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Kushner Talks about Saudis; Trumps Changes on Saudi Story; Trump Shrinks Popularity Gap; Trump Blames Democrats for Caravan. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 22, 2018 - 12:00   ET


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

Two weeks till the midterm elections and the president's off to Texas to help former 2016 rival Ted Cruz. Immigration is the president's late campaign rallying cry, including morning tweets today warning a caravan of migrants including criminals and the president says, quote, unknown Middle Easterners.

Plus, the Democrats say health care is the real issue in this election and their late campaign push includes a ton of help from the party's 2020 prospects.

And new CNN reporting today casting more doubt on the Saudi explanation of the Jamal Khashoggi murder and rare public comment today from the president's adviser and son-in-law, who is heavily invested in the Saudi crown prince at the center of this international storm.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What advice have you given the president in this situation?

JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: So advice I have given the president in this situation, like in all other situations, will stay between me and the president.


KING: We begin there with the president facing increasing pressure today to take a tougher stand on Saudi Arabia. That after the murder of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. His senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, you just saw him right there, offering the administration line a bit earlier today at a CNN forum here in New York.


JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: With regards to the situation in Saudi Arabia, I'd say that right now, as an administration, we're more in the fact finding phase and we're obviously getting as many facts as we can from the different places. And that will determine which facts are credible. And, after that, the president and the secretary of state will make a determination as to what we, you know, deem to be credible and what actions we think we should take.


KING: Now, Kushner says the administration has its eyes wide open on this question, but key members of Congress and others who worry the White House is not being tough enough point to Kushner's close relationship with Saudi Arabia's defacto ruler, the crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman. Here's what Kushner said about that.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What kind of advice have you given MBS in this whole situation?

JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: Just to be transparent. To be fully transparent. The world is watching. This is a very, very serious accusation and a very serious situation. And to make sure you're transparent and to take this very seriously.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do he respond to that? How did he respond to that counsel?

KUSHNER: We'll see. I mean I know that the secretary of state had some good meetings over there. And -- and we'll see.


KING: Kaitlan Collins is live for us at the White House.

Kaitlan, rare to hear from Jared Kushner in public. Did we learn anything?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Not really, John. I mean he was asked, yes or no, do you believe that this is going to be a credible investigation by the Saudis, and he didn't really answer. And that comes as we're seeing this shifting Saudi narrative from the, Jamal Khashoggi left the Saudi consulate that day, they initially claimed, to now from that CNN reporting this morning we are learning they basically brought a body double with him to help cover this up.

One of the most interesting things that Jared Kushner did say this morning was he went to touting the U.S.-Saudi relationship. That's something we've seen from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump himself, which could indicate how they are going to respond once all of this is out there.

Jared Kushner also seemed to confirm some CNN reporting from me and my colleague last week that he's trying to distance himself from this whole issue. Know (ph) that officials in the White House have tried to keep him away from it as well since they know he's forged his close relationship with the Saudi crown prince because he told Van Jones, the Mideast is not my problem. It's just the Middle East peace process that I'm dealing with. The rest of that is not my entire portfolio. One thing he didn't answer, John, was whether or not they're going to

accept that Saudi timeline of another month needed to complete this investigation, which critics have said will only give them more time to develop their cover story and they don't really need another month since it's already been over two weeks since he first disappeared. But, John, that's what we'll be waiting to see from the White House and from President Trump today.

KING: Kaitlan Collins live at the White House. Appreciate the reporting there.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Alex Burns with "The New York Times," CNN's MJ Lee, Phillip Bump of "The Washington Post," And Maggie Haberman with "The New York Times/"

Rare to hear Jared Kushner. Rare for him to be out in public defending or explaining the administration. He does, as Kaitlan says, he is trying to say, this is on Secretary Pompeo and the president. This is his portfolio. This is his portfolio. It was Jared Kushner that the crown prince called to say, we didn't do this.


KING: We didn't do this. So how invested is he?

HABERMAN: I think that he's pretty invested and I think he doesn't want to openly say that he is pretty invested.

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: We have heard that the president had been privately trying to separate, not just himself from the Saudi government, but Jared Kushner as well, suggesting to people privately that Jared Kushner doesn't really have that deep a relationship with MBS. That is, of course, contrary to all of our reporting and the facts that have been established.

I don't think -- and I sat on that panel and listened -- I didn't -- I didn't think that Jared Kushner offered a particularly detailed explanation of how they're going about this. It was a fact-finding (INAUDIBLE). And it is true that he tried to sort of push this off, would not talk about what advice he's given to his father-in-law.

