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Trump Misspoke with Putin; Trump Faces Backlash; Trump on Defending NATO Allies; Trump Meets with Cabinet; Trump Cabinet Meeting. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired July 18, 2018 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:21] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

New CNN reporting this hour about the president's Supreme Court pick. Brett Kavanaugh, two years ago, vowed to kill the old law governing special counsel investigations. That will be a flash point now because a Justice Kavanaugh could get a say if the new special counsel law faces a Supreme Court test.

Plus, the president now says he misspoke. And, of course he trusts American intelligence agencies over what Vladimir Putin says. The Senate's top Democrat, though, notes the reversal was scripted and says the president, get this, looked like a hostage reading it.

We will hear from the president again any moment now. He's holding a cabinet meeting at the White House as we speak. At the table are several top officials who told the president yesterday he made a mess in Helsinki and he needed to clean it up. That's the real story. Here's the fake spin.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: The president said, what's the big fuss? He didn't understand what the big fuss was about. Went back, read the transcript, looked at the clip and said, I meant to say "wouldn't" not "would."


KING: We begin there at the White House with today's cabinet meeting and our wait now to hear what the president says next about the Helsinki summit. We will bring you his remarks ASAP.

Watch to see if he's speaking off the cuff or again reading reluctantly from a script written by his damage control team. We -- will we revisit, for example, the difference between "would" and "wouldn't."


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word "would" instead of "wouldn't." The sentence should have been, I don't see any reason why it wouldn't be Russia, sort of a double negative. So you can put that in and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.


KING: This morning the tabloid covers in New York making sure to lampoon the president's cleanup efforts. "The New York Daily News" headline, lost in the words. And "The New York Post," whoopski.

You heard Kellyanne Conway there at the top of the hour say the president himself sussed out the error and moved quickly to correct it. Well, that's just not the real story. The president worked on the rewrite, yes, but only after hearing a barrage of criticism from members of his own government inner circle and from his outside top advisers.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Now, Jeff, you've done a lot of reporting on this. We're about to hear from the president again. Take us inside what seemed to be not only damage control day but a bit of a panic day -- panic mode at the White House.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, no question, this White House has endured a lot of firestorms, nearly all of them self-inflicted. But yesterday was a different matter entirely, largely because the criticism was coming from the most loyal of quarters. I mean "The Wall Street Journal" editorial page, Newt Gingrich and others. So there's no question the president had to try and clean this up.

But we saw what his mood was this morning, seven minutes before 6:00 a.m., a little normal, slightly earlier than we hear from him usually perhaps, that jet lag kicking in. He tweeted that people of higher intelligence are praising his performance in Helsinki. Well, John, that just isn't true. It's hard to find someone actually in this town and at this White House who believe he did a good job.

But I am told that he believes this is overblown criticism. He's not going to keep doubling down on it.

So far the early word we're getting from inside that cabinet room, which is still underway, from the pool reporters inside, that he is talking about jobs, the economy. He's going around the room talking with his cabinet secretaries, perhaps trying to change the subject here.

But the subject remains that for all the questions yesterday about the cleanup, John, that was from the press conference out in public. The bigger questions remain, what did President Trump talk about for nearly two hours with Vladimir Putin in that closed-door, private one- on-one meeting? That is the question the White House has yet to answer.

So there will be a briefing this afternoon. The president also giving an interview with CBS later today. That is the central question. What privately did they talk about? And we don't know the answer to that yet, John.

KING: I'm not going to risk holding my breath for transparency on that one.

ZELENY: Don't do it.

KING: Jeff Zeleny at the White House, appreciate the reporting.

With me in studio here has we wait to hear from the president, to share their reporting and their insights, Bloomberg's Margaret Talev, CNN's Phil Mattingly, Tarini Parti of "BuzzFeed," and CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson.

Let's -- as we wait to hear from the president, I want to go back and get all the reporting you have on yesterday in the sense that the president embarrassed himself. He won't admit that. Embarrassed his party. Embarrassed his team for not following their script and embarrassed the country.

