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Bill Shine Resigns as Communications Director; Cohen's Request for Pardon; House Dems Pass Ethics Overhaul. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 8, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:14] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing this big breaking news day with us.

Among the developments this hour, a big shake-up again at the Trump White House. The president's communications director headed out of the White House. The White House says he's heading now to the president's 2020 re-election campaign.

CNN's Sarah Westwood is at the White House.

Sarah, any word on why Bill Shine is leaving now?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN REPORTER: Well, John, this is an unexpected departure. The White House announcing Bill Shine's resignation today, saying that Shine offered his resignation to the president last night and that he will now become a senior adviser to the 2020 campaign.

There's not a lot of clarity about what that job on the campaign would entails, or his reasons for leaving, but Shine, of course, was brought on board to improve the president's press coverage. That clearly did not happen in the less than a year that Shine served in this White House.

And our colleague, Kaitlan Collins, reports that Shine was scheduled to go on the president's trip to Vietnam for those North Korea denuclearization talks but dropped off the trip unexpectedly a couple of days before. So perhaps some signs of the departure to come.

And it's not clear, John, who will take Shine's job as the effective communications director in the White House. There have been six people who have held the title of communications director at the White House or who have done that job effectively. So the White House now will be looking at a seventh White House communications director as the White House heads into a difficult period with the impending release of the Mueller report and dealing with the Democratic House.

So it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, the White House will be able to get to fill that position, John.

KING: That's an interesting development, as you note, Sarah, at a very interesting time. Sarah Westwood live at the White House. Come back if we learn anything

more in the hour ahead.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Kaitlan Collins, Catherine Lucey with "The Associated Press," Seung Min Kim with "The Washington Post," and Lisa Lerer with "The New York Times."

It is, a, the timing, and, b, the how, once again. In a traditional White House, if a senior player is leaving, you announce their departure as you announce who's coming in to replace them. Yet again we're surprised by somebody big and important to this president leaving. If the story is correct and he's just moving over to a senior role in the campaign, it makes some sense to that. But --

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: But it's really unusual. No one in the White House was expecting this. I've been talking to people this week and Bill Shine had actually been a pretty big topic of conversation after that "New Yorker" piece talking about the relationship between the White House and Fox News, which, of course, he played a big role in since he was a very senior level at Fox News. And the people I talked to about Bill Shine, we talked about the president's relationship with him, we talked about the work he had been doing. But I do not think anyone expected Bill Shine to be leaving. So it's very questionable that it's so abrupt. Though there are a lot of abrupt resignations in this White House.

And I think what adds to that level of mystery there is that Bill Shine was scheduled to go on the Vietnam trip with the president, which is a big trip. They don't make the staffing decisions for a trip like that lightly. The people who go, there's a pretty limited manifest for who's going on that trip. And then just a few days before, Bill Shine announced that he was not going to be going on that trip any longer. He was staying back here to handle things. So I do think it raises questions about why he's leaving.

And there had been talk that the president was unhappy, that he thought that he was going to bring this former Fox News co-president into the White House, that he was going to help him get better coverage, and that the president was unhappy that that was something that had happened, which raises the question, could anyone help the president get better coverage? But that's certainly something that the president had talked about privately.

KING: And we've seen Bill Shine behind the president a lot, on stage with the president at a lot of these events. Yes, helping his former colleague, Sean Hannity, he produced his show at Fox News, get interviews with the president. There was talk about the connection. And let's also remember, this was a controversial hire to begin with because when Bill Shine was at Fox News, he was in a senior position during the whole Roger Ailes, Bill O'Reilly, go to the Internet, we don't have to do that here, but he was a senior official. So it was controversial to begin with.

Then he settles in. And the question then is, again, why now? And the president's running for re-election. They set up a campaign structure. The campaign structure's involved in the morning communications call, the morning strategy call. So, in some ways, if he moves over there, and let's watch and see if that happens, it makes some sense, but leaving that gaping hole, as Sarah Westwood just noted, the Mueller report's about to come out. We're going to talk about, you know, some hiccups in the economy today. The president dealing with a new Democratic majority. You want a senior player inside. Yes, you want a strong campaign operation, but you also want a senior trusted head (ph) inside at this moment.

