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Vote to Hold Barr in Contempt; Military Assets moved to Middle East; Trump Renews China Trade Threat. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired May 6, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:24] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Confrontation is the word of the day. House Democrats prepare to hold the attorney general in contempt. And the president reverses course and says Robert Mueller should not testify.

Plus, the president threatens new tariffs on China and U.S. warships making big statements, guided missile destroyers sail through the South China Seas and now an aircraft carrier strike group on the move because of what the White House calls alarming signals from Iran.

And royal baby news. It's a boy.


PRINCE HARRY: It's been the most amazing experience I could ever have possibly imagined. How any woman does what they do is beyond comprehension. But we're both absolutely thrilled and so grateful to all the love and support from everybody out there.


KING: Back to that announcement in a bit and a busy hour ahead, including the markets dipping into the red today over big trade and tariff fears.

Up first, though, a congressional warning shot at the attorney general. Today the House Judiciary Committee set a Wednesday vote to hold William Barr in contempt, that after Barr ignored a morning deadline to deliver the full, un-redacted Mueller report to Congress.

Barr's latest act of defiance escalates an already big fight. The Trump administration said no and promises to keep saying no to every subpoena and every demand for testimony. And that now seems to include information from the Russia special counsel. Quote, Bob Mueller should not testify, that the president tweeting Sunday afternoon, quote, no redos for the Dems.

Now, if you read the Mueller report, you can understand why the president wants to silence the special counsel. His take is quite damning. But if you read the president's tweets, well, let's just say he frames it a by the differently. Quote, Dems can't win the election fairly, the president says. You can't impeach a president for creating the best economy in our country's history.

With me today to share their reporting and their insights, Maggie Haberman with "The New York Times," CNN's Manu Raju, Matt Viser with "The Washington Post," and Eliana Johnson with "Politico."

Let start, Manu, with the word on The Hill, holding the attorney general in contempt. Not a surprise that he didn't deliver the Mueller report. What now?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, escalating a series of fights between House Democrats and the Trump administration this morning. Jerry Nadler scheduled a vote for Wednesday to hold the attorney general in contempt because he defied that subpoena that required the full Mueller report and the underlying evidence to be turned over.

Democrats have tried to set the stage for what they could be -- believe would be a successful legal strategy. You know, holding someone in contempt typically is a -- more of a symbolic action than anything else. What they really are after is to show what they view as non-compliance by the Justice Department and encourage the courts to side with them. So they have gone through what they believe is a series of reasonable requests in their view to turn over the underlying evidence as well. The Justice Department says the grand jury information in particular is off-limits, which is why they have not complied with that subpoena.

But this is just one fight wrapped into a larger series of fights between House Democrats and the White House over these demands, including demands for subpoena -- demands under subpoenas that the administration is reject at the moment. So we'll see where this ends up.

KING: And the White House clearly does not see a big political price in saying no, at least not yet. And add to the no, and I want your thinking on this, reporting on this, why adding Robert Mueller to this. And, first, let's just get on the record. This is the president of the United States, asked just the other day, do you care if Robert Mueller testifies?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know. That's up to our attorney general, who I think has done a fantastic job.


KING: So he left it to the attorney general, who says this.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What about Bob Mueller? Should he be allowed to testify before this --

WILLIAM BARR, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I've already said publically, I have no objection.


KING: So can they take it back now? Can they say no?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, they seem to have, right? I mean the president tweeted yesterday he doesn't think that Mueller should testify, and we can assume that that is going to be what he tells his attorney general. This is part of your question from before of paying a political price. Will the president pay a political price? And the answer so far has been, no. And as long as the president sees that the answer is no, he is going to continue to do what he has done.

We should note that this is not the first White House in history to rebuff requests for documents or even subpoenas from Congress. This president is doing it in a different way. He is filing lawsuits of his own to try to quash certain subpoenas that relate to his personal finances, and that's where I think it gets into sort of a novel area. But, in general, I don't think any of this is a surprise. And if anyone is surprised that this is how the president is approaching it, they haven't been paying attention for the last two and a half years.

