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INSIDE POLITICS

Saudis More Time To Investigate; Revisiting Obamacare Repeal; Trump on Campaign Trail. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 18, 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] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks so much for joining me. "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts right now.

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

New twist in the Saudi crisis. Images that undermine the royal family's denial. And, a big Oval Office meeting between the president and his secretary of state.

Plus, Rod Rosenstein praises the special counsel investigation. The one his boss calls a witch hunt and a con job.

And a big campaign swing for the president. Immigration is on his mind as he heads west, but in most close races, health care is a bigger flash point.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BETO O'ROURKE (D), TEXAS SENATE CANDIDATE: So pre-existing condition --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pre-existing condition --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pre-existing conditions --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People with pre-existing conditions --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We begin the hour at the White House with a question of enormous consequence, why is the president willing to be so patient with and so deferential to Saudi Arabia? Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefing the president this morning on his emergency travelers to Saudi Arabia and Turkey after the disappearance and apparent murder of the journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Secretary Pompeo emerged from the West Wing, told reporters it is critical, in his view, to remember the U.S./Saudi relationship dates back nearly 90 years, and the secretary, Pompeo, saying the royal family needs more time to investigate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: They also assured me that they will conduct a complete, thorough investigation of all of the facts surrounding Mr. Khashoggi, and that they will do so in a timely fashion. I told President Trump this morning that we ought to give them a few more days to complete that so that we too have a complete understanding of the facts surrounding that, at which point we can make decisions about how or if the United States should respond.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN's Kaitlan Collins live for us at the White House.

And, Kaitlan, we did not learn a whole lot new there.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No, we didn't. The only thing new was that he encouraged President Trump to give them a few more days to keep investigating. Now, it's been 16 days since he entered the Saudi consulate and did not leave. Now, you would think that's enough time for them to investigate, but the secretary of state says there he believes they need a little bit more time and then we are going to get the answers. But he was asked, how do you trust the Saudis to essentially investigate themselves here since they're the ones accused of masterminding the murder of this reporter? Now, he essentially did not answer but said that he believes all the facts will come out and that he's going to let President Trump have a few more days here -- or let the Saudis have a few more days before President Trump makes any decision. So not a whole lot of clarity.

But President Trump, we didn't hear from him in person, only Pompeo there at the microphone, but he did tweet saying that he met with Pompeo this morning. He said they discussed what has been going on in great detail, including the secretary of state's meeting with the crown prince. He says that he's going to wait for the results of the investigation being done by the Saudis and the Turks and just gave a news conference to that effect.

Now, that wasn't quite a news conference, John, because, of course, Pompeo spoke for about three minutes and only took two questions, though the reporters standing there had many more questions to ask him. But what we do know and what could be the first indication of how the administration is going to respond to this is the Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, is no longer going to that investment conference in Riyadh. Now, that's what -- he was scheduled to leave for a multi-country trip, leaving tomorrow, and that was going to be a big part of it. And a lot of critics said that if he did continue to go, that it would seem to be some kind of signal of support from the United States to send someone in such a high-ranking position, as Mnuchin, to this conference despite the fact that we've seen several executives drop out. But Mnuchin has made a decision. He will not be going. And we are told, John, that no other government officials will be going in his place to that investment summit in Riyadh.

KING: Kaitlan Collins live at the White House. Kaitlan, appreciate the breaking news from there.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace with "The Associated Press," Sahil Kapur with "Bloomberg," Sirius XM's Olivier Knox, and "Politico's" Elana Schor. Why, to start with. This is complicated and it's easy to say, condemn the Saudis. Be more forthcoming. They have every right. They don't want to undermine the royal family. Even if you're mad at the royal family, you don't want to undermine the regime. That could cause a global recession. But Secretary Pompeo has not expressed outrage. He has not called it a murder. He has not said it's reprehensible. You can chastise your friends and maintain a relationship. Why?

