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16 Democrats Sign Letter Challenging Pelosi for Speaker; Trump: U.S. Remains Steadfast Partner with Saudi Arabia; Dems Urge DOJ Watchdog to Investigate Whitaker. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired November 20, 2018 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] ELIANA JOHNSON, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, POLITICO: So this is risky gambit for them. There's been some talk of Pelosi saying she'll run if she -- she'll run and set a date for when she might leave. I don't think that's going to happen. But I do think we have to give these Democrats who are (INAUDIBLE) committee against her. Some credit for putting their names to this effort.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: That takes courage. It takes courage to do (INAUDIBLE) among those are somewhat critical. Another one of those new Democrats coming, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of course got lot of national attention when she knocked off a member of Pelosi's leadership team in her primary. She's coming to Washington now, she says she wants change but she looks at this letter and the people who signed it and has this opinion.


ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ (D), NEW YORK CONGRESSWOMAN-ELECT: There is no vision. There is no common value. There is no goal that is really articulated in this letter aside from we need to change.

I think that what it does is that it creates a window where we could potentially get more conservative leadership. And when you actually look at the signatories, it is not necessarily reflective of the diversity of the party.


KING: And that are is part of Nancy Pelosi's argument that the people who signed this letter are more moderate. This was a progressive win in the election. They're mostly men. We just elected a record number of women to come to the new Congress. And the question is, can she sell it to just enough members?

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, BLOOMBERG: Right. The strangers you hear is that the opposition to her comes not from her base -- the base of her party like it did for John Boehner, it comes from the right. And the break down of the 16 members is interesting. Because you have four members there who are newly elected, who have not been in Congress before who are in genuinely difficult districts. Most of them -- a number of them I would say are Republican leaning. That's Anthony Brindisi, Cunningham, McAdams, and Max Rose. The others are Democrats in relatively safe districts like Seth Moulton and Kathleen Rice who just won a generational change. What you heard from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez I think represents the fact that progressives returning and new are not going to be the ones that give Pelosi a problem here.

KING: And yet, she sounds confident and some of those progressives want to be very confrontational when it comes to President Trump. That was part of their campaign message. This is Nancy Pelosi in a New York Times magazine profile where she said she pushes back against some of that.

"In terms of subpoena power, you have to handle it with care. Yes, on the left, there is a pound of flesh club and they just want to do to them what they did to us. That's not who we are. Go get somebody else if that's who you want."

That saying go get somebody else? That's a dare, right?


JOHNSON: One of the things that I think is interesting about Pelosi's push to become speaker is a lot of it is being done through the news media. I mean, she made a pretty high profile accusation that part of her caucus was anti-woman. That's a pretty I think bold claim to make to fellow Democrats.

And she took part in this New York Times magazine profile where she made claims like that. And so she is certainly an interesting case study in maintaining power and how it's done. And I think pretty savvy.

KING: It's a fascinating one, and she's got, first the caucus then the floor vote. Stay with us. It's going to be fun.

Up next for us, the interior secretary calls out who he says is to blame for California's wildfire disasters.


[12:37:36] KING: Topping our political radar today, California residents devastated by wildfires now bracing for possible flooding and mudslides. Several inches of rain in the forecast. The interior secretary Ryan Zinke just toured the disaster zone, calling it the worst he's seen including his military service in the war zones. And like President Trump, Secretary Zinke says better forest management could have kept this from happening. He also took a swipe at environmental groups.


RYAN ZINKE, INTERIOR SECRETARY: In many cases, it's been these radical environmentalists that want nature to take its course. We have dead and dying timber and the president is absolutely right. This is as much about mismanagement overtime. It wasn't just the last administration, this has been going on for years. (END AUDIO CLIP)

KING: An about-face by Democratic Congressman Joe Kennedy III on whether marijuana should be made legal nationwide. After coming out against it, the Massachusetts Democrat now says total prohibition isn't working and that legalization would create resources for treatment and abuse prevention. Kennedy's reversal comes on the same say Massachusetts begins allowing recreational marijuana sales. Now has the only brick and mortar stores that sell it on the East Coast.

CNN hasn't called it yet but the Democratic candidate Ben McAdams declaring victory in his race against incumbent Republican Congresswoman Mia Love, that's out in Utah. The lead in that contest is fluctuated over the last few days, the latest tallies now show McAdams up by 739 votes with an unknown number of ballots still outstanding. McAdams however says, he is certain of his legal hold.


BEN MCADAMS (D), UTAH CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: I'm eager to get to work representing Utah's fourth congressional district. We are confident that there is no way that Representative Love will retake the lead in any recount if she were to request one. Furthermore, we are confident that this number will be outside at the recount margin when all of the votes are tallied.


KING: That one has the special significance to what we just noted. Ben McAdams, he said no to voting for Nancy Pelosi. It looks like, not done yet but he seems to think he's coming. That adds to the map.

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Indeed. And remember, this has been an interesting race to watch over the last couple of days with the trading of beliefs. Because remember when the president stood up at his post-election news conference and went after very viciously the House Republicans who were -- who had lost or on the way to losing.

That Mia Love showed me no love and that's why she lost. But now we will see whether -- when the results are final.

