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Trump Skips Opportunity to Warn Against Election Meddling; Trump: Former Acting Spy Chief "Wasn't Pushed Out"; Steyer Returns to Debate Stage Before Critical SC Primary. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired February 25, 2020 - 12:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[12:31:57]

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: President Trump today skipping yet another opportunity to warn strongly against foreign election interference. Before leaving India today, reporters pushed the president on whether or not he believes recent intelligence reports about Russian meddling in 2020. He was also asked to give a stern message to the Russian president.

President Trump did not give a clear answer to either of those questions. Instead, he decided to return to recent reports about the Democratic frontrunner, Bernie Sanders.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I would like to see Bernie is probably winning, and it looks like he's winning, and he's got ahead of steam, and they maybe don't want him for obvious reasons. So they don't want him so they put out a thing that Russia is backing him. This is what they do. I've gone through it for a long time.

Terrible thing to say, and they didn't say it about me. I want no help from any country, and I haven't been given help from any country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN's Phil Mattingly is live for us up on Capitol Hill. Phil, the president giving a non-direct answer there up on Capitol Hill. This has been a big issue in recent days, and we know the intelligence -- our understanding of the intelligence has evolved in recent days from the big briefing on Capitol Hill that caused a big stir. Where do we stand right now?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's kind of the natural fallout of trying to report on a classified briefing to some degree. And I think each day is going on, we've talked to more people, we get a better sense of what actually happened inside the room that kind of led to where we are today.

Now, these intelligence briefings, classified briefings for members of the House Intelligence Committee was designed to included multiple officials and be kind of a broad overview on 2020 election threats. Not just from Russia but from several other adversaries or maligned actors, as has been at least described to me and some of my colleagues.

As this briefing went forward, one of the issues that was raised by lawmakers in the briefing was how has Russia actually evolved since 2016? And at that point, Shelby Pierson, a top intelligence official, laid out that Russia essentially has a preference for President Trump and for Bernie Sanders to some degree because they are known quantities, and what they saw in the wake of 2016 led the Russians at least in her view to believe that it would help them sow discord in 2020 as well.

That raised a lot of questions from Republicans who wanted to understands the underlying intelligence behind that assessment, where that assessment was actually coming from, and whether or not it was actually true given some of the actions President Trump and his administration has taken related to Russia as it pertains to sanctions and support from Ukraine as well.

The bottom line is this, the intelligence community is essentially saying that they've got a little out front of their skis on the assessment piece of this. There is one thing everybody agrees on. Russia is absolutely attempting to meddle again. Who they prefer and whether or not they're trying to actively help somebody's re-election. That to some degree, John, appears to be an open question right now.

KING: Open question that we will continue to try to answer. Phil Mattingly live on the Hill, appreciate that.

Let's bring it in the room. And as we do, I just want to go back to what the president said. Number one, he said, I want no help from any country and I haven't been given help from any country. The last part is not true if you look at his own intelligence community's assessment about 2016. There may be a debate about 2020.

The president was asked, do you have a message for Vladimir Putin. You saw he decided he wanted to talk about Bernie Sanders instead.

[12:35:03]

And if he is looking for a way maybe in the future, maybe he should check with his secretary of state.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: Meddling in our elections is unacceptable. The Trump administration will always work to protect the integrity of our elections, period, full stop. Should Russia or any foreign actor take steps to undermine our democratic processes, we will take action in response.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We're three years in, and now in the re-election campaign, and we have never heard a statement like that from the president of the United States. Why would that be so hard?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It all goes back to this idea of the president feeling like there is a witch-hunt against him, that he spent three years going through the Mueller investigation, and the Ukraine investigation, and impeachment. He doesn't want to give any legitimacy to the Russia idea that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. Even though everyone in his administration is saying that. Everyone who has been briefed on this on Capitol Hill has made it very clear that that's what happened.

He still sort of under this illusion that Russia didn't help him, didn't prefer him in 2016, and he does not want to give any credence to that fact, even if it means not taking the opportunity to say very clearly that we as a country do not want other countries meddling in our election. He instead used the opportunity to go after Bernie Sanders, to say that he had actually never been briefed on this intelligence that's been briefed to the House which is another question. Why is the president not being briefed on threats to our elections? But he made it clear that he wanted to talk about politics and not national security.

KING: Well, his aides say they don't like to bring up the subject with him because he gets prickly and angry about it.

We also know from reporting that this is one of the reasons Joe Maguire is no longer the acting director of national intelligence. The president found about this briefing on Capitol Hill, brought the team in, got mad about it, disputed that Russia was involved again, said he didn't believe that to be true. A lot of Republicans on Capitol Hill had hoped that he would nominate Mr. Maguire permanently. Instead, Mr. Maguire is out.

