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CNN Poll: Dems Hold 11 Point Lead Over GOP Ahead of Midterms; Pentagon Spokeswoman Under Investigation for Misusing Staff; Kavanaugh Meets Two Red State Dem Senators Today; Primary Takeaways: Progressive Left Rebounds; Bernie Sanders Wins Democratic Primary in Vermont; Pawlenty: I Don't Fit Into Trump-Era Politics; Sen. Warren Boosts Profile Amid Possible 2020 Ambitions. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired August 15, 2018 - 12:30   ET



LISA LERER, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, ASSOCIATED PRESS: Right. It's really interesting. I've been in a number of these Congressional districts and what you see is that Democrats almost don't even need to talk about the president. It's so in the ether. It's so motivating their voters. And he's -- the president is constantly reinforcing all the reasons why Democrats don't like him by himself.

So they can get up there and I've been to events where they don't mention his name at all. Unless, you know, maybe somebody asks a question. But in the stump speech, Trump is not mentioned. They talked about health care, they talked about immigration. They talked about -- they're able to talk about those issues while still getting the enthusiasm boost that the president is able to give the Democratic side.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And one of the Republicans' closing arguments has been the threat of Nancy Pelosi. You see it in a lot of the adds. This is a national poll so I want to be careful.

In your district, maybe it's working. So if you (INAUDIBLE) by national polling but if you look at it from a national perspective, the Republicans are not having success at least yet in selling this argument. Is it -- among Republican voters, is Nancy Pelosi extremely important or very important to your vote? Thirty-four percent say it is but 60 percent say it's moderately important or not that important.

So on the national level, Republicans have yet to break through if that is their closing argument.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And I think that to Abby's point, Republicans were hoping that, you know, a lot of the stuff they actually got done would be able to propel them. But the chaos that Trump has created, all of these competing narratives make it so much harder to run on that. And Democrats I think for a while were really at risk of falling in the trap of only running against, you know, Trump being so alarmed by everything he was doing and saying, you know, you have to vote for a Democrat because the world is burning down. They've sort of started to realize, OK, now we need to run on actual issues and that has proven to be more effective to them. And to the extent that they can, you know, turn that into victory in the midterms, that will be huge and it will start to lay the groundwork for what they want to do in the next presidential election because right now it has looked very chaotic on both sides. It hasn't been clear whether anyone can craft a narrative about, you know, why you should actually vote for one candidate over another versus -- God, everything looks chaotic right now.

KING: It does look chaotic right now. Again, the double-digit lead for the Democrats in the 23 seats. If they keep 10 points or more on Election Day they will get those 23 seats and more. You can (INAUDIBLE) and look at -- we live in two Americas sometimes. You asked Democrats a question, you asked Republicans a question.

So, here's the question we asked in our poll. The Russian interference probe. Is that extremely important, very important for your Congressional vote? Seventy-nine percent of Democrats say it's extremely or very important for them. Only 18 percent of Republicans say it's extremely or very important to them.

You look at these numbers and sometimes you do realize that at least on political questions, there are two very different Americas out there.

KAROUN DEMIRJIAN, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes. I think the most striking thing about that poll is that there's only a third of independents that seem to care about it very much at all. And that matters for both sides of the coin, right? Because you have Democrats that are pushing, oh, my goodness, look at this. There's potential collusion with Russia.

You have Trump who thinks he can sometimes get a gain frankly from, you know, talking about how it's a witch hunt over and over gain. If that's just a lot of wasted air on the people who are in the middle who you don't kind of have committed to either camp, then that's a lot of wasted air that people are campaigning on anyway or devoting time to in a campaign season when, like you were saying before, Sara, like there may be more ground to gain in focusing on actual specific issues.

LERER: But I will make the reminder that I feel like I often make at this table which is that we are only hearing 50 percent of the story on that investigation. So when I look at those numbers for independents, I wonder what happens once you hear something from Mueller. Whether it's a report or whatever it is.

Do we see a shift? We probably won't see a shift in the Republican numbers, but do -- but that's fine. That's baked into the cake for Democrats. Do you see a shift with the independents or not?

