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Legal Battles Unfolding as Florida Races Toward Recount Deadline; Fed Judge to Hear Arguments on Florida Signature Match Law; Election Officials to Review Thousands of Provisional Ballots in Georgia; Lawmakers Back on Capitol Hill for Class Photos and Leadership Talks; McConnell Meets with Newly-Elected GOP Senators; Trump Considers Major Shakeup in His Administration; U.S. Futures Down After Wild Tuesday on Wall Street. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired November 14, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Poppy is off today. The president is on edge. The West Wing on egg shells. The East Wing on the attack.

Welcome to Wednesday in the post midterm Trump White House.

So far, as we know, the deputy national security adviser who the first lady demanded be fired is still on the payroll at this hour, as is the Homeland Security secretary, whose firing is said to be imminent as well. In fact, Kirstjen Nielsen is visiting the Mexico border today. Border security ironically the issue that may cost her her job.

But this morning the chaos and intrigue that are never far below the surface of the president's inner circle are bubbling up like never before. And CNN's Joe Johns is watching.

Joe, tell us about the fate as best we know it now of Kirstjen Nielsen, the DHS secretary, but also her mentor to some degree, the Chief of Staff John Kelly.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Certainly a very intense time here at the White House as often is after a midterm election, perhaps even more so because this White House has been in continual, if you will, upheaval over staff almost from day one.

Now the status of Kirstjen Nielsen as we understand it, according to multiple sources in the administration, she could be out almost any day. And you have to add the caveat, however, that any presidential decision is often not final until the president himself makes that decision public, either through an announcement. He also could tweet it out. And the president certainly has been known to change his mind.

Now there is also certainly some question right now about the situation with the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly. Umpteenth time perhaps that we have heard about the possibility of John Kelly departing the White House. There has been some suggestion that the president has been eyeing the chief of staff for the Vice President Mike Pence, that of course would be Nick Ayers. It is not clear of course whether the president is going to move in that direction because it has been said that he was planning on keeping John Kelly around here at the White House until at least 2020, the end of the president's first term.

So a lot of balls in the air. And we're waiting to find out what the president says next -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. I suppose one lesson of the Trump White House is that folks can be on the plank for months and months. Jeff Sessions was until he did finally go, though. What about the Deputy National Security adviser? This one particularly unusual because of the clash here between her and the first lady.

JOHNS: Absolutely right. Now this is of course Mira Ricardel. She is somewhat acerbic personality here in the White House, the Deputy National Security adviser. And we got this extraordinary statement coming out of the first lady's office yesterday suggesting that Ricardel no longer deserves to serve in the White House.

We have gotten some background from CNN's Kate Bennett on why that extraordinary statement came out. Apparently the first lady had reached out to the president five or six times to express her displeasure with Ricardel before going public with that statement.

Jim, back to you.

SCIUTTO: Joe Johns at the White House. Thanks very much.

Joining me now, Kate Bennett. She's CNN White House reporter.

So this feud between the first lady and Ricardel, to what we know at this point, how did we get here? What's the history of the animosity between the two of them?

KATE BENNETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: So it appears to have started on the Africa trip which happened last month. So there was some dispute over the number of seats available on the plane. Miss Ricardel apparently was not able to go on the trip. That there was not room for her. It began there. And then it sort of ballooned into something bigger where there was sort of withholding of NSC resources for the trip.

There have been stories about Ricardel perhaps planting or leaking stories, negative stories about Mrs. Trump's staff members and perhaps some about Mrs. Trump herself. So what was a small sort of dispute over logistics and operations then became it sounds like quite personal. And that's when the first lady really felt that she needed to get involved.

Certainly there have been other stories about Miss Ricardel. Joe just called her acerbic. I've heard other words as well. It seems as though she has sharp elbows in a certain sense. And certainly when it comes to her staff, who are a very small group, the first lady's office is relatively tiny compared to other modern first ladies, Melania Trump gets very defensive of them. And this is something that she had flagged to her husband, the

president, a number of times. She may have also mentioned it to John Kelly that this is somebody she wasn't approving of and there were some bad stuff going on behind the scenes perhaps that he needed to be aware of. And although, Miss Ricardel, she works for John Bolton, so this was something that the president had to consider with Mr. Bolton, and therefore Melania Trump took this rather surprising step.

[09:05:08] SCIUTTO: Yes. Rare public statement particularly with a National Security official.

Kate Bennett, thanks very much.

With me now CNN political commentator and former White House press secretary for President Clinton, Joe Lockhart, and former RNC and White House spokesman under President George W. Bush, Alex Conant.

First, Alex, if I could begin with you, just on the issue that we've just been discussion. There's certainly been powerful first ladies in the past. Hillary Clinton, no question, and Nancy Reagan. How unusual is it for a first lady to first of all so publicly go after but someone who's a National Security official here, the Deputy National Security adviser, very powerful position in any administration?

