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INSIDE POLITICS

Trump Arrives in Midwest; Jordan Announces Bid for Speaker; Mueller Examining Tweets. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired July 26, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:00:14] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

President Trump is on the road this hour in Iowa, hoping a new trade day taunt with Europe eases farm state anger. In just a moment, we'll map out the political toll on the president and his party in the heartland.

Plus, new reporting on Michael Cohen and how he went from the man who promised to take a bullet for the president to release a recording of the president discussing buying a playmate's silence.

And as some House conservatives look to impeach the deputy attorney general, his boss offers a fresh endorsement and suggest lawmakers find something better to do.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. MARK MEADOWS (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Yesterday they could not answer how many documents, a response of after nine months. And I -- you know, how long do you go on?

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: My deputy, Rod Rosenstein, is highly capable. I have the highest confidence in him. What I would like Congress to do is to focus on some of the legal challenges that are out there.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: But we begin the hour with the president on the road this hour out here in Iowa, soybean country. He's in Iowa now. He's going to tour an advanced manufacturing plant. Then he heads to Illinois to visit a strip mill and a steel coil warehouse. The trip highlighting the trade conversation both here in the United States and around the world. Now this a day after the president pressed the pause button on a mushrooming trade war.

The president, last night, take a look at this, tweeting this picture. He and the European commission president embracing after securing what the president calls a new phase in their economic partnership. While the United States and the European Union committed to stop the game of tariff chicken, talks to strike actual deals just now to begin, meaning the president has nothing new to promise farmers hurt by his own protectionist policies.

Right now, the president is out here. He's in Dubuque County. Look at this here. You see the red? You see the red in 2016? Let's go back and take a peek at 2012. This was one of the counties out there in the heartland, strong Democrat for years. Dubuque went blue in every presidential, for example, since 1956. But it switched to Donald Trump in 2016. That's where the president is now, out in Iowa.

From there, let's take a look at some numbers in the heartland as he makes his case in Iowa. Some poll numbers that have Republicans nervous. Remember, the president won Wisconsin. He won Michigan. He just barely lost Minnesota. Right. Look at his approval rating in those states right now in these new NBC/Marist polls, 36 percent, 36 percent, 38 percent. That's bad news for Republicans in a midterm election year when they have some House districts and some Senate seats, governors races out in the heartland.

Look at this. Choice for Congress in the heartland as well. Again, the Republican president's approval rating is what matters. Democrats, eight-point advantage in Wisconsin when voters are asked which party do you want to control Congress. Michigan, a nine-point advantage for the Democrats, same question, who should control Congress. In Minnesota, it's a 12-point advantage for the Democrats. In part, Republicans say because of the president's trade policies. The president's on the road now trying to tell everybody, this will be OK, stick with me.

Listen to his White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway saying this is a fight the president thinks is necessary but the farm states will be OK in the end.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: The farmers, of course, know that this president is a great friend of farmers. He's made many moves, taken many actions and kept many promises that have helped them. Obviously the tax cuts, the deregulation has helped them. Everybody needs to be patient. These things take time. And that's why recognizing that some may need additional assistance while everything is taking hold.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK.

CONWAY: But we can't -- we can't keep getting screwed, folks.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Tough words there.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights this day, Julie Hirschfeld Davis with "The New York Times," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Molly Ball of "Time," and CNN's MJ Lee.

It's interesting timing here. The president going on the road. He has taken a lot of blowback from Republicans in Iowa, Republicans in Minnesota, Republicans everywhere out in the farm economy about this.

What -- where are we now? What happened yesterday? He certainly hit the pause button, but we -- he's not backing down completely, is he?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, it's not clear where we are. I mean it's -- what is clear is that he has succeeded in sort of pushing forward on these talks with the E.U. such that there may actually be a deal to be had. But there isn't actually one in front of anyone right now. And what this action that he took on Tuesday was, was just basically a stopgap is what the -- how the administration is presenting it to give farmers some relief in the short term for what the administration is now acknowledging is going to be pain that will come from these tariffs that have in turn prompted our trading partners to slap tariffs back on our products, including predominantly farm products.

