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INSIDE POLITICS

Denies Over Mueller Firing; Trump Attorney on Mueller Interview; Trump's Davos Speech. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 26, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:16] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

President Trump calls it fake news, but a source tells CNN the president wanted to fire the Russia special counsel, but the White House counsel refused.

Plus, the new White House immigration plan angers the left and the right. Trump loyalists call it amnesty betrayal. Nancy Pelosi says the president wants to make America white again.

And this is stunning. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, a rising star on team Trump, angry and on the record, denying rumors of an affair with the president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIKKI HALEY, U.N. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: It is absolutely not true. It is highly offensive. And it's disgusting. This isn't something that just happened as a cabinet member. I saw this as a legislator. I saw this when I was governor, I see it now.

People see lies for what it is. Do I like it? No. Is it right? No. Is it going to slow me down? Not at all. Any time this has happened, it only makes me fight harder. It only makes me work harder. And I do it for the sake of other women that are behind me.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Just wow there. We'll be back to that in just a few moments.

But we begin the hour with blockbuster news and a denial from the president saying no, he did not call for the firing of the Russia Special Counsel Robert Mueller last June. But, despite that denial, at least one person familiar with the matter tells CNN it's true. "The New York Times," which broke this story last night, cites four sources. And, if you're a conservative shaking your head, oh, it's CNN and "The New York Times," Fox News, too, cites sources saying the president discussed firing Mueller. CNN is told White House Counsel Don McGahn refused to order the Justice Department to do so. President Trump in Davos says it's fiction.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Mr. President, did you see to fire Robert Mueller?

QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) fire Robert Mueller?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Fake news, folks. Fake news.

QUESTION: What's your message today?

TRUMP: Typical "New York Times" fake stories. Thank you.

QUESTION: Did you try and fire Robert Mueller?

TRUMP: Thank you. Fake news (ph).

QUESTION: Did you want to fire (INAUDIBLE).

TRUMP: Fake news.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, if you track this story, you know it isn't the first time the Trump and his team have denied there was talk of firing the special counsel. More than a half dozen examples right there on your screen. But there's an important -- very important distinction this time. Trump attorney Ty Cobb told us back in December emphatically that this was all a baseless rumor. When CNN reached out to the White House lawyer last night, he said, no comment, citing respect for the office of the special counsel and its process.

With us today to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Dana Bash, Michael Shear of "The New York Times," CNN's MJ Lee, and Eliana Johnson of "Politico."

I start there because it's a very important distinction. Sometimes it's our job to help people understand a little reporting and sourcing CSI. If the president's personal attorneys could say flatly this is not true, they would say so. They know the special counsel has talked to Don McGahn, the White House counsel. They know the special counsel has talked to several of the deputies in the White House counsel's office. They also know the great legacy of the Bill Clinton scandal that you -- if you tell a lie to a counsel in an investigation, you lose your law license. They know what he knows, so they say, no comment, not, it didn't happen, despite the president's denial.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. And, look, in addition to everything you've said, they also know, because they helped turn over to Robert Mueller and his team that the special counsel's office has documents, a lot of documentation from the White House counsel's office across the board that very well could substantiate the notion that the president of the United States was ranting and raving about firing his -- the special counsel and did so at a time when it was very transparent that he wanted him to be fired.

I say transparent because we're talking about seven months ago, in June of 2017. If you look at the president's Twitter feed, he was making it very clear back then that he was not having it with Robert Mueller.

And so the question now is, why now? Why do people want this information out there now? Is it because the president of the United States is ranting and raving again about Robert Mueller despite the fact that this time publicly he's saying that he believes the investigation is fair, he's OK with going and speaking to Robert Mueller and his team. That's what we're trying to suss out is, this is a seven-month-old story but clearly in some way relevant to a dynamic that is going on right now, and what is it?

KING: Right. And if you consider that timing, again, the president, at this moment, says he's absolutely willing to sit down he says under oath. His attorneys say, whoa, whoa, whoa, we'll negotiate that.

[12:05:01] Actually striking, I was going to bring this up later, but I'll bring it up now, John Dowd, another one of the president's private attorneys, saying this to CNN. Remember, you heard the president, absolutely, under oath, nothing to fear. I will make the decision on whether the president talks to the special counsel. I have not made any decision yet.

The president sometimes goes off the rails when people try to say, I'm the boss. John Dowd there saying, I'm the boss when it comes to this.

But the timing here is essential because, if the president is going to sit down, they're negotiating. The president himself says that framework is two or three weeks from now, meaning we're at the crossroads.

MICHAEL SHEAR, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, look, I think the interesting -- the two big differences between now and seven months ago and why -- I mean, remember, this sort of percolated up seven months ago around that time.

BASH: Sure. We were talking about it on this show.

