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Trump Grades Himself; Trump's Speech to Congress; White House Promises for Speech; Partisan Split over Russia Probe; Discord over Obamacare; Tackling Entitlements; McCain Critical of Budget Proposal. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 28, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:22] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Kate.

Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

Tonight, President Trump speaks to a joint session of Congress and tries to sell a divided country on an agenda heavy on immigration and security initiatives.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This budget follows through on my promise to focus on keeping Americans safe, keeping out terrorists, keeping out criminals and putting violent offenders behind bars or removing them from our country altogether.


KING: As they await the big speech, Republicans are both eager and anxious. They need the president's help sorting internal GOP fights on health care, tax reform, and more, yet they often cringe at his approach and at his words.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now, I have to tell you, it's an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.


KING: Oh, nobody knew. There's no such divide among the Democrats. They already don't like the speech they won't hear until nine hours from now.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: Forty days after his inauguration, President Trump and the Republican Congress will have not lifted a finger to create jobs or raise wages for hard-working American families. Instead, the president has pull Wall Street first, he has tried to make America sick again, he has instilled fear in communities across America and he has allowed Russia's grip on his administration to jeopardize our national security and undermine our democracy.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, Ashley Parker of "The Washington Post," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, NPR's Steve Inskeep, and Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast."

A very busy day already here in Washington, D.C., and a fascinating night ahead. Let's begin with the big things driving today's politics, most of all this, just 40 days on the job, and President Trump says tonight's primetime speech is a chance to improve on his early report card.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think I've done great things, but I don't think I've -- I and my people, I don't think we've explained it well enough to the American public. I think I get an A in terms of what I've actually done. But in terms of messaging, I'd give myself a C or a C+.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: All right, how are you going to change that then?

TRUMP: Well, maybe I change it during the speech.


KING: Maybe he changes it during the speech. He also gave himself an A+ for effort.

Quickly around the table, grade the president grading himself.

ASHLEY PARKER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, I would just add that that C I don't think was really to himself. I think that was to Sean Spicer and some of his actual communications team. So I'd give him a B for grading himself.

KING: B for grading himself?


KING: Do you think he was maybe referring to the travel ban folks there?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Boy that sure sounds familiar. I can't recall a president giving himself higher marks for message than in communications. President Obama also said the policy's spot on, it's the sales pitch that needs work. So I think this president is following in that example.

But I've not heard him say C before. That's pretty interesting for this president to acknowledge any room for growth, shall we say. KING: He's normally not so tough on himself. That's right.

STEVE INSKEEP, NPR: Jeff's exactly right, every president does this at some point, says we need to communicate the message better. But the question is, if the issue is improving the jobs picture for a certain segments of Americans, what has he done, what is he going to do? That -- that message hasn't gotten through.

JACKIE KUCINICH, "THE DAILY BEAST": Well, and it went so well when Obama did it. I mean it went completely fine.

No, but I do -- also one of the differences here is, some of these policies aren't even formed yet. They're not even pitched. They're not even -- we don't really know what he's talking about on some of these very critical issues.

KING: Right. Right. He has signed these executive actions. He certainly has dominated the conversation. If you're talking about setting the political agenda, Donald Trump wins, whether it's here in Washington or out in the country, everybody's talking about the agenda. How many of these things will get to the finish line, that we don't know.

One thing we do know tonight, though, we're going to ask, what's the president's tone? How much of it is an inside game, talking to the people there in the room. How much of it is an outside game, talking to people watching at home. One thing we're pretty certain of is that Democrats already don't like it. Just moments ago, you just heard at the top of the show, the Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi. Well, here's the flip side in the Senate, Chuck Schumer.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: He talks like a populist, but governs like a pro-corporate, pro-elite, hard right ideologue.


KING: What do the Democrats do tonight in the sense that this is President Trump's first big moment. It's a celebration for Republicans of power. They control the White House. They control both chambers. And we'll get to them in a minute. They have a lot of internal party issues to deal with. But what's the challenge for the Democrats?

PARKER: Well, they certainly don't stand and clap with a ton of frequency. But one thing I'm sort of curious about is, Donald Trump is someone who plays to a room and plays to a crowd and he's going into a deeply divided room, which is not unique. That's often how it is when a president goes to address congress.

But I wonder if by the Democrats just sort of not being this cheering, frenetic crowd that he's so used to can kind of affect that, you know, interplay that he needs to elevate a speech.

