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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump Tweets Out Gun Reform Plan; White House Backpedals Raising Age; Trump Chided Lawmakers on NRA; Porn Star Offers to Return Money; Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 12, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Fredricka.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Remember the president promising to lead the new guns debate and scolding lawmakers for being afraid of the NRA? Well, the new White House school safety plan is out today and the NRA is happy.

Plus, a giant midterm election test in western Pennsylvania, Trump country, tomorrow. If the Democrat wins, brace for some Republican panic.

And is this the final answer. Elizabeth Warren on 2020, perhaps -- perhaps clearing a big space on the left of the Democratic fields.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you win re-election this year, are you going to pledge to serve a full six-year term?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: So, look, I am not running for president of the United States. I am running for the United States Senate, 2018, Massachusetts, whoo hoo. I am in this fight to retain my Senate seat in 2018. That's where I'm focused. That's where I'm going to stay focused. I'm not running for president.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So no pledge, though, on the six years?

WARREN: I am not running for president.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Whoo hoo. I didn't know those of us from Massachusetts said whoo hoo.

Back to that story in a minute, though.

We begin the hour with new presidential tweets and a new approach that speaks volumes. The Trump White House is retreating in the national conversation about guns and gun violence. The president, who lectured lawmakers just days ago that they were afraid of the NRA, is now pushing a school safety plan that tracks the NRA's wishes. Gone is the call to raise the minimum age to buy a firearm. A new White House memo states the states can debate that.

Also missing, any big White House rollout. The memo was distributed Sunday night. The president is tweeting today, but no event on the schedule, no effort to use the traditional bully pulpit. Instead, this pair of presidential tweets. Very strong improvement in strengthening of background checks will be fully backed by White House. Legislation moving forward. Bump stocks will soon be out. Highly trained expert teachers will be allowed to conceal carry, subject to state law. Armed guards, OK. Deterrent, the president went on, on 18 to 21 age limit, watching court cases and things, rulings before acting. States are making this decision. Things are moving rapidly on this, but not much political support, to put it mildly.

In substance and style, that's a big retreat from a president who promised Parkland students and their parents he would lead this conversation. And that he would fight the NRA if and when necessary. Now, apparently content to watch Florida, watch Congress and ask his education secretary to do something he mocked just 48 hours ago, lead a study commission.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A lot of people are looking at that and thinking, it sounds like the NRA got to him.

BETSY DEVOS, EDUCATION SECRETARY: As I said earlier, everything is on the table, and we will be looking at this. The state of Florida just passed a law this past week that looks at this issue, that raises the age --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It raises it. They didn't engage in a long process.

DEVOS: There are -- there --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They just passed the law.

DEVOS: It -- everything is on the table, and this commission will be studying it, along with many other issues, and will be forthcoming with solutions.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We begin with CNN's Jeff Zeleny. He's live at the White House.

Jeff, why what many people can justifiably say is a retreat from the president?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: John, there's no question it is, particularly how this announcement was made. The president, of course, can convey attention onto something unlike anyone else in the country and the world. And he decided to send the message out about his gun plan on social media. Not talking about it. At least he's not scheduled to.

He is taking time today to welcome the Houston Astros, the world champion here, to the White House. That is the only public event on his day.

John, certainly so much different than the tone and the look in his face, look in his eye and the tone in his voice when he welcomed the gun victims and their families from the Parkland shooting almost a month ago here vowing to do something. And he talked about the specifics he wanted to do. He held that, you know, open meeting with lawmakers.

Well, the reality here is now, all that has changed. Yes, it's possible he could still do something else in the future, but the urgency of the moment seems to have passed him. And for this point, the White House says, that's all we're expected to hear on guns right now.

So, John, certainly a striking change from almost one month ago.

John.

KING: Striking change.

Jeff Zeleny live at the White House.

Jeff, appreciate it.

With me here to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Manu Raju, Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast," "Bloomberg's" Margaret Talev and Michael Warren of "The Weekly Standard." Congratulations. A new parent there.

MICHAEL WARREN, SENIOR WRITER, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": A baby -- second baby for you, but a new baby. Beautiful boy.

