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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump and Macron to Talk Iran Nuclear Deal; U.S.-France Trade Deal; Trump and Macron Relationship; Controversy Surrounding VA Nominee; Special Election in Arizona. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired April 24, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:00:14] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

It is a remarkable day already here in Washington. We're waiting for a news conference, President Trump and the French president, Emmanuel Macron. That press conference scheduled to begin a few moments ago, but they're running behind schedule at the White House. We will take you there as soon as it starts.

But it has been a remarkable day so far. President Macron, in Washington, on a crystal clear mission, trying to tackle an ambitious, international agenda, trying to get President Trump to stay in the Iran nuclear deal, to keep U.S. troops in Syria, to counter the civil war there and to counter Russian aggressions.

With me here in studio to discuss this, share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Abby Phillip, Jonathan Martin of "The New York Times," CNN's John Kirby and Eliana Johnson with "Politico."

It has been remarkable already as we await this press conference. There is no question these two leaders have a personal bond, a personal friendship. There's lots of handshakes, lots of talking about how great they get along. But so far talking past each other on policy.

President Macron has said repeatedly the world must stay together, must work together to maintain the Iran nuclear deal. Here is President Trump earlier today. He used the words "insane," he used the words "ridiculous," and he said it's not just the Iran deal. Anywhere you look in the Mideast, Iran is the bad actor.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wherever there's trouble, Yemen, Syria, no matter where you have it, Iran is behind it. And now, unfortunately, Russia is getting more and more involved. They're not going to be restarting anything. If they restart it, they're going to have problems. Bigger than they've ever had before. And you can mark it down. If they restart their nuclear program, they will have bigger problems than they have ever had before.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Admiral Kirby, you've dealt with this from a Pentagon and a State Department perspective.

If you're the Trump base, you're happy with that, talking tough about Iran. But if you're President Macron and you're sitting right there and he's -- it's insane, it's ridiculous, it never should have been agreed to, what are you thinking?

ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET.), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: I'm thinking I would go back to Trump and say, you're right, you know, it would be very difficult for them to restart it because the deal's working, because their breakout went from months to more than a year. The deal was working. That's the reason to keep it there.

The other thing I would say to President Trump, and I think Macron's probably thinking this, too, is, hey, you want to be tough on Iran, than keep the deal, because the hardliners and the (INAUDIBLE) would love nothing better for then -- for you to rip it up because they don't want the deal in place either. So it's a funny way to say, are you going to get tough on Iran by ripping up the one thing that they hate the most over it.

KING: And the president's frustration with the deal, it's an understandable one, is it was by design, limited only to the nuclear program.

KIRBY: Right.

KING: So if you look around the region, the president's right, you look at Yemen, you look at Hezbollah, you look inside Syria, Iran is the bad actor. But that was the rationale for the deal was, we'll never get a comprehensive deal with Iran on its behavior, let's just do this. But the president finds that unacceptable. The question is, will this personal bond, will Macron find some way to break through?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think that the president clearly doesn't like being perceived as having his hand held. And I think that's been the narrative going into this whole state dinner was that Macron was coming to shepherd him along in a particular direction, followed by Angela Merkel, who was going to do the same thing. They were going to kind of tag team him this week.

And so this is -- we know that this is also a president who is very mindful of his coverage, and I think what we saw in that spray just a few minutes ago was the president saying, no, I'm the person in charge and I don't like this Iran deal and I want to get rid of it.

And the other thing that drives President Trump is a desire to do the opposite of his predecessor. If there is a way for him to do something on Iran, that negates what Obama did, that is the opposite of what Obama did, he would do that. And, for him, the only path forward is to get rid of it entirely. He doesn't buy the idea of fixing it. He thinks that preserves the core of the deal.

So there -- it is hard for me to see what Macron is going to accomplish given the things that drive President Trump on this issue are, by and large, undoing what his predecessor did in Iran -- in --

JONATHAN MARTIN, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": A cautionary note on the sort of blustery rhetoric there that we just heard in that sound bite about the Iranians. It was not, what, nine, ten months ago that President Trump warned the North Koreans of fire and fury and sort of laying down a marker that was even more heated than what we just saw there.

Well, flash forward to today and now President Trump is engaged in unprecedented direct negotiations with that same regime that he was threatening fire and fury with last year, saying that he hopes he and Kim Jong-un can, quote, do something very special together.