[12:05:00] They have taken, this administration, various positions about this issue from the get go and they have left themselves some outs. And I didn't see him doing anything any different.

KING: Outs is a great way to put it. And the Saudis say they need another month. Let me be cynical. That gets us past the U.S. midterm elections.


KING: They know the big question here is, how does the United States respond? Washington will be consumed by other things in a month because you're either going to have a big Democratic win or a big Democratic loss and everything else -- the conversation will shift in Washington.

The Saudis want a month. The president told, Phil, your newspaper, "The Washington Post," yes, there were lies, yes, there were deception, but the crown prince is a good guy. I'm sorry, that's not intellectually consistent. How do you square that circle?

PHILLIP BUMP, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I mean, if you're President Trump, it sort of squares itself I think to some extent. But, I mean, the question here is really -- and to the point that you just raised, is to what extent can you take Saudi Arabia's current explanation for what happened at face value? And the answer to that is, you really can't based on the past two weeks of dissembling and various explanations for what happened. This new report from CNN this morning that they had tried -- apparently had potentially tried to have a way of explaining that he had actually left the consulate. You can't do it unless you have an investment in the process and an investment in say your son-in-law, who happens to work for you, who has this close, personal relationship with MBS. And I think that the level of complication that that adds I think is also understated in the moment. The fact that this is not a normal counselor to President Trump, who has an abnormal relationship with the person at the center of this issue is, I think, another layer of problematicness (ph), to make up a word, that wouldn't exist in another administration.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: And in the clip that we just saw of Van Jones asking Kushner about MBS, I think it's really noteworthy that that wasn't a hypothetical question. Kushner wasn't saying, if I were to give him advice, this is what I would say. He actually, I think, made it pretty clear that that conversation has happened and that his advice for him was to be transparent. And that sort of perfectly distills the problem here and the concern that a lot of folks, even, you know, people who are close to President Trump have had about the closeness of the Kushner/MBS relationship, putting so many of the diplomatic chips into that personal relationship when the issue of, you know, Middle Eastern diplomacy and foreign policy is so complicated. And I think that sort of -- what is coming to bite them in the butt right now.

KING: Coming to bite them in the butt.

Let's listen to more of Jared Kushner, because this is the part -- I get there's a strategic relationship with Saudi Arabia. I get, even if you sanction them and punish them, you might still need to continue to talk to them about things like Iran, about world oil markets, about other big questions in the Middle East. But when the president himself now is on the record saying, they deceived me, they lied to me, the question is, what do you do?

Jared Kushner tried to minimize that.


JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: I see things that are deceptive every day. I see them in the Middle East. I see them in Washington. And, so, again, I think that we -- we have our eyes wide open. I think that, again, the president is focused on what's good for America? What are our strategic interests? You know, where do we share interests with other countries. Let's work towards those.

But, yes, every day we deal with people who are trying to deceive us in different ways. But our job is to see through it, but also to stay focused on what's best for the American people and the president is fully committed to doing that.


KING: The question is who defines that though, right? What's best for the American people? The president seems to be saying, I don't want to suspend arms sales because that's American jobs. I don't want this relationship to go too far south because I need them when it comes to Iran. If you're a Bob Corker or a Marco Rubio you say, selling arms? No, this is not about money and jobs, this is about American values. They kidnapped, tortured, killed, dismembered somebody. You have to take a stand.

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Right. And this is where actually you hear a totally incoherent message from the administration, right, where you could imagine a world where the president was out there saying as forcefully as he does with Vladimir Putin that, look, the world is full of bad and dangerous people and I will deal with anyone opportunistically at any time if it serves my interests and the interests of the United States. That's not actually what the administration's been saying consistently. They've been really all over the map.

And even the Kushner version of that, that we heard this morning, was pretty timid and pretty hedged. And I think it does underscore the degree to which the course of this, over the next few weeks, and frankly over the last few weeks, has been largely out of the control of the White House and the Saudis. But every day you hear, whether it's a foreign leader like Angela Merkel, whether it's someone on The Hill like Bob Corker or Rand Paul, who's not exactly some champion of international human rights or somebody who is a frequent critic of the administration basically calling to terminate much of the relationship with Saudi Arabia. This is not something that the White House is even in a position to stage manage if they had a clear position to stage manage it.

