Return to Transcripts main page


DOJ Investigating Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke; GOP House Campaign Arm Abandons King; Trump: "Ryan Should Focus on Holding the Majority". Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired October 31, 2018 - 12:30   ET



[12:30:59] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back.

An escalation now of ethics questions surrounding the interior secretary Ryan Zinke. Sources telling CNN the Justice Department now investigating Secretary Zinke, that, following a referral from the Interior Department's inspector general.

Now, we don't know what specifically the DOJ is looking at. But, Zinke has a long -- been the lightning rod of controversy. Currently facing a number of open inspector general investigations including one about his involvement in a Montana land deal. A decision to redraw Utah national monument, and his role in blocking a Connecticut casino deal.

This development also comes on the heels of another IG report that found Zinke and his wife misused taxpayer funds for travel.

Speaking to CNN's Lauren Fox over the telephone, Zinke said, quote, I follow all rules, procedures, regulations, and most importantly the law. This is another politically driven investigation, the secretary says that has no merit.

Lauren joins our discussion. He is pushing back again saying this is fake news. Where are we going here?

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Well, he also told me over the phone that DOJ had not contacted him. That he was unaware of any investigation. But, you know, take the step back, this is a significant development. This is a sitting member of the president's cabinet who is under investigation by the Department of Justice. And while the inspector general office often makes referrals, this is an investigation at DOJ.

Now, we don't know the full scope of that investigation. But we do know as you brought out that there are questions about Ryan Zinke in conversations he had with the Halliburton chairman David Lesar about a project back in the state of Montana, Zinke's hometown of Whitefish, Montana, a land development project. That's one thing that the IG's office has been looking at.

And they're looking at other issues as well. That Connecticut casino deal, as well as whether or not the national monument out in Utah was redrawn to benefit a state lawmaker.

So, there are a lot of questions here. And after -- in midterm election there are often shakeups in the cabinet. That's not unusual in this administration, that's not unusual in past administrations. But I think the question is going to be whether or not President Trump sees these continued headlines, whether that becomes a problem for Ryan Zinke.

It's a real question I think here.

KING: It is a question. And all the more so, forgive me, Secretary Zinke, and the fact that he is not a model of transparency. We find out after the fact that a lot of things he does are not put on his public schedule. They refused to tell us about certain things. You mentioned the meeting with the Halliburton CEO who had an interest in this Montana land deal. This is a local interview back in jail where listen to Ryan Zinke -- back in June where Ryan Zinke says, no big deal.


RYAN ZINKE, INTERIOR SECRETARY: This is exactly what's wrong with the press. And the president has it right, it's fake news.

We go out to dinner, we talk about the background of the park, what are their neighbors like, what was the vision of the park, where the boundaries are, what the road is. You know, so they had a background.


KING: It's not exactly what's wrong with the press. It's exactly what's right with the press that we ask questions about these things. And it's exactly what's wrong with Secretary Zinke, forgive me, and other who, if you're going to have a meeting, dinner, maybe he's a friend but he's a stakeholder in a big decision, be transparent about it.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, this is why nobody should be holding their breath for President Trump to throw him under the bus. The president likes that. He like the punching back, the calling it fake news. He actually likes Ryan Zinke actually quite a bit, and thinks that he like a lot of his other cabinet members are being unfairly attacked for all of this stuff.

The president, not to my knowledge, has not really drilled down into what some of these controversies are or whether or not they matter to him enough that he's willing to sideline Zinke about it. I think he sees this as political attacks and Ryan Zinke is doing his part by framing it in a way that he knows will resonate with the president by saying this is about fake news. This is not -- this is about what's wrong with the press, it's not about ethics, not about draining the swamp, if you will.

[12:35:03] I think the president at this point, he's lost a lot of guys to this sort of thing. He's not one to take a loss. He wants to fight back and to win even if it means being called a hypocrite. KING: And with the House and the Senate both under Republican control, Republicans have largely turned a blind eye to this. There's not been -- every now and then, somebody says something a Capitol Hill Republican wise. But mostly, they just said, let's pretend this doesn't exist over here.

If the Democrats retake the House, we're going to live in a whole new world. This is the incoming, the man who would be the chairman of the Natural Resources Committee overseeing the Interior Department saying this. "If Democrats are given the opportunity to hold the congressional majority next year, Secretary Zinke will be called to testify in February on why his conduct in office merited referral to the Justice Department. He has abused the people's trust and lost any presumption of innocence or good faith."

It just reminds you elections do have consequences. And if the Democrats retake the House, these cabinet secretaries and others facing ethics questions are going to live in a new world.

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Yes, that's a great illustration of what's at stake in the House. I'm surprised he's saying he'll wait until February to tell you that. But, you know, we've had a -- there's been kind of a lull in the cabinet ethics watch and I think this elevates it back. I don't think there was a criminal referral on any of the previous ones. Was there?