JULIE PACE, "ASSOCIATED PRESS": Well, to your point, there has just been some lack of basic things from this administration, like sympathy for this journalist's family, for example, or just general outrage over a disappearance, an apparent murder, the lack of answers that are being provided, and we're not even getting any of that from this administration. And I think that just speaks to all of these complications with the U.S./Saudi relationship. And certainly the administration seems to be showing more concern about things like Saudi Arabia's role in fighting terrorism, the $100 billion arms deal and just the general affinity, frankly, that the president and people in his administration have for the Saudi royal family. They seem to be showing more deference to those things than just the general concern over what happened inside this consulate.

[12:05:13] KING: Right. They made a bad call. They're not the first to make a bad call. There were people in the previous administration that called Assad in Syria a reformer. They made a bad call thinking this crown prince is a reformer. It turns out he's more of a brutal thug.

But listen to the secretary of state here when he was asked a very good question, so essentially you're telling us to wait, be patient and trust the Saudis to investigate the Saudis?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: We're all going to get to see the response that the kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes with this. When we see that, we'll get a chance to determine -- all of us will get a chance to make a determination with respect to the credibility and the work that went into that. Whether it's truly accurate, fair, transparent in the very way that they made a personal commitment to me and the crown prince also made a personal commitment to the president when he spoke to him, I believe it was night before last.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: There are many saying they just seem to be giving the Saudis more time to come up with whatever story they're going to come up with.

OLIVIER KNOX, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, SIRIUS XM: Yes, and Kaitlin had a good point, the more time -- it's not just a few more days. He went missing October 2nd, right? So this is actually a pretty long span of time for an event that occurred inside the Saudi consulate. I mean it's not super plausible that they've needed all this time to investigate and figure out exactly what happened.

But to another point that Julie made, you know, this president speaks very warmly about people like the leader of the Philippines, Duterte, despite extrajudicial killings. He speaks very warmly about Vladimir Putin, even though Putin's credibly been accused of ordering the deployment of a nerve agent to try to assassinate a Russian national on British soil. He speaks very warmly about -- he speaks more warmly about those folks than he does about, say, Justin Trudeau of Canada. It's just sort of built into their mind set here.

And when you talk to them, they'll say, well, we're advancing American interest. This is a sort of a no friends, no enemies, only interests, old foreign policy quote, and they read Saudi Arabia the same way. Its role in countering Iran in the region. Obviously the oil impact. And so that's how they're processing a lot of this.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": Yes, this is where you wonder -- this is just a logical conclusion of President Trump's very hawkish Jacksonian foreign policy. It's very transactional. In this case it's arm sales, it's military economic cooperation. It doesn't consider value, whether it's democracy promotion abroad or human rights. It rejects international institution that are there to bolster those provisions. So this is testing the limits of President Trump's America first foreign policy.

It sounds like a great slogan, but it also means perhaps in this administration's view that they can overlook even awful things like this if it's, you know, about money coming in or financial transactional relationships.

ELANA SCHOR, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": But it's also testing -- and it's important we don't forget this -- is Congress' will to push back at this president. The last time a Saudi arms deal came up for a vote in the Senate, it only lost by four votes. And it's easy to see, Republicans and Democrats have told me this, an arms sale coming up today, it doesn't go through. And the administration knows that, which is why the timing here is pretty fortuitous that Congress is out of session.

KING: Right. And the president views this as a sign of strength, that he's able to have these personal relationships, that he's able to be different from other presidents.

If you look at the cover of "The Week" magazine, this is what is being talked about, not only in the Congress but around the world, seeing no evil, essentially, and this is Mr. Khashoggi's picture is in the orb there. If you remember the president's first trip to Saudi Arabia, there was the orb with the smiling crown prince.

Again, I come back to the question, we have seen this in other relationships. There is a way to chastise a friend, to hold them accountable and to still maintain the relationship when it comes to dealing with Iran, the relationship when it comes to dealing --

KNOX: That's how you maintain -- that's how you maintain the relationship.

KING: Yes. Right. KNOX: But, I mean, Donald Trump's not the first president to do this. The United States has overlooked an awful lot of stuff that Saudi Arabia has done for the last 20 years. He's not the first to do this. But that is how you normally do this. The way you get that arms deal agreed to is you talk tough about the disappearance of a journalist and probable murder of a journalist. That's how you grease those skids.