[12:05:11] KING: Can he get it with the virtual reality, like he's in an airport hangar at a rally? ZELENY: I mean for him it's a small crowd. I mean for most politicians

that's a big room. But for him it's a small crowd in terms of his rallies, speeches and other thing.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: But, look, Democrats are still -- they're in a much different place than they were six weeks or so ago. You know, then we're talking about how Chuck Schumer's going to work with this president. Those things are out the window because of the activists. The left side of this party is leading the leaders, if you will.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: But I do think they still do not want to be obstructionist. I do think they want to find some things to have accomplishments come next year. But what would those be now? I can't think of anything that will be in tonight's speech.

INSKEEP: First I want to know if there's going to be an argument over the size of the crowd tonight's speech. You know, there were more than 500 members of Congress there. It's never happened before.

ZELENY: Right.

INSKEEP: But, second, this creates an opportunity. The presence of the Democrats creates an opportunity because this is a president who, since election night when he did have the one line about governing for all Americans, being president for all Americans, has been seen as passing up opportunity after opportunity after opportunity to reach out to the other side. He's spoken to his base. He's spoken to his supporters. That's been his approach. Now the Democrats will be right in front of him, which does create a theatrical opportunity if he wants it, to talk to them in a different way.

KING: And so how does he do that? Because the White House says this will be uplifting and optimistic. That it will b -- they don't make the connection -- but it won't be as dark and sobering as like American carnage as we heard in the inaugural address. Will the president do that? Is this his moment to reach out to Democrats, or is it a smart political strategy, knowing they're going to say no anyway, to come in and have combat?

KUCINICH: It doesn't seem like he's really made an effort to reach out to Democrats. And at the same time, they're not reaching out to him. Look at even the guests. Members of Congress are allowed to invite a guest to sit in the gallery, which is above where the president speaks. They are people who are on DACA. They are people who are worried about losing their health care. They are immigrants who may have had trouble getting into the country or have had families getting into the country. They are going in with a focus on the issues that they don't like about the president and what the president has pushed. So he's kind of walking -- so at the same time while he's -- it's hard to believe he will really meaningfully reach out to them, they're not really reaching back.

KING: All right, it is a two-way street, the -- say (ph) not liking each other at the moment right now.


KING: It will get overshadowed today because our focus tonight, and even for the rest of this hour, will be mostly on the speech. But how much does this affect the climate in Washington. It's supposed to be bipartisan investigations in both the House and the Senate into this Russian meddling and whether any Trump associates reached out to Russia and had contacts during the campaign. But already, especially on the House side, you have this.


REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), CHAIRMAN, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: There is no evidence that I've been presented of regular contact with anybody within the Trump campaign.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: There's no evidence that's been even received by the committee. We are still in the process of gathering documents, examining documents at the Intelligence Committee offices. We've had no witnesses issued, no subpoenas. It's the beginning of the investigation, not the end.


KING: You have these bipartisan tensions. And the Democrats essentially saying that they see an effort by Republicans to sort of shut this down before it begins. Some of that's politics. Some of that's some missteps maybe by some of the Republicans at the moment. But how does that climate affect the mood in town right now?

PARKER: Well, I think for starters it's not great for the White House because even if they want to be exonerated by these investigations, which they claim they will be, you know, you cannot have that implementora (ph) of sort of partisanship. I mean if they really want to be exonerated, it has to seem like a bipartisan, non-political, non-ideological verdict. And so I think that's something the White House is going to have to work to make sure occurs.

KING: And somebody help me with this. For the second day in a row, George W. Bush, who was largely absent during the eight Obama years, is back now. He's trying to promote an agenda of his to help out military families and veterans, so he's not coming out to criticize President Trump. He's coming out for something that's very important to him. But as he gives those interviews, he's being asked some questions and tells "People" magazine, this.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I'm optimistic about where we'll end up. I mean, yes, I don't like the racism and I don't like the name calling and I don't like the people feeling alienated. Nobody likes that. On the other hand, we've been through these periods before. We've always had a way to come out of it. I'm more optimistic than some.


KING: Doesn't directly criticize President Trump there. Doesn't directly criticize the climate there. But it's just a reminder, as we wait for the president tonight, what a different type of -- that's our last Republican president. This one communicates very differently.