CATHERINE LUCEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": Yes. I mean this is a huge moment for this White House with a lot of messaging needs going into, you know, all of these events that you're talking about. And -- but a question I think we have to think about, especially with, you know, Kaitlin's comments about (INAUDIBLE) is just what role he had been playing in the weeks leading up to this? You know, was this sort of a snap decision based on something that we're still yet to still find out, or had this been percolating for some time? Had he, you know, lost the confidence of the president in some way that maybe meant that he wasn't able to advise on those decisions? I mean that's -- we're still trying to figure out if that's the case.

[12:05:08] KING: Right. And I'm just going to -- I'm just --

LUCEY: But the president's a very, very hard critic in terms of the media he gets.

KING: Right.

LUCEY: He -- we all know how much media he takes in and just how much he cares about the way he's portrayed on TV.

KING: And I'm just going to say this because you read these statements put out. Bill Shine has his own statements. It was the highest honor of his life. And Sarah Sanders' statement saying how invaluable he's been in the West Wing. And all -- Mick Mulvaney, I'm sorry, the chief of staff in this statement.

The issue is the reason I'm a little skeptical is, we have seen this before where the Trump White House says a on day one, and sometimes by dinner or by the next day we find out actually the story is b, c or d.

LISA LERER, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": And oftentimes we see that these jobs do not get filled or do not get filled in any kind of a timely manner. And this one feels like it would be particularly hard to fill because in many ways the president is his own communications director, right? You can go out there with the best messaging plan in the world and he undoes it with a tweet.

So I think this along -- that's part of the reason you see all these openings in the White House and across the administration is because the president is such a challenging guy to work for, but this one feels particularly lucky number seven what they're going to be looking for.

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And underscoring Lisa's point, I mean they're -- the White House press shop has brought on a couple of extra hands over the last several weeks, particularly as the House Democrats took control and there's a lot to respond to coming from that new majority.

But at the same time, I mean, Sarah Sanders has not held a briefing for the press since January 28th. I mean we are in early March right now. That is a long time to go without taking questions on, you know, policy, politics and substance from the White House press corps. And the president does do his impromptu gaggles, like he did this morning, but that's not a substitute for answering questions.

COLLINS: Yes, and this was a cursed position. I mean look at some of the people who had had this job. I mean Jason Miller, Sean Spicer, Mike Dubke (ph), Anthony Scaramucci, Hope Hicks. There have been so many communications directors in a pretty short time --

LUCEY: This job always reminds me of the defense of the dark arts teacher in Hogwarts because there's just -- they're constantly coming in.

COLLINS: A lot. Whenever we reported a story on the comms team not that long ago saying that there had been complaints about what Bill Shine's strategy was, how his -- he sent officials on Fox News but wasn't really trying to expand their support beyond that, but people did talk about how it's a very tough job to be President Trump's communications director when he is his own communications director.

KING: And we've seen this inside the White House, but also across this administration from day one. Personnel turnover and personnel vacancies, as we're having this conversation, the secretary of the Air Force, former Congressman Heather Wilson, now the secretary of the Air Force tweeting, today I informed the president I will resign as secretary of the Air Force to be the president of the University of Texas at El Paso. It's been a privilege to serve with our airmen. I am proud of the progress we have made to restore the readiness and lethality of the United States Air Force.

So you're losing the Air Force secretary as well.

She's getting a good job in academia, but we also know that there was some grumbling about the space force and the president's treatment of the Air Force there. So you see more turnover there.

And back to the communications role, Bill Shine, you call it the cursed position, here's one of the challenges. On display just today, as Seung Min mentioned, a dramatic change in the president's mood and a big new claim this morning, in the blink of just 66 minutes. The president was huddling with reporters on the North Lawn this morning. He gave a pretty measured response when asked about his attorney and fixer Michael Cohen.


MICHAEL COHEN, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S FORMER ATTORNEY: I never have for, nor would I accept, a pardon from President Trump.


KING: That's the wrong sound there. We wanted to play the president there.

The president under -- let's listen to the president on the North Lawn.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't even discuss it. I have -- the only one discussing it is you. I haven't discussed it. I know that in watching and seeing you folks at night, that Michael Cohen lied about the pardon. And it (ph) was a stone cold lie. And he's lied about a lot of things. But when he lied about the pardon, that was really a lie. And he knew all about pardons. His lawyer said that they went to my lawyers and asked for pardons. And I could go a step above that, but I won't go to it now.


KING: So you heard the president there, I could go a step above that but I won't do it now. Relatively calm, if you watched the president and his history on such rope (ph) lines, especially when the words Michael Cohen come up.

