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Congressman Reverses Himself, Now Says He'll Back Pelosi; Key Members of Congress Want More Info on Ivanka E-mails; Trump Sides with Saudi Arabia, Sparks Bipartisan Outrage; Justice Roberts Rebukes Trump's Attacks on Court Judges. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired November 21, 2018 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] ELANA SCHOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: It's working quite clearly.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Here's a statement, someone try to square the circle for me. This is Congressman Higgins. "Some will ask why I've changed my position, the answer is simple, I took a principled stand. A principled stand however often requires a pragmatic outlook in order to meet with success."


MOLLY BALL, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, TIME: Now look, it is abundantly clear. This is the part of the job that Nancy Pelosi is good at. There's a lot of other parse but she isn't good at. But if assuming that she gets through this fight, it may have been a positive for her because it really has allowed her to showcase and to -- as Elana said, really show off her abilities to move her members and to get everybody into the tent.

Picking them off one by one like a sniper and having them make this humiliating show of their reversals, she's clearly very effective of this. It is -- (INAUDIBLE) noting that this is not something her Republican predecessors were particularly good at, getting recalcitrant and publicly antagonistic members to come into the tent with whatever combination of, you know, carrots and sticks, incentives and fear. But she's good at that.

And the objections to her are mostly about the other parts of the job, the political parts of the job, the image parts of the job. She's not good at that part. But what she is good at is legislating and keeping her caucus together.

KING: And to that point, what she's good at and what she's not. What she's been very good out of this is, number one, twisting arms, horse trading, call it what you will, getting some of her critics to join the fold. And number two, getting a lot of high-profiled help. You've seen labor leaders, women's groups, donors and a certain guy who used to be president of the United States.


BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Nancy is not always the best on, you know, a cable show or with a quick sound bite or what have you, but her skill, tenacity, toughness, vision is remarkable.


KING: You do see, if you're launching a campaign for anything, you've got to be organized, identify your enemies and critics early on and get as much high-powered help as you can. She's been pretty good at that.

MICHAEL SHEAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: But, you know, what's interesting watching that clip of Obama with all the white hair, you know, that sort of graying hair, it reminds you that, when he didn't have all that gray hair at the beginning of his administration, the Democratic Party was still struggling to move to a new generation of leadership. And here we are, you know, 10 years later and they're putting it off again, right? There's -- you know, this may resolve -- it looks like it's going to resolve in Nancy Pelosi's favor and the Democratic leadership in Congress will look virtually identical with a couple of little pieces changed here and there, to the way it's looked for the last, you know, 10 years. And they're just delaying yet again what ultimately will be a necessary transition to a new generation of leadership.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The question for Pelosi going forward is, how does she explain to her caucus what she means by being a, quote, transitional leader which is how she's been pitching herself in the last several weeks. She has not explained what that means, how long she'll stay, who they transition to. All those questions, you hear members of the caucus saying they want answers to. We'll see if she has to explain some of that, especially if the votes look a little bit closer at the end of the day.

KING: (INAUDIBLE) I was going to make that point that if she needs -- we've watched every day, every day this week she's made some progress. If she needs to -- that's what it takes to get a couple more votes, that's what we might see.

Up next, a congressman who hounded Hillary Clinton of her e-mails said he'd like to know more about Ivanka Trump's e-mail habits.


[12:38:07] KING: Topping our political radar today, a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy just been blocked by a federal judge there who says it unequivocally infringes on women's constitutional right. He went further saying no law like the one in question is, quote, closer to the old Mississippi. A comment from the governor but the bill's proponents have previously told CNN, their words, not ours, the law in their view would do what's best for women.

We now know how much it will cost to send troops down the U.S./Mexico border, $72 million says the Pentagon which covers the cost of deploying nearly 6,000 troops through mid-December. President Trump ordered them there as you recall ahead of the arrival of that migrant caravan from Central America. That price could run higher if the president extends the mission or follows through on a campaign promise to send a total of 15,000 troops to the border.

Some key members of Congress say they intend to find out whether Ivanka Trump broken any laws by using a private e-mail account for government business. In a letter to the White House chief of staff, the House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy asked for more information by December 5th and the chairman wants a briefing. Gowdy's likely successor, Democrat Elijah Cummings says he also plans to investigate once the Congress is turned over to the Democrats. And Republican Ron Johnson who chairs the Senate committee involved in these issues says he's also concerned. The president though says there's no controversy here.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: She wasn't doing anything to hide her e-mails. I looked at it just very briefly today and the presidential records, they're all in presidential records. There's no hiding. There was no deleting like Hillary Clinton did. There was no service in the basement like Hillary Clinton had.


KING: There are differences, but there also are similarities and then the hypocrisy and arrogance question is interesting. Trey Gowdy, chairman only for a few more weeks, saying I want some answers.

SCHOR: Certainly. And this is bipartisan interest already, not to mention that, you know, Elijah Cummings is excellent at his job and this is going to be a big, big point of contention for these House Democrats.

