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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump on Mueller; Intel Chiefs Rebuke Trump; Graham Sends Letter to FBI. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired August 17, 2018 - 12:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:00:13] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

President Trump vigorously defends stripping former CIA Chief John Brennan of his security clearance. The president says the reviews are tremendous and that he never respected Brennan.

And he suggests there's more in the works, singling out a current Justice Department official and making clear he is targeting people he views as responsible for the Russia election interference investigation, or rigged witch hunt, in the president's words.

Plus, nine and a half hours and counting. The Paul Manafort jury now in day two of its deliberations. Its verdict, of course, the first big courtroom test for the Russia special counsel. And the president doesn't hesitate to weigh in.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think the whole Manafort trial is very sad. He happens to be a very good person. And I think it's very sad what they've done to Paul Manafort.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We begin this hour with a defiant, energized President Trump standing firm behind his decision to revoke the security clearance of the former CIA Director John Brennan. The president says he's getting rave reviews and he loves a good fight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Security clearances are very important to me. Very, very important. And I've had a tremendous response for having done that.

There's no silence. If anything, I'm giving him a bigger voice. Many people don't even know who he is. And now he has a bigger voice. And that's OK with me because I like taking on voices like that. I've never respected him.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: As you listen to the president, it is clearer and clearer, he is directing his anger at the people he blames for the genesis of the Russia investigation. Also clear, if you listen today, that he has little interest in dealing directly with the special counsel, Robert Mueller. The president says he's done nothing wrong, so the special counsel should go ahead, wrap things up.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. Mueller is highly conflicted. In fact, Comey is like his best friend. I could go into conflict after conflict. But, sadly, Mr. Mueller is conflicted.

But let him write his report. We did nothing. There's no collusion. But if he was doing an honest report, he'd write it on the other side, because when you look at criminality and you look at problems, take a look at what they did, including colluding with the Russians, the other side.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN's Jeremy Diamond joins us live from the white House.

Jeremy, you were on the South Lawn listening to the president, trying to throw questions at the president there. He's clearly energized by this fight with John Brennan and others. What else did you take away from that?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: It's true, John, he is clearly energized. You know, it's been some weeks now since the president has actually come over to talk to the press before boarding Marine One. Recently he's taken to kind of ignoring the press and going straight up there.

But it was interesting to see how energized the president is about this fight and how he so closely links this issue of revoking security clearances with the Mueller investigation. We saw the president there when he's talking about John Brennan, saying that he's gotten a tremendous response for revoking his security clearance.

Also then very quickly shifting gears to the Russia investigation and talking about how it's a rigged witch hunt, a hoax. So it's very clear that the president sees those two issues as linked in his mind.

You know, the president also making clear that despite the criticism that he is facing, he is planning to move forward with additional security clearances, revoking those security clearances. He spoke in particular about Bruce Ohr, a current Justice Department official. So we're not just talking about former officials here, but a current Justice Department official, Bruce Ohr, who has been a frequent target of the president's ire at the Russia investigation, saying that he suspects will be -- I'll be taking it away very quickly, is what the president said there.

So I think, John, as you can see, the president relishing a fight here and making clear that he is not going to shrink away in the face of the criticism he has faced this week from members of the Republican, Democratic parties and, more broadly, members of the national security committee -- community.

KING: Jeremy Diamond live at the White House.

Jeremy, appreciate it.

With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Eliana Johnson of "Politico," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, CNN's Manu Raju, and Seung Min Kim with "The Washington Post."

Am I getting ahead of it here? When I listen to the president, I know their public line is, the president really wants to testify and his attorneys keep telling him, don't do that, Mr. President, it's a perjury trap. Mueller's conflicted. Comey's his best friend. That's not -- won't pass a fact check. They know each other. They're not best friends. But he should write his report. He should write his report. I took that as, I'm not testifying, move on.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No question. I think that -- I mean, it has been a lingering question if he's going to testify. That has been part of the PR strategy.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: That is not part of the legal strategy. That's been clear probably for several months, certainly in the last week or so. But the president saying right there, write his report, he's setting up for what he intends to say is a system that's rigged against him. So why would he sit down with him?

[12:05:05] But I thought, you know, his -- he seems to be almost, you know, urging him to do it. There's no way I can see now that he would sit down, regardless of the narrow scope which they've been talking about. Rudy Giuliani's been talking about it for weeks and weeks. It simply is not going to happen.