ALEX CONANT, FORMER WHITE HOUSE SPOKESMAN UNDER GEORGE W. BUSH: I mean, I think it's unprecedented. I certainly can't think of any other first lady who's publicly attacked the president's staff in the way that Mrs. Trump did yesterday. Certainly in George W. Bush's White House, I can't imagine Laura Bush issuing a statement attacking one of my former colleagues in the Bush White House.

So what's amazing to me, too, is that the staffer is still in the White House. I think how do you show up at work the next day if the first lady of the United States issues a statement saying that you don't deserve to work in the White House? Clearly this has to be dealt with ASAP. I'd be shocked if this hasn't been resolved in the next few hours.

SCIUTTO: Joe, I wonder, as you're watching this, and again after midterm elections, there is often a shakeup. That people come, they go. This is a president's right. What's unusual about what the president seems to be vowing here? I mean, is it just the scale of the potential shakeup?

JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think, you know, shakeups, reshuffling at the end of the midterms are not only normal, they're good. These are grueling jobs and, you know, periodically bringing in some fresh blood, moving some people around, makes enormous sense. But this is unlike anything anyone's ever seen. I mean, it's just nuts that the president's wife, who does not have a foreign policy portfolio, is demanding that someone get fired publicly after apparently saying to him privately five times then turning up the public pressure.

And I think it's also dangerous. I mean, I don't know the inner workings of this NSC. But in other NSCs the Deputy National Security adviser is like the glue that keeps the National Security apparatus together. And let's assume for a second that this woman is doing a good job of doing that. Well, she's not going to lose her job because the first lady is mad at her about how many seats were on a plane or something like that.

That's dangerous when you start, you know, subordinating the national security of this county to these petty little fights, and to do it out in public is just unseemly.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Alex, I wonder who the moderating voices are likely to survive in this administration. For the last several months, the first two years really of this administration, you would often say, well, there is Nikki Haley, moderating influence. She's on her way out. Jim Mattis, seems to be a souring of the relationship there between the president and his Defense secretary. Kirstjen Nielsen, often mentioned in the same category. But as you have those moderating voices go, who's going to be telling the president things he doesn't want to hear or giving him uncomfortable advice?

CONANT: Look, I mean, in fairness, there's hundreds if not thousands of people that work directly for the president. There's political appointees throughout the administration and the vast majority of them are very, very good at their jobs. I mean, I'm friends with dozens if not hundreds of them myself. Many of them have worked in other Republican administrations or for other Republican members of Congress, and are much more sort of traditional Republicans, as you would.

So I'm not too worried about who is whispering in the president's ear or how the administration is being staffed. I do think it's curious that he fires people without a clear line of succession in place. Why let Nikki Haley go and now weeks later we still don't know who the nominee is going to be, to be the U.N. ambassador. Same at the Justice Department where there's not a clear line of succession in place.

I'm glad that he hasn't fired his chief of staff or the Homeland Security secretary yet in part because I assume that there is not somebody ready to go in those critically important jobs. And -- so, look, I think the president has every right to shake up his White House, especially given the midterm results, but I do think that he should hit pause and make sure that he knows what he's getting if he removes the people that are currently there.

SCIUTTO: Joe, it seems, and you hear this quite often, that the only two people whose jobs are secure, 100 percent secure, are Ivanka Trump, his daughter, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner. I mean, this is something that's become part -- just become a reality in this administration, that he has two family members in that upper echelon of White House advisers.

[09:10:00] What does that mean for this country, that those family members, they're the ones with the job security, in effect, and they're the ones who arguably do have the president's ear to a degree that others do not? LOCKHART: Yes. I mean, I think it's -- there is a reason that we

have nepotism laws. There is a reason that traditional White Houses going back to Democrat and Republican don't do this. I mean, I imagine that, you know, these good public servants that Alex just referenced have to find it very difficult that they have to try to do the best public policy they can. But they also have to understand that at the end of the day it's what Jared and Ivanka want, two people who got no votes, don't have any experience, and have outsized influence.

And, you know, it's very, very difficult and I think it gums up the whole works when you have multiple hierarchies of how decisions are made. There is a reason that family members should stay on the outside. They can still advise, but it does not help the running of the government to have two close family members with outsized portfolios kind of wandering around the government, you know, imposing their will.

SCIUTTO: Joe Lockhart, Alex Conant, thanks very much.

CONANT: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this morning, a big day on Capitol Hill with big decisions that must be made about leadership positions for both parties. The real battle among House Democrats with some saying that Nancy Pelosi does not have the votes yet to be speaker.

Plus, the president's legal team could submit his written answers to the special counsel's questions any day now. Could a Trump-Mueller sit-down follow?

