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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump: I'm Tougher on Russia; Trump Calls Out McMaster on Twitter Over Russia Meddling; Trump Backs Romney For Utah Senate Seat; Parkland Students Head to Tallahassee to Lobby Lawmakers. Aired 12:30- 1p ET

Aired February 20, 2018 - 12:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:32:28] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back. Quite the scatter shock morning if you follow the president's Twitter feed. It's more than evident he is seething about a lot of things, including Russia and his predecessor.

Quote, I have been much tougher on Russia than Obama, just look at the facts. Total fake news. That's the president's tweet this morning, so let's look at the facts which (INAUDIBLE) as a fake tweet.

The facts just on the issue of Russian election meddling. President Obama did take action, including a personal warning to the Russian president Vladimir Putin.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In early September when I saw President Putin in China, i felt that the most effective way to ensure that that didn't happen was to talk to him directly and tell him to cut it out and there going to be some serious consequences if he didn't.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The Obama administration also slapped Russia with sanctions in December of 2016, expelled more than 30 intelligence operatives and shut down two Russian compounds operating in the United States.

Now, even a lot of Democrats think President Obama wasn't tough enough on the Russian meddling. And Republican hawks viewed his overall record on confronting Russian aggression as much less than muscular.

But President Trump without a doubt has been softer on Russia. He has said he accepts President Putin's election denial for example as sincere. He has not taken any role in trying to counter Russian meddling in this year's elections. And he has slow walk to impose only modest new Russia sanctions despite an overwhelming vote by Congress to get tougher with the administration.

Anyone take issue with that?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No. Especially that last part. I mean, let's just think about that for a second.

A Republican-led Congress forced the president, because of an overwhelming bipartisan vote, to sign a piece of legislation into law to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, and the administration hasn't implemented them yet.

I mean, it's just mind blowing even in the context of where we are where every five minutes you can find something mind blowing, that is mind-blowing. Never mind the fact that in the 21 or so tweets that he sent all weekend long, blaming every single person under the sun for the Russian meddling, which he said -- he denied -- he's saying that it didn't happen even though he did say it didn't happen. The only person who he hasn't gone after is Russia.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And I think that is the extraordinary thing. You have the commander-in-chief who is silent at on, the actor of this series. It's an extraordinary (INAUDIBLE), he's deflecting all day long. And President Obama, of course he's going to bring him into this because that plays well with his base. That plays directly well.

[12:35:06] And he's right in some respects. The Obama administration was not as aggressive as they would have been at this point in hindsight, they say. But back to President Trump since he's the one in office, what will he do about the upcoming election interference? That's -- we haven't heard a word from him on that. At some point he'll have to address it, I would think.

KING: Well, I just want to show this timeline on the screen. Forgive me because I just want to show this timeline on the screen. The trump administration would say, we've done some things. If you look at this timeline, they go through these things.

They did -- they missed a deadline on one point to identify which Russian entities would be sanctioned. Then they sent some guys in the Congress on possible targets of sanctions. The Treasury Department did sanctioned Russia and Russian entities over Crimea in Ukraine violence. And they published a list of Russian oligarchs that they might sanction but best of information we have is that, they haven't sanctioned.

Forgive me, if they say they're tough on Russia, it's like a spit ball against a howitzer. Sorry, they haven't been.

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO: Well, I think the biggest issue here and both sides of these are true. I think in retrospect virtually everyone agrees that the Obama administration should have been tougher on Russia, particularly before the election. That's where Obama has come in for the biggest criticism.

And I think most people agree Trump should be tougher on Russia. And the biggest issue for him here is rhetorical. He has been unwilling to see the Russian attacks on the election as anything but an attack on his own legitimacy. And therefore, unwilling to say that say, yes, the Russians meddled in the election, here's what I'm going to do about it. It was a grave attack on our democracy. And nonetheless, be able to stand out internally that he was -- he is a legitimately elected president. And I think the president if he were to come out and make some sort of public statement on that would be able to put a whole lot of this to rest.

KING: And the other issue is that the broader issue beyond the specifics of the Russia thing which is just a fake tweets. Sorry, it doesn't hold up to fact check is, how is the president spending his time and what is he picking to focus on?

He tweets about this. This morning he tweeted on the front page of the Washington Post. There's a story about this woman named Rachel Crooks, she says the president forcibly kissed her at Trump Tower back in 2005.

Now the president tweeting about that attacking her, attacking the Washington Post saying this never happened. Over the weekend and you wrote about this, the president tweeted an attack on his own national security adviser who said in a meeting over in Europe that the facts speak for themselves. Look at the indictments Robert Mueller announced last week, Russia meddled in the election. Pretty overwhelmingly so.

