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Chief of Staff Search Continues; Trump Defends Innocence; Rubio on Trump and the Law; Stocks Fall Sharply. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 10, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Kate.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

The president lashes out at the special counsel and at Democrats as court filings accuse him of felony campaign finance violations and make clear his family business now under the microscope.

Plus, help wanted. The president needs a new chief of staff, but the top candidate says no thanks. And others said to be on the short list rush to send signals they're not that interested.

And, maybe you've never heard of John Hickenlooper, but the Colorado governor think the Democrats need a Washington outsider atop the 2020 ticket.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, ANCHOR, CNN "NEW DAY": On a scale of one to 10, 10 being you're running, how close are you?

GOV. JOHN HICKENLOOPER (D), COLORADO: You know, I'd say we're past 50- 50. I think we're probably 63, 64 percent 6.4 or 6.5.


KING: We begin the hour though with the current president, and brand new details on just what he's looking for as he looks for his next chief of staff. That as many here in Washington wonder who in the world would want the job in the first place.

The leading contender was Nick Ayers. He's currently serving as the vice president's chief of staff. But a White House official tells CNN Ayers and the president could not agree on the position's terms. Trump wanted him to commit for two years through the re-election campaign, but Ayers declined.

John Kelly, the second man to hold the job, is leaving at the end of this year.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is live at the White House. Kaitlan, the president and Nick Ayers, their deal fell apart, but

you've learned new details on a task the president gave his -- the man we thought would take the job before he said, no thank you, sir.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right. They were still in the negotiations over whether or not Nick Ayers was actually going to take this job. And President Trump had already given him some instructions for what he wanted it to look like if he did become chief of staff. And one big thing was he wanted him to conduct this thorough review of how the West Wing operates because President Trump wants it to be more politically focused. John, he's becoming more concerned about what Washington is going to look like come January when those newly empowered House Democrats have the power that they will, including potentially force his cabinet secretaries to testify, looking at his tax returns, and just having oversight of even some of his most controversial policy decisions. And President Trump wanted his new chief of staff to make sure the West Wing is ready for that and that they're politically focused moving forward. That was one of his biggest complains about John Kelly is that he did not feel that the retired Marine general was politically shrewd enough to handle that. He didn't think he was up to the task to handle what is -- Washington is going to look like over the next two years.

Now, Nick Ayers is not taking this job. They could not come to an agreement over the timing since he wanted to do it on an interim basis and President Trump wanted that two-year commitment. But we're talking to sources who say this is still something President Trump is going to want in whoever his next chief of staff is.

Now, when President Trump hired John Kelly, he wanted him to come in and instill the sense of order in a West Wing that many people saw as chaotic. He also wants a similar change, but with this chief of staff he wants someone who is going to be very focused on the politics and handling that aspect, rather than being focused on bipartisan legislation or any of the things that a chief of staff would typically focus on. And that's what he's looking for.

But, John, as we reported, this search is very much still underway because President Trump did not have a backup plan for Nick Ayers and now several names are being floated and it's still an open question of who exactly could be the next chief of staff.

KING: That's only the chief of staff to the president of the United States. What's the big deal?

Kaitlan Collins, appreciate the new reporting, live at the White House.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Hirschfeld Davis of "The New York Times," CNN's Manu Raju, Eliana Johnson with "Politico," and "Bloomberg's". Margaret Talev.

Interesting reporting. And it makes perfect sense. You're heading into the re-election campaign. You want to have the fine-tuned White House. But the chief of staff's just one piece of this. If you -- this has been a consistent complaint about this White House, that they are not properly staffed at every level. Not just the top people, but the deputies and the like.

So where does the president go now? He has a plan to pick somebody. That somebody says no. we've seen the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, pretty clear signals in CNN reporting, he's not that interested. Mick Mulvaney, the budget director, pretty clear signals. Now some of this could be fake, but that he's not interested.

Bob Lighthizer, one of the president's trade aides has come up. Sent signals he's not interested. David Bossie, he worked on the campaign, his name has come up. That would be a shock to the Washington establishment. They might run for the border if that happens. Mark Meadows, the Freedom Caucus chair, Republican congressman, says absolutely not when asked about this today, but his name has come up.