DEMIRJIAN: So will that happen?

LERER: And when does that happen?

DEMIRJIAN: It doesn't happen in a few months.

PHILLIP: I do wonder what those numbers are also showing is that for Democrats the Mueller probe is important because to Don Jr's point if Democrats take control of the House, they will impeach the president. I think maybe what we're seeing is Democrats saying this is important to me because it's important to me that Congress acts on whatever the Mueller probe finds.

I'm not sure what else there would be that would -- you know, they're not -- Donald Trump himself is not on the ballot in November. The Republican Party is.

KING: That number from Democrats is part of their thinking about the president of the United States. You know that.

Up next for us, President Trump wishes Maxine Waters a happy birthday. Guess what she wants from him as a gift.


[12:38:39 KING: Topping our political radar today, the United States government upping economic pressure on North Korea by slapping new sanctions on three shipping companies based in Singapore, Russia and China for violating trade restrictions with Pyongyang. The U.S. Treasury Department says it will continue to enforce those sanctions until Pyongyang denuclearizes.

You're looking at the big board showing the DOW down more than 200 points right now. That because Turkey ramping up a tariff battle with the United States. Turkey now doubling tariffs on American cars, alcohol and tobacco. That after the Trump administration said it would double U.S. tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum from Turkey. Relations between Washington and Ankara have gone sour after Turkey detained an American pastor Andrew Brunson.

President Trump sending birthday wishes in a backhanded sort of way. He tweets happy birthday to the leader of the Democrat Party, Maxine Waters. Waters of course has been a target of the president's insults. He calls her a low I.Q. person. The Congresswoman who's turning 80 today says she'll be thinking of the president when she blows out the candles.


SEN. MAXINE WATERS (D), CALIFORNIA: My biggest birthday wish would be that we're able to get a leader of this country who represents us. Someone that does not lie every morning when they get up with these tweets. I would wish that we could remove him from office and go about getting the kind of president that we can all be proud of.


[12:40:05] KING: Moving now to a CNN exclusive report. The chief Pentagon spokeswoman under investigation for allegedly misusing her staff. Dana White being investigated by the Defense Department's inspector general. She's accused of making staff members run personal errands and retaliating after some filed complaints. However, we need to be clear, at this point she has not been found in violation of any federal regulation. That investigation continues.

The Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh according to red state Democratic senators today, right now , he's meeting with Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly. Later this afternoon, North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp. They're both up for tough re-elections this fall in states President Trump carried easily. And both voted to confirm the president's first Supreme Court pick, Judge -- not Justice Neil Gorsuch.

Joining me now in Capitol Hill, Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju. Manu, what are the chances Kavanaugh's confirmation at this point as he starts to make inroads with Democrats?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, he's in a pretty good spot right now because there's no Republican opposition so far. Only one Republican is needed to block this nomination who (INAUDIBLE) if all of the Democrats voted no. Right now, there's no sign of that because Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, those two moderate Republicans have essentially been positive about the process so far. They have not yet met with him and we'll see what happens after these meetings with these red state Democratic senators because they are in a very difficult spot back home having to court those moderate voters but also worried about infuriating those liberal voters they need also.

So that's why they're keeping their (INAUDIBLE) dry and done. They're not allowing cameras in the room today to take their pictures with -- alongside this nominee. So it shows you the difficult road that they're walking on right now, John.

KING: Well, keep an eye on that one. And Manu, the Congress has been gone, the Senate now back, we're waiting on the House. In your conversations welcoming the senators back, I understand a senior Republican you spoke with had some concerns about the president using the term dog to describe his former White House staffer Omarosa. Tell me about that.

RAJU: Yes, that's right. Orrin Hatch, the president's pro-tem on the Senate, Utah Republican. Someone who is a very close ally of the president does not feel so good when he hears these words coming out of the president's mouth labeling a woman a dog when he called Omarosa yesterday. This is what Hatch said to me just moments ago.


SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: I'm not comfortable with that. And, you know, I don't think words like that should be used especially by the president. I have a lot of regards for the president. I understand how snotty some of this stuff is that they do to him, but even then, I think he has to rise above that.


