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Trump: No President Has Ever Been This Tough on Russia; Law Firm Investigating Sexual Abuse at Ohio State University; Kavanaugh: I Would 'Put the Nail' in Ruling Upholding Independent Counsel. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired July 18, 2018 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:05] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- 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. He understands it, and he's not happy about it. And he shouldn't be happy about it because there's never been a president as tough on Russia as I have been.

OK, thank you very much.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Let's go. Make your way out. We're finished. Let's go.

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Several thank yous from the president. The arm cross there is a tell. That's when the president is frustrated and annoyed and doesn't really want the media in the room. He wants them to leave.

Interesting (INAUDIBLE) a lot there but to the question of, is Russia still interfering or meddling, the president said no. His own Homeland -- his own -- forgive me, director of national intelligence just said the other day that he sees Russian activity, nefarious activity, including interfering in the United States as a flashing red light and compared it to the days before 9/11. So Dan Coats is on a very different page than the president of the United States, am I right?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes, and a very different page than members of Congress, governors, folks sort of on the ground in states across the country. There has been real concern and real signs already that Russia continues to meddle. And with an eye towards 2018, possibly with an eye towards 2020.

This is the president ideally, I guess, trying to do damage control. We saw that yesterday. But doing damage during the damage control. As much as he wants to move forward to -- whether it's talking about the Supreme Court or talking about tax, you know, tax cuts, and get Republicans back in the fold, it's hard to do that.

KING: And the president also saying that no president has been tougher on Russia. On there, you have to actually split the conduct of the administration with the conduct of the president. Because the Treasury Department has slapped sanctions. The secretary of state Mike Pompeo is tough when he speaks.

His intelligence team, like Dan Coats is very tough on Russia when they speak. They have done things from a policy perspective that are tough.

The president stood there the other day and said nothing when Vladimir Putin -- didn't criticize him publicly for election meddling, didn't criticize publicly for Syria. Stood there when Vladimir Putin presented himself as a voice of compassion for Syrian refugees. The president said nothing about Putin's role in creating the crisis. Stood there and said nothing when Putin criticized the U.S. missile defense system.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's the remarkable (INAUDIBLE) of this administration frankly to some degree the Congress as well which (INAUDIBLE) imposed a new strict sanctions regime nearly the last administration. One the White House wasn't very comfortable with.

But you look at what Defense Secretary Mattis has done. You look at their posture in Ukraine. You look at what they did in terms of action versus Russian contracts which the president alluded to where I think hundreds was the estimate were killed in Syria.

The administration's actions -- and this goes back to what Margaret was saying. When you go through the national security officials, their posture, tone, and tenure on Russia is the complete opposite of what you see from the president publicly. And therefore, their policy has mostly matched up with that.

Capitol Hill Republicans have done the same thing. Massive increases to defense spending. Trying to push the president to take more action in places like Ukraine and Syria when it comes to dealing with Russia. The difference is the president's public remarks.

And I think -- the thing that I'm always struck by people are like, pay attention to the actions, not what he says. When you're working in the world of international diplomacy, what you say and particularly where you say it, on a forum or in a format where you're standing next to the Russian president, historically matters.

KING: George W. Bush knew on 9/11 he could trust the people on the other end of the phone when he called and say he needed their help. If God forbid something happened on the other end, would the people in the other end of the phone trust Donald Trump if they needed his help? That is the price of this. Hopefully we never have to test that. But that is what happens when things like this happened. Jeff Zeleny is live for us at the White House right now. Jeff, the administration (INAUDIBLE) in political coverage tried to pivot away from bad days, bad moments, bad weeks, bad mistakes. Is that what this is?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, that seemed like it. I mean, the entire cabinet meeting which is done for a bit of a show. The president goes around the table to asked the cabinet secretaries what's they're working on, what is coming up. But the news of course, the most important matter for, you know, all of Washington and indeed the world is the president's comments on Russia.