But, also, they're going to extend to other sectors. They're already hitting the automobile sector. Harley-Davidson has been affected. So the question really is -- and I think Republicans have pushed back pretty hard on the assistance package because of this --

[12:05:07] JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right.

DAVIS: Where do you draw the line? If you're going to say, you know, we're imposing this policy, we acknowledge that it's going to hurt our own workers and our own producers, where do you stop with the bailouts for people who are, you know, basically having the short term pain that is presumably going to lead to benefits? But their benefits aren't here now, you know?

KING: But the team Trump would say to all of its critics, you said this wouldn't work. We got the attention of the European Union now. They're willing to negotiate.

We don't know what's going to happen. We don't know if they'll get there. Reducing all these tariffs will be hard on both ends of this, not just here in the United States, but in Europe as well. But is there an argument to be made for Team Trump that by starting the skirmish, they don't like to call it a war, call it starting the war, that he did get there -- that talking tough, imposing some sanctions got them to the table?

ZELENY: Sure. I mean it's absolutely prompted a discussion on this.

But I was standing in the Rose Garden yesterday and you just got the sense this was a White House, a president in search of wanting to announce something, wanting to announce some kind of a deal. When you put a -- you know, pull back the fine print, it's the beginning of a conversation with the aspiration of a goal to have zero tariffs.

But keep in mind, this is the E.U. only. China is a big concern for Iowa soybean farmers. China is a big concern for so many other issues out there. So this is a small slice of it. An important slice, no question.

You were mentioning Dubuque County. It is astonishing that Donald Trump won Dubuque County. And it's going to be one of the places to watch in 2018 and 2020. First GOP person to win -- candidate to win since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. So things are changing out there. That's why the White House is sending him there.

It's increasingly interesting to me that -- I talk to a lot of farmers. I'm from that part of the country. They want to give the president the benefit of the doubt. They think that he has their interest. They think he'll get some kind of a deal. But they're increasingly not sure as they get closer to harvest time. So this is something that is going to be an anthem of the midterm election campaign.

And the president has started this fight. We'll see if he can end it in time. He's definitely trying to show that he's trying to do something.

KING: He was getting a lot of blowback from Republican lawmakers, from a lot of farmers who supported him.

ZELENY: Extraordinarily so.

KING: I'm just interested, if he reads this, from the European commission president, who he cut this deal to try to get a deal. There's no deal. There's a deal to try to get a deal I think is the best way to describe it.

ZELENY: Right. Right.

KING: But it does turn the temperature down in the short-term. But Jean-Claude Juncker saying this after, the major progress today is that our American friends agreed to not increase tariffs on cars and other products during the negotiation, which is a major concession by the Americans, I have to say. If the president reads that, he might not like that.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: He may not. And, you know, Julie, you were saying we don't actually have the full details of what this deal might look like. And I think the fear also is that whenever the president decides to announce any kind of deal that came out of a negotiation that he was involved in, we don't know if that's temporary, whether that's permanent, whether he might wake up tomorrow morning and say, actually, I don't like that headline and I'm going to take it back.

And to your point, Jeff, it's interesting that you said some of the farmers might be willing to, you know, give him the benefit of the doubt. For the representatives, the Republican lawmakers who are representing those farmers and those constituents, they don't want to count on their constituents giving the president the benefit of the doubt. And the reason they are so frustrated and I think they've sort of gone from just holding their breath to, frankly, just feeling very ticked off is that they're not only now having to potentially, you know, be on the defensive on this issue, they're also having to be -- already be defensive about a whole host of other sort of distractions that they feel like have come from the Trump White House. Whether it's the president's credibility issues, whether it's the Russia investigation, how he handled Putin. So this just feels like one more thing on a very big list of things that they're having to answer to already.