So, I mean, in my mind, it's over. The discussion's over. He's not going to sit down with him.

KING: He calls him conflicted. He attacks the Paul Manafort trial, which we'll get to a bit later in the program.

ZELENY: Right.

KING: Which is ongoing. The sitting president of the United States weighing in on a trial while the jury is in the room deliberating. Hmm, we'll get to that later in the program.

But the president connects the dots for you. You don't have to. He talks about John Brennan. He talks about Bruce Ohr. He talks about maybe revoking other clearances. All about who was there. Who he blames. Who he blames for the beginning of the Russia meddling investigation. And then he gets into Bob Mueller. James Comey, another one of the people on that list, if you will, and connects it all. Again, I want to get to the security clearance issue. But when you

listen to the president on the issue of the special counsel, I've never heard him more plainly give a hint that I'm done, don't think I'm going to answer questions, Mr. Mueller.

ELIANA JOHNSON, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "POLITICO": Yes, I think it's become pretty clear that the president and his lawyers want to force Mueller and his team to take this all the way to the Supreme Court. That's both a legal strategy and I think a PR strategy. I think they think it would look bad for Mueller to take this to the Supreme Court in an effort to subpoena the president and to try this both legally at the highest court in the nation and in the court of public opinion because they think it -- that Mueller would come out looking like he is flexing his muscles and pushing this case to the utmost.

KING: Right. Of course, it depends on the facts in the end, but you're dead right politically in the short-term, until we know what Mueller knows, the president's team thinks it helps them politically, at least in the short scope of the 11 weeks, 11 and a half weeks left in the midterm elections.

Let's come back to the security clearance issue. The president says he gets rave reviews. If you're like the president and on your DVR is all of Fox News primetime, it's true, the president is getting rave reviews.

He's also getting pushback, though, from serious members of the intelligence community and the military community dating back decades. A letter now, 13, I believe they're up to now, signed by William Webster, the former director of the CIA back in the '80s and early '90s, Robert Gates, who served Democratic, mostly Republican presidents, but Democratic presidents as well as CIA director, as defense secretary, on the national security council. George Tenet, Porter Goss, General Michael Hayden, Leon Panetta, General David Petraeus, James Clapper, John McLaughlin, Steve Capus (ph), Michael Morel, Admiral Haines (ph), David S. Cohen (ph). This is a serious list of people, many of whom -- many of whom, whatever your politics, are the people who kept us safe after 9/11, who were part of the effort to capture Osama bin Laden, and they are saying the president is wrong.

Now, to be clear, a lot of them think John Brennan has become too partisan.

ZELENY: Right.

KING: A lot of them would tell you they think John Brennan has become too much -- too much of a Democrat in what he says on television. But they say that's not the point. That this is America. He has that First Amendment right. And the president is sending a chilling sign when he says, I took his security clearance, now I'm looking for somebody else.

MANU RAJU, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, this was a remarkable letter. This is from members who served in the significant positions in the national security apparatus, the intelligence security apparatus under Republican and Democratic presidents. Most of them have been quiet, have not spoken out. This is something that they're really sticking their neck out and telling the president that he's, quote, stifling free speech.

But when the president says that he's getting rave reviews, not just Fox News, on Capitol Hill, Republican after Republican, for the most part, have been defending the president because a lot of them don't like John Brennan and they also don't want to get crosswise with the president. They don't want to be the subject of his ire in any way.

The question that I have is that if the president continues to strip other people's security clearances, what will the reaction be then from his party? Will they continue to stand by him, or will some start to speak out, like these intelligence officials are, because they're clearly concerned about the precedent this sets.

KING: I just want to note the picture you're seeing. That's Air Force One. The president taking the 757 today, not the 747. He's going up to New York. He has a luncheon with supporters, some other business while he's up in New York. We'll keep an eye on the president there, see if he speaks again, or at least watch him deplane.

I want to read just a little bit, Seung Min, from this letter. Again, some very serious people who say, some of them disagree with what John Brennan has said. They think he's too partisan at times, but they think that the bigger picture is the president trying to silence his critics, trying to silence somebody who spoke out and aired a political opinion.

We all agree that the president's action regarding John Brennan and the threats of similar action against other former officials has nothing to do with who should and should not hold security clearances and everything to do with an attempt to stifle free speech. You don't have to agree with what John Brennan says, and again not all of us do. To agree with his right to say it, subject his obligation to protect classified information.