So let's -- this is -- if you look at the president's proposal, it is what you would -- it would be a mainstream proposal from a traditional Republican White House. It is the fact that the president got so far out there in his meetings with the Parkland students and parents, and from some with parents and victims of past school shootings. Then in his meetings with lawmakers where he said, hey, you guys are cowards. Hey, don't be afraid to fight the NRA. Hey, maybe we should raise the age. What happened?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And we've seen this time and again with this president.

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE DAILY BEAST": Right.

[12:05:01] RAJU: He did this also on immigration, suggesting that he'd be willing to go pretty far, buck traditional Republican orthodoxy, but essentially retreat to what is standard Republican positions.

There's really nothing in this proposal that the NRA would oppose. I mean when he's talking about fixing background checks and strengthening background checks, really what he's talking about is the National Instant Criminal Background System that is already used by the FBI, ensuring that states report into that system. Other agencies do that as well. That's a bill that's pending in Congress. That does not expand background checks. It doesn't deal with Internet sales, gun shows, something that Manchin-Toomey bill would do. He does not get behind that.

And he does not get behind raising the age from 18 to 21 for purchasing certain rifles. That's something that he initially supported but backed off this, punting that all to this commission, which presumably is where it's going to go to not actually get any support.

KUCINICH: Yes, commissions are kind of where things go to die. And I imagine he's also watching the state of Florida, where his friend Governor Scott just signed a bill into law and the NRA immediately filed a lawsuit to -- on the 18 to 21 provision of that bill. So, you know, we'll have to see what the outcome of that will be at the end of the day.

But, certainly, this is just like the DACA meeting. And I think a lot of us who watched that meeting and then watched his meeting with lawmakers on guns kind of expected this outcome, to be honest.

KING: So -- so if you're out there and you want the age raised or you want significant gun controls, you're calling this a treat, you're calling it a copout. Let me try to posit (ph) it this way. Is -- could it be -- could it be, in terms of the 2018 midterm election year, set the policy aside, smart politics in the sense that, to use the DACA analogy, so now he's not going to ask conservatives to cast a vote on what they considers amnesty in an election year. Now he's not going to ask conservatives to cast a vote on significant gun controls and anger the NRA, like the governor of Florida just did, like a lot of Republican legislatures in Florida just did, in an election year. Is that what this is about?

WARREN: I think it's a -- that's -- you're putting a little too much strategy into the movements. I think it's very much a situation where the president is saying what the audience in front of him wanted him to say a couple of weeks ago when he met with those Parkland students and families, and then political reality sort of bringing -- you know, the gravity brings him back.

I think the practical effect of it very much will be what you just described. And that's something that I think a lot of Republicans are breathing a sigh of relief over. And also I think it just simply reflects, again, the politics of this thing. It's, you know, it's not necessarily being captured by the NRA. It's just a political fact that there is really no interest in Congress, or really no path to Congress for getting anything more than what he's now agreed to and what he's proposed now.

MARGARET TALEV, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "BLOOMBERG": It's certainly true that Congress doesn't want to do that and that the president is aware of that and is dialing back what he's asking for. It's also true that if he had held strong to what he had said that day with the families and really pushed for this, we would see whether there's any room for Congress. He's made a decision not to do that.

KING: Right. And to that point, let's go back two weeks, this is February 28th. The president of the United States at the White House. He has lawmakers at the table, a bipartisan group, where the president sounds like he's fighting with the Democrats and at the end here you hear him lecturing a Republican.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You can't buy a handgun at 18, 19 or 20. You have to wait until you're 21. But you can buy the gun, the weapon used in this horrible shooting at 18. You are going to decide, the people in this room pretty much are going to decide. But I would give very serious thought to it.

So I was just curious as to what you did in your bill. You don't address it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We -- we didn't -- we didn't address it, Mr. President. Look, I think we --

TRUMP: You know why? Because you're afraid of the NRA, right?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: With a smile there, because you're afraid of the NRA.

Look, if you don't believe gun control is the answer, you believe that, you know, this -- people get guns and commit crimes and 99.99 percent of gun owners are law-abiding citizens, then you didn't want this proposal in there. But if you listen to the president there, where he says, we should look at raising the age, tells everyone else they're afraid of the NRA. Now he has a proposal that does not raise the age and he says, you know, states should do this again. If you believe in federalism, that's the way it should be, the states should decide these things, on any number of issues, not just guns, but a lot of issues. However, it's the, where is the presidential leadership?