That tape airing at 9:57 a.m. here on the East Coast, at 11:04 a.m., the president ditched the restraint here on Twitter.

Bad lawyer and fraud Michael Cohen said under sworn testimony that he never asked for a pardon. His lawyers totally contradicted him. He lied. Additionally, he directly asked me for a pardon. I said, no. He lied again! He also badly wanted to work at the White House. He lied!

So, again, the president's aides at the campaign and at the White House have been trying to impress upon him, stay calm in these -- in these gaggles. Don't get animated. He wanted to talk about the economy today. Everything is good.

What was -- what -- just the -- just processing? And, number one, now we have to find -- the Democrats have power in the House now. They want all the documents about this Cohen pardon conversation. They want witnesses about this Cohen pardon conversation.

[12:10:05] COLLINS: And the question is, is the president going to be a witnesses in that investigation into whether or not Michael Cohen lied about seeing a pardon.

Now the statements from Michael Cohen's attorneys has been odd. They were saying essentially that he had not asked for a pardon after a certain date, so he wasn't lying when he said he had never asked for a pardon, which is not really what most people would agree with when you say you've never asked for something.

But I find it interesting that the president waited over a week to bring up that Michael Cohen had asked him directly for a pardon. CNN had reported that Michael Cohen was under the impression, back in I think it was December, before he started cooperating, that he couldn't maybe get a pardon from the president, but the president came out directly today and said he asked him for one personally, which takes it above the lawyers, which we had thought the conversations had been.

So it's interesting the president waited this long after Michael Cohen had been on TV last week saying he had never asked for one.

KING: And the challenge for journalists, and the challenge for Congress is that you have a perpetual liar, the president -- sorry, it's true -- a perpetual liar and a convicted liar saying the other one's lying. Good luck.

LUCEY: And both sides are then trying to undermine what the other says. I mean it's --

KIM: Exactly. And that's why -- I mean in advance of the Michael Cohen hearing a couple weeks ago, the Republicans have been making that case that he -- Michael Cohen is an unreliable narrator, he's going to prison for lying, why can't -- why are you taking any of his words seriously? But you have to look at the comments that he's up against and -- and try to decide who is telling the truth.

KING: And, again, you're now in the mud pit, the skunks, call it what you will, you ladies pick a better term than I would maybe. Michael Cohen not wasting any time responding. He's about to go to prison. He's got a couple more weeks before he goes to prison. But he responds to -- the president says he directly asked for a pardon. Here's Michael Cohen's response. And, again, these are two guys who used to be buddies, right? Used to be very important to each other.

Just another set of lies by POTUS @realdonaldtrump. Mr. President, let me remind you, today a International Women's Day. You may want to use today to apologize for your own lies and dirty deeds to women like Karen McDougal and Stephanie Clifford. Stephanie Clifford, of course, the real name of Stormy Daniels.

LERER: I mean, look, I think this just underscores for the 10,000th time how Twitter is both the president's greatest strength and perhaps greatest weakness. We would not be talking about Michael Cohen today if he had just ended with the comments at the gaggle. At least not more in passing. But now, here we are, talking again, Michael Cohen, the president's closest guy, his fixer, who went up and all these things in front of Congress. But the president himself, with his tweet, put this back on the table.

KING: But he knows that. He has to know every time he hits send that he's going to -- he is likely to change the cable conversation. So why does he want us to be -- have, again, a liar calling a liar a liar.

LUCEY: He is usually very comfortable with a fight. I mean we know that. We've seen that again and again. And what we're seeing here with Michael Cohen really emphasizes what Cohen sees as a key weakness or vulnerability for the president. You know, going back to these payments, talking about these women. He's trying to get under his skin. LERER: But this is what infuriated and frustrated Republicans during

the midterms. They wanted to be talking about the economy. They wanted to be, you know, some -- in some places talking about the tax bill, and instead they were constantly taken off course by tweets like this. And, you know, you have to wonder how this all plays out. A presidential election is obviously very different than a midterm, but we are in that cycle now and how this all shapes and whether we have those same Republican frustrations that we hear again.

KING: Can we end in early March 2019 any Republican -- if Republicans have the fantasy that this is going to change as they head into 2020, that's on them. That's not --


KING: The evidence is rather overwhelming at this point that it will not change.

We'll keep an eye to both of those developing stories, the turnover at the White House, the back and forth between the president and Michael Cohen.

