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White House Aides Comment about McCain; McCain's Daughter Fights Back; Trump Supports Pruitt; Trump Berates Nielson; Kelly Considers Quitting. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 11, 2018 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:34] JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. It's a very busy Friday. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

President Trump meeting with U.S. automakers as we speak. He says they're benefiting big time from his approach to taxes and regulations. They don't disagree, but many of them also want the president to cut a new NAFTA deal and to end confusion over emissions standards.

Plus, the homeland security secretary leaves a cabinet meeting furious after the president berates her over border security.

And on the midterm campaign trail, a rally in one of 2018's safest places for the president, Indiana. He suggests voters looking to send him a midterm message should check their bank balance.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nancy Pelosi said yesterday she wants to end the tax cuts and raise your taxes. I said, tell me, is that like good politics? You know it's not about politics, but think of that from a political standpoint. I don't think her party was too happy. But you know what, that's her thought. That's what they want to do.


KING: This programming footnote, reporters have been brought into the room at the White House where the president is meeting with auto manufacturers right now. The president is talking to reporters. We'll bring you that when we get it.

We begin, though, with Meghan McCain coming to the fierce defense of her father last hour after a White House aide mocked Senator John McCain as he battles brain cancer. This week Senator McCain announced he's opposed to the confirmation of Gina Haspel. She's President Trump's pick to run the Central Intelligence Agency.

Well, in a closed meeting at the White House, an aide named Kelly Sadler told colleagues, quote, it doesn't matter, he's dying anyway. Here's how Meghan McCain responded last hour on "The View." (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MEGHAN MCCAIN, HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": Kelly, here's a little news flash. And this may be a bit intense for 11:00 in the morning on a Friday, but we're all dying. I'm dying. They're dying. We're all dying.


MCCAIN: And I want to say that since my dad has been diagnosed the past -- it's almost a year, July 19th, I really feel like I understand the meaning of life. And it is not how you die, it is how you live.



MCCAIN: I don't understand what kind of environment you're working in when that would be acceptable and then you can come to work the next day and still have a job.


MCCAIN: And that's all I have to say about it.


KING: That's all she has to say about it, she says there, pointedly noting she thinks Kelly Sadler should have lost her job over this. Kelly Sadler, to the best of our ability knows, at work today.

A source telling CNN that she did apologize to Meghan McCain, Kelly Sadler. Sadler and other aides have insisted this was a joke in a meeting that, quote, fell flat. But as Senator Lindsey Graham, one of McCain's closest friends in the Senate, puts it, Ms. Sadler, may I remind you, John McCain has a lot of friends in the United States Senate on both sides of the aisle. Nobody is laughing in the Senate.

With me this day to share their reporting and their insights, Catherine Lucey of "The Associated Press," CNN's Manu Raju, Michael Bender of "The Wall Street Journal," and "The Federalist's" Mary Katharine Ham.

Just beyond the pale. Words. Anything Senator McCain says in the public setting, he's still a United States senator, is fair game. Why? Why? The joke fell flat. Everybody makes mistakes. Every human being makes mistakes. Start there. But why would you even start here? Why would -- why would that come up?

MICHAEL BENDER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, I think the why is -- gets to what Meghan McCain was saying on "The View" this morning, this is the environment at the White House right now. This has been the environment in the White House for the past year and a half. This was the environment on the campaign.

It starts at the top. This is the -- you know, President Trump has said things that are just as disrespectful about Senator McCain. That trickles down. I can tell you also that the White House is frustrated by this. They thought that -- I mean this is also a leak, right? And I don't think this is a leak from someone defending John McCain. I don't think this is a leak for someone trying to protect John McCain inside the White House. I think this is another internal rivalry that's a junior staffer. And, you know, after a lot of junior staffers have been fired and a lot of -- a lot of senior staffers have been fired who have been blamed for the leaks, this is still going on, these sort of -- this sort of -- this backbiting, these knife fighting inside the White House is still happening.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: But it's not even just what they said, it's how the White House has handled it. I mean in the aftermath of this, you haven't really seen any real apology from the White House. I mean while this staffer did apologize to Meghan McCain, where is the actual White House apology? The president hasn't addressed it. He could have tweeted about it if he wanted to and the staffer -- there could have been some serious repercussions.

You're seeing, in essence, some ways of a doubling down of this. We'll see what Sarah Sanders has this afternoon. But in a lot of ways this just shows this White House just does not ever want to really accept responsibility, even when something as egregious as this.