SHEAR: We were -- we were talking about it. There was some -- there were people -- but it -- but the differences are two things. One is that then it was a sort of vague sense, vague reports that the president might have thought about this. Now we have very specifics from people who were briefed about this and who, let's face it, are giving us detailed specifics about the reasoning that the president had for the kind of conflicts of interest that he thought meant that Mueller had to go.

And the second thing is the water under the bridge of the last seven months of the investigation of Robert Mueller, where he has talked to people after -- person after person after person after person in the White House. And that is very different because now -- you know perhaps then the White House aides that told us, hey, this is all bunk, they might have actually either not known or not -- or not thought about the fact that they could be contradicting actual testimony. Now they know that Robert Mueller and his investigators have asked this question and know what the real answer is. And so they're not going to get out there and say it's not true. KING: Right. And in some of those cases, if you go back, we were

looking at them this morning among the staff, it's also the -- forgive me, the definition of "is." There is no conversation doesn't mean there was no conversation about firing Bob Mueller.

And to that point, the witnesses that have come in and out of the special counsel's office are stunned by the level of detail, stunned that he can recreate the meetings almost to the minute. And so if you're an attorney in the White House counsel's office, or anyone else who's involved in these conversations, you are not going to lie. Or if you do, you know you're -- you know, the White House counsel's office, a springboard to a great job in law. Not if you lose your law license.

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": That's exactly right. And, look, this is not a good story if you're Donald Trump. But I do believe, for conservatives who are looking at this saying it can't be true, there are heartening aspects to this story, which is that it does appear that the president is relatively well staffed. His White House counsel, Don McGahn, was ordered to fire Bob Mueller and knew that that was colossally bad judgment, stopped it from happening by threatening to resign.

I do think that conservatives, who are watching this White House, and, you know, decrying fake news and the negative coverage can look at this and say, this president is incredibly well staffed, at least in his White House counsel's office. Don McGahn did the right thing and actually succeeded in preventing the president from inflicting a -- something that could have been a really -- really a divesting blow.

KING: To that point, Sarah Sanders said from the podium the other day, you know, forget this conversation about Firing Bob Mueller because you people, look how the reaction would be in the press. No, we have the right to do it, the legal grounds to do (INAUDIBLE) this. It would cause a public relations (INAUDIBLE).

I want to get -- MJ, let's (INAUDIBLE) this conversation again. So the president was talking, this is back in June, about firing Bob Mueller. His White House counsel says, sir, no way. Nope. Not going to do that, you know.

But let's just think about -- so if you're Bob Mueller and the question is, did the president try to actively obstruct an investigation? Now you have, he tried to fire me on the table, or thought about firing me on the table. We know he fired the FBI director.

Look at all these examples. He asked Comey for a loyalty pledge, to drop the Flynn probe. Fired Flynn, but only after Flynn's lying was made public. Kept Flynn on the White House staff when he knew he had lied. Pressured Sessions to reverse his recusal, fired -- then fired Comey. Wanted Mueller fired. Asked his intelligence chiefs, could you push them to shut down the investigation and could you say I'm not under investigation? Called it a witch hunt over and over. Wanted to fire and publicly berated the deputy attorney general. Encouraged his son's false statement, according to reports, aboard Air Force One about an initial statement that was false about the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower.

If you look at that, maybe you can explain it all way. But if you're Bob Mueller, that's a long list of things that say, this man has repeatedly tried to throw roadblocks in front of this investigation.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER: That's right. And I think it's really important for us to keep in mind that with this new reporting coming out that President Trump asked someone to actually fire Mueller, that actually doesn't change the course of the investigation. I think you can safely make the argument that of course the investigation will continue to focus on issues like obstruction, questions around collusion. And I think the exercise that we're doing now, sort of going back, Dana, you were talking about the tweets that we saw that were so public back this last summer, you can sort of get a glimpse into sort of the mindset that the president had. But maybe, more importantly, that some of the people around the president were actually kind of successful in talking him off the ledge, telling him, look, this is not the kind of thing that is smart for you to be talking about.

For you to go on Twitter and say this investigation is a witch hunt and to openly show your anger, that's not the smartest thing to do, because we do know that after that certain point when he was openly showing his anger, he then sort of walked it back and didn't talk about that issue as much, didn't show his emotions as much, and I think clearly there was some kind of an effort within his inner circle to get him to stop talking about it.

[12:10:17] BASH: Yes, and, MJ -- yes, and, MJ, that was about the time where they brought John Dowd and they brought Ty Cobb --

LEE: Right.

BASH: The people who have been on the legal team now for the past six months, on board and things started to change a little bit with how the president himself was managed.

