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INSIDE POLITICS

Democrats Seek to Delay Vote; Calls for Kavanaugh and Accuser to Testify; Investigation into Brock Long. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired September 17, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


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[12:00:18] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Hello and welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

The woman who says Brett Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her back in high school is willing to testify publicly. And the president's Supreme Court pick says he too is willing to answer new questions about an allegation he insists is false.

The allegation puts the nomination in significant jeopardy and key senators say a vote planned for this week must be delayed so the competing accounts can be investigated.

Christine Blasey Ford is under fierce attack already. Her story and her motives being savaged by Trump supporters on social media. This from a top White House adviser is good advice.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Well, this woman should not be insulted and she should not be ignored. I think the Senate is headed to a reasonable approach in that it seems to me, in speaking to a few senators, including Senator Lindsey Graham, that allowing this woman to be heard in sworn testimony, allowing Judge Kavanaugh to be heard in sworn testimony.

So let me make very clear, I've spoken with the president, I've spoken with Senator Graham and others, this woman will be heard.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We begin there, with a Me Too moment in the year of the women now threatening Judge Kavanaugh's nomination to the nation's highest court.

Christine Blasey Ford, a professor at Palo Alto University, tells "The Washington Post," Brett Kavanaugh, the would be 114th Supreme Court justice of the United States, physically and sexually assaulted her back when they were both in high school. The details as recounted by Ford are grim. She says Kavanaugh and a friend, both stumbling drunk at the time, pushed her into a room where Kavanaugh, she says, pinned her down. This is Ford's lawyer on CNN this morning.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DEBRA KATZ, ATTORNEY FOR CHRISTINE BLASEY FORD: The reason she felt that he might inadvertently kill her is he had his hand over his -- her mouth and she was having a difficult time breathing. And he is larger and he was pressing his weight against her and so inebriated he was ignoring the fact that she was attempting to scream and having a difficult time breathing. And she believe that but for his inebriation and his inability to take her clothes off, he would have raped her.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, Ford's attorney says her client now willing to tell her story in an open committee hearing on Capitol Hill. Judge Kavanaugh is at the White House today and he issued a new statement in which he again denies this account and also says he too is willing to answer new questions. What happens next is officially up to Senate Republican leaders. They were caught off guard this morning by Kellyanne Conway's, the White House counselor, you heard her at the top of the program, her statement that says Ms. Ford should be heard.

At this hour, it is still the official position of Senate Republican that the confirmation hearing will go on as scheduled Thursday. Expect that to change soon though. Judiciary Committee Democrats today called for a delay and at least one Republican committee member says the vote must not be rushed.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is live for us at the White House this hour.

Jeff, a big statement from Kellyanne Conway this morning. Silence from the president. How's the White House going to play this?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, there's no question the White House and indeed the president standing by Judge Kavanaugh. They do believe and they still support his nomination and are pushing for his confirmation. But it is uncertain at this hour, no question. He is still here at the White House, we believe. He's not scheduled to meet with the president himself. He's meeting with others here, you know, who are playing a role in his confirmation process here.

But the comments from Kellyanne Conway are certainly interesting. She intentionally, I'm told, is sending a message to everyone in the president's orbit and universe and supporters to not play hardball, if you will, say she should be heard. Republicans believe that the best opportunity here to have all of this, you know, essentially be heard and go away is to, in fact, volunteer to have a hearing.

You know, the stakes of this moment are far too high for the mid-term elections as well to simply degrade or denigrate this woman's story here. But, John, one thing, we have not heard from the president himself. He's been unusually silent about this. We are told behind the scenes, he's upset by all of this. He thinks that someone is trying to smear him and his nominee. But he has been absolutely silent about this. So the only word is from Kellyanne Conway.

So we'll see how this plays out here. Certainly private conversations going on between the White House and Senate Republicans. But now it is in their hands to reschedule the vote on Thursday or to have a hearing, John. So a high stakes decision. The judge is still here, but everyone at least here is being quiet and playing the waiting game.

John.

KING: Jeff Zeleny live at the White House. Jeff, come back if there's any update throughout the hour or later in the day.

ZELENY: Sure.