And by saying quickly at the very end of that, is Russia still a threat saying, no, to me it sounds like he's back where he was on Monday. At odds with his U.S. intelligence community. At odds with the director of the DNI Dan Coats who said very clearly, as you said, the red light is still flashing. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican -- the Senate majority leader yesterday had a message directly to Moscow, you know, saying don't do this in the midterm elections.

So the president of the United States saying right there in the cabinet meeting saying that, no, Russia is not still a threat. To me, it's essentially perhaps in a kinder way but not taking the advice or the information from his own intelligence community.

[12:35:09] So we'll see if the DNI has a response to all of this and certainly, John, I think that Sarah Sanders at the first White House briefing in a very long time will be asked about that specific question today because all the evidence here in Washington from both sides suggests that Russia is still a threat. The president, though, said no.


KING: It's a great point, Jeff Zeleny, live for us. It's a great point because on Capitol Hill now, every Republican, Democrats, too, Democrats will rush to issue statements saying that's just simply not true. But now every Republican involved in these issues, including several to happen to be up for re-election this year have to now decide, do you agree with the president or you have to disagree with the president?

That is the policy implications, the strength of the western alliance, the trust between the president of the United States and key NATO leaders, whether they are the big fish like Germany or the little guys like Montenegro. That's matters in terms of geopolitics and God forbid, on big days in the world.

Here in the political sphere in the United States, though, every Republican has had to be asked the last few days, how about that Putin meeting. That went great, didn't it? Now they're going to be asked, president says Russia, stop meddling.

TARINI PARTI, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BUZZFEED NEWS: Yes, we've reached a phase in the Trump damage control cleanup process where in trying to clean up he actually makes more problems for Republicans. Now Republicans on the Hill are get asked about this. Sarah Sanders will get asked about this at the briefing. And this cycle will continue on the day when the White House was trying to shift to the economy and talking about other things moving on from Russia. Now this is going to continue.

KING: And I'm going to change the subject, let me take a risk because the Russia thing is the big thing. But there's another thing about this that I think is striking in the sense that there's always this conversation about the reality T.V. presidency. What does it say that he goes around his cabinet meeting and calls on Ivanka Trump, and good for Ivanka Trump, she believes in this paid leave issue. She's gone up to Capitol Hill several times, she's done some town hall I believe around the country. Now she's talking about it again.

But I'm sorry, we're 18 months into the Trump administration. Has the president twisted the arms of the Republican House or the Republican Senate? If this is so important to talk about at cabinet meetings, to get them to actually vote on it?

HENDERSON: Yes it's unclear, was this sort of like, you know, Ivanka asking for this platform? It's unclear why they wanted to spend such precious time giving --

KING: Well, they put her front and center sometimes when they want to look kind or gentler.

HENDERSON: Yes, yes. I mean, it would be helpful if she was spending time on reuniting moms with their kids and dads with their kids but never mind that. I think one of the things we know about this president, you mentioned the sort of television presence. And part of that is his rush always to declare victory. You know, in that a problem is solved.

He doesn't like the process of it, right? So the problem with North Korea is already solved. He essentially has said the threat is over. And it's the same thing he's doing here with Russia.

It's like let's hurry up and get to the season finale and then I'll take the next, you know, start the next season of, you know, sort of uncertainty and then, you know, two or three episodes into the crisis, I'll declare everything solved.

MATTINGLY: Yes. And the short answer to your question is, no, he hasn't twisted a lot of arms on this one. Look, Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill give Ivanka Trump a lot of credit for her work behind the scenes on Capitol Hill. She's up there constantly and they say that they enjoy meeting with her. The difficulty, and I think this goes back to trying to rush things and declare victory, this is a difficult policy for Republicans --

KING: It's a Democratic policy.


MATTINGLY: And Ivanka Trump had work with several Republicans trying to figure out some kind of (INAUDIBLE) split the baby type of way of doing this. And it's a very real proposal and a proposal that I think has some legs to it but it's difficult. And it's complicated and ideologically it splits from where the Republican Party traditionally is which means that you need the heft of the Oval Office to really try to push something through.