The White House has not been able to say, John Brennan said this, that's classified. They just say, A, the White House says it's because he has a contract with MSNBC. They say he's on MSNBC all the time. He has said the president's behavior is treasonous. He has said some things that are beyond what the others have said.

[12:10:00] However, they have not been able to say that he has shared any classified information. And the president himself told "The Wall Street Journal," it's not about what he says on television. It's about the fact that he was there in the Obama administration when they started looking into Russian meddling.

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And it's -- I mean as remarkable and strongly worded that letter may be, I think we can all be skeptical whether that's going to have any influence on Trump himself and how far he pushes his new mission to revoke more security clearances.

We reported last night just how eager the president is to revoke even more security clearances. And he wants to do it soon. Remember, he -- a few months ago he was really fixated on his pardon power. He really enjoys looking like he's strong, that he has all the authority. And being able to revoke security clearances is kind of just part of that, you know, part of that M.O.

And this isn't the first time that the president has, you know, tussled with the national security establishment. But, again, he clearly sees this as a good political issue for him. And we see him basically confirming our reporting this morning by saying he is looking at revoking more security clearances. So this isn't going to be an issue that dies down.

And also just the timing as well. I mean we know that for Brennan's security clearance, this is something that was signed off on not this week but, frankly, three weeks ago. Sources told us that senior advisers in the White House had actually suggested or advised the president to come out with this news to deflect from all the other news going on, especially with Omarosa Manigault Newman's new book.

JOHNSON: Can I just make a quick point on this?

KING: Please.

JOHNSON: I mean the intelligence officials say that this is an effort to silence Brennan. This is going to do nothing to silence John Brennan. And I don't think the president intends it to. I think this will elevate Brennan. It will give him a larger megaphone. And I think the president's been pretty clear that he wants to go toe to toe with Brennan. He does best when he has an adversary and when he's punching somebody he disagrees with. He did it with lying Ted Cruz, with little Marco Rubio. And now it's with John Brennan.

KING: It's a great point you make. And to that point, I want you to listen to General Michael Hayden here. He's one of the officials who signed on to this letter, former CIA director. I believe he was also the director of the National Security Agency at one point. I may have that title wrong.

He says, forget about John Brennan. He says even forget about him. He says the risk here is the president will actually hurt himself because he needs to get honest advice from members of the intelligence community. General Hayden says if the president singles you out like this, strips your security clearance, he's worried people won't be honest.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEN. MICHAEL HAYDEN (RET.), FORMER DIRECTOR OF CIA AND NSA: The danger there is what the president has messaged to these 100,000 Americans who do this on behalf of the republic is that if you say things with which he disagrees or things that make him angry, he is quite willing to punish you. That's a horrible, even implicit message to the intelligence community. And, frankly, John, it's really a bad deal for the president because he needs these people to feel free to come in and tell him even unhappy news.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, critics will say these guys are just protecting their own institutions, if you will. I've known General Hayden going on 15 years now. Always found him to be -- again, he's involved in these conversations, some of these are political conversations, but he's a straight shooter who's a patriot. And that's who the president's picking a fight with.

ZELENY: No doubt. And he makes the point there, I think it's a good one, that this president receives his briefings in very different ways. And we already know he's at odds with his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats. So this definitely is an opening for someone -- the president likes to be surrounded by people who agree with him. He likes yes men. So this is something that I think feeds that.

But, overall, back to your point earlier, he does want an opponent, no doubt about it. He does want a fight with Brennan. And I think this is probably good for his base. I'm not so sure the president minds any of this. He's fine with this argument happening. But, you know, where does it go from here? It's certainly not good for the country.

KING: And in many ways, forgive the reference, but it's -- I don't mean to minimize things -- but it's partly like it's a pregame show or it's preseason football in the sense that until we know what --

ZELENY: Right.

KING: Until we know what Mueller knows -- the president has decided not to get in the motorcade and he's walking around here, so we're going to stay with it. I was about to toss to a break -- until we know what Mueller knows, we don't know how big of a deal some of these things are.

Let's watch the president as he moves over here. And let's continue the conversation as we do.

