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Inside Politics

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson Resigns; WNBA Superstar Brittney Griner Pleads Guilty In Moscow Court; NYT: Comey, McCabe Faced "Invasive" IRS Audits In 2017 & 2019. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired July 07, 2022 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Hello, and welcome to Inside Politics. I'm John King in Washington. Thank you for sharing an extraordinarily busy news day with us. A rebellion and a resignation, Boris Johnson decides to quit but not immediately, after nearly 60 conservative party members quit their cabinet posts in a mutiny.


BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH PRIME MINISTER: It is clearly not of the will of the parliamentary conservative party, that there should be a new leader of that party, and therefore a new prime minister. The process of choosing that new leader should begin now and the timetable will be announced next week. And I look today appointed a cabinet to serve as I will until a new leader is in place.


KING: Plus, big news from a Moscow courtroom. Today the WNBA superstar Brittney Griner told the Russian judge, she is guilty of drug charges. And random or political retribution, the former FBI director and his top deputy say they were both audited by Donald Trump's IRS after they angered the then president.

Up first though for us, the monumental shift in Europe. Boris Johnson is quitting, but not leaving just yet. The colorful scandal plagued British prime minister, announcing his resignation today. But he said he plans to stay in office until his conservative party picks a new leader. And it is not clear this hour just how long that will take.

Johnson finally deciding though the math was overwhelming, that after nearly 60 members of his cabinet, 60 cabinet ministers resigned their posts in just the past 48 hours. Johnson today speaking outside 10 Downing Street to the echo of boos and jeers was trademark defiant, no mention of scandal, nothing resembling an apology.

Instead, Johnson laid out a bullet point list of what he calls considerable achievements during his nearly three-year watch. And he made the case for why he deserves maybe a few more months of power. His refusal to step down immediately though, no doubt will produce another dramatic fight and perhaps a vote to kick him out.


KEIR STARMER, BRITISH LABOUR PARTY LEADER: He needs to go completely. None of this nonsense about clinging on for a few months. He's inflicted lies, fraud and chaos in the country. It's obvious he's unfit to be prime minister. That's been blindingly obvious for a very, very long time. And if they don't get rid of him, then Labour will step up in the national interest and bring a vote of no confidence because we can't go on with this prime minister clinging on for months and months to come.


KING: Live to London now, CNN's Bianca Nobilo, near the British Parliament. We begin though our coverage outside 10 Downing Street with CNN's Nic Robertson. Nic, what is the latest?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: The latest is Boris Johnson had a cabinet session. It was a very short cabinet session. It was an effort by some within the cabinet to show unity, to show continuity that the government is in business that there isn't chaos about. But Boris Johnson knew as he sat down at that table, not only do some people want him gone, gone now.

Some of them are actively and will be actively contesting for his position as prime minister. It was a very short cabinet session and certainly doesn't give the overall impression that it is back to business as usual that Boris Johnson wants to create while he is caretaker.

The question remains, how long will he be caretaker, a former prime minister. So, John, major a powerful conservative prime minister said that it would be unwise for Johnson to remain as caretaker for a lengthy period. And the current process of picking a replacement for Johnson, which he didn't detail and didn't say precisely when it would start, could take weeks, even months. So, there is a potential at the moment for not only the process to play out slowly, for Johnson to be able to hang on to his job.

But for further divisions that exist already around that cabinet table and within his party and the dissatisfaction in his leadership because of his character flaws, not his policies that that could further bring potential disorganization, potential chaos into the political process that he is trying to patch up as a caretaker prime minister. Again, this whole process has a lot of uncertainty. It's been historic today, and we are in uncharted territory at the moment without a doubt.


KING: Uncharted without a doubt. Nic Robertson, outside of 10 Downing. Let's move now to Bianca Nobilo. Bianca, what does happen now?

BIANCA NOBILO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Now the policy has to find a new leader and that is a difficult task given that it's in disarray and divided deeply. Boris Johnson also through his rhetoric and his hot button cultural issues that he's decided to focus on has shifted the party base to the right. And he's all that, also done that through the campaign of Brexit, which will feature largely despite happening a few years ago in this upcoming leadership campaign.

So, who are we looking at for potential successes? Well, first of all, we have Ben Wallace. He's tipped to be the favorite among the party members, who ultimately will get the say, of which of the final two candidates to elect as party leader. There are 200,000 of those in the country, and one is the current defense secretary, widely lauded for his response to the Ukraine crisis, and also his handling of the fall of Kabul, somebody that President Joe Biden would be familiar with.

