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Trump and Sanders Exchange Jabs; Interference in Cohen Probe; Trump Possible Russian Asset; McCabe Claims No Objection to Investigation. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 20, 2019 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Every day gets a little bit warmer. Every snowstorm gets a little bit smaller, we hope.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: That is the -- is the happiest thing I've heard you say in quite some time, Chad.

MYERS: That's right.

BOLDUAN: Every day it's a little less bad.

MYERS: That's right.

BOLDUAN: We're heading toward spring some day.

Good to see you. Thanks so much.

Thanks so much for joining me, everybody. "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts 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.

President Trump lashing out at new reporting detailing how he tried to interfere in the investigation involving his longtime fixer Michael Cohen. It's a fascinating twist. Did the president try to obstruct one investigation despite knowing he's already being investigated for possibly obstructing in another?

Plus, the Trump administration cancels a giant grant for California's high-speed rail project. The Democratic governor says it's retaliation because his state is among those suing to challenge the president's border emergency declaration.

And Bernie Sanders makes an immediate splash in the 2020 race. A giant first day fund-raising hall. Now a Twitter battle with the president. A bigger campaign challenge? Defending his self-styled label as a Democratic socialist.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you think is the perfect motto for him to run on, Venezuela or Cuba?

CHUCK ROCHA, SANDERS' 2020 CAMPAIGN SENIOR ADVISER: I think FDR is the best model. They called FDR a socialist for creating Social Security. And, yes, Brian (ph), I realize we were in a depression at that time, but they also called Lyndon B. Johnson a socialist for creating Medicare. We want to empower people and not empower Wall Street.


KING: We begin right there with presidential politics and with new and clear evidence Bernie Sanders was not a one-shot wonder. The Vermont senator is in a tweet war with President Trump today and hoping it only adds to his very rich opening act of the 2020 campaign. By rich we mean nearly $6 million. That's the eye-popping number the Sanders campaign says it raised in the 24 hours after Sanders officially launched his 2020 run yesterday morning.

That's a take that will get the attention of the rival Democratic campaign. Sanders is on the president's radar for a different reason. The Trump re-election strategy is anchored on painting all of the Democrats as too liberal. Socialist is the president's preferred term. And Sanders, of course, proudly describes himself as a Democratic socialist.

Here's the president's tweet recycling his 2016 nickname. Crazy Bernie has just entered the race. I wish him well.

Senator Sanders all too happy to return fire, tweeting, quote, what's crazy is that we have a president who is a racist, a sexist, a xenophobe and a fraud. We're going to bring people together and not only defeat Trump, but transform the economic and political life of this country. And note the very end there of that tweet, a link to the Sanders campaign page in hopes he can raise even more money.

With me this day to share their reporting and their insight, Molly Ball with "Time," CNN's Phil Mattingly, Toluse Olorunnipa of "The Washington Post," and Arit John with "Bloomberg."

Day one, big day for Bernie. Some people thought crowded field this time, he had one shot against Hillary Clinton last time, wouldn't be as big deal this time. We don't know how this ends. But if you're Bernie Sanders, it's begun quite well.

MOLLY BALL, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": Yes, he obviously wanted to do a sort of shock and awe show of force to open because I think a lot of his rivals were discounting Bernie's chances this time around thinking that a lot of the momentum that he got last time was produced more by his position in the race as the alternative to Hillary Clinton. But this really shows that Bernie Sanders does have a very loyal and active fan base that still wants it to be him, doesn't want a stand-in Bernie Standers type, doesn't want another, you know, progressive who just isn't Bernie. And ironically, right, because Bernie Sanders' brand has always been that he's about his ideas, he's not about personality, he's not about a particular political figure. And yet, for his followers, it really isn't about which Democrat embodies these progressive ideals, it's specifically Bernie Sanders.

KING: Bernie Sanders.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I was just going to say, because, to be clear, the Democratic field now, and Arit has covered Bernie for a long period of time in the 2016 campaign, has gravitated toward his policy proposals, which were considered out of the mainstream and kind of pushed aside by Clinton supporters as something that's not electable if you're backing that. Well, now, those are the proposals that the vast majority of Democrats in the field are actually taking. And the fact that the OG can still raise all of the money here.

