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Dodging Mueller's Subpoenas; Senate Primaries This Week; Trump Tweets About Blankenship; Haspel Nomination for CIA. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 7, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Appreciate it.

And thank you all so much for joining me AT THIS HOUR. "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Kate.

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

A big 2018 primary day tomorrow. Three Republicans running for Senate in Indiana all say they are most like Trump. And the president urges West Virginians to reject the coal executive who served prison time but says he now deserves a Senate seat.

Plus, Gina Haspel offered to drop her chance to be the first woman to lead the CIA. The White House urged her to stay and fight. Her role in past torture of terrorists, front and center this week.

And the president and new lead lawyer Rudy Giuliani upped the ante by labeling Special Counsel Robert Mueller a prosecutor gone rogue, surrounding, they say, by Democrats.

Add in this from a colorful Trump supporter, a long-time dirty trickster, who says the prosecutors haven't called him in yet.


ROGER STONE, FORMER TRUMP POLITICAL ADVISER: What's the purpose of this investigation --


STONE: If not -- if not -- no, to undo the results of the last election?

CUOMO: Truth is the point.

STONE: We have not found any evidence of a crime.

CUOMO: Who -- who interfered? Who -- well, we don't know that. The investigation's not over. Twenty-three people have been indicted. There's plenty of proof of crimes, Roger. STONE: Yes, 13 of them were Russians who will never -- who will never come here for trial --

CUOMO: But --

STONE: Including a caterer, which means Mr. Mueller has indeed indicted a ham sandwich.


KING: There you have it from Roger Stone.

We begin the hour with the president's new words for the special counsel. The president tweeting this morning that Robert Mueller's probe is, quote, rapidly losing credibility, that there is no o, he means obstruction by that. That Mueller's investigators are a bunch of, quote, angry Democrats and that this is all about the midterms. It's this phony witch hunt to go on even longer so it wrongfully impacts the midterm elections, which is what the Democrats always intended? Republicans better get tough and smart before it is too late. That the tweet from the president.

The Bob Mueller is Democratic campaign puppet tweet yet again separates the president from the facts, separates him from the truth. Mueller is a Republican, appointed by the Republican Trump Justice Department. But the tweets to fit a much more aggressive White House posture now that Rudy Giuliani is the lead lawyer. Giuliani says the president might not comply if the special counsel issues a subpoena for his testimony, or, get this, Giuliani says the president might show up but then possibly invoke his Fifth Amendment rights. Giuliani says the president loves this new Pitbull approach, but some Trump allies worry he is too focused on cable buzz and perhaps actually hurting the president's legal standing.

Let's talk it over. With me to share their reporting and their insights this day, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of "The New York Times," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, CNN's Phil Mattingly and Seung Min Kim with "The Washington Post."

Ty Cobb and John Dowd are gone. The president's former lawyers who said, let's play it nice. Let's not criticize Bob Mueller by name. I mean the president coming out of the box again this morning after a weekend of Rudy Giuliani. They think they're winning, right, because Fox News loves it, the president's allies on Capitol Hill love it, they're dominating the chatter of public opinion. What about the legal case?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I mean I think they think they're fighting back. I'm not sure they think they're winning. But I think that, you know, the president actually is conscious of the fact that he could be affecting the legal case. Right after Rudy Giuliani went on TV last week. He was very happy with his performance. He thought it was combative and, you know, the right kind of tone.

But the more he heard about the legal implications of some of what Giuliani said, the less happy he was. And I do think that there is a recognition here that they could be creating a lot of problems, even as they're putting on a more -- the face that the president wants to see on this debate.

I think the problem, and the reason that he's starting to go to this theme of, you know, the investigation is going to affect the midterms and that wouldn't be fair, is because they are getting ready -- the president is getting ready to potentially ratchet this up even further. You have Republicans on "The Hill" who are threatening to impeach the deputy attorney general. You have, you know, Giuliani continuing to go on TV talking about how, you know, Mueller is beyond his mandate, this was unfair. And you have the president personally attacking the investigators in Mueller's probe. So this is, I think, going to go to a new level.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think it's therapeutic in some respects for the president to be out there fighting like this, but in a legal strategy, I'm not sure how wise it is, or if it matters at all. We don't -- you know, I don't think we're sure on Mueller (ph). But they're -- you know, he's waging this on a two-front war, the political fight, which he may be winning in the sense that he's discrediting this investigation or trying to discredit it. And it's working among his base.