KING: And this, what I'm about to read, is laughable, except that it fits in the sense that the Saudi explanations have changed repeatedly. Their current explanation just doesn't hold water in an authoritarian society where the crown prince calls the shots, with people on the scene known to be key lieutenants of the crown prince. Now the crown prince, they say, is going to lead a review of Saudi intelligence services. It's a bit of a fox/hen house analogy there.

[12:10:00] This is Steven Cook (ph), a very serious guy at the Council on Foreign Relationship, who says in "The New York Times," they would have been better off saying Colonel Mustard did it in the library with the candle stick. Who would want to be associated with this story?

Again, you see that and you think, why is that in the middle of an incredibly consequential, global conversation, but it's hard to argue with that.

HABERMAN: Yes, the rational makes absolutely no sense. And it's the kind of explanation that if it was being given by somebody who Donald Trump did not like, or did not find, that he had some personal investment or interest from, he would laugh at it and mock it, maybe tweeting about it all day long and calling the person a baby.

I don't actually believe that the president believes this explanation.

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: But the lack of willingness to say that publicly, other than whatever version, to your point, it's lies and deception, but he's a good guy. He has been on all sides of this throughout, which is customary for him, right? He allows himself to then pick whichever version he wants as events go.

To Alex's point, they've just been in reaction mode this whole time. And the president is doing the only thing that he sort of knows how to do historically, which is just call a million different reporters and say different things and see what stands. They are, from day to day, they have been at odds in his statements and --

KING: That's a great -- that's a great point because he said at one point he found the initial explanation credible.


KING: And then he said there were lies and deception.


KING: It's just, which conversation --

HABERMAN: And really they're -- and, honestly, very little has changed in terms of the intelligence that they have had, that has nothing to do with what has been said publicly. But they have basically known where this was the whole time.

One other point that I would make, just in terms of how accommodationous (ph) this president can be on aspects of the Saudi story. This is a president, who during the campaign, said very memorably, torture works. So I can see why he would be a little more amenable to an explanation about this was a fist fight involving 15 people and a bone saw that just got out of hand. I'm not surprised that he doesn't quite see the problem with speaking out against that.

BURNS: But if I can just jump in on the politics of this.

You know, the -- there was also an extremely memorable moment during the campaign where the president pointed a pretty explicit finger at the Saudis in terms of complicity in 9/11. And I do think, you know, this is a president who has gotten a lot of mileage over the years out of being seen by his supporters as a warrior for the United States against sinister interests in the Middle East. I don't think that the Democrats are ever going to feel comfortable sort of being as xenophobic and conspiratorial about the Middle East as the president is. But you do have to look at where he is sort of digging in and forcing himself to be on the side of people and interests that he has done a very good job of playing against over the years and there is some vulnerability there.

HABERMAN: Totally.

BUMP: And I'll just say that one of the tells here is the fact that President Trump has repeatedly used this $110 billion in arm sales. He has increased the number of jobs that is going to be created from 40,000 in March to now over a million from the total Saudi investment. He has planted his flag that this is an important thing. Using increasingly inflated numbers, increasingly inaccurate numbers, which shows that he really, really wants to hold on to this thing. He is using his political rhetoric to the maximum effect saying we've got to fight for these American jobs when it simply it's accurate. And I think that itself is telling.

LEE: And even though the president is usually pretty stubborn, he is capable of changing his tune. And, in fact, he doesn't have any qualms about doing that, even if what he's saying today has -- makes no sense in the context of what he may have said yesterday or two days before. And he clearly did that with sort of the basic explanation that the Saudis had given. He did go from saying, it seems like there were rogue killers involved, to now saying there are lies and deceptions. I think the big question, of course, is what he ends up saying and if he changes his tune when it comes to his explanation on MBS.

KING: And whether he gets pushed there by Congress and others as more facts come out.


KING: We will see. We'll keep an eye on that one.

Up next for us, the president's poll numbers go up, but the top Democrat in the House, just moments ago, saying she thinks her party will win, but also acknowledging 15 days is a long time.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: If the election were held today, the Democrats would handily win the House. I can only speak in the present tense because you never know in another couple of weeks.



[12:18:18] KING: Welcome back.

Today, the president setting facts aside as he tries today to gin up Republican turnout by stoking fear about a migrant caravan. This was the president's morning warning on Twitter, of course. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are headed for the southern border. Democrats are to blame. The president says, remember the midterms. The migrant caravan is his new midterm flash point. And a flagrant

example of how this president invents his own reality hoping for political benefit. Interviews by CNN correspondents on the ground illustrate most of those migrants are fleeing violence and poverty.

