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Answers to Questions Submitted by Trump; Trump Discusses Prosecution; Whitaker Spoke in Past about Clinton; Giuliani on Mueller Questions; Fudge Won't Challenge Pelosi. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 21, 2018 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:15] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Stunning details of how the president pushed to prosecute Hillary Clinton and James Comey and how his own lawyers warned him such an abuse of power could get him impeached.

Plus, the president's lawyer shares with CNN some of the questions asked by the special counsel and suggests there could be a fight over executive privilege if Robert Mueller now has new questions about the presidential transition or after Mr. Trump took office.

And a morning tweet praising Saudi Arabia for helping lowering oil prices. The president defiant as leaders in both parties condemn his decision to shrug off evidence the crown prince ordered the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.


REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: We're an exceptional country because of our moral standing. We don't always live up to our ideals, but we really are a moral country. And the president just traded that for 30 pieces of silver.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Saudi Arabia needs us more than we need them. It's not too much to ask an ally not to butcher a guy in a consulate.


KING: A busy news day this day before Thanksgiving.

And we begin with new evidence the president sees the Justice Department as a weapon and cares little for the constitutional guardrails. "The New York Times" reporting the president wanted to order government lawyers to prosecute two people high on his enemies list, Hillary Clinton and the former FBI Director James Comey. Sources tell CNN the president has, on multiple occasions, asked the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Matt Whitaker, who's now the acting attorney general, how investigations into Clinton were moving forward. But the episode this past spring is detailed by "The Times" triggered

an extraordinary warning. The then White House counsel, Don McGahn, told the president, no, he lacked the authority to order prosecutions and McGahn instructed White House lawyers to write a memo outlining the potential consequences. Consequences that included possible impeachment. "The Times" story broke on the same afternoon the president's lawyers say their clients submitted answers to the special counsel's questions. More on that in a moment.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is at Mar-al-Lago traveling with the president.

Jeff, is the White House saying anything about this remarkable inside account of a president by most accounts looking to abuse his power?


The White House is not saying anything at all about this. The president is not tweeting anything about this. He is at his golf course. He's been there for, oh, about three and a half hours or so.

So we certainly know when the president disagrees or does not like a story he talks about it either out loud or on social media. He has been absolutely silent about this because of this reason, John, this underscores what we know along the way. The president has repeatedly asked Justice Department officials along the way over the last year or so why they aren't investigating more of these Clinton-related activities, why they have not appointed a special counsel.

Sometimes he's quiet about it. Sometimes he's asking about it. But we do know that this was not a one-off. We do not believe the president took that memo and thought, oh, I can't do this anymore.

The question here, John, is this, and what folks on Capitol Hill and others are watching for, is he going to act his new attorney general, the new acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker, to do something else here? Is he going to use this as a part to shape who he picks for his new attorney general nominee going forward into the next year? So all of these questions are relevant, John, for that reason. The forward- looking aspect of this, what he intends to do with his Justice Department going forward.

Of course, all of this, most White House observers believe, the intent of this is to muddy the waters over his investigation, over the Russia investigation, by adding more special counsels and more investigations so he doesn't have to necessary think talk about the Russia investigation alone.


KING: Excellent point there at the end.

Jeff Zeleny live from Mar-a-Lago.

Jeff, appreciate it.

With me in studio to share their reporting and insights this day, Molly Ball with "Time," CNN's Manu Raju, Michael Shear with "The New York Times," and "Politico's" Elana Schor.

It is -- it is just -- we say we're not surprised anymore by things this president does, but should we not be shocked that a president of the United States, he'd never been in politics before, maybe early on you could at least get at he doesn't understand how the Justice Department is supposed to be independent. He was reminded of that on many occasions.

I just want to read something else from "The Times" report.

The president has continued to privately discuss the matter, including the possible appointment of a second special counsel to investigate Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Comey, according to two people who have spoken to Mr. Trump about the issue. He has also repeatedly expressed disappointment in the FIB director, Christopher Wray, for failing to more aggressively investigate Ms. Clinton, calling him weak one of the people said.

MICHAEL SHEAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Yes. I mean, look, but part of what this underscores is that as much as we've been focused in recent days on these answers to the questions about collusion that the president has apparently now submitted back to the special counsel. That the broader question of obstruction of justice and what the president did or didn't do to put pressure on the Justice Department is part of a really long pattern of a kind of idea of a relationship between the presidency and the Justice Department that completely shatters all of the norms and the protections that have been in place under Democratic and Republican presidents going back at least to Nixon, right? And those are -- I think are going to be the subject of further investigation.

[12:05:36] And for people who think that the Mueller probe is winding down, keep in mind that there's a whole other piece that hasn't really been fully engaged, you know, at least between the special counsel and the president. And that is going to happen before this is all over.

