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INSIDE POLITICS

Testing Trump's Popularity; Voters Deciding Georgia Race; Senate Looks for Obstruction; Mueller Meets with Senate; Cruz on Russia Probe; Senators Gather for Weekly Strategy Lunch. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired June 20, 2017 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:13] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us.

Another very busy day in politics. Senators holding their weekly strategy lunch this hour. And as Democrats explain about a secret process, Republicans say they could be just a day or two away from finally producing their version of replacing Obamacare.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: I've just got to say, this is the least transparent process for a major piece of legislation I have seen in my 24 years in the Senate.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Plus, urgent calls to retaliate against North Korea after the death of a 22-year-old American who was detained for nearly a year and a half.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a total disgrace what happened to Otto. That should never ever be allowed to happen. And, frankly, if he were brought home sooner, I think the result would have been a lot different.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But we begin this day discuss a big race in the Atlanta suburbs. On this day, ground zero, in American politics. It is special election day. Democrats have a chance to win a House seat held by Republicans since the Carter administration. Republicans believe they can squeak out a win, but if they lose in a district like this, it will be viewed as evidence of a major Trump drag that could carry over into the 2018 midterms.

Trump's health secretary, Tom Price, won this district two years ago with 60 percent of the vote. The president, though, just barely beat Hillary Clinton in the direct. It is highly educated. It is one of those suburban Republican districts where the president has trouble, they believe there could be a Trump drag tonight. Republicans think they're going to squeak this out, but if they don't, look for big fallout here in Washington tomorrow. It's a race with national implications. The candidates, though, have tried to say this is about the sixth district. The Democrat is Jon Ossoff, the Republican, Karen Handel, both campaigning to the end.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KAREN HANDEL (R), GEORGIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: They are not interested in Hollywood and California coming in and buying this seat and they are very concerned about an individual who does not even live in this district. For me, the voters in the six, they know me and they trust me and that's why I feel really good about today.

JON OSSOFF (D), GEORGIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: The contrast in this district is between a career politician, my opponent Karen Handel, who's notorious for cutting off funding for lifesaving breast screenings at Planned Parenthood, or a fresh voice who wants to work across the aisle to get things done and grow our local economy, work to make health care more accessible and affordable for women and folks with pre-existing conditions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You see the two candidates there.

With us to share their reporting and their insights, Carol Lee of "The Wall Street Journal," Perry Bacon of FiveThirtyEight, NPR's Steve Inskeep, and Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast."

The polls close at 7 p.m. Eastern Time in Georgia's sixth congressional district. Hope you'll stay with us here at CNN. We'll count them. And you can be certain even though it is just one special election and just one of 435 House seats, the results will have a major impact on the mood here in Washington. President Trump woke up to this today, a new CBS News poll showing his job approval rating is down to 36 percent. He knows he will be blamed if Republicans loose and he's trying to rally the base.

Here's one tweet, "Karen Handel for Congress. She will fight for lower taxes, great health care, strong security, a hard-worker who will never give up. Vote today." That from the president. Here's the flip side from the president. "Democrat Jon Ossoff, who wants to raise your taxes to the highest level and is weak on crime and security doesn't even live in the district."

Welcome to the conversation. So we're sitting in Washington. This race plays out today. It's reliably red territory. It's one of 435 seats. But we do know -- we don't know who's going to win, but we do know whatever happens Washington will overreact and take this as a -- and take this --

JACKIE KUCINICH, "THE DAILY BEAST": This Washington?

KING: This Washington, yes, and take this as a national message. Let's start with the Republicans because they've tried to stay loyal to this president. This president makes them nervous. His poll numbers make them more nervous. If they lose his seat they carried two years ago with 60 percent of the vote that they've held since the Carter administration, they are going to see that as big trouble for 2018.

CAROL LEE, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Yes, and not just 2018, but you'll see a cascading effect of sorts on -- in terms of whether Republicans are willing to get in line with this president on his policy agenda and his legislative agenda. And that then in turn would impact how the Republicans fair in 2018. So it's -- it's pretty widespread for Republicans. As we all know, they get very nervous when they start losing races. And so it's not just a year from -- a year and a half from now, but it's, you know, this month, this week what Republicans are trying to do on health care (INAUDIBLE) --

KING: And when you mention this month, this week -- I don't mean to jump in -- when you mention this month, this week, there's other big decisions here. Number one, there would be -- if -- let's assume the Senate can pass a health care bill, then can they reconcile it with the House. Can they get together? This will impact that, the courage of Republicans to do things, how they read the polls. Then you move to tax reform and infrastructure.