And it's not just -- it's not just the top line figure. Look, we all knew we had a massive e-mail list and that can actually immediately get returns. The thing that I was struck by more than the 200,000 donors, the $6 million top line, $600,000 in recurring donations per month based on the way people are signing up. This base is not going anywhere soon.

I don't think there was ever a question of whether or not Bernie Sanders was going to have money and the money to compete, but it's very clear, he's probably going to have the most money and the most money to compete. Whether or not he's able to break through given all the people who are kind of sharing or co-opting a lot of his ideas remain an open question.

But to your point, this is the way any candidate would want to start any primary campaign.

KING: And a long way to go, but who gets a little nervous by that? Is it Elizabeth Warren, who is probably closest to him in terms of ideas and trying to take the progressive wing of the party? Is it Kamala Harris, who thought, hey, I had a great roll out. I raised, what, a million and a half dollars. Wow, six, that's a lot of cash.

[12:05:12] ARIT JOHN, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": I think it's -- it's all of those candidates who are running as progressives who are saying, you know, I support Medicare for all, I support a green new deal, because Bernie Sanders, his supporters, his campaign are going to say, well, welcome to the party. I've been saying that we need to do this for decades. And that's why I think that Bernie Sanders still has this strong base of supporters who don't -- if you look at the fundraising numbers, I think it works out to about $27, which was sort of his average donation rallying cry. Like his supporters are with him because he -- because he's been on this for a long time.

KING: $27. You remember it all too well, right? $27. $27. Hey, you know, it worked. It works. Some of us rolled our eyes at all those e- mails from Bernie saying $27, but it worked.

In terms of getting in a tweet war with the president, some candidates would pull back from that. Bernie Sanders seems to think, fine, you come after me, throw your socialist label at me, call me crazy Bernie, let's do this. TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes,

and this is something that the White House is very much willing to engage in as well because they want to brand the entire field of Democrats as socialists. We've heard that language from the president over the past few weeks and from his ecosphere of Republicans on -- on Capitol Hill and in the media branding basically anybody who has a "d" next to their name as a socialist. Now you have Bernie Sanders, who proudly wears that label of Democratic socialist and he's seeing all the fire coming from the White House and seeing that they want to brand not only his policies as socialism but also all the Democrats policies as socialism. So she's willing to really fight back against the president.

And one poll that came out last year showed that that "s" word is not as toxic as it used to be. Democrats actually view socialism as more favorable than capitalism according to this poll that came out last year.

KING: And that's going to be one of the fascinating questions in the campaign because some of the other candidates get a little nervous. Because if you look back historically, you don't want to be called the Democratic socialist in presidential politics in the United States of America. Bernie Sanders, though, listen to him, he's quite comfortable with this. He was the major of Burlington, he was a socialist. Now he's an independent, even though he's running for the Democratic nomination. He doesn't mind the label. When you throw it on him, he has a good retort.


SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: When I talk about Democratic socialism, if somebody wants to call me a radical, OK, here it is. I believe that people are inherently entitled to health care. I believe people are entitled to get the best education they can. I believe that people are entitled to live in a clean environment. People are entitled to have decent paying jobs. That's what I believe.


KING: He's comfortable with it. There's a flip side. You ask some of the other candidates and you get this.


QUESTION: To compete in New Hampshire, do you have to -- in the Democratic primary, do you have to move more toward the Democratic socialist part of the party?

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, the people in New Hampshire will tell me what's required to compete in New Hampshire. But I will tell you, I am not a Democratic socialist.

PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), LAUNCHED 2020 EXPLORATORY COMMITTEE: Part of the fascination of the Sanders campaign is the guy who just said he was a socialist. I don't know even know if he really is in the real sense. I don't even know what it means. I guess that's my point. The word has lost its meaning.

JOHN DELANEY (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If we want to beat Trump, we should not put up a candidate who embraces socialism.