But I just want to also make one broader point, which is -- and I'm sure you guys hear this at the White House as well. This is the president's M.O. Obviously Robert Mueller is in a league and a category of his own because he is making the president's life absolutely miserable as far as the president is concerned. But he is very well known to, before noon, tell various senior staffers that he wants cabinet member or staffer x, y or z fired and make it happen. And -- because he -- that's what he does. He does rant and rave about people. And most times, I am told, they're able to kind of put him off and he kind of forgets about it. Again, Mueller is in a very specific category, but this is very much in keeping with his behavior.

KING: Well, that's Mueller's challenge, is it just ranting and raving or is it part of a deliberate effort to obstruct the administration.

Just one last footnote. This was also around the time he was learning -- he was learning -- because the president knows more than we do about what the special counsel's doing -- that his Trump Organization financial records were being called in. That this wasn't just about the 2016 campaign and it wasn't even just about some of the things that happened in the Trump White House. That -- this is exactly the same time he was learning that his -- his personal finances and his family finances were of great interest to the special counsel, which tells you quite a bit.

Everybody sit tight. Up next, the president's left Davos after selling, or trying to sell, anyway, America first.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I just came out and some really wonderful people said Davos has never been like this. This is like walking into the Academy Awards, except we have more photography.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:16:14] KING: The America first president on his way home now after spending some time abroad and among the globalists. His message to the world, everything is awesome.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have succeed beyond our highest expectations.

America is roaring back.

All of a sudden it became like a big waterfall, a big, beautiful waterfall where so many companies are doing it.

We've set 84 records since my election. Record stock market prices.

I think you have a brand new United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A brand new United States. You heard it there from the president. He's very upbeat, talking about what he sees as a great big turnaround and he thinks it's all because of his election. Today, no in-your-face populism, no mention of the president of that Russia cloud that looms over his administration.

But there were some Trump trademarks today -- use history as a guide -- to read the president's mood.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have a tremendous crowd and a crowd like they've never had before.

Had the opposing party to me won, some of whom you backed, some of the people in the room, instead of being up almost 50 percent, the stock market is up since my election almost 50 percent. Rather than that, I believe the stock market, from that level, the initial level, would have been down close to 50 percent.

It wasn't until I became a politician that I realized how nasty, how mean, how vicious and how fake the press can be as the cameras start going off in the back there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Call that the Trump trifecta, fake news, big crowds, Hillary Clinton.

Jeff Zeleny is with the president in Davos.

Jeff, how is the Trump team describing this? You're there for the reception. Does the president and his team, do they think despite a little bit of pushback, this was a success?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, I think they do think it's a success. And, look, I mean, this was President Trump unlike we've seen in many places, really a cheerleader. I mean essentially giving a commercial for why companies should come and invest in the U.S. He was talking about, you know, the strong economy, talking about the stock market. Of course taking credit for absolutely everything, as though things suddenly changed on his watch.

Never mind the fact that unemployment has been rising in the final years of the Obama administration. Never mind the fact that the stock market has been doing well. But, no question, under his first year in office, it has, you know, been soaring.

But the question here, John, I think this is a global conference. And, boy, this did not sound like the Donald Trump we heard on the campaign trail when he was running for office. This is not the Steve Bannon Donald Trump who is railing against Davos. He wanted, it seemed to me, to be accepted by this group, and he certainly was. It was a polite reception, a large crowd, not as much applause as certainly he's used to hearing at rallies.

But the bottom line is, his advisers believe this was a success. And one more win for the side of his administration and White House who would like him to do this more often. The Gary Cohns of the world, who wrote this speech, of course, a former Goldman Sachs adviser who's now the president's top economic adviser. So a win in that respect.

But, John, as the president flies home right now, arrives by dinnertime, all that controversy over the Russia investigation is still waiting for him, of course.

John.

KING: Indeed it is, Jeff Zeleny. But I'll just say that if the president can have conversations with people with whom he disagrees with, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Jeff Zeleny, appreciate your reporting from Davos.

ZELENY: Not at all. KING: Let's bring it into the room.

So he's, you know, you have the America first president. He's in this crowd, which is mostly anti-Trump. They're globalists. They believe in free trade. They think the president's tone, as much as some of his policies, yet they're happy with the tax cuts. So it was interesting. What did we learn?

LEE: Well, you know, Jeff Zeleny was saying that the advisers around President Trump saw this as a success. The bar is actually pretty low right now for what would be a successful event for the president. The fact that he, you know, stuck with the teleprompter speech, yes, that was a successful speech in that sense, but I think we got a glimpse of sort of where he is right now in his head at the moment when he was not actually scripted and was not on that stage, right, when he walked by reporters and was asked about this "New York Times" reporting and he called it fake news.