And stunning images out of California where the death toll continues to climb as firefighters battle a new threat. We're on top of that story. We'll be right back.


[09:15:00] JIM SCIUTTO, HOST, NEWSROOM: In Florida, the recount battle and yes, it is still underway, it's back in the courtroom today. Democrats expected to ask a federal judge to set aside some state laws so that currently uncounted ballots can be counted.

They'll also ask for tomorrow's recount deadline to be delayed. Joining me now Steve Bousquet; he's the Tallahassee Bureau Chief for the "Tampa Bay Times", knows these elections pretty darn well. So, Steve, thanks for joining us again. Just to be clear for folks at home who probably have been hearing about this every day and wondering OK, well, what's happening here and can this actually change the result?

What the Democrats want are ballots postmarked before the polls closed, ballots with mismatched signatures to be accepted. Ballots where voters made mistakes, but intentions were cleared to be counted. Are they likely to get all those demands approved by the judge?

STEVE BOUSQUET, TALLAHASSEE BUREAU CHIEF, TAMPA BAY TIMES: I'm skeptical, Jim, but I have covered this judge for a long time, and his name is Mark Walker, he's a Barack Obama appointee, he's known for very strongly worded opinions. Mark Walker is the guy who two years ago said it was obscene that Florida didn't in the Donald Trump election, that Florida didn't have a mechanism so that people could fix their mismatched signatures on mail ballots --


BOUSQUET: Before the election. And what Nelson is asking -- what Bill Nelson is asking that same judge today this afternoon is to basically count all those votes. We're talking thousands of ballots. My colleagues and I have started doing the math.

Doesn't seem like there's enough of those to swing the election in Nelson's favor even if they all went for the Democrats.

SCIUTTO: I see because the current -- the current margin is 13,000 votes. Do any of these things potentially add up? Whether if it's not just the mismatched signatures, but the postmark of the ballots, postmark before the polls, et cetera, if you put all those categories together, is there any chance that, that would overturn that margin?

BOUSQUET: It still feels anecdotally like it's too short. And the reason I have to hesitate is because we don't have at the "Tampa Bay Times" and "Miami Herald", we don't have a comprehensive 67 county spreadsheet of all these numbers. As you have reported many times, Florida like most states, highly decentralized election apparatus, everything is done at the county level and then certified by the state later.


BOUSQUET: I think that -- I think that Nelson -- I think that Nelson has a glimmer of hope with this issue of the voter intent standard for disputed under votes and over votes, which will begin to become a bigger issue in the next couple of days. That is canvassing boards, sitting around tables all over the state, looking at these defective ballots, trying to divine what the voter intended. You add up some of those votes, it could -- it could get Nelson closer.

SCIUTTO: Give me an example of what that would be. Will that be someone who didn't fill out the bubble entirely? I mean, is that the kind of judgment they're making? You know, what is the voter intent?

BOUSQUET: Right --

SCIUTTO: A question that they will be facing.

BOUSQUET: Sure, a hypothetical illustration is a voter initially votes for Rick Scott in the Senate race, then strikes a horizontal line through Rick Scott's name, and then instead of filling in the oval, circles Nelson's name.

SCIUTTO: Right --

BOUSQUET: The guide book in state administrative rules, the guide book says you count that as a vote for Nelson. And then there's this issue --


BOUSQUET: Of, you're going to be hearing about something called the magic words, which is the state rule requires voters for a disputed ballot to count, the voter writes on the ballot something like, "I meant this one, or vote for this one", words to that effect. So this is going to get bogged down. This can, you know -- this happened during the presidential recount where after about a week, everything moved into courtrooms around the state.


BOUSQUET: And we're starting to see that here right now.

SCIUTTO: Yes, final question. How long can this drag out potentially before there is a final decision?

[09:20:00] BOUSQUET: Well, this election is supposed to be certified, done at 9:00 next Tuesday morning in Tallahassee. And one of the things we're hearing is I think there's still a -- first of all, there's still a possibility that Nelson could prevail and get the deadlines extended.

It seems unlikely, but it's -- anything is possible. Palm Beach County supervisor Susan Booker as we know has had machine problems, has said she couldn't do all the recounts in time, she may get an extension.

SCIUTTO: Right --

BOUSQUET: And so -- but if there are no extensions, you know, the final ballot -- the final vote tally has to be in Tallahassee Sunday afternoon.

SCIUTTO: Got it.

BOUSQUET: Well, certified on Tuesday.

SCIUTTO: It wouldn't be Florida on election day without a little drama. We've been there before, Steve Bousquet --

BOUSQUET: A little?

SCIUTTO: Thanks -- just a little.

BOUSQUET: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Thanks, I know you're going to stay on top of it. Now to Georgia's unsettled governor's race between the Republican there, Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. A federal judge has blocked Georgia's Secretary of State, that's right, Brian Kemp from certifying election results by Friday.