RAJU: And one of the big concerns here, John is the fact that they are heading into this difficult stretch ahead of the midterm elections. Obviously the house could certainly flip. We'll see what happens with the Senate.

But nevertheless, they believe these daily back and forths like this, these big distractions not helpful to the overall message of trying to just keep the -- keep control of Congress and talk about things like the economy that they all could rally behind. Not these petty back and forths that the party is not comfortable hearing about, John.

KING: It's a very interesting as they come back because they'll be influenced by what they heard back home. Manu Raju, live for us in the Hill. Appreciate that, Manu.

Up next for us here, Democrats break new barriers in the latest primaries. An anti-Trump Republican who learns a tough lesson.


[12:47:30[ KING: Diversity is a big Democratic theme today as we sort through the messages voters sent in the latest big primary night. Ilhan Omar looks to become one of the first Muslim woman elected to Congress. She won a primary in Minnesota.

Jahana Hayes won her primary as well, and could make history as the first black woman elected to Congress from the state of Connecticut. And witness what happened in Vermont where Christine Hallquist got the most votes, became the first transgender candidate to win a nomination in a governor's race. She sees a giant message in her victory.


CHRISTINE HALLQUIST (D), VERMONT GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: The reason I'm in here is because of what happened in 2016. You know, in the world of physics we say for every action there's an opposite, opposing reaction. Well, I'm definitely a reaction to 2016.

If you look at the number of women that have jumped in, it's incredible as well. I'm going back to the fact that we are all reacting to what happened in 2016. You know, I'm hoping our children and our children's children will look back in 2018 and say, that's when we made history.


KING: It's interesting. A is that right? All the women candidates including the historic win by Christine Hallquist. She said what happened in 2016? She means Trump. She just says what happened in 2016.

PHILLIP: The divergence of the parties, I think last night really highlighted that just opposite directions that the two parties are traveling in. Democrats are becoming more progressive. Republicans are becoming not necessarily more conservative, but they're becoming more monolithic in terms of the makeup of the party. They've abandoned the sort of revamping that they thought they were going to need to do to do outreach to Hispanic and to African-American communities, and they're going toward a kind of white -- sorry, blue collar working class white rural America party.

And last night, kind of really highlights that. It was the party of Trump that won and the very, very left progressive party of the Democrats that won on the other side.

LERER: But I think part of what happened here also is not just about Democratic women wanting to, you know, stand up to Trump and his policies. When you talk to these female candidates, a lot of what they tell you is, you know, I never thought I could run and then I saw Trump and I said, well if that guy can do it, I certainly can do it.

So I think there is an argument there for a lot of people. That they saw someone who is not, you know, typically what you think of a president or of a, you know, a high level politician and they said, well, he took a shot. It was successful, maybe I should take mine. And that's a really interesting development.

MURRAY: Yes, and I think, you know, by everyone sort of electing candidates that go to their corners, this will give us a test of where independent voters are.

[12:50:04] If you're not entrenched in the Trumpian world, if you're not entrenched in being a super, you know, sort of leftist voter, where do you fall when you were given these two options ultimately. When your folks who are in the center are not the kind of people who are able to win these primaries right now, where does the independent voter go? And that's going to be a very important lesson for everyone as they wait for the next presidential.

KING: Let me stay in the Democratic Party for a minute. Bernie Sanders gets his name on the ballot in Vermont as the Democratic nominee for Senate. He wins the Democratic primary and then he says -- this is from the New York Times, the way they described it.

"A self-described Democratic socialist, Sanders plans to reject the nomination and run instead as an independent, according to advisers as he did in the Senate races in 2006 and 2012. He seeks the party's nomination in order to block any rival from winning it but then turns it down to protect the image of independents that he cherishes."

Now after the 2016 presidential run, his campaign manager Jeff Weaver said Sanders would stay in the Democratic Party. How do Democrats swallow this?

LERER: Look, I think Bernie Sanders got a pass for a lot of things in that Democratic primary in 2016. I suspect with the crowded field that we're anticipating in between 2020, issues like this will not be overlooked.