KING: It's going to be a fascinating Democratic debate. There's just three of the candidates there. There will be eight or ten or maybe 12 Sanders rivals. And, again, he's comfortable in his skin. That's what he's called himself forever. And he's very quick. And his supporters are very quick, those who have been around his campaign, as you saw Chuck Rocha on Fox News saying, well, no, it's like LBJ or, you know, it's a -- but -- but the other candidates cringe. Should they? Is that the right reaction?

BALL: Well, it's also kind of an opportunity for them, right? I mean when even Elizabeth Warren can go out there and say, I am a capitalist, it gives them a chance to differentiate themselves from what they view as the left flank of the party, even if they're advocating pretty much the same policies just by disassociating themselves with that label. So they're -- the question is, do Democratic primary voters find that label so inherently appealing that they're not looking for the candidates, you know, who are differentiating themselves for the left flank. They're looking for that left flank.

And that is the position that Bernie seems to be in right now is with a very powerful appeal to a strong and active part of the party base. Is it the whole party base? You know, you hear Democratic strategists, a lot of them will question whether he's got a ceiling, particularly in a multi-way Democratic primary. If his appeal, while very, very strong, is still limited to that narrow swath of voters. But we're going to have to see. It certainly was wider than a lot of people expected in 2016.

KING: Right. And that is part of my big question in the sense that Bernie himself -- and all politicians say this and there's ego involved in politics -- it's shocking -- and there's gambling in the casino. They say it's about the idea, not about them. But this will be a test of how much of this is personal loyalty to Bernie Sanders that carries over from the last campaign.

JOHN: Right, because you talk -- you talk to a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters and they feel -- I mean they do feel like he, maybe not got robbed, but that the 2016 primary process was unfair and there was polling that showed that Bernie Sanders polled better against Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton did and so, you know, the mantra, like, Bernie would have won comes into play.

[12:10:11] And Sanders has also said, this is about continuing the political revolution that started in 2016. And that means not just getting through the primary and elevating these idea, but actually winning the general election.

BALL: Can I say also it's --

KING: Go ahead.

BALL: I think it's also about authenticity, that he's willing to embrace that label, that he's not afraid of the attacks that the Republicans will throw at someone who calls themselves a socialist. And I think that's powerfully appealing to people that he -- that he knows what he is.

KING: Right. And having, a, he's comfortable in his skin. B, he's been around the presidential track, which sometimes experience helps on the campaign trail. We shall see. It's a fascinating start. We'll see how it goes.

Up next, "The New York Times" reveals new episodes showing how the president allegedly attempted to stymie federal investigations.


[12:15:00] KING: Sharp, new attacks from the president today on new reporting that again raises this question, did the president try to obstruct justice? Dishonest, no basis in fact, out of control and false is how the president, in some tweets, describes the nearly 5,000-word "New York Times" report.

The newspaper report details two years of presidential frustration with investigations and numerous efforts to battle them that includes this big, new nugget, that the president's phoned his then acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, and asked him to change the leadership of the federal investigation in New York that directly touches the president and could reach into his family business. "The Times" said the episode is part of the president's, quote, more sustained, more secretive assault on law enforcement, a covert companion, if you will, to his public raging constantly against the special counsel. "The Times" cautions there's no evidence that Whitaker took any action to make the change the president reportedly wanted.

CNN's Shimon Prokupecz joins our conversation.

To me fascinating in the sense that this is more recent in the tenure of Matthew Whitaker, now departed, but in the several month tenure of Matthew Whitaker as the acting attorney general, "The Times" is saying that a president, who knows he is under investigation for potentially obstructing the Mueller Russia probe, called Matthew Whitaker and said, can you put Geoff Berman, the U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, back in charge of this investigation, from which Berman had recused himself.


KING: So, the president meddling in an investigation even though he knows he's under investigation for meddling in the other investigation.

PROKUPECZ: Right. And it also comes way after the president has already been told that it's inappropriate for him to have this kind of contact with people at the DOJ, with people at the FBI. It comes at a time when the president has been told really not to even talk about what's going on in the Southern District of New York.

What's very clear, and I think what this reporting lays out for us, is that he is very concerned about what's going on in the Southern District of New York. There's been a lot of focus on the Mueller investigation, but not enough focus on the Southern District of New York where he certainly -- and his -- and the Trump Organization certainly has the most liability and the most concern. That's what I think this does.