[12:05:05] CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "ASSOCIATED PRESS": Yes, I think we have to look to the briefing today from Sarah to see if they offer us anything else. But so far we had a very bland comment from the White House last night. There's not been sort of a more robust apology. And there seems to be currently no indication that the staffer is going to be losing her job.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, "THE FEDERALIST": I mean it's a pattern, right? It's a dirty fight. It's an unforced error. And it's this bunker mentality that, in fact, makes things worse and makes you look like you are approving or even lauding the bad behavior. There's not a message from the top down, that this should not be the kind of talk. Look, I've had plenty of disagreements with John McCain on policy --

KING: Right.

HAM: And I can manage to just talk about those. And if you go up against the McCain family, you've got to know the entire family is going to fight back. And they have a platform from which to do so.

KING: And to that point, Cindy McCain tweeting out yesterday at Kelly Sadler 45, this is the staffer's Twitter handle, may I remind you my husband has a family, seven children and five grandchildren, who are dealing with a very painful episode in the family. Again, if you want to challenge Senator McCain's decision to come out against Gina Haspel, come out and debate the policies. If you're still mad at Senator McCain for voting no on Obamacare at 2:00 a.m. in the morning and throwing his thumb down, come out and say I think that was a bad vote.

John McCain's still in the public arena and he would be the first one to say anything he does in that arena is fair game. Saying he's dying anyway is beyond the pale.

What -- there's two different issues here. Number one, we can't excuse the individual responsibility despite the climate anybody works in. You are responsible for your own actions. And so Kelly Sadler should be looking in the mirror. And what we haven't seen is a statement from her, you know, I made a mistake, I'm sorry. We all make mistakes. Every human being makes mistakes. All the perfect people raise your hands. We haven't seen that. I made a mistake. I thought -- it was a bad joke. I never should have gone there. I'm sorry.

But the other point is, what about from the president? We'll hear from Sarah Sanders. That's what -- here's Senator Ben Cardin. Again, he's a Democrat. But John McCain is beloved by his colleagues, even those who disagrees with him, because of how he conducts himself. Here's Ben Cardin saying, why not word from the top?


SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: I would like to hear something from the president of the United States to say, you know, he -- he's the one that people take their direction from in the White House. The president should be saying that this was unacceptable under my watch. I will not tolerate such comments. But we haven't heard a word from the president.


KING: I mean to you point, Michael, the president has used tough words, unacceptable words, many would say against many people. He also has a history with John McCain. It goes way back to the early parts of the campaign where he questioned his war heroism and said, I prefer those who don't get captured. Senator McCain, for those of you who don't remember, don't know the history, was a Vietnam POW and was brutally tortured for years by his Vietnamese captors.

RAJU: Yes, and the president has never apologized for those remarks either. And I actually asked McCain about this some time ago and said, what do you think about the president not apologizing? He wouldn't take aim at the president at that point. He said, I'm more concerned about all the other prisoners of war who he's talking about and who he's denigrating with these comments.

And, look, McCain, as he's gotten (INAUDIBLE) with this illness, he has sent out a lot of very aggressive press releases, pushing back on the president on a number of key issues. We have learned also that the president -- that McCain himself does not want the president to attend his funeral when it happens. So clearly there's some feeling within the White House that there's no love loss with Senator McCain, even though he's going through this.

But, at the same time, you have to handle things like this in a diplomatic and respectful fashion. And that's something the president has a difficult time doing.

LUCEY: I think it's also important to note, though, that the president never apologized for those remarks but he faces very few political consequences for them.

HAM: Yes.

LUCEY: If you remember at the time there was a big hew (ph) and cry about would this sort of be the end of his campaign? And that didn't happen. A lot of his voters --


KING: Right.

HAM: I remember that clearly.


KING: That was -- that was one of the early things that (INAUDIBLE) certainly do Trump in.

LUCEY: Yes. A lot of his voters were quite happy with it.

KING: And there's no question, the Republican Party has changed. Donald Trump has changed it even more. But the Republican Party, John McCain, 2008 Republican nominee, the party has been moving under his feet and under all of our feet for years since and many people -- many conservatives now call McCain Republican in name only. They don't -- they don't even consider him a Republican. If you look at his record, yes, there are exceptions, but it's a pretty conservative record over his years of service in the United States Senate.

To the point that you have this White House staffer saying something that is reprehensible, off color. Even if it was a mistake, she came out quickly and apologized for it. And you have, on another network, where if you question the president at all, it is somehow viewed has heresy. This is a retired member of the United States military questioning John McCain's conduct when he was a Vietnam POW.


CHARLES PAYNE, FOX BUSINESS HOST: John McCain has said he was a -- he's not going to endorse Haspel also, in part because she believes in torture, that she thinks it works.

