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Fresh Scrutiny for Acosta; McGrath Announces Run against McConnell; Trump and Emir of Qatar Speak in the Oval Office. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired July 9, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:23] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Top Democrats in Congress demanding that President Trump's labor secretary resign. A new sex trafficking indictment against a prominent New York businessman is stirring new questions about the deal Alex Acosta cut with Jeffrey Epstein a decade ago when Acosta was a prosecutor in Florida.

Plus, the special relationship takes a very sour twist. President Trump attacks the British prime minister and the U.K. ambassador to the United States. The president is mad because in leaked cables the ambassador calls Mr. Trump incompetent.

And Ross Perot is dead at 89. The Texas businessman twice ran as a third party candidate for president, warning that jobs being lost to Mexico and of the threat of ballooning federal red ink.


ROSS PEROT, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (April 26, 1992): Yes, I'm the only guy that talks numbers. I love this. Nobody else will even talk about it. It's like I've said, it's like a crazy aunt in the basement. Everybody knows she's there but nobody talks about her. I'm talking about it.


KING: Back to that a bit later.

But the president, in moments, meeting with the emir of Qatar amid heightened tensions with Iran and complaints from human rights advocates about rewarding the emir, a serial violator, with an Oval Office visit. We'll keep an eye on that to see if reporters get to ask the president about the Middle East and about his labor secretary, whose past life as a prosecutor is creating present questions about if he should keep his job.

The top two Democrats in Congress, the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Democratic Senate leader, Chuck Schumer, say Alex Acosta must resign. Schumer heading to the Senate floor to make that demand this morning.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): I am calling on Secretary Acosta to resign. It is now impossible for anyone to have confidence in Secretary Acosta's ability to lead the Department of Labor. If he refuses to resign, President Trump should fire him. Instead of prosecuting a predator and serial sex trafficker of children, Acosta chose to let him off easy.


KING: So, why now? The new federal charges against finance tycoon Jeffrey Epstein raised giant questions about why Acosta let Epstein off easy a decade ago. Acosta was the U.S. attorney who brokered a sweetheart plea deal for the billionaire in secret and then broke the law by not telling Epstein's victims. That deal looks ghastly when measured against what New York prosecutors detailed yesterday.

Epstein, the Southern District of New York says, ran a sex trafficking ring, repeatedly forced underage girls to have sex with him and then paid his victims to recruit more girls for him to abuse. Epstein is politically connected on both sides and his high profile now guarantees his trial will get banner coverage. That means new questions about why Acosta chose not to take Epstein to trial a decade ago and it means uncomfortable exchanges like this one on the White House driveway with presidential counselor, Kellyanne Conway.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: It's classic her and her Democratic Party to not focus on the perpetrator at hand and instead to focus on a member of the Trump administration. They're so obsessed with this president that they immediately go to Alex Acosta rather than Jeffrey Epstein.

Why are you talking about Alex Acosta and not Jeffrey Epstein? Jeffrey Epstein is the pig -- Jeffrey Epstein is the one raping young girls.


KING: Let's get straight to our White House correspondent, Abby Phillip.

Abby, we will talk about Jeffrey Epstein and the trial he's about to face, but it is also a legitimate question to ask about Alex Acosta, is it not? Do White House sources think he can survive this?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's exactly right, John, it is a question of what the White House is doing, if anything, about the role that Alex Acosta played in that previous plea deal with Jeffrey Epstein. And Kellyanne Conway made sure to note that President Trump met Alex Acosta for the first time two and a half years ago when he was considering him for this labor secretary job.

But in the interim, there has been a lot of reporting about this -- about his role in that case. And the White House said as recently as March that they were reviewing it, but there have been absolutely no updates whatsoever about the status of that review.

But for the first time today we are now hearing from Alex Acosta himself, who just tweeted a comment on the case that is unfolding in New York. He says, the crimes committed by Epstein are horrific and I'm pleased that New York prosecutors are moving forward with the case based on new evidence. With the evidence available more than a decade ago, federal prosecutors insisted that Epstein go to jail, register as a sex offender and put the world on notice that he was a sexual predator. Now, with new evidence and additional testimony available, the New York prosecution offers an important opportunity to more fully bring him to justice.