He was reluctant. He originally thought, what's all this about. As Jeff says, he still thinks, to a degree, it is overblown. I'm told that the secretary of state, the chief of staff, the national security adviser told him, sir, you've got to clean this up. What got him to the top? What got him -- what got him to read that statement and even -- we'll play some of it -- even as he read it you could tell he didn't want to.

[12:05:07] MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "BLOOMBERG": That's exactly right. And it is a combination of three things. He had that flight home where he's able to watch television. Up to a certain altitude he can watch live television. He's watching Fox News. And even if you just saw the chyrons on Fox News, offering very critical coverage of what had just happened. Truly sort of astonishment. So he had that entire flight to begin to process the coverage and came home to find Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Republican leadership in Congress that usually keeps a step back, being very forward in their criticism, in addition to the usual suspects, John McCain, kind of the strong foreign policy people who have never been afraid to speak out critically of the president. And then you had the internal dissent. The internal advice coming from throughout government and that meeting with some of those top officials just hours before he eventually came out and spoke to us.

KING: And to the point, if you missed it yesterday, the president read a statement saying that he misspoke, saying that he meant to say "would" when he didn't say "wouldn't." I might have that backwards.

But if you go back and look at the president's tweets and the president's statements about, would Russia have intervened, does he believe Russia intervened, does he see any reason Russia would have intervened, to go back and look at the last year plus of American history, Donald Trump presidential history, it actually matched what he said standing next to Vladimir Putin. He had two interviews with Fox News right after the press conference

with Putin. If somebody on the staff said, sir, you messed up, there was a chance to fix it. He didn't. The White House had more than 24 hours to put out a new statement cleaning it up. They didn't.

Listen to a piece from the president yesterday. This little piece of it here tells you just about everything you need to know.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I accept our intelligence community's conclusion that Russia's meddling in the 2016 election took place. Could be other people also. There's a lot of people out there.


KING: If you watch that, he's reading, until he looks up, could be other people also. The 400-pound guy in his basement is not off the hook.

You know, that's what the president wants to say. His staff told him, you read this. Fix this. And he read it, but he also does that.

TARINI PARTI, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "BUZZFEED NEWS": This is how the president likes to respond to these situations. He digs in for as long as he can and when the -- when he can't take the pressure anymore, he tries to walk back. But even the walk back isn't a true walk back. It's very confusing. And then tries to walk back the walk back, as we've seen in tweets this morning. So this is it. This is kind of what we saw with Charlottesville. This is -- this is how he operates.


KING: And the -- and the moment, forgive me, the moment is what matters.


KING: He needed to perform. He's the president of the United States. The moment that mattered was standing next to Vladimir Putin, who needs to be called out publicly. No matter what you say privately, and we'll never know what happened. We'll never know completely what happened in that one on one meeting. But the idea is that you're the president of the United States, the leader of the NATO alliance. The moment was standing next to Vladimir Putin, not cleaning it up after.

HENDERSON: Yes, and the entire sort of atmospherics of that summit, and him standing there with Putin, was that Putin seemed to be the leader and Trump seemed to be the follower. Trump -- Putin almost seemed like he was the host of it, right? He went first in speaking. So it wasn't just this kind of narrow focus on would or wouldn't, which he tried to blame it on, which was essentially saying the dog ate my homework. It was everything about that press conference.

And in that sentence where he talks about, you know, would or wouldn't, he later says he has confidence in both parties, meaning Putin and Dan Coats. So that was the real problem, I think. And we saw him yesterday try to clean it up. And he -- he very much telegraphs, he's forced to read this statement and he reads it, you know, like I'm eating broccoli and then he says what he really feels in a very kind of free way and clearly telegraphing what he really feels.

KING: And the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer, essentially calling it a hostage video --



KING: Saying the president was forced to read that statement. Now, that's the president of the United States. That's disrespectful. That's the world we live in today.

