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INSIDE POLITICS

Paul Ryan Not Seeing Re-election; Republican Party Outlook; Trump Tweet to Russia. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 11, 2018 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:00:16] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your time on this giant breaking news day.

President Trump tweets that missiles will soon be targeting Syria, and he slams Russia's alliance with a, quote, gas killing animal who kills his people. We'll have a live report from Syria as it prepares to be attacked.

Plus, the president debates firing the special counsel and the deputy attorney general. Some Republicans cheer him on. But more sober voices in the GOP warn that would cross the line.

And the House speaker, Paul Ryan, announces he will not seek re- election. Another reminder of the difficult midterm environment for Republicans and of the dramatic evolution of the GOP under President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN THUNE (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: That's been a little bit of a difficult marriage from the beginning. They're very different in terms of temperament and character. But he's somebody who I think recognized that President Trump presented an opportunity to get some things on the agenda done. And, frankly, they have.

I think you have to look at the record, what they've been able to get done together. But in terms of their personalities, they're very different people. And I think that's been true and everybody's known that from the beginning.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Let's begin the hour right there with that dramatic leadership change in the Republican Party. The House speaker, Paul Ryan, will not run for re-election.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Look, you all know me. I didn't take this job to get the gavel in the first place. I'm not a guy who thinks about it like that. This really was two things. I have accomplished much of what I came here to do, and my kids aren't getting any younger. And if I stay, they're only going to know me as a weekend dad, and that's just something I consciously can't do. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, that's not just spin. Ryan began telling friends after Thanksgiving break last year he wasn't getting home enough and was thinking about calling it quits after 2018. But there's more to this decision. And make no mistake, the speaker's Trump-xhaustion is part of it. A close friend says Ryan is frustrated by a president he does not view as consistent or as a conservative, and frustrated by a rowdy House Republican conference with, in the speaker's view, too many members not serious about the work of governing.

There's also the horrible midterm election climate. Democrats now increasingly confident, even more so today, they can take back the House. Though Ryan, always the optimist in public, says the 2018 climate did not sway his decision.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RYAN: I am proud of what this conference has achieved. And I believe its future is bright. The economy is strong. We've given Americans greater confidence in their lives. And I have every confidence that I'll be hand thing gavel on to the next Republican speaker of the House next year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: With us this big day to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace of "The Associated Press," CNN's Phil Mattingly, CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson, and CNN's Dana Bash.

A little Boston there, Nia, I'm sorry, at the end of that.

This is -- this is a, you know, so much happens. We just had all these days full of breaking news. This is the third most powerful man in the United States government, the speaker of the House of Representatives. Mitt Romney's vice presidential nominee just a few years back.

I would say, in the 20 years of Paul Ryan in the House, we've seen the evolution of the Republican Party. A guy who used to work for Jack Kemp. More of a Reagan Kemp. Always an optimist in public. You see that consistently. Now the speaker, the leader of Republicans in a party where even Paul Ryan does not feel that he's at home some days, even though he's in the leadership. Why now?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think a couple of things.

First, and you noted this -- you reported this last year, the expectation was never that Paul Ryan was going to be in the 116th Congress. We're in the 115th. The expectation was, however, that he would at least run for re-election, help with fundraising, to keep a -- kind of a nasty leadership battle out of the way.

Why now is, I'm told this decision was made over the weekend. And he was actually leaning towards running and leaving at the end of -- or at the end of this Congress, and then made the decision with his wife that, one, that wasn't fair to his district to run and then leave. He wanted -- care about his constituents a little bit. And, two, that he wanted the conference to be able to start working through what is ostensibly going to be a pretty knockdown, drag out decision for who's going to replace him.

Look, the reality is twofold here I think. You mentioned what the speaker represents both on the policy side and the politics side and, frankly, on the how he carries himself side is a very different Republican than is now kind of running the show in Washington, D.C. And I think that matters. And I think with that in mind, the things that he cares about most, entitlement reform, when you have a president that doesn't want to cut entitlements, a certain posture on foreign policy when you have a president that disagrees with that. And I think more in the minutia of things, the fact that week after week after week he's almost had to sprint over to the White House to try and get the president to come on board with things that everybody was supposed to agree with. Add that to the Republican conference that's pretty rowdy, and I think it was just time.

