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Mattis Responds to Trump's "World's Most Overrated" Comment; Retired Admiral: Trump Is A "Transactional President"; Trump Speaks on U.S.-Brokered Ceasefire in Syria. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired October 18, 2019 - 12:30   ET




JAMES MATTIS, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: I do stand before you as was noted here really having achieved greatness. I mean, I'm not just an overrated general, I am the greatest, the world's most overrated. And I'm honored to be considered that by Donald Trump because he also called Meryl Streep an overrated actress. So I guess I'm the Meryl Streep of generals.

You do have to admit that between me and Meryl, at least we've had some victories.


KING: Biding there but to be sure, roasting politicians and public figures tradition at the Smith dinner, a big philanthropic event. But Mattis also turned more sober and serious. And remember the timing here, the president's decision to abandon the Kurds in Syria has angered much of the military brass. Plus, Democrats as we speak pursuing an abuse of power impeachment case against the president.


MATTIS: No, Lincoln went on. It was not the foreign aggressor we must fear. It was corrosion from within. The rot, the viciousness, the lassitude, the ignorance. Anarchy is one potential consequence of all these. Another is the rise of an ambitious leader unfettered by conscience or precedent or decency who would make himself supreme.


KING: Quoting Lincoln there, but the lassitude, ignorance.

JULIE PACE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think you have to assume that Mattis' words were purposeful there, that he knew -- you know, he's been on this book tour and there's been a lot of attention paid to what he's saying and what he's not saying about Donald Trump, but certainly in light of everything that has happened over the last couple of days and weeks, I think his rhetoric there, his choice of words takes on greater meaning for sure. NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: And in some ways maybe takes on the lesser meaning given the setting there, right? You're supposed to roast the president, he's got a very fancy tuxedo or suit on. So in that context, it sort of takes a little bit away from it. He's talked about having the duty of silence after leaving an administration. And I do think, you know -- I mean, Jim Mattis decided to come out of retirement to join up with Trump and give Donald Trump credibility. And this was after, you know, a lot of people questioned Donald Trump's character based on the kind of campaign he ran.

So I think, you know, should he criticize Donald Trump in a more robust way, I think, you know, it's fair to kind of turn the questions on him, well, why did you join up with him in the way that you did?

KING: I think that's a great point in the sense that, you know, most of it was humor. The last that we played of Lincoln was much more sober there given the timing that jumped out of me because he knows what the Democrats are considering on Capitol Hill and there he is standing saying that. But the question says he would follow up. Is it a one-off at this dinner?

Back to the humor part, remember, the president of the United States, the current commander-in-chief got a deferment. That was part of the Mattis joke routine.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Bill McRaven, a retired admiral, Navy Seal, of 37 years, former head of U.S. Special Operations.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Special operations --

TRUMP: Excuse me. Hillary Clinton fan.


KING: Sorry, we rolled the wrong bite there. Let's go back. I want to get back to that point there, but let's first go back to this is Jim Mattis last night making fun of the president's military deferment during Vietnam.


MATTIS: Some of you were kind during the reception and asked me, you know, if this bothered me to have been rated this way based on what Donald Trump said. I said, of course not, I earned my spurs on the battlefield, Martin, as you pointed out, and Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor, so. And I think the only person in the military that Mr. Trump doesn't think is overrated is who you pointed out, Martin, and that's Colonel Sanders.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: That part there an attempt at humor, but since we played the other bite -- part of the other bite, I want to just move on to the next point. Secretary Mattis there, we'll see if this is a one-off. Admiral Bill McRaven who was the commander of Special Operations Forces, led the successful raid to capture Osama bin Laden and has been a critic of the president in the past. But he wrote a New York Times op-ed and then he went on with "The Lead with Jake Tapper" yesterday, and what he says about the commander-in-chief is eye- opening.


