Return to Transcripts main page


Trump: Election about Kavanaugh, Caravan, Law & Order, Common Sense; Trump Threatened to Shut U.S./Mexico Border over Immigration; Trump Celebrates Congressman Who Body Slammed Reporter as He Deals with Journalist Disappearance; Trump Shifts Tone on Saudi Arabia as Evidence Mounts; Nikki Haley: "Our Political Opponents Are Not Evil," Trump Says They Are; Nikki Haley Cracks Joke about Sen. Warren's DNA Test. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 19, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Oh, she made my day.

Polo, thanks. Good luck to her.

Thanks for being with us. Have a great weekend, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow, in New York.


"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.

It may not fit well on a bumper sticker, it might be too long for a hashtag, but President Trump thinks it's the closing argument for Republicans this midterm, now less than 20 days away. He was road testing the same message in Montana last night. Listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense. That's what it's going to be. It's going to be an election of those things.


BOLDUAN: But if that's what "on message" looks like for President Trump, looks like right now, then what was this?


TRUMP: Greg is smart. And by the way, never wrestle him. You understand, never.


TRUMP: Any guy that can do a body slam, he's my candidate.

(CHEERING) TRUMP: He's my guy.


TRUMP: I shouldn't say this. But there's nothing to be embarrassed about.


BOLDUAN: Nothing to be embarrassed about, he says. The president celebrating the Republican congressman who was charged and pleaded guilty to assaulting a reporter during his special election last year. Greg Gianforte body slammed a reporter covering his race, just doing his job.

It's not just that, of course. The president is applauding this assault as he's facing one of what could become the most consequential decisions of his presidency: What to do about the disappearance of a "Washington Post" columnist and mounting evidence that that journalist was murdered by the Saudis.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond is at the White House for us now.

Jeremy, what are you hearing from the White House? Is this the president on message?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, last night, the president was true to form, focused on one element only, and that is rallying his base. And to do so, of course, the president is talking about the issue of illegal immigration, touting the Supreme Court confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. But at the same time, the president is confronting one of the most serious diplomatic crises of his presidency, over the disappearance and alleged killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist, who disappeared more than two weeks ago in the Saudi consulate.

But it is not that issue. While that issue will be front of mind at the White House over the next several days as we await the results of the investigation, it is not that issue that is dividing the president's advisers. Yesterday, the president's chief of staff and his national security adviser, John Kelly and John Bolton, respectively, those two men were seen in the West Wing engaging in a very public shouting match over this issue of a surge of border crossings down at the southern border. This issue of illegal immigration is not just a talking point for the president on the campaign trail but very much an issue that is dividing some of the president's top advisers as they look to see how they can reduce the flow of illegal immigrants coming into the southern border. We know that the president has been focused on this issue of a caravan of migrants coming up from Central America through Mexico towards the United States. So that is very much top of mind for this White House today.

We do know that the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Mexico today. He's due to meet with the Mexican foreign affairs minister in just a few minutes, actually. And so that is the focus at the White House today, with this administration's efforts as they try to stem that flow of migrants. But also keep in mind, immigration will be a central message of the president's heading into the midterms, which are just a few weeks away -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: That's right.

Great to see you, Jeremy. Thank so much.

Let's talk about this. Joining me is CNN political commentator and former director of legislative affairs for the Trump White House, Marc Short.

Marc, thanks for coming in.

MARC SHORT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Thanks, Kate. Thanks for having me on.

BOLDUAN: Of course.

The president's in a tough spot when it comes to immigration and talking about this caravan. Because he wants to be able to say that he's the guy fixing it. But he also wants to be able to say this is still a huge problem. On both fronts, some of the facts out there right now aren't with him. Last month, the highest number of arrests on record for families arrested at the border, and in all, this year, there was a much higher number of families taken into custody than recent years. On the flipside, though, over the past decade, the number of border arrests is way down. Doesn't this complicate his message in these closing weeks, Marc?

SHORT: Actually, Kate, I think this is a winning argument for the president. The president has campaigned from 2016 to this day on the need for stronger border security. I think that, you know, Democrats in 2006, 80 percent of Democrats voted for the Secure Fence Act, including Chuck Schumer and Hillary Clinton, to fund essentially the wall that's being put forward by the Trump administration right now. I think it's apparent that a lot of opposition is political. When people see the optics of the caravan, they want border security. I think the president has a winning message there.

