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INSIDE POLITICS

GOP Set to Pass Tax Bill; Four Days Away from Shutdown; Trump's Poll Numbers; Trump Considered Pulling Nomination. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 19, 2017 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:15] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us. And a big day it is here in Washington.

The House votes next hour on the Republican tax cut plan. The Senate now ready to keep the lights on and cast its votes tonight.

Plus, Justice Neil Gorsuch for conservatives is a big, bright spot on the president's first year report card. But a new report out today says there was a dicey moment early on when the president thought about pulling the plug because he questioned the judge's loyalty.

And with the new Trump national security strategy comes this question, is the president of the United States getting played by the president of Russia?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that's what he's doing with the president.

LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, that's just not true. What the president has asked us to do with Russia though as well is to make sure we can deter conflict. You see that with the peace through strength pillar in the national security strategy, but also to try to find areas of cooperation.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We begin the hour with a Republican tax cut plan suddenly on the fast track. The House set to vote on the $1.5 trillion plan next hour. And, why wait? The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell surprising us today with word the Senate will then take up the tax plan tonight. That means we could see a White House signing ceremony as early as tomorrow as Republicans try to end a very frustrating 2017 on a high note and begin the new year, a giant midterm election year, trying to sell a plan the American people don't much like.

Look at these numbers in a brand new CNN poll. Only 33 percent of Americans favor this tax cut plan. Fifty-five percent oppose it. Eleven percent say they're not sure about it. And the trend line not good for the GOP. That 55 percent opposed

number, up 10 points from just a month ago. The big Republican bet is that the economy now kicks into a higher gear and that public opinion shifts between now and the midterm balloting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: This is the greatest example of a promise being made and a promise being kept. We know this is going to help people. We know this is going to grow our economy. And we know it's going to, most of all, help the people who are struggling in this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Again, the House vote due next hour.

CNN's Phil Mattingly tracking it. He joins us live now from Capitol Hill.

Phil, a little more than an hour. You're hearing House Republicans are going to get even more yeses than we thought on the last vote?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's definitely possible. Soak it up. Those were the words of Speaker Paul Ryan behind closed doors to the House Republican Conference earlier today according to a person in the room. Those are the words of a speaker who's pretty confident about where they stand.

You talk about the votes right now. They had 227 the first time around when this went through the House. That's a big vote as is. And there have been changes to bring some of the California Republicans who voted against the proposal that time back on board. One they know for sure will come on board. There could be others as well.

Republican leaders very confident in the House in that vote just a couple of hours from now. I think the big question now is, what happens next? John, you mentioned the polling. You mentioned the bad headlines. They're taking a legitimate gamble here and they know that, but they believe the policy will show itself. People, within the next couple of months, will start to see things in their paychecks. They believe that will make a difference. But they know they're going to have to sell this bill and probably a lot better than they've done it over the last couple of months, John.

KING: And as they celebrate, and we anticipate they'll get the votes in both the House and the Senate, but as they celebrate, Phil, still the prospect of a government shutdown just four days away. Republican leaders any closer to a spending deal?

MATTINGLY: They're not. And I think that's kind of a jarring moment here when you look at the calendar right now. House Republicans have a specific track that they're going on. A track that Senate Republicans simply aren't going to accept.

Senate Republicans have an idea. They want to do a clean spending bill and then attach a bunch of other items to it. Most notably two health care provisions that were necessary in getting Senator Susan Collins to be "yes" on tax reform. A big problem, House Republicans don't like those health care provisions. And the bigger problem right now over in the Senate, Senate Democrats have largely gone silent in the negotiations out of frustration over the tax bill.

Look, there's a lot of thinking that this will start to clear up once this tax bill moves through tonight. But the reality is, John, right now, as you noted, just a couple of days away from a government shutdown. And in terms of what the next steps are, there are no concrete next steps, at least at this point, John.

KING: A long day ahead for lawmakers and for Phil on Capitol Hill, and then several more long days ahead as we enter Christmas.

Phil, thanks. Keep in touch throughout the hour if anything changes.