KING: And it --

KAPUR: It also -- and I --

KING: In his final column -- I just want to get to the center of the conversation, this final column that "The Washington Post" published today, Mr. Khashoggi wrote this, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate. These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly, followed by silence. The Arab world is facing its own version of an iron curtain.

Which is, in a prescient -- sadly prescient and being normally the moment where you would expect an American president to stand up and say, this cannot happen. We haven't heard that.

KAPUR: Right. And I think part of the hesitation may be that they don't -- that they're not ready to admit error. In other words, this administration has made a big bet on Mohammad bin Salman as a reformer in the Middle East and I think -- I think starting to acknowledge that the evidence that seems to be piling up that they were complicit, Lindsey Graham says, you know, an ally of the president said it wouldn't have happened without Mohammad bin Salman's order.

Bob Corker, in the Senate, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, is not happy right now. He's seeing the administration is clamping down on sharing intelligence with senators right now, which is a remarkable thing for him to say.

KING: Right. And so the --

PACE: I'm not even sure how much we're going to hear -- how much we're going to hear that type of rhetoric from this administration if we do get evidence, more evidence, than we already have, because in other situations like this, and there have been many around the world where there's some type of clear human rights violation by a strategically important country, this president, because of -- what he says are U.S. interests, just doesn't often get to the point where he's willing to speak out. And I -- again, I'm just not sure if we are going to get some kind of hard evidence from the Saudis, that you will see the president take the steps that Khashoggi was talking about in his final op-ed.

[12:10:31] KING: Right. And one of the complications now is that the Turks are conducting their own investigation, and they're not friends of the Saudis. And so Secretary Pompeo said, we'll see these two investigations and we'll see if they're credible. Well, one of the issues is going to be, do they match up at all or do the Turks wait for the Saudis to put something out and then undermine it, as they have through selective leaks in recent days?

KNOX: Or do the Turks get whatever it is that they want to get out of this.

Remember, on Monday, the Turkish leader, Erdogan, comes out and says, only Turkey can lead the Islamic world. OK, we talk about the Saudi/Iran rivalry. There's an interesting other one right now --

KING: Right.

KNOX: Which is that Erdogan and -- against Saudi Arabia. So what do they -- they've been playing this really well.

There was a great "New York Times" piece yesterday I think that detailed the way the leaks ebb and flow according to whether the Turks are getting what they want from the coverage and from the Saudis.

KAPUR: And your point, John, is a really important one. If the administration allowed this to stand, how do other autocratic leaders perceive it in their potential relationship with the United States? Do they believe there's going to be something to lose if they commit horrible atrocities, including murdering a journalist.

KING: Right.

SCHOR: You know whose voice I really miss in this is John McCain. He's the one who wrote the law that Bob Corker is now trying to invoke to get an investigation into sanctions. I mean we really feel that absence of a Republican hawk who can speak about human rights in that way. The administration is not doing it.

KING: We will see what happens when the Congress comes back. They're on break now because of the election, obviously.

And before we go to break here, a quick personnel update from the White House. CNN has now learned that Emmet Flood will serve as interim White House Council until the newly named Pat Cipollone officially comes on board. This comes after Don McGahn's departure yesterday. Flood currently serving as special counsel to the president. Part of the legal team for some time.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:16:08] KING: Inside three weeks now to the midterm elections and the conversation in many states dominated this year by health care. Today, the Republican Senate majority leader providing potential new fodder for Democrats hoping to drive home this message -- that the Democrats will protect pre-existing conditions and the Republicans won't. That's what the Democrats say.

In an interview with Reuters, Senator Mitch McConnell says if Republicans retain control of Washington, they could again attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Quote, if we had the votes to completely start over, we'd do it, but that depends on what happens in a couple of weeks. That from Majority Leader McConnell. We're not satisfied with the way Obamacare is working.

McConnell noted that no one in the Senate, that he knows anyway, wants to strip away protections for those with pre-existing conditions.

Let's go live now to CNN's Phil Mattingly.

Phil, repealing Obamacare, we went through that a lot. It's been a Republican priority forever. But in this midterm environment, is that what McConnell should be talking about?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think Democrats certainly appreciate it and I can say Republicans, both in the House and the Senate who are running in races right now, even in the reddest of states, they don't appreciate having this conversation.