[11:05:22] BOLDUAN: A message, maybe, but when the facts make it a little tougher for him to be honest about his message.

SHORT: Well, I --


BOLDUAN: If this is his problem now, right, he's been president long enough he can't continue to blame everybody else. If this is his problem and his fix they came up with, it's been slapped down by a federal judge --


BOLDUAN: -- who does he have to blame but himself? SHORT: Well, Kate, on that point, though, the president has tried to

get cooperation to fix the laws that tie the Homeland Security's hands. In many cases, you have heard Secretary Nielsen talk about loopholes that need to be closed, and in many cases, their ability to stop the caravans from coming or immigrants coming across the border are restricted. It's important to remember the president actually offered a pathway to citizenship, not just for the 800,000 DACA participants, but to appease Democrats, additional family members, close to 1.7 million --


BOLDUAN: It's almost impossible to understand where the president is on DACA because he was both for and against it in a matter of moments. I follow this day by day, and it's increasingly difficult to know where he stands.

SHORT: Let me help you, because he asked me to negotiate it with Senate Democrats. We basically offered a pathway to citizenship for DACA in exchange for wall funding. They basically said we don't want that because we don't want the president to have a victory on the wall funding. There's a lot of politics in this on both sides, Kate, but I think this is a political winner for the president.

BOLDUAN: Regardless of where the facts are.

Let me move on. I want to get to the border wall in a second, but the president laid out -- I'm going to call it something of a threat against Mexico if they don't stop the caravan, tweeting that to him, immigration is in his words, "far more important to me as president than trade or the USMCA." So after making such a big deal about how great the new NAFTA deal is for everyone, especially the United States, do you actually see him making good on that threat?

SHORT: Well, a couple of things there. I think the trade deal is a significant achievement for the administration, but I actually think it's going to have a lot of challenges moving forward in Congress, particularly as some of the Democrats potentially win more House seats. It's going to have a bumpy ride. So --


BOLDUAN: That's not what the president is talking about there, though.

SHORT: I understand, but I'm simply saying that is a significant achievement I think is going to have a bumpier ride than perhaps some analysts think in a House of Representatives that perhaps has more Democrat representatives. But the president, I think, is committed to making sure he gets the deal done. At the same time, he's also concerned about immigration. So --


BOLDUAN: What do you think? You know him, you worked closely for him. You think he makes good on that threat? SHORT: I think that in essence, what happens is Mexico, the deal for

NAFTA is important for Mexico to the extent they're going to come to the table and help with stopping the caravans coming up. I think the president is going to win on that.

BOLDUAN: You think he's maybe not going to have to make good on that threat.


BOLDUAN: That's where we'll land on this one.

This could come to a head again in December when the country could face another partial government shutdown if getting to the border now the president insists on billions of dollars for the border wall to be included. You were in charge of these negotiations. Should the president, in your view, force a government shutdown over border wall funding if it comes to that?

SHORT: I think that the president is in a position that it's an important plan to get the wall funded. The wall funding planning is something that Customs and Border Patrol career officials think they need.

BOLDUAN: You think it's worth it?



BOLDUAN: -- worth it?

SHORT: See here's the thing, Kate. My concern, I don't know what the leverage is going to be from the administration. Having funded so many other appropriations bills that the military will be funded, people getting entitlement checks will be funded, parks will stay open. All those things that are important for everyday Americans will continue to happen. The leverage of what the administration will have to shut down a particular component to get wall funding I think will be limited. But yes, I fully support it. That is a campaign promise he made, the American people want it. And I think Democrats have voted to support it before and the opposition is political.


BOLDUAN: You're for shutting -- in theory, you are supportive of a government shutdown in order to keep one campaign promise?

SHORT: I think it's broader than one campaign promise, Kate.


BOLDUAN: That's one. That's one. That is one, yes, that he's made a million times over, but that is one thing that -- I mean, this is a real thing, Marc, as you know.

SHORT: This is a real thing.

BOLDUAN: That was a threat this last month, I think that's where the calendar is.

[11:09:59] SHORT: I think border security is a very important issue for American people. And the plan that's put forward is an important plan. It is not a 30-foot concrete wall from coast to coast. It's where career officials say, this is where I see human trafficking, here is where we have drug interdiction, here's where we need. In some cases, it's see-through because they say I need to see what happens on the other side of the wall. It is a very common-sense plan.

BOLDUAN: Do you -- do you -- Marc, do you still think the president -- do you still think Mexico is going to pay for it?