RET. ADM WILLIAM MCRAVEN, FORMER HEAD OF U.S. SPECIAL OPERATIONS COMMAND: Well, he's a transactional president. He believes that it's only good if it is good for us. But he forgets that we're the same nation that fought Nazism and fascism and imperialism and communism and terrorism. And we did that not because it was just good for us but because it was the right thing to do.

And if we're no longer the good guys, it's going to be difficult to inspire people to join the intelligence community, the military, any part of the federal government where those values are so critical to doing your job and to sacrifice for this country.


[12:35:00] KING: It's a fascinating interview. You should watch all of it. Go to and watch all of it or read the op-ed piece which Speaker Pelosi has now spread, taken the text of that and spread out in the sense that you have this American hero essentially questioning everything about this president, saying that he believes he is corroding democracy.

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I think this is that little bit of shift in attitude that I mentioned earlier. You're seeing more and more people very alarmed by Syria. These are people who have invested their military careers and credentials in that situation over there, and they're seeing the president unravel it.

Go back to Mattis. That was pretty tough stuff from him, from somebody who everyone considers who was been too reserved. Now, Trump gave him the opening with his comments but I think, you know, if you're going to see more and more of these military people say, you know what, I've had enough. I need to say something now.

MARGARET TALEV, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: But I think -- but how they do it strategically sort of matters. I mean, McRaven has been out for months in terms of his open criticism of President Trump and all it is done is sort of Trump has been able -- to some extent marginalize McRaven like, oh he is, you know, an opponent of mine. I think if you see a very deliberate coming together of essentially non- partisan/Republican serving former defense chiefs or Joint Chiefs of Staff like in that hierarchy.

So far, a lot of the open letters that have been critical of Trump, you might see like 90 national security professions. But when you look at them like a lot of them have served for Democrats which doesn't make them don't have a point but I mean, it's easy to kind of put them in that box. But if you see a sort of more robust and at the highest level sort of strategic coming together, that will be a sign that that kind of -- that the defense establishment is trying to message to Republican members of the Senate that thing has changed.

HULSE: That has an influence on those numbers.

TALEV: Yes but we're not quite there yet, but if that happens, that will signify another turning point I think.

HULSE: It feels like it's heading in that direction.

KING: All right, very quick break. We'll be right back.


[12:40:12] KING: Straight to the White House, the president taking questions about his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

TRUMP: We had a packed arena with thousands and thousands of people outside. It was an incredible evening. We got back very, very late. I did actually get to hear about Ambassador Kent. This is the witch hunt, you know, crooked Schiff is coming after the Republican Party. He's coming after the Republican Party as hard as he can considering he's really -- he's been compromised very sadly and badly because of the fact, as you know, I think as the press knows, he made a statement and he made a virtual speech about what I said, and then it turned out that I didn't say any of it because he fraudulently made the statement to Congress. I thought what he did was one of the worst things. I understand he has immunity but he doesn't have immunity when he puts it on his Twitter which he did, and he doesn't have immunity when he speaks to the press which he did, and he certainly won't have immunity if we ever get him into Congress and can swear him under oath because what he did was a very bad thing.

But what just happened is Ambassador Kent who I have never had the privilege, I don't believe of meeting, I don't know him, and they brought him in as a witness against me even though I don't know him, and he excoriated from what they reported on the news and, of course, maybe in this case it won't be fake news, but he excoriated the Obama administration and Joe Biden and Joe Biden's son saying that he has tremendous problems, tremendous problems with Joe Biden's son and Ukraine. So he's got tremendous problems with Biden's son and Ukraine, and it's inappropriate, and all of the horrible things. I mean, you could get it, you could see it. It's been a big deal. And I heard Schiff is going, no, no, we don't want to talk about that, we don't want to talk about that, but he talked about it. And it's one of those things.

Look, this is a terrible witch hunt. This is so bad for our country. I just spoke to President Erdogan of Turkey. We're doing very, very well with Turkey. There's a ceasefire or a pause or whatever you want to call it. There was some sniper fire this morning, there was mortar fire this morning that was eliminated quickly and they're back to the full pause.