KING: Right.

MARTIN: Which sounds like of like a new duet LP coming out --

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": Today he's honorable.

MARTIN: Exactly. He's honorable today.

JOHNSON: And (INAUDIBLE).

MARTIN: He was going to face fire and fury last year.

The point being, with this president, threats, charm, it all, you know, kind of blends together and it's -- I think it's folly to put too much value in a momentary comment.

KING: It's a great point. However, if you are President Macron, or if you are Chancellor Merkel and you're coming in later this week, the question is, how do you do business or which Trump comment is the final comment?

MARTIN: Yes.

[12:05:07] KING: Which Trump comment is, OK, are we together on this or are -- is the United States going to walk away from this deal?

And to that point, again, Prime Minister Abe of Japan was here last week. The president talked how great their personal relationship was. They went golfing together. They had on another show. And then the president stood next to him and lectured Abe on tariffs and trade, saying, I'm not going to lift those tariffs right now because your relationship with us is unfair.

President Macron, just moments ago, sitting across the table from President Trump, first he criticizes it Iran deal yet again, and then he lashes into the European Union on trade.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The president and I are working on trade. The trade with France is complicated because we have the European Union. I would rather deal just with France. The union is very tough for us. They have trade barriers that are unacceptable. Our farmers can't send their product into the European Union easily as they should, and we accept their products. So we have to make a change.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: So, again, admiral, to you, because this is your wheelhouse. There are a lot of people out there saying, it's time to be more direct. Say what you think.

KIRBY: Sure.

KING: Say what you feel. Throw the rules of diplomacy out the window. Those who write the rules of diplomacy say, you don't talk like that in public with your ally sitting across the table. If you have a difference like that, you work it out privately.

KIRBY: Yes, that's usually the way to do it. But, of course, this guy doesn't do anything the way it's normally done.

And, look, I've got to give props to Macron, because he was been -- he's been out there today, too, pushing back a little bit on multilateralism and nationalism and even climate change. So, I mean, unfortunately, Trump is bringing this out in some of our allies and our partners, that they are being forced now to be more publicly rigid with him than what would normally be the case. But I think that's just the new environment that we're in.

KING: Right. And you see the East Room there, the two podiums set up. We're now told the press conference should take place about 25 minutes from now, at the bottom of the hour. We're told the leaders are running a little bit behind schedule, but we'll keep an eye on that event as it plays out.

So you have this meeting. Macron does have this special relationship, as both leaders testified, with Trump.

Actually, let's -- I was going to deal with the Iran response first. I want to show you a little bit. In the Oval Office earlier, the president trying to make clear to everybody, yes, this is one of my best friends on the world stage, making his trademark joke about fake news.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. President, they're all saying what a great relationship we have. And they're actually correct. It's not fake news. Finally, it's not fake news.

So it's a great honor -- a great honor that you're here. But we do have a very special relationship. In fact, I'll get that little piece of dandruff off.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Trying to be funny. He's trying to help his friend with his tailoring or his dandruff or lint or whatever that was. Look, and that's -- that's great theater and it's great television. The question is, you know, to borrow a phrase from a campaign long ago, where's the beef? You know, do you just have these -- the friendly relationships, but are they advancing the policy ball at all, or are they, in fact, having a retreat?

JOHNSON: You know, I do think there's been a lot of emphasis put on the personal relationships. And I think that's true, not just of Trump, but of previous presidents. It was true of Reagan and Gorbachev and of Bush and Putin to a certain extent. They always matter. And it's sort of obvious it matters for all of us in our relationships with other people.

But for Trump, he's clearly driven by doing things that no other president has done before and by repudiating what his processors have done. And I think to the extent that allies or even adversaries can put what they want him to do in those terms, they're going to get results from this president.

MARTIN: And what's Macron getting out of this? I mean he's put a lot of capital on the line inviting the president to Bastille Day last year, and he's sort of cozying up to an American president that his voters detest in large numbers and, you know, is he going to get the U.S. back in the Paris Climate Accord? Is he going to get the U.S. to, you know, not scrap the Iran deal? Is he going to get U.S. buy-in in Syria? Is he going to get, you know, Trump sort of, you know, back away from these trade threats that he's making? So far I don't see Macron coming away with a whole lot.

KING: And, to your point, the words are friendly, the policy disagreements in the Iran deal, Macron is for it, Trump is against it.