[12:40:07] RAJU: And I caught up with Ron Johnson yesterday leaving the Senate, he's chairing the Homeland Security Committee, a Republican, he has investigated the Hillary Clinton e-mail issue for the last two years. He says it's not like the Clinton e-mail issue but he's also said he has some serious concerns that she may not have complied with the law. So they're going to demand some answers from Republicans and Democrats alike.

The White House will have to give it. And we'll see if it is a lot like -- more like the Clinton e-mail issue than the president is saying so far.

BALL: Yes. One benefit of the Clinton e-mail scandal is a lot of very serious things were said about the importance of cyber security. So a lot of these Republicans have, you know, said -- and Democrats in some cases, have said a lot about how important it is that government e-mails be secured. So now they have a chance to look into this.

KING: Another example to say, we should actually do this instead of keep talking about it.

Up next for us, the president sides with Saudi Arabia and shrugs off a brutal murder. He says he's putting America first. Critics say he's selling America out.


[12:45:18] KING: President Trump defiantly keeping up praise for Saudi Arabia today. This, despite bipartisan outrage after a presidential statement yesterday that amounted to a free press -- free pass, excuse for Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, the man the CIA concludes ordered the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Today, the president going so far as to thank the Saudis on Twitter. Here's the tweet, "Oil prices getting lower, great. Like a big tax cut for America and the world. Enjoy."

He continues, "Thank you to Saudi Arabia, but let's go lower."

Critics warned that tweet plus references to Saudi weapons purchases in yesterday's statement, leave the clear impression that for a price, America will turn a blind eye to murder and other human rights abuses. The dismay and disbelief is bipartisan. This is Senator Lindsey Graham on Fox last night.


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. But we got the historic opportunity here to tell the people in the Mideast there's a new sheriff in town. If you disrespect us and you trample over civilized norms, you're going to pay a price.

If you want to keep MBS, that's your decision to make, Saudi Arabia. As long as you make that decision, you're going to have a hard time with me. If you want to replace him with somebody who's not crazy, that would be a good move.


KING: Passionate statement from Senator Graham. The president, his friend, 100 percent disagrees with him, though. What happens here?

RAJU: The president probably wins. I mean, the one thing that one of the other Republican senators has been vocal on this, Bob Corker did yesterday along with Paul Menendez, as they demanded the administration make a determination of the Magnitsky Act to determine whether or not sanctions should be levied against the crown prince, MBS. And the administration hasn't until February to make that determination. Now, at the point, if it doesn't, then Congress may move forward with something else.

So there will be pressure from the Hill from certain quarters but, there's also silence, too. We have not heard from Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, we have not heard from House Speaker Paul Ryan. So, the president in a lot of ways is keeping a lot of his allies on the Hill silent.

KING: I want to read -- I'm sorry to interrupt you, I just want to read to that point, they do -- that letter though under the Magnitsky Act does force the administration if it complies with the law, we'll see if it fights to at least go on the record. It forces them, the law requires to go on the record if they ask for a finding.

And the letter says, "In light of recent developments we request that your determination specifically address whether the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is responsible for Mr. Khashoggi's murder. We expect to receive a determination within 120 days."

So the administration now, the president in his statement yesterday said, could be the crown prince, might not be. And then essentially said, but I don't care.

SCHOR: Right. And now you have Corker and Menendez making a bipartisan request. Yes, you're going to have to care, you're going to have to decide. And they already made a similar request that resulted in the sanctions against 17 Saudis that the administration ruled out just weeks ago. So there's precedent right to force the administration to say more here.

But it's important to remember that Congress doesn't yet have a great avenue to strike back at the president, McConnell for his point is not likely to call up any kind of sanctions bill. And even stopping an arms sale isn't possible right now because Bob Menendez has an informal hold on that. So what with Menendez doing what he's doing, we can't even have the Senate voting to disapprove of these sales which they might do so it's a (INAUDIBLE).

SHEAR: And part of the problem, presidents always struggle with this question about how do you balance diplomatic necessities off against human rights. Most presidents do try to lay out a kind of comprehensive foreign policy approach or strategy. In fact, there's a -- there are various documents that are sort of traditional annual and biannual kind of approaches that they actually laid out in writing.

But, this president has, if anything, left foreign policy to be a sort of case by case. I'm going to sort of approach it sort of by my gut. And if there is any sort of policy, sort of thing that connects all of his different actions in foreign policy, it's just that it's transactional. It's just that he's going to, you know, kind of make a decision as to what in -- sort of he thinks is good for America financially or, you know, in some sort of a power dynamic, and he doesn't have a broader foreign policy kind of vision to put it into. And that's what makes these things very difficult.

BALL: Well -- and yes, as you point out, this certainly would not be the first time that America maintained a relationship with a country with an unsavory human rights record. It certainly would not be the first time that these interests had to be balanced. And it certainly would not be the first time that we overlooked human rights travesties because there were other interests at stake.