And look at the facts. The president went after that in a tweet saying it was out of context. You write in your piece today about the tension between the president and General McMaster. Back in November, Trump on a small circle of senior aides involved in the conversation about McMaster's fate including General Kelly, ultimately decided to keep McMaster in place.

Among their reasons for doing so, removing him would have launched them on a search for the president's third national security adviser in a year. And Trump and Kelly could not agree on a replacement, according to a senior administration official.

Here we are, a year and a month into this administration, a year and almost two months into this administration and this. You got to be mad at somebody, if it's not John Kelly, it's Henry McMaster or it's somebody else in the White House. And the constant personnel turmoil.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, BLOOMBERG: There is no presidential directive coming from up on high to the agencies, to the Department of Homeland Security, to everybody else who is working under him on what to do going forward. It's hard to imagine more serious crisis than if vote tallies were tampered with ultimately.

We have reporting that hackers were attempting to, you know, circle the systems, kind of like a burglar scooping out the security systems but didn't try to break in. If they do, is the United States prepared in the 2018 election, in the 2020 election.

The president's tweet going out after H.R. McMaster, his own national security adviser is very revealing. He said he must -- you know, McMaster should have said that the election results, quote, were not impacted or changed by the Russians. This is not provable, this is not disprovable. This is somewhat of an easier argument for the president to make that we don't know. If it impacted, he can no longer make the argument credibly with a straight face that Russia did not meddle, and that they did not meddle to help him in the general election.

BASH: Can we go back very quickly to what the president tweeted this morning about the big story in the Washington Post about one of the -- his accusers. Somebody who said back in 2006 I believe it was she was working in Trump Tower and he forcibly kissed her.

She is now running for state legislature, I believe in her home state as a Democrat. And I just think that -- that this is a case study in kind of the two Americas in Trump's America. That it's hard to imagine that this -- that the fact that he's giving the story oxygen, giving her allegations oxygen and denying it is not going to help her and others like her who are part of the resistance and the faces of the resistance.

At the same time, you know that he has a lot of supporters still saying, atta boy. You know, she's not just telling the truth.

But again, if we weren't talking about Russia and other things, the fact that the president of the United States sent a tweet about somebody accusing him of costing her sexually, and it's not like on a loop 24/7 because there's so much other news is unbelievable.

[12:40:11] ZELENY: And that might be his point there. He's trying to add something else into the mix here so it's not only a topic about Russia here. But it was extraordinary that he was drawing attention to that.

KING: I think just whatever your politics, you might think the president could make better use of his time. Just a thought.

Up next, Mitt Romney now welcomes an endorsement from the president. He didn't always feel that way.

And as we go to break, we want to play something the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said last hour. Responding to the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, she defends America's ally Israel and says she will not shut up about the peace process.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED NATIONS: That the United Nations spends an altogether disproportionate amount of time on Israeli-Palestinian issues. It's not that those issues are unimportant, they are certainly very important. The problem is that the U.N. has proven itself time and again to be a grossly biased organization when it comes to Israel.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:45:34] KING: Time to check some other stories on our political radar. Today, President Trump says Republicans need to push back against the new congressional map in Pennsylvania. The state Supreme Court unveiled its version over the weekend which likely would benefit Democrats. The map is noticeably different from the heavily gerrymandered map run by Republicans in 2011. the court wants that new map in place for the primary in May.

Donald Trump Jr. right now tending to family business in its biggest international market. He's in India where he'll attend multiple dinners for buyers of Trump-branded apartments. (INAUDIBLE) Trump Jr.'s arrival, promised a conversation reunion and dinner with the president's son on Friday if he reserve an apartment at one development this week. Donald Trump Jr. ignoring questions from a CNN correspondent who asked, is this trip a conflict of interest?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIKHIL KUMAR, CNN NEW DELHI BUREAU CHIEF: Mr. Trump, Nikhil from CNN. Are you concerned about conflicts of interest with your father's position?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: No answer there, you can see. President Trump and fellow Republican Mitt Romney keeping things cordial as Romney launches his Senate run in Utah.

The president last night tweeting his support saying Romney would make a worthy successor to the current senator, Orrin Hatch. Romney thanking the president for his endorsement. An exchange ingesting the truce between these two (INAUDIBLE) for now. Emphasis on for now.

Now Governor Romney wants to be Senator Romney. I'm told by people close to him he has no interest in daily fights with the president, but they are a and z. How long can that last?