SHORT: Kate, I think that --


BOLDUAN: Be honest with me.

SHORT: There are ways to get Mexico to pay for it, such as elements in the NAFTA deal as far as additional customs fees that are assessed. Are they going to put forward a payment to say, here, we'll pay for the wall? Of course not. Are there ways the president and the administration can say this is what we negotiated and those dollars can go toward the wall? Yes.

BOLDUAN: OK. That doesn't seem so clean.

You heard what the president said last night about the congressman who -- about Gianforte who pleaded guilty. He was charged for assaulting a reporter back during his special election. Especially given the disappearance of the "Washington Post" columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, can you make an honest case that what the president was saying last night was just a joke and no big deal?

SHORT: Kate, I think that the optics and the timing is obviously unfortunate. I do think that the president's rallies are partly political and partly --


BOLDUAN: Just dumb, Marc, just dumb.

SHORT: OK. But they're partly entertainment, and that's what people come to see. But, yes, I can confess to you that the timing is inappropriate.

BOLDUAN: You think at this time, at this time, that it's a good idea to be joking --


SHORT: I just said -- I said the timing is bad. BOLDUAN: I hope Greg Gianforte has more qualities going for him than

the fact that he likes to body slam reporters.

SHORT: You're right. Greg actually is a great guy and a good congressman, who confessed to that mistake and apologized for it. So you're right. And I think the timing is poor, certainly. I think you're 100 percent right on that, Kate.

BOLDUAN: I will always end when you say something like that.

Thank you, Marc, for coming in. Lots to discuss. Appreciate it.

SHORT: Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

BOLDUAN: Coming up, a change in tone from the president on the disappearance of the "Washington Post" columnist. What the president is saying now about what may have happened to Jamal Khashoggi.

Plus, the outgoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley cracking jokes at a charity dinner. She had people laughing. But did she also have a very serious message for President Trump? Stay with us.


[11:16:43] BOLDUAN: Right now, we're waiting to hear from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is in Mexico, expected to focus on the migrant crisis and the caravan making its way north. But he's also facing questions about the presumed murder of "Washington Post" journalist, Jamal Khashoggi.

This, as the president appears to be shifting his tone on Saudi Arabia as evidence mounts over Khashoggi's disappearance. Listen to what he told reporters.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you believe Jamal Khashoggi is dead?

TRUMP: It certainly looks that way to me. It's very sad. Certainly looks that way.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: What are you considering for possible consequences for Saudis based on those --

TRUMP: Well, it will have to be very severe. I mean, it's bad, bad stuff, but we'll see what happens. OK?


BOLDUAN: Joining me right now is Gary Samore. He's a former adviser to President Obama. He's currently the senior executive director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis.

Gary, thank you for coming in.


BOLDUAN: Just over the course of this week, the president went from severe punishment would be coming, to then he was floating the theory of rogue killers could have done this, to then seeming to defend Saudi by saying that the country was getting the Kavanaugh treatment of guilty until proven innocent, and now he's back to severe punishment and this is a bad, bad thing. What does this evolution in his tone, what does it mean to you?

SAMORE: So I mean, obviously, I can't read President Trump's mind, but I think the administration is trying to put as much pressure on Riyadh as possible to come up with a plausible explanation for the killing of the Saudi journalist. And that includes, I think, a living fall guy, somebody who is prepared to take responsibility for ordering the killing and protecting the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, from any personal role in ordering the assassination.

BOLDUAN: Gary, if that -- I know we're playing maybe in a hypothetical, but maybe not too far off. If that happens and the world doesn't believe it, but that's the story they put out, can the White House just say, OK, moving on?

SAMORE: That's what they would like to do. But of course, nobody knows at this point whether that is possible. And it will depend, I think, a lot on the credibility of the cover story and on how other countries react. In particular, Turkey. Turkey still holds very damaging information in the form of these audio and videotapes. And presumably, there are quiet conversations going on between Riyadh and Ankara about the price Saudi will have to pay in order to keep those tapes from becoming public. So whether or not Erdogan is satisfied with the cover story will also be a critical factor.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Where the truth coming out, this is a huge statement of where this thing is.

You have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, he went over there, he met with Turkey, met with Saudi Arabia. It's the Turks who, as you have mentioned, who say they have really this brutal evidence of audio and video of Khashoggi's killing. Pompeo then told reporters afterward that he saw no video, he saw no transcript, he has seen none of that. Does that surprise you, if it exists, that he didn't see it, wasn't presented it when he was over there?