What's different is the message coming from the president.

[12:50:02] And in the past, American presidents have always tried to strike that note of moral leadership, talk about American values, even if it was only lip service. And you can call that hypocritical. But, it was -- this is the thing that the Congress also can't do anything about, is the words coming out of the president's mouth when -- and the signal that he sends. You know, you talk to Republicans in Congress and they say, sure, the president says stuff, but we are maintaining America's relationships, we're maintaining the defense budget, we're maintaining the Russia sanctions, we're keeping all of this on an even keel. But what they can't change is that the things coming out of the president's mouth are sending a powerful signal to the world about American values.

KING: And on this particular issue, on Russia and others, as we've seen others in the administration say pay no attention to what the president says, watch what we do. His secretary of state essentially coming out, the America's top diplomat yesterday say, oh, the world is a nasty place and so if the stuff happens which is just different.

We'll leave it there. Different.

Up next, race takes center stage in the final midterm contest of 2018.


[12:55:36] KING: Important breaking news from just moments ago. The chief justice of the United States John Roberts picking a very public fight with the president. The message from John Roberts, stop it.

In a rare public statement the chief justice saying this, "We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges." That's a direct contradiction to the president's words just yesterday on the White House lawn.


TRUMP: The 9th Circuit, we're going to have to look at that. Because every case, no matter where it is, they file it, practically. I mean, practically, for all intents and purposes, they file it in what's called the 9th Circuit. This was an Obama judge, and I'll tell you what, it's not going to happen like this anymore.


KING: The president referring to a setback for the administration in the new asylum policy. Chief Justice Roberts' statement was first reported by the Associated Press. This is remarkable that the AP asked for a statement from the court and the chief justice decided to issue one. Just that decision as opposed to, we don't talk about these things or no, decided to issue a statement. We don't have Obama judges or Trump judges or Clinton judges or Bush judges. A public fight.

BALL: Well, look, Justice Roberts didn't pick this fight, the president did. And this has been literally years of attacks on the legitimacy of the court and on individual judges and that finally have provoked a reaction from the chief justice. So, you know, that just tells you how far it has gone that after literally years of not responding to this, there is a feeling that his attacks on the legitimacy of the court are a real threat and there has to be someone to speak against them and say -- and stand up for the independence of the judiciary.

KING: And just another example of the norms that President Trump has not only ignored but shoved aside and tried to blow up.

SHEAR: And he is -- the president is wrong on two parts, right? It hasn't only been the 9th Circuit. They -- for example, the travel ban case was in other courts as well. And he says, well, this is not going to happen. He really has no control over that.

I mean, he can over time appoint different judges, and that can have an effect in the kinds of rulings that he might get, but it is, as, you know, most people who learn this in, you know, at a young age in school, it is an independent branch of government. It's the third and independent branch of government. And there's nothing that his administration can do to change where cases come out of or what judges say when they get them.

RAJU: And what's also remarkable about this pushback is, you look at the way justices have judges -- judicial nominees have avoided weighing in on things like that at all. Look at the way Brett Kavanaugh answered these questions during his confirmation proceedings. He would not go near any criticism of the president, anything the president said about judiciary.

And you will remember Neil Gorsuch did give a little bit of pushback to some of the president's attacks on the judiciary. Kavanaugh said he didn't want to get anywhere near the political arena. So for this chief justice to make this statement in the wake of the president's statement rather remarkable.

SCHOR: It's also undeniable that the Kavanaugh fight really exposed the ugly underside of these judicial battles. And that's not great for the high court's reputation, clearly something Roberts is conscious of.


KING: And just to come forward at this moment though, at the moment, we're all looking at the new court. Kavanaugh is on the court. Justice Anthony Kennedy is gone. You're having this conversation as we're saying this up that, you know, who is John Roberts. Will he assert himself more now? Even though he was chief justice, when you look at a big case, the focus was much more often on Anthony Kennedy, and now he would go. This is a big moment for John Roberts, and for him to pick a fight with the president now, I guess the president at Mar-a-Lago, wait for Twitter?

BALL: Well, the -- you make a good point though because the chief justice speaks for the court. And you've got to think that this is not a statement that he issued independently or without running it by his fellow justices. I think he really speaks for the entire court, the entire bench in this and they must have agreed that it was worth weighing in.

SHEAR: And worth risking the -- as what -- as you say, could be Twitter attacks from the president.

RAJU: And attacks from the president's allies. Roberts himself has not necessarily ingratiated himself with some of his rulings over the years with conservatives, the ObamaCare case being one of them. It wouldn't be a surprise to hear some of the president's allies coming at and criticizing the chief justice.

KING: Yet another of the institutions under constant attack by the president. And in this case, some pretty serious and senior pushback. Pushback.

Thanks for joining us in the INSIDE POLITICS today. Hope everybody has a wonderful Thanksgiving. Don't go anywhere, Brianna Keilar starts right now.

Have a great day.