And CNN's Jim Acosta today tried to get the president to at least confirm he's out because the president got mad.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: As far as Maguire is concerned, he's a terrific guy. But, you know, on March 11th, his time ended anyway. So his time came up, so we would have had to -- by statute, we would have had to change him anyway.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Was he forced out because he wasn't sufficiently loyal to you?

TRUMP: No, not at all. Not at all. He was pushed out because frankly -- he wasn't pushed out. He would have had to get out. On March 11th, he would have had to leave. But we're going to be making a decision on DNI very shortly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: He could have been -- again, a lot of people on Capitol Hill like Mr. Maguire. They find him to be very credible, they find him to be even-handed, they find him to be not political, and so they were happy with him but he's now gone. The president's ambassador to Germany Rick Grenell is in temporarily in that job.

A lot of people are questioning, if you can put up his experience, you know, doesn't have any day-to-day intelligence experience from the military or from his public service. He is seen as a Trump loyalist. He's a former Fox News contributor. I don't want to pre-judge Mr. Grenell. Some people are. I don't know, just let him try to do the job.

The question is, he doesn't have the experience, and so on Capitol Hill, they're pushing the president to act quickly on this one, to put somebody they know and somebody they trust in there. CNN reporting today that John Ratcliffe who is the Republican congressman who is considered for this before, but then he withdrew his name because of some controversies, is back on the president's list.

What is the pressure and -- they want this done quickly, right? They don't want this act -- another acting.

HEATHER CAYGLE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Yes, sure. Absolutely. I mean, there are so many acting officials in this administration already. It's obvious that a lot of Republicans are very uncomfortable with Mr. Grenell. I mean, Mitch McConnell has not said anything about him. Richard Burr, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee has not said anything. Mitt Romney who he worked for in 2012 has not said anything. Susan Collins has come out against him.

But in the past, we've seen most Senate Republicans will not openly defy the president even when they are uncomfortable on this nomination. So, you know, I think they're trying to wait and see who he does nominate. They also don't really like Mr. Ratcliffe. They think that he is not experienced enough for the job.

And the overall issue of this election interference has become so politicized on Capitol Hill that Democrats and Republicans are arguing about the dining room chairs while the House is on fire. And they're not getting anything done to actually address it. And it will most likely be a huge issue in this election again. And they're bickering about, you know, who is to blame here.

LISA LERER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That is the -- I think that's the crucial point. What I find so concerning about this whole thing is that the American voter actually has no idea what this Russia disinformation -- the Russia disinformation effort is crowded -- clouded in disinformation. And I understand that briefings are classified, that's coming from the administration, that's coming from Capitol Hill, that's coming from Democrats running for president. Yes, the briefings are classified, but can't they put a law in that said they have to alert the public when there is issues around disinformation in the election so people can know what's going on.

So you have this situation where the House is, indeed, on fire. Russia -- the sense is that Russia never stopped doing what they start doing in 2016, and you have a government in two parties that seem more focused on leveraging it, on weaponizing, you know, the existence of disinformation, you know, against each other.

[12:40:01] KING: Wouldn't it be nice if somebody in the government who is a trusted source, every few week or two would come out a point a specific example? Show us the phase for posting. Show us the other meddling. Show us efforts to hack into election systems if that's the case just to help. Wouldn't that be nice?

Up next, the president unloads on two, two Supreme Court justices.

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KING: Topping our political radar today, a pair of hearings beginning next hour on whether there should be a new trial for Trump ally Roger Stone. Stone is accusing one of the jurors who found him guilty of being biased, a claim that has been echoed by the president. Yesterday, Stone lost an attempt to remove Judge Amy Berman Jackson from his criminal case. He accused her of bias after she praised the integrity of the jurors at his sentencing last week.

[12:45:08]

The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is bringing two abortion bills to the floor today. One would ban most abortions after 21 weeks of pregnancy. The other would require doctors to use all means available to save the life of babies born after attempted abortions. Neither bill likely to pass but the votes would force senators to take a stance on the issue in an election year which many Republicans view as strength.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Today, every senator will be able to take a clear moral stand. If there is a persuasive and principled case where America should remain on the radical international fringe on this subject, let us hear it. Let us have the debate. Few Americans agree with that radical position, but let's have the debate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: President Trump lashing out on Twitter last night at two liberal Supreme Court justices. The president tweeting that Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are in his view bias against him. He says they should recuse themselves from any cases involving his administration. The attack comes after Justice Sotomayor accused some of her conservative colleagues of bias in favor of the president.

