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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump Eyes Replacements; Ross Dodges Replacement Rumors; Trump Responds to Canceled Cemetery Visit; Legal Drama in Florida Recount. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 13, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:00] DESIREE BARNES, FORMER OBAMA COMMUNICATIONS AND PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT STRATEGIST: And I'm appreciative of it. I think a lot of people will be.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Great to see you, Desiree. Thanks for coming in.

BARNES: Great to see you, too. Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Thank you.

Thanks for joining us. "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Kate.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

The president launches a tweet storm at France. More evidence of a post-election mood even his closest supporters describe as dark and angry.

Plus, the presidential venting includes fresh criticism of his homeland security secretary. He says she's weak on border security. Officials believe Kirstjen Nielson could be next on the high-profile list of administration officials sent for the exits.

And Congress returns with big post-election challenges, government funding, the president's border wall. For Nancy Pelosi, decisions now will have a big impact on her campaign to quiet Democratic critics who don't want her to become speaker come January.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: If you're effective as a woman, then they have to undermine you, because that's a real threat. So I'm probably the target -- more than a target than anybody except somebody who runs for president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We begin today at the White House with an restive, angry president launching Twitter attacks on a key ally and weighing, we are told, upcoming changes to his cabinet and inner circle. The ally is France. The attack coming as the president apparently catches up with the harsh reviews of his weekend trip to Paris. Among his tweets, quote, Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia. But it was Germany in World Wars I and II. How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris, the president tweeted, before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not. That from the president.

The Twitter rant coming as the president vents about the midterm election results and discusses more changes to his cabinet and his White House inner circle. Included, we are told, on the president's list, his own chief of staff, John Kelly, and Kelly's protege, the secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is live at the White House. He's been doing some of this reporting.

Jeff, we know the president's in a bad mood about the elections. Explain why he think some of his own team has to go?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, there's no question the president has been eying replacements, we're told, for all about everyone in the West Wing here and potentially in the cabinet for people who are not related to him. Now, of course, he's not going to replace everyone, but he's very open to replacing some people. So that is where his mindset is now. He's eying switching things up as he enters the halftime almost here of his first term in office.

And one person he's been angry at for a very long time, you know, this is not a secret here, he's made it publicly clear, he's been angry at his Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen. He believes that she has not done enough to stop the inflow of a border crossing. So that is known. He was saying over the weekend and in recent days that he wants her replaced.

Now, we don't know when that will happen, but one interesting thing here, as this is a potential domino-like effect, the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, is her biggest defender here at the White House. She was his deputy, his protege, as you said. So the question is, will John Kelly stay if she goes? There's some new reason to think that he will not. Some conversations here at least at the White House that he also may potentially leave at some point.

Now, we should offer a lot of words of caution here, John. John Kelly has been -- the rumors of his departure have been reported repeatedly over the last year or so. But this is something that would be a different moment.

So we do know the White House is eying other potential replacements for him. But, again, this is the president's decision. He will make these decisions on his own time here.

But, John, there will be new people in some of these posts when the new year begins. John.

KING: Jeff Zeleny live at the White House with fresh reporting.

Keep in touch, Jeff, if anything changes within the hour.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, Rachael Bade with "Politico," CNN's Manu Raju and Lisa Lerer of "The New York Times."

Let's start with this. It is typical after a midterm election for there to be changes. It's not so much that there are changes, it's how these changes are being considered. Jeff Sessions was fired. The chief of staff called him and said get out today. You don't get to stay until Thanksgiving. You don't get to stay till the end of the year. You don't get to do this on your terms. Get out.

Now the chief of staff and his protege, we know there have been headlines in recent days, I think we have some of them, about the president gets mad when he picks up and sees detentions are up or border crossings are up and we know he starts venting, my Homeland Security secretary is weak. I guess this is the way to put it. There's a way to do this if you think you need changes, and there's the president's way of doing this if you think you need changes.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, Kirstjen Nielson, the Homeland secretary, who's been there just under a year. Of course she took over, as you alluded to, from John Kelly. The two of them are very close. They worked together, you know, for a long time. She was on borrowed time from day one. That was something that has been kind of an, you know, open secret in Washington, was reiterated to me this morning from a Trump source. And the question has been, how long can she last?