TALEV: Well, I'm just going to be cynical for a minute -- I know that's shocking -- and say that this way he kind of gets credit for both because he said -- those things that he said on the first day that many of those families wanted to hear, that he may have believed at the time that he said it. And the answer is just that while Congress wasn't willing to do it. It's not that he didn't ask for it, it's not that he didn't push for it, it's that it was important for him to get something done and the appetite wasn't there for it and so now he's going to be pragmatic.

RAJU: And --

TALEV: He can try to argue it that way now. But in making the decision not to go pedal to the medal on this and, if he gets it, he then gets it, and if he doesn't, he doesn't, he has chosen kind of the political path of least resistance over -- over the -- over the ideology, over the principle.

RAJU: That was the -- this is the challenge of being a member of Congress and dealing with this president is that he'll say things that you don't really know if that's actually where he ultimately will stand at the end of the day. He'll suggest -- throw these trial balloons out there and say, well, is this what the White House really believes, that the president really believes? Will he get behind this? And he ultimately retreats from it and it makes it very difficult for the policymakers to ultimately decide, make strong decisions, because they don't know where the president ultimately stands on this.

[12:10:20] TALEV: Well, who else is going to take three steps forward if he takes a step back.

RAJU: Right.

KUCINICH: Well, and they have to choose their battles because this -- the president will throw stuff out that they don't agree with. And you see them kind of saying, well, let's see where he ends up, because there are so many things that on first blush they don't agree with this president on, that maybe if they wait a couple days, they won't have to go out there against him.

KING: And I would come back to the presidential leadership question in the sense that, if you watched the president on the road Saturday night, he was up in Pennsylvania. He was talking about a different issue here. But now he's asked his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who's taking a lot of heat even from within the White House today, about an interview she gave on "60 Minutes" last night. We'll talk about that in a second.

But the president now says Betsy DeVos, he wants -- let's watch Florida. So, in other words, let's watch and see if Rick Scott can win the Senate race. Let's watch and see if the NRA primaries these Republican legislatures who vote for this. Let's watch to see if the age increase in Florida withstands a federal court challenge that the NRA has already filed. Let's watch. That's the president of the United States' approach now. And let's have a federal commission that will study this issue.

Well, here's what the president on Saturday though about commissions.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We can't just keep setting up blue ribbon committees with your wife and your wife and your husband. And they meet and they have a meal and they talk. Talk, talk, talk. Two hours later, then they write a report. It's a joke. I -- look, that's what I got in Washington. I got all these blue ribbon committees. Everybody wants to be in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Twenty-four hours after that, the White House released its paper calling for a blue ribbon commission. I mean --

KUCINICH: Does he know he's president? I mean that's -- because that's a campaign rally, right?

RAJU: Yes. Well, also, he doesn't --

KUCINICH: He won. RAJU: He doesn't know what is in his proposal, which is the more

stunning thing about this.

KUCINICH: Right.

RAJU: But maybe not so stunning. He's done this in other proposals as well, not seem to know the details. Clearly not knowing that here, because why would he undercut what they're pointing to as a good idea going forward.

KUCINICH: But as someone who uses power as a way to influence people, as a way to bend people to his will on the regular. We see it on a whole range of issues. It is notable that he's taken a step back here and allowed this to go forward because, presumably he now knows that there is a blue ribbon commission in there. We'll have to see what he says, you know, today, tomorrow on this.

WARREN: I think he recognizes that this is where things go to die, right? So these kinds of commissions, this is not an issue, I think, on which he's particularly animated. He's a little bit -- I would say much to the left of his base. It's just not something that I think that ultimately he is motivated enough to cross that base in order to get done. So send it to the commission. He just explained he knows better than maybe anybody that that's where issues like this go to die.

KING: Motivated enough, however, and to his credit, to bring in the past victims, to bring in the Parkland students, to bring in the Parkland children, students and their parents, to bring in the lawmakers from both parties and have the conversations when the news was fresh in the news headlines --

WARREN: Right.

KING: But then two weeks later, it's the consistency. It's the consistency issue that makes it hard to figure out exactly what he believes and what he's willing to fight for.

