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Trump's Thanksgiving Call to Military; House Subpoenas Comey and Lynch; Trump Defends Whitaker. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired November 22, 2018 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:00] NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Now, still 500 people, more than 500 people apparently unaccounted for. They will not all be dead. But the death toll right now stands at 83 and the fear is that that could still rise.


NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN ANCHOR: Nick Watt, thank you for that report.

And thanks for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS. Brianna Keilar starts right now.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, it is Thanksgiving, but that's not keeping the president from escalating his war of words with the Supreme Court's chief justice.

And what you tweet will be held against you, so argues Robert Mueller.

The top U.S. general in Afghanistan is now carrying an assault rifle. Hear why it's so rare.

And, in their final weeks in power, House Republicans slapping subpoenas on James Comey and Loretta Lynch.

But we start with a message from the president to American troops overseas. President Trump said this week that he wants to finally visit U.S. troops in a war zone. Not today though. Instead, he placed a call, a very unusual call, that got political at times and questionable as he discussed operational details.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So, colonel, how many people are you commanding right now, would you say?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thirteen thousand.

TRUMP: Wow. That's a lot of people.

We have the cozentina (ph) fencing and we have things that people don't even believe. We took an old, broken wall and we wrapped it with barbed wire plus. I guess you could really call it barbed wire plus.

There is no brand that's gone up like the Coast Guard over the last couple of years because of what you've done with the hurricanes in this country.

I was just curious, the steam system is tried and true for many, many years, as long as we've had aircraft carriers. How do you find steam versus what they're doing on the Gerald Ford, which is electronic and digital, if you can believe it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir. Our -- all of our nimit (ph), the super carriers, have been using steam for decades and we find it pretty reliable.

TRUMP: And do you feel safe in the region? Do you see hostility? Do you see any aggression? Because, you know, you're hearing a little bit about aggression from a couple of the players. What are you feeling?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, sir. We have -- we have safe and independent operations out here throughout the theater. We do feel safe.


KEILAR: CNN's senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny is in West Palm Beach, near where the president is spending the holiday with his family. So, Jeff, I mean, you listened to this hour or so with the president. It's extraordinary. He did thank the troops. But there were so many eyebrow-raising moments.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, there certainly were. And it's a sign that he is very comfortable in his surroundings. Sitting there in the opulence of Mar-a-Lago. He likes to be in that room. He likes to be in that ballroom there. He invited reporters in and seemingly had all the time in the world to talk and answer questions.

But so many headlines, but particularly the venue in which he was speaking. He was talking to armed service members as the commander in chief and certainly going beyond the comfort level, the normality of what most commanders in chiefs have done. He didn't really say anything new, but he certainly showed how he's thinking.

And it also showed that he's full steam ahead. Certainly not changing anything as he heads into the second half, if you will, of the first term of his presidency.

But, Brianna, I was struck by, again, the president doubling down on his commends and his support of the Saudi Arabia leadership and simply defying his intelligence experts again, you know, saying the CIA really hadn't decided -- they had feelings one way or the other. That is not an accurate statement of the facts. The CIA has said that they do believe there is evidence that the Saudi crown prince knew about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

So the president there unplug and largely unsupervised here, Brianna. Most senior aides are not here in south Florida. They're with their own families. So that was the president writing his own script and now he's playing his own game of golf at the Trump International Golf Club here in West Palm Beach.


KEILAR: Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much for that.

Joining me now from Orlando, we have retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. He's a former Army commanding general in Europe and 7th Army and he is a -- in the 7th Army, I should say, and he's a CNN military analyst. And here with me in studio is retired Rear Admiral John Kirby. He was a spokesman for both the state Department and the Pentagon. He's a CNN military and diplomatic analyst.

General Hertling, you know, as someone who spent years in combat throughout your career who commanded tens of thousands of troops in Iraq, when a president calls or visits, what do you want to hear and what do you expect to hear that was so different from what we heard today?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, first what I'd say, Brianna, is, I was very proud of the five different leaders that he talked to from each one of the service because they talked primarily about their team, their pride in what they were doing, their sense of mission, no complains. They were a great bunch of folks.

[13:05:09] What you really want from visitors is for them to listen, not to talk, because you want to tell them all about the things you're doing, about the great acts your Soldiers or Marines or Sailors are performing. And that's the kind of thing that you're looking for.

As a great man once told me, you know, leaders have two ears and two eyes and one mouth for a reason. You ought to use them in that ratio. The president didn't do that. He wanted to talk about how much he knew about their mission. And, frankly, said some things that were a little bit obtuse as he was trying to make connection with some of these leaders.

KEILAR: What did you think, admiral, as you listened to this? It was a very long call and it was very interesting, but it was so unusual.