But immigration is the president's old standby. We all know that. And he's again calling on it as new numbers do show a tiny window of opportunity for Republicans to thwart a Democratic wipeout. A new poll from NBC News and "The Wall Street Journal" says Democrats still hold a big advantage -- you see it there -- when the question is voting for Congress. The big advantage especially with women. But the president's job approval number is at a new high among likely voters, at 45 percent. That contradiction, a big Democratic lead, but a politically stronger president captures the uncertainty 15 days before America votes and decides who runs Congress for the back half of the president's first term.

The president's new venting on immigration comes as he prepares to return to the campaign trail with a big rally in Texas tonight. And you do have this contradiction, which is fascinating. There are still some Republicans who say, maybe we only lose 20. Maybe we don't lose the 23 that would give the House to the Democrats. But nine-point lead in the generic ballot. That would tell you, Democrats will win the House. But Republicans have long said, if the president can get back up around 45, then it's hand to hand combat. We've got an interesting two weeks coming.

BURNS: Look, I think that your -- the possibility of just Republicans getting completely annihilated everywhere on the map, which seemed like it could happen in late August, early September, that seems like it's dimmed as a possibility, although, as you said before, 15 days is a long time, things could swing back in a different direction.

[12:20:08] When you look at those poll numbers yesterday, what pops out at me is that, you know, we've known for a long time that there are many center right voter who are less comfortable with President Trump than with the Republican Party, even hate President Trump even as they consider themselves to be basically Republican in orientation.

There are also voters out there who are more comfortable with President Trump you're your conventional Republicans, right? So when you look in states like Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, places where the president had breakthroughs, and you see the president, you know, holding not great but relatively steady as Democrats are just pummeling Republicans with your sort of Paul Tyan-style Social Security policy, privatizing Medicare, gutting the Affordable Care Act, that's when you see the defensive politics that the president practiced on those entitlement programs that are popular with blue collar white voters and senior citizens. It really is hurting other Republicans in a way that maybe it doesn't hurt the president.

KING: And if you look at -- the president's at 44 or 45 nationally. That means he's going to Texas tonight. Here was out in Arizona, Nevada, Montana last week. That means he's above 50 in those places. You -- once you start -- when you get away from the coast, and if he's above 50 in a state, then Republican who -- what, a month ago people were saying, can Beto O'Rourke really beat Ted Cruz? That's why they scheduled the president's trip because Texas Republicans were nervous, a lot less so now, because the president, even at 45, historically low, but much better.

BUMP: Yes, that's true. I mean I think that it's sort of hard to evaluate this particular midterm election, this particular president's approval ratings in the context of history. I mean, obviously, we should and that's the only guide that we have, but it just seems like we've been down this road before in 2016. And I'm not the sort of guy who's like, oh, the polls got it all wrong in 2016.

KING: Right.

BUMP: But what we saw in 2016 was, we saw a late surge of Republicans who were weary of Donald Trump coming back home to the Republican Party, deciding that he was better than Hillary Clinton and casting the vote for them. And we're seeing -- one of the trends that we're seeing in these polls also is that Republicans are getting newly reinvigorated about this election. And there are probably a lot of reasons for that. Probably Trump is part of it. But if that same pattern holds, if Republicans who, you know, two months ago seemed like they're sort of ah about voting are now very enthusiastic about it, for whatever reason, this caravan, Brett Kavanaugh, whatever it happens to be, that could make a significant difference.

And that, I think, is somewhat independent of President Trump and is a function of the way that our elections are maybe working now, which is that we have a difficult time evaluating who it is that's going to actually turn up.

KING: But he clearly thinks that the caravan and the immigration issue, as he used it in 2016, when a lot of people said don't do it, and he did it and he won the Republican nomination and he won the presidency. So when people tell him he's wrong, he likes to say, I'm president and you're not and it works.

Listen to this from the -- this is from recent days. The president -- you saw the tweets this morning, unknown Middle Easterners, criminals. He's also talked about the caravan on the trail.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Crazy Democrats refuse to support any form of voter security legislation to fix our absolutely horrible, old fashioned, loophole-ridden immigration laws.

As we speak, the Democrat Party is openly inviting millions of illegal aliens to break our laws, violate our borders and overwhelm our nation.

The Democrats don't care that a flood of illegal immigration will bankrupt our country.


KING: Now, the fact machine breaks when he does these things. HABERMAN: A little bit.

KING: A little bit. The Democrats aren't inviting the migrants to come into this country.


KING: At one point he said the Democrats might have been paying the migrants to come into this country. But -- but, again, this is a president who trusts his instincts and he thinks this will help.