Among those not on this particular letter but writing a separate letter is Navy Admiral Retired William McRaven. He was responsible, he was the leader of the operation that brought bin Laden to justice, a special operator in the military, fighting the war on terrorism, had roles in Iraq and Afghanistan. He wrote this, as we see the president shaking hands there with some of the military personnel on the base where he's landed in New York there. Admiral McRaven writing this, through your actions you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage, and, worst of all, divided us as a nation. If you think for a moment that your McCarthy era tactics will suppress the voices of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.

[12:15:02] It's remarkable on several fronts. Number one, that a retired admiral would challenge the president like this, the president's decision to revoke John Brennan's security clearance. That -- and that we have so many now retired admirals or people with CIA director as their title involved now in a political fight with the president of the United States. RAJU: Yes. And the question is, does the president care? And it sounds

like he really does not care that these people are raising these concerns. Kellyanne Conway was asked about that this morning. She pushed back on it, was not that worried about it.

McRaven has also raised concerns in the past about the president calling the enemy -- the press the enemy of the people, said that he believed that was one of the greatest threats to democracy, trying to tear down the institution of the press.

But, really, this is all just an -- this happened -- this is an escalation from a fight that happened during the campaign. Remember all the national security officials from both parties coming out, raising some significant concerns with then-candidate Trump. The president has continually gone after the intelligence community from the day he took office, up until today. So the voices that are speaking out now, it's not really -- it's going to fall on deaf ears when it comes to this (ph).

KING: And not just the intelligence community. The law enforcement community as well. Whether it's the former FBI director, James Comey, or whether it's his former deputy, Andrew McCabe, whether it's his current attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who just last week the president was tweeting again that we need a real attorney general, Bruce Ohr, who's a senior career official at the Justice Department right now. So you've had a president who -- this is not normal. You can make of it what you will, but you have a sitting president who has attacked the highest level people and the institutions of law enforcement and some of the highest level people in the institutions of the intelligence community. Because this happens so often, we kind of think another day in Donald Trump's America, but this is far from normal.

JOHNSON: Well, I think it goes to this idea to the president's, that there's a deep state. And he's sort of drawing out this deep state. He's not totally wrong about it. There are career diplomats, public servants, and others who have spent a long time working in government who abide by a set of traditions and principles that the president simply does not abide by. And so when he does things like revoking the security clearance that is inconsistent with the traditions that past presidents have hued to, he draws out people who believe strongly in adhering to those principles and I think demonstrates that there is, you know, deep state may be the wrong term for it, but a group of people who believe strongly in tradition.

KING: It is --

ZELENY: He counts those principles as a negative, though. Those traditions aren't necessarily negative.

JOHNSON: Exactly. Exactly.

ZELENY: I mean Republicans and Democrats for years and years have abided by that.

JOHNSON: It's a bipartisan tradition, absolutely. ZELENY: Right.

KING: And he has -- he has every right. He won the election. He has every right to disrupt those traditions --

ZELENY: Sure.

KING: To say, I'm the boss now, and call them out. But he makes the distinction that this deep state is up to nefarious -- rigging -- Hillary Clinton's innocence and rigging -- trying to rig his guilt. That's how the president cared --

JOHNSON: Yes.

KING: That's a lot different than saying, you know, the State Department should move more quickly when I want to do this, or this agency (INAUDIBLE) do that.

We're going to sneak in a break. We'll keep our eye on the president there. It looks like he's about to get into the limousine.

When we come back, as Manu just noted, Republicans on Capitol Hill, normally you might expect a little bit of outrage, a little bit of caution when the president starts revoking security clearances. So far, the president seems to be in good standing with his own party. Might the proximity to the election have something to do with that?

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[12:22:25] KING: Welcome back.

If you were with us at the top of the program, you heard the president in very strong language make his case, as he has in the past, but quite passionately today, that the FBI, the Justice Department, the special counsel are biased against him, that they are continuing what the president calls a witch hunt because of a bias against him. The president getting a bit of help on that front today from a key ally on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, sending a letter to the FBI director.

It can be a bit confusing because Graham starts by referencing an investigation of Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat's campaign. It came to the FBI's attention that a Chinese man who was serving as Feinstein's driver might be acting as an intelligence agent. Senator Graham, in his letter, writes this, although I appreciate the FBI's diligence in identifying the staffer with potential ties to the Chinese government and providing Senator Feinstein with a defensive briefing, I'm deeply troubled that the Trump campaign was not afforded the same treatment when the FBI began to suspect that campaign's staffers had improper ties to the Russian government.

