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INSIDE POLITICS

Montana Senate Battle Comes To A Head in 19 Days; Close Call for Top American Commander in Afghanistan; AZ Dem Candidate Dodges Question About Being Proud of Dems; Rosenstein Defends Mueller Probe After Trump Calls It A "Con Job"; Texas Senate Candidates Spar Over Immigration. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired October 18, 2018 - 12:30   ET

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


[12:30:00] JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, ASSOCIATED PRESS: -- he's going as far away from any of the major metropolitan areas that have big Democratic bases and also swing Republican voters. He's going to the center of the state where you have more rural Republican voters and that is purely a base play to boost enthusiasm.

He can't go, though, to these areas where you do have the swing independent or moderate Republicans that actually are going to be really important to some of these Republican candidates.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: To that point, the Arizona campaign, Martha McSally, they're nervous.

PACE: Absolutely.

KING: They're nervous. They think, yes, you know, there's a Trump base in Arizona without a doubt, however, you have the Phoenix suburbs and the areas where you have a lot of, you might say McCain or Flake Republicans who are not so Trumpy.

ELANA SCHOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: What I thought was most interesting was the tweet mentioning Dr. Ronny Jackson. Because that was, you know, a lifetime ago in politics but clearly it was personal for the president.

I mean, Jon Tester is a really well-like senator. Members of both parties really like this guys. Clearly he has poked the president in a place that he -- is sensitive.

KING: All right, let me read the tweet. I'm sorry, may I jump in. Because it is great. It tells you -- the president is the most transparent president we've ever had. You know what he's thinking when he tweets, and here it is.

"Ever since his vicious and totally false (INAUDIBLE) in the highly respected White House (INAUDIBLE) for Obama, Bush, and me, Senator Jon Tester looks to be in big trouble in the great state of Montana. He behaved worst than the Democratic mob did with justice K."

So Justice Kavanaugh has a new short hand there. I'm sorry I interrupted. SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, BLOOMBERG: No, no, no. This is really testing the boundaries of Montana voters, the willingness to split the ticket.

In 2012, Jon Tester won by I think 18,000 votes when President Obama lost that state in a landslide. President Trump won that by an even larger margin. So clearly Tester has shown an ability to win over Montana voters who traditionally volt Republican. I think President Trump has also, you know -- he wants to push them away from Tester as much as possible.

KING: And Tester has tried to run as the authentic Montanan here. (INAUDIBLE) a nickname for Rosendale, they called him Maryland Matt. He has a business interest in Maryland.

That is the flavor here on the edge. Jon Tester says I'm with you, the National Republican Party trying to poke him back a little bit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JON TESTER (D), MONTANA Senate CANDIDATE: I come home nearly every weekend, traveling thousands of miles across this great state listening to Montanans' concerns. And when I'm there, I'm (INAUDIBLE) defending Montana. These out-of-state dark money groups have a lot of goal, lecturing Montanans about what's important.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You deserve a senator who doesn't just talk like he's from Montana. You deserve a senator who actually votes like he's from Montana.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They want to impeach President Trump and Justice Kavanaugh. Will Tester stand with us or with them? You already know the answer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Tester made clear he's not going to impeach -- he's not in the mood to impeach the president but if you're the Republicans that's what you try to do.

SCHOR: And it's important to remember, even Republican senators were saying they were fine with the way Jon Tester handled the Ronny Jackson issue, right? I mean, Chairman Isakson with the Veterans Affairs Committee said I kind of understand where he's coming from. That doesn't matter to the president.

KING: That Jackson was not going to get through but --

SCHOR: He wasn't. Republicans were opposed.

KING: But the president takes it personally. He likes fights.

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, SIRIUSXM: Yes. And the way they cast the ad against Tester there is also is basically come defend the president. The president is under attack. It adds to the president's rhetoric which is (INAUDIBLE). Criminal aliens coming (INAUDIBLE) to really hyperbolic rhetoric. It's all about that because they don't have the same choice probably. They don't have the same Hillary versus Donald Trump and so they're painting the president as basically a victim or potential victim of the Democrats.