It also is interesting that he -- he wanted someone in that job, in the Southern District of New York, who would ultimately protect him. The fact that Berman, Geoffrey Berman, had recused himself from the Michael Cohen investigation I think concerned the president certainly. It certainly concerned people close to him. But they knew what was going on there. And that investigation is not ending anytime soon. I mean this could go on for a couple of years, John.

KING: And this -- the issue of, did the president ask you to do anything that was wrong came up with Whitaker was on Capitol Hill. Here's one of his answers.


MATTHEW WHITAKER, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: At no time has the White House asked for, nor have I provided, any promises or commitments concerning the special counsel's investigation or any other investigation.


KING: Now, you could take that as Matthew Whitaker saying, no, I didn't do anything, or you can read it closely, provided any promises or commitments. It doesn't mean the president might not have called and vented. Called and said, is this possible? Is there any way you could pick up the phone and make this happen. That's different than saying, you know, do it.

OLORUNNIPA: Yes, this is a very lawyerly statement. You saw him looking down reading what was written because this wasn't something that he was just saying off the cuff. It's very likely that this was sort of written in a way, sort of a rhetorical sleight of hand where it sounds like he's denying that the president did anything improper but not necessarily denying what we've seen in "The New York Times" where the president was angry and that he called and asked Matt Whitaker to, you know, take some action that people could definitely interpret as obstruction of justice. So that statement is sort of a non-denial denial. And we'll have to wait to see if Whitaker or anyone in the Justice Department comes out with any more forceful or clear, direct language saying that the president did not do this because often we've seen denials of stories and then we've seen, over time, the stories turn out to be actually true.

KING: To that point, what we are witnessing in recent days is to turn on your television and you find Andrew McCabe, the former number two at the FBI, because acting director when James Comey got fire. He's selling a new book. It's highly critical of the president of the United States. He's everywhere on television.

And to your point, one of the values, if you will, of McCabe is that he's proving a lot of journalism -- if you believe Andrew McCabe -- proving a lot of journalism right, things that were reported that the White House denied, labeled as fake news, labeled as reckless, labeled as law enforcement run amok. Andrew McCabe is now talking about them publically.

This was interesting with Anderson Cooper last night. You know, the question is, he says, maybe the president's a Russian asset, wittingly or unwittingly. He talks about launching a counterintelligence investigation. He says he briefed key members of Congress and they didn't say anything. The question is, what don't we know?

Listen to this.


ANDERSON COOPER, HOST, CNN'S "AC360": Are there other things that haven't been made public at this point that contributed to the opening of the investigation into the president?

ANDREW MCCABE, FORMER ACTING FBI DIRECTOR: I'm not so sure that there are things that haven't been made public.


KING: That, to me, was like, well, wait then, you know, is this -- how much -- is there classified information about interactions with the Russians? Is there something else behind it? What did you make of that?

PROKUPECZ: So, yes, there is. There's a lot of intelligence, I think. It's human intelligence. I think there are intercepts. I think there's a lot of stuff that the intelligence community was dealing with that was shared with the FBI that they were working to try and corroborate. There's a lot of information from the Russians talking to each other, perhaps indicating that they infiltrated the campaign or they thought they infiltrated the campaign. There's conversations about Paul Manafort with the Russians that we know about. Other conversations. So, yes, there is.

[12:20:22] What happened with all that information and was the FBI, the Mueller team, able to corroborate any of that. And the other part of it is, could this ever be revealed? Because it is intelligence, it is considered sensitive intelligence. That has always been one of the things, I think, for the FBI in his investigation is how do you put some of this forth? How do you go forward and reveal some of this information? Even in court documents it's very difficult to do that.

KING: We're going to see what happens when we get to the point of a Mueller report and then what of that becomes public.


KING: Shimon keeps thinking it's going to be soon. Do you got a Powerball number for me on that one?