KING: With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Abby Phillip, Jonathan Martin of 'The New York Times," CNN's Manu Raju, and Mary Katharine Ham with "The Federalist."

It is remarkable, if you go back to what Kellyanne Conway said this morning, no heads up given to the Senate Republican leadership, which I'm told is not happy with that. But she speaks for the president. She's the counsellor to the president. She says this woman should be heard. Do not insult her. Do not question her. Have a hearing. Give Judge Kavanaugh his say. That's a more than reasonable position, one would argue. Will it carry the day?

[12:05:22] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It may. I mean this is -- a hearing could be -- it would be extremely significant. It would completely up end this nomination process. Depending on how it goes, it could be catastrophic for the nomination. Or maybe he alleviates those concerns. In other words, it's a huge, huge risk, especially at this late hour. If they were to have a Thursday hearing, that means they would have to happen tomorrow. And having a hearing of this magnitude in one day, very difficult. Otherwise, they could delay the proceedings further. But, ultimately, can they get the Republicans in line. I think Democrats almost certainly are all going to vote against, even those red state Democrats at this -- at this point.

But a key tweet right now, John, Susan Collins, just moments ago, said Professor Ford and Judge Kavanaugh should both testify under oath before the Judiciary Committee. So some of those key Republicans want that hearing to happen.

KING: Well, that's it. I mean but that math makes it over. She's not on the committee, but she would be a key vote if it came to the floor.

There is an option some people have said Mitch McConnell can skip the committee and bring it immediately to the floor. Really, 50 days before an election, you're going to have a 70 something white man deny a woman a chance to tell her story? That's not going to happen. It's not going to happen.

So if you have Susan Collins, not on the committee, says they both should be heard again.

Jeff Flake is on the committee. It's 11-10, correct?

RAJU: Yes. KING: One Republican goes away, then they can't move ahead with the vote and Jeff Flake, a Republican member of the committee, says, I've made it clear, I'm not comfortable moving ahead with the vote on Thursday if we have not heard her side of the story or explored this further. So Senator McConnell, Chairman Grassley may be trying to figure out -- get their ducks in order because they want to do this once. But I suspect, by the end of the day, we're going to have a delay and maybe a request for the FBI to investigate this.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think --

JONATHAN MARTIN, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": And perhaps -- and perhaps plans to move forward with a hearing.

KING: Right.

MARTIN: If you've got Flake, Corker and Collins now saying that, it seems like the only way this -- well, there's two things that can happen now. The first is Kavanaugh withdraws or he's pulled. The second thing is that they move forward with some kind of a hearing and they hear from Kavanaugh and they hear from this woman. And I think that that is the only way if they want to push forward with this nomination, that they will have to proceed (ph).

I will say this, though, covering the midterms for a living, it's my day job, the specter of a woman up there talking about a painful, searing experience with all the cameras on and a collection of almost all men interrogating her, that is not what the GOP wants going into the midterm elections. You've already got women in this country, many of them fired up, enthusiastic to a vote -- and a vote against President Trump. The possibility of that hearing in late September, early October, I can tell you from talking to folks this morning, that is not something the GOP wants to see going into early voting.

KING: I agree --

MARTIN: Keep in mind, early voting now starts well before Election Day, too.

KING: I agree with the optics and I agree with your point about the committee and I think one of the reasons we're having a delay here is that you have 70 something-year-old white men, no offense to them, who don't like their process being disrupted.

This is not about process. This is about a woman -- you can question the timing if you want -- who wants to come forward now and tell a story and she deserves to be heard. I think Kellyanne Conway, the most senior woman around this president of the United States, who himself has controversy when it comes to issues like this, did the right and, forgive me, one of the most reasonable things we've heard in Washington in quite some time, everybody take a pause, don't insult anybody, let everybody tell their story, then we regroup.

PHILLIP: This is the catch 22 that the White House is facing. There is the prospect that -- that a hearing itself could be really bad optics for them. But the prospect of not hearing for this woman and being seen as wanting to silence her can also be very damaging to them.