KING: Right. And they have questions about the caliber of their candidate and so they're trying to make it Tester versus Trump than supposed of Tester versus Rosendale which is smart politically.

Up next for us, the Democratic candidate in a key Senate race was asked a simple question, are you a proud Democrat?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:38:06] KING: A close call today for the American general in charge of all U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The U.S. military spokesman says two Americans were wounded in Kandahar after a gunman opened fire following a security meeting. The Taliban says it was behind that attack.

The Pentagon also confirmed that Scott Miller, the U.S. army general in charge of the Afghanistan mission attended that meeting but was not injured.

CNN's Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon. Barbara, sounds like a remarkably tragic event and a close call for the American general.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: A close call that maybe was just a little too close, John. General Miller with long experience in special operations. Now the head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan was attending a security meeting in and Kandahar. On the way out of that meeting, an Afghan opened fire on them. General Miller not injured but two were. Two officials standing quite close to General Miller.

We know now that one of them was another senior U.S. military officer said to be in stable condition. He is not been publicly named because they are awaiting family notification, said by the military to be in stable condition.

Two others were also wounded. These are the people that stand very close to a top commander when they are out in the field. General Miller doing exactly what so many senior commanders have done over the years, going into the field, meeting with local forces, this time in Kandahar, Afghanistan, taking many of the same risks that the troops take every single day in places like Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq and many places around the world.

You know, no one would ever suggest that the president of the United States take those risks. Nobody would let a president take those risks. But it is worth remembering as Donald Trump comes up on two years in office, he is a commander-in-chief who has yet to visit his troops in the war zones.

John? KING: Saying the other day that he's busy, that he doesn't think that's necessary. Barbara Starr, appreciate the reporting there. Keep us posted as this one unfolds.

[12:40:02] Now turning to our political radar, one of the key races to watch is the tight House race here across the river in Virginia. President Trump endorsing Congressman Dave Brat in a tweet, touting the congressman's stance on the border, crime, and the military. Brat also gaining some attention for an event last night where he spoke to incarcerated addicts. Listen to how the congressman finds a way to compare his difficulties to theirs.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

REP. DAVE BRAT (R), VIRGINIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: I got $5 million worth of negative ads going at me. How do you think I'm feeling? Nothing is easy for anybody.

And you got it harder, I'm not dismissing that. You got some fierce, real anxiety coming up with a job and whatever. And what you've to find is a support system.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

KING: In Arizona, the Democratic Senate candidate, Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema has a message for her own party, do better. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Are you a Democrat?

KYRSTEN SINEMA (D), ARIZONA SENATE CANDIDATE: I am.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Proud Democrat?

SINEMA: My gosh, it's hard to say proud, I don't know -- I'm not sure that people are even proud of parties anymore because I feel like the parties are, not doing a good job. So I would say that I'm a proud Arizonan.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Ouch. Sinema is running a tight race against the Republican Congresswoman Martha McSally in Arizona. Not so proud? What do you make of that?

SCHOR: To put this in context though, Sinema is also getting slammed from the right for comments about her state being crazy. So you notice how she said I'm a proud Arizonan. That's a nice way to answer the other big hit that's going up against her which is that she doesn't like her own state.

But another thing to remember is, she said back in July she wouldn't support Chuck Schumer for majority political leader. This is part of her political brand. KING: Independent to the top state but, yes, OK. All right, after the election is going to be just as much fun as the election while both parties try to figure out what they got here.

Up next, the man who oversees the special counsel probe gives an interview that probably won't sit well with the boss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:46:08] KING: Welcome back. I wonder if the president read the Wall Street Journal today. In a fresh reminder, the man who approves everything the special counsel does disagrees with the president, his boss, when the president calls the Russia investigation a witch-hunt.

The Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in an interview with the journal he is, quote, appropriately managing the investigation that the president calls a con job. This is the deputy attorney general, "I committed I would ensure the investigation was appropriate and independent and reached the right result whatever it may be."

Rosenstein told the Wall Street Journal, "I believe I have been faithful to that."

OK. But why? You know, it's not unexpected that he feels he's doing his job and doing it right and he stood up to the president and stood up to others many times and said leave Bob Mueller alone. He's doing the right thing. Why talk about it?