KING: And this one's harder, though, right, Molly, because all politics is local in this sense. And so they can go home and say, well, the Russia thing, that's a Washington debate, or that debate's a Washington debate. This is -- this is main street and every small town and farm country. And for these Republicans who have said, we're the free market people. We want global trade. We don't do bailouts. The president of the United States has turned their world upside down.

MOLLY BALL, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "TIME": Well, and if you're a farmer, you know, it is not an abstraction whether those soybeans are piling up in your warehouse or not. And so I think it's not going to matter what he says or what kind of ceremony he stages in the Rose Garden when those farmers can see for themselves whether or not this is affecting them.

But, remember, there were supposed to be losers and winners from this policy. And the winners were supposed to be the industrial economy. This was supposed to be about bringing back manufacturing jobs and rejuvenating those rust belt -- those hollowed out rust belt towns in places like Iowa and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and Minnesota. And so I think when you look at those abysmal approval ratings for Trump in those places, you're also seeing that again -- maybe we all just have to be patient and those factories are going to open eventually when this takes hold, but what you're seeing is those places where Trump was making essentially a liberal pitch, a protectionist pitch on trade, they are not feeling like that's serving them either.

[12:10:03] KING: Right, and that -- you make a great point because we do know one way to get this president's attention is to focus in on him. And he rightly can say, I'm president because of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He just barely lost Minnesota. One and a half points I think was the margin out there. You mentioned the Midwest is changing, especially these white working class and the white rural areas are moving more and more toward the Republican Party.

But in these NBC/Marist polls, should the president be re-elected? Michigan, only 28 percent said yes. Minnesota, 30 percent. Wisconsin, 31 percent. If the president reads those numbers, the question is, do you read those numbers and say, forget about it, and back off on trade, or do you read those numbers, and as he has said before, I understand there's going to be short-term pain, but I'm confident by the time we get to 2020 we'll be out of this tunnel.

ZELENY: I think those are the realities, you know, facing him. The reality check, if you will. We'll see if he's looking at this. He loves to point out how many Republicans are with him. But that's a smaller slice every day, self-identified Republicans. So I think that these are a fascinating window into this.

It is early for his re-election, no question. We should point out, I mean Democrats have enough of their own issues in terms of who the alternative will be. But they're -- the question is, how long will people give him the benefit of that doubt? The harvest is going to come before, between and now and midterms right around that time. There are a lot of important things.

And you mentioned the industrial sector. So much of these economies in these parts of the country are not ag economies or they're other things that -- you know, the supply chain, the John Deere plants, other things, the washer machines. Whirlpool washers now up 20 percent. So it is impacting everyone personally. So it's a local story and there's not much the president can do by visiting that will change that.

KING: And the markets encouraged by the announcement that at least they were going to turn the temperature down between the United States and European Union.

ZELENY: Right.

KING: And the risk now is what happens if you show progress in those negotiations. We'll keep an eye on that.

Let me take a quick break. When we come back, just moments ago, a big move in the race to replace the House speaker, Paul Ryan.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:16:16] KING: Welcome back.

Breaking political news just in to CNN from Capitol Hill. A controversial combative House conservative, Republican Congressman Jim Jordan, just confirming to CNN that he is jumping into the race to lead House Republicans. We know the House speaker, Paul Ryan, is leaving Congress at the end of this term. The battle underway now to replace him with a new entry.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty live up on Capitol Hill.

Sunlen, this makes it more than a little interesting and perhaps bitter, yes?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It certainly does, John, no doubt about that. You know, Jim Jordan, this is something that has been long speculated about. Would he indeed announce that he was going to run for speaker of the House should Republicans hold the House after the midterm election? And today he made it known that, yes, he does indeed intend to run for speaker.

I spoke with him a few minutes ago. He said, yes, I will send a note to my colleagues in just a few minutes up here on Capitol Hill making my intentions known.