REAR ADMIRAL JOHN KIRBY (RET,), CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, I was disappointed. I wish I could say I was surprised. But he did a similar thing last year when he made this phone call on Thanksgiving Day. He just tends -- he can't seem to be around men and women in uniform without trying to find a way to politicize the event and then, by default, them in return. And I think it was -- it was unfortunate. I mean talking to them about unfair trade deals and judicial court rulings that goes against him on immigration, that's not their concern and it shouldn't -- they shouldn't be brought into those kinds of discussions.

KEILAR: What kind of position does that --


KEILAR: Does that put them in, if their -- if it's being politicized?

KIRBY: Well, I think General Hertling hit it right on the head, they didn't allow themselves to get sucked into that. But by default, I mean not everyone in the American population can, you know, can -- they can be forgiven for not realizing that the military is not a political arm. They're not an arm of the Republican Party. Yes, they report to the commander in chief, but their loyalty is to all Constitution and to the American people, all the American people. So you could be forgiven for thinking, if he's having this discussion with them in real time, that they too share his political aspirations and his political policies. And, of course, they don't.


KEILAR: And he's said the troops on the border basically -- he sort of blanket statement qualified what he believes their thoughts of being on the border are. So he's -- and he's done this before where he sort of speaks for all of the troops.

I wonder, when you listen, general, when he talked about some things that were operational matters and, you know, some of these things are public, but where he's talking about troop numbers or he's asking will it -- why is that the only ship deployed in this area? Was there -- was there anything that you thought, you know, you just want to be careful with those kinds of things?

HERTLING: Yes, there were a lot of things said on air that shouldn't have been said. The troop numbers, number one, in Afghanistan, although most people know, that a sustainment brigade is about that amount of soldiers. The comments about the electromagnetic launch systems on the Gerald Ford versus the steam systems on the Reagan, that's not something you want to publicize, that we're having trouble with that, or at least reinforce. He's asking the commander, what do you think, should we be steam driven or electromagnetic pulse driven on these launch -- on the catabults (ph) on these aircraft carriers. That's not something you want to ask a poor Navy captain who's just trying to command a big ship in operational waters.

Yes, so all -- you know, the questions to the commander in Qatar, I think it was, or Kuwait, the CENT COM reserve, about trade deficits. I mean he's just worried about making sure his troops are safe and doing the mission the way they're supposed to do and he doesn't have, like John just said, he doesn't have an opinion on either trade deficits or judge's decision making in the courts in the United States. They're focused on their mission, period. They're concerned about accomplishing that mission and the safety of their family at home and their own safety as they're -- as they're doing those objectives.

So that's the connection that doesn't come through. And as John just said, you know, it was a very nice thing to do, to have this teleconference, but really the troops really want to see people in the dust and the sand and the storms and the rain as opposed to having a guy call from a nice resort in Florida and then go out and play golf later on.

KEILAR: What did you think, admiral, when you heard one of the generals bring up ISIS and Taliban and he talked about keeping them from American shores?


KEILAR: You know, this idea of sort of taking the fight to the terrorists.


KEILAR: But then the president pivot and he responded and he brought up borders and he talked about keeping, quote, bad people from entering through the U.S.-Mexico border.

KIRBY: Here's what I thought when I heard that. He knew he had cameras there, he had media, and he just can't stop himself from trying to get across his political talking points. And he was more than happy to use the stage of a call with troops to do that.

So as soon as he heard -- and it's true, our mission in Afghanistan is largely about preventing another 9/11. That's why we went there in the first place. And the general was right to say that. Trump heard that and said, well, I can use that to go right to the border mission. And that's exactly what he did. He turned it right around to, what essentially has become, at least perceived by many to be a political operation right there on the border. Again, totally inappropriate.

And this is one of the reasons why I wasn't so all that distraught that he didn't go to Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day, because he just can't help himself. And, frankly, and I know I'm in the minority, probably among the many retired officers, I'm not all that upset that he hasn't gone to see the troops in the field yet --


[13:10:12] KIRBY: Because he just -- he'll do the same thing. And I guarantee you, we'll be having this discussion again when he visits.

KEILAR: That's nuts, though, general. I mean --


KEILAR: Normally you think of a commander in chief going to visit the troops and you think of the morale that can be boosted, especially say when we're talking about Afghanistan, the longest war. What does that say if you've got someone like Admiral Kirby saying actually I'm not -- I'm not too put out that he hasn't gone?