When asked about those tweets in India today, the president doubling down.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I always thought that frankly that Justice Ginsburg should do it because she went wild during the campaign when I was running. I don't know who she was for, perhaps she was for Hillary Clinton.

And then Justice Sotomayor said what she said yesterday. You know very well what she said yesterday, it was a big story. And I just don't know how they can not recuse themselves for anything having to do with Trump or Trump-related.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: When we come back, billionaire Michael Bloomberg gets most of the attention in the Democratic race, but another billionaire, Tom Steyer is actually having an impact in the next contest, South Carolina.

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[12:51:38]

KING: There will be two billionaires at tonight's debate in South Carolina. Tom Steyer has a spot again on the stage after missing the cut last week in Nevada. He could be an impact player in South Carolina.

Take a look. He has spent more than $22 million there with a focus on courting black voters. Compare that, Joe Biden, $874,000 in ad spending, $851,000 for Senator Bernie Sanders.

Steyer, if you look at the polling is running a solid third in two recent South Carolina polls. Biden, Sanders are on top there. A brand new ad from the Steyer campaign just out goes after both of them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Joe Biden is a good man, but he's admitted nothing will change when he's elected. And Bernie's socialist plans won't beat Trump. That's why South Carolinians are choosing Tom Steyer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: It is interesting in the sense that, you know, especially since Bloomberg has gotten in, Steyer has been almost the forgotten billionaire in the Democratic race. He has spent a bulk load of money nationally but in this state, he actually is going to have an impact if his poll -- if his vote on Saturday is anywhere near his poll numbers which is in the mid-teens, that's going to matter.

MOLLY BALL, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that is the question as will his vote get close to where he is in the polls. Because in a lot of the previous contests, Steyer has underperformed his polling when it came to voters actually going to the primary caucus. So that is one question is, are those poll numbers real when people have to actually leave their houses and show up to vote?

And then the question is, does this, you know, just sort of further scramble the race? All of these candidates are making basically that same pitch saying, I am the Goldilocks candidate, let's get over all of this squabbling. But none of -- but the voters can agree on who that person is, and so you hear -- you know, Steyer's message has been very interesting, he has counted on being able to be sort of a sleeper in South Carolina. And I think a lot of people are just now waking up to all effort that he's put in to that state. But it's, you know, it's a meaningful argument for him to be able to say that he has support from the black community that is the backbone of the Democratic base. And he's also been trying to articulate before Bloomberg came along a sort of pro-business moderate message as well.

KING: And again, you make a key point about, can he matches poll numbers on Election Day and not underperform. If you look deeper into these polls, here is what's interesting about it. He gets 24 percent of the African-American vote in this CBS/YouGov poll. Joe Biden on top and then Steyer and Bernie Sanders essentially competing for it there.

And then you move over here into what is traditionally Bernie Sanders runs away with voters 18 to 29. But look at this piece from Tom Steyer, 24 percent there. so, a big question for me is, is he draining African-American votes from both Biden and Senator Sanders? Meaning, getting some of the younger African-American voters who we have seen going Bernie's way. That's one of the things we're going to find out on Saturday.

OLORUNNIPA: And I think it's part of the reason his ad kind of have that double barrel where he's attacking Sanders and Biden and trying to take away some of the vote from each of those candidates. And he's been able to put forward a platform that has appealed to some of the African-American voters in South Carolina. He's talking about reparations, talking about racial injustice and really trying to focus on trying to boost his support in the African-American community because that's going to be 60 percent of the vote. And Biden, Bernie, and now Steyer are all sort of competing on trying to make sure that they have a large, sizeable chunk of that vote. And I think that these ads will make an impact in terms of the final outcome for Steyer in Saturday.

KING: And I don't think there's anybody out there who thinks, oh, Tom Steyer got a shot at being the Democratic nominee. Sorry, just don't see the evidence of that right now.

[12:55:00]

But the issue for him is that this state is his chance before Bloomberg is all over the place starting next week, and he's spending even well more than Steyer.

LERER: That is exactly right, and he has to stay on the debate stage, and, you know, getting some delegates will help him do that. I think it's also notable that he was really the only candidate going after Bernie Sanders in paid advertising. So, clearly, his campaign sees an opportunity to pull over some of those voters from Senator Bernie Sanders, to be a sort of a third option for voters who maybe are worried about Biden, worried about Sanders, but we'll see if it happens.

KING: All part of a very, very big week ahead today to Super Tuesday.

Thanks for joining us today on INSIDE POLITICS. Hope to see you back here this time tomorrow. Brianna Keilar starts after a quick break. Have a good afternoon.

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