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Conway on No Collusion; No Mueller Interview; Whitaker and Mueller Probe; Trump Jabs Schiff; Trump Slams McRaven. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired November 19, 2018 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:09] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

President Trump suggests his written answers to the special counsel are his final answers, dismissing the idea a face-to-face sit down might still be necessary.

Plus, the Florida recount is over and there are just a few more House races to count. Then, one last big midterm fight. A Mississippi Senate run-off where Republicans should run, but worry their candidate is shaky.

And, the commander in chief versus a special ops hero. Retired Admiral William McRaven says the president's attack on the media and the free speech are dangerous. The president fires back.


CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": McRaven, retired admiral, Navy SEAL, 37 years, and former head of U.S. special operations --


WALLACE: Special operations command --

TRUMP: Excuse me, Hillary Clinton fan. He's a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer and, frankly --

WALLACE: He's a Navy SEAL, 37 years.

TRUMP: Wouldn't it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that?


KING: Back to that drama in a moment.

But we begin with an important legal deadline for the president and, with some most curious words, by one of his closest aides. The deadline to submit his written answers to the special counsel, Robert Mueller. The president says he finished them last week and that they will be handed over this week. We know he was angry about some of the questions. And the court docket reminds us Robert Mueller takes a dim view of witnesses who lie to him. The take-home test was negotiated with Mueller, who reserved the right to come back and ask for a face- to-face meeting on some issues. But the president says those written answers are likely his final act of cooperation.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we've wasted enough time on this witch hunt. And the answer is, probably. We're finished.


KING: The president's witch hunt refrain, of course, has been a constant. Absolutely no collusion is another. But this morning, listen closely to the president's counsellor, who seems to add a collusion qualifier.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Thirty-three people are suddenly (ph) reading the paper, have either been interviewed or asked for information and have complied. And that includes the president of the United States, who from the beginning has said there was no Russia collusion. I assure you there wasn't at the highest levels of the campaign. If other people were doing shenanigans, trying to make themselves important, or didn't have enough faith in Donald J. Trump that he can get the job done and beat Hillary Clinton on his own, which he did, he and Governor Pence did to get elected, those of us at the highest echelons of the campaign weren't talking to Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So maybe they come -- maybe they come this weekend --


KING: With me this Monday to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Kaitlan Collins, "Bloomberg's" Toluse Olorunnipa, Carl Hulse of "The New York Times," and Julie Hirschfeld Davis also with "The New York Times."

I normally would start with the president, but I want to start with Kellyanne Conway there, who seems to be saying other people might have been up to shenanigans. What was that? Why qualify the, I think it was no collusion, period?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no -- no collusion at the highest levels of the campaign is really something interesting for her to say. I don't think we've heard her say anything like that. Normally, you know, we've seen the goal post shift from no contact with any Russian officials. Well, then we learned that several campaign official had contact with Russians. And then it moved to no collusion. And now it's no collusion among the highest ranking officials or not collusion with Donald J. Trump himself.

So that is an interesting remark by Kellyanne. I don't know if that was intentional or if she's trying to cover up for something. But that is an interesting remark because we've seen the president's frustration grow over this and he does seem to thinks that submitting these answers, which they say they'll do essentially any day now, is going to mark the end of this investigation. Though that's not clear because the special counsel hasn't given any kind of timeline for what the end of this is going to be. And it's not clear that submitting these questions will be the end. They have no work left to do after that because we've been in a year of negotiations with this already.

KING: And, to me, that was, is that, she's just winging it or protecting herself -- I don't mean that in a critical way -- protecting herself, or is this, because we know the president was frustrated by the specificity of some of these questions -- is it that in looking at the questions they realize, hmm, maybe we have a president. Maybe it's beneath the president, but maybe they have a problem.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, I mean, I think for sure they have been able to glean something from the questions that they have in terms of what Bob Mueller is looking at. What is he interested in? What is he asking the president about?

But I also think it remains true that they don't know the full scope of everything that he's looking at. And while they may feel confident that the president's answers to this questionnaire don't implicate him at all, they may know for full well that there are people in the campaign who are having contacts that could have, you know, taken to their logical conclusion, been a problem. And that maybe Bob Mueller would call collusion.