MARTIN: Yes.

KING: The Paris agreement, Macron is for it, Trump says the United States is withdrawing. On Syria, Trump wants to get U.S. troops out. Macron wants them to stay.

As we wait to hear from the leaders, one other thing, and somebody try to translate this for me, if you can. At the end of the cabinet room meeting, the president said to Macron, I think we really had some substantive talks on Iran, maybe more than anything else, and we could at least have an agreement among ourselves fairly quickly. I think we're fairly close to understanding each other.

The president of the United States and the president of France, how can they have a one-to-one understanding about the Iran nuclear agreement which binds the world, not just two countries?

KIRBY: Well, it won't be able to bind anybody else, but what he's referring to are these side agreements.

KING: Right.

KIRBY: Trump has three issues with the Iran deal. The fact that it didn't deal with ballistic missiles, and he didn't think the inspection regime was serious enough, and, of course, he rails against these so-called sunset clauses where certain enrichment activities can restart after 10 and 15 years. And so we've got European and American negotiators trying to work out side agreements to deal with those issues. And I suspect that that's what he's referring to, that he and Macron have a meeting of the minds on what some of these side agreements might say.

[12:10:12] But, look, you're absolutely right, it's not just going to be between France and the United States. There's other partners in this deal. And the -- and the Iranian government has already made clear, they're not willing to revisit a renegotiating of the deal.

KING: Right, the Iranian foreign minister making clear in an article published today that it's not happen.

KIRBY: Yes. Absolutely.

KING: That they're not going to listen to the United States and be told what to do.

Much more on this throughout the hour, including a news conference again. We expect the president of the United States and he president of France about 20 minutes from now. We'll take you there live to the White House when that happens.

When we come back, the president's nominee to lead the Department of Veteran Affairs in deep, deep trouble today. We'll bring you the latest on that.

But one more moment from this morning as we take a quick break. A little reminder from President Trump, just because you're hosting a VIP at the White House doesn't mean you won't get asked some questions you might not like.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(CROSS TALK)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much.

(CROSS TALK)

TRUMP: Stupid question.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:15:08] KING: Welcome back.

We want to remind you, about 15 minutes from now at the White House, the president of the United States and the president of France scheduled to have a news conference. A lot of issues there, including the Iran nuclear deal. We'll take you there live when that happens.

As that -- as we wait for that, the White House pushing back today, but being warned by key Senate Republicans that the president's choice to lead the VA is in serious trouble. The latest wrinkle? The indefinite hold now put on the confirmation hearings for Dr. Ronny Jackson. Senate Veteran Affairs Committee members are looking into allegations of misconduct. That after whistleblowers came forward about Jackson's leadership of the White House medical unit and other issues. Senator Johnny Isakson and Jon Tester, the committee leaders, say they both want more information. Two sources telling CNN Isakson, the Republican chairman of the Veteran Affairs Committee, has called the White House to suggest Jackson's nomination may need to be pulled. So far that call being ignored.

Look at this new statement from the White House today. Admiral Jackson has been on the front lines of deadly combat and saved the lives of many others in service to this country. He's served as the physician to three presidents, Republican and Democrat, and have been praised by them all. Admiral Jackson's record of strong, decisive leadership is exactly what's needed at the VA to ensure our veterans receive the benefits they deserve.

"Bloomberg's" Sahil Kapur joins the conversation right now.

Senator Isakson is key here. He's the chairman and he's trying to be polite to the White House. In public he is saying, let's look at these new allegations, let's vet them, let's give the gentlemen some time. His private calls to the White House, I am told, he has said, do the smart thing, make this go away.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": It's a very tough situation right now for Republican senators who want to be able to support the president's nominees, who want to find a way to say yes, you know, to this nominee, to Ronny Jackson. But there are a series of questions that were raised even before this nomination was sent to the Senate. How qualified is he to run a bureaucracy of more than 330,000 employees, treats more than 9 million veterans, more than a thousand facilities. You know, there were questions as to why would this person, despite his -- the strong praise he's gotten as a physician, be qualified to run a bureaucracy this big where the successes of the Veterans Affairs Department are not well known, but the failures are, you know, turned into national scandals. And it's just a very, very tough job.