[12:40:02:] KING: We'll see when the results are final. I also love Secretary Zinke saying the president -- when your job is on the line and you give an interview, always say the president is absolutely right.

We'll be right back.


KING: The breaking news is a remarkable statement from the president of the United States about Saudi Arabia and the murder of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. The president issuing a statement -- I covered the White House for 10 years, I've never seen anything like this. A remarkable statement. It starts with the headline America first and an exclamation point.

It goes on to make the case even though our reporting is they have not had a final CIA report on the circumstances of the death sent to the president, the president defiantly goes on to make the case that no matter what that report says, he will stand by Saudi Arabia and he will resist any calls from Congress for tougher sanctions that he does not think are appropriate.

More directly from the statement in just a moment, let's go first quickly to the White House and our reporter Sarah Westwood.

[12:45:03] Sarah, this is so striking. A lot of exclamation points beginning with the world is a very dangerous place. Take us inside how this came about.

SARAH WESTWOOD, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, John. And the president is acknowledging what we've been learning about the CIA assessment about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's alleged involvement in this incident. The president writing maybe he did and maybe he didn't know about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Of course the crown prince's knowledge of the event before it took place last month is one of the central questions concerning how the U.S. should react to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Obviously, there are lawmakers from both sides on Capitol Hill who have been pushing this administration to take a tougher line against Saudi Arabia. The president saying he may consider whatever ideas Congress does send him in terms of sanctions done legislatively, but he won't do anything that violates the security of the United States.

And again, he's continuing to tout the economic value of the relationship with Saudi Arabia and again pointing to Iran as a menace in the Middle East. So that's been the central focus of why the administration has pursued this realignment with Saudi Arabia as its top ally in the Middle East because the president is very much focused on countering Iranian influence. He's got a lot of hawks around him like National Security adviser John Bolton who have been emphasizing that Iran is the greater menace.

The president here, John is positioning himself to be able to not take tougher sanctions or tougher measures against Saudi Arabia as his administration is awaiting the delivery to the White House today of an intelligence report assessing what the CIA knows about the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman's involvement in this murder, John.

KING: Sarah Westwood, live at the White House. Important reporting. Thank you.

It is a pass if you read the statement. And it's essentially, it's a presidential pass to the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The president again, he says he still haven't seen the final report from the CIA, he has been briefed, we know the initial findings of the CIA (INAUDIBLE) the information and it says, with reasonable certainty -- good certainty that the crown prince ordered this murder. He ordered this murder. The president of the United States says in the statement, "Our intelligence agency continue to assess all information but it could very well be the crown prince had knowledge of this tragic event. Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. That being said, we may never know all the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi and in any case our relationship is with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, period."

KNOX: That's the important sentence, (INAUDIBLE). Set aside the stylus (INAUDIBLE), I get it, exclamation point below it but set aside the stylus (INAUDIBLE). This is basically what this president argued since almost the very beginning. One, the Middle East is about containing or rolling back Iran. Two, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is pivotal to that. Three, the relationship with Saudi Arabia is larger than this one journalist who appears to have been murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

And this repeated theme with the president. When someone is accused of something, someone he likes is accused of something and denies it, that the president emphasizes the denials and then kind of throws up his hands and says who can really know. But -- so stripping away the stylistic stuff, this is very much where they've been most of the time since the early October murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

JOHNSON: Yes. I mean, the president has kicked can down the road. He said, one week, two weeks that he'll get -- he'll make a final verdict on whether the crown prince of Saudi Arabia was involved in this or knew anything about it. He just permanently kicked the can down the road on by saying we may never know what really happened here. And he's essentially said our alliance with the Saudi kingdom is more important than any human rights atrocity that they may ever commit.

KING: He's essentially saying here, I don't care what happened. I don't care what happened. I'm sticking with Saudi Arabia.

KAPUR: This is what America first means to the president. This strategic alliance whether it's military arm sales, the shared rivalry with Iran, the selling of arms, things like are more important than moral considerations. And this distinguishes him from previous presidents whether it's a progressive like Barack Obama, humanitarian considerations were important to him. Whether it's someone like George Bush as well, moral humanitarian considerations were important to him as well. This is what America first means and what nationalism means to President Trump.

KNOX: Let me just counter and say, presidents of both parties have looked away at Saudi human rights abuses for decades. I mean --

KING: Absolutely.

KNOX: -- this president is not the first one to say that on balance, the relationship needs to overlook the warts and focus on the underlying thing. It's just a little striking because in part he is opening the door to the possibility that in fact, yes, the crown prince may have done it, it doesn't it. KING: It's the first statement I've seen from a president that essentially admits, you know, yes, this could -- it's a terrible thing he says. It could be a terrible thing, the crown prince might have known, might not have known he essentially says. But look at -- think about the money here.

This is a statement from the president of the United States. "After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. That's a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development." He goes on that.

Now the president has overstated these numbers in some occasions, but here's a presidential statement that says they're going to spend money in the United States of America, so they killed a guy.