KING: Or to get the president back onboard with things a couple hours ago he had agreed to.

JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": Yes. Right.

MATTINGLY: Right. Exactly.

PACE: And it's not as though -- that Ryan hasn't been able to forge a good relationship with the president.

MATTINGLY: Correct.

[12:05:01] PACE: They actually do seem to have something of a bond. But from Ryan's perspective, I think this relationship is just incredibly frustrating. He never knows if the president's word means much. He never know if the president is going to back what he has to do a lot of work behind the scenes to get in front of him sometimes in terms of rallying his caucus.

So it's been interesting because I think there was some expectation that they would really be at odds with each other when Trump took over. That hasn't happened. But, again, just as a day-to-day relationship that he has to manage, this is quite a burden on him.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean it's true. I mean it's almost a teacher/student relationship, which is odd because Paul Ryan could be the president's son. I mean he's young enough. I mean there -- that's -- there's a generational difference in a big way.

I was talking to a Republican strategist before coming on here who was frankly lamenting the fact that Ryan didn't go with plan a, which, as you said, was run for re-election, win in November, then retire, which he said today was not fair to his district, which is the sort of the stand-up guy thing to do. But in terms of the raw politics, the strategist I was talking to said, it is proof that he doesn't have the greatest political instincts, because he is going to be a lame duck. Now Ryan says there is recent history of a lame duck leader in the Senate, Harry Reid, saying he was going to retire and then staying on. But it's a very different kettle of fish when you're talk about the speaker of the House, saying that, particularly when you have such a restive (ph) caucus. You have people who are really going to go at each other. He says that the leadership elections aren't going to happen until after the November election.

KING: We'll see if that holds.

BASH: Exactly.

KING: We'll see -- we'll see if that holds because there were people pushing this morning already saying to do this after Memorial Day, do it quickly, because they think to have the competition to replace him throughout the election year causes further disruption in a year where Republicans are already in on this turmoil.

I want you to listen to the speaker here again. Part of his trademark -- he learned this from Jack Kemp, is no matter what's happening, no matter how dark, no matter how bad the rain is, pretend it's a sunny day and talk optimistically. Here he was asked about whether his relationship with the president, whether there was dysfunction in that and whether that had a role in his deciding to call it quits.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Not at all. Like I said, I'm grateful for the president for giving this opportunity to do big things, to get this country on the right track. So the fact that he gave us this ability to get all this stuff done makes me proud of the accomplishments that I've been a contributor to. Makes me satisfied that I've made a big difference, and he's given us that chance. So I'm grateful to him for that. And that's really -- that's really how I see it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, I mean that was the part that was not really believable in terms of what he was saying.

KING: Right.

HENDERSON: I mean here's a guy who's got to deal with cleaning up after Trump, with answering to Trump's tweets. Who knows what he's going to say. The fact that, you know, he might say -- he might support the repeal of Obamacare in the way the House wants to do it one day, the next day he's going to call the bill mean. So that kind of thing.

I mean you coined what might be a new phrase, Trump-xhaustion (ph). I think that's the way it should be pronounced. And that is clearly what he was dealing with.

Sure, there are all of these kind of background issues too, his family, his kids are teenagers at this point. But you imagine if he were having a little bit more fun and a little bit more success on those big ticket items, like entitlement reform, he might want to stay around a little longer (ph).

KING: And the president himself tweeting this morning, Speaker Paul Ryan is a truly good man. And while he will not be seeking re- election, he will leave a legacy of achievement that nobody can question. We are with you, Paul.

They did pass the big tax cut plan and the speaker did work with the president. But, to your point, the House voted to repeal and replace Obamacare. The president celebrated in the Rose Garden, then called it mean.

The House is going to vote this week, I believe unless they push it off, on a balanced budget amendment, which is laughable. I'm sorry, it's just laughable.