[12:05:04] In her defense, she is in a thankless job in that the president has expectations of his staff, particularly at Homeland, on fulfilling his campaign promises and doing things at the border that are, frankly, undoable, particularly without legislation, which is part of his job, and even without legislation. And she's tried, to her peril, to give the president what he wants rhetorically. And she had a blip of sort of a good vibe with the president, ironically over the thing that maybe hurt her reputation more than anything, which is the child separation, going out there, defending it to the nth degree. The president was supportive of that in the way that she did that. But that was not a long lasting love for the two of them.

KING: But they -- they had problems getting high quality people to come in, in the first two years.

BASH: Exactly.

LISA LERER, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Right.

KING: And now they've had a midterm election where the Democrats have retaken the House. Some people will leave the White House to go to the campaign. Other people will leave because they're just exhausted or they have to get back to their families. They make more money in the private sector.

How do you attract new people when this is how you get rid of the old people, by leaking about them. I want you to go. Essentially encouraging you to resign because the president doesn't like to fire people.

Among them Wilbur Ross, the secretary of Commerce, who since the election, even before the election, people have been saying, the president think that he's not doing his job, that he lacks energy. So Wilbur Ross has a big event today and, of course, you get asked this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There have been news reports that have suggested that the president wants to replace you possibly with Linda McMahon from the Small Business Administration. Where does that stand? How secure is your job, Mr. Secretary?

WILBUR ROSS, COMMERCE SECRETARY: There is no stand. I'll serve as long as the president wants. And I have no indication to the contrary.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you haven't talked to him about it recently?

ROSS: I talked to him yesterday, but on trade issues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: IT's just -- it's -- how do you work -- how do you -- just the --

LERER: I mean, it's true, it -- you make a really excellent point. It does seem like a particularly thankless job. And I think the Department of Homeland Security is a particularly thankless job. And you do have to wonder why -- I mean we know the reasons why the president wants to make a change, why he hasn't gotten along with the current secretary. But, you know, he just spent the past several weeks talking about how there's a crisis at the border, who there's a caravan about to descend on America. And it -- you would think that a different administration would want to keep that department very stable right now, you know, and make sure that people felt really secure, particularly given that you have a Congress that's not (INAUDIBLE) this issue, right.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And the real -- the difficult part for people who want to stay or to attract the new talent is you're going to be dragged to Capitol Hill and have to answer a lot of questions about very difficult topics that are going to put you in a lot of hot water. And in addition to all the turmoil and the chaos and the back biting, the leaking and potentially getting fired, not by the president but to one of his aides, by just having to deal with the subpoena threats and fighting that with the new Democratic House, that's a difficult task for a lot of the (INAUDIBLE).

KING: Case in point -- case in point, he did, the morning after the election, fire his attorney general, told him to get out and get out today. He elevates his chief of staff, who's now the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, on the House side, which, in January, will have subpoena power. You've had Eric Swalwell saying this is an assassin brought in to kill the Mueller investigation.

Now, we don't know if that's true. We don't know if that's fair to Mr. Whitaker. Let's see what happens as it plays out.

You just had an interview, Democrats on the Senate side, they don't have as much power, but they have the same questions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: Certainly no significant action under Whitaker's authority should be taken at the department. We're going to push very hard through a variety of different approaches because this is a bottom line question. This is a question about whether Donald Trump is above the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, they don't think the appointment is legal. There's going to be a dispute. The lawyers will handle that, just like they seem to handle everything after the elections. The lawyers will get involved in that. But then there's the question of, you know, is he being brought into somehow reign in or quash Mueller.

RAJU: Yes. And how do the Democrats respond? One thing that I was trying to push Wyden on was how far will they go to demand the protect Mueller legislation that passes in the Judiciary Committee that would make it harder to dismiss a special counsel. There's some talk among the Democrats to add that to a must pass spending bill to avoid a government shutdown. It needs to be accomplished by early December. Wyden would not go that far, other Democrats would not go that far, risking the threat of a possible shutdown. So there's going to be a lot of talk at the moment. What they can actually do is a different question.