We also have Jeremy Hunt, who is considered to be more of a centrist candidate. Although, there are question marks over what he stands for. He is somebody who voted to remain in the Brexit referendum. We also have Sajid Javid, who was the former health secretary, whose resignation precipitated the crisis that we're witnessing now. He is also the son of a Muslim immigrant and Pakistani bus driver, who has a strong personal story and is a different kind of Tory candidate.

There's also Penny Mordaunt, who was the first female secretary of state for defense in this country. She was also on a reality show called Splash! which involves diving competitions in the U.K. She is considered to have a lot of charisma. So, lots of runners and riders emerging, but absolutely no consensus at the moment on which way the party might go.

KING: Bianca Nobilo, outside of parliament, thank you so much, Nic Robertson, as well. Let's get some expertise and insights now from the former British Ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott. He's also the author of "They Call It Diplomacy: Forty Years of Representing Britain Abroad," and Susan Glasser of the New Yorker. She's with me in Washington.

Mr. Ambassador, I want to talk about what comes next in a longer view in a moment. But what comes next in the days and hours ahead? In your view, is Boris Johnson, a caretaker prime minister for days or perhaps for three to four months?

PETER WESTMACOTT, FORMER UK AMBASSADOR TO US: John, he would like to be a caretaker for three to four months. He's made very clear that he's going to stick around along with the ministers who he's just appointed to fill the vacancies of some of the resignations. But he's going not because there are policy differences, as Nic Robertson was saying, this is personal. This is about personal behavior. This is about judgment, is about integrity.

And so, having gotten to the point where he's announced that he's going, a lot of his party members, and remember, this is about the conservative party, it's not about the country at large. They want him actually to go, so that they can get on with their life, if you like and get on with choosing somebody new or not have him in charge, doing whatever he might want to do, possibly even trying to change the rules, change the reality, so that he doesn't have to go after all. They don't trust, is the point.

So, he would like to stay for a few months. But I think early next week, when there's going to be a new committee elected of what's - a new executive of what's called the '22 Committee, which is the backbench, very important committee of Tory MPs. They will have new members and they might have new rules and they might decide that, thank you very much, prime minister, but you're not going to stick around. And you're going to have to go sooner than that.

That will be pretty unprecedented. In the past, Theresa May, for example, stayed on as the caretaker, but that's because it was about policy. It wasn't about personality, and nobody really minded. This time it is a bit more toxic than that. So, I think it is possible. I wouldn't go beyond that, that in the course of next week, the party decides, thank you very much, but you're not going to stay on for three months while we choose your successor.

KING: That's a big uncertainty as we go. Let's listen to a little bit of the prime minister today outside of 10 Downing as we noted earlier, no apology, no voicing of regrets. He says, listen to the end here them the brakes.


JOHNSON: My friends in politics, no one is remotely indispensable. To you, the BRITISH public, I know that there will be many people who are relieved and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed. And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world, but them's the breaks.


KING: Them's the breaks. Susan Glasser, as the ambassador smartly notes, we don't know exactly when it will be former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. But when it comes to the war in Ukraine, when it comes to the special relationship with the United States. Is there any reason to believe, anything substantively will change? You lose a very colorful leader, a big personality, if you will, but from a policy perspective, any reason to believe anything significant changes?

SUSAN GLASSER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, I think that is an important question. Johnson has increasingly turned in some ways to foreign policy, as he's been plagued by one scandal after another domestically. Many of them revolving around his own honesty and integrity, as Ambassador Westmacott pointed out.


But look in Ukraine, Boris Johnson is, he's probably more popular today in Ukraine than he is in his own country. And you saw, he had a very almost emotional phone call even with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. He's been out in front and that's made him a key partner with the United States in pressuring other western allies to produce money support equipment for the Ukrainians as they fight off this Russian attack.

So, you know, one of the leading contenders is Ben Wallace, who has been the defense secretary and been sort of the organizing that policy. So, you don't see an abrupt shift there. But you know, again, this is a story that is very much about the domestic scandal, it seems to me inside the U.K., not about any policy disagreements in the conservative party.

KING: Right. Mr. Ambassador, you mentioned that obviously the party's during COVID lockdowns, then trying to promote a friend who was accused of sexual misconduct. And it turns out Boris Johnson knew about a past allegation. So, it is these personal scandals that have brought him down. When we talk about a policy legacy without a doubt, one legacy of Boris Johnson will be getting Brexit to the finish line. Let's listen to some of his comments during that process.