Look, John, it's not a secret, Democrats have been focused -- laser focused on health care and making pre-existing conditions synonymous with Obamacare in general for almost the entirety of this cycle. Millions of dollars of attack ads on Republican incumbents, again, regardless of whether the state is bright red or in the suburban purple issue, this has been what Democrats have been focused on.

Now, McConnell, in this situation, is in a bit of a damned if you do damned if you don't moment when asked to address this. Obviously the Republican base is still opposed to Obamacare. But watching how this debate has turned, thing about back to 2010 where Obamacare was a driving force behind entire delegations of Democrats in some states being completely wiped out. Now Democrats running explicitly on this issue.

Now, McConnell made a very important caveat there. He's saying if he has a few more votes in the Senate and he's not saying, but also means, if the House is still in Republican hands, then it's obviously something Republicans have pledged to do for cycle after cycle and likely still will do.

But if you want to know what kind of affect this has on races, well, look at the statements and the ads that have come out just over the course of the last 24 hours. Everybody's seizing on this. Everybody, again, trying to make this an issue. And for Democrats who have been trying to move on, particularly in the Senate, from the Kavanaugh nomination and confirmation, this, again, gives them a chance to refocus on the issue that they have repeatedly tried to focus on almost every single day for the better part of this entire re-election campaign, John.

KING: Phil Mattingly, appreciate that.

And, Sahil, you spoke to the majority leader as well. I just want to read a little piece from your article.

Our candidates are able to deal with it, McConnell said regarding the barrage of Democratic ads criticizing his GOP candidates on health care. There's nobody in the Senate that I'm favor with who's not in favor of coverage for pre-existing conditions.

Does he get that this is a problem for a lot of the candidates out there?

KAPUR: I'm certain he's heard of it and I think he's arguing that they're doing the best they can to deal with it.

Now, this is an extremely important point because McConnell says everyone favors coverage for pre-existing conditions. Everyone says they do. But the way they approach it is different. What Democrats support is, number one, barring insurers from turning away people who are sick, preventing them from charging higher prices to people who have prior illnesses and requiring that they cover a certain set of benefits. Republicans want to do the first thing, but not the second two, which Democrats argue is a little bit like saying, everyone has access to a Ferrari, but they can charge you a million dollars for it. You don't really have access to it. That is the distinction. So saying you're for pre-existing conditions does not mean you support policies that would necessarily cover sick people. They want to do that because they want to lower costs for healthier people. Obamacare enlists healthier people to subsidize sick people. That's the tradeoff.

KING: Right, that's the tradeoff. And you hear it in the ads. Let's go here to New Jersey. This is the Democratic challenger to a vulnerable Republican and they say, remember how many times the House voted to repeal Obamacare? Here you go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: More than 60 times. That's how often Congressman Leonard Lance voted to gut affordable health care. Sixty times Lance could have been with us, but wasn't. Leonard Lance knew exactly what he was doing and he isn't with us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[12:20:04] KING: And then I'll give you the Republican side of this to be fair. This is Minnesota, a Republican candidate saying, don't tag me that way.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My family knows firsthand the importance of affordable health insurance. Our son Isaac is the light of our lives. He's faced numerous health challenges, including a pre-existing condition. That's why I support requiring insurance companies to cover pre-existing conditions. Anyone telling you otherwise is lying.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: It is remarkable in 2010 and 2014 Democrats were sprinting from Obamacare. Now they are embracing it about as tightly as you can.

SCHOR: Absolutely. And in McConnell's conference, keep in mind, there are Republican challengers who are sending a very similar message. So it's interesting that he's out there saying he might revisit it because a lot of those first-term Republicans, the Josh Hawleys, the Matt Rosendales, might be faced to edge -- with edging back some of their campaign rhetoric, because if he gets a couple more seats, McConnell doesn't care what Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins do. He has the votes to call this up again.

PACE: The way that the politics have flipped, though, going back to that New Jersey ad, is just fascinating because a lot of the reason why the Republicans under John Boehner and Paul Ryan had those votes were just for political purposes. They knew that the Senate wasn't actually going to overturn Obamacare.