With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Jackie Kucinich with "The Daily Beast," "The Wall Street Journal's" Michael Bender, Michael Shear of "The New York Times," and CNN's MJ Lee.

Do we trust 100 percent, 1,000 percent this moment? Throughout the year we've seen a lot of dysfunction. We've seen the Obamacare repeal debate go off the tracks. It appears, after months of dysfunction, Republicans have, at least for this moment on this bill, a pretty unique discipline. And they're going to get to the finish line tonight. We thought it would at least carry over to tomorrow.

JACKIE KUCINICH, "THE DAILY BEAST": I mean that's probably one of the reasons that it's going to happen tonight because they know they have -- they have all of their ducks in a row. And the difference between this and something like health care, we heard all the way leading up to the problems with health care that there were problems in health care, that this wasn't going to happen and even there were rumors.

[12:05:10] You're not hearing that right now. It seems like at this point, I mean especially when you had Bob Corker's last minute announcement he was going to vote for this, it seems like that -- they have it for this moment. They have everything together.

KING: And what about the bet. The speaker laid it out pretty clearly today. He thinks the economy, if you just look at the stock market, it's going way up. We'll get to some numbers in a minute. If you look at the unemployment rate, it's way down in historic places. He thinks this is going to put juice in the economy, people's wages will go up. And even if your personal tax situation doesn't change a lot, you're going to see a thriving community. You're going to see more jobs in your community. You're going to feel better when we get to November 2018.

How risky of a bet?

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: Well, I think there's something telling about the fact that you saw this poll number. This is a very, very unpopular bill. But Republicans are going ahead with it anyway, and partly because, and in large part actually because they really feel like they need a legislative victory and a political victory.

And I think it's worth just reminding ourselves, the process here that they are using to get this bill through the House and the Senate is the budget reconciliation process. Not to say that this process has not been used before for major pieces of legislation, but just worth pointing out that this is a major piece of legislation that will overhaul the tax code and it being used because senators want to use just a simple majority to get this through without any Democratic votes.

KING: Right. An all Republican enterprise on a very big issue, which, again, is a bet heading into the midterm year. The Republican base will like this, we assume, for the most part. Republican donors will like this for the most part. But in the middle of the electorate, especially in those suburbs that we've seen in Alabama and New Jersey and Virginia this year where the Republican balance in the House could be at play, can they sell it? Is just economic growth enough heading into next year?

MICHAEL BENDER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, that's a good question. The -- and I bet there is that -- getting this done is a lot better and a lot less of a risk than doing nothing here. But the fact remains, this is the best. The Republican -- this Republican majority could do. And -- or to say it another way, this is the only thing that the Republican majority could really do this year.

When they get out there, it's going to be -- it's going to be a tough sell. Or at least it's really easy to attack. Congressional -- congress' own analyst says that about one-fourth -- less than one- fourth of the -- of the cuts for individuals go to the middle class, right? And this is from a president who promised that this was a middle class focused bill. And a lot -- and, you know, and a lot of people believe that.

I will say that the White House is also saying that this is -- their bet here is that this will -- this will play out. That the polling -- I've seen their talking points. It's how to attack the bad polls, how to praise the good polls. They see polls like the CNN one and, you know -- warn about getting in the weeds, although this is INSIDE POLITICS, but they complain about too many Democrats sampled, not enough Republicans in the polls that show bad numbers on this and they point to other polls, like the Morning Council (ph) poll, that say when you start pulling out the individual -- some of the individual things that this -- that this tax bill will do, that poll's over 60 percent. And once people start to understand that a little bit, support starts to grow. So that's their calculation heading into the midterms.

KING: I think that is part of the challenge. And, look, there's a lot of polling out there. You shouldn't bet on any one poll. We trust our polling firm. They do a good job. But you should never bet on just one firm.

But to your point -- to your point, if you look at -- look at our poll on, what do people think right now? What are people's expectations? Thirty-seven percent of Americans think this bill will make them worse off. Twenty-one percent say better off. Thirty-six percent say about the same. That's how they feel about it right now.