Even before Kellyanne went on television this morning, we were hearing for source that the idea that they want to go head to head with this woman is completely untrue. There was -- there is very little desire in this White House to have that kind of fight play out right at this moment. They don't view it as being helpful to Kavanaugh. I mean if you look at Collins and you look at Murkowski, these are woman who -- you don't want to antagonize them before you get to a floor vote. And I think people around the president are aware of that.

The president is doing his part by staying silent, but as Jeff pointed out, he's not -- he's never been a Me Too kind of guy. He's never liked this torpedoing his people. And he doesn't like it now. But I think he knows if he wants to get Kavanaugh confirmed, that this might be the only way.

KING: The president might want to pick up the phones or have someone around him pick up the phone to his friends at the Judicial Crisis Network, it's a conservative group that has helped the president, a, recruit and find judges, but also sell his judicial nominees. They are planning to start this afternoon with a $1.5 million ad campaign defending Kavanaugh, saying they're not going to allow a last minute smear campaign to destroy a good and decent man.

MARTIN: Right.

[12:10:10] MARY KATHARINE HAM, SENIOR WRITER, "THE FEDERALIST": But I think at this point she is named and on the record, which is the part that was missing before.

KING: Right. Right.

HAM: So she can come forward, if she wants to come forward. I think the likely conclusion is that she is heard in some way in some official form.

The reason you should question the timing is because it was dictated by Senator Dianne Feinstein, who had this information several months ago and I think has used it incredibly cynically by busting it out at this point, which, as Susan Collins notes, casts a cloud over both the accuser and the accused. He was under oath several days ago and she was there and people were there and could have asked him questions.

I do think when we're called publicly to adjudicate these things 35 years after the fact, which is very tough, I look to a couple of criteria on this kind of stuff. One, named accuser on the record, which we have, two, contemporaneous reports, helpful as in the Roy Moore case when details in those are verifiable, three, and four, not necessary, but also like an M.O. that goes on over and over again.

KING: Right.

HAM: These things were met several times over in the Roy Moore case and, nonetheless, he is in the Senate. In this case we have a named accuser at this point. I think the next step would be to hear more from her. And if you get more of those things, fine. But this is a -- this is a tough situation for the GOP and it's designed to be one partly by the timing and by the (INAUDIBLE).

KING: But the time -- there's no question the timing is unfortunate and complicates everything. Debra Katz, who's the attorney, an esteemed discrimination and employment attorney here in Washington, D.C., is the attorney for this woman, was defending Feinstein saying, you're right, a lot of her -- even her Democratic colleagues were not happy about the way this was handled. She is defending her saying that Ms. Ford was having a very hard time about whether to become public or not. And as word of the letter circulated, she said, then she started to get more inquiries and then she decided to come forward. So, again, it's a good reason to have a hearing so that everybody can ask every question.

This is Ms. Katz this morning, the attorney for the accuser, describing again in a little bit more detail of the party where Ms. Ford alleges Brett Kavanaugh assaulted her.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Was your client also drinking?

DEBRA KATZ, LAWYER FOR CHRISTINE BLASEY FORD, KAVANAUGH ACCUSER: My client had a beer. She was not stumbling drunk. The men were stumbling drunk. And one only needs to look at the writings of Mark Judge, who was the only person present, know -- to know that he wrote about how stumbling drunk he and other members of Georgetown (ph) Prep were repeatedly, routinely, this was part of their culture.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Mark Judge is a former high school classmate of Kavanaugh. He told "The Weekly Standard" he has absolutely no recollection of this, does not believe it happened. He said it would be completely out of character for them.

However, you have, by Ms. Ford's account, Brett Kavanaugh and Mark Judge who she says were in the room, a couple of other people at the house. One would assume that you could put a team of FBI agents on this and collect what is left in terms of the recollections and the direct interrogation within a matter of days, could you not?

RAJU: You could take longer than a matter of days. I think it probably would take some time to turn something around, which is one reason why there's some concern about going down the routes that the Democrats are pushing for a full-blown probe here. But maybe they could call at least some of these people who presumably knew --

KING: But isn't it -- forgive me for interrupting, but isn't it hard for Mitch McConnell, who says he has his reasons, who would not let Merrick Garland have a vote for a year. There was a vacancy. Wouldn't let Merrick -- to say, we have to put Brett Kavanaugh on the court by the first week of October because of some constitutional -- I'm sorry, that's a hard argument to make when you have a legitimate issue that now deserves to be fully aired out in fairness to everybody.