KING: Right.

PACE: And certainly under Barack Obama that he wasn't going to sign it into law. It was purely to give Republicans the ability to go out and campaign and say, I voted 60 times to repeal Obamacare. Now that is suddenly a drag on them.

KING: Suddenly a drag on them. And just -- I just want to show you from this Kaiser (ph) poll, look at -- what's the number one issue in your midterm elections, health care, 30 percent, economy and jobs, 21. So the issue is right there for people and that's why. I mean Democrats think they can use this to their advantage and people obviously care about it.

KAPUR: The absurdity to all of this is that the polls on Obamacare -- it's been negative for most of its eight years in existence. People don't like it when you ask them, do you support Obamacare, do you support the Affordable Care Act, they say no. But the component parts of it are popular, especially the consumer protections on pre-existing conditions and community rating (ph). And that's across the reddest of states. Claire McCaskell and Joe Manchin are running against Republicans who are the attorneys general of their states and have signed on to a lawsuit that would void what's left of Obamacare. Now they say they support the pre-existing conditions aspect, but have they endorsed bills that would specifically do that? They have not. That's the challenge. That's the box they're in.

KING: Well, a policy debate is good to have in a campaign. We don't often get a good policy debate in campaigns. Let's have them.

When we come back, the president takes his message on the road a looks at -- look at where he's headed and if his rallies will sell.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:27:11] KING: Back to the campaign trail a bit later today for the president. He's going to spend the next three days on the road. First up tonight, Montana, campaigning for the Republican Senate candidate Matt Rosendale. Montana is Trump country. He won the state by 20 points.

Let's take a little look at where the president has been and where he will be going in the final days of the campaign. This is just since Labor Day. You see the 12 states the president has had rallies in. Fundraisers in some others. But rallies, Trump rallies, in these 12 states since Labor Day. On this trip, Montana, Arizona and Nevada. All three of them with very close Senate races.

Texas and Wisconsin coming up in the days ahead. There will be most presidential travel. But this is what we know publically on the books.

Most of those states, like this trip, for Senate campaigns. Again, Montana, Nevada, Arizona on this trip west. This one for the president is personal. We still lean Montana Democratic, but Republicans are feeling a bit more optimistic as the campaign winds down. They think this is a place where the president can help. You don't see the president in the northeast or in the mid-Atlantic, in the suburbs. He's toxic there. But out in Montana, he can help.

John Tester is the Democratic incumbent. He was among those very vocal -- remember when the president tried to nominate his White House physician to take over the Department of Veterans Affairs. It was John Tester who called him candyman at one point. John Tester, we currently lean this race Democratic. Matt Rosendale, though, Republicans say is in contention. They hope the president can help. He's going there tonight. He's been there twice -- twice already this year. And as you listen to that, I'm also told by White House officials they're planning yet another trip before the election. So it could be four times against John Tester to hear this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Democrats want anarchy. They really do. And they don't know who they're playing with, folks.

Democrats want open borders, which means lots of crime. We want tough, strong, powerful borders and we want no crime.

Democrats want to obstruct that. They want to obstruct our great justices. And, by the way, you obstruct these justices, you're going to lose your Second Amendment. You're going to lose your right to those guns.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: A, this one's personal, Montana, for the president. But, B, this is a textbook case of a place where he can help. And you have Republican pollster Neil Newhouse (ph) calls this the split-level election, if you will. On the -- in most House races, the president's not much help, especially in the vulnerable ones, the Democrats can flip. But in a Montana Senate race, a big boost.

PACE: It's a huge boost in a place like Montana. He won -- or even in North Dakota. These are states where he won by an incredibly large margin. They've got vulnerable Democratic senators so he can inject some enthusiasm for that Republican base.

[12:29:50] I think it's also interesting when you look at some of these states where the presidential was a little bit tighter, like a Wisconsin, if you look at where President Trump is going next week. He's going about as far away from any of the major metropolitan areas that have big Democratic bases and also swing Republican voters. He's going to the center of the state where you have more rural, Republican voters.