But also some big decisions coming up soon. A lot of Republican incumbents have to decide whether to run for re-election and whether they would take this as a signal not. A lot of Democrats out there, mayors and city councilmen and state legislatures have to decide whether to take a risk and run for Congress in Republican districts. They will read the results here and say, hmm, should I do this.

[12:05:08] STEVE INSKEEP, NPR: Really smart, John. I mean you identified a couple of ways that this is meaningful, even though it's only one of 435 seats. There's a question of morale on the Republican side, also on the Democratic side. All the donors who donated tens of millions of dollars for this race, do they get anything for that?

And there's also a question more broadly of whether Democrats can compete in more conservative districts. And Trump aside, and Trump's unpopularity aside across the country, can they find a message that works on issues like immigration, which Trump has used very strongly. Ossoff, in Georgia, it's interesting, when he's talked about immigration, he's touched a little bit on it in what sounds like Republican terms, at least saying in some of his campaign literature that I wanted a policy that protects American citizens, protects their security, protects their jobs, which is a Trumpian way to talk about immigration.

KING: Right. And Democrats cannot win the House back if they can't compete in districts like this one next year.

INSKEEP: Exactly.

KING: If you look at the map, it's just impossible, unless you can win places like this.

KUCINICH: Suburban, wealthy, highly educated, that -- that is this -- that's the large part of this district. And if their -- if they end up pulling this off, you can bet this -- they're not going to look at this as a one off. They're going to take this playbook and try to apply it in other places. Now, places where they won't have the funding that they have in this

current race.

KING: Fifty plus million dollars.

KUCINICH: Yes.

KING: That's nuts.

KUCINICH: That's a lot. That's for -- the most expensive House seat.

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: So that also will be something that could come out of this. If they lose, back to the drawing board.

KING: Right. Well, if the Democrats lose this seat, it's going to be really fascinating to see what happens here because they lost Kansas, they lost Montana. Those were two seats that really, if you look at the demographics of the district, they had very little reason to think they could win. But the base is fired up because of their anti-Trump energy. So we're talking a lot about what happens if the Republican losses and how that will cause a panic across the Republican Party. If the Democrats can't win a race where the numbers show they have a chance, what happens then?

PRERY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: Right. There are 23 districts that Hillary won where there's a Republican congressman. So those are the top -- top ones. But this one is very close to this. Hillary won -- Trump won officially by 1.5 points. So it's very close. A lot of college-educated people. This is the kind of district the Democrats really need to win some like this. It's in the suburbs. It's in a wealthy area. So it would be a -- I think you'd have a lot of Democratic (INAUDIBLE) Trump is very unpopular. That said (ph), this is the kind of race they want to win. It will be a symbol for other people who want -- who want to think about running. I should definitely run. This is the right time to run.

KING: If -- we talk about the panic on the Republican side if they lose this seat. There will be an equal panic, I think, on the Democrat's side if they don't. To the point you made about the president and you made, this is not good territory for Trump. This is one of the districts where he just barely eked it out. Mitt Romney got 60 percent of the vote there in 2012. Donald Trump gets 46 in 2016. This is not a pro-Trump Republican base. So how much does this factor in? If you look deeper in the CBS poll and you look at the president's approval rating, among Republican voters, 72 percent now approve of the president's job performance. That's a high number, but it's down 11 points if you look at -- among Republicans, he's down 11 points since April. So you have not only Democrat energy anti-Trump, but now have you Republicans sort of eh about Trump. The combination of those two things and what the Democrats hope carries over into next year, and tonight's a big test at least whether it exists today.

BACON: Right, one thing we think about -- we should think about is that Trump -- all Trump voters are not the same. You have a group that is pretty intensely supportive behind him. And a lot of our polling has showed -- at last there's a group called -- we call reluctant Trump voters, who are weary of him, don't like the health care bill, like other things he's done. Seventy-two percent is not a great number. A lot of times presidents, like Obama, (INAUDIBLE) about 90 percent among Democrats. Seventy-two suggests at this point so early --

LEE: Particularly at this point in the presidency.

BACON: Being this low among your own party is actually not high and not a good sign.

KING: If you're -- if you're counting at home -- if you're counting at home, it was five months ago today Donald Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States.

INSKEEP: Right. And five months later, still talking about Hillary Clinton any chance that he gets because they know in the White House you can sell that message to Republicans better than you can sell Donald Trump being great.