[11:20:21] SAMORE: Well, I think this is a big playing card for the Turks. If they release it to the United States, it may leak out. And whatever value Turkey can glean from keeping it suppressed would be lost. I can completely understand why Ankara doesn't want to share those tapes with the United States. And frankly, for President Trump, I think he should be careful what he asks for because once that gets in the hands of the U.S., there's going to be even more outrage over the killing of Khashoggi.

BOLDUAN: Gary, thank you for coming on. I really appreciate it.

SAMORE: Thank you. Thank you, Kate. Coming up for us, outgoing U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley drawing a lot

of laughs at a charity dinner, but did she also serve up a serious jab at the president? That's next.


[11:25:49] BOLDUAN: Outgoing ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, had an audience laughing last night, taking shots at herself, at Democrats, fellow Republicans, even the president, at the notoriously lighthearted Al Smith Dinner in New York City. That's how she began, but she ended on a very serious note.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: In America, our political opponents are not evil. In South Sudan, where rape is routinely used as a weapon of war, that is evil. In Syria, where the dictator uses chemical weapons to murder innocent children, that is evil. In North Korea, where American student, Otto Warmbier, was tortured to death, that was evil. In the last two years, I have seen true evil.


BOLDUAN: That reference to evil seems unmistakable. That's exactly what President Trump has used to describe his opponents in recent months.


TRUMP: It was a disgraceful situation brought about by people that are evil.

It's a very dangerous period in our country. And it's being perpetrated by some very evil people.


BOLDUAN: So to whom then was Haley trying to send her message?

Chris Cillizza, CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large, is joining me right now.

Chris, the last time we saw Nikki Haley, she was getting the star treatment with the president in the Oval Office with the nicest farewell we have ever seen. What is she trying to do?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT-LARGE: She's trying to differentiate herself from Donald Trump in terms of world view at least. I think Nikki Haley has national political ambitions. I don't think she's running against Donald Trump, but I think she does want to be a figure going forward in the Republican Party. And I think that she's done her service in the Trump administration. I think what you're going to see now, Kate, is more of this, which is to say, look, I support some of the things President Trump did and said, the economy and those sorts of things, but I'm not going to be with him in the way in which he vilified opponents, the way in which he talks about people. That's what you'll see more of from her. No question this was aimed directly at Donald Trump.

BOLDUAN: Also, a reminder that Haley, throughout her time as ambassador, was able to get away with language, if you will, that few others could. Critical of the president's policies or the words he would choose, if you will. Still very much in his good graces. Never on the receiving end of any of his shame tweets or any of those, you know, background reports of him regretting that he put her in the position, a la, Jeff Sessions and everyone else.


CILLIZZA: I was going to say, everyone else.

BOLDUAN: A la, end of show because it would take too long. How does she pull that off?

CILLIZZA: It's totally fascinating. Remember, it's not as though she was like Jeff Sessions, a stalwart Trump supporter in the campaign. She supported Marco Rubio and then Ted Cruz. She made a speech in which she decried Trump and Trumpism, which is why it was such a big deal when she was named U.N. ambassador. I don't totally know, but my guess is that she probably thought, wow, I have been the golden child for about two years. We know that no one stays in Donald Trump's good graces forever. Or even for that long. Let me get out while the getting's good.

BOLDUAN: Maybe the smartest political move ever.

One more joke. One joke that I do want to play for our viewers. She could not resist jumping on the, I don't know, DNA test hit parade, if you will. Listen to this.


HALEY: So this year, you wanted to spice things up again, right? I get it. You wanted an Indian woman, but Elizabeth Warren failed her DNA test.


Actually, when the president found out that I was Indian-American, he asked me if I was from the same tribe as Elizabeth Warren.



BOLDUAN: This works on so many levels.


BOLDUAN: Reminds everyone she's a Republican woman of color, attacks a big-name Democrat, pokes fun at the president while joining him in one of his attack lines. The takeaway is, she's running. No, I don't know. CILLIZZA: No. I think she is eventually, don't make a mistake. One

person we know is running for president in 2020 is Elizabeth Warren. This week started, it feels always like a month ago, but this week started with Elizabeth Warren releasing that five-plus minute video on the DNA test and the Stanford geneticist saying --

BOLDUAN: It sounded like a campaign video in itself.

CILLIZZA: Exactly. But it started with her trying to put that behind her, saying, look, I --