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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump Preparing for More Pardons; Ryan Sides with Gowdy; Trump Told Corker to Back Off. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired June 6, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:22] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. It's another remarkably busy news day. Thank you for sharing it with us.

New reporting on President Trump's latest obsession, his power to pardon. CNN is told the paperwork for dozens of additional pardons is in the work and the White House chief of staff not happy with the boss.

Plus, an eight-state midterm primary night with some very big lessons. Democrats believe they will escape a nightmare scenario in California. And Republicans in several states prove President Trump is in full command of the GOP train.

And, it was a simple question, why did Sarah Sanders lie?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Nothing has been produced that implicates the president in any way. And you know that. And you know that it would have leaked if that were there. You know that. I know that CNN has invested considerable sweat equity, time, and money in chasing the Russian collusion, delusion, illusion, and that you're waiting for it to bear fruit. But a year in, you see the polls starting to turn on this. You saw the Harvard Harris poll. Do you have any evidence that there is Russian collusion? Do you -- do you actually think it changed the election results? I'm asking the question, do you think --

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": I haven't -- I haven't seen -- I haven't seen the special -- I haven't seen the special counsel's report. I have not seen the special counsel's report. I have seen the special counsel's report. I have seen --

CONWAY: No, no, what do you think? But you work at CNN and you guys are obsessed with it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Makes you kind of miss alternative facts, doesn't it?

We begin a packed hour at the White House with new reporting on the president's new obsession. CNN is told President Trump now fascinated by his power to pardon and is looking for ways to use it even more. The paperwork, we are told, for dozens more pardons is being prepared. And sources tell CNN that in least one case the chief of staff, John Kelly, is described as worried, the boss now cutting corners and putting his impulse to act ahead of a careful review of the facts.

Our Kaitlan Collins is at the White House. She's doing this big reporting for us.

Kaitlan, why and where are we headed here?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, the president does seem prepared to wield his constitutional right here to pardon people, dozens to be exact. The White House has prepared the paperwork for at least 30 people I'm told by sources inside. All they need really is Donald Trump's signature right now to have these people pardoned. This is showing us just really how the president is going to exert his constitutional right to pardon people.

One of those people, I'm told, is Alice Johnson. That is the 63-year- old woman that Kim Kardashian came to the White House last week to lobby the president on her behalf to pardon her. That is a woman who is in prison in Alabama on drug and money laundering charges. And I'm told that in recent days the president has signaled to aides that he is inclined to pardon her. And they have the paperwork ready for him to do so.

But there is a split inside the White House over whether or not she should be pardoned or have her sentence commuted. And also there is a split between Jared Kushner and John Kelly. Jared Kushner, of course, is the one who arranged the meeting with Kim Kardashian to come to the White House to meet with President Trump. But I'm told that John Kelly does not think Alice Johnson is someone who is worthy of a presidential pardon. So that is a debate going on inside the White House.

But, larger, what we're looking at overall is not an unusual pattern of a president pardoning people. Of course, all presidents do that. But what's unusual here is that the president has pardoned five people in just 17 months in office and he's -- typically presidents wait until later on in their term. And I'm told that this recent spree of pardons has caused other friends and allies of the president outside of the White House to lobby him on behalf of people they also believe deserve forgiveness here, John.

KING: Different I guess is one way to put it. Kaitlan Collins with that reporting. Kaitlan, thank you, at the White House.

With me here in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Maggie Haberman with "The New York Times," CNN's Phil Mattingly, Tarini Parti with "BuzzFeed News," and "Politico's" Eliana Johnson.

The president is very different. There are a lot of systems and processes in Washington that are sort of in cement and need to be broken or need to be changed. Is this one of them? What is the president's impulse here? Is it, I have this power, I can't get Congress to do things, I can't get other things done, and this I can? Is that all it is? MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I

don't' think that's all it is, but I certainly think that's a big aspect of it.

I guess the other thing that I'm a little baffled by with the recent pardon focus in terms of the press coverage is, the president's been sort of fascinated by his pardon power going back to last year when he first pardoned Joe Arpaio. This is one of his, as you noted, magic powers that he didn't entirely understand how it works. Once he learned that it -- how it could work, he was constantly asking people about it. This is how he ended up asking people about, could I pardon my friends, my family, myself, which some people took very seriously and others in the White House dismissed it as that's just how he talks.

I do think the pardon system does need to be changed. I'm struck in this particular case, the one that Kim Kardashian brought to the president's attention. This is an example -- I was having this conversation with someone earlier -- of actually John Kelly's real weak political instincts where he's against this and doesn't think she necessarily deserves it.