And I think what you're hearing is the beginnings of an argument that we may be hearing a lot more of in the coming months depending on what the report says where they're trying to wall off the president from whatever else might have gone on. That he was the candidate. He didn't know about things. He didn't necessarily have visibility into everything that was going on in the campaign. And if, in fact, Bob Mueller does have something that he has seized upon, that he is going to call collusion or some sort of coordination with the Russians that would have -- that was a conspiracy, they want to make sure that they are insulating Donald Trump from the very get go from any of that.

KING: And --

[12:05:20] TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": People who have spoken to Bob Mueller have said that he knows more about the campaign than even people who are inside the campaign. He's talked to people like Don McGahn for more than 30 hours. He's talked to President Trump's private lawyer, Michael Cohen. He's talked to a number of different people who are part of the campaign and he's flipped a number of people, including the former campaign manager, to talk about cooperating with the special counsel and talk about specifically what happened during the campaign. So it's possible that he had very specific questions for the president based on the things that he's learned over this last year and a half of investigating and that may be what's getting under the president's skin.

KING: And it's something, I say it repeatedly, they know so much more than we know about what Mueller knows and so --

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Well, we don't -- we don't know very much about it. And I kind of agree with you, I don't know if she meant what she said, if she meant to open it up so wide. But this is --

KING: She's pretty smart. She knows what she's doing.

HULSE: But this was a big, big change in tone and details of what went on.

I think that they are -- this is a classic moving the goal post thing, right, and now all of a sudden it's like, well, you know, people in the campaign were operating -- I think your point's a good one. I think the people in the campaign at the time didn't know what was going on in the campaign. So there is a lot -- it was not a very organized or sophisticated campaign. There was a lot that was going on that other people didn't know about. And I think it's starting to sound like we're going to find out what some of that actively really was.

KING: And they -- I know from the president's conversation with friends, he thinks this is coming soon and he think that whether it's Robert Mueller or the Southern District of New York, that they're gunning for his son, including in this group. So we'll see where it goes.

Right now if Robert Mueller wants to do anything or if the Southern District of New York wants to do anything for that matter, they come to the acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker. Some Democratic senators suing today saying they find that appointment unconstitutional. We'll see how that plays out in the courts.

But in the meantime, Matthew Whitaker is the acting attorney general of the United States. Listen to the president here again, in this interview with Chris Wallace of "Fox News Sunday," saying this will be fine.


CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": If Whitaker decides in any way to limit or curtail the Mueller investigation, are you OK with that?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look, he -- it's going to be up to him. I think he's very well aware politically. I think he's astute politically. He's a very smart person. A very respected person. He's going to do what's right.


KING: So, how do you read that in the age of Trump. He's going to make the call. He's smart. He's astute. He'll do the right thing. Or, do you view it through the history of what this president has put on the record. It's pretty clear, Donald Trump appointed him. Donald Trump bypassed the normal process of elevating Rod Rosenstein. And the president has made crystal clear, a, in his view, an attorney general is supposed to be loyal, and, b, what is right when it comes to the Mueller investigation.

COLLINS: And I think he's putting Matt Whitaker in a precarious position here because he's saying he's really smart, he's politically astute, he'll handle it, I'm not going to get involve and overrule anything he does here. So really if Matt Whitaker does try to limit the special counsel's probe and he faces all this criticism and backlash and potential consequences for that, President Trump is going to say, well, I left it up to him. I didn't have anything to do with this. So I do think he's letting the ball be in Matthew Whitaker's court here and that could come to be bad for Matt Whitaker in the end.

Another thing President Trump said about Matt Whitaker in that interview is that he didn't know about his criticism of the special counsel's probe before he tapped him to be the acting attorney general. Well, we know from sources that's not the case. That's actually what caught President Trump's attention and how he noticed Matt Whitaker in the first place. So we do know that the president was well aware of his position on the special counsel. He said his criticism of the special counsel were founded, he believed. So he agrees with him. So he does believe that Matt Whitaker, what he said about the special counsel, is correct.