KING: And now there are questions about Dr. Jackson, about these whistle blower allegations, about an abusive climate, perhaps, in his office, some other allegations about personal conduct that they want to look into. As they look into those on Capitol Hill, one of their questions is, why do we have to do this? Where was the White House? Why -- this was a whim of the president's. The president likes Dr. Jackson.

MARTIN: Right.

KING: He decided he was going to nominate him, which is fine. The president has a right to his people. But, normally, the president would turn to the chief of staff or the White House personnel office and say, I want to nominate Dr. Jackson. Do the work you need to do. Come back to me when you're ready. As opposed to a tweet or a statement saying, this is the guy.

MARTIN: Of course.

PHILLIP: The eve -- I mean the eve of a committee hearing on a nominee is not the time to be just starting to hash out some of these allegations. And then also for Jackson, I mean, we should say very clearly, we don't know whether any of this is true and neither do lawmakers. They literally don' know what is true and what's not.

But, either way, he's about to get vetted in public in a very drawn- out way, in a very closely divided Senate, where Republicans don't have much room for error in confirming these nominees. And the president not only has Ronny Jackson, but he has several other cabinet-level appointments who he needs to confirm. So Republicans are frustrated because they're trying to do the best that they can to get this through, but the White House has made it as difficult as possible by putting forward someone who just simply they haven't done the homework on. They're going to have to do it in public and it's going to be painful for everybody involved.

KING: And not all cabinet agencies are created equal. I say that in the context of when lawmakers go home, whether you're in the House or the United States Senate. It's the Senate's job to do confirmation.

This is a department you hear about. The care of America's veterans has been a big, political issue, in some view a political scandal for years here. And my understanding of Senator Isakson's call to the White House is, look, if this is -- a, it's an election year, b, this is what we hear about when we get home. You needed to have somebody in charge of the department yesterday. Let's get past this.

JOHNSON: First of all, it's tremendously difficult to nominate anybody to a cabinet position about whom very little is publicly known. Nobody knew anything about Dr. Ronny Jackson when he was nominated, very little in the public record about him. I think that's just starting to emerge right now. But that's a huge -- that poses a huge challenge for the White House.

And the other thing about this is that the White House itself did no vetting on him before the president chose him. The president didn't give his staff the chance to do any of that vetting. So I think the White House was caught flag-footed on this and now the Senate is really -- sort of has the president's back against the wall.

KAPUR: It also --

MARTIN: And I'm struck by just the tolerance of Senate Republicans for this kind of conduct. I mean, how are they so restrained? The president picks his personal doctor to be the head of the VA because he likes talking to him and thinks they have good rapport and he was once good on TV? I -- like, how is that taken seriously if you a congressional Republican.

KING: Is that --

[12:20:08] MARTIN: And, like, I get that the -- they believe that Trump is popular with their base, but not all of these folks are going to face tough elections. There's just no demonstration of being an independent branch of government by a lot of folks on The Hill right now --

KING: So here's my question.

MARTIN: Who would never stand for this --

KING: Right.

MARTIN: If a Democrat did it.

KING: Right. And so here's my question -- sorry to interrupt.

MARTIN: Please.

KING: Is this -- are we beginning to see cracks in that in the sense that over on the House side you've seen Trey Gowdy ask some questions about the EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. Now in the Senate, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a very conservative Republican, saying he wants to have hearings about Administrator Pruitt. Some of his spending, some of the judgement issues there.

Senator Inhofe telling our Ryan Nobles a bit earlier today on Jackson, the VA nominee, that he might not have to have a hearing in the Armed Services Committee because the nomination, quote, may not progress that far. And then he says on Pruitt, he's very concerned about allegations about spending and about some financial practices by Administrator Pruitt.

Inside the White House, some people say he's doing what the president wants policy wise. He should stay. Other people say these headlines are bad, we don't like it. Maybe there's a possibility he goes. Again, you go back to the question, some of this involves conduct back when he was in Oklahoma. Was it properly vetted by the Trump White House before they brought him in?

PHILLIP: And does the president himself care?

MARTIN: Right.

PHILLIP: I think that's the big question mark about both Pruitt and Jackson. A lot of these issues are -- maybe his staff feels one way or -- one way about it. We know that there are a lot of people in the White House who are frustrated with the Pruitt situation and they think that he should have been gone yesterday. The president is not there yet. And for Republicans, I mean, to perhaps answer your question about why Republicans aren't saying more, J-Mart (ph), it could also be because they know that this is about Trump himself. And that when Trump is confronted with people who he perceives as being against them, it shuts down all lines of communication.