[12:05:02] Of all of the pardons that the president has done, if you look at, say, Joe Arpaio, who was a political supporter, or this one, where this is somebody who is clearly not going to commit the same kind of crime, has done some time and so forth, this would be good politics. And the fact that he is arguing against it is curious.

KING: It's interesting. To your point, the three that make people in politics say, is the president trying to send a message here, this is this about politics, is this about James Comey, is it about the FBI, is it about sending signals to Russian meddling figures. Scooter Libby, the Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff. Dinesh D'Souza there, a conservative pundit who admitted he broke campaign finance laws. Joe Arpaio, the sheriff just outside Maricopa County, outside, you know, was known as a Trump immigration ally. To -- to Latino activists, they viewed him as a racial profiler. Those ones (INAUDIBLE) in politics, you mentioned, and Alice Marie Johnson, convicted in 1996 for drug possession and money laundering. Currently serving a life sentence. Kim Kardashian got an Oval Office meeting the other day.

To your point, this one, I don't think we would say, ha, ha, what signals is he sending to Paul Manafort if he did that.

TARINI PARTI, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "BUZZFEED NEWS": No, but it --

HABERMAN: No. Right. Right. Sure.

PARTI: I think it's interesting to see not that he's giving out these pardons or considering pardoning people, but, you know, who he's trying to pardon. So, you know, there's been a lot of criticism about celebrities being involved. And even in the case of Alice Johnson, it was Kim Kardashian who actually took this issue to the president. So does a celebrity always have to be involved in order for the president to pardon someone. KING: Right. One of the remarkable things that was now -- you're

right, the president has been fascinated about this for a long time. Maybe it's accelerating now. And, of course, we want to pay attention to it. But one of the interesting things you see is people outside getting it.

HABERMAN: Yes.

KING: Kim Kardashian asked for a White House meeting. Can I get in to see the president? I want to make this case. And we -- you know, we know the president's interest in celebrities. We know the president follows reality television.

Here's another one. The is the wife of George Papadopoulos, also known in team Trump as the coffee boy. She's on television now. He is cooperating with the special counsel. If you're the president of the United States, you don't like that. But his wife says, let's have a pardon.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SIMONA MANGIANTE PAPADOPOULOS, WIFE OF FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN ADVISER: Honestly, I know how much dedicated and committed he was in the Trump campaign. I know he did an excellent job. I know he's made serious -- because of this incident, his freedom is challenged. And so I trust and hope and I ask to President Trump to pardon him. I hope he will.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: I mean, this is going to sound very flip. I actually don't mean it this way. But the traditional process is, you apply to the Justice Department. You go through a very long process where they reach out to any supporting parties, any aggrieved parties, what should we do, what's the history, how does this fit in the context of past pardons? Is the new process get Jared Kushner to get you into the Oval Office or get on Fox News?

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": Well, I think process hasn't been a strength of the Trump White House. There have been -- it's been very weak on process. John Kelly tried to change that to limited effect, I think. But I think we've seen two different sorts of pardons. You had insiders, like Scooter Libby and Dinesh D'Souza lobbying for these pardons from the outset of the administration. And now you're seeing this sort of -- not necessarily outsiders, but people less familiar with the political process, like Kim Kardashian, Trump's celebrity friends, starting to realize that the president is willing to make these moves, beginning to lobby him.

And it is celebrities, people connected to the president. But his focus is clearly people who have been the subject of overzealous prosecutorial discretion and I think he feels empathy for them for obvious reasons.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So I think if you take a step back, there's value and merit to taking a look at this process and either breaking the paradigm or shifting it to some degree. If you look across the criminal justice system, there are people and advocates who have lists of people who have clearly been wronged. Their sentences have been way too harsh. But the reasons or rational for why they're currently or why they have been prosecuted, why they're currently in jail, their sentences themselves are weak at best and therefore the idea of waiting for the politics or waiting for a very lengthy and arduous Justice Department process and getting rid of that and changing that paradigm, there's value to that.

I think the real question now becomes, is it just people that get on Fox News and lobby their case, or is he going to take a wider ranging view of a very real power that he has constitutionally and apply it in a way that could make a system that I think all parties, most notably his son-in-law and others involved, believe is broken, make that system better or work better?