LT. GEN. THOMAS MCINERNEY (RET.), FORMER AIR FORCE ASSISTANT VICE CHIEF OF STAFF: John McCain, it worked on John. That's why they call him songbird John.


KING: Honor your service, sir, but I don't honor those comments.

Meghan McCain took issue with that, too.


MEGHAN MCCAIN, HOST, ABC'S "THE VIEW": It's a really ugly nickname.


MCCAIN: And what was the point we were making yesterday, that at some point when you're tortured, everyone breaks. That is -- that is how it works and that's how you get false information. My father's legacy is going to be talked about for hundreds and hundreds of years.

[12:10:06] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I agree.

MCCAIN: These people, nothing burgers.


MCCAIN: Nobody's going to remember you.



RAJU: Well, beyond that, it's like she's not even -- not even true despite the criticism -- I mean the comments which were pretty stunning that -- of someone to say that. I mean there's no evidence that the -- that McCain gave any information to the north Vietnamese against the Americans while he was brutally interrogated and tortured during his time in Vietnam. So that -- that itself --

KING: In fact, when they offered to release him because his father was an admiral and they thought they'd get a PR ploy out of that, John McCain refused.

RAJU: Yes, exactly. So I'm not even sure why he even had decided to bring that up in the first place. But I do think it's emblematic that there is a faction in the party that supports Trump that just does not like John McCain no matter what, no matter what he's going through right now and they don't like the positions he's taken over the years, they don't like his criticisms against the president, and they'll go to lengths like this.

KING: And so this all comes up in the context of John McCain has not been in Washington since last December. He's home in Arizona. There have been several times where we thought he might be about to come back, but he's had complications from his brain cancer and then the treatment for the brain cancer does amazing -- remarkably hard things to your body and he's been struggling through it. A lot of people wondering, will we ever see John McCain in Washington again. Of late the word has been more negative.

But listen to Senator Lindsey Graham here talking to our colleague, Dana Bash, who says, you know what, I went out to see John the other day and be optimistic a little bit.


DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: How was your visit with Senator McCain?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It was the best yet. He's stabilizing. Last time I saw him, he had just gotten out of the surgery and I was really worried about him, you know. He went through some pretty tough surgery in his weakened condition. But eating good, great sense of humor, great visits there Monday and Tuesday. Cindy is just doing such a wonderful job. And I am hopeful that he's getting stronger. And don't, you know, believe what you read about John McCain We're not talking about funerals. I'm going back.


KING: He says Senator McCain plans to come back. He also says they watched their favorite western and Senator McCain gave an R-rated commentary the entire time. For anyone who knows Senator McCain, that means --

HAM: That means looking -- yes.

KING: That's normal. That means he's feeling normal.

RAJU: Yes, indeed. I mean also the question is if he will -- it would be remarkable if he were to come back to the Senate, too. We don't know if that's going to be the case. But clearly he's trying to make the case too, he's not planning on stepping down anytime soon despite some questions about whether he will continue to serve.

HAM: And the bottom line is, Senator McCain, because he's a senator, is not immune to criticism for things he's done and voted on now or in the past, but it is fairly easy to keep it to those things. But apparently not so much --

KING: He would be -- he would be the -- he would be the first one to say that. He's issuing these statements because he wants to be in the fight.

HAM: Yes.

KING: He gets the fight part.


KING: It's just the tone of the fight.

BENDER: Yes, he's still in the fight. And the -- and the White House has leveraged his positions recently. His support for Mike Pompeo was a key data point when the White House was bringing -- trying to get moderate Democrats who like John McCain to support him as secretary of state.

KING: Right.

RAJU: And his opposition to Gina Haspel has not changed the (INAUDIBLE) in the fact that she will almost certainly be confirmed, too.

KING: All right. Meghan McCain firing back. That's why we started the program there. Interesting there. Also, we told you the president's in the room with reporters now with auto executives. He has just defended the service of his controversial Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt. More on that when we come back.


[12:17:26] KING: We told you at the top of the hour, the president of the United States meeting today at the White House with representatives of the American automobile industry. They are here, number one, to say thanks to the president. They like the tax cuts. They like the cuts in regulations the White House has put on. Some of them, though, also have other concerns. They want the president to negotiate, for example, a new NAFTA deal with Canada and Mexico, dealing with those two countries critical to the automakers here.

It also comes at a very interesting time inside the Trump White House. Seated two seats away from the president at this meeting was his EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt. Scott Pruitt, of course, under fire for spending at the agency, for questions about the cost of his security, for questions about why they spent tens of thousands of dollars on a soundproof booth.