So when he says "federal prosecutors" there, he's referring to himself. I should be clear about that. He's not putting himself in these tweets, but he was deeply involved in this plea deal that a lot of people believe was inadequate. And there are now questions about whether all of this pressure, and, frankly the news coverage, will finally get to President Trump. Our sources say that is probably what is going to determine Alex Acosta's fate going forward. There is not a whole -- a well of support for Acosta in this White House, but the president is the one who will ultimately decide. And he may very well decide based on whether or not he thinks he and his administration can weather this storm.


[12:05:34] KING: Abby Phillip live at the White House, appreciate that new reporting.

With me in studio here to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace with "The Associated Press," Seung Min Kim with "The Washington Post," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, and Laura Barron-Lopez with "Politico."

The tweet is interesting from Alex Acosta. Number one, smart on his part to try to get out ahead of this because he knows he's in a new firestorm. But he says, based on the good evidence, good for you, Geoffrey Berman and the Southern District of New York.

My question would be, if you were the U.S. attorney in Florida at the time, as he was, why didn't he pursue that evidence? These are the same victims.

JULIE PACE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Right. I -- I don't think that tweet goes -- goes nearly far enough in trying to answer that question and the others that surround him. I think Abby is right, you know, Trump will be the one who ultimately decides whether Acosta can -- can weather this. Trump tends to have this impulse when somebody around him is under -- is facing criticism to try to surround them, except when it reaches the point where he thinks it -- it reflects badly on him.

KING: I just want to -- just as we continue the conversation, here's the president greeting the emir of Qatar, who's coming into the White House for a meeting. That is and of itself is an important meeting amid tensions with Iran, amid questions about why to give another leader whose human rights record is quite deplorable an Oval Office visit.

But the emir of Qatar, it's an important military relationship. They have visited prior presidents as well. You see the president here. There is an Oval Office spray in just a few minutes. We will see if the president gets to talk about how he wants the emir's help with Iran, for example. Iran and Qatar have been close at times. How he views the Middle East peace process and Qatar's help perhaps and, more importantly, does he take other questions -- I shouldn't say more importantly, but more broadly does he take other questions about other issues.

Back to Alex Acosta.

This issue came up at his confirmation hearing. He had a half dozen Democrats who voted for him. He answered the question then, essentially saying, at the time, I did the best I could.


ALEX ACOSTA, LABOR SECRETARY NOMINEE: The grand jury in Palm Beach County. The grand jury in Palm Beach County recommended a single count of solicitation not involving minors, I believe, and that would have resulted in zero jail time.

We decided that a -- that a sentence or -- or a -- how should I put this, that Mr. Epstein should plead guilty to two years, register as a sex offender, and concede liability so the victims could get restitution.


KING: That's his take. I did the best I could. The authorities in Palm Beach County yesterday were quite complimentary of the New York state federal attorney -- the federal U.S. attorney in New York now saying thank you. Thank you. Essentially saying thank you for doing the job we think the feds should have done a decade ago here.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Exactly. And that explanation at the time was enough for 60 senators to confirm him. And the question now is, how much of that support goes away, because in addition to the kind of bad headlines that Alex Acosta is getting, another key factor to watch is, how much Republican support he loses on Capitol Hill. If you recall, with Scott Pruitt and all his ethical troubles at the EPA, there was a point where Senate Republicans just lost their patience with him and they were tired of the headlines and they made it clear that they would not be so happy -- they would not be so sad if he went.

Now, that's not disappearing as of yet, but some key folks to watch on that front is Senator Lamar Alexander, he's the chairman of the committee that just held that confirmation hearing, and he has said that all that information was vetted at the time of the confirmation hearing, but we'll see if he changes his tune. LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": And so

far, some Seung Min said, I mean, none of the Republicans are abandoning him just yet, and not even the Democrats that voted for him. Senator Cortez Masto says that she wants to come if -- what comes out of a review at DOJ before she decides whether or not she regrets voting for him.