But the White House seems to think, and the early reaction from Republicans on The Hill, most of it seems to be, OK, we don't believe this, but at least he gave us cover to say, let's move on.

MATTINGLY: An escape hatch. That's quite literally what everybody was looking for over the course of the 24-hour period. Look, you go behind the scenes. You can talk about their public comments. You can talk about their condemnations, the denunciations, whether by name or otherwise or the complete silence.

This -- what the president said was extraordinarily off-putting and concerning to Republicans on Capitol Hill. By and large there's 290- some odd of them in both chambers and I would say the vast majority are all in agreement on this issue.

However, there is also a recognition that this is who the president is and they want some kind of way around it. The interesting element, either to Senator Bob Corker, Senator Marco Rubio saying like, ah, well, it's something. So, like, can we please move on? And I think that's a key point.

I would also note that from the Republican perspective on Capitol Hill, and to some degree Democrats as well, at least in talking to them over the last couple of days, there were two audiences that they were most concerned about. You mentioned one of them, the NATO allies. But the other was the intelligence community. And that was Dan Coats. And that was concern that people would step down. That was concern that people -- that both parties trust and have confidence in would be so kind of discombobulated by what had occurred that they would feel that they had to leave. And I think those were really, more than anything else, the driving force behind the -- behind the scenes pushback that I know the administration was getting in phone calls regularly from Capitol Hill, but also the need to say something publicly. You need to talk about the allies, and your also need to talk about your intelligence community.

[12:10:29] TALEV: I think that's right. They --

KING: Yes. TALEV: I think if you had seen a Dan Coats' resignation or a threat of resignation, an Ambassador Huntsman resignation, something of that ilk, you would have been in a bigger crisis mode than we are right now. This isn't -- from a public policy concern or a foreign policy concern, this is not over from the -- from stopping the hemorrhaging. Whatever we saw yesterday seems to have had some effect.

KING: Right.

TALEV: Enough of an effect to embolden the president to actually undo a lot of it.

KING: And, to that point, I just want to bring in here, this is the former House speaker, Newt Gingrich. He's on Fox News repeatedly. He's -- I think he's overstating his personal role in this right here. But he's right, he's dead right about the idea that he believed the president made a huge mistake and the president needed to hear from friendly outside voices because, as the speaker says right here, this is not a president who says, I'm wrong, easily.


NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: I, frankly, think he could give a major speech and put in context.

I was as direct as I was the other day because I thought it was important to get his attention. He's not a guy, as you know, he's not a guy who likes to correct himself or likes to admit he made a mistake. And I thought this was a big enough one that he simply had to stop and set the record straight.


KING: Has he set the record straight, though, or has he just made clear he had to clean up parts of it. And even as he quote/unquote cleaned it up, he sort of added to the, I don't really want to be here, they're making me eat my peas.

HENDERSON: Yes, I mean that's the thing. That's -- that's why it doesn't seem like he set the record straight. I mean he -- I think he has set Republicans on a path where they feel like they can come out on television and talk about this. They -- he essentially gave them a very thin, almost transparent fig leaf, but they're happy to take it and say, listen, we can -- we can move on.

But we'll see what he says. I mean, as you pointed out, he sort of walks back and then walks back the walk back. And so we'll see what he says going forward. It will probably be more in line with, oh, it might be the 400-pound guy sitting on the bed in New Jersey.

KING: We'll wait. We're going to hear from the president any moment now. We know at this cabinet meeting they're discussing some other administration initiatives, including the good news the administration can talk about, about the economy. We'll bring you that. We'll see if the president takes questions about Helsinki or other topics. As we go to break here, a quick reminder, this is far from the first

time the president's critics have claimed, ah, is this when he finally crossed the line? It was three years ago today he said this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren't captured, OK, I hate to tell you.



[12:17:00] KING: Welcome back.