KING: And the person making these decisions, the president of the United States, is described by even his closest friends is in a foul place right now. They say that despite his public statements that the election was a complete victory. He gets that it was anything but. That the House is going to have subpoena power. That the House is going to investigate. That the House is going to not want to fund his border wall. That the House is not going to -- is going to question all the deregulation. That everything the president is for, the House is now going to question and be against most of it.

[12:10:01] This, this morning, as he ponders -- apparently he's catching up on the DVR and the reviews of his weekend trip to Paris. One of the things he did was decide not, because it was raining and he would have had to go by car instead of helicopter, to go to a ceremony to honor World War I American heroes who died on European soil. The president decided not to go. He was criticized for that. Some of his own advisers were steamed about that. And he tweeted this, this morning. By the way, when the helicopter couldn't fly to the first cemetery in France because of almost zero visibility, I suggested driving. Secret Service said, no, too far from the airport, big Paris shutdown. Speech next day at American cemetery in pouring rain. Little reported. Fake news. Misspelled cemetery once in there.

It's also -- it's just a simple fact, the Secret Service does not say no to the president. They raise concerns if they have security concerns. They lay out the logistics. The president has the right -- I've followed presidents into housing projects and into crowds when the Secret Service has said, please, don't. It's up to the president. So that's a farce.

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": Yes, and it seems like clearly he maybe is having regret about the fact that he didn't go to this ceremony. I mean veterans are a key constituency that he has been trying to reach out to. He always talks about rebuilding the military and making that a top priority. And the fact that he skipped this, clearly he got a lot of criticism. So he's trying to get out of that. And I do think it's telling, you know, John Kelly going to this ceremony and then the next day or within 48 hours we hear that, you know, Kelly is once again being thought of -- he's thinking about pushing him out. So, you know, clearly he's ticked at Kelly --

KING: Well, Kelly is clearly diminished. I mean the point I don't understand about the cemetery is, maybe the president was in a bad mood. Maybe the president didn't want to spend a couple hours in the car. Who is the person at the White House -- is there nobody who can say, Mr. President, do you understand how good this is for you? Do you understand the optics for you walking through the cemetery, at this time, in the rain even makes the pictures better, if you will, that you did it.

BASH: And even worse, there may have been somebody behind the scenes saying the opposite. Don't worry. You're going to go to other cemeteries. You can miss this.

I am told that your instinct is right, and the president does have regret. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that given what he just tweeted going on the attack on this issue because he clearly is catching up on the news about him and about that trip.

But it does speak to the broader question about who was there. And it doesn't seem like a big stretch to get from that particular mess -- and it was a mess. It was a structural mess. It was a management mess, not to mention a public relations mess, to, I need to fix things, because he was already on that path and this just emphasized that for him in his head.

KING: So the tweet doesn't fix it, nor does saying they were learning German in France during the world wars until the Americans came along. That doesn't fix things either.

Up next, Arizona flips, Florida keeps counting. The midterm balloting ended a week ago, yes, but the map isn't filled in yet.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:16:46] KING: Welcome back. The changing Senate map now threatens to render the president, remember his post-election optimism -- complete victory he says. Well, the map's starting to render that inoperative. The president's words from November 7th when he thought he would have 55 Senate Republicans, quote, the Republican Party defied history.

Now the changing math has made the Senate map look quite dramatically different. Arizona is blue. Mississippi headed to a run-off. And the president has turned to peddling conspiracy theories about the Florida recount. When will Bill Nelson concede in Florida, the president tweeted just a few minutes ago. The characters running Broward and Palm Beach voting will not be able to find, in quotes, enough votes. Too much spotlight on them now.

A Florida judge, for the record, said he's seen no evidence of fraud. Ditto for the state's top election officer, that would be the secretary of state.

Rather, the source of the sunshine state drama is tangled lawsuits and some counting hiccups without a doubt.

"Tampa Bay Times" political editor Adam Smith joins me now.

Adam, we're watching this from afar. Any idea, will they be able to meet the Thursday deadline or are they too far behind?

ADAM SMITH, POLITICAL EDITOR, "TAMPA BAY TIMES": Well, I think we're talking 67 counties and it's a good bet that at least -- that 65 will. And it's those two counties, Broward and Palm Beach, that just don't seem to be able to get their act together and they could tip over that deadline.