KING: And the Democrats are about to take charge in the House. And so I assume if there's an actual memo, now they could cite executive privilege saying it's advice to the president, but if there's a memo you -- one would assume that the Senate -- the House Judiciary Committee is going to say, share.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it. And already, too, there's a push to try to figure out exactly the conversations the president had with Matt Whitaker, not just about this, but about a range of issues. But now that we've learned that he had discussions with Matt Whitaker about whether or not there was a prosecution ongoing against the president's opponents, Democrats will want to know that.

Chuck Schumer, yesterday, sent a letter to the inspector general of the Justice Department to investigate it. So we'll see if the inspector general does his own investigation. But what happens on Capitol Hill, that will also be a question going forward.

So they -- the White House needs to understand that these things before would be ignored for the most part by Capitol Hill. Not anymore. And that's a big warning sign.

The other point is that the president claimed he didn't know Matt Whitaker. We know that's not true. According to these reports show that he knew Matt Whitaker and talked about this with Matt Whitaker.

KING: Right, talked about seeing Matt Whitaker on television, liking him and then bringing him in. About this, I just -- I said at the top of the program, this is shocking when you see a president repeatedly pushing, why aren't you bringing -- why aren't you prosecuting my enemies. Why aren't you prosecuting, using your powers to prosecute people I don't like. Shocking, but, again, let's go back to the campaign, not surprising.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If I win, I am going to instruct my attorney general to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation because there has never been so many lies, so much deception. There has never been anything like it. And we're going to have a special prosecutor.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's just awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country.

TRUMP: Because you'd be in jail.


KING: Remember back at the time, there was bipartisan just disbelief that a candidate for president would say, if I win, I'm going after my enemies.

MOLLY BALL, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": The weaponization of law enforcement, the turning of the apparatus of the state into the personal tool of the leader, that's third world dictator stuff, right? And I think what Trump's defenders will point out -- will point out in this case is, well, he didn't actually do it. He didn't make it happen. He seems to have tried repeatedly. This was not an idle spurt.

But it is true that this president says a lot of stuff and a lot of it doesn't happen or is just off the top of his head. And, in this case, the rule of law also benefits from the fact that he's not tremendously focused. So he will often -- he'll tell someone to do something and then he'll go off somewhere else and either forget about it or be focused on other things.

But, yes, I mean, if he were to find a way to do this, of course -- and I think one other thing is that this is sort of the thing that Trump and his allies feel is being done to him is a politically motivated prosecution. But under, you know, our system, under the rule of law, there is, as you mentioned, a wide -- a long treatise, a big rule book governing this stuff for a reason because we're supposed to have an independent Justice Department.

KING: Supposed to have an independent Justice Department.

ELANA SCHOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": One thing we haven't mentioned yet, though, is that Lindsey Graham, who agrees with a lot of this talk, weaponizing law enforcement, going after perceived anti- Trump bias in the FBI, Lindsey Graham is about to become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. So we can talk about House Democrats and what they might want, but the Senate might have a chairman blocking and tackling for Trump next year.

KING: That's an excellent point.

And to the point Manu made about Whitaker, this may be unfair to Mr. Whitaker. He said a lot of things before he came into government when he was a commentator, when he was a conservative activist. He has a First Amendment right. Now he's been named acting attorney general. But the president has set him up in some ways.

And so the question is, when will we see more transparency for Mr. Whitaker. When will he maybe come out and talk to reporters, talk about what he said prior to after. Because in terms of the prior, he sounds a lot like the president.


MATTHEW WHITAKER (May 2017): Well, you know it is pretty interesting that we don't have a special counsel appointed for the former secretary of state having an illegal e-mail server in her house and we appoint a special counsel with zero evidence of any ties between Russia and Russian nationals and the Trump campaign.

[12:10:08] And it's an interesting world we live in. Interesting times. And sometimes the -- I always have to just remember that some -- that black is white and white is black in these situations.


KING: I don't know if he knew it at the time, but that's a great audition for a job in the Trump administration, number one. But number two, again, to be fair to Mr. Whitaker, these are things he said before he came into government. But the president has named him to this position and he has been not available to answer questions about how he views the job now and what he said before.

RAJU: And, remember, he's going to be the first witness that the House Judiciary Committee wants to call up next year. We'll see if he resists that. We'll see if a subpoena fight happens. We'll see if there's another attorney general named, who is nominated at that point.

But he's going to be in this post for some time, assuming even the nomination came today. That confirmation process is going to take some time. So he's going to have a lot of say about what happens in this key moment of the Mueller investigation. And will he eventually come up to "The Hill" and answer questions. That's going to be a question for next year.

KING: Right.

BALL: And will he be allowed to serve? I mean his appointment has already been challenged. And there are differing legal opinions on this. If -- you know, everything that the Justice Department does under him is going to be challenged until the court resolves that question of whether his appointment was legal.