Today, another, a new answer from the president causing another and a new wave of shutters among western allies. The Fox host, Tucker Carlson, asked President Trump a question that other U.S. presidents have answered consistently since 1949. If a NATO ally is attacked, would the United States rush to defend them? The NATO charter says an attack on one is an attack on all. There is no ambiguity. But this president doesn't seem to see it that way.


TUCKER CARLSON, FOX HOST: Let's say Montenegro, which joined last year, is attacked.


CARLSON: Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that --

TRUMP: I understand what you're saying. I've asked the same question. You know, Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They have very aggressive people. They may get aggressive and, congratulations, you're in World War III. But that's the way it was set up.


KING: Score that as yet another Trump gift to Vladimir Putin. Montenegro is one of several smaller NATO members who report constant Russian meddling and bullying. Officials there, for example, say they have evidence that Putin's security service tried to orchestrate a coup, assassinate Montenegro's prime minister and then overthrow its NATO friendly, western friendly government just two years ago.

This is what happens when you have a president who doesn't really care about history and doesn't study history and doesn't read his briefing books. The question from Tucker Carlson was if Montenegro is attacked. Number one, if Montenegro is attacked, the NATO charter, Article V, is pretty clear. Number two, the idea saying they're an aggressive people. Well, if they attacked someone else, the NATO allies are not obligated. It's a defensive alliance. You can ask George W. Bush in Iraq. The NATO allies did not rush to join the United States in Iraq.

But what is that?

TALEV: I read the -- I read the original question. It is a softball question. It is a question that has an obvious answer, and then you just say the answer and you move on.

But the answer actually opened up a --

KING: Yes, the answer, if you've read your briefing book is, the NATO allies stand together. And, if you want to, that's a perfect opportunity to say, and Vladimir Putin, listen closely, you've been messing in this neighborhood, stop.

TALEV: Yes, absolutely.

KING: That's the answer.

TALEV: It is -- it is an opportunity to draw a red line because President Trump has tried to distinguish, you know, what happened with Crimea as something that happened on Obama's watch. He's much tougher. It would never happen on his watch. So here's an opportunity to make a point like that with a NATO country. And also it's an opportunity to thank Montenegro for their effort, their contribution towards the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. It is an opportunity to do a lot of things, none of which are what happened.


KING: Right. Right.

And if you -- forgive me, but if you're a Trump voter out there and you say, oh, there goes CNN again, or there goes the mainstream media again, listen to this voice right here. This is a man named John Bolton. He is currently the president's national security adviser. If you're a Trump supporter, if you've known him for a long time, he's a conservative voice. This is him when candidate Trump raised the same doubts about NATO and the NATO charter back in -- this is -- this is two years ago. Here you go.


JOHN BOLTON, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: And he offers this hypothetical, if a Baltic state is attacked by Russia, that he would decide then whether to come to their aid only after reviewing whether these nations have fulfilled their obligations to us. That is an open invitation to Putin to attack. The leader of the NATO alliance, the creator of the NATO alliance, shows weakness or uncertainty, it destroys those structures of deterrence that we worked for more than 65 years to build up.


[12:20:31] KING: Could not agree more.

MATTINGLY: Yes. So a shout out to the INSIDE POLITICS team for finding that because, no, it's funny because that interview and that sound came from a moment that when I was reading the comments last night, I immediately flashed back to the Republican National Convention in 2016 when the president sat down with "The New York Times" and made those comments. And I remember just being dumbfounded because I think Margaret and I were on the same trip with President Obama in Estonia and some of the Baltic nations are in that region where this is central to everything for them. The Russian threat is considered real. The alliance with the United States is considered the fabric of kind of what they do on the defensive posture. We have troops in those places.

TALEV: World War II architecture.

MATTINGLY: This is the architecture and infrastructure. And I think the ambassador makes a really good point, OK, what matters practically when he says this, when he just raises questions. What matters is the posture of the United States can or cannot create an opening for a president of a particular country to act. As he's done repeatedly in Georgia and Crimea and other places. And I think the real concern, when you talk about those countries, the Baltic nations, kind of the tip of the spear of the alliance, is that this creates a, yes, just, go ahead, consider it at least, open the door to it. And I think that's the real concern, at least that I've heard really from both parties.

