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Republicans Scramble to Lock in Votes on Tax Plan; Trump Judicial Nominee Fumbles Basic Legal Questions; Tillerson: Free Press is Vital in Myanmar; Tillerson: All Options on the Table for North Korea. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired December 15, 2017 - 12:30   ET


[12:30:00] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And Senator Rob Portman also came out of signing the conference report just a short while ago. He said he believe people that had problems with the child tax credit should be happy with where things are. John, there's no question about it.

People think they're in the right place right now but we're still waiting for a firm answer from Senator Rubio.

JOHN KING, CNN HOST: Still waiting for a firm answer. So, when? You say 500 and plus pages of policy we'll see later tonight. Let's get to the process.

When will we actually see a vote? And am I correct that they cannot move a semi colon now in this final report unless they're prepared to go back and forth again.

MATTINGLY: That's exactly right. They're done and I think that's why they're kind of in a high wire act right now and why they need to ensure that this change for Senator Rubio actually gets to Senator Rubio.

In terms of the timeline right now, look, things have been fluid. Obviously we don't know there been two senators that have missed votes this week because of illness. Senator John McCain and Senator Thad Cochran.

That (INAUDIBLE) have role in this but there's also procedurally what Democrats can do to throw roadblocks in the way. And because of that, depending on which chamber you start with which could actually and limit what Democrats can do.

At this third time, GOP leaders saying they want to start in the House. Likely on Tuesday after the House moves through, then the Senate would take it up vote as soon as Tuesday night potentially Wednesday then send it to the president's desk. But that has remain fluid depending on attendance issues, depending on procedural issues. But right now the plan is still to have something on President Trump's desk by Wednesday of week, John.

KING: We'll keep tracking in, and ladies and gentlemen watching at home, he meant that. He is actually excited to read all 500-plus pages later. That's why we have Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill. Phil, thanks so much.

Let's bring it back here. He is, I'm honest about that. He's going to love every last page about (INAUDIBLE).

MARGARET TALEV, BLOOMBERG: If someone is reading that, yes.

KING: Before we start the conversation, let's listen to the president this morning on his way out. This is -- you're nearing the end of his first year in office. ObamaCare repeal is not going to happen. His infrastructure plan, they might propose it next year, good luck. You know, midterm election year when you need Democratic supports.

So this is it for the president. The big signature domestic achievement, he wants it next week. Here's his words before he went off to the FBI Academy.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have seen it, I think it's going to do very, very well. I think that we are going to be in a position to pass something as early as next week which will be monumental. I know them very well, I know how they feel. These are great people and they want to see it done and they want to see it done properly.

Child tax credit just so you understand, the Democrats have done nothing in terms of children, in terms of child tax credit. We're putting in a tremendous child tax credit and is increasing on a daily basis.


KING: I think it remains a giant question as to assuming they get this in the finish line. And assuming the president signs it before Christmas as to whether the policy actually helps Republicans or not in the midterm election year.

But, after all the dysfunction we have seen for the past 10, 11 months, it does appear that all Republican in Washington, the president, and both chambers of Congress were actually going to do a signature domestic initiative, right?

It seems certainly that way. I mean -- and when it comes to Senator Rubio, he clearly got the changes a little bit closer to what he wants. On Twitter this morning, he was saying, he is looking for meaningful changes. We'll see if this is enough to be meaningful.

SEUNG MIN KIM, POLITICO: But a lot of senior senators I talked to last night and some aides don't believe he will actually vote against this bill at the end of the day. Aside from the tax credit, there's a lot in the bill that Rubio himself like. And it would just be difficult for him to vote against that.

What I'm really watching are the absences issues. We haven't heard when Senator McCain will be able to return back to the capital for a vote. And Senator Thad Cochran, his office says he is able to come back, he's just recovering for an out patient procedure. And we're also still watching Susan Collins. She was not happy that the top rate for individual earners --

KING: I need to interrupt you unfortunately. Sorry. We need to get to the United Nations Security Council. Rex Tillerson is speaking, the Secretary of State.

REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: -- well over a decade now. The International Community condemns North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear arsenal and we will never accept a nuclear North Korea. The DPRK's unlawful acts cannot be ignored nor can it be explained away. The DPRK must be held accountable for its actions.

And in that regard, any notion that the source of tensions on the peninsula are the fault of no one party. There is but one party that has carried out illegal detonation of nuclear devices. There is but one party that continues to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. Overflying another sovereign nation, Japan, frightening several aviation security because these launches are undertaken with no notification.

There is but one party that has been targeted with punishment and penalties through the most vigorous regime sanction ever enacted and that is the Kim regime and North Korea. They alone are responsible for these tensions, they alone must take responsibility for these tensions, and they alone can solve these tensions.

[12:35:04] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I thank His Excellency Mr. Tillerson for his statement. I shall not make concluding remarks in my capacity as the minister of foreign affairs.

KING: All right, you're listening there as the secretary of state of the United States Rex Tillerson delivering (INAUDIBLE) to the United Nations Security Council.

Let's talk about we just heard there. A very tough line from Secretary Tillerson. Essentially some in that room and some around the world including the regime in Pyongyang have said it's President Trump who's responsible for the tensions because of his tweets, because of the rock

Now Secretary Tillerson making it clear there a one party. He says there's one party responsible for this, there's one party testing missiles. There's one party that had a nuclear test. There's one party that launched missiles over its neighbors.

And he also said that we will never accept a nuclear North Korea which is been one of the questions that is always been official U.S. Government policy. One of the questions has been, if you do get into a negotiation, can at least the wink-nod be that we just want to contain, that we want to an agreement that you'll stop testing, that you won't be proliferating these missiles. And we won't make a big stake at what you already have.

TALEV: That's not a very much like a red line. And I know all administrations are wary of red lines. President Trump has criticized President Obama for the one red line that really got them into trouble with Syria. That we're all still looking throughout foreign policy implications.

But what I read from that signal is what Lindsey Graham is talking about. And you can Lindsey Graham is a war hawk, you can say what's Lindsey Graham doing, why is he trying to work stuff up.

I'm not sure he is trying to work stuff up. I think he may be trying to signal very clearly what signals you're getting from the White House when he talks to the president and other officials.

KING: Right. To put it out there for people of this country. Number one, the American -- if you're getting closer to the potential military effort you need to bring American people along.

Number two to your point, if there is some distance around the world, who we should listen too here. Lindsey Graham in a way trying to talk to the global community. I'm spending a lot of time with the president right now. This is where I see his thinking that he needs this resolve and he's getting frustrated because they continue to say the strategic patience is over, and North Korea keeps launching missiles. At some point, your credibility is in question.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No doubt, and I think -- I mean, as you said before via one party and again, that's Secretary Tillerson saying, and they alone are responsible. So to me -- I mean, in that moment right there, the secretary of state is on the same page with the White House, you know.

So, he was (INAUDIBLE) to speak. Their personal relationship is still a bit unknown. We don't know (INAUDIBLE).

But I think that is central here. That is critical or how long will the secretary of state be in his job.

Maybe longer than people think. I mean, there been rumors around this town for a long time he wouldn't last this long. I'm not so sure that he is much of a short time ritual thing.

KING: Well, (INAUDIBLE) he would be pushed out. We'll see what that means. We had this competing back and forth who would stay.

ZELENY: Maybe another couple more seasons and then we'll see.

KING: We shall see, and again, we may still hear again from Secretary Tillerson while he's at the United Nations. You just saw him there in the Security Council, he's supposed to meet with reporters a bit later. We'll keep our eyes on that.

Up next, a Republican senator grills one of President Trump's judicial picks. Let's just say it didn't go well.


SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Have you ever tried a jury trial?




KENNEDY: Criminal?




KENNEDY: State or federal court?

PETERSEN: I have not.



[12:42:48] KING: Well, talk about a job interview gone wrong. Now, one of President Trump's judicial nominees lighting up the internet.