Of course, the fact that it was long speculated, there has been a lot of questions about whether the investigation into OSU, whether that really stunted his rise to potentially go to speaker, the fact that he has been just embroiled in the last month in this scandal. What he knew, what he didn't know about the serious allegations of sexual assault against the team's doctor at the time coming from former wrestlers while he was an assistant wrestling coach back there in the late '80s, early '90s. So a lot of questions up here on Capitol Hill in the aftermath of that

scandal whether he indeed would go forward with a push toward speakership. So today, John, he confirmed that, yes, indeed, he does. And we know at least one person who he has the support from, Mark Meadows, of course the chair of the House Freedom Caucus, which he co- founded, saying, yes, I will support him. So, in essence, let the games begin up here on Capitol Hill.

John.

KING: Interesting new ripple. Always drama and intrigue.

Sunlen Serfaty with the breaking news. Appreciate that.

Let's bring it inside the room.

This is very interesting. Not a total surprise. But Jim Jordan very close to the president. However, the president is also very close to Kevin McCarthy, who is Paul Ryan's choice to succeed him. We don't know if this is a race for speaker or if this is going to be a race for House Republican leader or the minority leader. We won't know that until after the midterm elections.

But Jim Jordan jumping in. To Sunlen's point, the last month he has spent saying, I saw nothing, I didn't see anything, nobody came to me for help regarding his time back in the 1990s when he was the assistant wrestling coach at Ohio State University. Several wrestlers have said there was a doctor at university who fondled them and did other sexually inappropriate things to them. And they say Jim Jordan knew about it and didn't say anything about it.

Listen, this is Jim Jordan in a local TV interview saying it never happened.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JIM JORDAN (R), OHIO: It's false. I mean, I never saw, never heard of, never was told about any type of abuse.

Conversations in a locker room are a lot different than people coming up talking about abuse. No one ever reported any abuse to me. If they had, I would have dealt with it.

And what bothers me the most is the guys that are saying this thing, I know they know the truth. I know they do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's obviously with Bret Baier of Fox News. I thought it was an interview back home in Ohio.

But to the point where he says, I saw nothing, this is not true, these guy who are saying this now that I did know, know that I didn't know. This is an ongoing investigation. And yet he has the confidence in the middle of that to say, I'm going to run to lead my fellow House Republicans. BALL: Well, I -- he has given some conflicting answers on this front.

And I think that this is not over in terms of him being asked about this in the press, particularly back home, demanding more answers on this and the scandal unfolding.

I do think it is really important to emphasize for people who might not understand it that this is only a race if the Republicans retain the House and there's a quite good likelihood that there won't be an opening for speaker and in that case Republicans already have a majority leader, they already have a -- or a leader -- then would be minority -- they have a leader. They have a whip. All those people would likely just be frozen in place and there wouldn't be a race at all.

[12:20:09] So this could all be moot. But it is interesting as a window into the continuing divisions among the House Republicans, you do have to wonder, you know, Paul Ryan came in as sort of a unity speaker who attempted and mostly failed to bring together the Freedom Caucus wing with the sort of silent majority of the Republican caucus. This would be very clearly a leader of the Freedom Caucus. And you have to wonder about the rest of the Republicans. The -- I don't want to say moderate, but the sort of conventional conservative Republicans, if they'd be comfortable with that.

KING: And the question has been, this is the same group that John Boehner finally said, forget it, I'm done, I'm out of here, I just can't deal with this anymore. A lot of people think it's the source of Paul Ryan's frustration as he goes.

Even if he doesn't succeed, just doing it causes a divide within the House Republican conference. And some people will say, why would you do that? Why would you get everybody in a circular firing squad, if you will, or at least looking over their shoulder when the biggest single dynamic in a midterm election year is to try to have unity and intensity in your party?

DAVIS: Right. Absolutely. But a lot of people would also question why the Freedom Caucus and this band of conservatives, which is a very small -- relative to the rest of the conference -- group that has really driven a lot of what gone on in the House in the last year and a half and before that, frankly. But since -- certainly since President Trump has been in office -- would continue to sort of sew the divisions that they have and it -- I think the answer is that they think it's been successful for them. They've prevailed on a lot of policy issues, or at least stopped things from happening that they didn't want to happen.