Up next for us though, House Democrats try to pivot from controversy and taken a big vote on their signature policy initiative.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), HOUSE SPEAKER: This is, in our view, an historic day, a pivotal day, a day that will make a difference as we go forward. And to those as Mr. Phillips -- Congressman Phillips said, yes, it is a power grab, a power grab on behalf of the people.



[12:18:06] KING: Today, House Democrats hoping to get back to debating policy instead of prejudice. Last hour the House passed HR-1, that's a sweeping package of ethics voting and other reforms favored by the new Democratic majority. The partisan breakdown of the vote tally tells you all you need to know. All 234 Democrats on hand today voted for the measure. All 193 present Republicans voted no.

The legislation stands not a prayer of getting attention in the Republican Senate. But for House Democrats, it was an important effort to move past a remarkable family feud. Just yesterday, after days of drama over how to handle anti-Semitic statements by Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the House voted 407-23 on a resolution that condemned anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and white nationalism.

CNNs' Phil Mattingly joins us now live on Capitol Hill.

Phil, do the Democrats think today turns the page, or is there still a hangover from this debate.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think House Democratic leadership certainly hopes so. And when you look at what happened on the floor today, just keep in mind, this is an important context. That bill is what House Democratic leaders and frankly rank and file House Democrats wanted this week to be all about. It was really the Seminole piece of legislation for the new majority, getting the HR-1 numbering for the (INAUDIBLE), kind of the most important bill, what everybody campaigned on in 2018.

And not just that it was a -- kind of a symbolic bill, because obviously Mitch McConnell has made clear it's not going anywhere in the Senate, it was also something they've spent a lot of time on, 670 pages, kind of an overhaul of several different factors that they've been talking about on the campaign in the opening months of Congress, and yet it was swamped throughout the course of a week.

And I think the key thing to recognize here, what we all saw this week, is, this isn't a one-off. This isn't a one-time thing. This really kind of ripped the lid off some very, very severe generational divides, ideological divides, divides between different groups inside the caucus. And it's something that Republicans have made clear they're not going to let go anytime soon.

Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, at his press conference just a short while ago, bringing up this issue repeatedly. They've made clear, they feel like it was watered down. They feel like Democratic leaders were cowed (ph) by some of their members who thought Congresswoman Omar was unfairly targeted throughout and kind of ended up losing the full meaning of what this resolution was all about. And because of that, they're going to keep bringing it up.

[12:20:11] And I think one of the key things -- I was talking to Democratic members during the votes, kind of what their feelings were on the week, and I think to a person they all said, look, we're glad it's behind us. We hope it doesn't come back up again. One member told me rather candidly, I hope everybody just stops tweeting. If we have issues, let's talk about it and let's at least keep this off Twitter for the time being.

KING: Yes, good luck with that part.

Quickly, before I let you go, this is largely a Democratic divide, a Democratic dynamic, but there's some grumbling in the Republican ranks that they managed to get themselves in the middle of this story because of their vote breakdown. Explain.

MATTINGLY: Yes, that's right. So there were 23 no votes that resolution, the anti-hate resolution yesterday. They were all Republican no votes. And the rationale was explicit. These members aren't running away from it. They've made clear that they thought it was watered down. They thought it should have specifically identified Congresswoman Omar.

I think one of the main thing I heard about from kind of Republican leadership aides or people close to Republican leadership is, this was an easy yes vote and we could have kept the spotlight on Democrats and, to some degree, maybe that was removed a little bit. The bigger issue, I think, was the fact that a member of leadership

ended up voting against it. That was Congresswoman Liz Cheney. And, look, let's be clear, Liz Cheney has been out front on Congresswoman Omar, saying that she should be stripped of her committee assignment on House Foreign Affairs. She was out front on Congressman Steve King, a Republican, who was stripped of his committee assignments earlier in the Congress. But the idea that the third ranked member of the House would split from the top two members of the House. Kevin McCarthy, just a short while ago at that press conference said, quote, I always think we're stronger when we all vote together. It wasn't that -- it was pretty explicit what he meant by that, and that is that leadership is supposed to vote together.

Keep an eye on this. I think this is going to be, between leadership, something that people are going to be watching for the next couple weeks and months ahead.

KING: I would keep an eye on the ambitious Congresswoman Cheney throughout the next weeks and months ahead.

Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill, appreciate that.

Let's come back into the room.

The Democrats hope to turn the page. Just this morning, just -- let's play it right now, the president of the United States hopes not to let them turn the page.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I thought yesterday's vote by the House was disgraceful because it's become -- the Democrats have become an anti-Israel party. They've become an anti-Jewish party.