KUCINICH: And voters are just getting, from what I -- the conversations I've had, they're tired of the chaos. They're tired -- they want them to get something done. And because of the short of shiny object syndrome that we've seen or just the shiny Russia syndrome that we've seen, not necessarily the Russia issue, but the fact that it's detracting from all the other things the president promised to do is starting to be a problem. It's sort of -- you hear a lot of, enough already, just get stuff done.

KING: Right. And I think another big question here is, one, the biggest question is, is there a Trump drag in a place where he was already unpopular? Is there a deeper Trump drag if Republican lost this seat, again, they've held since the Carter administration?

But it's also a great test case. Donald Trump is president because the voters in 2016 were looking for something different. They were willing to go with an outsider, someone who never held political office before. If you look at these two candidates, Jon Ossoff, there you go, he's 30 years old. This is his first run for public office. You know, he was a former House staffer. A little bit of experience in Washington. But he's been a filmmaker. He grew up in the district. Republicans have tried to make a big deal of the fact that he lives with his girlfriend in a neighboring distinct right now. But not a politician.

If you look at Karen Handel, former Georgia secretary of state, was the Fulton County commissioner, one of the big -- there's three big counties in this district. That's one of the big ones there. She ran for governor. She ran for Senate. If you -- so this is, again, sort of career politician. And she has stressed -- she has not run from it to her credit, because you can't -- she has said, I have the experience. I know how government works. I can get things done. He has said, send a fresh face, the career politicians are the ones screwing everything up. This is, in some ways, you know, Ossoff is Trumping this race. Hey, sorry, sir, but is he. [12:10:23] KUCINICH: Right.

INSKEEP: Or Emmanuel Macron.

KING: Right, or Emmanuel -- fine, yes.

BACON: Yes, he's really good (INAUDIBLE).

LEE: This is a -- this is the match-up that we've seen in cycle after cycle and -- and we've continued to see where the outsider tends to do better. And that's, you know, it's an interesting -- it's flipping the script a little bit.

KING: If you are a Republican incumbent and you're getting tired of the child care center known as Washington, D.C., and you're tired of taking votes -- you know, if you don't like this president, you have issues with this president, or you're just thinking it's time to do something else and somebody as well tested, as well experienced in politics as Karen Handel loses a race like this to a newcomer, are you going to think twice about running for re-election?

INSKEEP: Child care center? Wouldn't that imply that there's someone taking care of the children?

KING: Right. I might get -- I might get sued by a child care center.

INSKEEP: We'll see. We'll see. But, of course, Handel looks like the incumbent because the president is a Republican and such a high- profile president.

BACON: I'll be curious if Ossoff wins if Democrats recruit more people like him. You know, the Bernie Sanders wing is very loud and very excited. They're not that excited about Ossoff's politics. He says I'm not protecting (INAUDIBLE). He's not been very -- he's not very liberal and not very popular. So I'd be curious if Ossoff, whether you see more candidates like him who are sort of outsider-ish, moderate, a little bit Macron, a little bit like Obama in 2007, kind of vague, I'm from the future, I'm for -- I'm young, I'm from new things. If that kind of candidate can do well, that will be interesting to see going forward as well.

KING: But if he wins, I think you're going to see more Democratic primaries.

BACON: Yes.

KING: They won't just be recruiting one candidate to run. You'll have lots of candidates. And that tends to be good for both parties. Get more candidates in the race, you have experience (ph).

Everybody sit tight. Again, we'll count the votes tonight. They close at 7:00 in Georgia.

Ahead, a big day in the Senate Obamacare repeal debate.

But next, another investigation of the Trump administration. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:16:24] KING: Welcome back.

The list of investigations is growing again. Senate judiciary committee leaders are meeting with the special counsel, Robert Mueller, tomorrow. And CNN's Manu Raju reports the committee is about to launch a review of whether there has been any improper meddling with the FBI's investigation into Russian election meddling. Democrats on the committee say those questions will include whether President Trump himself interfered and include the circumstances that led him to fire the FBI director, James Comey.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: It's political interference with an ongoing investigation. Regardless of what the president's lawyer may say could make the president a target, a subject, a person of interest. And so our hearing will very much involve potential obstruction of justice in the firing of Comey and other actions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, the president, as you well know, calls all these investigations witch hunts. Whether you've seen them as legitimate or not, there is zero debate about the toll on the Trump White House. As we noted last bloc, the president's approval rating is dismal, 36 percent in that new CBS poll. And his handling of the Russian investigation is also getting poor reviews. You see the numbers right there. Nearly two-thirds of Americans disapprove. Only 28 percent approve. So whether you think these are witch hunts or urgent, necessary inquiries, there is no question about the cloud they've cast over the president. What does it tell us -- and the president calls them witch hunts. He calls them partisan. The Senate Judiciary Committee is chaired by a Republican, just like the Senate Intelligence Committee is chaired by a Republican, just like the House Intelligence Committee is chaired by a Republican. Now, we don't know how far the Senate Judiciary Committee investigation is going to go, whether it's just a hearing or two on the question of this, but it's still Republicans expanding the review of this president's conduct.