MARTIN: Right. KING: In fairness to Judge Kavanaugh, who says this never happened, and in fairness to Ms. Ford, who says it did.

RAJU: Yes, no question, that's a hard argument for them to make.

The question politically is, that if you let this hang out, an investigation that could take more than just a couple of days, and then a hearing to happen much later, how much does that hurt the nomination by all these allegations being out there? These members are going to get more and more pressure back home. Particularly the people like Collins and Murkowski, where they need their support ultimately. That's a risky bet. So this is why this allegation is so significant. It could very well derail this nomination and it's so unpredictable at this point.

MARTIN: And the challenge is that President Trump is not going to stay quiet. I mean if there's any sort of precedent that we can rely on is that he may be restrained in the first few hours of this kind of a scandal, but he's not going to stay quite.

And speaking of precedent, with this president, every type of these sort of stories that we've seen, he sides with the accused, with the man who's being the (INAUDIBLE). Whether it's Roy Moore, whether it's Rob Porter, his own former staffer, even Mike Tyson, the long-time boxer, he typically (ph) sides with the man. And those are not folks who are, you know, directly connected to him, like Kavanaugh is in this fashion, somebody whose legacy is sort of tied up to his. So I think that's a real challenge here for the Republicans is, it's not just what they do on The Hill, it's what this president says in the hours and days ahead here that could create big problems (INAUDIBLE).

KING: The math -- we'll come back to this later in the program, but the math at the moment gives them no choice. Jeff Flake on the committee. Republican Senator Susan Collins. Republican Senator Bob Corker. It's 51-49. There's your three. There's no way. The math is done now. They're going to have to do something. It's just whether they can investigate this in three days, which we all agree they cannot, or delay the vote on Thursday, which it appears inevitable.

[12:15:18] PHILLIP: And they also have to decide how they want to fight this. Do they want to fight it on the grounds that it happened so long ago, he was a kid, it doesn't have any bearing on him right now, or do they want to fight it on the grounds that it didn't happen at all? And I think that those are two very, very different paths.

KING: Right. His -- his position --

MARTIN: It's the latter. Yes.

KING: He's on the record twice now saying it didn't happen. So that --

PHILLIP: Exactly. But I think what you're hearing -- what I'm hearing from a lot of Republicans is some people wanting to have the other argument, which is to say, he was 17 years old. It was 36 years ago. It's not fair to hold him to that if there's no pattern of the behavior. KING: But we may be well past the point --

PHILLIP: That's a completely different role (ph).

KING: Past the point where Judge Kavanaugh can have that argument. He has twice, on the record, publicly denied this.

PHILLIP: Yes.

KING: So now you're going to put -- if he changes his story, you're going to put someone who lied twice to the American people in the middle of this on the Supreme Court.

HAM: Maybe he's not lying.

KING: That's a different conversation.

HAM: That's another possibility.

KING: No, that's what I mean. That's why -- that's why --

PHILLIP: Right. Right. I mean I think that -- exactly, yes.

KING: I'm not -- thank you, I'm not saying he is, I'm just saying for them to now shift and say this was 35 years ago.

HAM: Just a kid.

PHILLIP: Yes.

KING: He can't do that.

HAM: Nope.

KING: He can't do that. So -- all right, we'll come back to this story a bit later.

Up next for us, to the big storm. Historic floodwaters still rising in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Officials warning the worst could be yet to come.

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[12:20:28] KING: Floodwaters still threatening North and South Carolina today, three days after Hurricane Florence made landfall. At least 20 people have died as a result of the storm. The city of Wilmington has been so overwhelmed by flooding that access to the city now completely cut off. Federal and state agencies have rescued several thousand people stranded by water. The storm now downgraded to a tropical depression, but is still dumping heavy rains on the region as it moves and linters inland. Here's North Carolina's governor urging residents to stay vigilant.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. ROY COOPER (D), NORTH CAROLINA: My most important message is first. For many parts of North Carolina, the danger is still immediate. Floodwaters are rising as rivers crest. Please don't make yourself someone who needs to be rescued.