PACE: Right.

HENDERSON: Yes.

KING: These same House and Senate, controlled by Republicans, and a Republican president, just signed into law a spending bill that President Obama could only dream of, getting that much money, and it blows a hole in the deficit. So when it comes to deficits, when it comes to entitlement reforms, when it comes to other structural, traditional Republican principles, Speaker Ryan has not been able to get those through. He did get his tax cuts through, but they're missing a lot of what he would have done if, let's just say, you know, Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush or Mitt Romney were president.

HENDERSON: Right.

BASH: And the question now is, with the remaining time that he has, when he is a lame duck, whether he is going to try to find a way to do things that he feels are right. Entitlements, I think that's a bridge too far, or at least maybe it's a hill too steep to climb. But what about immigration? You know, I mean, it's still dicey, very dicey, for his caucus because there's a very big split there. But in his heart of hearts, just like his predecessor John Boehner, he wants to deal with immigration. And so maybe he'll push to be -- push a more bipartisan approach to it.

HENDERSON: But he's got an unreliable president with that.

PACE: And it also will be interesting to see what kind of role Ryan plays just in terms of the Republican Party's posture toward Trump.

BASH: Exactly.

[12:09:58] PACE: Because what we've seen, when high profile lawmakers have made decisions that they're not going to run for re-election, Bob Corker probably at the top of the list, they suddenly feel much more free to be critical of the president, to push back on some of what they see as the more destructive behaviors. Ryan has been extremely cautious while he's been speaker and while this question of running again has been an open one about how he deals with the president in pubic. But I think it will be fascinating to see if he follows kind of the Corker example or not.

KING: If he stays the speaker, it makes it harder, I think, in that -- in that regard.

PACE: Right.

HENDERSON: Yes.

PACE: Absolutely.

KING: He does say he'll keep fundraising for the party, which is very important. Nancy Pelosi, on the Democrat side, Paul Ryan on the Republican side, the most important people when it comes to fundraising. We'll talk later in the program about the race now to replace him and whether that's to be the next speaker or whether that's to be the next minority leader. We don't know the answer to that question.

But let's -- just more on the moment today. Again, it's -- you don't see this all that often. The third most powerful man, the third line -- third man in line to the presidency of the United States deciding, I'm done. I'm going to walk away.

Now, he's a young man. He could go home for a few years. He could make some money. He could run again down in the future. But just in the context of this, what was the reaction on The Hill?

MATTINGLY: Surprised at the timing. Not surprised that he was going to leave. Look, it just -- it hasn't been a secret that he was likely going to leave. I think everybody knew that, a, he'd accomplished probably as much as he was going to. He'd been in Washington for a very long period of time. And we all kind of nod to it and wink and all that type of stuff, but the family stuff is real with him. It just -- it simply is real. So the expectation was, he's going to leave. The interesting element I think is how quickly everybody's now moving on to, OK, what happens next? Who's next?

BASH: Yes. And, remember, he is an accidental speaker.

MATTINGLY: Yes.

KING: Right.

BASH: He didn't want the job. John Boehner, his predecessor, begged him to do it. Boehner told me that he gave him good, old-fashioned guilt, saying that God wants him to do it. Finally convinced him to take on this role. He didn't want to do it because of his family and because it's a -- it's, frankly, it's odd to think that the person who's second in line to be president is in a job that's a political dead end. But when you look at White House aspirations, it kind of is, and he realized that.

So, you know, do it, do it for a short time, and go home. It is not a usual thing for somebody to voluntarily give up power. But he has been an unusual man in this position from the day he took the gavel.

KING: All right, we'll continue the conversation as we go forward today and in the days ahead as we learn more about it. We should note, Speaker Ryan also will be a guest on "The Lead." That's at 4:00 p.m. Eastern right here on CNN. You'll want to see that.

And when we come back, what, in other days, would be the top story, the president of the United States on Twitter telling the Russians and the Syrians, the missiles are on the way.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:17:05] KING: Welcome back.