And, again, I look at those numbers and I take some of it as, they don't understand the tax bill. There's been competing versions on both sides and they don't know what's in the final bill, et cetera. I think some of it is that it's being passed by the United States Congress. And if the United States Congress held up an apple pie and said we're going to deliver one of these to every house in America, people would suddenly not like apple pie.

MICHAEL SHEAR, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, and, look, I think -- think about an alternative history in which this doesn't get done. You know, what would the headlines be? What would the -- the lawmakers would be facing going back for Christmas break and for -- and facing an election year having really accomplished nothing. And so -- and the --

KING: The collapse of the Republican Party.

SHEAR: Right. Exactly.

So, in that light, I mean I think this -- even politically for them facing the kind of polls you're talking about are better.

The other thing I just would -- would mention is, in a weird way, this has been -- this tax bill has been the one thing that lawmakers, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, have said to themselves, has been the motivation for them backing this president, because it was the one thing they wanted. Now this is out of the way, assuming that it passes, it really -- it makes you wonder whether next year President Trump has an even tougher time getting anything done because members aren't going to be so reticent to criticize him because they don't have this hanging over them anymore. He's -- it's already done, it's already passed and there's nothing quite like a tax bill that can unify all the different factions of the party.

KING: It's a great -- it's a great point. You look at the 2018 conversations with the speaker today saying we're going to do welfare reform. You might be able to do that in the House. You're not going to get that through a 51-49 United States Senate.

They talk about infrastructure. Some conservatives say, wait a minute, we're already blowing a hole in the deficit with this tax cut bill. We're not going to be spending more money on infrastructure next year. So you're right about the unifying or the dividing aspects of the 2018 agenda.

[12:10:11] But let's talk about the president. Normally in a midterm election year, where the president stands is the single most important factor. In our new polling, look at the president's poll number. Thirty-five percent of Americans approve of his job performance right now. That is the worst performance of his presidency so far. Back to 44 percent in January. You see the numbers going down over the course of the year. That is historically low. That gives him his hard core Republican base that approves of him. The rest of the country says no thank you.

This part is interesting because we're going into a midterm election year where it's all about your base. The Democratic intensity we have seen. Will Republicans turn out? That's the reason they're passing this bill, so Republicans have some reason to be happy.

Look at the president's approval rating by party. Eighty-five percent of Republicans still holding that. That's a pretty good number for the president to hold. Only 33 percent of Americans, 4 percent of Democrats. So the 33 percent of Americans is interesting since this president has not made any progress and, in fact, has lost ground with the middle of America, which, in a competitive midterm election year, could be the difference.

BENDER: Yes. I wonder if this tax bill actually kind of works in reverse and gives some of these folks in the middle, to Mike's point here, a reason to sort of block Trump and a reason to vote for Democrats. They've got the tax bill. They've got their tax cut. And the -- for folks in the middle, even supporter who don't really approve of his performance or his behavior or his language, how much more do you want this president to do? And does he need more checks and balances in Congress to prevent some of the rest of his agenda from going through.

KING: If Democrats can -- that's a good chess game. We'll see if Democrats can make the argument after taxes. We assume this is going to pass tonight. Again, we have lived through 2017. We'll be here all day. We'll be here counting the votes. The lights will be on in the Senate. But we assume they have the votes. They wouldn't bring this to the floor of the Senate if Leader McConnell wasn't sure he had the votes.

Then we move on to the shutdown conversation with three or four days. On the list -- and some of this might get punted to January. That's part of the calculation. But military spending, disaster relief, which is billions and billions, DACA, meaning the so-called dreamers. Funding the Children's Health Insurance Program. Some Obamacare provisions that on the Senate side they promised Susan Collins. You're going to take the individual mandate out in this tax cut bill (INAUDIBLE). She said she wants some things done.

You've been spending much of your time in recent days on Capitol Hill. Those -- every one of those things can be a third rail and send something -- actually, I'm going to stop myself. We had a train crash yesterday. Forgive me. I'm going to stop my language right there.

Every one of those can send a debate afoul. What next?

LEE: Sure. I mean there are so many competing interests that it's difficult to see a scenario where this comes to a neat conclusion. And I think members and reporters who are preparing to be here probably through Friday, that's a pretty safe bet right now.