INSKEEP: One noteworthy thing that I've noticed when talking with rank and file House Republicans, people you might expect to support the president, they don't use the phrase "witch hunt." I'm not saying it's universal. Maybe there's one I'm not thinking of. They don't use the phrase "witch hunt." They say, let's follow this investigation where it leads.

Even if they sort of defend the president by going on to say, maybe he had inappropriate contacts with intelligence officials because he's new to this and doesn't really know what he's doing, even when some say that, they will say, let's let the investigation go where it leads. And you have to assume that among other things they are aware of what the public thinks about this and that majorities of the public think that this is a serious matter that needs to be investigated. LEE: I think part of the reason that the Republicans are able to do

that versus the president is because the president just takes this so personally. And, you know, there are rather looking at this more broadly as, you know, Russia interfered in our democratic process. That's a very serious issue. We need to get to the bottom of that. We need to look at every aspect of that. And the president just sees the whole. He can't separate the two. He just sees the whole thing as personal and politically motivated and targeted at him and aimed at undermining him.

KING: Right. And one of the questions I always ask is, should people be talking about this the way they talked about this, whether they're Democrats or Republicans, if they're on the committee and if they see the information. We're in the transparency business. We want them to talk to us. Yes, we want them to leak to us. However, when you see things like this, this is Senator Dianne Feinstein, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, on whether the committee is going to look into obstruction of justice. "I think whether it includes it or not, people look for it. That will be the result. You look at various pieces of information. You see something and say, whoa."

Now, she's a Democrat. She's also not known as a, you know, reckless partisan, if you will, (INAUDIBLE) partisan. But when you say something like that, you are raising the stakes, are you not, I think to the point you're making about the Republicans who aren't willing to defend the president, they want these things to proceed expeditiously, find out the facts, issue a report, can we please close this book and move on.

INSKEEP: Well, look, she's also stating the obvious. When newspaper reports suggested that the special counsel was looking into obstruction of justice, one response to that was, well, of course, how you can you not given what's out there in the public. You at least have to ask the question, which doesn't presuppose the answer.

[12:20:06] KUCINICH: And in some ways the president's sort of forcing their hand because -- Republicans and Democrats on this, not that Democrats rely -- require a lot of forcing in this whole thing. But when you have the president saying a letter from the deputy attorney general saying that Comey was fired for one reason and then the president saying, no, I fired him because of the Russia investigation, I'm paraphrasing of course, that does raise questions. And those questions -- not saying that's an obstruction of justice cause or anything like that at this point, but that does raise more questions than it answers.

BACON: But, John, the point you raise is (INAUDIBLE) Republicans. You've showed Feinstein. But Charles Grassley was (INAUDIBLE) Judiciary Committee, that's who make things go. The biggest -- what I thought we've seen in a long time was, 97 had 2 last week when the Republicans in the Senate said Trump's talking about lifting sanctions against Russia. It was a 97-2 vote saying you have to go through us first to do that. I think that tells you that the members themselves, the Republicans, are not necessarily criticizing him on TV or in public, but they're taking actions that suggest that they are nervous about him, particularly about Russia. KING: Which is why -- forgive me -- which is why I find the great

irony in that the -- you met -- most Republicans say, let's get to the facts here. I hope -- I don't think the president did anything wrong, but let's find out. Lt's keep going. There are some out there who want to immediately just say, this is all a partisan circus. It's just quite ironic to me that one of them leading that charge is Ted Cruz, who during the campaign, of course, had a number of let's say interesting interactions with the president, some things that if I were Ted Cruz I would find unforgivable. But --

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TED CRUZ (R), JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Listen, this is all a political circus at this point. Democrats and sadly much of the liberal media are using this as an excuse just to attack the president. They want this president to fail. They want the administration to fail.