We have ISIS totally under guard. Turkey is also guarding separately. They're watching over everything. So you have the Kurds who we're dealing with and are very happy about the way things are going I must say with the Kurds, and you also have the Turks watching, just secondarily watching so we have ISIS under control. We've taken control of the oil in the Middle East, the oil that we're talking about, the oil that everybody was worried about. We have -- the U.S. has control of that. And there are no shots being fired, and a lot of people are doing a lot of things.

This is a deal that should have been made 15 years ago, 10 years ago, over the last number of years under the Obama administration. The real numbers, over a million people were killed. We have lost no - not a drop of blood since we've started what I've started and it was -- so far it's working out. Look, it's a complicated region, many, many people have gone down. I have to watch with great interest as I see people talking about what we should be doing, and these are the same people that have been failing for the last 20 years, didn't know what they were doing, especially when they went in and did what they did. They shouldn't have been there. But we're doing a very, very significant amount of great work.

We'll see if it works. It's very fragile, it's been fragile for years. They've been fighting each other for centuries. Literally, for centuries, they've been fighting each other, and years ago we injected ourselves right into the middle of it, and we won't go into whether or not that was a good thing or a bad thing, you know how I feel about it. But we've had tremendous success, I think, over the last couple of days. A little bit unconventional, a little bit of hard love, I told you that. A little -- there was a lot of pain for a couple of days, and sometimes you have to go through some pain before you can get a good solution, but the Kurds are very happy about it. President Erdogan of Turkey is satisfied with it, and we are in a very strong position.

We are also in a position where we can put tremendous powerful sanctions on Turkey or whoever else we want to. Our country is a financially much stronger country than when I took it over. China would have been, right now, the strongest economy in the world, the number one economy in the world, and right now China is way behind us. We picked up trillions of dollars in value and worth, and they've lost trillions and trillions of dollars and are having the worst year they've had in 57 years.

[12:45:00] With that being said, we're working with China very well. We've done, subject to getting signed, and I think it will get signed quite easily hopefully by the summit in Chile where President Xi and I will both be. But a lot of good things are happening. Our farmers are taken care of, our bankers and our financial services are going to have access, the likes of which they've never had to the largest or second-largest, depending on your definitions, about 1.4 billion people population, whether it's India or China, they're pretty close. And we've done some great things.

So we had -- but I just want to say I want to thank the people of Dallas and the people of Fort Worth and the people of Texas because yesterday was incredible. I want to thank Bernard Arnault, one of the great businessmen people of the world for agreeing to do something that was a first. He's built this incredible plant right in our great state of Texas and they're going to make super luxury and super product. They have already started, it's opened. Big investment and we're very proud of it.

That was done with me and with the election with -- even prior to the election, I said, you have to open up a plant someplace in the United States. He said, what do you think about Texas? I said I love Texas, that would be good. And I said, if you do it, I'll be there. And so I fulfilled that commitment but he opened up a beautiful plant. We think over a thousand people will soon be working there.

So thank you all very much. Yesterday was a big day, we had a great talk with President Erdogan and it's going to very well. Thank you very much.


KING: The president leaving the room at the White House there.

At the beginning of that, he said his chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had clarified the very damning statements he made about the Ukraine quid pro quo at the White House yesterday. The president then noting some testimony not helpful to Joe Biden from one of the diplomats called in as part of the Democratic impeachment inquiry. And then the president going on there to defend -- remember, Republicans are saying the president of the United States is weak when it comes to what is happening in Syria, his decision to pull out U.S. troops and allow the Turkey military -- Turkish military operation to go on.

The president said the Kurds are very happy, they are not. The Kurds have complained repeatedly that they've been betrayed by their one- time ally, the United States. He said and we'll try to get some explanation of what the president meant by this, that the United States had taken control of the oil in the Middle East. He was not at all specific. We'll try to figure out what he meant by that.