We'll continue to watch this one. Up next, how a special election in western Pennsylvania on track to test not only the president but his party.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:17:28] KING: Some breaking news to bring you right now. The adult film actress Stormy Daniels making an offer to President Trump and his lawyers in hopes that an agreement will allow her to completely end her silence.

CNN's Sara Sidner joins us now with the details.

Sara, what's this latest move?

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: John, every day there seems to be something new. This is brand new. Michael Avenatti has -- that's the attorney for Stormy Daniels -- has sent a letter to Michael Cohen and Michael Cohen's attorney, Lawrence Rosen, saying, look, we want to end this disparagement agreement, this non-disparagement agreement, between Stormy and Michael that they signed, that they also say Donald Trump is a party to, although he did not sign the agreement back in 2016.

And I want to read this to you because it's interesting the way they're doing this. They're saying, look, she will pay back the $130,000 in hush money that she was paid to keep this story out of the news, but she's saying that she'll pay it back to Donald Trump by wire transfer. Donald Trump, by the way, has never said that there was an affair, has never admitted that there was any kind of affair between the two of them, has not talked at all on a personal level. It's always been through spokespeople or though Michael Cohen, his personal attorney.

That is the e-mail that was sent to me today by Mr. Avenatti that details this. It also goes into some details about how they want this to go forward. And it says that basically no one can come after her if they agree to take this money back. That she's allowed to tell her story. And that they would dismiss the non-disparagement agreement without prejudice.

So it is asking quite a bit. It will be interesting to see what Michael Cohen says about this. You can almost bet that this may be a no-go.

John.

KING: You can almost bet.

Sara Sidner, giving us the latest from Los Angeles. Sara, thanks so much. Keep on top of this. Come back if you get new information.

Let's bring it into the room.

This is without a doubt yet another publicity play, some would say a stunt from Stormy Daniels. However, whatever you think of her, whatever you think of her -- what she says, it puts the president and his team now in a very tough box. She says, sign this document, I'll give you the money back. I get to talk. If you say no, then you're saying you want to keep in place a nondisclosure agreement that she says is about an affair with the president of the United States.

TALEV: Right.

KING: If you say fine, send the money, number one, she gets to talk freely, and, number two, this is, again, part of the stunt part, she will send the money back, quote, to an account designated by the president who has said, I didn't have this relationship, I don't know anything about a payment. So where do we go?

RAJU: I mean this is what -- the White House is in such a difficult position here because they have not given a full accounting of exactly what happened, what the president knew, was he aware of this payment right before the elections to allegedly keep her quite. Yesterday Rod Shaw was asked on one of the Sunday shows whether he was aware -- whether Trump was aware of that payment. He said, not that I'm aware of, but then he acknowledged he hasn't actually talked to the president about this either.

[12:20:24] And yesterday -- last week is -- you guys could attest to -- Sarah Sanders would not explain this at all. She shut down almost all questions about this. So this is not a story that's going away, and the White House is not making it easier because they're not really giving any facts or explaining exactly what happened.

KING: Right. And, again, again, if you're a Trump supporter or even if you're a law student and you're reading what matters and what doesn't matter, she signed a piece of paper saying she wouldn't talk about this. Now she's talking about this and she wants more. So there's some people just saying, wait a minute.

Now her point is, number one, the president's lawyer, Michael Cohen, has talked about this to a degree or issued statements, therefore that he has talked, therefore it frees her up to talk. She also says that David Dennison, a pseudonym for she says Donald Trump, never signed the agreement, therefore it's not legally binding. That's the lawsuit she filed in Los Angeles.

Now the action here, again, sending Michael Cohen, the president's long time fixer and personal attorney, and then his lawyer essentially saying you have 24 hours. She'll send the money back. And then she's free to talk.

And one other thing I want to say here, it also says neither EC -- which is an LLC private company Michael Cohen set up to pay the money -- nor the president shall take any action, legal or otherwise, aimed at preventing Miss Clifford's recent interview with Anderson Cooper of "60 Minutes" from airing publically.

That interview, we are told, likely to air this coming Sunday, but there was always the possibility that the Trump team could go to court and say, no, she signed a nondisclosure agreement, she can't do this.