On Wednesday, the same day the White House announced they're not be moving forward with two other controversial judicial picks, Republican John Kennedy, listen here, asking a series of basic legal questions to a man who's currently a commission on the Federal Election Commission, and he's up for a federal district court seat.

Had to appear, Democratic Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (INAUDIBLE) who (INAUDIBLE) for a good political reason flagged the exchange as a much watch, summing it up with just two words, hoo-boy.


KENNEDY: Have you ever tried a jury trial?

PETERSEN: I have not.



KENNEDY: Criminal?




KENNEDY: State or federal court?

PETERSEN: I have not.

KENNEDY: Do you know what a motion in limine is?

PETERSEN: I would probably not be able to give you a good definition.

KENNEDY: Do you know what the Younger abstention doctrine is?

PETERSEN: I read it, but again --

KENNEDY: How about the Pullman abstention doctrine?


KENNEDY: You will see that a lot in federal court. OK.


KING: OK, umm.

MICHAEL WARREN, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: I'm not having flash backs from a college oral exam.

KING: I mean, it's, you know -- in one way, it's unfair to pick on one person, but this is president says I hire the best people. He has set a record for getting judicial nominees appointed in a first year, but that is a person who is clearly, a, doesn't have the experience for the job, and b, didn't respect the process and at least do some homework and study to be able to give basic answers to basic questions about federal law.

ZELENY: I'm not sure it's anything like but there obviously are many qualified people for these positions. But to me it was like some of the those very hard to watch hearings where someone wants to be an ambassador. You know, ambassadors usually are donors that don't come on big centers.

But this is for the bench. I mean, this usually does not happen in this respect. But I think it does speak to the fact that how quickly they're moving on judges. And that is the one sort of not untold, but not mentioned as much perhaps.

The rapid success of filling the bench has been pretty extraordinary. I don't know how many others like this have gotten through, perhaps no one, but, you know, (INAUDIBLE) much attention (INAUDIBLE).

[12:45:05] KING: And worth nothing, tweeted out by a Democrat senator. But the questioning is by a Republican senator. He's a maverick, he's bit of a maverick. Kennedy, you spent a lot of time with him. But you get the sense there that this is a Republican senator who takes his job seriously who's just looking across the table and say, you know, what are you doing here.

KIM: And he's actually been frustrated for sometime. And was actually questioning of one of the earlier (INAUDIBLE) judges that were confirmed by the Senate pretty easy by Republicans where he has -- where Senator Kennedy had pretty tough questioning with the candidate called John Bush who had some controversial blog posts. He ended up voting for him anyway. But you see those kind of frustrations build from Senator Kennedy. And frankly some others -- Republican senators for sometime. There was pretty memorable gaggle with Senator Kennedy and a couple of us on Capitol Hill a couple of weeks ago where he just started to vent about judicial nominees.

And he said he had raised those concerns to White House Counsel Don Mcgahn. I asked him what's the response from Mcgahn and he said it's like talking into the wind.

KING: Talking into the wind. That's one example. Our CNN's __ unearthed some comments from a gentleman who's now a White House adviser to the Department of Homeland Security. He used to be a talk radio host so maybe something, we'll just say, well, it's talk radio, it doesn't matter.

But here's just one example from Frank Wuco, this December 2012 talking about President Obama. This person not does he with the exception of the color of his skin, not only does he sort of lay out a very false claim on his identification with the Black American experience. He has no idea what it is, but people don't care.

That's one example there. He also hosted a noted birther author on his radio program in which the Department of Homeland Security says you're cherry picking and finding some things he said in a talk radio show. I think that people would say this is a person who speaks like that and invites (INAUDIBLE) belong in a sense of position in the U.S. Government.

WARREN: Well, this is been a big problem for the administration pretty much since day one or even before or during the transition which is that, it is an odd Republican administration. It does not have a lot of friends in what you might call a sort of a broad community of experts and (INAUDIBLE) and people who fill these positions.