He did say that the operation he started, I started, the president's words, the White House has said this was Turkey's decision, and the president did not green-light it, but he said the operation I started is going very well and that it's a strong positive response. Defensive.

PACE: It's -- to what we were talking about earlier, it's the disconnect between the rhetoric and the reality of the situation. And the president's strategy in so many cases is to just try to fill the void with words and with over the top words often because he knows that a lot of his supporters will take what he says over the reality. I think to what Carl has been saying here like is -- are we in a moment where some of this is going to start changing, where the reality starts trumping the rhetoric even in subtle ways.

HENDERSON: Yes. I mean, the whole idea of taking the oil, I mean, this is one of the things he talked about repeatedly when he was running for president of what he's talking about now in the context of this conflict in Syria isn't clear. But again, I think it goes to your point. He's always talking to those folks at the rally. We saw him obviously do that last night. We saw him do that as he was heading to Dallas, too.

So, I don't know that Republicans and ones who have been fiercely critical of him prior to this deal, I mean, did they have a big enough platform to kind of counter this. Did they come through with sanctions something the president said, oh, it might happen but also seemed to not really want to happen as well?

KING: But part of the deal with Turkey was there will be no additional sanctions if Turkey keeps its part of the deal and gives Turkey everything it wants. So, we'll see how that goes. But again, you have so many Republicans calling the president weak there and the president saying the Kurds are very happy.

TALEV: The president also said that ISIS was under control. And I think we all know ISIS is not under control. That's one of the big problems that have gotten so many of the Republican senators concerned. And it's just important for anyone who was watching his remarks to understand the national security situation on the ground. It's quite precarious and that's what's driving a lot of the alarm other than the long term concerns about can our allies -- can U.S. allies count on the U.S.

KING: And I want to come back to what the president was saying right when we went to that event live because he's right and he has a point about this. Most of the impeachment testimony the last several days from a handful of diplomats who work at the State Department has been quite damning against the president. The diplomats coming in saying they made clear they did not like Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney being put in charge essentially of United States foreign policy in Ukraine. That they did not like the things Giuliani was asking of them or asking of the Ukrainians. That is the bulk of the testimony.

[12:50:05] But as part of it, as part of it, the president is right that George Kent who is one of the diplomats called in by the Democrats did say as part of his testimony according to the Washington Post that he called the vice president's, Joe Biden was vice president at the time, back in 2015 in the Obama administration and said that he thought it was a bad idea that Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, had taken a job on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. George Kent in his testimony says that he told them that the Ukrainians could take that as an entree, as a way to hold (INAUDIBLE) with the vice president. He also says that he was told by the vice president's office essentially go away, that the vice president didn't have the bandwidth to deal with it because he was dealing with the tragic health issues of his now-deceased, the late Beau Biden.

This is the Biden campaign's response to this. "Donald Trump's unprecedentedly corrupt administration is melting down because of the scan although he touched off by trying to get Ukraine to lie about Joe Biden." The statement goes on, it says, "On Joe Biden's watch, the U.S. made eradicating corruption a centerpiece of our policies toward Ukraine including achieving the removal of an inept prosecutor." It does not address the substance of the allegations that a career diplomat called the vice president's office and said, you know, this looks horrible and was told to go away.

HULSE: Well, this was part of the Democratic fear. Joe Biden is going to be collateral damage here.

KING: I just want to stop for a second there in the sense that, yes, this is a fear. But what -- most of what the president and his allies and especially Rudy Giuliani had said about Joe and Hunter Biden is reckless, rumor-mongering, and horrible. But the vice president of the United States was in charge of the Ukraine portfolio at the time his son was working in Ukraine, and the fact that either he didn't say, Hunter, you can't do this, or Mr. President, I can't do this, I need to recuse myself, is a legitimate question.