PACE: It's a little bit of a mystery actually considering the situation he was just in with the president where it appears he was on the brink of either being fired or perhaps quitting over reporting that he had suggested that the president should be wiretapped or that he should get the cabinet together to pursue pushing the president out of office. So it's curious that he's out there kind of pushing this knowing how the president feels about the investigation.

I do think that this is something that both Democrats and Republicans will be pleased to hear though because there is some concern that the investigation could be undermined in some way or that Rosenstein could feel pressure to do something to win back favor with the president.

KING: Democrats and Republicans not in the House Freedom Caucus.

PACE: True.

KING: Rosenstein has many critics in that group. This is -- again, you mentioned the point the president is supposed to have a meeting with him. It got held up because of the Kavanaugh thing, now it looks like it's not going to happen at all. He's at least going to survive until the election.

"The president knows I'm prepared to do this job as long as he wants me to do this job", Rosenstein said. "You serve at the pleasure of the president and there's never been any ambiguity about that in my mind." KNOX: No. But he's got -- but he does multiple constituencies rather than (INAUDIBLE). One of them obviously is the president which is sort of -- he talks to him sort of through the interview but the other is the Justice Department. And like FBI directors before him, like Ray, like Comey too, they have defended their bureaucracies. They have defended the career people. They have defended their -- that constituency.

And I think it's important to view Rod Rosenstein's comments through that prism as well.

KAPUR: This is also an issue that I think he's willing to shout from the rooftops on that he will see through this investigation. He stood up to the president on this. He stood up to the president's allies in the House Freedom Caucus on this. He does not want to be the person who oversees the meddling -- you know, messing up of an investigation that is so crucial to the constitutional fabric when you're talking about foreign actor that influence or, you know, meddled in the election. And the president campaign that could potentially be tied with it.

This rests on him and it's much bigger than him.

KING: And it's a reminder. We've had a little bit of dormant period here because of -- largely because the Justice Department guidelines. Do not (INAUDIBLE) things within 60 days of an election. Mueller has gone pretty quite. The southern district of New York which is also doing some investigations has also gone quite.

There's some hearings in court and things like that but no new big splashy announcements. The president is bringing in a new White House counsel. You have a shakeup there. After the election, this is all going to pick up again, including this reporting from CNN, Michael Cohen and his attorney met Wednesday with a group of state and federal law enforcement officials investigating various aspects of President Donald Trump's family business and charitable organization according to people familiar with that meeting.

So, again, we have sort of a lull in news about the investigations but I suspect within a week or so if not sooner after the elections, we're going to be back in this.

SCHOR: And it's also important to remember that Jeff Sessions might be out of a job pretty soon after the elections too. And Rod Rosenstein has a lot of friends in the U.S. Senate, a lot more than he has in the House Republican Caucus. So I think he has reason to believe he has some more job security than he might have early on.

PACE: To your point though about this pause in the investigation or this pause on the news about the investigations, there are couple of things that we know will happen after the election. We know at some point that Flynn is going to be sentenced and we'll learn about the scope of his cooperation. Same with the scoop of Paul Manafort's cooperation. It seems as though Roger Stone could be headed for an indictment.

[12:50:01] But then there are all of the unknowns and that for the president is the scarier piece of this.

KING: And how much does it matter that his legal team is changing? You got Don McGahn gone, Emmet Flood taking over in an interim basis. He's been part of the special counsel response. Pat Cipollone, a veteran D.C. litigator coming in. The president apparently struck up a rapport with him.

KAPUR: It seems like there's been more continuity than not. And, you know, in his legal strategy even as the team has been changing a lot. One big difference, one big shift you could see is when he brought on Giuliani, when he did a more forceful PR strategy to attack it.

(INAUDIBLE) the White House Counsel Don McGahn, I think his role in this Russia investigation and the way he's handled it, the way he refused, you know, to carry out the president's order to fire Mueller will be written about and thought about a lot but his biggest legacy is going to be judges. He's instrumental in picking these 84 judges that the president confirmed. Picked with the help of the federalist society which is a group of lawyers that wants to drastically reduce the federal government's power to legislate and to regulate. These are almost all in their 40s and 50s so they're going to be around for a very long time making very important decisions.