Now, they've actually done -- I would say not excluding the couple of folks we talked about today, but they've done pretty well with judicial nominations in finding qualified people because there is this -- the federal society in this sort of large conservative judicial organization that helps find good people and provides them to Republican presidents. It hasn't happen elsewhere.

TALEV: Well, also because there's -- number one, still the expectation of the independent judiciary. And number two, that these are in many cases jobs for life, for a very long periods of time at least.

And so, if you are a -- if you're a conservative lawyer or jurist and you want a chance to join a bench, to some extent, it doesn't matter who the president is. That's a great opportunity for you to do it. And it's part of the pack that a lot of the Republican establishments that's uncomfortable with some other elements of the Trump administration has been the biggest selling point to working together with them. Both that and the fear of a backlash against the party come midterms if they push too hard against the president. But there are some cases that cross a line for some members and this is one of them.

KING: Some cases that cross the line, that's appointment, you have a great piece about turnover in the administration. That's another issue we'll cover as we get through the year.

I just want to bring updates on taxes. This is from Lindsey Graham, he just tweeted this, "We're counting the votes on this tax deal. While I support child tax credits, I do not support the idea of using general revenue to pay for an individual social security contribution. So senators are beginning to read the five print here."

I still don't think Lindsey Graham is going to be a no. (INAUDIBLE) all the time under a little bit of the dancing they do up there on Capitol Hill but we shall see.

Coming up, unless we get big tax news, enrollment is up for ObamaCare sort of.


[12:50:02] TILLERSON: -- our international community. And I think that was clearly expressed by the members of the Security Council today.

We simply cannot continue to accept the progress of North Korea's program. We will maintain the pressure campaign and in fact we undertake efforts to increase the effectiveness of the pressure campaign all through a combination of the sanctioned regime and full implementation in compliance with the sanctioned regime. As well as unilateral actions on the party of many, many countries to send the message to North Korea through diplomatic steps as well as economic steps that we do not accept the pathway you're on.

We hope that this pressure campaign will cause North Korea to alter its course and reexamine whether this truly is going to lead to a more secure -- more security for the regime. And whether it's possible for them to even sustain an economy if they continue the path they're on.

We're going to continue our diplomatic efforts. Those options remain open until other things may foreclose the diplomatic option. And with that, I'll stop there and take a couple of questions, perhaps.


MICHELLE NICHOLS, REUTERS: Thank you Secretary Tillerson. Michelle Nichols from Reuters. We have heard a lot from you this morning about North Korea, I'd like to ask you about Myanmar.

As you're aware, earlier this week, two Reuters journalists were arrested and their whereabouts is unknown. What is the U.S. Government doing to pressure Myanmar for their release. And is the U.S. considering further sanctions on Myanmar over human rights abuses? TILLERSON: Well, our local representatives at the mission in Myanmar at the embassy are expressing our concerns over the detention of individuals, demanding their immediate release. Or information as to the circumstances around their disappearance. And we are continuing to examine the circumstances around all of the events since the August attacks that have led to the enormous migration of people out of Myanmar. And have already identified one individual and we are examining other possible individuals to hold responsible for targeted sanctions from the U.S.

NICHOLS: How important is the free press in Myanmar?

TILLERSON: Well, free press is vital to Myanmar's transition in becoming a viable democracy, and we want Myanmar's democracy to succeed. We know it is a process that they need to work through. This particular crisis is a real test of whether they're going to be able to affect a successful journey to democracy.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Secretary, you previously said that a precondition to talks with North Korea is the regime agreeing to give up its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. On Tuesday, you said that wasn't realistic.

And today, you didn't even mention the issue at all despite it was in your prepared remarks. Does it remain a precondition for the United States? And are you and President Trump on the same page on whether and when to engage in talks?

TILLERSON: The president's policy on North Korea is quite clear and there is no daylight at all between the president's policy and the pursuit of that policy. And the president I think has been clear that we are going to lead this pressure campaign, we're going to unite the international community, and we're going to keep the pressure as much as we can and increase it more possible.