HERTLING: Well, I -- I'll agree with Admiral Kirby on that. I agree completely with John. I don't mind him not going to combat zone. If I were a commander, I think these kinds of mismatches where you're concerned about what the commander in chief might say when he gets into a theater with allies there, or when he says something around the soldiers, it's -- it makes you walk on eggshells as a commander. In fact, even in the VTC (ph) this morning, I'm sure some of those commanders who were talking on the microphones or on the telephones, who had the troops behind them listening in, were somewhat distraught about some of the things they were asked, and that's why they were so poker-faced when they answered those questions.

So, yes, I'm with John completely. I don't mind him not going to the theater. And, in fact, we're in a situation now, if he does decide to go, it's because he's been forced to do it by all the bad press that he's been getting. So he's really now just checking off a box and it's going to be unfortunate. And it's not for the true belief and he wants to support the troops.

KEILAR: All right, General Hertling, Admiral Kirby, Happy Thanksgiving and thank you to both of you.

KIRBY: Thank you.

HERTLING: Same to you there, Brianna. Thank you.

KEILAR: Well, The president escalating his war of words with Chief Justice John Roberts. We're going to fact check his claim on judges.

Plus, House Republicans slapping subpoenas on James Comey and Loretta Lynch. Hear how the fired FBI director just responded.

And Cindy McCain speaks out about why the president wasn't invited to her husband's funeral and why she'll never get over what the president said.


[13:16:29] KEILAR: House Republicans fire off more subpoenas before Democrats take control in January. The House Judiciary Committee has issued subpoenas for former FBI Director James Comey and for former Attorney General Loretta Lynch. The committee is requesting private depositions from Comey on December 3rd and from Lynch on December 4th.

CNN national correspondent Alex Marquardt joins us now with details.

And, you know, Jim Comey, he didn't sort of miss a beat there. He responded to this subpoena with a tweet. What did he say?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: He responded very quickly. Brianna, he responded very quickly. He responded this morning, essentially saying that he's happy to sit down for another one of these hearing, but he is saying that he's going to fight the committee's decision there to have it be behind closed doors.

Now, the tweet that he posted today say, Happy Thanksgiving. Got a subpoena from House Republicans. I'm still happy to sit in the light and answer all questions, but I will resist a closed door thing because I've seen enough of their selective leaking and distortion. Let's have a hearing and invite everyone to see.

Brianna, we've also heard from Comey's lawyer, who is responding to that subpoena, calling it an abuse of process and saying that he and Comey will go to court to try to make it so the former FBI director's testimony is in the public.

KEILAR: This has to do with the FBI's handling of the Clinton e-mail probe and also the Russia investigation. What do Republicans hope to learn here?

MARQUARDT: Well, you touched on it earlier. This is really about the timing. And it's one of the last chances for House Republicans to do anything with this probe because they're about to lose power in the House. And with the Democrats taking over, they could do away with this probe all together.

So, in theory, the Republicans, led by Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte, are still trying to question Comey over what he called the extremely careless handling by Hillary Clinton of highly classified information and then they're also going after Loretta Lynch for her possible influence in all of this.

And you can remember, of course, that infamous meeting that she had on the tarmac with former President Bill Clinton. But, really, Republicans know that their days are numbered here, so this is a way for them to get in their last shots while they still can.


KEILAR: All right, Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.

I want to bring in Julia Manchester. She's a reporter for "The Hill." And we also have Michael Zeldin, Robert Mueller's former special assistant at the DOJ with us.

What do you make of this, Julia, of what Republicans are doing here?

JULIA MANCHESTER, REPORTER, "THE HILL": Yes, so I would definitely call this a parting shot at this point. They know that in a couple of weeks they're essentially going to be out of power. It's Democrats coming in. We've seen on the judiciary incoming -- who's assuming going to be House Judiciary chairman. Jerry Nadler has said he will subpoena various members connected to the ongoing Russian Mueller's probe.

However, yes, I would call this a parting shot. It also comes as President Trump really submitted his questions to Mueller's investigation. So a lot going on. The timing is very interesting. But Democrats will call this very politically motivated.

KEILAR: Is there anything that they could learn, Michael? I mean is there anything else to cover that we don't already know?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think not. I think actually this has been testified to by Comey and by Loretta Lynch previously. Loretta Lynch's aspect of this involves her asking Comey to refer to the Clinton investigation as a matter and not an investigation. And Comey said that that was part of the reason that he went forward with his famous July press conference. So it completely backfired if that was what, in fact, she had. And then Lynch and Clinton, Bill, had a tarmac meeting which they said was --

KEILAR: Just -- it was a ridiculous meeting at the time.

ZELDIN: It was. It was just before -- KEILAR: But it's been covered, right?

[13:20:02] ZELDIN: But it's been covered. So there really is no there there left. And the fact, to Comey's point, that they want to do this in secret so that, as he says, little bits of it can be selectively leaked, just makes it seem unseemly.