And to your point, at this point, the president hasn't focused on it. And it's not a grand policy. It's not in administration defining policy. But if you want to move something that moves diametrically in the opposite direction of where some Republicans are, you'll probably need the president's help on that.

KING: Or you have a proof that you want to do something, not just talk about something. That's -- that would be my question there. If it keeps coming up, give it a try. Make them vote, force it, you're the president, the leader of the party.

Quick break. We'll be right back.


[12:43:34] KING: Some new developments just in to CNN. The Republican Congressman Jim Jordan has now been interviewed by a law firm investigating what he did or did not know about possible sexual abuse at Ohio State University back when Jordan was an assistant wrestling coach. Sunlen Serfaty has the latest. And Sunlen, what do we know about this interview?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, we know that Jim Jordan sat down on Monday in Ohio with the investigators. This law firm that's looking into this OSU investigation and this is significant. This was something that they've long been talked about, that they want to do. The last two weeks since the congressman has been engulfed in this scandal, he said he had an intention to sit down with the investigators, and now he has.

Now keep in mind, these investigators are looking into the OSU doctor, Dr. Strauss, who has been accused by many athletes, wrestlers, many other athletes at Ohio State University accused of sexual abuse. This is not an investigation into Jim Jordan but certainly as we've been reporting, how he gets pulled into all of this is that many wrestlers said that while he was the assistant wrestling coach at the university in the early '90s that he turned a blind eye to sexual abuse that they say he knew about at the time.

There been a big back and forth between a law firm and the congressman in the past two weeks whether they contacted him or not, requested a formal sit-down interview for this investigation or not. At the end, it turns out that they sent that investigation request to the wrong e- mail address for the congressman.

[12:45:01] So that to say they have formally sat down this week in Ohio. And keep in mind, Jim Jordan has defended himself saying that he was not aware of sexual abuse at the time. He has only acknowledged locker room discussions defending himself and saying -- really questioning the motivation, planting seeds of doubt from the motivation of many of these athletes who have spoken out.


KING: Sunlen Serfaty is live on Capitol Hill, appreciate that important update. We'll keep our eye on that investigation as it plays out.

Up next for us here, a new video now destined to become a flash point in the big Supreme Court nomination battle.


KING: Welcome back. Some new CNN reporting today that gives important insight into the Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Two years ago speaking at a conservative think thank, Judge Kavanaugh spoke scornfully of the old law governing independent counsel investigations.


[12:50:05] BRETT KAVANAUGH, SUPREME COURT JUSTICE NOMINEE: I think justices of all stripes agree that (INAUDIBLE) is important but not an inexorable command. It's not inflexible or absolute.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you think of a case that deserves to be overturned?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Would you volunteer one?

KAVANAUGH: No. I'm going to say one, Morrison v. Olson.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They said that's the independent counsel statute case.

KAVANAUGH: It's been effectively overruled but I would put the final nail in.


KING: CNN's Manu Raju uncovered that video, he joins us now live from Capitol Hill. Manu, let's be clear first. The old independent counsel law is not the new special counsel law that Bob Mueller is operating under. But Democrats still think that makes a relevant point, correct?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: No question about it. They're raising significant concerns because you take this, in addition to his writings expressing skepticism about whether a sitting president can be indicted and it raises questions in the minds of Democrats about how he views Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

Democrats today reacting very strongly saying he should recuse himself from any matter involving the Mueller investigation if he were to be confirmed to the Supreme Court. And saying they plan to press him very aggressively at his confirmation hearing.


SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), MINORITY WHIP: In many instances, he has come down on the side of a strong executive who would somehow be protected from the ordinary investigation and prosecution that other Americans are subjected to.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: We're talking about a dangerous and potentially profoundly damaging appointee to the highest court in the land who believes the president is above the law and can, in effect, override the Supreme Court.

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (R), IOWA: I don't think it carried much weight at this point.