KING: And to that point, imagine you're the president's lawyers and the president just casually lies in an interview with Chris Wallace. A very fine interview, by the way, from -- by Chris Wallace. He just flat out lies. Said, I didn't know Matt Whitaker was on television criticizing Robert Mueller? You're right, that's what he saw, and he said to Don McGahn, we've got to get this guy a job.

And then he actually lies about something like that. Imagine you're the president's lawyers and you're looking at the written answers and you're thinking, you know, where -- how do we -- how do we check all this out?

Another sign of the president's anxiety is the Democrats are about to retake the House. Adam Schiff, who will take over the Intelligence Committee, presumably, that's not done yet but presumably, has said he wants to go back and retrace. He thinks the House Intelligence Committee investigation under the Republicans was a joke. He says he's going to retrace some of the steps of that.

The president retweeted yesterday, I don't believe it was a typo, some of you might, he put two t's instead of two f's at the end of Adam Schiff's name. And Adam Schiff was on television saying this about Matthew Whitaker.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: He was chosen for the purpose of interfering with the Mueller investigation. He auditioned for the part by going on TV and saying he could hobble the investigation. And, ethically, he should have absolutely nothing to do with the investigation. He needs to know that if he takes any action to curb what Mr. Mueller does, we're going to find out about it. We're going to expose it.


[12:10:09] KING: Again, I guess we've become used to this, but the president of the United States, the president of the United States, take his name out and take his party out for a minute, referring to a sitting member of Congress, who's a ranking member now, about to become a chairman, with two t's -- I'm not going to say it, the two t's for the two f's in Congressman Schiff's name. Just that in and of itself is below the surface. But also, to me, it just shows the president understands, number one, he's got the anxiety about the questions and the short term, what is Mueller going to do. Number two, he understands how much his world is about to change.

DAVIS: He does. And I think, you know, we have seen time and again that this president likes to have a foe, a foil, somebody to sort of go up against. And the fact that he's resurrecting this little Adam Schiff's nickname that he's been using for a long time and then going a step further, as you point out, and putting two t's instead of two f's at the end of his name, I think he understands full well that he is going to be grappling and going back and forth with Adam Schiff and his committee if he does indeed become the chairman, as we all expect that he will. That there are going to be many moments where he's going to want to call him out on Twitter because whatever his committee is doing, whatever they may be uncovering, whoever they may be subpoenaing within the administration, is going to be something that could be damaging to him. And he's already on the attack mode against him.

I wouldn't necessarily say that this, you know, mangling of his name is any worse than we've seen the president, you know, do in terms of insulting Adam Schiff publicly in the past. It's not like Adam Schiff was going to treat him with kid gloves and how this is going to enrage him and he's not. But there is clearly going to be a back and forth here between the president and the House Intelligence Committee. And, you know, I think we're starting to see the battle lines being drawn in a much more sort of stark way by the president on that.

HULSE: I think the president gets it. I still don't think he gets how much his life is about to change.

KING: Right.

HULSE: This is going to be a sea change here in terms of the way he operates in Washington. And I think that is still sinking in over there. The Democrats obviously have no trust whatsoever in the attorney general and they're really going to push on that. And there's Republicans in the Senate who are nervous about this, too. They don't like this set-up. It puts more pressure on them to pass this legislation. Senator McConnell is fighting it off. You know, the juvenile nickname thing, I'm actually sort of afraid to try to say the congressman's name right now because I'm worried that I'm just going to say it.

KING: He puts it in your head. That's what he does, he puts it in your head.

HULSE: So, I'm going to refrain.

KING: But, it's an excellent point about the -- we're at the beginning of an interesting week, which is then going to take us into a very interesting couple of months ahead.

Up next for us, the president relishes combat, even when it's with someone who wore the uniform.


[12:16:48] KING: Welcome back.

Today new evidence the president loves a fight, even if the opponent is a decorated military man.


CHRIS WALLACE, HOST, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": McRaven, retired admiral, Navy SEAL, 37 years, and former head of U.S. special operations --


WALLACE: Special operations command --

TRUMP: Excuse me, Hillary Clinton fan.