Get ready, Russia. That language, part of a remarkable message from President Trump this morning, who's publicly warning a U.S. missile strike is imminent in Syria. The president tweeting, Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready, Russia, because they will be coming. Nice and new and smart. You shouldn't be partners with a gas killing animal who kills his people and enjoys it.

Again, that language from the president this morning. Certainly noticed not only here in Washington but around the world.

Fred Pleitgen live for us on the ground in Damascus.

Fred, you're already starting to see some Syrian government forces moving, reacting to the president's warning, right?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you're absolutely right. I mean we've seen additional military convoys here in the Damascus area moving around certainly more than we normally would, John. It's unclear whether that's directly related to what the president has been tweeting. But that's certainly something that we're seeing. We're also getting reports of the Syrian air force apparently removing some jets from some air bases, presumably also in anticipation of possible U.S. strikes.

The Syrian government has also reacted. They're calling the president's language reckless and saying that it's a threat to international peace and stability.

And, of course, the Russians themselves have reacted as well, John. They're not only saying that they'll target missiles that are flying towards Syria. They also said that they would target the bases where those missiles are fired from. Of course potentially meaning U.S. ships and U.S. planes, as well.

You know, I've been on the ground 20 times in Syria, including with the Russian military, and they have a lot more hardware here in Syria that many people know about. Also surface-to-air missile defense systems and a lot of ships in the Mediterranean as well, John.

KING: Fred Pleitgen on the ground in Damascus.

Fred, keep us posted and stay safe. To come back in the room.

Just -- if you just listening to what Fred just went through and what the president -- the president's tweet, the Russian reaction. The president says the missiles are coming. Russia says, we'll see if they carry through on this. Russia says it's prepared to try to shoot them down. And as Fred notes there, Russia says it's prepared to try to target where they come from, which would be U.S. warships and maybe other bases in the region. We -- the French are involved in these conversations.

The tweet takes you into the area of, what is this? But the substance of this is beyond grave.

PACE: It's pretty dramatic. I mean you have to, I think, take both sides at their word in a situation like this. It is just rhetoric at this point, but the consequences of following through on that would be so grave that I think we do have to take it seriously.

The president obviously is tweet this without any irony about the fact that he has been highly critical of what the Obama administration did in terms of either forecasting military moves or signaling to adversaries draw down dates or military plans. The Russians have responded in kind, though, now that the president has put it out there. The idea of a U.S./Russia military conflict over Syria is what has had Pentagon leaders worried for literally years on this. If the president does push forward and Russia does respond, we are in -- we are in truly unchartered territory then (ph).

[12:20:06] KING: And it heightens -- it heightens that they're worried about a miscalculation --

PACE: Absolutely.

KING: A misinterpretation, just an honest, human mistake, one the president escalates and the Russians escalate.

I should have noted, Matt Viser of "The Boston Globe" joins our panel.

And, Matt, on this point, the president tweets this morning, which makes it sound like something's about to happen. Remarkable that the president of the United States, publically on Twitter, saying, here come the missiles, which poses the question then to the defense secretary, are you ready?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Have you seen enough evidence that could blame the Assad regime for this most recent chemical attack? Have you seen evidence (INAUDIBLE)?

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We're still assessing the intelligence ourselves and our allies. We're still working on this.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. military ready right now to conduct a counter -- a retaliatory strike (INAUDIBLE)? MATTIS: We stand ready to provide military options, if they're

appropriate, as the president determines. But thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) telegraphing our military moves in Syria?

MATTIS: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's normally the posture of the United States government. Normally including the president, say nothing or say little until you do something. But interesting that Secretary Mattis says we're still assessing the intelligence. Meaning, you have to make a case to the world. Some people object, but you want to make your case to the world that we have a legal or a moral right to do this. Here's the evidence that this was a chemical attack. Here's the evidence it was launched by the Assad regime. And if you can make the case, here's the evidence that Russia knew about it.