KING: That's a great point, although we do know from reporting that the president is happy with him and wants him there, at least for the time being. We'll define time being when we can.

Up next, President Trump submits his answers to the special counsel. The question now is, what does Robert Mueller do next?


[12:15:36] KING: Welcome back.

Some new insights today into just what Special Counsel Robert Mueller asked President Trump about the 2016 campaign and possible contacts or collusion with Russia. Presidential lawyer Rudy Giuliani telling CNN the president was asked, for example, what he knew about his son, Don Junior's, Trump Tower meeting with Russians who, you remember, promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. Also asked about some of the president's own public statements about Russia and Democratic e-mails. The answers were submitted yesterday. Giuliani telling CNN's Pamela Brown, it's likely Mueller's team will have follow-ups. And that the president's lawyers will consider them in good faith.

But as for what comes next, meaning if Mueller now wants to ask questions about after the election, including potential obstruction of justice after Mr. Trump became president, Giuliani suggesting to Pam that could bring a fight over executive privilege. And the client, meaning the president, now pretty clear on the question of whether he would ever sit down for an interview with Mueller.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we've wasted enough time on this witch hunt. And the answer is probably. We're finished. We gave very, very complete answers to a lot of questions that I shouldn't have even been asked. And I think that should solve the problem. I hope it solves the problem. If it doesn't, you know, I'll be told and we'll make a decision at that time. But probably this is the end.


KING: It's interesting. And Pam Brown joins our conversation.

The president there, questions I shouldn't even have been asked, gives you insight into his mindset. And Rudy Giuliani told you this if there were follow-ups. So they submit these questions. The Mueller team will look at them. If there are follow-ups, what did you mean by this, or could you give us a little more detail about that, we'll consider them and answer them if necessary, relevant and legal. If it was something that would be helpful, relevant, not a law school exam. So he's trying to -- trying to tell Mr. Mueller what to do. Good luck.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. Well, it was really interesting because it is clear that the president and his team of lawyers believe that the ball is in their court, or at least that is what they're trying to project here that, you know, if they want to have any follow-up questions, we'll look at it, we'll assess, we'll decide whether we want to respond. It may not be that clear cut.

But what is clear is that this may not be the end. You heard the president say in that interview, we think this is the end. Well, in talking to Rudy Giuliani and in talking to my sources, this is likely not the end. There are likely to be follow-up questions. And the door is still open for Robert Mueller to seek an interview with President Trump. That is certainly not off the table.

Now, I will tell you, sources close to the president believe that it wouldn't go that far because now that they have Matthew Whitaker as the acting attorney general, they do not believe that he would approve a subpoena to interview the president. So there is this sort of position that, among the president and his legal team, that, look, we've cooperated, we've responded to Robert Mueller's questions and we're on firm legal ground here.

KING: Which raises a number of questions for what does Mueller do next? Does Mueller just decide I'm not going to subpoena the president. I'll just write a report. Does Mueller decide, I am going to subpoena the president and I'll pick this fight, even if Matthew Whitaker tells me no? Or does Mueller decide, fine, I'm going to run out the clock, keep doing other things and we'll see who replaces Matthew Whitaker?

So it's a fascinating moment. The submitting the answers to round one only really opens the door to a very long list of other questions.

RAJU: Yes.

BALL: That's right. I mean it's pretty remarkable that they did submit these written answers because what it tells you is they do want to appear cooperative, right? They don't want to stonewall from the beginning. Now they're taking a position that the president is not cooperating further. But they did want to appear cooperative at the outset.

So -- and, you know, you look back to the Clinton impeachment and a deal was reached to avoid a subpoena fight for exactly the same reason, the president did not want to appear uncooperative. The president did not want to appear that he was stonewalling the investigation.

And so, you know, as Pam was saying, we don't know what the next steps are here. And there's going to be decisions made and this point and the Trump team is not in control of that.

RAJU: And the key is don't want to appear non-cooperative. We don't know what they said in these answers.

KING: Right.

RAJU: They could also -- they could be nonresponsive and they could actually prompt follow-up and perhaps that could prompt the Mueller team to push for further answers and maybe the Trump team is not giving as much information because they know they have an ally on their side in the acting attorney general.

BROWN: And I will tell you, just on that note, from my reporting, there were some questions that the legal team balked at, including the transition period. So that was after the election, before the inauguration. There were some questions Robert Mueller asked and the president's legal team used that as a legally gray area that could be protected under privilege. It's unclear how, if or if that was resolved but that's certainly been a sticking point. And there's still the open question of obstruction.