INSKEEP: Yes. A completely different communicator. Very disciplined. And you saw that in the interview with Matt Lauer of NBC. You can see how he was careful to say certain things, not say other things. Doesn't directly criticize the president. Does speaks up for the important of the media in a democracy. And then brings up on his own Vladimir Putin.

KING: Right.

INSKEEP Just as an aside. By the way, just let me mention the elephant in the room.

KING: It just popped into his head.

INSKEEP: (INAUDIBLE) to bring up Vladimir Putin. It was a rather effective interview, just speaking in terms of --

KING: Right.

INSKEEP: Getting a message across.

ZELENY: I mean, boy, a long ways from compassionate conservatism. When that president gave his first speed to a joint session of conference in February of 2001 -- I went back and read the news accounts of that this morning --

[12:10:04] KING: Right.

ZELENY: He did reach out and extend a hand. Of course, the country was very divided then at that moment, too.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: You know on the heel of a recount and things.

But another thing that has sort of -- you know, his presidency gave rise to the Tea Party through spending and other things.

KING: Right.

ZELENY: So as this president stands up there and gives his list of proposals, there are many people in the room saying, how are we going to pay for this, what are we going to do about this?


KING: Right.

ZELENY: So that is the thing that won't be mentioned by the president tonight. But, boy, that is -- you know, yet one more example of where the rubber meeting the road here of governing versus campaigning.

KING: And we'll deal with some of those questions, go back in history a little bit as we go ahead. But up next, the divide seems to be growing among the GOP when it comes to Obamacare and the budget. Will the president's speech tonight bridge that gap or widen the internal Republican family feuds?


KING: Welcome back.

There are two big audiences for the president tonight, the lawmakers listening in the Capitol, and the American people watching at home. Let's focus on the inside game for a moment. Yes, Republicans control both the White House and both chambers of Congress, but one of the president's urgent challenges tonight is to manage and shape crackling internal party feuds that threaten his first year agenda. Health care is just one. A growing list of House conservatives are raising doubts about their leadership's replacement plan, saying it leaves too much power in Washington and too much to chance.

[12:15:20] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. STEVE KING (R), IOWA: I want a full 100 percent repeal of Obamacare. I don't want any vestige of it left behind. And I want --


KING: Because -- because, first of all, I don't want to be four, five or 10 years from now watching as a new Democrat majority starts to reconstructed it all over again.


KING: Congressman Steve King of Iowa there. That's the House side. On the Senate side, the GOP frustration spilled out on Twitter last night. Look right there, a series of tweets from Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and Mike Lee pushing for faster action on Obamacare repeal.

So the president speaks tonight. Yes, the Democrats will be in the room, but his biggest immediate challenge, he wants to be a man of action. He wants to get a lot done, not only in his first 100 days, but especially in his first year. The Republicans have this miniature circley (ph) firing squad going on about Obamacare. Now Paul Ryan says he left yesterday's meeting with the president optimistic. The president will largely embrace the House Republican plan. The president does that, is he going to have a Tea Party revolt?

ZELENY: We'll see about that. He could. I mean with some on the right there, but he also has another constituency, that's governs. He's been having a lot of ideas from governors in his ear. They do not want the number of people who are covered now to sort of be rolled back. And Medicaid plays a role in that. So they are a lot of constituencies here. And two top advisers to the president are not convinced of the House plan. Jared Kushner, the son-in-law, who's, you know, arguably the most important -- or one of the most important people -- has questions about the House plan. So, look, I think that that is something that still needs to be worked out here, but Paul Ryan desperately wants the president to embrace the House plan. If not, it's a big problem for that.

KING: It not only delays consensus, it takes that -- that means it takes more time to get it done. And, look, Democrats see this opening. They see the Republicans have a bunch of different ideas. There are more conservative plans, there are more centrist plans. The president's boxed Republicans in to some regard during the campaign saying I want you to keep some of the most popular and most expensive parts of Obamacare. So Chuck Schumer, back here, listen here, he knows the divide among Republicans and he's trying to poke them.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: Who would have thought one month after the fight over the ACA it's the Republicans, not the Democrats, who are in disarray, on defense and pointing at one other like an "Abbott & Costello" show. I predict the discord in their party will grow as Republicans turn to Washington after this last week of angry town halls. I believe the odds are very high we will keep the ACA. It will not be repealed.