KUCINICH: But even by doing that, it sort of, again, puts them in a tough position.

KING: Why are you afraid she's going to --

KUCINICH: What are you trying to silence -- what are you afraid of -- what are you afraid of here?

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: What are you afraid she's going to say? And this is also a president who has said a bunch of things are lies that have been accusations against (INAUDIBLE) does she have that some of these other (INAUDIBLE) don't have?

TALEV: If this "60 Minutes" interview happens and airs, it's a very big deal. It's a big deal. And President Trump himself, when he was in business, liked to use aggressive business tactics and techniques to get what he wanted, whether it had to do with payment for services or kind of renegotiating a contract that was already happening. This is like sort of the worst taste of his own medicine and it presents some of the perils of consorting with someone years ago in whatever fashion who now has nothing, really very little to lose by stopping. She has so much publicity advantage to gain from this. She's probably trying to shift her career into a different mode to, you know, for more of a long-term strategy. And this has brought attention back to someone who had faded out at the spotlight. And he has all the motivation in the world to get people to stop talking about this, and she's just not going to let up.

WARREN: Right.

TALEV: So he's in a very difficult spot.

WARREN: And I -- but I think to do that, the White House needs to have a better strategy, or how about a strategy at all at dealing with these questions. It doesn't seem like they've got anything going on. They haven't discussed a way to move forward on this. They're going to have to do that really quickly because CBS, "60 Minutes," they're not part of any NDAs at all. Their -- this is a First Amendment issue. I don't think they have it. They have any -- there's going to be any legs on that sort of suit. So they've got to figure out, the White House does, how to respond to this in a way that doesn't just keep bringing more questions.

KUCINICH: Right.

WARREN: But I think they're in sort of a whirlpool here that they can't get out of.

KING: And it's a giant -- it's a -- this is the risk of signing a nondisclosure agreement, because to get a legal nondisclosure agreement, you have to put down in writing what you're not allowed to disclose so that you can then try to enforce it if somebody says something. And not in her lawsuit, in the side letter that is initialed by Michael Cohen on behalf of his LLC, it says, and, again, the man alleged to be Donald Trump did not sign the document. But Stefanie Clifford, Stormy Daniels, signed it, Michael Cohen signed it, and it says, prior to entering into this agreement, PP, her pseudonym, came into possession of certain confidential information pertaining to DD, that's David Dennison or Donald Trump, if you accept the line here, as more fully defined below, only some of which is in tangible form, which includes, but is not limited to, certain still images and/or text messages which were authored by or relate to DD. And, again, DD is supposed to be Donald Trump. That, she says, clear this up, I'll send you your money back. I get to use those any way I want.

RAJU: I mean the risk is some of that may come out ultimately anyways, especially if this lawsuit is allowed to go forward through the court process. So that's the real concern.

You know, crisis management 101 is, you let all the facts out, you rip the Band-Aid off, you say everything right away and you just take your lumps and move on. In this case, you're legally not allowed to say that or the White House does not want us to know what the actual facts are because it's very ugly that there was an affair allegedly, and there was a payoff to keep her quiet and it could be a violation of campaign finance law.

[12:25:06] KUCINICH: And this has been kind of crisis comes (ph) malpractice at this point because remember what Sarah Huckabee Sanders did say. She said this thing about the president winning in arbitration.

KING: Right.

KUCINICH: Everyone in the briefing room, I'm sure you were there, said, arbitration? What you are talking about? Which is another nugget that everybody started looking into.

TALEV: It's like more (INAUDIBLE).

KUCINICH: So that -- that made it -- make a bad situation just slightly worse.

KING: She connected the president's attorney to an arbitration hearing about a document that says the president had a sexual relationship with a porn actress, period.

KUCINICH: Yes.

KING: OK, we'll keep an eye on that. We'll see how this one plays out.

TALEV: Yes.

KUCINICH: Doesn't make it better.

KING: Tune in tomorrow. That's when the deadline is, this hour, when we start, tomorrow, see how this one plays out.

When we come back, an election tomorrow in western Pennsylvania in Trump country. If the Republican loses, watch out for GOP panic.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:30:02] KING: A little math here, a little reminder of Pennsylvania's importance in 2016 as we look ahead to a very important special election tomorrow, an early test of 2018.