JOHNSON: There are no circumstances in which I will ask Brussels to delay. We are leaving on the 31st of October, no ifs or buts.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Can you make a promise today to the British public, that you will not go back to Brussels and asked for another delay to Brexit? And which you brought---

JOHNSON: I'd rather be dead in a ditch. If you really want to delay Brexit, beyond October the 31st, which is what you seem to want to do, then vote for an election and let the people decide.


KING: They're Mr. Ambassador, you see both the theatrical performance of Boris Johnson, but also a significant policy legacy of Boris Johnson. How will history look back on that when we get through this drama of the moment?

WESTMACOTT: And of course, he did delay beyond the 31st of October. That was parliament bluster. So, history will judge that what Boris Johnson managed to do was to get a withdrawal bill through the British Parliament, which his predecessor. Theresa May had tried three times to do and failed to get through, even her own party let alone the opposition. But it wasn't a very good deal.

It was in many ways, technically, probably worse than the one that Theresa May have failed to get through. But he had the wind in his sails. He got this done. But it created a whole series of issues, partly because he and his cohorts went for a harder form of Brexit, no single market, no customs, union and so on, than was necessary or than was necessarily voted for by the British people back in June 2016.

It also has created a big legacy of problems for Northern Ireland. Where is the external border of the European Union going to be? Is it done the middle of the North Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Or is it down the middle of the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and the Republic?

These are not just arcane issues they are quite significant. And they worry a lot of people, the United States as well as back here, because the risk is that if this is not sorted out sensibly, then all the achievements of the Good Friday agreement, which brought the troubles to an end, could be thrown up in the air.

And at the moment, the British government is seeking unilaterally to legislate against the deal that it struck. And there is not much compromise coming out of the Brussels side. And there is a lot of concern that this will make things worse. So yes, he's got Brexit done in his own terms, but it's still a bit of a mess. And there's a lot of economic damage from it, which is becoming more and more apparent.

He also will go down in history as the man who won a spectacular majority in the general election at the end of 2019. And that was not expected. OK. He was fighting against a very weak, very left-wing candidate and Mr. Corbyn, but nonetheless, he got that done too. And as I think, as Susan was saying, he's made a significant impact on Ukraine, and that I think will continue regardless of who the next prime minister is.

KING: Ambassador Westmacott, grateful for your time and insights. Today, Susan is going to stay with us for an additional conversation. This quick programming note, you don't want to miss this today in the situation when the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy joins Wolf Blitzer. His view on the war with Russia and the impact of Boris Johnson's resignation, that important interview today at 5pm eastern right here on CNN. Up next for us. The WNBA star Brittney Griner pleads guilty in a Russian court today. The latest on her status next?




KING: Dramatic development today inside a Russian courtroom, the WNBA superstar Brittney Griner pleaded guilty to drug smuggling charges. Telling the judge, she packed in a hurry and did not mean to carry drugs into Russia. Griner could though face up to 10 years in a Russian prison. To get the latest, CNN's Phil Mattingly, live at the White House for us. First to the state department though and CNN's Kylie Atwood. Kylie, what do we know?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Well, Brittney Griner pleading guilty today of course, we should remind folks that she was arrested in February of this year when she was at an airport in Russia, allegedly carrying cannabis oil. And so, she pled guilty to these drug charges today. Saying in effect that she had no intention to break the law that she packed up in a hurry. And that's how these things ended up in her bag.

We should also note that according to a senior U.S. official, the expectation is that she would have to admit guilt and face a conviction before any potential prisoner swap could actually happen. Of course, a prisoner swap is something that has been discussed. We don't know if that's going to be what will release her, but that is the thing that got Trevor Reed, who was another American wrongfully detained out of Russia earlier this year.

Now, I want to read to you what the National Security Council is saying in response to this guilty plea today in Brittney Griner trial saying, "as we've stated before, we believe the Russian Federation is wrongfully detaining Brittney Griner under intolerable circumstances." We also are hearing from the WNBA, saying that Russia's process is its own and noting that in 99 percent of the circumstances in the Russian judicial system, there are situations of guilt. So, getting off wasn't really an expectation here, John?


KING: State department, let's go to the White House now. Phil, the president spoke recently to Brittney Griner's wife, said he would stay on top of this. What do we know?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well look, this is obviously not happening in a vacuum. And I think that's probably the most important point. Jenny Holzer colleague (Ph) over at the state department have covered this so thoroughly and so well, in the sense that this is obviously a very different situation in the terms of the public profile of the individual who has been detained. And the ability to kind of utilize that public profile from her supporters to raise this issue directly to President Biden's desk.