And I think Republicans are very hesitant to really burn that bridge at this stage. I mean they're already going through a tough midterm. I think they still want to be able to have the ability to work with this president. And Trump does take these things personally. He doesn't want people going against them. And right at this moment, Jackson was his choice personally.

MARTIN: Right.

PHILLIP: Pruitt is someone that he has decided to keep on in spite of all of this, in part because he likes the work that he's doing.

KAPUR: It really helps to have a --

MARTIN: (INAUDIBLE) Rand Paul.

KAPUR: It helps to have a natural base of support if you're trying to win approval of the Senate confirmation. Someone like Scott Pruitt has that from conservatives and the right and General Ronny Jackson does not have that from the right or the left to run a department this big. When you're losing Jim Inhofe, that is usually a troubling sign, you know, that you're losing a median Republican senator.

KING: Right.

KAPUR: Susan Collins telling my "Bloomberg" colleagues that she has serious concerns about the vetting process in this White House for nominees. Did he go through an FBI background check? What process led the White House to pick somebody like him for this position?

KING: And, to that point, a lot of Republicans would roll their eyes at Susan Collins, fairly or unfairly, saying, that's a moderate from Maine. She's always out there. But Jim Inhofe, Johnny Isakson, if the White House is having issues with those sort of mainstream conservatives, generally loyal guys, that does tell you something.

MARTIN: Right.

KING: Up next, when we come back, there's an election today in Arizona. It's a seat that Republican should hold. A seat, a district, Donald Trump carried big. So why the GOP jitters?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:27:26] KING: Welcome back.

I want to remind you, just moments away from a press conference, President Trump and the president of France, Emmanuel Macron, at a White House. We expect that any moment. We'll take you there live when it happens.

As we wait, there's a special election in Arizona today and it's the latest test of whether Democratic intensity is strong enough to overcome deep red DNA. The battleground here, the House seat in the Phoenix suburbs. Republican Debbie Lesko facing Democrat Hiral Tipirneni. Democrats say that in this contest right here, we look at the district. This is Trent Franks, last time, unopposed. The Republican last time, unopposed. Sixty-seven percent of the vote. So this should be a safe Republican win, right?

Let's look at the demographics of the district. Seventy-one percent white. A much smaller, non-white population. Again, you look at those numbers, you think, this should be solid Republican territory. But we're in the suburban areas where Democrats have been much more competitive during the Trump presidency.

Let's look at the early voting. About half of theme cast by Republicans as of a couple days ago, 28 percent by Democrats, 23 percent by independents. If you look at this, these numbers, Republicans should be happy. The question is, are all these Republicans voting Republican? That's what we'll find out tonight.

Now, Republicans expect to win this seat. Democrats expect Republicans to win this seat. They're hoping to keep it close. Top Democrats say just that it's a contest is proof it's a blue 2018 mood.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TOM PEREZ, DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: Good jobs, schools that can educate our children for the future, making sure we have pension security, making sure we have health care for all, making sure we have an economy that works for everyone, not just a few at the top. Those issues resonate everywhere. In an election that's going to occur tomorrow in Arizona, we're the underdog. But the notion that the Republicans are pouring in hundreds of thousands of dollars into that race, that's where Joe Arpaio lives.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Republicans have spent a ton of money in this district. Is this a big deal? Again, we'll count the votes. Most Americans will be sleeping as this plays out. But --

MARTIN: We'll be awake, John.

KING: You're going to stay up for this one?

The Democrats --

JOHNSON: (INAUDIBLE).

KING: The Democrats want to say -- the Democrats want to say, if we're within single digits here, that is a reminder to every other Republican, and especially running statewide in Arizona, and Republicans around the country, it's a tough year. Is that fair?

MARTIN: I think that's fair. I do. I mean, look, this is not a race that was on anybody's radar screen. The Dems haven't even fielded a candidate the last two cycles in this House seat. I think the fact that you are now in this kind of senior-heavy, snowbird-heavy Phoenix suburb with just like the most core GOP strength that you can find in that state, and Democrats are even contesting it. And the Republicans, to your point, are having to spend over a million dollars combined? Even as a precautionary method, I think that tells you everything about where the energy is this cycle, John.

[12:30:11] KAPUR: Retirement country. It's in the west valley.