[12:20:15] SHEAR: Well, and from a political perspective, the political dynamics that were in play when Bill Clinton wanted to appear not to be obstructing an investigation and so submitted and essentially settled the question, that -- it's unclear to me whether that is in play now, right, because this president doesn't seem bound by those same dynamics of whether or not he -- I mean he already appears to have been obstructing the investigation in all sorts of way. And whether or not that kind of political pressure will work on him, as he negotiates and his team negotiates with Mueller, is unclear.

KING: In President Clinton's case, what tipped the scales there was when they realized the evidence that the special counsel had from testimony by the witnesses, the other evidence we won't discuss on television, say there's no need for it, but they just finally decided they had no choice, partly for the cooperation, but partly because of the evidence. The question is whether the same standard applies here.

To the question of Whitaker. I said in the last segment, you know, again, we should be fair to him and judge him by his actions as acting attorney general, not by what he said beforehand. But there is the question -- we knew Jeff Sessions recused himself. Rod Rosenstein on Capitol Hill said many times, I oversee Robert Mueller. I know what he's doing. He's on the right track. Everything he's doing is fine. We haven't heard a peep from Matthew Whitaker. But we do know the president thinks this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's going to be up to him. I think he's very well aware politically. I think he's astute politically. He's a very smart person. A very respected person. He's going to do what's right. I really believe he's going to do what's right.

CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": But you won't overrule him if he decides to curtail --

TRUMP: I would not get involved.


KING: On the one hand, I would not get involved. That's the right answer. But, again, translate for me, he's going to do what's right. I really believe he's going to do what's right.

Matthew Whitaker knows what the president thinks is right because he made that clear. Jeff Sessions never should have recused himself. He never should have allowed this investigation to go forward. Rosenstein is out of favor with the president because he did. So, translate that.

RAJU: I don't think we know the answer. I mean we don't know what Matthew Whitaker is going to do. What we know is what he's told Republicans on Capitol Hill to keep them on them on their side is that he will not interfere with this investigation now, because as Lindsey Graham said the other day, well, it's because Whitaker is concerned about his own -- how he's viewed. This is going to reflect on him personally. But, of course, he has to worry about how the president views him, too.

KING: I think he owes the American people some transparency about how's he -- how is he going to make these decisions. Needs some time to get settled. Got it. But he owes the American people some -- this little footnote about the special counsel and how he plays hardball. George Papadopoulos was supposed to go to jail on Monday. He asked a court to give him a couple more weeks, to let him stay out of prison. The special counsel quickly filing, the defendant has no pending appeal. His motion is made for purposes of delay. And he has not presented a substantial legal question that is likely to result in reversal. So the special counsel sending another signal. He plays hardball. We'll watch how that one plays out in court.

Up next for us, Nancy Pelosi moves closer to regaining the speaker's gavel.

And, watch this, an admission from a top Senate Republican to Stephen Colbert.


STEPHEN COLBERT, HOST, "LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT": Now that the Democrats have taken over the House of Representatives -- by the way, would you call it a blue wave?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think 39 seats is a pretty wave-like event.



[12:28:05] KING: Welcome back.

Another Nancy Pelosi critic reversed course today as she again used some old school horse trading to fight off calls for new leadership. Congressman Brian Higgins of Buffalo was among 16 House Democrats who just the other day signed a letter demanding Pelosi step aside. But he now said, just today, he supports her for speaker because he says she agreed to put two of his priorities, infrastructure and earlier access to Medicare, high on the Democratic agenda for next year. Higgins follows Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge who says she's now on team Nancy just days after saying she was mulling a run for speaker herself. What changed? Pelosi promised to create a new subcommittee to focus on voting rights and election reforms and to make Congresswoman Fudge a chairwoman.

It's old school, but it works.

RAJU: Yes, I mean, this is Congress at its finest. I mean people -- leadership races are not won among the voting population. It's among the caucus, the members elected to Congress. And the members, they want things from their leadership in exchange for their votes. A lot of it's based on personal relationships. Some of it is concerns about backlash for opposing the leadership. That's why people are not betting against Nancy Pelosi because she has so much power to influence rank-and-file members, how effective they will be in the new Congress.

Now, she still has a math problem that she'll have to resolve. There still are enough Democratic detractors, incoming freshmen and incumbents who say that they will vote against her on the floor. But if the Higgins situation and Marcia Fudge situation are any example of this, she could very well flip other people if they have no viable candidate, which they don't at the moment.

KING: That's two big cracks. The question is, does the opposition crumble?

SCHOR: Yes, and what I thought was most interesting is, she's also clearing the way for David Cicilline, who is, you know, a lesser known House Democrat. But she's showing the caucus, like, look, I have the power to create a new leadership position to resolve these problems. At this point she's gilding the lily, if you will, showing off, like who else can do what I can do right now. And it's working clearly.

[12:30:02] KING: Here's his statement. Somebody try to square this circle for me. This is Congressman Higgins. Some will ask why I have changed my position.