KING: Where is the president going to go?

ELIANA JOHNSON, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "POLITICO": You know, I think there's a certain amount of people saying no, no, I don't want the job, in order that they don't stick their heads up too high because people know that's a bad thing to do to get too much media coverage if -- in the Trump administration. Ultimately, I think if pressed, several of these people would do the job out of a sense of duty or service or simply wanting a higher profile and wanting the job.

[12:05:11] The question I -- the bigger question I think is, will this president empower his next chief of staff to actually run the White House, give them the power to hire and fire people, make them the ultimate authority? And I think we already know the answer to that, which I think perhaps explains some of the reluctance we're hearing from the potential candidates.

KING: Right, you will -- you will be mocked on Twitter, number one, and you're probably going to spend $3 million to $5 million of your own money on legal fees because the Mueller investigation is going on. The Democrats are going to start with subpoena power and the like.

The timing here is that -- the timing here it would make anybody, even a highly qualified candidate, even someone who loves this president, would give you pause.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Right. And, I mean, I don't question the reporting around the fact that, you know, Nick Ayers wanted to stay a shorter period of time than Donald Trump wanted him to stay. I'm sure that was a factor here. But there was -- there were also other factors here, including, would he be empowered to fire the people he wanted to fire and hire the people he wanted to hire. And that's always in question when you're dealing with this president. Would he have the sort of negotiating room, the running room, to kind of make some of these political decisions that the president seems to be saying he wants the chief of staff to make now, but that certainly have not been a bit part of the way this White House has worked.

It's fascinating to me now to hear that, you know, the president is thinking about having a chief of staff who focuses more on politics. It's not as if this current chief of staff has focused so heavily on policy and legislation. I mean this is -- this has been a role in the Trump White House very different from the way it's been in other White Houses where it's really -- this -- the chief of staff has been the person who's at least tried to impose some sort of process on a White House that really doesn't work that way. And so there's not a lot of bandwidth to do other things, whether it be policy or politics or anything else.

TALEV: But it's a different kind of politics, of course. And I think the kind of -- the case for Ayers, particularly in that transitional role, was a recognition that at the end of -- that after those midterm elections and the Democratic takeover of the House signified a completely different dynamic for the second half of this administration than the first half. And so in the case to be made, in that case is you want a chief of staff who understands basically the dogs are coming, right, and that understands how to play defense, how to try to play an offensive game, a recognition that legislation is pretty much done with legislation, that it's all nominations and messaging, how to bolster the White House Counsel's Office, how to turn Democrats against one another. The strategic goals of the next two years are really different than the first two years, even if politics is the umbrella that they all share.

KING: Right. But the rest of the Republican Party, I'll say the non- Trump win of the Republican Party, is in a panic now in the sense that some of them didn't think Nick Ayers was maybe experienced enough for the job, but they know him. They know him. They figure he would surround himself with smart people. He reaches out to his mentors quite a bit, including mentors who told him, are you sure you want to take this job at this time? But we'll leave that for later in the conversation.

But they hear Mick Mulvaney, they say, OK. They hear Steve Mnuchin, they say, chief of staff, but we could deal with that. But they hear David Bossie and Mark Meadows. And whether you're the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill, or the interest groups around town, like the Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Business, you hear those names and you panic.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and that -- that's absolutely right, even though Kelly and, before him, Reince Priebus, they didn't really have much -- they were able to control this president. The president still did essentially what they wanted. These -- those two guys, the Republican leadership, believe that they could speak to them and they could reach out to them when they wanted to express their concerns privately, vent to them and perhaps with Kelly maybe there would be some influence in how the White House moved forward. But, ultimately, they realized that there was not a whole lot to those two men could do.

I would be surprised -- Mark Meadows is putting out word through his emissaries that he's absolutely not interested in going that route. I'd be surprised if someone -- if he did end up taking this position. He seems -- this kind of -- the job that he has, even though he's going to be in the minority -- KING: Yes.