But I talked to some frustrated Republicans who want the president to succeed. They say, why doesn't he just focus this week on the matter at hand, North Korea, Iran, actually substantive matters that have to do with his job that he clearly is focused on this, as we can see this morning by his string of tweets.

KING: He's clearly focused on this because he wants to be. This is a choice the president makes --

ZELENY: Absolutely.

KING: Whether it's impulse, reflex, desire, strategy, a lot of people don't question the strategy part of this. But to that point, last week Rudy Giuliani was talking about Stormy Daniels. Then he dug a hole for the president. He essentially said the president of the United States lied. The president of the United States said he didn't know anything about this payment, didn't know where the money came from. Well, the president did know about the payment. The president reimbursed the money.

[12:05:08] This week he's moved on to Robert Mueller. And listen to Rudy Giuliani here talking to George Stephanopoulos yesterday about what if, as we saw in the Bill Clinton days, the special counsel issues a subpoena saying, come in, answer questions?


RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S ATTORNEY: Well, we don't have to. He's the president of the United States. We can assert the same privilege as other presidents have. President Clinton negotiated a deal in which he didn't admit the effectiveness of the subpoena. They withdrew it.


GIULIANI: But Hillary Clinton treatment is what I'm looking for. And that is, no under oath, only a Q&A, and then we get the questions in advance and they write the report two weeks before.


KING: Slight twisting of the facts. He has a point, I guess, about some of the Hillary Clinton part.

But back to the Bill Clinton part. Yes, the president did finally agree to go in under the threat of a subpoena. Under the clear evidence from his lawyers he was not going to win in court. The president went in, and under oath, he said a whole lot of things he had said in public were not true.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Look, and I think that's the -- they're walking a very thin line right now and I think the president has been telegraphing this strategy for a number of weeks now. This is clearly where he always wanted to be and this is clearly where he's wanted his team to go. It's why two lawyers are no longer with the team at this point and the current team's on there.

I think the interesting element, when you talk about winning the narrative or winning the political fight, winning a fight over whether or not to comply with a subpoena is something that would likely end up in the Supreme Court and could have wide-ranging ramifications for decades to come about executive power. I'm not sure you win that fight in the public sphere. And I think if you talk to a lot of Republicans, as Jeff was talking about, that's not a fight that they want to be having, particularly in the summer or fall leading into a midterm election.

So I think there's danger there in trying to put up this hard wall or hard line, saying this is where we're going to be and we're not going to move off this. They might win the legal fight. I think that's very much up in the air at this point. But is that a fight you want to actually have? Same with taking the Fifth, if you actually have a sit- down interview with the president.

I just think the most interesting element here is how they're trying to walk this line. I don't think any of us have a great understanding right now of what the legal implications are, except for maybe Rudy Giuliani ought not talk about Stormy Daniels anymore.

KING: Right.

MATTINGLY: But I think beyond that, no one's totally sure where it is. But I do think that everybody can acknowledge that there's a very fine line here and things can start to spill over and that's where things become very problematic.

KING: And -- SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And in terms of invoking the Fifth, I mean, again, he has the clear constitutional right to do so and we don't quite know the legal implications just yet. But it's the president himself who, during the campaign, said, if you're innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment? So I think if that is what happens, there will be some PR questions that he'll have to answer for.

KING: No question -- no doubt about that. Plus, imagine you're a Republican in a close race and this is playing out in September/October and this is all you're being asked about when you'd rather talk about the economy, you'd rather talk about jobs, you'd rather talk about fixing things here in Washington.

Here's the former U.S. attorney, Andrew McCarthy, conservative writer, writing in "The National Review," again, there's a political argument going on right now and a very important subtext in that is we all need to admit, even these people writing these articles, we have no idea what the special counsel knows. We have no idea of the evidence they have amassed, or the lack of evidence. We don't know. But Andrew McCarthy writes, how are we supposed to grapple with whether the president should be compelled to testify when we don't know what Mueller is alleging? What crime does Mueller want to ask the president about? And if there isn't one, why are we even talking about an interview, let alone a subpoena?

Again, I get the politics involved here, but I covered the Bill Clinton White House and conservatives were not rushing out then to say, Bill Clinton should not do an interview with Ken Starr until he tells him everything he knows. They were telling Bill Clinton to cooperate with the investigation.

ZELENY: Of course. I mean so -- I mean the lines here are fairly obvious, the political lines. I think, though, what you were saying earlier, Julie, the -- the president, in real time, likes what Rudy Giuliani says, but it's that feedback loop that comes back about 24 to 36 hours later. The president, you know, is watching this on television and that's when he doesn't like what he hears here. So I still think that Rudy Giuliani -- or I wonder if he's getting too much exposure on this. He did meet with the president over the weekend, so he obviously has his blessing. But I wonder how long that will last. You know, he seems to be fairly out there, talking about everything the president -- I don't know how long he'll like that.