Most recently, the president called President Xi personally and asked him for China to cut the oil supplies off to North Korea to increase this pressure. That is intended to lead to diplomatic talks. In the meantime, the president has been clear militarily, we are going to be prepared should something go wrong and our military is prepared.

With respect to the talks, the pre-con -- we are not going to accept preconditions. You heard others who have called for a freeze for a freeze. We do not accept a freeze for freeze as a precondition to talks. We do not any relaxing of the sanctioned regime as a precondition of talks. We do not accept the resumption of humanitarian assistance as a precondition of talks.

So we are not going to accept preconditions for these talks. But as I indicated in my remarks, our communication channels remain open. North Korea knows they're open. They know where the door is. They know where to walk through that door when they want to talk. Thank you. KING: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson taking a couple of questions after the remarks at the United Nations up in New York City. Very interesting.

And number one, saying there's no daylight, no daylight between his position -- he's implementing the president's policy and the policy set by the president. Number two, he says they're open to conversations with North Korea. He would not say that there are no preconditions trying to turn the phrase saying, there will be no preconditions set on the United States.

You have heard sometimes from China and sometimes others in the world community well, the United States should agree to stop military exercises with South Korea and Japan.

[12:55:01] The United States should perhaps say they're as willing to reduce troop levels on the Korean Peninsula to entice North Korea to come to the table.

Secretary Tillerson is saying, not happening. They are the bad actor, they know how to start negotiations. If they want to have negotiations, walk through the door.

ZELENY: Exactly. So we are not going to accept preconditions. But I think that, again, it sounds like that they are on the same page and this comes after a couple of meetings that he has had with the president this week. And he also said militarily we are ready here but he still prefers that diplomatic option.

So, the ball I guess is in the president's court here to see if he disagrees with anything the secretary just said. I can't see how he would. They do seem to be in unified position but you do get the sense here as what Lindsey Graham has indicating, we're saying earlier, that this is ratcheting up towards something pretty extreme.

KING: And so you make the case that there is not a lot. If the president wants to talk tough, the secretary of state's job is to be a diplomat. And yet, you do have all these anonymous quotes essentially, you know, slapping the secretary of state saying he's off the page. So, he can say that, the question is, in 24 hours or 48 hours, we're going to have somebody at the White House undermining it.

TALEV: Yes. The messaging is a problem, but what Tillerson seems to be trying to do here is to focus on the areas that they do agree on which is that North Korea is the problem and that the U.S. is putting its foot a little bit back on the gas what you saw over this summer.

Remember in July and August, things were getting really hot and the U.N. speech. And then after that, there began to be this kind of period of quite and calmer, everybody was wondering are there some discussions behind the scenes or at least, you know, quasi-discussions behind the scenes.

It is something about to happen and that would seems that the U.S. is pivoting back to a position where it's leaning really hard again on China, on Russia and some of these other countries to pull back even harder and to signal to North Korea, hey, we're getting ready to be more serious if you force us into that posture.

The other thing I would say is, H.R. McMaster earlier this week did sort of a mini preview of the president's national security strategy and that's something that we understand we're going to be seeing un- build on Monday. We'll be looking to that document to see how North Korea is addressed.

But McMaster also like Tillerson using language that's different than Trump does. McMaster was talking about Russia using really strong language about Russia and China. I think you see still with McMaster as well as with Tillerson and Mattis an instinct to pursue the policies as they think that they really are and force the president and staff to dial back.

KING: The president's language may not always match his language. May not always match the implementation by his deputies. Is that a fairway to put it?

WARREN: Yes, I think so. And because it's not fully formed in the president's mind. And so that's -- I mean, there's a very odd situation where you have people like McMaster, like Mattis, like Tillerson who were trying to shape the president's policy out of what is essentially a un-molded clay.

KING: An important day for the secretary of state at the United Nations. We'll continue to keep an eye on this one. Thanks for joining us here in the INSIDE POLITCS. We have a breaking news to deal with. That's what makes it fun.

Wolf Blitzer in the chair after a quick break.