KING: This is part of why this debate was so painful to the Democrats in the sense that they would like to have the high ground on issues of prejudice. They believe the president gives them plenty of material to look at him and say, a, that's not a president, b, it's not decent. Whether it's Charlottesville, whether it's some other thing the president himself has done that you could casts as anti-Semitic. But the president, today, clearly making clear, he thinks that -- I'm going to keep my foot on the gas here.

COLLINS: And this has kind of been the feeling in the White House over the past few -- this few days as these Democrats have kind of been tripping over their own feet. They've been happy to let them do that and continue to hammer them on it. You've seen the president tweeting about it, calling it disgraceful. He's more than happy to talk about it when he's speaking with reporters. And it's because they want to be able to push this narrative that they think the Democrats who criticized the president for things he says or things he doesn't condemn that they're hypocrites.

LERER: Right. This is such a great issue really for the White House because not only does it give them cover on some of the things that the president says when it comes to issues of race and gender, it also allows them to make a play for Jewish voters who are still overwhelmingly Democratic, but may have some concerns with how the Democratic Party is shifting on Israel. And, perhaps more importantly, it allows them to bolster their base. Evangelical voters are strong supporters of Israel. They don't like to hear this kind of thing. So it's kind of a three-pronged win for the White House by just letting Democrats go with this.

KING: And Speaker Pelosi gave Congresswoman Omar a lot of grace in the sense of saying that she didn't think she understood how hurtful her remarks are. A lot of other members will tell you publically and privately, they don't buy that anymore because it's happened several times. Once, maybe we'll talk to you about it. Twice, we'll talk to you about it. Three, four and five, they think it's deliberate.

But the question is, what happens going forward with not just Congresswoman Omar, but these young freshmen who do not want to be told, wait your turn, do not want to be told, tame your tweets.

This is what she told "Politico" magazine, I'm certainly not looking to be comfortable and I don't want everyone necessarily to feel comfortable around me. I think the most exciting things happen when people are extremely uncomfortable. I'm OK with taking the blows if it means it will ignite conversation that no one was willing to have before.

KIM: And this -- and that's why this is going to be such an important storyline going forward because while this debate this week was very important, it is still, at the end of the day, a symbolic resolution. But the Democratic Party, particularly the House Democratic caucus, is going to be wrestling with actual divisions over deep policy issues. You're talking about issues of climate change and the green new deal. Immigration will be another dividing point on whether to eliminate or abolish ICE or not, as well as healthcare with single payer or not.

And we -- again, we talk so much about this emboldened group of new impressive in the House, but the House majority was won on the backs of the -- these moderate Democrats who won these Trump-held districts. Republicans are very eager to win back those districts so they can win back the House majority in 2020. And that tension, especially how it plays out in these substantive policy debates, will be something to watch.

LUCEY: And I've certainly been hearing this week from Republicans in and around the White House who are a little bit gleeful about how, you know, being in the majority is hard. You know, they're like, we dealt with all of this when we -- so they are -- I think they are enjoying a little bit watching this play out.

[12:25:14] LERER: And, look the Democratic party and the Trump administration has created this new purity test. They have embraced this brand of being against all forms of hate and racism, anti- Semitism, you know, gender bias. And, you know, these are the most fiery issues at the center of our national conversation. So again and again these issues are going to flare up and they may find divisions in their ranks and have to tangle with sort of messy -- these kind of messy cross-currents. We already saw that in Virginia. Now we saw it in the House.

KING: I was just going to say, they draw these lines -- they draw these lines, then they open themselves up to Republican or any criticism, independent criticism. Well, if you drew this line, why is Ralph Northam still the governor of Virginia?

LERER: Right.

KING: If you draw this line, why won't you at least strip Ilhan Omar of one of her committee assignments or do something --


KING: Why aren't you actually going to do something binding about it.

LERER: And one of the most interesting developments, I thought, in this whole week-long firestorm was when the presidential candidates weighed in from the campaign trail? Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, to say that they stand behind Congresswoman Omar.

So you're going to see these things play out not only, you know, at the state level, like we saw in Virginia, not only in the House, like we saw this week, but also they're going to migrate over to the campaign trail. They're going to be in the Democratic debates and eventually in the general election.

KING: Just beginning the interesting phase. But on this -- in this particular case, about very important issues.

Up next for us, a surprisingly weak jobs report for February, but there are some bright spots in the new data.