HENDERSON: And it raises questions about what Putin and Trump talked about.

KING: Right.

HENDERSON: Did this come out in that private meeting?

KING: Again, right.

PARTI: Right.

HENDERSON: Did he say something (INAUDIBLE)?

KING: And I just want to bring this in. We're running a little long here, but I just want to bring this in. It also brings up, this is the parallel universe with Mike Pence in Montenegro -- in Montenegro last year.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My friends, Montenegro's (INAUDIBLE) proves that NATO's open door remains open. And so will it always be for those European countries that share our values, contribute to the common defense and strive to achieve security, prosperity and freedom for their people. And to all the leaders gathered here, let me assure you, under President Donald Trump, the United States will continue to stand with you as you pursue your European future together.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TALEV: Right. Because literally no one -- none of those top people who was in the president's orbit, not his national security adviser, not his vice president, not his secretary of state, not his head of intelligence, none of them believe what he said on that Fox interview.

KING: None of them share -- none of them share his views on this? None of them believe what he said on this. None of them believe what wanted to have anything to do with what he did in Helsinki.

TALEV: That's it.

KING: They're trying to clean it up. I will use a phrase that he likes to use, he's president, they're not.

TALEV: I thought you were going to say, we'll see what happens.

KING: (INAUDIBLE) people are saying that one.

Up next for us here, if he's confirmed, Brett Kavanaugh may one day rule on the legality of the Mueller investigation. Video uncovered by CNN might give us a clue into what he thinks about these things.


[12:28:00] KING: Welcome back.

We're about 90 seconds away from hearing from the president of the United States. He had a cabinet meeting at the White House. He went around the table at length asking people at the table, including his daughter Ivanka Trump, to talk about administration initiatives they are working on. They talked about the impact of tariffs on farmers. Ivanka Trump made a plug for her paid leave program, which has gone nowhere in Congress in the 18 months of the administration so far, but the administration says still a priority.

The president taking questions at the end, including about the Helsinki summit. As we wait to roll the tape.

It's an important moment. The president won't put it this way, but he made a mess. He tried yesterday to clean it up. He's getting mixed grades on the cleanup effort. So this is day three, if you will, of the president back on U.S. soil after a tough, tough week abroad.


KING: Insulting European allies. Then the meeting with Putin. And you're trying, as an administration, to sort of get back -- get the train back on the tracks and, as a Republican Party, you're watching this because every moment that passes gets you closer to the November elections.

TALEV: So, pivot to the economy is, you know, the -- and it's actually like a decent path. He's got a new communications director. They're trying to figure out, OK, so like it's Wednesday, what do we do now, right? And that's the path they're taking. So I think now you have kind of a split, which is, what is the

political path forward between now and the midterms? How damaging is this going to be? And then you have the actual like thing that matters. I know politics matters, but the thing that matters, which is like, when is the U.S. foreign policy? Did he actually agree to do anything with Putin? And what happened?

KING: Right. Let's listen to the Q&A with the president right now.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you so much. I do think so. Thank you all very much. Appreciate it. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Press, make your way out. Make your way out.

QUESTION: Is Russia still targeting -- is Russia still targeting the U.S. (INAUDIBLE)?

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Press, let's go. Make your way out. (INAUDIBLE). Let's go. We're finished here.

QUESTION: Senator Schumer said you will walk back --


TRUMP: Thank you very much, everybody.


[12:29:45] TRUMP: We're doing very well. We are doing very well. And we're doing very well. Probably as well as anybody has ever done with Russia. And there's been no president ever as tough as I have been on Russia. All you have to do is look at the numbers. Look at what we've done. Look at sanctions. Look at ambassadors not there. Look, unfortunately, at what happened in Syria recently. And I think President Putin knows that better than anybody. Certainly a lot better than the media.