KEILAR: And that's an interesting point, Julia. I mean the truth is, as someone who -- I've covered the White House and I've covered Congress and I know that the White House considers, once they've notified Congress of something, it's almost like notifying the press, right?

MANCHESTER: Exactly. Exactly. This is definitely, I would say, a PR move essentially for the Republican base. I mean Chairman Goodlatte is retiring from Congress, as is Trey Gowdy. So this is really their last hurrah if you will. We've seen that other House Republicans, Jim Jordan comes to mind, have really rallied their bases and themselves around this tarmac meeting and, you know, supposed bias in the FBI, in the Russia investigation. So this is definitely a very big political move before the tables really turn in the House.

KEILAR: I want to change gears here and talk about President Trump. He defended Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker, who has come under fire and under scrutiny. Let's listen to that.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Matt Whitaker's a highly respected person. And, you know, once I choose somebody, they always go through hell. But Matt Whitaker is a highly respected man. The Justice Department respects him tremendously. I've spoken to a lot of people. And, you know, the press has been nasty to Matt Whitaker. But I can tell you that he is a highly respected, strong person and he's doing a great job. Everybody tells me that, he's doing a really great job.


KEILAR: What's your reaction to that praise, Michael?

ZELDIN: Well, I'm not sure who he's speaking to because most people are saying that this was an inappropriate appointment because Whitaker has a predetermined position on the Mueller investigation, which he now has to decide issues with respect to like a subpoena, that he's involved in a fraud investigation with respect to a Federal Trade Commission inquiry. He's now under inquiry about campaign finance problems in his 2014 run for the Senate. So this is an unvetted acting attorney general. And so no one, I think, perhaps other than the president, who he's speaking to, views this as a wise appointment from the president's standpoint, legally and politically.

KEILAR: You're nodding there, Julia.

MANCHESTER: Yes, you know, this seems to be a continuing issue with this administration with people they appoint. So they're appointed but, you know, these reports end up coming out and it makes it seem like the administration hasn't necessarily vetted these people. And we know that President Trump really wanted Whitaker in particular for this position. He could have easily gone to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, which would be the plausible choice for this position. However, he went to Whitaker and this shows what happens when there isn't proper vetting for these positions.

ZELDIN: And, in fact, to that exact point, remember, at first he said on Fox that he knew Matt Whitaker, and just as he said tonight, Matt Whitaker was a good guy. Then there's blowback against Whitaker and he says, I don't know -- I don't know him.

KEILAR: I don't even know. But we know he knows him.

ZELDIN: He was -- he was Sessions' guy.

Then we learned from "The New York Times" that Whitaker is sitting in on meeting involving the efforts to indict Comey and Clinton. And then this subpoena is issued. It just doesn't look proper.

KEILAR: Let's talk about the former president, President Obama, who talked about the 2020 race for the White House. He had a rare sit-down interview. This was during a live taping of "The Axe Files" podcast with his former top strategist, David Axelrod. And this is what he said about who could take on President Trump.


DAVID AXELROD, HOST, "THE AXE FILES": People say, well, you know, we can't have another candidate of color, we can't have a woman because --

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: No, well that -- that kind of stuff I don't buy. I don't buy.

The generalizations that we draw about, well, a woman's not going to win this time. Oh, this is the ideal time for a woman. You've had one black guy, so you can't have another black guy.

AXELROD: But you know why they -- I mean I'm not subscribing to that theory, but you know why it comes up, because you -- you spoke --

OBAMA: Because I'm a black guy.



KEILAR: And he got a laugh there. But what did you think of his appearance here? And also keeping in mind that his former VP is likely running.

MANCHESTER: Right. Right. So I think after the 2016 election, I guess in the Democrats' autopsy report, there was this feeling that they really neglected this white working class vote we see in the rust belt states like West Virginia for example. So I think Democrats and Democrats , and members of the media, have automatically turned to people like Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden.

However, a couple weeks ago, during the midterm elections, we saw a historic wave of women come into the House, some into the Senate, and I think it shows that the Democratic Party, you know, although this white working class I guess vote they really look for is important, there's also an entire other block of the party they need to work to attract.

KEILAR: Julia Manchester, thank you. Michael Zeldin, thank you. And a Happy Thanksgiving to both of you guys.

[13:25:03] ZELDIN: And you as well.

MANCHESTER: Happy Thanksgiving.

KEILAR: Iran is issuing what appears to be a threat to U.S. troops in the region.

Plus, a rare sight. Why this photo of a four-star general in Afghanistan is grabbing headlines.


[13:29:59] KEILAR: Tough talk now from Iran's military saying they have American troops in their cross hairs and they're calling U.S. bases near Iran, quote, soft targets. An Iranian general referring