KING: Can the ACLU -- ACLU get his attention just as much as Sylvester Stallone and Kim Kardashian? I think a fair question to put up. And part of it is, it's like everything Trump, people view it through their eye and their political prism, is that , you know, Alice Marie Johnson, OK. Jack Johnson, OK. Scooter Libby? Dinesh D'Souza? Joe Arpaio? Wait a minute? What is he trying to do here? Is it just about politics?

This is from "The Washington Post." A White House official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Trump is obsessed with pardons, describing them as the president's new favorite thing to talk about. But the potential pardon of Johnson has caused consternation in the West Wing with top advisers, you mentioned this, Chief of Staff Kelly, White House Counsel Don McGahn described -- disturbed by the process.

Is it the process or the end result? Is it they're traditionalists and they think, no, this is why we have a Justice Department and lawyers and months and moths of meetings and process?

HABERMAN: Boy, I've got to say, being bothered by traditional process has not really been a hallmark of this White House. So the fact that this is suddenly -- this is the line that they have to draw.

[12:10:05] I think that Don McGahn, actually, in this role of White House council, has tried more often than not to make actual policy get followed, particularly since the Rob Porter issue a couple months ago.

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: John Kelly, I think, does these things issue by issue and based on how he feels about them. Again, this did not follow a normal process in terms of getting in front of the president. To your point, should somebody have to be a celebrity or be able to be in a Fox News green room in order to get the president's attention? That's a different subject.

But on this particular case, it is still not clear to me, and it's not clear to me from "The Washington Post" story, why it is that Kelly in particular has an issue here.

KING: That's a fascinating story.

HABERMAN: I mean it might -- what I think -- and what I think it is -- and, sorry, just to (INAUDIBLE) the thought -- I think some of it is the method of delivery here is sort of the Jared Kushner push for prison reform.

KING: Right.

HABERMAN: And I think that who is helping push this along in the inside game of thrones in the White House has as much to do with the issue as anything else.

KING: Other internal -- the existing internal tensions as much as the issues at hand.

HABERMAN: Correct. This is about -- this is about other things and not the case.

KING: Right.

Well, when we come back, one of the other things that comes up a lot, the Russian meddling investigation. Big news from the president's top lawyers. Maybe even bigger news from the speaker of the House.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:15:20] KING: Welcome back.

Big Russia meddling news today on two important fronts. First, this eye-popping accusation from the president's lead attorney. Rudy Giuliani, speaking to a conference in Israel, said, quote, he's innocent, of the president, he hasn't done anything wrong. The president of the United States, they are a group of 13 highly partisan Democrats who make up the Mueller team, excluding him, who are trying very, very hard to frame him, to get him in trouble when he hasn't done anything wrong. Trying to frame him. Trying very hard to frame him. Let that sink in for a moment.

And as you do, consider this, the House Speaker Paul Ryan now joining another prominent Republican in challenging, refuting is a better word, the president's allegation that the FBI illegally spied on the Trump campaign. Ryan, you might remember, was among the lawmakers briefed by the FBI and other Justice Department leaders. Republican Congressman Trey Gowdy entered that briefing an FBI critic, but he emerged to say the FBI did nothing wrong and, in fact, in Gowdy's view, did everything right in its use of confidential informants. Gowdy is now under fierce attack from team Trump, which makes this a very big deal.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Chairman Gowdy's initial assessment is accurate. I think -- but we have some more digging to do. We're waiting for some more document requests. We have some more documents to review. We still have some unanswered questions. It would have been helpful if we got this information earlier. As Chairman Nunes said just the other day, if we got all of the information we were looking for, we could wrap this up faster. But I have seen no evidence to the contrary of the initial assessment that Chairman Gowdy has made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: In the middle there, he was trying to be careful and be differential to the conservatives who are on team Trump. But at the beginning and the end, the speaker essentially was saying, my translation, Mr. President, you're wrong, stop it.

MATTINGLY: Yes, in a word, yes that is what he's doing. And I also think you get a peak right there at the behind the scenes of what's been going on as Ryan has tried to walk a very careful line with Devin Nunes, chairman of the intelligence committee to conservatives in their conference. And the reason why Trey Gowdy has been involved in a lot of this. The speaker trusts Trey Gowdy. The speaker thinks very highly of Trey Gowdy, his time as a U.S. attorney, his role throughout all of this. And Gowdy's willingness to come out and talk about this on Fox News, talk about his perspective on things, gave Ryan the opportunity to do something that he very rarely ever does, and that's talk about something that's happened behind closed doors with the Gang of Eight.