One thing that I will note, one of the competing interests, or one sort of controversial point there that is a sticking point right now for Republicans and I think is driving some of these numbers crazy is the revival of the health care issue, right? Some of these senators want to include the Alexander Murray proposal in the spending bill. This is something that would pay for the Obamacare subsidies. This was a huge issue when health care in and of itself was an issue. And the fact that they want to bring this back is driving a lot of the House conservatives crazy and again just goes to show, health care was probably an issue that Republicans now feel like they never should have tried to attempt first in the first place. And now that this is coming up again, they realize that this could be another political headache.

SHEAR: I also think -- I agree that health care is really one of those fascinating sort of things that keep -- what is that game that keeps popping back up again and you keep trying to --

KING: Whack-a-mole.

LEE: Whack-a-mole.

SHEAR: Whack-a-mole. But I also think that -- I think that the dreamers and DACA is another big question.

KING: Right.

SHEAR: You know, all of these lawmakers -- and there was -- there was a letter that was -- I think a bunch of Republicans signed on to a couple weeks ago in the House, what they're facing is a March expiration of -- a full expiration of the DACA program and do they really want to come back, and just months before a midterm election, have to face this question of allowing all of these folks to be deported or at least be threatened with deportation.

KING: Right.

SHEAR: And that, you know, by not doing anything now, and so the question is, is it easier to try to do something now? And it certainly doesn't look like it's fitting into the timeline.

KING: From the conservative perspective, you're about to celebrate cutting taxes, which you're happy about, but then you're being asked to fix Obamacare and pass a legislation that many would consider amnesty.

SHEAR: Amnesty.

KING: That's their label on it. I'm not saying that's the right label, but that's their label on it.

All right, we'll continue this one in the days ahead.

Up next, though, President Trump's love of loyalty. But before we go to break, those retirement rumors keep pulling at the House speaker, Paul Ryan, even when all he wants to talk about today is taxes.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) -- REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Look, I'm -- I am not going anywhere any time soon. And just -- let's leave that thing at that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:18:37] KING: Welcome back.

This is a great one. The president lashing out today in a report that details how he almost pulled the plug on his nominee for the Supreme Court. And that's hard to believe on the one hand given the president's rich praise now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have a Supreme Court justice, Judge Gorsuch, who will save -- how about a thing called your Second Amendment.

Justice Gorsuch, who is doing a great, great job at the Supreme Court.

To that we have Justice Gorsuch, who is fantastic.

We are strengthening our judiciary, including a brilliant Supreme Court justice.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But, in a report today, "The Washington Post" cites 11 sources and says that early in the confirmation process, quote, the president worried that Gorsuch would not be loyal, one of the people said, and told aides that he was tempted to pull Gorsuch's nomination and that he knew of plenty of other judges who would want the job. Trump was especially upset by what he viewed as Gorsuch's insufficient gratitude for a lifetime appointment to the nation's highest court.

It is a great story and a great drama in the sense that it is one of the president's signature achievements, especially to conservatives, Gorsuch on the Supreme Court. And yet, if you read those words, loyalty, gratitude. How many times have we seen this with James Comey, with lashing out at Jeff Sessions, with lashing out at former FBI Director James Comey. I mentioned him. The current FBI Director Christopher Wray. It's seems to be about loyalty. And will you pledge your loyalty and will you tell me how grateful you are that I put you in the cabinet or on the court.

[12:20:05] SHEAR: The best detail in that story, which I just love, is the fact that apparently Gorsuch did in fact write a gushing letter of gratitude to the president, but it didn't quite make its way for him for a matter of days or a week or so. And so, in the end, like, you know, the rage I guess or the sort of regret that they described the president feeling was -- was about -- that could have been avoided had this simple e-mail been delivered, right?