So, as the president meets with the automakers here, one key question from reporters, do you still support, sir, Scott Pruitt?



We have, at this table, the biggest car manufacturers in the world, all represented by their top people. And, Marie (ph), it's nice to see you again. We had probably my first meeting was with you and a group and we've made a lot of progress in the last period of a year and a half.

We're working on cafe standards, environmental controls. We're working on how to build more cars in the United States. We have a great capacity for building. We're importing a lot of cars and we want a lot of those cars to be made in the United States.

I think what we'll do, just very quickly, because we're represented by so much media, we'll just run around the room real quickly and you can introduce yourself and the company. We'll talk for a couple of minutes. And we're going to talk privately. But we are going to, again, for the media, we're really talking about environmental control, cafe standards and manufacturing of millions of more cars within the United States. For Michigan, for Ohio, for Pennsylvania, for all the different places. South Carolina getting bigger and bigger. North Carolina.

So these are the biggest in the world, and we're going to be talking to them and we want them to build more cars in the United States. And also build them here and ship them overseas. We're doing a reverse act. And that's going to be something I think that's happening. And we see it happening. A lot of it has to do with the great tax cuts and tax incentives that people have been given. And we have other incentives (ph) coming.

So we appreciate you all being here, and thank you very much, everybody. Appreciate it. Thank you.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you feel confident today in Administrator Pruitt, Mr. President?

TRUMP: Yes, I do. Thank you.

QUESTION: So he's going to stay in his job?

TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, time to go. Time to go.

QUESTION: Are you concerned --


[12:20:02] TRUMP: Say it?

QUESTION: Are you concerned that NAFTA may adversely affect these automakers?

TRUMP: Well, we'll see what happens. We're negotiating NAFTA right now. I've never been a NAFTA fan, as you know. NAFTA's been a terrible deal for the United States. One of the worst trade deals in history.

We have some bad deals in this country. Between the Iran deal, NAFTA, Mary, we can look at any deal. They're bad deals. But now we're going to good deals.

NAFTA Has been a terrible deal. We're renegotiating it now. We'll see what happens.

Mexico and Canada have -- look, they don't like to lose the golden goose, but I'm representing the United States. I'm not representing Mexico and I'm not representing Canada. But NAFTA has been a horrible, horrible disaster for this country, and we'll see if we can make it reasonable.

Thank you very much, everybody.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, thank you.


KING: Most of those auto CEOs would disagree on that last point. They have enjoyed the relationships of the expanding business in Mexico and Canada under the NAFTA deal. But it's a sore spot for the president. Those negotiations continuing. And also you just heard the president right there say Scott Pruitt's job as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, safe for now. Yes, he said he has confidence in him.

But today, even more signs of strain inside the Trump White House and the Trump cabinet, after the president pushed yet another cabinet member to almost quit. A source telling CNN, the president exploded at his Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielson, in Wednesday's cabinet meeting. The president berated her in front of her colleagues for not doing enough in his opinion to secure the southern border, including not finding a way to get quicker progress on building the border wall. "The New York Times" reporting that when the meeting ended, Nielsen went as far as drafting a letter of resignation. One person close to the secretary describing Nielson as miserable, yet, as of now, that letter has not been submitted. We know that.

So let's start with what we know for, number one, how significant -- the president didn't use many words, but he did -- was asked with Scott Pruitt two seats away, and he said, I have confidence.

LUCEY: He said -- he said he has confidence. He didn't say we will see or we're looking at that or he -- he is well versed in vaguer responses when he wants. So I think we have to take that for what it is.

We do know that despite this sort of steady drumbeat of negative headlines, the president has sort of consistently expressed some support and appears to like the policies and the policy making there. But there has been concern also in the White House about, you know, the -- the -- the negative stories. And I think it's -- what's not really clear is how much longer that will continue.

KING: And a lot of concern -- a lot of concern on Capitol Hill. In the Senate they don't want to go through another confirmation process. But this is the kind of thing when you go home and campaign in your district, go home and have a town hall in your district, this is the kind of thing voters get, a million-dollar security details, busting through red lights to get to a restaurant on time, $40,000 soundproof booth. The members get feedback, shall we say, at home.

RAJU: It's interesting to see the difference between the way the president views Scott Pruitt and the way that a lot of his staff views Scott Pruitt, and the way members on Capitol Hill view Scott Pruitt, the latter of which the staff and the members are seriously concerned about him. They don't have the confidence that the president is expressing. But the president's the one who makes the choice, and that's why Pruitt's still in there.