KAPUR: It's in both their interest to have this detente now. The last thing President Trump needs to be worrying about is fighting over a safe seat in Utah. And the last thing Mitt Romney needs to be doing -- I wouldn't -- I definitely wouldn't put it past him and maybe I shouldn't be suggesting that.

But -- and Mitt Romney does not need to be waging fights with the president as he's trying to win over the Republican base in a red state. It's just striking to me. Six years ago, this month, reality T.V. star Donald Trump endorsed Romney for president. Now President Trump endorses Mitt Romney.

ZELENY: At least this is in a tweet. That was in a Vegas spectacle as we all remember. This was at least a little (INAUDIBLE).

KING: And Romney said after that, if Trump had said four years ago the things he says today about the KKK, Muslims, Mexicans, disabled, I would not have accepted his endorsement. Now he accepts it. Again, he said, "Thanks, I need to win the support of the people of Utah."

I think to your point, Governor Romney happens to get that out of the way and I don't think he wants to talk about it anymore.

JOHNSON: I think this is a reminder of something about Mitt Romney, and something about Donald Trump. People hated -- conservative Republicans, they didn't like Romney because they thought he was a flip-flopper. And I think this is Romney flip-flopping, and if you want Trump or whoever he finds to be politically convenient in the moment.

It's a reminder of something about Trump which is that people float in and out of his good graces, and many few people are permanently cast out. Steve Bannon, we'll see if he's one of the those people, but very few people ever stay permanently on the outside.

BASH: The thing now to remember is that, Utah is a red state but it's probably the least Trump-friendly red state, it's obviously heavily Mormon, and he's only running to win from Utah. And so he only has to get in their good graces and then he could become a national voice if and when he's successful.

KING: Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

Up next, determined and fed up. Now, survivors of the Florida school shooting want change. But will lawmakers listen to their demands?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:53:03] KING: Welcome back. A touching tribute to three students killed in last week's shooting in Parkland. Alaina Petty, Peter Wang, and Martin Duque, were all cadets at the school's Junior ROTC program. An Army spokesman now saying all three teenagers will be awarded the Medal Of Heroism.

We know that Peter Wang was shot repeatedly while holding a door open so that others could escape.

Meanwhile, some of their classmates who survived the shooting, you see the pictures on a mission today. Leaving on these buses in just a few moments to lobby state lawmakers in Tallahassee. And if they get their way, to break a cycle.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DELANEY TARR, SURVIVED FLORIDA SHOOTING: We've lost this part of us that we're never be going to able to regain. There is never going back from being so outspoken on Twitter, from organizing meets with the legislators in Tallahassee. Because even if and when we solve this and this all passes, there's no going back. There's no going back to the way things were before.

That has been taken from us so all we can do now is just keep moving forward and grow into these people that we have determined to be.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We talked a bit about this at the top of the program. Does it make a difference that these are young people who are now going to go to Tallahassee. They and their parents also demanding action in Washington. Will it make a difference this time?

I was trying to talk to some political professionals about this yesterday and they're skeptical. They're skeptical but they do say it was the changing views of millennials that tipped the same-sex marriage debate in this country. They do say the Me Too movement -- sexual harassment isn't new but the Me Too movement has become a phenomenon. Is -- could this?

BASH: I think the answer is, if nothing happens which is probable, before the big march on March 24th, that's the time to look at whether or not the answer to that is going to be yes or no. because it seems as though that is going to be so powerful, so robust, it will be hard for politicians to ignore.

ZELENY: A couple different things, we have young people engaged and we have this. We've seen uprisings happen across the globe now that would not have happened before social media. So that's a new dynamic that wasn't there in -- at Columbine or Sandy Hook because they were young, young children.

[12:55:02] So it is something new. But I do think we have to just -- if history is our guide here, the politicians in this town won't do anything.

KAPUR: If that level of passion can be sustained and translated to political mobilization and those voters, those young voters can make politicians believe that they will be punished for opposing popular gun control measures, then we have ourselves a ball game. It this is something being a few weeks phenomenon or few months phenomenon then fades away, then it's a very different story and that the gun rights side will probably win again.

JOHNSON: I think these sorts of protests are most successful when they're lobbying in favor of a particular piece of legislation. So if these kids and their parents can get behind a piece of legislation, if something emerges as a leader in terms of legislation on Capitol Hill, then actually it becomes much more likely that this is successful.

KING: If nothing else, whatever their views, whatever they're asking for, they deserve to be heard. That's the point you made earlier, Jeff, and because of this place in Florida, a very important swing state in this election year, they probably have a very bigger platform to at least to start the conversation to see where it goes.

Thanks for joining us in the INSIDE POLITICS. See you back here this time tomorrow. Wolf starts after a very quick break.

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WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

The attack --