KING: And one of the change dynamics here is, number one, even the U.S. attorney in New York yesterday complimented the great reporting that led to this, the investigative reporting that led to this. Number two, you now have the victims quoted in that report coming forward, including going on television. Does that affect the dynamic? When you have these women who were abused by a billionaire making the case essentially, a rich guy got off in a sweetheart deal and we were the victims, this is powerful.


MICHELLE LICATA, ALLEGED EPSTEIN VICTIM: It brought back the last time I saw him, which was right there at the massage table. And it just started making me feel uneasy, nervous.

COURTNEY WILD, ALLEGED EPSTEIN VICTIM: We get to look him in the face today and see him, you know, in handcuffs.

Like just to hear that they're standing up for the victims, you know what I mean, is just like so overwhelming un -- it's past due.


[12:10:04] KING: You're seeing these interviews in 2019. This conduct happened in 2002 to 2005. Those adult women now were children.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: No question. And I think that changes everything potentially. I mean to hear a voice of the victim, and there are many more out there, and there is new evidence here, I think we do not know where this is going, but I would be hard pressed to see if -- if people who voted for him didn't change their mind, Republicans as well.

Of course, all of the 2020 presidential candidates, or most of them, are weighing in. Speaker Pelosi weighing in as well.

But I do think it's up to the president. And it's important to point out, as Abby was mentioning earlier, he was already on slightly thin ice at the White House. So this may be someone that the president is not attached to. We'll see where this goes.

But Jeffrey Epstein had many friends in powerful places, so I do not know where the end of this is. It's something we're going to have to watch.

KING: Right. And to Kellyanne Conway's legitimate point on the White House lawn, yes, we should focus on the man accused here, and we will. We will cover the trial and focus on it. But it is a fair question to ask, a, when the president saw that this

was part of the background, he decided to nominate him anyway. The question now is, does Alex Acosta keep his support? The tweet is evidence that he wants to fight to keep his support, both at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Here's just a little sampling, Republicans on Capitol Hill being asked, should he stay?


SEN. TED CRUZ (R-TX): The Department of Justice has an ongoing investigation. I think we should find out what happened.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): This is an area of the law where the tie goes to the kids. If we think somebody's out there abusing children, no matter how hard the case may be, you want to bring it forward.

QUESTION: Is it time for him to resign?

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R-TX): I think there's nothing new that we didn't know before he was confirmed by the Senate.


KING: Is there nothing new?

PACE: I think there is quite a bit new. I mean -- I mean just to -- to your earlier --

KIM: There's an indictment.

PACE: Well, right, there is the indictment, which is certainly new. And there are the -- there are the victims who we knew existed but now we're hearing from them, seeing from them.

KING: Right.

PACE: I mean that -- that is new. And, to your point, it is quite powerful. And even in Senator Cornyn's comments of the three Republicans you played there, he was -- he was probably the -- the most forward-leaning in terms of supporting him. That is not iron clad support that you heard from him there. I think that he and others are certainly leaving themselves a lot of wiggle room in case they -- they feel like this turns a corner and gets to a point where Acosta holding on to this job just becomes untenable.

KING: Right. Legitimate questions -- very legitimate questions to begin with and heading into an election year environment, which could complicate things further. But, we'll see.

The president, again, we'll see if the president speaks to this in a few moments if reporters get to ask questions in the Oval Office.

Up next for us, though, Mitch McConnell has a Democratic challenger, and she has an uphill climb.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [12:17:15] KING: Today, the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, officially has Democratic competition in his 2020 Senate race back only. Amy McGrath, the retired Marine fighter pilot, announcing she's challenging McConnell and she blames him for the country's political gridlock.


AMY MCGRATH (D-KY), SENATE CANDIDATE: Well, it started with this man, who was elected a lifetime ago and who has, bit by bit, year by year, turned Washington into something we all despise.