[12:50:00] KIM: And we can't forget the fact that this is going to really escalate the confrontation in Congress because we already have had many Republican senators, Senator Corker among them saying if the administration doesn't act and response to this, we will. And that presidential statement gives them more fodder for action in the coming weeks.

KING: It's an interesting and different approach I guess of making your case.

A quick break. We'll be right back.


KING: Welcome back.

Democrats today are raising new questions about the acting attorney general and the special counsel investigation even though Robert Mueller's lawyers say in new court filings that the new boss at least so far has had no direct impact on their work.

[12:55:10] The Senate's top Democrat though asking the Justice Department inspector general to look into whether the acting AG, that's Matthew Whitaker had any illegal or improper contact with the Trump White House. Senator Schumer writes in a letter, "I am particularly concerned about whether Mr. Whitaker may have shared or could share in his new role confidential grand jury or investigative information from the special counsel investigation or any criminal investigation."

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz joins our conversation.

The Democrats have been saying they view this with alarm. Is there any evidence of that? Any suggestion that Matthew Whitaker is essentially, you know, the president's source now at the Justice Department?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes. I mean, there's no evidence to suggest that. But I don't know that legally there will be even a problem if Whitaker did decide to go over there and brief him on anything? I think ethically there are issues and that's why the Department of Justice, you know, and the AG would never directly brief the president on something certainly that he is involved in or anybody that he knows is involved in.

But, you know, could it happen? It could happen. We just may never know. And that those are the kind of questions I guess people in the centers or the Congress folks are got want answered at some point.

But he may not be there that long. We'll see what happens. But there's absolutely -- I don't think anything is stopping Whitaker from briefing the president on the investigation.

KING: And just to listen to the Democrats, and again, Mr. Whitaker was named by the president who forced Jeff Sessions out. He was Jeff Sessions' chief of staff, he's been elevated now. A lot of Democrats question the constitutionality of that. But listen to Senator Richard Blumenthal explaining what he thinks Whitaker's job is.


SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: What we have here is the danger of a slow motion Saturday night massacre. Death by a thousand cuts. Cuts in funding that could strangle the investigation. Cuts in authority. Cuts in subpoenas that may not be public.

I'm going to be introducing legislation that will require, absolutely require full disclosure of all the findings and evidence of the Mueller investigation if he is in any way forced to resign or if he is fired.


KING: The concerns are understandable. You know, all the reporting says that, you know -- and Whitaker was on the public record before he went in to the Justice Department saying things about the special counsel. So the concerns are understandable, but slow motion Saturday night massacre and death by a thousand cuts, cuts in funding, that could -- none of that happened, right?

PROKUPECZ: And also if you think of this for a second, we may be at the end of this. So the funding that Mueller would need for all of this is already there. So I don't know this whole idea that, you know, he's going to cut their funding, you know.

Look, I think having Whitaker there certainly has presented some problems for the special counsel and for Mueller and for Rod Rosenstein and they are very much aware of this. I do get the sense that nothing has really changed in terms of Mueller.

JOHNSON: I think having Whitaker there is an emotional relief to the president simply because he is able to think I've got my guy over there, I have an ally there. But I do think that that move backfired and that there was so much immediate scrutiny on that appointment that Whitaker was totally constrained and that anything he actually did substantively to clip Mueller's wings would have drawn such backlash that I think it's very unlikely he'll do anything. I do wonder if that makes the president move faster to nominate a permanent successor, but right now, I think it's more symbolic in the president's own mind than likely to be actually substantive in terms of affecting Mueller.

KING: And you hear on Capitol Hill right now, please correct me if I'm wrong, the Democrats don't seem to have the votes and they have one Republican Jeff Flake standing with them to -- with some legislation to protect Robert Mueller. It's interesting if you read the Washington Post, Nelson Cunningham is a former prosecutor wrote this. I've talked to him many times in the show, that if the attorney general and whoever the boss of the special counsel is, says no to something, there is a provision in the law who said you got to tell the relevant committees in Congress.

But Nelson Cunningham writing, it's after the fact though. "The attorney general is required to notify Congress that he had taken the action only upon conclusion of the special counsel's investigation. There's no real-time mechanism to compel disclosure of any interactions between Whitaker and Mueller. If the two meet, when they meet, what prospective actions Mueller reports and how Whitaker responds, these steps would be hidden from view."

So that's one of the reasons the Democrats are suspicious. They think that something happens now in this short period, however long it is, weeks or months, that Whitaker is there. Then this investigation gets shut down and after that happens, (INAUDIBLE) actually Robert Mueller asked for something and he said no.

KIM: And that's why you're seeing the urgency (INAUDIBLE) from both sides. For first of all, towards the president to nominate a permanent attorney general as soon possible. We'll have to see how successful Jeff Flake's gambit is in the coming weeks.

I mean, if the votes were just there, just put on the floor, it should pass. But the way that Jeff Flake is doing it, highly unlikely to succeed.

KING: We'll watch that one play out this week. One of the many things we're going to watch throughout the lame duck.

Thanks for joining us in the INSIDE POLITICS today, with the breaking news. See you back here this time tomorrow.

Don't go anywhere though, more breaking news. Brianna Keilar starts right now. Have a great day.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, John. I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters. And we begin with breaking news.