WALLACE: Who led the operations, command of the operations that took down Saddam Hussein and that killed Osama bin Laden, says that your sentiment is the greatest threat to democracy in his life.

TRUMP: OK. He's a Hillary Clinton backer and an Obama backer and, frankly --

WALLACE: He's a Navy SEAL, 37 years.

TRUMP: Wouldn't it have been nice if we got Osama bin Laden a lot sooner than that?


KING: That swipe, you might call it snipe, from the president answered Admiral McRaven's long running criticism, that the president's attacks on the news media are a dangerous threat to democracy. Yesterday McRaven told CNN this, I did not back Hillary Clinton or anyone else. I am a fan of President Obama and President George W. Bush, both of whom I worked for. I admire all presidents regardless of their political party who should uphold the dignity of -- who uphold the dignity of the office.

Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby joins our conversation.

This is a remarkable spat between the command in chief --


KING: And a man who served his country with great distinction and honor for a long time.

KIRBY: Right.

KING: The president likes fights. What's to be gained here?

KIRBY: Nothing. And I think what really is the risk for me, at least what bothers me about this entire spat, is that it's just going to cement in the minds of certainly Trump voter the idea that the military is an extension of the White House, that somehow we are a political institution when, in fact, we're not. And when we have -- look, and everybody has a right to the First Amendment and freedom of speech. But when you have former generals and admirals that are jumping into the political fray in this regard, it further reinforces that notion, both for the president, who clearly doesn't understand the apolitical nature of the military, and for many American people -- many of the American people.

KING: Now, the admiral has been a critic for some time. He says he's not a Hillary person. This is not motivated by Hillary versus Trump. This is what he wrote in "The Washington Post" back in August. Through your actions you have embarrassed us in the eyes of our children, humiliated us on the world stage, and, worst of all, divided us as a nation. If you think for a moment that your McCarthy-era tactics will suppress the voice of criticism, you are sadly mistaken. The criticism will continue until you become the leader we prayed you would be.

Now, again, the president's firing back. Admiral McRaven is also not being shy about airing his differences here.

DAVIS: I mean this is -- this reminded me a little bit of the spat that we saw the president have with the intelligence community, he continues to have where he was revoking people's security clearances or threatening to because they had been critical of him. It used to be that even retired members of the intelligence community would pretty much, you know, hold their fire and not criticize a sitting president, not be as explicit as John Brennan and some of the others have been who used to serve in the intelligence community before President Trump took office, but they felt that they had to speak out against what they thought was out of line behavior. And I think we're seeing the same from Admiral McRaven. So that is difference.

But what is also incredibly striking is to hear a sitting president talk in this way about someone who served so honorably in the military, who carried out, supervised the raid to take out Osama bin Laden, which, you know, I think everyone would agree was an incredible feat and something that, you know, the president of the United States, the sitting president, is now saying somehow wasn't sufficient or wasn't, you know, done soon enough. It's just very striking to hear him sort of criticize tactics on something like that, that all Americans, I think, believe was a great success. [12:20:23] KING: Right. He just doesn't have -- the president does not

have it in has reservoir to say, you know what, I profoundly disagree, but this man's an American hero, I'm not going to pick a fight with him. Could have done that and could have said I think -- you know, call him a Clinton supporter. What the president didn't do -- what the president didn't do -- he says he's a Clinton backer, an Obama backer -- showed his personal scorn for Admiral McRaven. What he didn't do was say he's wrong. He didn't challenge his premises about free speech and about democracy. He didn't answer the substance of the question.

OLORUNNIPA: Yes. And There's actually a long history of the president sort of taking on military members, veterans, and attacking them verbally. Remember Senator John McCain, the president had that long running spat with him. Even when the president talked about his own defense secretary, Jim Mattis, he said he's sort of a Democrat, isn't he? And the president sort of is casting members of the military in this highly partisan role, which they, for the most part, are uncomfortable with and for the most part have shied away from not wanting to be seen as a member of the blue team or the red team, really just wanting to be American. And the president who has managed to politicize things that are normally not political, from sports to entertainment, has also done the same with the military. And that seems like that's the direct he's going to continue to go.