KING: Stylistic point first, I think the Democrats will -- might have more luck in their arguments if they didn't have to read everything they say. If you can actually -- if you can actually speak -- you know, if you can't remember the "Abbott & Costello" line, you know, when you're going out there. It's -- and I think it matters in politics. But to this point, the Democrats stoking the divide, Chuck Schumer, it will not be repealed? It can't be true, right? There's no way Republicans can get through 2017 without repealing Obamacare, can they?

KUCINICH: You'd think. You'd think. I mean that's something that they've promised. And that's something that you're hearing from the most conservative members. And they've got to do this.

KING: They voted to do when you had a Democratic president --

KUCINICH: Exactly.

KING: And he had to veto it.

PARKER: Repeatedly.

KING: They sent it to --

ZELENY: Multiple times.

KING: If they don't --

PARKER: Repeatedly.

KUCINICH: But they caught the car. PARKER: Yes, that's a good point.

KUCINICH: And they don't know what to do with it because these plans that they've pushed -- they've pushed forward --

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: You can't -- they don't want to create another entitlement, and that's what you're hearing from the most conservative members is if you get rid of all the things they don't like, then they're left with the things that they like, and as you said, are very, very expensive. So --

KING: Right. And so those tax credited to some conservatives is entitlement.


KING: You're saying that if you get -- here's how you get your health care. Washington will get you the money. That's part of this debate.

A bigger part of this debate is -- and what we're going to learn a lot about tonight is, who is Donald Trump? We still don't know who he is when it comes to the governing Donald Trump. How much of a Republican is he? Paul Ryan, the House speaker, critical to this agenda, who has been very loyal so far, he made his career as a budget hawk saying there's no way we can say we're conservatives unless we deal with Social Security and Medicare and bend the entitlement arc on budgets and Donald Trump say, no, don't touch Social Security and Medicare. Just quickly, before you jump in, Paul Ryan just told reporters at the Capitol, "I've been a big time entitlement reformer for a long time because if you don't start bending the curve in the out years," out years is a budget term, it means down the road, "we are hosed." "We are hosed." But the first budget from --

INSKEEP: That's a quote from the speaker of the House?

KING: That's this quote from the speaker of the House, "we are hosed," because he believes the country goes into the fiscal toilet if you don't deal with this. But his new Republican president says don't touch.

INSKEEP: Which is what he campaigned on. And in the same way that Republicans campaigned on repealing and in some way replacing Obamacare, this president campaigned on not touching Medicare and not harming Social Security.

This president campaigned, cast an image as a kind of classic movie president who pounds his fist on a table and tells people what they have to do for the good of the country. But if he's going to do that in terms of the budget, he has to decide what he actually want in terms of the good of the country, what that actually means, whether he wants a more balanced budget or he wants to kick that down, whether he wants to support any particular Obamacare replacement or not.

[12:20:06] KING: And so does Paul Ryan sacrifice his long-held principles and give the president what he wants, or does he pass a budget that gives the president a lot of what he wants but does start to bend that arc and say, sir, you've got to take this?

PARKER: I mean I think it's an open question. And, you know, the phrase, you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose, what we're seeing now is Donald Trump is now trying to govern in poetry. He basically says, I'm going to increase military spending drastically. I'm not going to touch any entitlements. I'm not going to pay for it by raising taxes. I mean there is a little bit of magical thinking. And while Donald Trump has sort of upended everything every step of the way, it's hard to imagine that -- that he can upend sort of the -- the realities of numbers and budgets and Paul Tyan knows that better than anyone.

KING: Right. And you mentioned military spending. You'd think that would be one area -- yesterday he outlines his budget. He says we're going to cut elsewhere because we're going to increase the military. You think the hawks would be cheering. But, again --


KING: Never mind the Democrats for a minute. He has problems in the Republican family. John McCain says it's not enough. He says, "with the world on fire, America cannot secure peace through strength with just 3 percent more than President Obama's budget." Now, the White House says it's a 10 percent increase. But from the document the Obama administration gave last year, they wanted in this year to raise it so much. So McCain's saying, come on, you're just giving us pennies on top of Obama. You're essentially saying Trump's weak.

INSKEEP: You also have military people, former military people, hawks saying, why are you cutting the State Department?


INSKEEP: Why are you cutting the other elements of national power?

KING: Right.

INSKEEP: Because it doesn't actually save that much money and it costs a lot of influence.