RAJU: Much more visible than a job being -- working underneath this president. But certainly if you got that --

KING: Well, that's -- that's a -- but that -- you're making the point of the conversation in town, in the sense that normally if you were a Republican congressman who just learned you're going to spend at least two years in the minority and you get to be the White House chief of staff --

TALEV: One hundred percent.

KING: You march right down, sir. You know, the president says jump, you say how high.

The headline of your story Sunday was perfect on this one, "from pinnacle to punchline: how Trump diminished the job of his chief of staff."

If that's the issue, I mean, normally, I'm sorry, any Republican congressman going from the majority to the minority would be saying, Mr. President, here I am. I know The Hill. I'll be your guy. I know politics. We'll get you into the campaign. Why?

RAJU: But --

JOHNSON: You know, I think what we've seen in Reince Priebus and then John Kelly is what used to be considered the second most powerful job in Washington, something that was unquestionably a resume booster. Rahm Emanuel was White House chief of staff, went on to be the mayor of Chicago. Leon Panetta, White House chief of staff, went on to be CIA chief. The secretary of defense (ph).

[12:10:01] People are starting to ask questions. If I take White House chief of staff in the Trump White House, is it going to help me or hurt me? And that's simply a question that would not have been asked in a previous White House.

RAJU: Yes, I mean, look --

JOHNSON: So you have Nick Ayers, 36-year-old ambitious Republican operative. He's a controversial figure but nobody doubts his political skill, who said, no, thanks, I think this might hurt my repetition more than it will help it. And that, I think, really says something about how the president has treated his past two chiefs of staff --

KING: Right.

JOHNSON: And that they've emerged as diminished figures. I think which is more of a statement on the president than it is on them.

RAJU: Yes, I mean, look, Mark Meadows could maybe become chairman of a committee if he stays, if the Republicans take back the House in 2020 or beyond, so why would you subject yourself to something where who knows what you'll be doing in two more years.

TALEV: With -- yes. Now, with these two chiefs of staff, the president has sort of set them up for failure, set them up, then considered them obstacles or rivals or competitors to his own primacy and so he's sort of shot holes in them.

KING: That's because the -- it's never the boss's responsibility. It's striking. Quite a system.

Up next for us, an overabundance of bread crumbs and no real, clear idea where they'll ultimately lead. What Robert Mueller's latest revelations mean for the president.

But as we go to break, a quick update on another case. This the case of the accused Russian spy Maria Butina. It appears Butina has reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors. She's accused, if you remember, of trying to infiltrate Republican political circles back in the 2016 campaign in order to advance Russian interests. Her attorneys have now filed a request for a change of plea hearing. We'll give you the details of that when we know more.

We'll be right back.


[12:15:336] KING: Welcome back.

The president clearly feeling deeply unsettled about the latest court filings from both the special counsel's Russia investigation and from the Southern District of New York. Those new documents detailing new allegations against members of his inner circle and accusing the president himself of violating campaign finance laws. The revelations giving Democrats reason to openly, sometimes eagerly, speculate on the president's fate, suggesting his future could include impeachment, indictment, some even say prison time.


NEAL KATYAL, FORMER U.S. ACTING SOLICITOR GENERAL: I think the more important point here is Trump knows that he's facing some pretty strong criminal liability when he leaves office, one way or another. And, you know, even if a sitting president can't be indicted, he's got to know his future looks like it's behind bars unless he cuts some sort of deal with the prosecutors.


KING: And yet the president continues to adamantly, often angrily, defend his innocence, usually on Twitter. The president quoting a Fox News -- quoting Fox News in a new pair of tweets this morning. Here are the highlights. Quote, Democrats can't find a smocking gun. We assume he means smoking gun. But the president says no smocking gun. Yes, he says it twice. No collusion. He blames his lawyer and then finishes with a classic Trump closer, witch hunt.

CNN legal analyst Shan Wu joins the conversation. There's not a legal term, smocking gun, I'm not familiar with, is


JOHNSON: Autocorrect.

SHAN WU, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Very esoteric, John.