Gowdy laid this out there. Now the speaker has essentially backed it up, walked the line a little bit there, but backed it up. Our colleague, Jeremy Herb (ph) just heard from Senator Richard Burr, the Intelligence Committee Chairman in the Senate, who very rarely speaks on these issues, he said he agreed with Trey Gowdy.

What you are seeing right now is everyone but Devin Nunes essentially coming out and saying, everything that the FBI has shown us shows that what the FBI did was correct, what the FBI did was in line with their process and what the FBI did is not at all what the president is going to say.

KING: So let -- and sometimes we need to slow down in the blur age of Trump we live in. So the speaker of the House, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Trey Gowdy, who's the chairman of the Oversight Committee, three Republican -- three very prominent Republicans, including the man third in line to the presidency, essentially saying, Mr. President, stop. Mr. President, you are wrong. Mr. President, the FBI did not spy on you. Mr. President, give it up. How --

HABERMAN: He's not really saying that, though, and that is actually, I think, an important point. They're saying the president's wrong. But what they are not doing is laying down some gauntlet and saying, this is really a mistake. This is an outrage. This is undermining our institutions.

You are seeing people, I think --

KING: It's a step out of hiding, which they've been doing on these questions for a long time, but it's not a full step. HABERMAN: We've seen them step out and step back repeatedly over the

last three years, congressional Republicans, and I don't know that this marks some new moment in time. Paul Ryan is leaving. Gowdy is leaving. The people who are staying, are they going to say that? It doesn't really seem like it. And, consequently, and Trump does these things by attrition, I do think you are seeing people who recognize, this is something of a tipping point in terms of what people are going to be comfortable with and feel OK about the bounds of what Trump is doing.

Trump has consistently undermined and discredited law enforcement institutions in this country in the service of himself, in the service of saying, they're after me. I think you are increasingly seeing Republicans feeling uncomfortable with that, that they are not saying what you said, in my opinion, and I'm not trying to be argumentative, but I think that's a really important thing, they're not doing that. And until they do that, this is just going to continue.

KING: They're not taking it all the way.

HABERMAN: They're not.

KING: We have to take the inference if they're not saying, the FBI spied on you.

HABERMAN: Correct.

KING: They won't just say --

HABERMAN: If they want to say, Mr. President, stop, they're more than capable of saying that. And they haven't said that. What they've said is, he's just not accurate, which is OK. We say that every day.

KING: But it's an excellent point because as the speaker said, maybe it's limited, as he said what he said, Republicans who used to think of Trey -- of Trump, team Trump used to think of Trey Gowdy as some of more of a hero.

HABERMAN: Right.

KING: We're now saying he's joined Rod Rosenstein and Jeff Sessions and everybody else in the deep state.

[12:20:09] JOHNSON: I do think, you know, to pull back for a second, this is an example of how Trump tends to divide Republicans. Democrats are united on this. But then Trump comes forth with a statement about the FBI spying on his campaign and it's an issue that splits Republicans in two. And going towards the midterm elections, I think it's an example of why Republicans are fearful approaching November.

HABERMAN: That's right.

PARTI: I think it's also interesting that even though they're retiring from Congress, they're not going all the way yet. And, you know, saying the president's -- Mr. President, stop doing this, they're still sort of couching their words a little bit. JOHNSON: I think and that's because they care about the ramifications

for the midterms --

HABERMAN: Yes.

JOHNSON: Even though they're leaving.

PARTI: Yes.

JOHNSON: Paul Ryan, in particular, who has struggled to stay on as speaker and had to make an argument that he can try to hold the House, even though people are pushing him to step down.

MATTINGLY: I think that's a key point and it's also a window into how Republicans have just flat-out decided they're going to deal with the president, right?

HABERMAN: That's right.

MATTINGLY: There have been no shortage of behind the scenes conversations amongst top Republicans. How do we deal with the president? How do we operate when he throws things out like this? And they have made the clear calculation that dealing with the president by phone, behind the scenes, trying to reach him that way is far more valuable and far more effective than stepping out and making some bold statement.

HABERMAN: That's right.

MATTINGLY: While we -- while Maggie makes a great point, this isn't the speaker banging his fists and saying, Mr. President, stop, this is as far as I think he's willing to go --

HABERMAN: That's right.

MATTINGLY: In public, while behind the scenes he continues to tell the president, please don't do this stuff.

(CROSS TALK)

KING: He's trying to -- he's trying to herd his own sheep --

HABERMAN: Sure.

KING: A lot of whom are with the president. Whether they agree or not on the facts, they like stirring it up. They like to stir it up.