Now, in a lot of cases, that has actually deprived President Trump of some wins that he wanted to get on the board, most prominently, I guess you would say, with health care. But the fact that this division is going to continue and that there's even the possibility that this small group could actually be the one that's in the leadership of the party, whether they're in the minority or the majority next year is quite profound. I mean that's going to make a big difference in the way that the House operates. KING: And if they can't win, do they have a big enough block to

influence who wins. If it can't be one of them. If they don't have enough votes among themselves, do they at least have the swing vote? And these leadership tensions will matter when they get -- they have to pass another spending bill. They have a few other things they have to do this year. Jim Jordan entering the race for speaker. We'll keep an eye on that one.

Up next for us here, John Kelly nearing his first anniversary as the White House chief of staff, but he doesn't nearly have the power that he once did.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:27:10] KING: Welcome back.

Some breaking news now in the special counsel Russia meddling investigation. "The New York Times" just posting a story quoting sources saying the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and his team of prosecutors, looking at the president's tweets as part of trying to answer the question of whether the president deliberately, in the calculated scheme, was trying to obstruct justice, obstruct first the FBI investigation and now the special counsel investigation into Russia's attacks on the 2016 elections.

Let me read you a little bit from that story. The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller, is scrutinizing tweets and negative statements from the president about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the former FBI Director James B. Comey, according to three people briefed on the matter. Mr. Mueller wants to question the president about the tweets. His interest in them is the latest addition to a range of presidential actions he's investigating as a possible obstruction case.

The White -- they quote Rudy Giuliani, the president's lawyer, in this piece as saying the president is a politician, he's under constant attack. In Mr. Giuliani's view, he has every right to defend himself in public.

But it is interesting if you try to think of the puzzle pieces of obstruction of justice. We know the president has publicly criticized Comey and Jeff Sessions, his attorney general, on Twitter, in speeches, and elsewhere. The question is, do you then have other private acts, asking other people to do anything. That's the stitching of the quilt, if you will, "The Times" say Mueller is trying to put together.

ZELENY: I mean so much of this investigation is still secret. But one thing that is not secret is the president's feelings. He, you know, opens up a window to them every time he sends out a tweet.

So we do know back in that period in May of last year when he fired James Comey, it still remains a central item of issue, a point of interest in the Mueller inquiry of obstruction of justice. So what the president said, he had several stories when he was talking about why he fired James Comey. He explained to Lester Holt something. And then he's been, you know, all over the board since then. But going after Jeff Sessions repeatedly, we have already learned that -- that that is a subject of the inquiry here.

The chances of the president sitting for an interview with Bob Mueller to find out about his mindset of this, I think, is diminishing. I mean the time for that has sort of been out the window. And we'll see what happens.

But, again, the president's own words are now front and center in this investigation.

KING: Well, to that point, it puts on the table the question of, will Mueller go ahead with a subpoena.

ZELENY: Sure.

KING: If he's going to do that, will he do it before 60 days, before the November elections, or will he wait until after the November elections, if the negotiations continue. But to your point, this from the story, privately some of the lawyers, meaning the president's lawyers, have expressed concern that Mr. Mueller will stitch together several episodes, encounters, and pieces of evidence, like the tweets, to build a case that the president embarked on a broad effort to interfere with the investigation. That is why the president's lawyers have tried in the negotiations with Mueller to say, you can ask him about the campaign, but you can't ask him about anything as president of the United States. And I can't imagine that that's a deal Robert Mueller would ever on this planet accept.

[12:30:02] BALL: Well, no. And to Jeff's point, the chances are clearly almost nil that he would willingly sit for an interview, but he may not have a choice. That's what the subpoena would be about.

You know, in any criminal scenario, the intent of the person who's being