KING: Right. As I say, if you're surprised, you haven't been paying attention.


[12:04:58] KING: To the point -- to the point where -- this -- the president's language gets interesting here. He re-tweeted a whole bunch of people yesterday, and then he borrowed some language as he tweeted one of his own. Despite the tremendous success that I've had as president, including perhaps the greatest economy and most successful first two years of any president in history, they have stolen two years of my -- our presidency, collusion delusion, that we will never be able to get back. The witch hunt is over, but we will never forget.

Stolen two years of his presidency. What's he trying to do there?

MATT VISER, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I mean I think -- it is interesting, and you'll recall 2016 and him already sort of undermining the legitimacy of that election before it took place, and then questioning the legitimacy of it after it took place, that he won the popular vote, when he did not.

He's back in that posture again of these stolen two years, without having sort of a way to reclaim them. Just that argument that something has been taken away from him. He is the victim here, which is a familiar posture, I think, for President Trump.

ELIANA JOHNSON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But I would say not only does the president not think he's going to pay a political price for this, he sees it as a political opportunity. And that's what that message is. That's the message he's been taking on the campaign trail where he says, Democrats are obsessed with investigating him at the cost of pursuing any actual agenda. And I think we're going hear that over and over and over again. He says the Mueller report has been issued. According to the president, it's exonerated him. And, nonetheless, the investigations continue. He says you don't get a redo on Mueller. Nonetheless, they want to call Mueller to testify. They want to call Barr to testify. And he's going to portray all of this as the Democrats going back to the well on this and trying to prove him guilty when he's already been exonerated.

RAJU: And that's why they believe that they've locked this all up in long court fights and saying no and just back and forth. It just muddies the waters by --

KING: It makes it all politics.

RAJU: It makes it all politics. If they were to actually provide information that could further a narrative, that will only help the Democrats. So they view, fight this at all costs, even if he's saying, you know, on the Mueller testimony is interesting because he says he's been totally exonerated. Well, if he's been totally exonerated, let the special counsel come and testify. But if he knows if he were to come and testify, he's going to give a lot more ammunition to the Democrats' push to investigate, and that could be problematic.

HABERMAN: There are some people in the president's world who actually are not convinced that Mueller testifying is a pure negative for the president. They know that Mueller is going to face a lot of questions on issues he might not want to talk about, like the behavior of top officials at the FBI, Lisa Page and Peter Strzok, like how the investigation began in the first place and what they discovered there. So it's not clear that this is an easy victory for anyone.

I think, you're right, this is the -- the president tends to sort of look at everything in sort increments of time and getting through them. And these lawsuits really are a play for time, which is getting toward 2020. But I don't -- I think that there is no sort of hard sense in one way or the other that Mueller would just be a clear win for Democrats.

KING: I think that's a great point in the sense that Mueller hasn't spoken throughout this whole thing.

HABERMAN: Correct.

KING: He doesn't speak. And so everybody -- anybody could be surprised here. Number one, he fired Peter Strzok and Lisa Page --

HABERMAN: That's right.

KING: And so he would give testimony saying, yes, I found that conduct unprofessional.

HABERMAN: That's right.

KING: He helped a president. You're dead right about that.

HABERMAN: Yes, indeed. Right. KING: They're right about that.

Of course, then, if he went through the Don McGahn and the Cory Lewandowski, the obstruction part. That would hard.

HABERMAN: That's less great for the president, but I do think --

KING: Yes, that obstruction thing (ph).

HABERMAN: But there are -- there are enough aspects there where it's just not going to be sort of a clean kill for anybody.

KING: I think nobody -- it's one of these great one -- nobody knows.

But to your point about the political environment. I get it completely and I get the political strategy. Looking through the windshield, the president's going to make the case, look, the Democrats don't want to get anything done. They just want to investigate me. They want to harass me through the election.