MATT VISER, DEPUTY WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE BOSTON GLOBE": And that's the most surprising part to me about Mattis' comments. You expect some degree of caution about forecasting our military efforts there. But the idea that they have not totally conclude, when there are, you know, movements in the U.N., and there are negotiations and efforts to bring in France and Saudi Arabia, you know, it's all premised on this idea that there were chemical weapons used by the Assad regime. So the idea that that is not fully decided or there's any scintilla of doubt about that is striking.

HENDERSON: Yes, I think Donald Trump's non-serious tweet, I mean he's almost treating this like it's a video game or something. It fuels concerns about whether or not there's a larger plan for Syria, right? I mean obviously a similar thing happened about a year ago. The U.S. responded. What happens here? Is there going to be a response? Is there a follow-up after that? So far the kind of engagement in Syria has been about degrading ISIS. By all accounts that's something that has gone on and been successful. Is there a broader sort of geopolitical strategy for Syria?

KING: And to that point, the president of the United States, who this morning tweeted the missiles are coming, tweeted this. There's a tweet for everything, as they say. August 2013, why do we keep broadcasting when we are going to attack Syria. Why can't we just be quiet and if we attack at all catch them by surprise? That there.

This just in from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. He says common sense will eventually win in a situation that is becoming more chaotic. That, the view of the Russian president.

But listen to the United Nations ambassador. A missile strike -- any military action inside Syria is a big deal in its own right. But the growing escalation of tensions with Russia, quite important. Here's Nikki Haley.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: My parents always said, you should always see the good in everyone. And you should always see the good in everything. So I've been trying to figure out what the good is with Russia. I think that they are very good at being consistent, and I think they're very good at playing games.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, if it's words, it's one thing. But if it escalates, especially with missiles in the air, it is striking to see -- Nikki Haley's been out there. He's a hawk from the beginning. But now the president seems to be with her of the tensions between not just the United States and Syria, but Washington and Moscow.

MATTINGLY: So I think this is -- this is what I hear a lot from lawmakers on The Hill who were very, very frustrated when the president said it was time to leave Syria last week, raised a lot of concerns internally, is that you have Ambassador Haley, who has always taken this position in the administration. She has always been the hawk. He's always been the very tough one on Russia. She's made no secret for her disdain for pretty much the entire country and their posture throughout everything. Which serves a purpose if there's some broader strategy behind it. If this is a stick and a carrot type of deal.

There's no sense right now, at least on Capitol Hill, and I haven't picked up a lot from our colleagues in the administration in terms of what is the broader plan here? If Ambassador Haley's doing this, what is Secretary Mattis doing? What is Ambassador John Bolton doing? And what is the president doing and what is he ordering people to do? And as long as that remains an open question, that's why, you know, to Julie's point, you read -- you read the tweet this morning and you were just like, man, you've got to be kidding me right now.

KING: Right.

MATTINGLY: And then you think of the gravity of what they're actually talking about and how important this is. You know, it's not being self-righteous. It's -- this is a very, very serious situation where things could go sideways very fast. And while people like Haley or Mattis or Bolton seem -- may have an idea of where they are, if the broader administration doesn't have an overall plan, I think that's what concerns a lot of Republicans on The Hill.

[12:25:02] KING: Right. And it's hard -- also hard to communicate in a way that builds global public opinion on your side --

MATTINGLY: Correct.

PACE: Absolutely.

KING: When you're doing it this way.

We'll talk more about this as we go through the program.

I should just note, President Putin's spokesman, Mr. Peskov (ph), says the Kremlin will not be participants in, quote, Twitter diplomacy. Keep an eye on that one throughout the day.

Up next, is the president, yes, even as he considers military action, is he mad enough to fire the special counsel?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KING: Welcome back.

A morning shot on Twitter, a warning, after the White House says the president has the power to fire the special counsel. The president today says, quote, blame the bad blood on Russia, what he calls -- blame it on the fake and corrupt Russia investigation. The president again ruminating about firing the special counsel. And it's noteworthy, his team at the White House now claiming he has the power to do so, instead of brushing aside that question by saying it's just the boss venting.

[12:30:02] The president is also talking again about maybe firing the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation and who authorized an FBI search warrant targeting the president's personal lawyer.