To that point, we won't -- we don't have time to discuss it. The speaker was also asked, does the president have the power to pardon himself, and he said I don't know the technical answer to the question, but I think obviously the answer is, he shouldn't do that and no one is above the law.

HABERMAN: Well, that was -- that's actually much further than I think everything else that he said about -- about the FBI and spying, that was a different answer. KING: Well, he's -- remember, he's got a lot of Republicans who are

going home to campaign.

HABERMAN: Right.

KING: They may get asked these questions.

A programing note for us here. The White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, will be on "Cuomo Prime Time." That's tonight at 9:00 Eastern. You don't want to miss that conversation.

We'll be right back with the big election results.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:26:27] KING: Welcome back.

The president, in a fresh fight today with a leading member of his own party, and with key American allies over his push for new trade tariffs, the European Union, Canada, and Mexico all announcing just today fresh retaliatory steps against the new U.S. tariffs. The president says he's not going to back down. Neither, it seems, at least for the moment, is Republican Senator Bob Corker, who's pushing a new plan in Congress to empower lawmakers to block the president's tariff plan. Senator Corker says President Trump called him this morning to tell him to back off, saying it hurts his ability to negotiate with those countries where -- on which he's imposing tariffs. Corker says, sorry, Mr. President, he has an obligation to stick to his plan, even though he knows he says many Republicans won't support it because they're fearful of the president.

What to make of this? We were talking in a separate context about the Russia investigation. Are Republicans getting a little more emboldened to stand up to the president? Does it matter?

MATTINGLY: I mean, so the genesis of this is that if there's one issue the Republicans have been willing to actually take the full step forward, it's been on trade. And, ideologically, obviously the Republican Party differs greatly from where the president is on this. Why the president had to make this phone call is because this is now real. Instead of grumbling, instead of behind the scenes phone calls trying to get exemptions, there is now a legislative threat on the table. And, I'm told, Senate Republican leadership, most notably Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is amenable to the idea of giving it a vote on the floor as part of a broader defense bill.

The issue here is that it's not just Corker. Corker's retiring. Corker can be the face of it and take the bullets. Behind Corker is people like Senator Pat Toomey, other senators who are very keen on what this would actually do because they're hearing from their constituents. Actually, senators are having a very, very difficult time with this. It goes beyond just the ideological split. It goes to, these are what we're hearing from back home, and this is now a very real threat for the president. That's why he's making the call.

KING: I just want to let you know what you're seeing. The president has a bill signing ceremony at the Rose Garden. We're going to keep watching the pictures here, if the president makes any news, we'll take you there live.

Part of what you said is -- the most significant part of what you said, we were just talking about Speaker Paul Ryan agreeing with Trey Gowdy. Speaker Paul Ryan saying the president can't pardon himself or shouldn't pardon himself. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, willing to let it be part -- if they could -- if he lets them propose that amendment, that's a change. That is the majority leader letting there be -- they've all been talking about this. They've all been saying, Mr. President, you're wrong. Saying, Mr. President, this is dumb. Mr. President, this is not the 1920s. Talking and doing are two very different things. The Republican Party has been very reluctant to do the do part. If Mitch McConnell's going to allow a vote on this, what does that tell us?

PARTI: I think Mitch McConnell is thinking about his majority and expanding his majority in the Senate. There are a lot of Senate Democrats who are up in red states where agriculture is a big issue. So they're probably hearing, like Phil said, from their constituents there, and that's what -- that's what's on Mitch McConnell's mind right now.

KING: And yet U.S. Steel announced overnight it's going to create 300 jobs in Illinois, it's going to -- it has I think half the factory open right now. It's going to open the rest of it. The president will argue, I'm right.

HABERMAN: He will. And they're going to be individual data points that will be helpful to him.

I do think that, to Phil's point, I think the more that there is actual legislation on the table that is going to have to be an up or down referendum on as opposed to just sort of whispers about concerns and this could happen or this could not happen, I think it's going to be harder for him to cherry pick pieces of information.

KING: The word Senator Corker used after the phone call, he said, some Republicans are, quote, fearful of crossing the president. We're going to talk about the primary results in a bit. There's ample evidence that if the president -- you get on the wrong side of the president as a Republican, it can hurt you. Democrats are -- some Democrats like the president's actions on this issue. Others aren't so sure because of where they come from.

[12:30:00] JOHNSON: That's right. I mean this is a local issue for politicians. So some Republicans may be fearful of crossing the president, but they may be more fearful of losing their elections in November.