Let's look through the rear view mirror a little bit. Is it Robert Mueller's fault that they didn't repeal and replace Obamacare when you had two years of all Republican rule in Washington? Is it Robert Mueller's fault, was it stolen from the president, his ability to build say some border wall during the first two years in office when the Republicans controlled everything? You go through the list.

I mean, again, I get the political strategy, but he's using Robert Mueller and the investigation as a foil for he has some great economic news to run up, but there are also some things that he promised in the campaign that he hasn't delivered on.

HABERMAN: There was a -- sorry, go ahead.

JOHNSON: No, I think you're going to hear him say, I only real had two years to govern, so you've got to give me four more. I haven't had a full four years. And you see that message starting to emerge. And you heard that when you -- when Bill Barr I think was the first to sort of enunciate that message when he said the president felt very frustrated, he felt he couldn't govern.

And I would add, Bill Barr is part of the calculus in this Mueller testimony. He's somebody who could be roughed up because he gave an account of a conversation with Bob Mueller and immediately people close to Barr began to say, he's in real danger if Bob Mueller testifies and gives a different version of that account because every Democrat in Congress is poised to believe Mueller over Barr. And people are -- Democrats are already calling for him to resign or to be impeached. And that is part of the president's calculus here because Bill Barr has been a real asset to him.

HABERMAN: No, I think that's right. I completely agree with you.

I do think it's worth noting, when the president talks about time stolen from me, to your point, that the GOP did have control over the Congress. But also one aspect of this investigation was investigating interference in the election. This was not just about the president's campaign. He has turned it into something global. And that speaks to a broad issue about how he handles Russia. And how he handles Russia, not just in the last election, but heading into the next one, which we saw get raised only really pointedly by one person, Joanie Ernst, when Bill Barr was testifying the other day, where she said, I want to know what you're doing going forward.

[12:10:21] And this is not something we hear this president talk about at all, including not bringing it up in a phone call with Vladimir Putin the other day.

KING: Right. That was the big telling -- a telling statement there.

I just want to add quickly into this, the context of, how do the Democrats handle this because the Democrats have to deal with an unpredictable administration that clearly keeps them off balance sometimes.

Nancy Pelosi, in "The New York Times" story this Sunday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi does not believe President Trump can be removed through impeachment. The only way to do it, she said this week, is to defeat him in 2020 by a margin so big he can't challenge the legitimacy of a Democratic victory. That's something she worries about. We have to inoculate against that, we have to be prepared for that.

Meaning, so the president's saying, you stole two years, hours after Nancy Pelosi' in "The New York Times" saying, we have to be worried about him honoring the results of a close election. Huh?

RAJU: That was the same concern that Democrats raised back in 2016. I think you'll probably hear that more as we get closer to the election. But her larger point is mostly to her own colleagues saying, let's tamp down these calls for impeachment. This is not going to be politically beneficial. She sees the polls generally favoring OK with doing investigating in terms of obstruction of justice, impeachment, not so much. So that's the ultimate message, worry about it at the ballot box. Not all of her colleagues agree.

KING: The president almost seems to be baiting them to try to see if they'll go that way. We'll see how it works out.

Up next for us, to the global stage. U.S. warships on the move in the Middle East. The White House says Iran must be put on notice.


[12:16:16] KING: This hour, new reporting from CNN about just why the Pentagon made the sudden decision to move military assets into the Middle East amid what the national security adviser calls troubling warnings from Iran. According to two U.S. officials who spoke to CNN, those threats include, quote, specific and credible intelligence that Iranian forces and their proxies were targeting U.S. forces in Syria, Iraq and at sea in the region.

Let's bring in CNN's Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr into the conversation. Also our international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, who's in Finland with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Barbara, I want to start with you.

