republicans are. And the response I got was, this is a mess. I said, what do you mean, the -- what's going on with the EPA administrator or with the nominations process? And the answer was, yes.

[12:20:11] And here's why. And I think it's important to note. As you noted, one, Scott Pruitt has a ton of allies on the outside, the conservative side of things. If there's one reason why he's still currently the administrator of the EPA, it's because the outside network of groups that support him, plus the lawmakers on Capitol Hill, not -- kind of excluding the moderate Republicans, are extensive in their support with him and for him and are vocal with their support.

But you also have the logistics here of what's going on in the Senate, and that is confirmation battles for cabinet level officials are going to be hell over the course of the next couple of months by design for Democrats who want to make this a huge issue in a campaign year. Not only that, you have the EPA administrator who is doing things that Democrats absolutely loathe -- which is why Republicans like him -- and real concern that I've picked up on Capitol Hill right now that it doesn't matter who they nominate for that position, that position might not get confirmed. You lose a couple of moderate Republicans when you barely have a majority in the Senate, you have real problems.

So you have stacked up major nominations, all of which are going to take major work on Mitch McConnell's part to get them through. And then you add another one that might not get through at all. That has a lot of people on The Hill very exasperated, very frustrated. And lawmakers telling the White House, please, don't do this right now, we don't have the time or bandwidth for it. And, still, it might not be enough.

TALEV: And people inside the White House telling --

KING: And, yes, and telling the same.

But the climate is so interesting in the sense that, you know, here's Rand Paul, to your point about the policy. Rand Paul tweeting, EPA Scott Pruitt is likely the bravest and most conservative member of Trump's cabinet. We need him to help at real Donald Trump drain the regulatory swamp.

I don't think staying in a condo, owned by a lobbyist, is draining the swamp. Regulation wise, I get the policy.

KUCINICH: Bathing in the swamp.

KING: But -- yes, bathing in the swamp while draining the swamp. I guess it's something like that.

But then you have the flip side of this. It's not just Pruitt. But you have Pruitt, Zinke, Tom Price, the departed Health and Human Services secretary. Republicans feeling pressure because this is the kind of stuff that P.O.'s people back home, first class airfare, you know, giving raises to people that are more money than the guy reading about this in Omaha or anywhere else makes for a living. Listen to Trey Gowdy saying, hey, we've got to -- Republicans, saying, we need to ask more questions.


REP. TREY GOWDY (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Senator Scott and I were talking yesterday about how much we would enjoy a $50-per-night condo access in Washington. They want to have a hearing. My bias is towards getting the information and the facts first. Whether it is Tom Price, whether it is private e-mail use, whether it's Ryan Zinke, who happens to be a friend, but whether there are questions about the spending of money on doors or dining room tables, we have an obligations to ask those questions.


KING: Now, Gowdy is liberated somewhat because he's not running for re-election, but it is striking when you hear Republicans say they're leaving us no choice but to have more aggressive oversight and demand the paperwork.

HERNDON: Yes. And there's been a couple of these now. And as we've seen from Ben Carson and the dining set, from Shulkin and the ethics question there, and now we've gotten to a point where you have seen some Republicans on The Hills a little more emboldened to be able to come out and say we're looking for some oversight.

But, you know, this is a president who has not been very concerned with the logistics of what The Hill wants, who has not been very concerned with the practicality of the issue. I mean he fired a secretary of state and the national security adviser as there's about to be a meeting with Kim Jong-un in North Korea. I mean these are personal decisions for him. And so we are looking at a point where, if this continues to roll on, or even these pleas from congressional Republicans may not be enough.

KING: They hear about some of this stuff when they're home, in an election year, this is the kind of stuff that voters don't like about this town.

Up next, it's an old question, follow the money. Why Robert Mueller's team now tracking down jet-setting Russians?


[12:27:57] KING: Welcome back.

Want to turn now to an unusual turn in the Russia investigation today. CNN reporting exclusively that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is following the money, you might say, right to the doorstep of several Russian oligarchs. And by doorstep, we mean the jetway to a private plane. Multiple sources telling CNN Mueller's team stopped and searched the electronic devices of at least one Russian man when his private jet landed at a New York airport. A second man was stopped during a recent trip to the United States, though it's not clear if the second man was searched. Mueller team has also reached out to a third man, voluntarily asking him to submit to an interview request and to pass along some documents.

So why the sudden interest in these wealthy Russians?

Let's get right to Shimon Prokupecz, our justice reporter, who broke this reporting last night.

Explain why this matters, Shimon.


So one of the things we're being told is that the Mueller team, the FBI and the investigators there, are looking at whether these Russian oligarchs were using straw donors, whether someone was giving money to U.S. citizens as a way to donate it to the Trump campaign and also the inauguration.

You know, as you know, it's illegal for foreign nationals to directly or to in any way indirectly donate money to a U.S. campaign. And now the Mueller team seems to be zeroing in or has some interest in knowing if any oligarchs or anyone in Russia was using straw donors to make some of these donations, sort of circumvent some of the U.S. laws. The other thing is certainly they want to know about any other

interactions with people in the Trump campaign and people in Trump's orbit that perhaps some of these oligarchs may have had in the last several years.

So all of this certainly, you know, given the aggressiveness in which this is undoubtedly (ph) a pretty big deal for the FBI to monitor some of these oligarchs to when -- for when they are traveling to the U.S. and then trying to make contact with them. You know, as you said, one of them coming to an airport in the New York area and the FBI agents were there waiting for him and essentially questioned him and gave him a grand jury subpoena. It's unclear if he ever appeared before the grand jury. But certainly all of this shows us that the focus here is on the money, John.

[12:30:06] KING: The focus on the money. Shimon, appreciate that exclusive reporting. Let's bring it inside the room.