[12:20:22] When there was a little Q&A after the speech and he was asked about sort of the lessons that he learned during the presidency, I believe that was the question that was asked, he then, as you said, talked about Hillary Clinton, though not mentioning her by name, talked about the media being fake news. I think all those things kind of give you a sense that he's frustrated and is angry, because otherwise I think his head would not necessarily go there. I think you made a really good point that those are the things he tends to talk about when he is especially frustrated.

SHEAR: Frustrated and angry in a general sense, but also reveling in the fact that he's in this club finally, right?

KING: Right.

SHEAR: This is a guy who has, you know, been part of the billionaires' club for a while, but never really accepted or never really kind of let -- sort of come into the -- some of these exclusive gatherings. And Davos is like that. These are all sort of rich people from all over the world, CEOs and world leaders and the like. And, you know, so the fact that, you know, there has been some worry about protests and things, there were none of that. He was very sort of warmly received. Maybe they don't sort of really embrace his agenda, but they at least embraced the kind of -- the office that he holds. And by all accounts he loved that.

KING: And if they disagree on some things, so what, people disagree on things.

SHEAR: Right.

KING: If they have a better understanding of each other, if they respect each other a little bit more, at least you can have conversations.

I just want to note, the president's on Air Force One. He's on the way home. He tweeted this from Air Force One, heading back from a very exciting two days in Davos, Switzerland. Speech on America's economic revival was well received. Many of the people I met will be investing in the United States.

So, as we mentioned, the president's upbeat. He's cheerleading the American economy.

Some reaction from people in the room. Here's the Danish finance minister, Kirstian Jensen. It was a speech about what he has done. I miss America on the international scene.

The chairman of an international investment firm says this, Steve Gimco (ph), certainly he was very successful in presenting his successes. I would have wished to hear more about international multilateral aspects.

So, again, this is not a group of people who are going to hug the president because they're free traders and they're globalists. But I would mark it down as a good thing, it's not taking sides, that they heard from the president in a respectful way and maybe at least they understand each other better.

JOHNSON: You know, for Trump, much of it is about Trump. And when he talks to these audiences, there's a lot of it that's going to be about himself, naturally. Somebody told me a story that shortly after his victory in the presidential election, Trump called a well-known Republican billionaire and sort of sheepishly asked him if he would have dinner with him. And it seemed not to have really donned on him that he's the president-elect and really anybody will accept an invitation to dinner with him who doesn't hate him solely on the basis of his politics.

But I think in these Davos-type environments, he still sort of feels like he can't believe he's really being embraced by this crowd or that he's accepted by this crowd. And I think this -- his remarks convey that sense that he's still trying to prove himself to this crowd. And I don't think this president will ever really get over the sense of being an outsider who is trying to prove himself in these crowds.

KING: It's a great point because you can hear it in the speech. The president saying, yes, I'm here as your America first president, but I'm not as isolationist as you would all like me to think.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I believe in America. As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like the leaders of other countries should put their country first also. But America first does not mean America alone. When the United States grows, so does the world.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: He's right about the last part. He's absolutely right about the last part. When the world's biggest economy grows. And yet there's some -- a lot of talk there, other nations saying, look, we're moving ahead with all these regional and multilateral trade deals and the United States doesn't want to be a part of it? Too bad. BASH: That's right. But he also had the opportunity, just one example,

to sit next to the head of Siemens, who said very deliberately for the cameras, thank you for the tax cut. We're going to now, because of the way you changed things, we're going to build a plant, build an office in the United States. That's like political and policy gold for a president of the United States. He would be -- it would be foolish for him not to do this.

And I actually, frankly, because of the way that they have not sold the tax cut domestically and surprised that they were able to put -- pull that together.

One other quick point that just -- it's very hard for me to wrap my mind around.

Don't you all remember Mitt Romney, John Kerry, those who went to places like Davos, they got annihilated as elitists. And we can't believe that you're going to go to the Swiss Alps and hang out with all these fancy people? Here we have the guy who ran as the --

[12:25:01] KING: Voice.

BASH: Champion of the working man.

KING: Right.

BASH: Going to the most elite gathering that exists on the planet annually and he's loving it and he's not getting that.

SHEAR: Well, but it's (INAUDIBLE), right?

BASH: It's an example of how Trump is just -- he defies the political norms at every turn.

KING: Defies the norms (INAUDIBLE).

As Jeff noted, he's coming home to Russia. The president's coming back to something else, too. Some conservatives wondering this morning, why did we elect this president, as the White House reveals the new immigration plan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For those here illegally today who are seeking legal status, they will have one route and one route only, to return home and apply for reentry like everybody else.

We will break the cycle of amnesty and illegal immigration. We will break the cycle.

[12:30:03] People will know that you can't just smuggle in, hunker down and wait to be legalized. It's not going to work that way.