I'm running for Senate because it shouldn't be like this. I learned as a daughter, a mom, a Marine and a fighter pilot that the mission can never be forgotten.


KING: McGrath's candidacy is a recruiting win for Democrats after disappointment so far in several other big 2020 Senate races, but she faces a very steep hill. McGrath narrowly lost a House race last year. And, remember, last year was a climate much more favorable to the Democrats. Winning statewide in Kentucky is a different challenge for a Democrat, especially in a presidential year. The last time McConnell had to defend his seat back in 2014, he won by 15 points. And President Trump carried Kentucky by nearly 30 points in 2016.

So a steep hill and yet Democrats are happy, they think she was their best available candidate.

PACE: Yes, she -- she had a profile in the state. She had a lot of money pour into that -- that House race in 2018.

But this is going to be really difficult for her. I mean even if McConnell himself is not particularly personally popular, he will have a lot of support, both in fundraising. It will be a big question I think of what President Trump does. I mean President Trump can make that race for McConnell by going and spending time in Kentucky. At the same time, President Trump doesn't want to have to spend time in Kentucky because he's going to be fighting out his own re-election prospects in states like Florida and Michigan and Wisconsin.

But, you know, she -- she will, again, have a lot of support institutionally from the party, but that state, the makeup of that state, just does not lend itself to Democrats right now.

KING: Which is why you look at it because we -- President Trump is president, number one. Before that, in 2008, Obama beats Hillary Clinton.

We live in volatile times. So you look for these races. That should be a McConnell win, maybe tighter than normal because she's a vet, she's a pretty good candidate. But you watch it just to see, is there an anti-incumbency sentiment in the water? Is there, I've had enough of this in the water? ZELENY: Without question. And one thing that also is going to be a challenge for her is that the Democratic presidential campaign is unfolding at the very same time and she will be asked about every single issue. Do you support Medicare for all? Do you support the green new deal? So she's going to have to run against her party.

But one thing that we have seen about Mitch McConnell again and again, he knows how to win races. He's like Harry Reid on the Republican side. He seldom loses. In fact, he hasn't lost.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: You know, we -- every election is a new election, a new campaign, but he is prepared for this. So it's an uphill challenge for her, no question.

[12:20:01] KING: To your point about, how does she fit in a presidential year, again, makes it hard for a Democrat in Kentucky, in a red state, in a presidential year. She says -- she was on MSNBC this morning -- she says she was watching the Democratic debates, the first round, with her husband and says, whoa, a lot of these candidates are too far to the left.


AMY MCGRATH (D-KY), SENATE CANDIDATE: I'm not for taking away private health insurance as an example. I don't think we should upend our entire system in a Medicare for all because there's a lot of people that like their insurance, but we should be fixing the system as an example. I'm not for things like subsidizing health insurance for illegal immigrants. I think many Kentuckians feel that we have a problem with getting health insurance for many Americans.


KING: Already, very quickly, you mentioned McConnell, he has a good team around him. Whether you like him, whether you don't like him, whether you support him, whether you don't, he has a very good team around him.

ZELENY: A great team.

KING: So that's Amy McGrath on TV this morning. Team Mitch quickly putting out a video saying, ah, what about this?


AMY MCGRATH (D-KY), SENATE CANDIDATE: I am further left. I am more progressive than anybody in the state of Kentucky.

This is what we need in this country. They're here. They're not going anywhere. Let's -- let's bring them in.

Yes, I would support a move towards universal health care.

The only feeling I can describe that's any close to it was the feeling I had after 9/11.

I am further left. I am more progressive than anybody in the state of Kentucky.


KING: She's going to need every bit of her Marine training. They play tough.

KIM: And team Mitch is also pointing out that she's spending the first day of her campaign doing national television interviews instead of kind of doing a more Kentucky-focused rollout. But, clearly, she has a major uphill challenge for her.