KING: And to that point, we know from our own reporting, his chief of staff, John Kelly, has recommended that he fire Scott Pruitt. And the president has not done that.

Now, Kirstjen Nielson, now the homeland security secretary, used to be Kelly's deputy, first at Homeland Security, then when he came over to be White House chief of staff. Now she's homeland security secretary. And she left, by our accounts, the cabinet meeting the other day (INAUDIBLE). The president berated her in front of his colleagues. "The New York Times" says she drafted a letter of resignation. I was told by somebody that she thought, number one, it was inappropriate, the tone the president used, and that, number two, that she views them as just uninformed on the numbers. That this is an impulse for the president to keep saying, people are flooding across the border. We can show you some numbers. This is April border apprehensions. But you can look at these statistics just about any way you want. This is just April border apprehensions going back a decade and you see -- you do see a spike from last April to this April in the sense that in the first year of the Trump administration, border crossings went way down. And a lot of speculation is that across on the southern side of the border people thought Donald Trump, look at the campaign, let's be careful here.

But, historically, border crossings are at a pretty low number. Why is the president screaming at his homeland security secretary in front of her colleagues?

BENDER: Well, that's because this is who the president is. I mean just to sort of piggyback on a point Catherine was making before, I mean, for Pruitt, you know, the point on Pruitt is this is -- for what it's worth. And for what it's worth, I think, is in -- is that's -- the president's confidence is worth the paper it's printed on this afternoon. In this moment he's confident in Pruitt. White House staff, as Manu was saying, is -- it has wrapped themselves around the axle on Pruitt and are very frustrated that he hasn't been able to put these stories to rest.

But the president is confident in him right now, in this moment. I don't know how long that lasts. And I don't know how long that lasts with his confident in Secretary Nielsen. John Kelly --

KING: But look at what she has done. Look at her testimony on Capitol Hill. Look at the press releases coming out of the department.

BENDER: For sure.

KING: She has been out front for him pushing his agenda.

BENDER: Absolutely. And those numbers, that chart, that is why Kelly is chief of staff, basically. I mean there's no prior relationship with Trump and Kelly. It's those numbers, it's Kelly's presentations, it was the work he was doing at DHS. He was getting something done in the first six months of a Trump administration, or at least Trump saw some tangible results that he wasn't seeing elsewhere.

KING: Right.

[12:25:12] BENDER: And -- but as soon as that -- as soon as that chart goes down, that's when the president will flip. I mean she's right, she's complaining that he's not buried in the details on this. He's not. He's very much attune to what chart is in front of him and what the messaging --

KING: And so the boss vents a lot and that's just -- you just have to accept that as the price of admission if you work for him? And in the context of that, John Kelly very rarely gives interviews. So I want you to listen here. I love the Boston accent. It's a little personal there. It's not taking a side on the issues, just the accent. He did a rare interview with NPR this morning where we all know, it's well documented, everybody at this table has reporting that John Kelly's been frustrated at times with the president. Not that he doesn't love his job, but he's been frustrated at times with the president to the point of thinking, do I really want to be here, yet he says here, no, I've never thought of quitting.


REPORTER: You seriously considered leaving?

JOHN KELLY, WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: No. There's times of great frustration, mostly because of the stories I read about myself or others that I think the world of and wonder if it's worth it to be subjected to that. But then I grow up and suck it up.


KING: Taking one for the team there.

HAM: I mean with any of these staffing stories, it's hard to tell if one was coming out as some backbiting and circle fire from inside the White House because they are all engaged in that. Two, whether it's Trump messing with us or messing with the person.

KING: Or both.

HAM: And, three, like, what the confidence means or if this is just an impulse at that moment.

As far as Pruitt goes, look, I think there is one thing going for him, which is that it is a drip, drip story in a flooded news zone and so customarily that would be a problem, but it's sort of overtaken by events daily and then just sort of rears its head again.

For Nielsen, for what it's worth, her folks say that this letter doesn't exist. But I do think for Kelly and her, this is who are, you know, matched temperamentally. They're not necessarily matched with Trump temperamentally and they have a history in government and, you know, killed and qualified and experienced in these particular environments and he is a gut guy and he's yelling at them about his gut and not these -- not --

LUCEY: Kelly is certainly putting her best face on things in this interview, but we have heard again and again and again that the president has cooled on him, that the relationship is more strained and people are increasingly unclear how long he's going to stay.

KING: He thinks he's there through the midterm elections. We shall see how that one plays out. To that point, the art of the segue up next.

The president hit the road last night, Indiana, to give voters his vision of a midterm mission.