RAJU: And that last comment comes from the Senate Judiciary chairman, Republican Chuck Grassley. Republicans have a much different view about this because they know that the independent counsel is different than the special counsel. Independent counsel operates more freely than the special counsel. Reporting up the chain of command in the Justice Department.

But it's important to note, John, if that ruling were to be overturned, it could presumably make it easier to dismiss Robert Mueller as special counsel because they would not need a reason to dismiss him under the existing regulations which are -- could be constitutional because of that ruling which was upheld in the Supreme Court in 1988, John.

KING: Important reporting. Manu, appreciate it bringing it to us. And obviously Judge Kavanaugh is going to have to answer as he goes through this one-on-one courtesy calls which is the process now then a confirmation hearing. It gives Democrats more reasons to say, worries and doubts but you do math (INAUDIBLE) anybody.

At the moment, at the moment, the buzz in town seems to be that Kavanaugh, he got ways to go yet but in the early stages, he seems OK.

MATTINGLY: He seems in great shape when you talk to Republicans. Because as you noted, all they need to do is keep their conference together. That technically is the majority leader's only goal right now. If they get other Democrats, that's great but if they can get all 50 of their present senators to go forward and they feel comfortable right now at the early stages of where Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins are, those are kind of the keys there.

I think the interesting part from Manu's reporting is kind of underscoring what's the Democrats' line of attack going to be? You heard health care, you hear Roe versus Wade, you heard the independent counsel, Special Counsel Mueller. They're going to need to narrow that down and they're going to need to figure out what hits and what really kind of resonates particularly with those two Republican senators who they need to peel at least one of them off. I will say this, I've talked to a lot of Democrats over the course of the last 10 days trying to figure out, OK, what's the strategy here? How are you going to try and win this fight that's a very up clear uphill battle for you? And they make the point we're at kind of the first stage of the first quarter, right.

They don't have -- they don't have the documents. They don't have -- they have the 300 cases that he wrote while he was a circuit court judge. But in terms of his career, thousands, perhaps millions of documents that they want. They don't have that yet.

And until they get those, until they get a better sense of what issues they can hone in on, we're not going to have the best idea. But to your point, initial stages, initial returns when you talk to the majority leader's team and you talk to the White House, they feel good about where they are.

KING: Unless there's something we don't know that turns out or unless Kavanaugh somehow messes up in these hearings going forward.

Let me ask this, the special counsel question there, presidential power there is a big question that will come up in Judge Kavanaugh. We know that without a doubt. When he says in that tape there, he's talking about the special counsel law but he says stare decisis, essentially president is not inflexible, not absolute.

Is that enough to get Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins? The two moderate Republicans who care about Roe v. Wade to say while you're talking about the independence counsel there but on the broad principle of stare decisis, if it's not absolute, does that mean you're open to changing Roe v. Wade?

HENDERSON: Yes, and that's the thing, and they can specifically say, are there cases that you feel like should be overturned? He, obviously, answered it in that setting.


KING: That's a great point. Did he open himself up? He won't do that again.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He'll never do that again.

HENDERSON: He won't do that again but they can argue, well, you did it there, why won't you do it here? He'll -- you know, I'm sure did defer and -- they knew because that's what will happen.

[12:55:02] I think it's a sort of victory for Democrats is basically getting their base riled up, and it will be over Roe v. Wade, it will be over ObamaCare and possibly over this idea of presidential powers and hoping that that matters in 2018.

MATTINGLY: I would just add one quick thing and (INAUDIBLE) based on that. I'm intrigued as to kind of to your point whether or not the video is actually more important in that regard than actually talking about Morrison which I think there's bipartisan agreement was kind of a flawed decision to some degree. If that (INAUDIBLE).

KING: You'll sit with a bunch of conservatives and answer these questions. Why won't you sit with the United States Senate and answer these questions if that's the way they come at.

We're going to take a quick break here. Thanks for being with us today. More on the breaking news, President Trump says Russia is not currently targeting the United States. His own administration disagrees.

Wolf picks that coverage up in just a moment. Have a great day.