HABERMAN: Look, if you get past the outrageousness of a sitting president literally manufacturing facts about all of this, there are two parts, I think, that were noteworthy in what he is doing. One is, yes, broadly he thinks that immigration works. And it's not just the 2016 message. This worked in 2014 in the midterms too when Republicans did very, very well. That was when ISIS was on the rise. The border crisis was emerging in the public's imagination in a real way. There was an Ebola crisis and all of that combined to create a climate of fear and anxiety.

He's slipping the, what was it, unknown Middle --

KING: Middle Easterners, right.

HABERMAN: Easterners, that was the phrase, into the tweet, that is a real reminder that actually a lot of the secret sauce of his support in the primaries was less about the wall and as much about Islamophobia and as much about creating Islam as the other. And we saw him do that over and over and over again. And so the fact that he is trying to knife twist on that right now, to turn this into an added level of security concern is really something.

KING: And if we went back a couple months, Republicans wanted the president to stay in Montana, you know, and stay in the red states.


KING: Now the president's going everywhere. I mean Texas is a safe red state but --

HABERMAN: Well, they still don't want him to do what he's doing. But he's choosing to do a lot of this.

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: And I think that he's very, very sensitive to the narrative, as are his aides, because they know it's true and he doesn't like it that there are certain places he cannot go. That's just the reality.

LEE: I also think this is sort of a good moment for the cautionary reminder about what voters far away from Washington will end up caring about and what will actually end up swaying them. You know, we pay so much attention to, as we should, to sort of the day to day chaos, right? Was there a shouting match in the West Wing? What did the president tweet? Who did the president call horseface? And those things, yes, do matter in sort of the day to day narrative.

[12:25:21] But I think in the big picture, there are going to be so many voter who actually end up casting their votes in November based on sort of this gut feeling of, do I want a continuation of the Trump administration and the message that they see when they see the president at a rally like that speaking or do they want a change come November?

KING: To that point, great reporting in "The New York Times" today. I'll read this. Jeremy Peters, I think, is the author of the story. What did come up in conversations, pre-existing conditions, pre- kindergarten, school safety, inequality, friends blocked on FaceBook and the corrosive polarization of politics. What mostly did not, horseface, Pocahontas or any other denigrating nicknames Mr. Trump has lobbed at women lately. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, impeachment, Russia and a blue wave.

So, we do this for a living. It's our job to cover the president and what he says and to cover the Democrats and what they're saying. But I -- people who have busy lives, out in real America, I think to your point, it's like most elections, how am I doing? How am I doing? Is this helping me or is this hurting me? Am I better off or am I not better off? Am I worried about something? It's a broader conversation.

BURNS: And that's why the health care and boarder economy issues are probably the two most important cross currents in this election, aside from the president's personality. I will never believe that this election is not driven powerfully by people's visceral emotional reactions to the president and the way he behaves day to day. Although I absolutely agree with MJ about the sort of daily drama. I think a lot of that doesn't breakthrough.

But on the Republican side, the biggest thing they have going for them, it's not immigration, it's not anything about Trump as a person, it's the economy is doing pretty well, right?

LEE: Exactly.

BURNS: And you can make the case that, you know, you should stay the course as opposed to trying to switch courses. On the Democratic side, there is a real concern, alarm, profound anxiety about the health care system and its -- it echoes in so many ways what you heard from voters heading into the 2010 election, right? That whatever they may feel about the big picture, what's going to happen to my premiums, what's going to happen to my coverage? And that's the biggest problem for Republicans.

KING: It's interesting, to your point, the president could have a stay the course message, low unemployment, you know, safety. Instead it's immigration, and Kavanaugh, jobs not mobs. It's an interesting approach to it.

BUMP: I would just very quickly point out that, yes, broadly speaking, the electorate is worried about issues like health care. But what we're talking about here is the small section of Republican who might be wavering about coming out to vote. And I think that's who President Trump is trying to target. He's saying, these are the things you need to worry about and you need to worry about them right now because it's a crisis, and hoping they'll go out to the polls in November and make the difference.

KING: And hoping that tips the Tennessee Senate race --

BUMP: Exactly.

KING: The Arizona Senate race. Six or eight House districts. We'll see. That's how we go. The map can get complicated.

Up next, Jared Kushner gives us insight on what it's like to work for the president while being married to his daughter.


JARED KUSHNER, SENIOR ADVISER TO THE PRESIDENT: Being one with Ivanka would be a power couple.