KING: And people who know Bob Mueller, including people who are loyal to this president who know Bob Mueller, say the idea that you're going to rattle him is a joke.

DAVIS: Right. I mean, you know, right now Rudy Giuliani is mostly speaking in terms of hypotheticals, in terms of whether the president is going to agree to an interview, what he's going to do if he does go into the interview, and the potential that he would take the Fifth. When they actually get down to brass tacks on these questions, if Mueller does, you know, go forward with the effort to get the president to sit down and interview with him, there will be a technical legal fight, and it's only then that we're actually going to know what the president's play is and whether he is -- whether this is all just messaging and showing that they're tough and they don't want to cooperate, or whether this is actually a legal strategy that they're going to pursue to the end.

KING: Right. It's become kind of like WWE in the public -- in the court of public opinion. We'll see how it plays out as we go.

[12:09:53] Up next, guess what? Big primaries this week and the president picks a side in one crucial GOP race, sort of.


KING: Welcome back.

The president weighing in on one of this week's big Senate primaries today, urging West Virginia Republicans to not support a former coal executive who served prison time but is surging in late polls because of his anti-establishment message. The president saying nominating Don Blankenship would mean a Democratic win come November. More on West Virginia in a moment.

Indiana also has a Senate primary tomorrow. And like West Virginia, it's a rare opportunity for Republicans to pick up seats, to gain ground in an otherwise tough GOP midterm year. The president is neutral in this three-way Indiana contest, but very much a campaign issue. Three candidates running. We saw one of them campaigning last week. I was out there for a couple days. Luke Messer. This is his home county here, Decatur County. He is a Republican congressman, a member of the leadership in the House of Representatives. All three candidates, listen to Messer here saying, put me in the Senate, I will be the best, the closest to the president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.

[12:15:04] REP. LUKE MESSER (R), INDIANA SENATE CANDIDATE: You know who he's talking about, people like my mom. She worked at the Delta Faucet Factory, raised me and my brother by herself. That's why I back the Trump agenda in Congress.

You were talking about the fact that President Trump should get the Nobel Peace Prize for what's happening in North Korea. I mean North and South Korea combined. Listen, I believe the only reason why the North Korean dictator is coming to the table is because Donald Trump scares them.


TRUMP: Now you can see why the Congress might be so pro-Trump. Back in his home county, the president won it big, won it huge. A bigger margin in Decatur than he won statewide. Still, the president won Indiana by 19 points. He's pretty popular out there. We saw the other two candidates over here. This is Sullivan County, a

small rural county. You're out on the border of Illinois out here. This, a much more smaller, rural county. Todd Rokita, the former secretary of state, now a congressman, say, no, no, no, don't listen to Luke Messer. I'm much more like Trump, especially when it comes to building a border wall, standing up to sanctuary cities.


TODD ROKITA (R), INDIANA SENATE CANDIDATE: Open borders, amnesty, it must stop. I'm Todd Rokita and I'm running for senate to fight the politically correct politicians. I'm pro-life, pro-gun and pro-Trump. It's time to build a wall, make English our official language and put America first.

President Trump has allowed us, as a party, for the first time in a very long time, to be the party of the working man. You see the deep state bureaucrats. You see the Republican establishment. You see the entire Democratic Party against us and against this president. It's going to take a pro-Trump conservative fighter.


KING: The third Republican candidate, a former state representative, a businessman, Mike Braun, he's a big more subtle in selling himself just like Trump. He says, like the president, he's not a career politician. Like the president, he doesn't work in Washington, like the two congressmen. He uses cardboard cutouts to say, they're just the same. Listen to Mike Braun here saying, send me to Washington. I'm like Trump.


MIKE BRAUN (R), INDIANA STATE CANDIDATE: Now I'm running for Senate because I want to rebuild our country. President Trump was right, we need fewer career politicians in Washington. Folks who actually live conservative values, who aren't beholden to special interests and who put you first.

You know, I'm been a lifelong businessman, and conservative, an outsider and I'm fed up with business as usual in Washington. And unless we change that dynamic to get people there that live it in the real world, I think we can expect the same results.