HULSE: Yes, they're going to have to address this. And I -- as we were discussing, we could totally see this happening. The vice president's staff would have been very dismissive of this. They didn't want to get into it. They're going to have to explain it.

However, as I've also said, that doesn't justify anything the president is doing and he's being investigated and the Republicans need to separate that. One other thing on his comment there, I agree with you, I thought he sounded defensive, and I also thought at the beginning he was trying to make it more about a bigger thing than himself where he's saying they're trying to destroy the party. You know, this is about destroying Republicans, and he's trying to say, hey, you guys need to rally around me, because I think they're feeling this right now.

KING: You do get -- the incoming for a lot of Republicans is that this was a week that a lot of them hit the pause button on. You saw early when we played the criticism about the Syria decision. You see it, tell me if you're wrong, my inbox and my conversations with a lot of Republicans who don't like what they're learning about the impeachment inquiry so far. That doesn't mean they're saying impeach the president. But they don't like what they're hearing and they especially don't like it when the president's chief of staff goes into a briefing room and says, yes, there was quid pro quo, get over it, we won the election.

PACE: The challenge for the Republicans since the very start of this was that they were jumping into a situation where they had very little information. There was going to be a lot that was going to come out and they had to sort of make a choice. How aggressive do I want to be in backing the president when I know that there's going to be a lot more to come out? And they're seeing that happen right now.

There are sorts of fears about what else would come out are playing out and we're watching them in real-time. We have to grapple with each new story, with each new development, each new testimony, you know, where am I with the president, and we still are in a place where they have incomplete information. To Margaret's point earlier, I mean, there are questions about conversations with Putin, there are questions about a host of other world leaders that we know nothing about that will probably get revealed through the course of this process.

KING: And when you see the president, they added this, they added press access to this event because he knows what's going on. He is -- he watches more television than anybody I know. I mean, cable news about his administration. He decided given that, you know, his press secretary went on TV this morning and try to see, you know, this is all reporters (INAUDIBLE). But I played you the tape and it will be played over and over again. The acting chief of staff, standing at the White House podium saying, yes. Yes, he told me to hold up the money until they agreed to investigate a now-debunked conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia that interfered in the 2016 election.

HENDERSON: Yes. And there will be more information to come out next week most likely. More folks sitting with folks on the Hill giving depositions, giving information about what they saw. Bill Taylor among them who was the one who was texting and the concern about whether or not there was a quid pro quo. So, yes, you have the president trying to fill this vacuum. He doesn't have a lot of folks on television defending him, and certainly, Mick Mulvaney didn't do him any favors yesterday by essentially saying, yes, there was a quid pro quo.

KING: Mulvaney on the impeachment fronts certainly and then again, back to 0-- this president gets very defensive and very mad sometimes when members of his own party criticized him, and there is a lot of that when it comes to the Syria/Turkey decisions.

HENDERSON: Yes, that's right. Yes. A lot of criticism and we'll see. I mean, again, you saw him today essentially saying, no, no, the U.S. did get something, right. We got the oil or something.

[12:55:94] KING: I have no idea what that means.

TALEV: You know, Taylor is going to be really important though when he testifies next week. We did some exclusive reporting this week where we learned a lot more about what Kurt Volker, the former envoy, had told lawmakers in his quite long interview. And a lot of it had to do with Bill Taylor, about Bill Taylor's serious, serious and deep reservations about joining the administration, to begin with, about whether the president might throw Ukraine under the bus to make a deal with Russia, and about Rudy Giuliani's involvement.

And so I think -- and we may hear more in Bill Taylor's testimony also about Burisma, the company that Hunter Biden had a relationship with. But --

KING: So it was an interesting week in the rearview mirror and you're suggesting an interesting week to come. Yes, strap in. That's why they brewed coffee.

Thanks for joining us today in the INSIDE POLITICS. Hope to see you Sunday morning as well. We're up early, 8 a.m. Eastern.

Brianna Keilar picks up our coverage after a quick break. Have a great afternoon. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)