KING: If you look at the history of recalls, most people would say there's no way the votes are out there. You understand the state a lot better than we do here in Washington. Are there enough votes out there, and all these lawsuits, are they legitimate questions being raised, or are just sort of -- the ghost of 2000, people making sure they have place markers in course in case they need to go there?

SMITH: Yes, I think it's the latter in terms of the court cases. You know, the votes are theoretically out there, but it's a stretch. I think the hope of the Nelson people is that you've got these undervotes in Broward County, 20,000, 30,000 undervotes that the machine messed up and didn't count. And once they look at them, you'll actually see votes. So that's a leap, but it's conceivable.

KING: A leap, but conceivable. And will that be determined in Broward County or is that a question, if you have paper ballots and you say somebody marked it, the machine didn't count it, is that going to end up back in court?

SMITH: I think what I could see ending up in court is the deadline because once -- once this machine -- the deadline for the machine count comes Thursday, then they've got so little time to do these hand recounts of the votes -- of the ballots that are either undervoted or overvoted and I could see them -- a bunch of counties bumping up against that deadline and then it becomes a big fight, sort of like 2000 was in terms of should the voting -- should the counting continue.

KING: Sort of like 2000 was. Thanks for that, Adam. We'll leave this conversation there.

But if it's sort of like 2000, I suspect we'll have a few more in the days and weeks ahead.

Appreciate your insights, Adam.

Let's bring it into the room.

This matters, number one, because you should count votes and you should have elections people can trust. Number two it matters because if Florida swings, the president thought when he had his big post- election news conference, Montana was going red. During his news conference it was called for Tester. He thought Arizona, the Republican, was leading then. Now it's blue. Florida and Mississippi are on the board. If Florida were to somehow change, then the Republicans could come out of this at net zero. Possibly if Mississippi then went in a runoff at minus one. Most people think the Republicans are going to come out of this plus one, maybe plus two. But --

[12:20:15] RAJU: Look, I mean, it does -- either way you look at it, it's not the narrative that the president and Mitch McConnell were pushing the day after the election, that this was a very good day in the Senate. I mean the map for the Republicans coming into this cycle was one of the best that they had had in a very, very long time.

BASH: Ever.

RAJU: Ten -- probably ever. Yes, 10 Trump states, states that Trump won five in very red territory. And, remember, they started off the cycle with a 52-48 Senate. Then they lost that one seat in Alabama. So for the cycle at most it will be plus one, they have a 53-47 Senate. So if you're the Democrats, of course you want to be in the majority. But you look at the 2020 map --

BASH: Exactly.

RAJU: And there's a good chance of them taking back the Senate.

LERER: And a very --

KING: And so the president is saying in e-mails from his campaign, trying to raise money in tweets, stolen, fraud, crooked, crimes. Listen to one of his top White House aides trying, trying to agree with the president without exactly agreeing with the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MERCEDES SCHLAPP, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS: There's always concern about voter fraud. And so I think the key is, obviously, that in conjunction with states working with the federal government to make sure that this doesn't happen. But we always have to keep an eye on it because the most -- one of the greatest rights that we have, and privileges, is that of voting and we need to ensure voter integrity at the state and local and federal level.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The president say there was -- the president didn't say we have concerns about voter fraud or we're going to keep an eye on it just in case to make sure there isn't voter fraud. The president, with zero evidence, said there is voter fraud.

LERER: Right. This is a strategy that we've seen the president use before. Of course, after his own election, when he --

BASH: Won.

LERER: What he won, but he didn't like the margin, so he started talking about voter fraud in California.

My favorite thing he said was when he said that the election official should let Election Day stand, which is kind of like, you're up in the fifth inning, so why play the full nine.

KING: Right.

BASH: Yes.

LERER: Let's just call it at five.

BASH: Exactly.

LERER: I mean this isn't -- this just isn't how elections work. And I think it's actually really detrimental for our electoral system because, in fact, there is no evidence of fraud. They've had various government entities in Florida investigate this. Nobody has found any evidence of fraud. There's evidence of mismanagement perhaps, particularly in Broward County, but not of fraudulent ballots.