Tell us more about what your sources are telling you about this deployment.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, what they are saying is they do believe the threat was serious enough over the weekend that they needed to scramble some additional military force to the region. The goal right now is to deter, to make a very public show of force, get those forces there and deter these Iranian elements. They say that they were making possible plans to prepare for a strike against U.S. troops in the region and now they want to show that an aircraft carrier is on the way, U.S. Air Force bombers are on the way, and that these Iranian groups would pay such a heavy price for any kind of action against the U.S. military that they simply, you know, need to understand they cannot succeed. They cannot do it.

Multiple threads of information of intelligence over the weekend coming about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian-backed militias. These are some of the most militant elements in Iran and may not -- may not be under the full control of the Iranian government. So this really ramped up the concern over the weekend. A number of meetings and phone calls across the Trump administration, national security and intelligence community culminating in the very unusual announcement from the national security adviser, John Bolton, on Sunday night here in Washington that an aircraft carrier strike group and a bomber group were on the way.


KING: And, Barbara, stay with us.

Fred, you're not only with the U.S. secretary of state as he sits down with the Russian foreign minister, you've twice been on the U.S. Abraham Lincoln, the carrier in question here, including about a week and a half ago. Tell us about the capabilities of that carrier strike group, essentially tell us about the message the United States is sending here.

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think, John, that the message the United States is sending there is that the U.S. is very real in the Strait of Hormuz and in the Persian Gulf. It is not going to back down. And, you know, I was actually on the Abraham Lincoln in 2012 when it was in the Strait of Hormuz, and in the Persian Gulf, and you could see, it is, obviously, a very big deterrence for the Iranians. And I think one of the thing that we need to make clear to our viewers is when the U.S. -- when a U.S. ship -- when the Abraham Lincoln is in that area, in the Persian Gulf and in the Strait of Hormuz, they're really, really close to these Iranian vessels. You could see Iranian ships from where we were . you could see the Iranian coastline back there as well. And they even had Iranian planes on the radar. So it is in very close proximity. So it will be very important for a big U.S. warship with those kind of capabilities to be in that area. From what I saw on the Abraham Lincoln about a week and a half ago,

that crew, obviously, is, as all American carrier crews are, very, very capable, highly motivated, still very much at the beginning of their deployment. They were just in the Mediterranean Sea.

But I wanted to add one more thing to what Barbara was saying, because I think it's quite interesting. I also spoke to some commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and former commanders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard not too long ago when I was last in Iran and they did say to me that if there was an escalation with the United States, that one of the things that they would think of doing is, a, targeting U.S. forces at sea in the Persian Gulf, and, second of all, also targeting other American military installations around the greater Middle Eastern area.

One of the things that they kept talking about was the missile capabilities that they have. It seems as though they do know that those missile capabilities are quite strong. They believe they could use them to retaliate against U.S. forces.

[12:20:08] One of the other things that we seem to be seeing, though, is that the Iranian government seems to think that there are somewhat divisions in the Trump administration about all this. You do see the Iranian Revolutionary Guard talking very tough on what it would do in retaliation against the U.S. But then you have, for instance, the Iranian foreign minister who came out and said, look, Iran doesn't want an escalation in all this. He keeps trying to single out John Bolton and also Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and say, look, he believes that President Trump does not want any military reaction to Iraq or military intervention in Iran, but he believes that, for instance, John Bolton is much more so inclined.


KING: Language like that makes you worry about a miscalculation.

Barbara, at the Pentagon, some people are saying it's unusual to have such a deployment announced by the White House, not directly from the Pentagon. What was the reasoning behind that?

STARR: Well, by all accounts, from the people that we have talked to, it was the U.S. military over the weekend that really felt they wanted the announcement to come from the White House, that it would have much more impact on the Iranians. It would show the seriousness and there would be no miscalculation, no mistake that this was a routine deployment planned months ago, that this was something very, very different.

Now, the fact that it was put out by John Bolton may send the message that the Iran hawks are out there, but the military wanted it from the White House, John.

KING: Well, we'll keep an eye on this. It's obviously an ominous development.