KING: Very long time.

All right, next for us here after a debate night with few might say, Beto O'Rourke tries again to say how he would solve the border crisis.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:55:53] KING: President Trump now threatening possible military action over what he calls an onslaught at the U.S.-Mexico border. This comes as the Washington Post reports September was the highest month on record for border patrol arrests of family members. Just three weeks, a little shy of three weeks until the midterm elections, immigration now a major flashpoint for both parties. Case in point, the Texas Senate race.

Right now, Democratic Congressman Beto O'Rourke is trailing Republican Senator Ted Cruz. And with time running out, that might explain why he's taking a much more aggressive approach against the senator.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. BETO O'ROURKE (D), TEXAS SENATE RACE: Republicans and Democrats alike know that we got to lead on immigration reform. And yet Ted Cruz, he's the only senator to vote against moving forward with that conversation. He's vowed to deport every single Dreamer. He's selling paranoia and fear instead of solutions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Dana Bash joins me now live from McAllen, Texas. She is there because tonight she hosts a town hall with Congressman O'Rourke we should point out. Senator Cruz was invited multiple times to appear in this town hall but he has declined. Dana, Texas obviously a border state, immigration a big issue. There was a lot of controversy that after the debate the other night, maybe the congressman didn't have the right answer. Is that ad a make up?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly could be. And you're right, immigration is not just a big issue, it is the most important issue according to voters here in Texas in the Senate race. And it's a big reason why we came here to McAllen, about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

And the issue is what are the differences, and there are a lot of differences. And the fact that Beto O'Rourke really does disagree with the Republican challenger he is trying to unseat on a number of approaches with regard to immigration especially the border wall. It is leaving voters with the real decision if they are going to follow their -- what they're telling pollsters and vote based on this very controversial, very divisive, very hard issue.

KING: Let's listen a little bit more of this. This is the back and forth between Congressman Beto O'Rourke, the Democrat, Republican incumbent Senator Ted Cruz in a debate earlier this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O'ROURKE: No wall is going to solve legitimate security concerns. But a smart policy will. And let me describe one of those to you.

Senator John Cornyn and I, though he's a Republican and I'm a Democrat, he's in the Senate and I'm in the House. Worked on policy together to invest in our ports of entry. That's where more than 90 percent of everyone and everything that ever comes into the United States first crosses.

Having a better idea of who and what comes into our country demonstrably make us safer.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS SENATE CANDIDATE: Everyone should notice in his answer that he wanted to talk about trade, he wanted to talk about customs, he wanted to talk about everything except border security.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Is the abolished ICE debate, is that part of that campaign conversation in Texas?

BASH: Not as much as you might think. Certainly, as you're alluding to, a lot of Democrats around the country are saying that ICE, the Immigration Customs Enforcement Agency should just be abolished. Beto O'Rourke doesn't go there, but he does say that they're should be reforms to the agency.

But you also hit on something interesting that goes beyond the issue of immigration which is the tone and tenor of this debate. One of the reasons Beto O'Rourke has become such a national figure and has gotten record setting fundraising halls especially at the last quarter, $38 million, money from all over the country is because he presents himself as a different kind of politician not just a different kind of Democrat, a different kind of politician.

He's a progressive Democrat. Somebody who wants to address the issue of the cultural and political divide in this country. And it was noteworthy in that debate earlier this week that he went at Ted Cruz in a big way calling him just as President Trump did, lying Ted.

KING: Lying Ted. Well, we'll see the tone and tenor tonight in the town hall. Good luck. You can watch the CNN's town hall hosted by Dana Bash with Congressman Beto O'Rourke tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern. Take a look at that.

And thanks for joining us today in the INSIDE POLITICS. Hope to see you back here this time tomorrow. A quick thank you as we go, to (INAUDIBLE) for his hard work in this program. We wish him luck, he's got a great new job in New York.

Have a great afternoon. Wolf starts right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1 p.m. here in Washington --