KING: We count the votes tomorrow. It's interesting, a lot of Republicans, even those who support the congressman, think Mike Braun has surged in the end by being like Trump, saying, if you have a title, like Jeb Bush or like Ted Cruz or like Marco Rubio, if you're from Washington or you're a governor, you're the problem.

ZELENY: And he's like Trump in other respects. He was a Democrat until recently as well. It doesn't seem that voters are holding it against him. I guess we'll find out tomorrow, though.

But it's fascinating. It is a lesson. Obviously outsiders are going to have the upper hand in most cases in this election.

What I've been watching to see is the White House going to weigh in on this. In Indiana it seems like they are not going to at all, but West Virginia, of course, we saw the president weighing in this morning here. So he is keeping an eye on this. The White House is keeping an eye on this because folks on Capitol Hill are constantly reminding the president a Democratic House, a Democratic Senate, big trouble next year.

KING: Right, and I'll get to West Virginia in minute. But just what's striking in Indiana, I want you to listen. This was a Trump voter, Beth Henderson, she soured on the president some. She doesn't like the tweets. She doesn't like the Stormy Daniels story. She doesn't like the tariffs. She lives on a farm with her husband. She soured on the president some. But, again, you hear this again and again, this is a lesson to candidates everywhere, Democrat, Republican, independent. The mood, the climate that produced Donald Trump still exists.


BETH HENDERSON, INDIANA REPUBLICAN VOTER: That's what this primary is about, which one of these guys can differentiate himself from Joe Donnelly? And Mike Braun really is the only one that can. It's time again for, you know, to get someone else in there, new blood, change things up a bit. Get an outsider in there. Because Joe Donnelly is a career politician.


KING: You're running for office as a politician but you don't want to be one in this environment.

DAVIS: Well, and you could say that he's just like Trump, the way he, you know, he bills himself, but you could also just say that he is not an incumbent and I --

KING: Right.

DAVIS: In a year when it's very difficult to be a Republican incumbent. If you look at all of the polls, if you just -- if you are out there talking to voters, the environment is not good. They consider incumbents to be part of the problem. And to the degree that, you know, that sentiment propelled Donald Trump to office, yes, Mike Braun is like him. But I do think that this is going to be a broader problem for Republicans, even if it's not in this particular state or race. You know, they have to differentiate themselves in some way and it's a tough year to do that. And just being close to the president doesn't do that for you.

KING: Yes, and it's a fascinating dynamic too. You meet Trump voters who aren't necessarily Republican voters. I met a lot of former Democrats or sometime Democrats. A party, you know, people who split their tickets out there. Do they play in this race where Joe Donnelly, in Indiana, a venerable Democrat, Republicans really want that seat, especially when you look -- a lot of them thing the House is gone. They want to keep the Senate majority. [12:20:12] Let's move to West Virginia. The president tweeting this

morning this. He has stayed neutral in this race up until the day before the primary. The president tweeted, to the great people of West Virginia, we have together a really great chance to keep making a big difference. The problem is, Don Blankenship, currently running for Senate, can't win the general election in your state. No way. Remember Alabama? Vote Rep. Jenkins or A.G. Morrissey.

So the president saying no to one candidate and then saying vote for either of the other Republicans. Does that help or does that --

MATTINGLY: Yes, it --

KIM: There's a problem there because there's no runoff. I mean he's clearly telling voters, don't support Blankenship, but that supports the anti-Blankenship vote if you're saying choose Jenkins or choose Morrissey. But I'm not sure that the president or the White House was left with too many options here, because we've seen the problems that happen when he does weigh in on behalf of a candidate in a primary. Remember Alabama with Roy Moore.

KING: Right.

KIM: I don't think he had a choice there.

KING: And Blankenship, like Roy Moore, has taken off in the polls because he attacked Mitch McConnell, he attacks the Republican establishment. He says he wants to go to Washington and help President Trump. President Trump saying don't vote for Don Blankenship, but he's saying, I'm the most Trumpian candidate. I'm the business guy. I'll kick the establishment in the eye. I won't let them stall the president's agenda in the Senate.

Here's his statement, Phil, after the president came out today. The establishment is misinforming him because they do not want me to be in the U.S. Senate and promote the president's agenda. Tomorrow West Virginia will send the swamp a message, no one, and I mean no one, will tell us how to vote. As some have said, I am Trumpier than Trump, and this morning proves it.

MATTINGLY: I mean he's not wrong, I mean, clearly. And I think on the former point it's interesting that, of course, it's not the president's own fault that he decided to essentially campaign via 240 characters -- 280 characters against him. It's the people that are -- were around him.