However, there are other families that have been frustrated now for weeks, months, if not years. And this is not just exclusive to the Biden administration. We saw these tensions in the Trump administration and in the Obama administration as well. The big question now going forward, now that the guilty plea has come forward is what Kylie alluded to the possibility of a prisoner swap.

Officials here don't want to talk about details related to that. They keep these types of issues very, very close hold because of the delicate nature of these negotiations. Trevor Reed's case, where there was a prisoner swap also included very failing health on Trevor Reed's part, which may have contributed to an actual end game or an actual solution there as well.

But I think there's an acknowledgement when you talk to officials quietly here, that that is likely the way that this would have to end. The question now becomes who in terms of a swap, the timeline of what a swap would entail? One thing that officials here are willing to acknowledge is that there isn't an endgame coming anytime soon.

They are working very hard, very fast and very steadfastly on this issue, but they recognize, there are a lot of dynamics at play here. And how this all ends? It's still very much an open question as you watch things play out in court in Russia.

KING: Phil Mattingly at the White House, Kylie Atwood at the State Department, thank you. Susan Glasser is still with us. So, you have a public guilty plea. That's what Russia wanted. Russia was - the United States was saying this was wrong, but Russia wanted to say no, no, she was guilty. That's what we see publicly. We have a court hearing in a week. That's publicly on the docket, privately is where this will be resolved, right?

GLASSER: Well, one imagines that this hopefully might be the prelude to a deal of some sort. And, you know, you have to reinforce. This is Russia acting. Essentially, as a rogue nation, it is Russia acting as a hostage taker. It's not all that different from North Korea's behavior on the international stage.

You know, the terrible accident of timing here, unfortunately, is largely the reason why she is still in Russian prison today and that is February of this year, that's when Russia launched this invasion of Ukraine. And it became convenient to have a high-profile American athlete in their custody as a, you know, literally a player to be treated later. It's a terrible story. But it's very consistent with Russia's thuggish behavior on the world stage.

KING: And so, as these things have played out in the past, you are trying to find a prisoner swap that makes sense to both sides. Some of the private conversations among diplomats has been the Russia wants this high-profile arms dealer, who's in prison. That's a much higher crime than, you know, someone smuggling a tiny amount of drugs. So, how do they work this out?

GLASSER: Well, that's right. So first of all, there's delicate negotiations one imagines about the, exactly who would be on the list. This has a long history. Even when I was based in Moscow more than 20 years ago, there were incidents of this kind where there were trades being made between people like Iris Shun-Ru Chang (ph) and researcher who was accused of being a Western spy.

So, it's not inconsistent. There's a long history of how to do this. But there's also the question what's happening in the war in Ukraine right now? Right, is Russia trying to set itself up to be in a position to have actual negotiations which are not happening right now with the Ukrainians. This might be also convenient for them and always complicated.

KING: Always complicated, more so in this case. Susan Glasser, grateful for the insights. Here up next for us. Coincidence or abuse of power. Two former FBI chiefs get audited by the Trump IRS. They want to know why.




KING: New questions today about President Trump's political targets. The New York Times reporting the IRS conducted intensive audits of both the former FBI Director James Comey and the former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, scrutinizing their tax records from years when Trump was in the presidency. The IRS denies the audits were politically motivated, but McCabe who is now a CNN law enforcement analyst says, the situation deserves scrutiny.


ANDREW MCCABE, FORMER DEPUTY FBI DIRECTOR: It just defies logic to think that there wasn't some other factor involved here. I think that's a reasonable question. I think it should be investigated. People need to be able to trust the institutions of government.


KING: With me to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Audie Cornish, Alex burns at the New York Times, and CNN's MJ Lee. Comey agrees with his former deputy Andrew McCabe. He told the New York Times this. Maybe it's a coincidence or maybe somebody misuse the IRS to get at a political enemy. Given the role Trump wants to continue to play in our country, we should know the answer to that question.

It is extraordinary. We looked at the statistics, 153 million individual tax return filed in 2017 out of 5000 people. That's one in 30,000, one in 30,000 plus get these types of audits. And yet, the former director and deputy director of the FBI.

AUDIE CORNISH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think obviously actions speak louder than words. And some of the questions that people should have going into this are, who are the Trump appointees or hires in that department? What changes did they make?

I think any of us who covered the administration during those years saw a lot of changes in agencies and departments that were either withered, didn't have hires or suddenly had a hire that had the favor of Trump world, so to speak. And then, kind of go from there.