Barbara Starr, Fred Pleitgen, appreciate the reporting, thank you. Coming up for us, President Trump strikes out at China with new threats, just days before trade negotiations are scheduled to resume.


[12:26:09] KING: Global markets rattled today by uncertainty as President Trump threatens to impose higher tariffs on China. There's the big board in New York there. The Dow down more than 200 points. It was worse earlier today. That wipes out just a chunk of the stock market's recent surge.

The market's responding to new fears that China and the United States could now be headed for an escalated trade war. The president tweeting over the weekend, threatening to hike a 10 percent tariff on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods, way up to 25 percent as soon as this Friday. President Trump hitting the issue again today tweeting, the United States has been losing for many years. Sorry, we're not going to be doing that anymore.

Now, the timing here is no coincidence. U.S. and Chinese negotiators are due to resume talks this week. Those talks still on the books, but it's now unclear if China's chief negotiator will attend.

So the question here is, why, in the sense that if you're the president, you've been saying for weeks you think you're on track to a deal, and now you're kind of blowing it up a little bit, why?

HABERMAN: Like the key in the tweets from the weekend where he said something about renegotiate the terms in one of those tweets, and he was referring to China. My understanding from people in the administration is that he has been led to believe, either by Bob Lighthizer or by others, that China was balking on certain things that they had agreed to as they were heading into this meeting. And it is not a surprise that the president, knowing his MO, that he's looking to sort of pull this back and not allow somebody to claim that they had a victory over him. There is obviously a possibly short-term, maybe longer than that, problem in terms of the stock market. You're seating markets react. We don't know how long it will go.

What I think the president has come to see is that he has been warned repeatedly that the market will tumble when you do tariffs, when you do x y, z, and it does, and then it comes back. And so I think that he believes he's going to weather this and see what happens. I don't know whether there's some long term strategy here. I don't think that there is. I think that this caught a lot of people by surprise. But for those who have been attached to these trade discussions, it's not much of a surprise.

RAJU: Yes, it's --

KING: And to that point -- I just want to jump in at the choice. This is the -- is the glass half full or is the glass half empty moment for the president, who has long believed, way before he got into politics, that China's been cheating, raping is the word he uses, the United States for 20 plus years. And so the question is, if you're the Trump political team, heading into re-election, you see 3.6 percent unemployment, you see the economy growing at 3.2 percent. You see 103 consecutive months of job growth. You're saying, Mr. President, don't mess when this trophy. That is a beautiful trophy.

If you are Peter Navarro, or Robert Lighthizer, those who, like the president, think you've got to go big and don't sign a deal unless you get the intellectual property business done and other -- other -- the bigger structural issues with China done, don't just got more soybean exports, don't just let U.S. cars go into China, you've got to go big. You say, Mr. President, the economy's strong enough to take the hit, to your point, that we can take the hit.

The question is, if you're taking a hit heading into the re-election season, that would be a -- it's a bold risk for the president if you're willing to play that long.

VISER: And which way -- the long-term game, I think, is that it will rebound. And China being such an important part of his political message in 2016 and will again be in 2020, if he gets, you know, sort of a bad deal, or a deal that he can't sell. So I think that's what he's -- he's aiming at right now.

But the politics on this are all scrambled where Chuck Schumer is cheering him on and, you know, soybean futures are down in a major way that's giving, you know, Chuck Grassley and Joanie Ernst in Iowa, you know, problems, you know. So I -- where this heads in the short term is really hard to predict.

[12:29:39] RAJU: Yes, but to Maggie's point too earlier, that he's been warned repeatedly that mantel, that economic mantle you showed there, is going to be wiped out by whether it's the escalating tariff war, whether it's about shutting down the government for the longest period in American history, and it has not happened to what everybody's warned him about, and now we're seeing very low unemployment, the GDP numbers very positive. So if he believes that he can sustain a short-term fight and that could lead to markets tumbling for a short term.