KING: When you read the specificity, what is unusual about these documents is the specificity and the (INAUDIBLE), especially which -- in which the Southern District of New York says the president of the United States is a candidate, committed felony campaign finance violations. There's no alleged. They just say flatly, he did.

WU: That's right.

KING: Neal Katyal's point, behind bars. Is that a stretch in the sense that even if the president were guilty of these campaign finance, you don't go to jail for those things. So -- normally. You're shaking your head. Could you?

WU: You could. You certainly could go. I mean there are many campaign finance violations which are more (INAUDIBLE) over payment and such. Those are usually made up of fines.

But something like this, where you're actually engaging in fraught to fool the electorate, to perpetrate a fraud upon the American people, that's serious enough.

You saw the John Edwards situation. They actually tried him. And I think the question really is, to my mind, not to disagree too much with Neal, who I have a lot of respect for, but how much more trouble Trump creates for himself at this point? If more is revealed by Mueller, if he gets himself into hot water with inconsistent statements and what he's already submitted written, why is then I think they might want to pursue him after his office is over. Otherwise, if there is an impeachment, if he's removed, resigns, I don't think they're going to pursue it criminally at that point.

KING: Right. And it's interesting, this is Jerry Nadler. He'll be the chairman, we assume, they haven't announced all this yet, but he's in line to be the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The Democrats will be in charge.

He's trying to be careful here. He reads the campaign finance violations. And because he -- because he's one of the Democrats, and there's a divide among the Democrats, he's one of the Democrats who say, let Mueller and the Southern District of New York keep going. If they've got several months more of work, let them finish. Then we'll decide what to do with it.

Other Democrats say, we get the gavel in a couple weeks. Let's go.

Listen to Jerry Nadler, though, saying that even what he has seen so far, to him, it does meet the definition of impeachment.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) REP. JERRY NADLER (D), NEW YORK: Well, they would be impeachable offenses. Whether they are important enough to justify an impeachment is a different question. But certainly they'd be impeachable offenses because even though they were committed before the president became president, they were committed in the service of fraudulently obtaining the office. That would be the -- that would be an impeachable offense.


KING: This is why this is so important to the Democrats, in the sense that you have a specific, clear allegation, laid out by a U.S. attorney's office, that U.S. attorney appointed by Donald Trump, saying the president committed felonies.

So now what's the pushback when the Democrats say, we're going to have -- at least have oversight here. Maybe we'll delay the impeachment conversation, but we're going to have more -- we're going to have our own investigations.

DAVIS: Right. And actually that is something that Mr. Nadler also said over the weekend is that he is going to now direct his investigators to go and look into these -- these charges themselves. And even short of an impeachment proceeding.

And I -- you know, I think it's important that he made the distinction, right, because the legal question, or the congressional question of whether these are impeachable offenses, and the political question of whether we then want to -- whether his committee and the Democrats want to then pursue impeachment.

TALEV: Right.

[12:20:01] DAVIS: I think there's going to come a point, and it may come sooner rather than later because of these charges, that, you know, those two distinctions are going to be harder to make because if you have all Democrats, both Democrats who want to go swiftly towards an impeachment process and Democrats who want to hang back in the way that Nadler has counseled hanging back, both agreeing that they're impeachable offenses, how do you then make the case to Democrats, to their base, that -- but instead we're not going to do that.

TALEV: Well -- and, ironically, I think if this were year seven of the Trump administration heading into year seven rather than year into year three, it would probably be an easier case for the Democrats to unify around, right?

But you have a -- impeachment is a political remedy for something that could be happening in the court system to an individual who did not -- was not an office holder, right? So -- but elections are also political remedies and the president can run for re-election and is running for re-election. And so if you're a Democrat, your overarching goal is to win the White House next time, right? So how do you balance those two goals? If you're not -- if impeachment would not actually succeed ultimately in the end because of control of the Senate, then what are you doing, right? Are you hurting your own case or helping your own case? So I think, you know, that's -- I mean that's still -- that's always what the consideration has been and it's still what the consideration is now.

KING: Right.