HULSE: I mean, this is (INAUDIBLE).

KING: That's what makes it such a big deal.

HULSE: This is at a totally different level.

KING: Yes, and IG tries to do this within the family. And so if you should have paid your travel differently they issue a report. You take care of that inside the House. We'll take him outside the walls and go to DOJ which is a big deal.

HULSE: It's a much more serious situation. And, I think you're also right that, you know, one of ways that these things get resolved after elections before the hearings is, I'm going to spend more time with my family.


FOX: Well, there's a lot of cabinet shakeups that can happen after midterm. And I do know from talking to not just the Natural Resources Committee but other Democratic-led committees that they are planning on bringing all these cabinet secretaries up over and over again. They have not been able to get questions answered and if they take the House, they're going to want those answers.

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Right. The -- some of the White House staff have told my colleague Nancy Cook that there is a list of about six cabinet members that they might actually push out to try to clean the House before 2020 so that these cabinet members don't distract and bring down the president and his re- election effort. Now, even if they do that, Elijah Cummings at the House Oversight Committee, they're going to still bring these people in.

I know that there are some thought that some if some of these people go away, that the scandals will sort of be buried. But, it doesn't matter. I was talking to someone just yesterday who was saying, you know, even if people are gone we have to make sure that the oversight is there and plays in that policy changes that need to happen in the executive branch are made so you can expect they're going to relive all of the scandals, bring these people back in even if they've been fired.

KING: One of the many questions for Wednesday morning I should say.

Up next, job cuts at General Motors. One of the reasons, possibly trade wars the company said. But, we haven't forgotten today is Halloween.

Also not forgetting, Republican Congressman Mark Sanford. Isn't this sweet? No. I don't know. It's patriotic though. He's going to hand out constitutions instead of candy corn. Line up, kids.


[12:42:30] KING: Topping our political radar today, a supreme secret between two former Supreme Court justices. Sandra Day O'Connor once turned a marriage proposal from William Rehnquist. That back in the early 1950s when the two dated during their time together at Stanford Law School. NPR says an O'Connor biographer dug up a letter Rehnquist wrote where he puts the proposal in writing. Both soon after married partners who would become their long-time spouses.

The Trump administration again trying to change the rules concerning a key benefit of ObamaCare. The New York Times reports it's working, the administration is on a new plan who will give employers more flexibility in denying coverage for birth control. The administration tried imposing similar restrictions once before but they were block by two separate federal judges.

General Motors today offering severance packages to salaried employees who'd been with the company for at least 12 years. That's about 18,000 workers across North America. This comes despite solid third quarter earnings. In a statement, GM says it's trying to be proactive as it adapts to a changing industry. A spokesman citing possible trade wars as one factor in its decision to shrink the payroll.

Last night was Indiana's Senate debate. It's a tight race as we mentioned a few moments ago between Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly, Republican challenger Mike Braun. Both candidates stayed mostly on message but the Libertarian candidate Lucy Brenton used her time on the debate stage to get in some quick clips.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) LUCY BRENTON (L), INDIANA SENATE CANDIDATE: We got rid of King George for a reason, right? Can we at least agree on that? King George is gone, we're not replacing him with King Trump. No one is going to make unilateral decisions in our country.

MIKE BRAUN (R), INDIANA SENATE CANDIDATE: They ought to be on the same thing that everybody else is. That's where you'd start.


BRENTON: Blah, blah, blah. I have 10 children so the idea of contraceptives is something that I'm very much interested in.


KING: Funny I guess.

The head of the GOP's congressional campaign committee says that the group now washing its hands of fellow House Republican Steve King of Iowa. The National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Steve Stivers says his colleague's comments and actions are beyond inappropriate. King is under fire for backing far right candidates while slamming diversity and immigration. As a result, an NRCC pokesman says it cannot support his re-election bid in what has become in Iowa, a close race.


MATT GOMAN, NRCC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: NRCC and Chairman Stivers hasn't been shy to show moral leadership when the time calls for it. As we said yesterday, his words and actions are completely inappropriate. We strongly condemn them. We will not play in his race.


[12:45:02] KING: Congressman King says these attacks on him are orchestrated by, quote, nasty, desperate, and dishonest fake news.

No. They're orchestrated by the congressman's words over the years. Over the years. Look it up, folks, if you disagree with me. You can find it.

But this is striking. We're in a very competitive election environment. And the House campaign committee at a time it's trying desperately to preserve its House majority essentially cuts off one of its own members and, you're saying we hope you lose.

BADE: Yes, really remarkable moment here. I mean, it sounds like Steve Stivers sort of went out on his own and did this. It sounds like nobody knew in GOP leadership that he was going to do it but he had received some sort of briefing about recent comments from King and said he couldn't do it anymore. Just tweeted. And some people are not happy with him right now in the Republican Party.