Another interesting thing is, one of the most significant things McCabe has said, you know, that Trump himself and Trump supporters call this essentially an attempted coup, the deep state, rogue law enforcement, an insurance policy against the president winning the election. Andrew McCabe says, no, actually, we had every reason to launch the investigation and we went up and told the top members of Congress as we're supposed to do on very sensitive things. We looped them in on that. He says none of them objected. That would include allies of the president, including Devin Nunes, who, at the time, was the House Intelligence Committee chairman.

This is Trey Gowdy, former Republican congressman who knows Devin Nunes well, knowns the former speaker, Paul Ryan, well, saying that's not fair.


TREY GOWDY (R), FORMER HOUSE OVERSIGHT COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: The reason he's doing it this way is Devin and Paul are not allowed to discuss anything that is said in a gang of eight meeting. And McCabe knows that. So he can level the accusation and Paul and Devin cannot refute him.


KING: Is that right? I mean you're not supposed to discuss the things you're told in those private meetings, but would it be out of bounds for either Paul Ryan or Devin Nunes if Andrew McCabe is not telling the truth. He says they briefed them, there were no objections. Couldn't they issue a statement saying, I can't discuss those meetings, but I was never in one like Andrew McCabe described?

BALL: You would think. You would think that if this were a brazen falsehood on his part, they would feel that the confidentiality had been breached to the point that they could at least -- you could even do a vague denial that says there are statements out there that are inconsistent with what I experienced. And that has not happened. And so the sound of crickets from those quarters I think is significant. It might not mean anything. It could be that, like Gowdy says, they would -- they would love to quibble with this but they -- their hands are just tied. But it's not like we have suffered from a lack of information coming out of the -- those meetings and that committee. So --

KING: From Devin Nunes in particular who has not been shy about saying he thinks there was corruption in the FBI. He did think there were problems. One would think that if he could -- if McCabe's not telling the truth, that Nunes would find a way to say something, wouldn't we?

OLORUNNIPA: Yes, and he has broken protocol the past. I mean we had, you know, talk about unmasking. We had, you know, memos that were released that the FBI did not want released that had information about, you know, internal methods that the FBI was using and Devin Nunes was very much a part of that process as Republicans on that committee tried to run interference for the president. So the idea that they're now following protocol and their mouths are tied because they're not able to talk about what happened in this gang of eight meeting doesn't line up too well with what we've seen over the past year with Devin Nunes leading a committee and breaking protocol on a number of different (INAUDIBLE).

KING: Everything -- everything could just be returning to norm, right?

No one's going to make a bet on that?

BALL: Right, who said that?

KING: No, not a safe bet.

Up next, plenty of team changes over at the Justice Department, but one very important thing hasn't changed, the boss down the street.


[12:28:29] KING: There's a new leadership team taking shape at the Department of Justice. William Barr on the job as attorney general. He's the permanent replacement for Jeff Sessions. And the president says he will now nominate Jeff Rosen as the next deputy attorney general. Rosen would replace Rod Rosenstein. New team, same boss in the White House, which raises a big question, will Barr and Rosen face the same presidential scorn as Sessions and Rosenstein? The president, just a little history here, went after Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein more than two dozen times on Twitter alone. Tweets like this one from last summer, the Russian witch hunt hoax continues all because Jeff Sessions didn't tell me he was going to recuse himself. I would have quickly picked someone else. So much time and money wasted, so many lives ruined and Sessions knew better than most there was no collusion.

Apologies to Jeff Sessions for being that back up.

This is a fascinating question. You now have, by most accounts, even Democrats who say this privately, two adults will be leading the Justice Department. Not that Rod Rosenstein's not an adult, Jeff Sessions wasn't an adult, but Republicans are surprised. You have a former attorney general who's now the current attorney general again, a George H.W. Bush administration, viewed as a serious player in town. Jeffrey Rosen coming over there. That was Bill Barr's choice. A guy he's known for 20 years.

How long -- how long until the president realizes, wait, just like Jeff Sessions and Rod Rosenstein, they are not going to fire Bob Mueller. They are not going to shut things down. They are not going -- they are not likely, anyway, to listen to me when I ask them to do things.

[12:29:54] BALL: Well, that's -- there are two courses here, right? Door number one, Barr does move in some way to quash or temper the Mueller investigation, whether it's by firing Mueller or doing something else.