This -- so election officials can review thousands of provisional ballots that were rejected because a voter's name was not found on the voter registration list. Cnn has not yet projected a winner in this race. Kemp though is leading by a pretty significant margin there, 50.3 percent to 48.8, 1.5 percentage points, Abrams hopes that she can force a runoff on December 4th.

Now, we go to Capitol Hill because it is picture day on Capitol Hill. Lawmakers from both parties are together for leadership talks and those class photos, and while there will be all smiles for picture time, major questions hang for this Congress. Will Nancy Pelosi be speaker again? Who will lead House Republicans?

And can this divided Congress in these divisive times get anything done? Let's go to Phil Mattingly, he's up on the Hill as always. Phil, what are you hearing from lawmakers as they get ready for these big photos, but also these big leadership battles?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So I'll take it question by question. On the first one, will Nancy Pelosi be the Democratic leader, be the next speaker? Right now, aides and lawmakers I'm talking to think it's likely, but they know for a fact that she doesn't have the votes yet.

That's now kind of a behind-the-scene list. Well, we are going to get an answer to today is your second question. Who is going to be the Republican House leader? By all accounts, it's going to be Kevin McCarthy. He's currently the number two in the House under Speaker Paul Ryan, he will be elevated based on a closed door vote today this afternoon of the Republican conference.

Your third question is anything going to get done in the new Congress? I'm not willing to make any predictions on that right now, still very up in the air. But I think what's interesting about what's happening right now is whether you have a Speaker Pelosi, whether you have a leader McCarthy.

All of these things that are happening in the days following the election are really going to decide what happens in the next Congress. Something else to keep an eye on, Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is about to meet with his new members, included in that group is expected to be Florida Governor Rick Scott.

You were just talking about his election, hasn't been certified yet, but Republicans I am talking to, say not only is Rick Scott in town, will be participating in leadership elections, but they are acting as if he is a member or newly elected member of their conference.

When I asked why? They said they don't think there's any opportunity for Bill Nelson to win. We'll obviously have to wait and see on that one.

SCIUTTO: Well, how can you do that if the election has not been certified because these are after all legally mandated recounts -- and sorry, as we're speaking, Phil, this is the -- this is the photo on the air of those new GOP senators appearing alongside the Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell there right in the middle. And look, there is Rick Scott. Rick Scott not yet certified, the winner of that Florida Senate seat, but he is right there on the left shoulder of the Senate Majority leader. So he, the Senate Majority leader, Republicans believe he is the new Senator from Florida. Let's have a listen.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER, SENATE: And we are here this morning to welcome our six new Republican senators that allowed us to continue our majority, and we'll be heading across the way here shortly to elect the leadership team for the next two years. Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Governor Scott, do you still contend there's a fraud going on in Florida with the recount?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hi, everyone, thank you very much --


SCIUTTO: There you go, you saw reporters asking questions of the current Florida Governor Rick Scott there. How he's standing there as the new GOP Senator of Florida when that race is still contested, no winner certified. Also of course, notable in that group is Mitt Romney, former presidential candidate, Republican presidential candidate, of course, new senator from the state of Utah.

Phil, just we were talking about this just before the class photos started there. But how do Republicans reconcile just the fact that Rick Scott has not yet been certified and there's a legally-mandated recount underway in Florida with having him there next to the Senate Majority leader?

MATTINGLY: Right, I think, look, if you talk to Republicans, they say the Senate Republicans Conference is not dictated by what's going on down in Florida right now. And Mitch McConnell; the Majority leader has decided and has made clear that he believes Rick Scott is going to be elected, eventually will be certified as the next senator.

[09:25:00] And as such, he should be participating in leadership elections for the next Congress, he should be participating in orientation, all those sorts of things. Look, as you know well, anything can happen over the course of the next couple of days as this recount goes through.

But Republicans do feel confident that Rick Scott will be the next senator, and because of that fact, they want him to participate, I also think there's a posture here that the Majority leader wants to send across and that probably Rick Scott's campaign and team want to send across as well that he is the elected senator in their view and therefore he is going to take part in all of the activities that any newly elected senator would.

We'll see if that ends up being the case, but right now, that's the posture they have and I think, Jim, that's where the leader, Majority leader McConnell certainly stands right now. SCIUTTO: Phil Mattingly on the Hill, thanks very much. Still ahead,

this broadcast, as President Trump contemplating, shaking up several senior positions in his administration, a report is giving new insight into his mood and temper over the last several days. We're going to talk to the journalist behind that story.

And just a quick check on the markets before the bell on Wall Street, futures are down following Tuesday's close, the Dow closed down 101 points after another turbulent day. Looks like there could be more losses today, stay with us, we're going to stay on top of that as well.