But there is also some frustration over the years with Steve King. He's never been the biggest team player with the National Republican Congressional Committee. And I think if Republicans have to spend money in Iowa for, they're in a lot of trouble.

DAVID DRUCKER, SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: Having said that, they are spending some money in South Carolina one which suggests that the map is a little bit bigger than they would like. So it's not entirely without significance that they're basically saying hey, man, you're on your own.

BADE: Yes. But I mean, it is interesting though because Republicans, this sort of brings up an issue that has haunted Republicans throughout the entire election cycles. Sort of, you know, racist comments, you know, Trump calling Andrew Gillum a thief after these Robocalls being played against him. This is the first instance I can think of a high profile Republican actually being brave enough to push back against things he's seen another Republicans say and say that's racist, stop doing it.

So, you know, kudos for him in that regard.

PHILLIP: And the reality is, this shouldn't be that hard.

BADE: Right.

PHILLIP: I mean, as you pointed out, John, it's obvious when -- it's not a dog whistle anymore when everyone can hear it. So these sort of -- the profile in courage if you will is not really -- the bar is very, very low right now. And I think that this is just emblematic of a larger problem not so much that they are actually on their way to a solution.

The fact that this is so hard to say this is wrong is the problem. That is why we are having this conversation.

KING: Amen for that. Dead right about that. And again, if you support Congressman King, you think we're mischaracterizing him, let's just go back and look at the record. This is not a one time deal. This goes on for years.

Before we go to break, celebration. Boston breaking out the duck boats. Come on and join in. Everyone can join Red Sox Nation.

Spectacular. Great day in America. All across America. As the Red Sox celebrate in the greatest city in the world.

Jackie Bradley Jr. there holding up that trophy. Got to love it.


[12:51:56] KING: Welcome back.

Just moments ago, the president of the United States picking a pre- election remarkable fight with the Republican speaker of the House. On Twitter, the president is saying this, "Paul Ryan should be focusing on holding the majority rather than giving his opinions on birthright citizenships. Something he knows nothing about." "Our new Republican majority", the president says, "will work on this, closing the immigration loopholes and securing our border". That rebuke of the Republican House speaker from the Republican president, days before a big midterm election comes a day after the House speaker told a radio host the president's statement that he could undue birthright citizenship by executive order was, in Ryan's view, dead wrong.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: You cannot end birthright citizenship with an executive order. We didn't like it when Obama tried changing immigration laws via executive action, and obviously as conservatives, you know, we believe in the constitution. You know, as a conservative, I'm a believer in following the plain text of the constitution and I think in this case the 14th Amendment's pretty clear.


KING: We talked a bit earlier about the president's discipline in this campaign of not getting into circular firing squads with fellow Republicans. Never mind.

DRUCKER: Yes. The news cycle comes really fast. Well, I just spent about five and a half minutes telling all of you about other presidents stopped fighting with fellow Republican and how important that is to their efforts and try and hold on to these House majority and build it on the Senate. And never mind all that, they're now having less than a week to go, a big fight that's very damaging for Republicans in the most threatened districts. This is not about the Senate but about the House.

And, it's also -- as an aside very interesting to see the president embrace President Obama's pen and phone that Republicans were so angry about especially when it came to DACA when he legalized a lot of the Dreamers. This fight is not going away. And I think that we're going to have to see whether there's any new Republican majority in the House for the president to do anything --

KING: Now every Republican candidate in the country is going to get asked about this. Pick a side.


KING: The president or the speaker. Every Republican candidate. Is the president saying he's going to do an executive order? In this tweet, he says our new Republican majority will work on this.

Number one, most people think Democrats will win the House. And number two, is the president backing up an executive order?

PHILLIP: I think that's really important. Look, this idea of an executive order is not ready for prime time. The White House cannot defend it and neither can their allies. So shifting the conversation to whether birthright citizenship is good or bad is what they would prefer to be talking about. But that's not actually why this conversation is happening.

I mean, you can disagree on birthright citizenship and Republicans and Democrats have for many, many years. But I think the vast majority of the mainstream of people understands that an executive order is as Paul Ryan said a non-starter. The president is angry about it, but that's because he doesn't like being wrong about things that he said publicly. But that doesn't make him right about this issue.

KING: Yes. It's not Paul Ryan who made him wrong.

HULSE: I don't think Paul Ryan thought he was saying anything controversial in that interview. And now all of a sudden he's in this big fight. But it sort of puts their relationship where it started.

DRUCKER: I think Paul Ryan probably thought he wasn't doing anything to cause a fight because he was focused on the constitutionality of executive orders.

[12:55:05] Not necessarily on a big debate about birthright citizenships.

KING: Not the first person who thinks of himself as a constitutional conservative to have issues with the current president of the United States.

Thanks for joining us in the INSIDE POLITICS. See you back here this time tomorrow. Wolf starts after a quick break.

Have a great day.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1 p.m. here in Washington. Thanks very much for joining us.

We start with new information on President Trump saying --