KING: And let me read from that letter. This is the letter. Your address to Congress was magnificent and you were so kind to recognize Mrs. Scalia, remember the justice and to mention me. My teenage daughters were cheering the TV. Now that is, you know, the president loves letters like that. But the idea was, remember the reporting at the time, the president had attacked the federal judge who was overseeing the Trump University case. He had attacked the federal judges who had told them he could not have his travel ban. And Judge Gorsuch was being questioned, in all of his private meetings with senators about that. And what were the words he said, disheartening --

KUCINICH: Disheartened and demoralized. And it's also who he said it to, I think. He said it to Senator Blumenthal, who Trump has this strange rivalry with and likes to get in a war of words with. So it was the fact it was to a Democratic senator and it came out and then, you'll remember, the White House came back and said, no, no, they're misconstruing his words, and they weren't.

So it was also, you know, he felt like this person was going behind his back and didn't -- hadn't really -- the White House, I guess, hadn't explained to him that judicial independence is actually very important and it's something that happens during that confirmation process. It's one of the first things that Gorsuch actually was asked during his confirmation hearing. So he sort of had to do that, but I guess no one thought to tell the president.

KING: Yes, if the president hadn't attacked the judges in an un- presidential, unprofessional way --

KUCINICH: Right.

KING: His nominee would not have had to answer that question. But then the president gets mad.

Let's go back to the Comey thing because, again, what struck me, a, it's a fascinating story anyway that the president had doubts about his Supreme Court -- his first Supreme Court nominee early in the administration. Such a huge deal in Washington. But when you trace it to the loyalty and the, you know, and he's not grateful enough that I gave him the job. Here's James Comey testifying before Congress earlier this year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), OREGON: Looking back, did that dinner suggest that your job might be contingent on how you handle the investigation?

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I don't know that I'd go that far. I got the sense my job would be contingent upon how he felt -- excuse me, how he felt I conducted myself and whether I demonstrated loyalty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: You could say this is an area of presidential consistency.

BENDER: Yes. What's also consistent about that too is that it also -- as this story shows, that the president's own loyalty has its limits to people on his team. That he'll stand by you to a certain -- and just until things start to go bad. And, you know, we've all heard stories about previous presidents kind of -- the burden they felt and the torment they put themselves through in coming up with the decision, but this shows yet again that this president seems to go through that mostly after he's made his decision.

We have the Gorsuch example. We have -- you mentioned the travel ban. He decided to walk -- you know, do the second travel ban, which he then complained publicly that it was watered down. His vice presidential pick, Mike Pence, he was reportedly vacillated on him right up until the 11th hour.

So it's kind of fascinating to watch him sort of go through these regrets, but not until after he's made his pick, make his decision.

LEE: And I think -- and I think the story just really kind of perfectly captured the personality points about the president, but also some of his world view that we have gotten to know so well. You know, he has an extremely low threshold for criticism. He has this remarkable obsession with loyalty.

And I think just this sort of fundamental lack of understanding or lack of acknowledgement that just because you appoint someone or just because you are trying to make an ally of someone doesn't mean that they owe you anything back, right? I mean this is -- you had a couple really good examples. But Jeff Sessions is the other example. He appointed Jeff Sessions and then so quickly and publicly turned on him, in some ways not at all surprising that we're hearing this behind the scenes reporting about Gorsuch as well.

KING: Yes, more than anywhere else, under the umbrella of justice, you know, you can be loyal to a president in the same party, the guy who gave you the job. There's a difference between loyalty and (INAUDIBLE) to the president versus the Constitution or the law. This conversation is going to continue as we go through the Russia investigation as we go through.

Up next, President Trump unveils his national security strategy to the world. What he said and, more notably, what he didn't say.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:29:08] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth. We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That was President Trump just yesterday laying out his national security strategy. The blueprint, the written blueprint, is required by Congress. Says Russia and China are trying to, quote, erode American security and prosperity. Now, Moscow and Beijing taking issue this day after. The Chinese

government calling the reporter a sneer. The Kremlin called it misguided and, quote, imperial.

Well, there's a debate back here at home too. Should we believe the written word or get our guidance from things the president says, or won't say, that raised big questions about whether he believes his own playbook.

[12:30:00] Rear Admiral John Kirby joins our conversation for this discussion.

When you were listening yesterday, if you read the report, it doesn't get into detail about Russian election meddling in 2016, for example, but it is pretty clear -- it's pretty clear. It says in the report that Russia meddled. You know, that this is what Russia does.