So the reasonable argument for the Democrats is, look, these guys are putting court filings in, you know, a couple of times a week. Let them go. Just keep them going. If these are Republican-led investigations, I'm sorry, Mr. President, your deputy attorney general named Bob Mueller and the Southern District of New York is a Republican- appointed attorney, let them keep going.

One of the fascinating parts over the weekend was the Republicans on this question. Near silence unless they're booked on a Sunday show and they have to answer the question from Republicans about the question, a federal prosecutor says the president of the United States committed felony campaign finance violations. Here are the documents. Here's the evidence. Read it.

This is Marco Rubio, booked on a Sunday show yesterday, added a lot of ifs, ifs and ifs. Let's wait. Let's wait. It's an accusation. It's an allegation. But even he's starting to get to this.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: If someone has violated the law, the application of the law should be applied to them like it would to any other citizen in this country. And obviously if you're in a position of great authority like the presidency, that would be the case.


KING: If, if, if. But it's -- this is getting harder for Republicans.

JOHNSON: I think that's right. And it -- I think the concern among Republicans who see the Trump White House kind of burrowing in on itself, I think "The Washington Post" used the term in a bunker mentality, is that there isn't going to be a recognition in the White House of how much trouble they're in and how to respond to this because the president is dug in on this.

And as far as the Democrats are concerned, the question for them is, because impeachment is a political act, is it potentially something that could backfire on them in the 2020 election. And while they might succeed in impeaching Trump in the House, because they have control, would it backfire on them and would they lose the election in 2020. Would it be a self-defeating act?

TALEV: But for all that talk about the chief of staff, no -- everything we've been focusing on, the real new really isn't that. The real news really is this development last week with Mr. Mueller and the Southern District of New York. A tremendously important development in the --

KING: Right, and how it affects -- how it affects everything, like hiring a new chief of staff. In a few minutes we're going to get to the new White House counsel. It affects everything they do because the president knows the Trump Organization is now under investigation. The president knows everybody in the campaign who might have possibly known about those payment is under investigation. The president knows he's under investigation because, remember, this is -- they're telling us what they have to tell us. But they're leaving out a lot of things of -- the rest that they're doing.

I just want to bring this into the conversation. I made -- I made fun of the president who said smocking gun twice in a tweet today a few moments ago. This today in spellcheck, you might call it can save you. Smocking is a type of embroidery made of many small folds sewn into place. That's from Miriam-Webster, which has taken upon itself in recent days to troll the president on Twitter, if you will, when he either misspells things or scot-free was the one they got him on last week.

To the indictment question, since we're having a little fun because the president has typos in his tweets, but it's not a funny issue in the sense that, to the indictment question, if you read some of the languages is that the statute of limitations would run out in 2022. So can they file a sealed indictment that carries over, or if the president won re-election, would those things disappear because he'd be the sitting president in 2022 and the statute of limitations passes.

WU: I don't think they would file a sealed indictment because it kind of runs into the same problem of whether you indict or not.

I -- there's an argument that the statute of limitations are fuzzy things. There's an argument there would be like a continuing violation that maybe would get you out from underneath that.

KING: Conspiracy would get you out of it.

WU: Right. Yes.

KING: So we won't see bumper stickers, re-elect Trump, run out the clock?

WU: I don't think so.

KING: Appreciate you coming in.

Up next for us here, hold on to your wallet, trouble overseas causing some very serious turmoil on Wall Street today.


[12:29:26] KING: Welcome back.

The Dow falling sharply to start the week. This as investors factor in new fears about Brexit. The British Prime Minister Teresa May saying a short time ago she's now postponing a vote in parliament on her deal where the government of England struck with the E.U. Amid heckling she acknowledged, quote, widespread concern about parts of the agreement and said she'll press the E.U. for more changes, but she'll also start planning for the possibility that no agreement will be reached.

Our business and politics correspondent Cristina Alesci joins us from the market.

Cristina, Brexit, trade wars, a lot for the market to ponder and it's not good today.

[12:29:59] CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: That's right. A few things are spooking investors.