I think the interesting element here, and there are several, particularly if you watch some of the campaign ads, is the tick tock of this. A week ago national Republicans felt like they were OK here. They felt like Blankenship had really kind of crated and they were OK with either Jenkins or Morrissey. I think some people prefer Jenkins. But it felt like either one of them comes out of this and we'll be OK.

And to your point, watching the numbers or hearing about the internationals that people have been looking at over the course of the last week and they are completely freaked out. And I think more broadly, does Blankenship winning all of a sudden put this off the table for the Republicans? I think the answer is no if you look at numbers in West Virginia or just in general.

But the bigger issue here and why you have people, as Jeff was reporting earlier today, like Mitch McConnell weighing in and saying, please help out on this one is, this is not unlike what we've seen in past cycles where if Blankenship wins, every single candidate who's on the ballot is going to be -- have to answer for whatever he's saying on a daily basis from there on out, and that creates problems, not just necessarily in West Virginia against Joe Manchin, but it creates problems all over the map. A map where Republicans are already having problems in a year where, once again, they were supposed to be on offense.

KING: Democratic groups are spanning to help Blankenship because they thing, great, let's get this because he went to jail, he's a former coal executive, a lot of safety violations at his coal mines. They think, let's have Joe Manchin run against him.

But it's interesting, if you're in politics and you have ambition, which is just about everybody in politics, you think, I'm going to be in the state legislature, on the city council, then I'm going to move up and I'm going to be in the Congress, I'm going to be a state attorney general, like Jenkins and like Morrissey, and then I'm going to run for even higher office. Now that's -- Trump has kind of blown that plan up. The question is, how long does it last? Outsiders always win. Everyone's always for change. But, still, there's a secret, the wink-nod of advancing in politics. And now you've got to think, huh?

ZELENY: I know. I mean and it is -- it's causing an issue for both sides, the establishment on both sides.

But I think there is -- you know, there are few people like Donald Trump. There are few people who have the celebrity and the, you know, the sense of this. He had been running for president for -- you know, off and on for the better part of a couple decades, as we all remember as a reform candidate essentially. You know, so he's not --

KING: That was the wink nod part I was talking about.

ZELENY: Exactly.

But, look, the point here is, tomorrow is going to be one more fascinating information -- or piece of information in terms of what the midterms are going to be. But look for the president, I'm told, to weigh in even more. He's chomping on the bit on the outside. We'll see what he does.

KING: The clock's ticking, Mr. President. They vote tomorrow in West Virginia, if that's the one you're interested in.

Up next for us, the White House now preparing backup options just in case because their CIA director faces another tough confirmation battle.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [12:28:19] KING: Welcome back.

Today we're told there is a backup plan in place, but Gina Haspel still in the fight to be the next director of Central Intelligence. Sources telling CNN national security officials and the Republican allies are preparing contingency plans in case Haspel falls short this week. She faces tough questions about her role in the CIA's enhanced interrogation program, which used torture in some cases to coax information from terrorists. Haspel, we are told, offered to bow out to spare the president another bruising confirmation battle, but White House officials convinced her to stay the course.

And today the president tweeted his support. Listen here. We have the most qualified person, a woman, who Democrats want out because she is too tough on terror. Win, Gina.

A tough fight. We'll see what happens at the confirmation hearing.

It seems, though, after a couple of weeks of will she make it, am I wrong in reading the tea leaves, the movement seems to be in her favor as we move into this week as long as she does all right at the hearing?

MATTINGLY: Yes, so I think the interesting element of maybe the last 72 hours, going back to Friday with the reporting, is that -- and some may be hearing differently -- but at least on The Hill, people feel like she's probably in a pretty good place. The committee dynamics are different. Joe Manchin is on the committee. Angus King is an independent who's on the committee. So it's different in that sense. It's different in the Mike Pompeo and the committee issues that he had. It's very apples and oranges to Ronny Jackson. A lot of people said maybe she's the next Ronny Jackson. This isn't even close to that if you compare resumes.

There are Democrats who are facing tough re-elections that are -- it's difficult to vote against a national security official. And I think the most important part, and I think maybe people aren't paying as close enough attention to this, Democrats with intel community experience or ties have been working very hard behind the scenes to bring people in favor of her. They believe that she is continuity for the agency despite what she did on enhanced interrogation, or as it should be termed torture, that she is somebody that should be atop the agency and that should help clear her path forward.

[12:30:05] It's by no means going to be easy and I think a lot of people have said, watch the hearing. How she answers these questions will actually be the be all end all. But heading into the hearing, I think she's in OK shape all things considered.