When you're in Washington, D.C., the only question any reporter ever wants to ask you about is about Russia, is about impeachment, is about attack the president. When I go home to Texas, I travel the state. I answer questions from people across the state. Nobody asks about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BACON: This is not true. People ask me everywhere I go about what's happening with Russia. Everybody, I'm sure, (INAUDIBLE). Any -- members of Congress I talk to say Russia comes up all the time.

LEE: Of course it does. Not only here, like anywhere you go in the world. This is what everybody's looking at. I mean that's -- but that's a remarkable turnaround for Senator Cruz, I just have to say. And, you know, the cynical reporter in us might wonder what's motivating him in that --

KUCINICH: Right.

LEE: That to be so positive and so defensive of the president, because you didn't see a lot of Republicans going that far.

KING: The depth of the president's support among Republicans in Texas, maybe, just maybe.

INSKEEP: I had a -- I had a conversation with one of Cruz's constituents a few days ago, someone who vote for Trump, who began by saying, I stopped paying attention to the news. It's too depressing. And then vented for about 15 minutes on issue after issue after issue that he was obviously following closely and one of them was the Russia investigation about which he said, I have no idea what to make of this anymore.

KING: Right. I was in Philadelphia last week for a baseball game. It wasn't a great reporting trip, but I went to watch my Red Sox lose and --

BACON: One quick point. KING: And in south Philly, a lot of Trump voters, you know, blue

collar Trump voters who are saying, you can get him off -- how do you get him off Twitter? Can you get him off Twitter? Can you get him to stop talking about this stuff?

BACON: Ys.

KING: So they're talk about it in different ways, maybe, but they're talking about it.

BACON: Two people that were Richard Nixon till the very end, Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush. So Ted Cruz may be making the right choice in thinking about his future.

KUCINICH: Ted Cruz wants to run for president?

BACON: I'm suggesting he still might want to be president. This might be a good route for that. I'm, yes, hinting that that, yes.

KING: Politics in Washington. Can't believe it.

All right, everybody, sit tight.

A big one next. Is the secret Senate health care bill almost ready to be revealed?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:27:30] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: We have not had one hearing, not one open discussion, and I should think that every Republican should be embarrassed by this. And I know that many of them are embarrassed about it.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: People are literally in tears on the phone. They are scared and they are angry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That was last night on the floor of the United States Senate. Democrats airing they're displeasure with Republicans for crafting a big health care bill behind closed doors.

This is Tuesday, the day in the week when senators in both parties gather separately for weekly strategy lunches. So we could soon know if that secret Republican health process will result in an actual piece of legislation that can be read and debated.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is live on Capitol Hill for us right now.

Phil, the senators meet today. I saw one senator on TV this morning say, we might actually have a bill to look at by Thursday. Is that realistic?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I think that's the goal right now. Look, if you talk to senior GOP aides, they acknowledge that they need a proposal. They actually have to come to an agreement on these kind of several, major outstanding issues within the next 24 to 48 hours. That would give them time to send a proposal to the Congressional Budget Office, get that scored at some point next week. Senators would likely get a final proposal or a final draft on Thursday of this week. And in an ideal scenario and if all works according to plan, get that CBO score and vote by Thursday of next week. That, again, John, is the ideal scenario.

But I think kind of one of the road blocks here, if you will, is, if you look at the issues that still haven't been agreed upon, and it's worth noting, inside the Republican conference, when it comes to health care, they are ideologically very split. There's just not 52 senators in their conference who agree on the basic tents of serious issues, like Medicare expansion or how far to cut back on the Obama regulations or the structure of the tax credit. And until they make decisions on those, there will be no final proposal. That's what the lunch meeting today is supposed to be about. That's what another meeting tomorrow at lunch is supposed to be about, try and come to an agreement. The Senate leadership, John, basically saying, at some point this week, you've had enough time, you've had plenty of meetings behind the scenes, now it's time to come to an agreement. We'll see if they actually get there.

KING: Phil Mattingly live on Capitol Hill.

Phil, watch the senators when they come out of that lunch. We'll check back if there's any news out of that.

[12:29:41] Phil makes a very important point about the, you need 50 votes, plus Mike Pence to break it, and they have the same issues they had in the House that just -- it's hard to get a conservative like Ted Cruz or Mike Lee or Rand Paul on the same page with a Susan Collins or a Lisa Murkowski. So it's hard on the policy part of it. Until we actually get a bill -- and when we get a bill, I promise you, we'll talk about what's in it, how many people would get kicked off health insurance, how much are they going to spend on Medicaid. Until we get that, well, since it's behind closed doors, it's become about the theater. And Phil mentioned the CBO. I just want to show a little clip of video here.