I would also not rule out -- I know it will be two years in the past, but I would not rule out the Kavanaugh factor too in helping a lot -- helping especially McConnell, but having got some of these other Republican Senate candidates. McConnell has talked about how, after his fight, and pushing Brett Kavanaugh through, how his numbers skyrocketed. He's been treated like a rock star. Other candidates running next year have gone through a similar phenomenon, namely Lindsey Graham. And I would not rule that out as an insignificant factor at this point.

KING: Right.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Some of those clips that McConnell used were ones that Andy Barr used against McGrath last cycle and they proved successful for him. But McGrath also is likely going to play heavy on health care because it was a good issue for Democrats in 2018, and she sees a weakness there. McConnell has shepherded and has tried to repeatedly repeal and replace Obamacare with no success. And so I expect that her campaign is going to push hard on that, as the administration and as McConnell maybe tries to go toward immigration.

ZELENY: Which is going complicate it for her if the nominee of the Democratic Party supports Medicare for all.

KING: Yes.

ZELENY: So that is a -- it's all wrapped up. She's going to be viewed as -- the majority will not hang on that seat, but she's going to have a lot of freight to carry because of that.

KING: It will be a great race to watch and watch the leader, he plays tough.

ZELENY: For sure.

KING: Up next, one of the 2020 candidates bows out, another enters. Yesterday, the exiting congressman, Eric Swalwell, had some words of advice for the new candidate, Tom Steyer.


REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It's rough out there. But welcome -- you know, welcome -- you know, welcome to the race, Tom. And, you know, and I wish him well.



[12:27:19] KING: Let's get straight to the Oval Office. The president of the United States with the emir of Qatar.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much. It's a great honor to be with the emir of Qatar, a highly respected man, a real leader in a large part of the world, and a very important part of the world. And we've known each other a long time. We've been friends for a long time. And we're doing a lot of work now. They're investing very heavily in our country. They're creating a lot of jobs. They're buying tremendous amounts of military equipment, including planes, and they're buying commercial planes, as you know, very large numbers of commercial planes from Boeing. And we very much appreciate it.

We're going to be signing a document today, a very large transaction. You're going to be invited to the signing. It's a transaction that will be purchasing a lot of Boeing jets and a lot of money spent in our country and that means a lot of jobs.

So we just appreciate everything. We have a great operation, military operation right now in Qatar. They built one of the great military bases, I would say, anywhere in the world and it's just been expanded with runways and everything else. It's been really a great honor to work with my friend.

Thank you very much for being here.


TRUMP: Thank you.

AL-THANI: Thank you, sir.

Mr. President, I'm very happy and honored to be here. And thank you very much for your hospitality.

As you mentioned, we enjoy a very great relationship between Qatar and the United States of America. We're doing a lot together. As you mentioned, president, we are signing a few documents today and we are economic partnership has been more than $185 billion. And we're planning to double this number.

We have a lot of investments in the U.S. We trust the economy here. We do a lot in the infrastructure and we're planning to do more investments.

Yes, we host a (INAUDIBLE) base and it's -- we're working very close together. You're invited to come and see Qatar and also to visit the base at the -- any time, Mr. President. And I really enjoy the personal friendship with you.

Thank you very much, president.

TRUMP: Thank you very much.

And I will say, the base is incredible. It's -- what they have done there is absolutely -- and a great place to have it, right in the middle of the Middle East. And so it's -- obviously it's a very important location.

So thank you all very much.


QUESTION: Mr. President, do you have any reaction to the subpoenas -- the subpoenas of Jared Kushner and other members of your administration?

TRUMP: I don't know anything about it. I don't know anything.

QUESTION: Mr. President, can I ask you about Iran? How long are you going to wait before you see the Iranian enriched --

TRUMP: Well, we're going to see what happens with Iran. Iran is doing a lot of bad things right now and they better be very careful.

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you have full confidence in Secretary Acosta, right now and in the future?

[12:29:58] TRUMP: Well, you know, I -- I met Secretary Acosta the first time I know when I made the deal to bring him on into the administration. I can tell you that for two and a half years.