He's alleging here, or at least saying, he believes there could be a double standard and, in a way, again, putting the FBI back on its heels saying, why? RAJU: Yes, he's been taking these steps increasingly over the last couple of months. He's been demanding a second special counsel to investigate what he views are problems with the way the Russia investigation was carried out and also how the Clinton investigation was carried out. And it's essentially confirming or giving some ammunition to the president and his critics who have gone after the Russia investigation.

It's interesting to see the evolution of Lindsey Graham in the Trump presidency. He emerged -- initially was more of a Trump critic. He's increasingly been a Trump ally. He views things that have been done in the Russia investigation as improper.

But it's also interesting to see some of Trump's former 2016 critic become allies on Russia, like Rand Paul, for instance, someone who is now playing a role of an emissary of sorts with Russian leaders in light of -- in defending the president after Helsinki. Graham has not defended the president after Helsinki, but he is raising concerns about the Russia investigation. And a lot of Republicans are on the same side of the president.

KING: And is it because of new information he has learned or is it because he's worried in Trump's Republican Party that to be seen as a critic of the president can hurt you? He doesn't face a primary. It wouldn't be a potential primary until 2020. Because this is the same Lindsey Graham who says of Bob Mueller, he's a good guy, a good pick, we all need to let Mr. Mueller do his job. I think he's the right pick at the right time. I have complete confidence in Mr. Mueller. When he found two FBI agents had a bias against the president, he fired them.

That's a very different Lindsey Graham over the last year and a half than in this letter today.

[12:25:01] KIM: I think what you're going to be hearing -- I mean we've heard since the beginning of the Mueller investigation last year that Republicans on Capitol Hill by and large support Mueller doing his job. That's the message that we've gotten for some time. But as the investigation has gone on for more than a year now, you are starting to sense that impatience from Republicans. And they're telling us in different ways. You know they're -- they still say, look, we support the Mueller investigation. He should do his job. But they are signaling very strongly that they're getting quite impatient, and especially right before the midterms.

KING: And the Republicans control the House and the Senate. Will they -- will they -- or is this the right approach to it? They've brought this up in some hearings. They bring it up when Rod Rosenstein's in the chair and they beat him up a little bit.

But have they -- and please tell me yes -- have they or will they -- why not have a series of public hearings? They have the power. They have the committees. And call these people up to answer questions in a sustained, comprehensive way that gives the witnesses a chance to answer questions about these things, it gives the Democrats chances to ask questions about these things, and that lays it all out as opposed to, forgive me, sending letters that make a political statement but don't allow the public discourse for everybody to see.

JOHNSON: I mean I would argue that what we've seen of hearings on Capitol Hill is not necessarily more conducive to the public discourse than sending -- than sending letters.

KING: It doesn't have to be that way. It doesn't have to be that way.

KIM: But it is.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: I think, look, I mean, call me skeptical about this, the latest example here from Senator Graham, but this is someone who, you know, very close to John McCain and still talks to John McCain a lot. This is a Republican senator who's worried about his own politics in South Carolina. Make no mistake about it. I'm not saying he doesn't believe what he's saying necessarily about some issues of this, but he's trying to have the president's back here. It's the president's Republican Party and people are afraid to challenge him.

KING: Right, still --

RAJU: Yes.

KING: I will -- I will say -- I will say, again, the context of it makes you suspicious because of what's been happening in the politics. But once the investigation is over and it won't undermine anything, I think I would love to know, if they had information on George Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, as Senator Graham says here, might have some context with Russians, should the president, the candidate, have been given a heads up? Hey, now, he was given a -- we know he was given a heads up at one point about be aware Russia is meddling in the election. What we don't know is the specificity of that.

ZELENY: Right.

KING: Was anybody in the campaign singled out? Senator Graham seems to think not.

RAJU: Yes. And we don't know that. There was a briefing. We don't know exactly what the situation was.

KING: Right.

RAJU: There's also a suggestion perhaps that there was some informants that were have -- that were placed in the campaign. Graham doesn't necessarily make that in that letter, but other Republicans have. But the FBI has pushed back on that. But you continue to hear that level of allegation being laid out by a number of Republicans who are trying to side with the president raise -- who's raised concerns about this.

KING: Well, we'll wait for Christopher Wray, the FBI director (INAUDIBLE). We'll bring it to you when we get it.

A quick break for us. When we come back, Paul Manafort waiting on a jury now, day two of

deliberations in his trial.

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