KING: Right.

LERER: So what you're doing is really just weakening confidence in the entire, you know, election process, which really benefits neither party in the end.

KING: But he thinks it benefits him.

LERER: Right.

KING: He clearly thinks it benefits him and he was trying to keep his base fired up about a fight in Florida, in my view, because he doesn't want to look at what happened, which was a blue wave in the House. Republicans -- yes, Republicans won North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri. They should have won those seats six years ago. They got them back this year, the Republican states. And now we have in play Mississippi, where an incumbent, she's an appointed senator right now, but an incumbent Republican senator said she was invited to an event and she said, quote, if he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row. A Republican senator from the state of Mississippi said the words in 2018, if he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row. Cindy Hyde-Smith now, you would think, trying to explain this. Not really.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CINDY HYDE-SMITH (R), MISSISSIPPI: We put out a statement yesterday and we stand by that statement.

We put out the statement yesterday and it's available and we standpoint by the statement.

I put out a statement yesterday and that's all I'm going to say about it.

QUESTION: At least explain how it could be --

HYDE-SMITH: I put out a statement yesterday and we stand by the statement. And that's all I'm going to say about it.

I put out a statement yesterday.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The statement was -- the statement was, I used an exaggerated expression of regard. And any attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.

No, that explanation is ridiculous. If this -- if this, back in the day, back in the day, the day that most of us hope was sealed in a vault and sent away, was an exaggerated expression of regard, you could say something like, I used a term I heard a lot in my youth and I'm horrified. I'm sorry if I offended anybody. Oh, my God, I'll never say that again. But instead you say, I put out a statement.

And I just want to note, she's running in a run-off against the former Agriculture secretary, Mike Espy, former Congressman Mike Espy, an African-American Democrat. The state population is more than a third African-American. Is there nobody who would think that the Democrat had a prayer in Mississippi. But I give you Alabama Democratic Senator Doug Jones --

BASH: Exactly.

KING: To put on the table. Is it possible?

BASH: Look she's -- the fact that she wouldn't even repeat the statement, which, as you said, fell short by any stretch of the imagination, she doesn't want --

KING: You're way more polite than I am.

BASH: She doesn't want it to be -- she doesn't want a sound byte.

KING: Right. BASH: She doesn't want -- it's OK for you to read it, but she doesn't want that sound byte. Why? Because she's going to go into a run-off and she doesn't want her base depressed.

That is a sad statement. It pains me to utter those words. But that's the political reality. And what she might be doing is what you alluded to, John, firing up Mike Espy's base who might have just been like, all right, well, it's, you know, it's Mississippi. There's no way he'll win in a run-off. Well, if you keep that up, maybe he could.

[12:25:03] BADE: And let's keep in mind the broader context too because Republicans right now, when it comes to issues of race and racial tensions right now, they are having clearly a big problem with Trump in the White House saying controversial -- making controversial comments post Charlottesville, et cetera. But also Steve King, who just a couple of days ago was caught on mic saying -- basically equating immigrants to, quote, dirt. And, again, GOP leadership, Steve Stivers, the chairman of the NRCC, he got in trouble privately when he came out and said Steve King's comments were, you know, unacceptable. No other GOP leader said anything about it.

BASH: That's right. He was the only one.

BADE: So the party right now has a big problem. And this just highlights them letting something like this stand.

LERER: But it's Mississippi and Roy Moore in Alabama was a really, really troubled candidate. I mean there were all these accusations that he had behaved like in sexual ways with young girls. So it's -- I mean it's still really, really hard. It's still really hard.

RAJU: And national Democrats have sat out of this race so far.

LERER: Yes.

BASH: Yes.

KING: We'll see if they do. We'll see what happens in that.

BASH: That's a very good point.

KING: But to that point, good for Steve Stivers, number one, putting principle, pride over power in politics and we'll see --

BASH: In suburban districts.

KING: Yes, and if he invited me to a public hanging and anyone who says that's a negative connotation is ridiculous. No, bad answer.

Up next, they may be lame ducks, but lawmakers are back on The Hill today with a heavy workload and plenty of drama.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)