KING: And you start to see, after the election, a lot of Republicans are nervous when they look more deeply at how badly they got beat, how badly they got beat, and how unpopular this president is. It's just a fact if you look at the election results. So I'm always curious when you see -- when they poke back a little bit, what are they trying to do in this post-election mood to get them there.

This is Senator Marco Rubio today, who was on the receiving end of some of this when he was a candidate for president against Donald Trump. But I don't know if Admiral William McRaven shares my political views or not, but I do know few Americans have sacrificed or risked more than he has to protect America and the freedoms we enjoy. His military career exemplified honor and excellence. I am grateful for his service.

That's a longer, polite, smart way of saying, Mr. President, you're wrong here.

HULSE: Yes, I think this is the kind of thing that really aggravates people on Capitol Hill. They do not want the president fighting with people that they have deep respect for and that they know the public has deep respect for.

You know, the president has always had a fairly high attitude about his own military. And I always remember he would say he knew more than the generals and he learned from the generals from watching on TV. It's always been sort of this -- that he's -- he should have the upper hand in these debates.

I go back to Julie's point that to talk about the idea that the government sort of sat there while Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Pakistan is really a pretty outrageous statement when you consider the context and the times that were going on there. And I think people listen to that and go, you know, you need to pull back.

KING: I don't, for a second, question that everybody in uniform would do their job, as they see to do their job. But when the -- when this happens, when the commander in chief does this, given the respect Admiral McRaven has --

KIRBY: Right.

KING: When the president doesn't go to an American military cemetery when he's in France because he doesn't want to get in the motorcade or go out in the rain, what effect does it have?

KIRBY: I think it definitely has a negative effect on morale inside the ranks when you don't see your commander in chief make the effort, like on Veteran's Day. I wasn't so bothered by France, because I don't think he was well served by his staff, necessarily, with respect to the first cemetery visit. I was disappointed in one way by not going to Arlington on Monday. I --

KING: A 10-minute drive.

KIRBY: That -- that --

KING: It's a 10 minute drive from the White House.

KIRBY: That bothered me. That's it, Joh, I've got to be honest with you, there was a little part of me that was OK with it because whenever he gets around the troops and the military and the veterans, he tends to politicize the event. He tends to make it a partisan issue. And I would have hated to have seen that more on Veterans Day than him not going at all.

KING: That's interesting.

HULSE: Well, let's not forget about those troops down at the border right now.

KING: Right.

HULSE: There's a lot of question about whether that's a political use of the military. And that's real politicization of the military, to put them on a mission that really had a lot more attention before the election than after the election.

KING: Right.

KIRBY: And can I -- just one last point here, I mean, on McRaven.

I think clearly he -- you know, proper respect for what Admiral McRaven did is certainly warranted, but I don't think that we want to live in a country where former generals and admirals, who express their opinions and choose to get out there are beyond reproach and beyond criticism by the president or anybody else in power.

KING: No, I -- not at all. It's just how.


KING: To me it was the how he responded.

KIRBY: I agree.

KING: Not that he responded. He has every right to respond.

When we come back, midterm campaign, not over yet. There's one more vote. Mississippi, a special election. Republicans should win, but will they?


[12:29:20] KING: Welcome back.

The midterm election, almost over. Over the weekend, Florida recount ended. Republican Rick Scott will take that seat. A pick-up for the Republicans. Republicans also picked up seats in Indiana. They picked up seats in Missouri. And they picked up seats in a seat in North Dakota. Democrats picked up Nevada and Arizona. So we're almost done. Almost, but not quite. One more to go, a special election here in Mississippi. A run-off election.

Here's what played out on midterm Election Day. The Republican, Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, got 41. Mike Espy, the Democratic candidate, just shy of 41. The other candidates there.

[12:29:54] Because nobody one 50 plus, they have a run-off. That run- off is next Tuesday. President Trump's coming in to help the Republican. The Republican is ahead in the polls. But Republicans are a little bit nervous about this race. Mike Espy served in the Clinton administration.