KING: And so we shall see what the president says tonight about get -- the governing part is very hard. We say it flippantly sometimes, but he's new to this. It's going to be really interesting to see how he addresses his family feud first. Then there's other questions. And we'll get to those next. The challenge of selling a polarizing country and how President Trump stacks up in the court of public opinion.


[12:25:56] KING: Welcome back.

Tonight is not officially a "State of the Union" address because President Trump wasn't in office last year, but the speech is a golden opportunity relished by new presidents. So how does this president, President Trump, stack up in recent history? Let's take a look. He has by far a lower approval rating of the six most recent presidents. Ronald Reagan at 55 percent, George H.W. Bush, 51, Bill Clinton, 51, George W. Bush, 62, President Obama at 59 percent when he relished this opportunity in his first term. Donald Trump at 44 percent. So at a disadvantage when it comes to that.

Here's one Trump advantage, though, going into tonight. Remember when President Obama started, unemployment was 8.3 percent, heading up to 10 percent. A little higher. Donald Trump does start with a good economy. That's a good thing for a president. One other thing to think of, when the president talks tonight, his agenda, a lot of Democrats on the coast, this is the House map, don't like it. But when he talks about immigration, security, it plays well in red America. That's very important to this president, (INAUDIBLE) to the people who got him here.

As we prepare for tonight's speech, let's take a little trip down memory lane.


BILL CLINTON, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: By the year 2000, almost 20 percent of our income will be in health care. Our families will never be secure. Our businesses will never be strong and our government will never again be fully solvent until we tackle the health care crisis. We must do it this year.

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: I hope you'll join me in standing firmly on the side of the people. You see, the growing surplus exists because taxes are too high and government is charging more than it needs. The people of America have been overcharged, and on their behalf, I'm here asking for a refund.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: While our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken, but we are living through difficult and uncertain times. Tonight, I want every American to know this, we will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.


KING: And it's interesting to go back. A, some issues never leave us. Bill Clinton talking about health care as an urgent challenge, both from a budget perspective and from a societal perspective. But -- as you watch it, this is a new president's view. This is an opportunity to sort of set the stage, set the terms of the debate. Yes, the inaugural speech gets a lot of play, but this is a big opportunity to talk more specifically. And so I guess back to the question, this president tonight, what's the challenge -- the biggest challenge?

PARKER: Well, first one thing that's been fascinating is Republicans on Capitol Hill are sort of desperate for specifics from this president because they really don't know where he stands. You even have this situation where he says one thing, his cabinet officials or his vice president say something slightly difference. And I think the challenge or what they want from him are specifics, but what we're hearing from his aides is it's not going to be a bunch of specifics. It's not going to be Bill Clinton chalk full of details and the doughnut hole and the bear claw, right? I mean it's going to be sort of Trump top line messaging, which is good for his base and it allows him not to get bogged down, but that's not what lawmakers want to hear.

KING: You can't do that to me. You said doughnut hole and bear claw and (INAUDIBLE) just popped into my head.

KUCINICH: But I do think he needs to provide guidance and a little bit of focus to Republicans --

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: And give them something to sell. The master salesman needs to make a pitch and he needs to give his people something to talk about, a cohesive message. Because right now it's been sort of scatter shot depending on what he says that day or, you know, whatever's in the news that day. He just really hasn't given them something to sell.

KING: And then he's going to say that he wants to make American safer and he wants to say that there's -- we have a border crisis. Some people disagree with that. He wants to say we have a security crisis, both from our southern border and from terrorists abroad. And he wants to say he wants to reeve up the economy and get going.

As you jump into the conversation, I just want to put up on the screen, his first year agenda is pretty ambitious and he signed a lot of actions and had a lot of events about this, but he can't get this done without help from Congress. Will they build a wall along the U.S./Mexico border? Take two of the travel ban we're told will come out tomorrow. How does that one play out? Repealing and replacing Obamacare we talked about. He wants to roll back regulations. He wants tax reform. That requires Congress. Infrastructure, we are told, will not be in the first Trump budget some people in the White House are saying, the money for that. That's interesting. Increasing military spending, an America first economy of rewriting trade relationships around the world.

[12:30:05] It's complicated stuff and yet the Republicans want some help. But this president also wants to -- this is a chance to convince people 40 days in, when he knows a lot of the country's not so sure about him.