Again, stay off the roads in much of the state, especially south of U.S. 64 and east of Interstate 73/74. Many roads in our state are still at risk of floods. Roads you think are safe can be washed away in a matter of a minute.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: More than 20,000 people are stranded at shelters across the Carolinas while they await news of their communities and their homes. Authorities are warning those folks might be waiting a while because the worst could still be yet to come as the floodwaters continue. President Trump likely to see some of that damage firsthand. As soon as possible his campaign says he plans to travel to the Carolinas in the coming days.

Back into the room here.

So far local officials generally giving FEMA high marks for the response to Florence, yet there's been this political conversation here in Washington because of an inspector general investigation into the FEMA director, Brock Long, for his use of government cars, questions about whether he used those vehicles appropriately or not. And Brock Long going on television here essentially defending the president, or at least trying to mitigate the damage the president caused by -- as Florence approached, the president trying to rewrite the history of Hurricane Maria.

Here's the FEMA director.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BROCK LONG, FEMA DIRECTOR: There's a lot of issues with numbers being all over the place. It's hard to tell what's accurate and what's not.

You might see more deaths indirectly occur as time goes on because people have heart attacks due to stress, they fall off their house trying to fix their roof, they die in car crashes because they -- they went through an intersection where the stop lights weren't working.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: High profile, Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, today saying he wants the documents about Brock Long's use of government vehicles by October 1st. A pretty extraordinary request in the middle of Brock Long still dealing with Florence.

PHILLIP: There is no shortage of drama, even at a time like this when it should be really focused on one particular thing.

But Brock Long himself being in some trouble for in this administration what has become a seemingly pattern of officials not doing the right thing when it comes to public resources. But, secondly, in that clip that you just played, re-litigating the issue of Puerto Rico deaths, which is surprising when President Trump does it, but it's also surprising when you see administrative officials like Brock Long, who are typically kind of technocrats by nature, who should understand how to talk about these things in a way that doesn't make the problem worse.

And I think in some ways he was sort of trying to say, well, you know, if someone dies by walking down the street and getting hit by a car, it's not President Trump's fault. But that's really not his job. His job is to say, when anybody dies in a natural disaster, we care, it matters and that's why we, at FEMA, are trying to learn from the mistakes of the past.

I think this is sort of the trumpification of the whole government. It's Brock Long really following the lead of President Trump and exacerbating an already kind of difficult problem for this administration?

RAJU: Or is he trying to please the boss, an audience of one, and trying to defend Trump's claim, which a lot of people last week, even on the Republican side, said was indefensible by really downplaying the deaths and questioning studies about the extent of the storm. Brock Long -- there have been reports about whether or not he is in a sustainable position in his current job. So perhaps he knew someone was watching and made that defense, which was (INAUDIBLE).

MARTIN: Yes, that's what you have to keep in mind any time a Trump official or really anyone in politics goes on TV in this presidency is that they're speaking not just to a general audience, as we are right now, but they're speaking often with the president in mind. This president consumes a lot of cable news, Abby, is that fair to say do you think covering the White House?

PHILLIP: I think that's fair.

MARTIN: I mean like literally hours every day watching TV news. Which, of course, for us here at CNN, it's great. But it's just the reality of having to sort of analyze these appearances through the prism of what the response is going to be for him.

KING: Right.

[12:25:10] HAM: Can I just say, because I'm from North Carolina and I'm supposed to head down for my reunion this weekend, Bull City, go Pirates, but I may not make it because this thing ain't over.

KING: Right.

HAM: And I think that's where the creeping threat is. Just this morning in the triangle, which wasn't supposed to get hit eventually, they got tornados and massive flooding. So this -- the damage isn't even -- the immediate damage isn't even done yet. And so having your ducks in a row and not re-litigating old hurricanes is of the essence.

KING: Prioritize. Prioritize. Deal with the crisis at hand. Deal with the other stuff down the road. An excellent point. Thank you. When we come back, Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court is in doubt. The big question now, will Senate Republicans try to keep going forward with the confirmation vote or will they yield and postpone it?

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