KING: And let's come to the Republican side. Tim Pawlenty tried to make a comeback. He's the former governor of Minnesota, he ran for president once, that didn't go very well. He tried to make a comeback, he lost the Republican primary.

Now, Tim Pawlenty once called Trump unfit and unhinged. The guy who won, once called Trump a jackass but then he decided like many Republicans to say let's forget I ever said that and embrace the president. Listen to Tim Pawlenty explaining why things didn't go that well.


TIM PAWLENTY (R), MINNESOTA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: People are going to ask me, what do you see in this result? I think, you know, the circumstances we live in the era of a different kind of leadership in terms of a President Trump and the like, and I just don't fit well into that era, into that picture.


KING: How much of it is that? How much of it he was a high-paid lobbyist here in D.C.? The president's own victory, let alone his impact on the Republican Party said voters are looking for things that are different and Tim Pawlenty is kind of the (INAUDIBLE) politician.

DEMIRJIAN: He's an insider. It's not the year for insiders. We haven't a time for insiders for a long time and he kind of -- it's very difficult for somebody like Tim Pawlenty who has been around for a while and everybody knows his resume. To pretend that he's different, he's not even trying because (INAUDIBLE).

MURRAY: -- not a particularly vibrant politician. So if you're going to test whether an insider can win, you know, again, Tim Pawlenty, very nice guy. He's not, you know, showing up and raring up the crowd.

PHILLIP: He was beaten in an upset. He was -- out raised his opponent. He had very high name idea -- I.D. He should probably have won this race in a normal year, but this is a different kind of political environment for him.

KING: A lot of Republicans out there think he was their only chance to win the governor's race. It'd be interesting to see if national money goes in there. Now, we shall watch that one.

Up next for us here, Elizabeth Warren insists she's laser-focused on the midterms. Her own re-election in Massachusetts, but watch where she's showing up. Is she maybe looking to Ohio?


[12:57:39] KING: Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren is up for re-election this year. And she insists she's not thinking about not running for president in 2020. One thing she is doing though is raising her national profile. Stopping by to see Seth Meyers just last night.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: I grew up in one of these paycheck to paycheck families. My daddy ended up as a janitor. My mom worked a minimum wage jobs. My chance in life was a $50 a semester commuter college. I grabbed it and hung on and I got to be a public schoolteacher. I got to be a college professor. And I got to be a United States senator. All because America invested in (INAUDIBLE).


KING: Now Warren is favored to win re-election but one of the Republicans hoping to oppose her is trying to raise his profile by taking issue with Warren's efforts to raise hers.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Elizabeth Warren is done being our senator. She's already running for president. Like too many Massachusetts politicians, she'd rather skip the Fenway Franks and instead eat Iowa corndogs.


DEMIRJIAN: As someone from Massachusetts, that is kind of sacrilegious to take the corndog over it.

KING: (INAUDIBLE) do you have any -- and if you -- and took that corndog and throw out in the trash. So John Kingston, the Republican, they're better not ever run for anything in Iowa.


KING: It is weird to see -- she's in a tough spot in the sense that she wants to be a national figure in the Democratic Party so she's on national television, Seth Meyers, but she says I'm only worried about Massachusetts. You can understand why people are suspicious.

LERER: I mean, that's what one says in such situations. There's no advantage for any of these people, and there are many, many, many Democrats considering running for president to say anything before the midterms. And you could certainly make the argument and some Democratic strategists have made the arguments to me that there's an advantage to wading into 2019 because of various reporting requirements.

I think the thing that makes Senator Warren particularly formidable, should she decide to run is her e-mail list and her ability to raise a lot of money. In a crowded field, that gives you a real edge.

PHILLIP: But I think whether she runs or not, that still becomes a major edge in terms of her ability to fundraise for other Democrats and to wield power within the party.

KING: (INAUDIBLE) nothing against Iowa corndogs but I'm a Fenway Franks guy.

Thanks for joining us in the INSIDE POLITICS. Jim Sciutto is in for wolf. He starts right now. Have a good day. JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Hello, I'm Jim Sciutto in for Wolf Blitzer. It is 1 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever --