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Biden Tops Dem 2020 List with 30 Percent of the Vote; Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl to Resign at End of Year; Trump's Chief of Staff Shortlist Down to Five People; Flynn's "Substantial" Assistance. Aired 12:30-1p ET

Aired December 14, 2018 - 12:30   ET



[12:31:19] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back.

It's hard to call this breaking news given that the 2020 Iowa caucuses are 416 days away, 416 days away. But as Democratic presidential hopefuls use this holiday season to think through, whether they really have what it takes or whether they at least think they have what it takes. It's a brand new poll numbers on the early very, very early state of the Democratic race.

Joe Biden, the former vice president, tops the field. Bernie Sanders, remember he ran last time against Hillary Clinton, second. Beto O'Rourke, fresh from losing his Senate race in Texas falls into third place.

Cory Booker, John Kerry, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren. These the top seven, there are more but they didn't get at least three percent. Top seven now. But look at that, Joe Biden, right, boom you're a shoe in.

Let's just look at what Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, do they have a favorable opinion of these candidates? Well, Biden is off the chart, so as Bernie Sanders. Democrats, Democratic-leaners love them.

Elizabeth Warren above water now. These lower numbers, that's not necessarily bad news. It just means some of these newcomers aren't very well-known nationally even among Democratic-leaning voters. So they have a lot of work to do to fill in the blanks if you will. And I remember that first number, Joe Biden way at the top. That mean he's going to be the nominee?

No, this is where we were at the same point in 2014, heading in to the 2016 cycle.

Jeb Bush was the run away favorite among Republicans. Followed by Chris Christie, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, Rand Paul. You might notice there's a name missing from this list? No Trump. No Trump. He wasn't even a factor in the race.

Then the first time we saw his numbers in a poll is when you get to May of 2015. Then at three percent, 17 days later, he announced he was running for president. You know the rest. He is president.

So just because you're not doing very well in the polls now doesn't say all that much about what's going to happen in 2020. As the Democrats sort this out, here's the current president of the United States who went through that crowd at primary in 2016 saying, I don't think I'm going to have worry about that this time.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we have the greatest base in the history of politics. I have people that I love and that love me frankly that includes a lot of women. The news and the polls are really fake. But I have the greatest base in history because the 46 percent and 48 percent, those people, they never wavered.


KING: He's probably right based on everything we know today. He probably doesn't have a tough primary challenge but we will see, because just as the conversation I have about the Democrats. Anybody wants to take what we know today and projected to 2020 is nuts.

But let's comeback to the idea of where we are, just as you try to make this decision over the holiday season. You're Cory Booker, you're Kamala Harris, you're Joaquin Castro, you know, with some of the lesser known candidates. Can I raise the money? Can I build a staff? Can I beat Joe Biden?


KING: Can I beat Bernie Sanders?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIR POLITICAL REPORTER: And can I make Democrats fall in love with me, right? I mean that's one of the things that Donald Trump talked about in terms of how his base feels about him. That was certainly the case for Barrack Obama. I mean, he could get those big crowds and really connect with people on an emotional level.

I think that's the big question. People don't want to fall in line. They want to fall in love and that's why you see Beto for instance there, who had big crowds, who had a lot of money. Lebron James endorsement, Beyonce endorsement and that's in some ways why he's at nine percent at this point.



LERER: It's easy to fall in love when you don't know anything about the person and I think most voters don't know a lot about him. The number that struck me in that poll was Elizabeth Warren's unfavorable rating was fairly high for someone who's not as well known as a Biden, as a Bernie. And you know, she is perhaps the furthest along in terms of the actual planning for an announcement.

KING: Right.

LERER: But you look at those numbers and you say, well, she's going to have a lot of work to do to change some of these minds. That's she's, you know, approaching the electorate that already has a view of her in about a third of Democratic and Democratic-leaners have a negative view of her. And you know, that can be a bit of problem.

[12:35:02] KING: In part because of how he -- she has handle things. But in part because the president likes to single her out. So, you know, the question is --

LERER: But that should maybe help her with Democratic voters, right?

KING: You would think unless it's overtime having an effect. I just want to say if you're Joe Biden you're thinking, wow, look at that, I'm twice as high as anybody else.

Let's go back in history. At this point in 2008, Rudy Giuliani was going to be your Republican nominee, it was John McCain. At this point in 2008 in the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, she's going to be your nominee, didn't work out that way. Back in 2004, I didn't remember this, but Hillary Clinton at this point was leading there, John Kerry was the nominee.

So, if you're Joe Biden and you're going to run, you will be breaking -- defying history.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No question. And that's a reason for anyone who's thinking about getting in, just to get in now, because they don't know if Biden is going to run or not. But all the comparisons being made to Obama, you should make comparisons to Barack Obama in January of 2007. He was not the candidate. He was when he started and when he finished, that year proved to be a massive obstacle course of marathon. He was knocked down.

The question is, who can get backed up? Who can have a second act? It's not about the first act, it's the second act. Hillary Clinton was to be the nominee in '08 and then Iowa happened and then everything changed. So that's why so many people will probably run, but I'm not convinced it's going to be as big of a list as we actually.

KING: Four hundred and 16 days to the Iowa caucuses. I want to start right now, start working on the road show. It's time to go and get there soon enough.

To that point, the results of the very first CNN (INAUDIBLE) register Iowa poll will be revealed tomorrow night. Right here at CNN, 8 p.m. Eastern. See how the 2020 potentials are scoring not just nationally as we just showed you but in the lead of caucus state. And then watch us Sunday morning in INSIDE POLITICS, we'll kick those numbers around.

Up next, Arizona Senator Jon Kyl just announced his resignation which means the late Senator John McCain seat is open again.

But before we go to break, outgoing senators, meaning those not staying over to next year are saying their goodbyes and not holding anything back. Some reflections, brutal honesty you might say about the future of the Senate.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A traditional farewell speech in the United States Senate is full of accomplishments and thanks. I'm going to skip half of that.


[12:41:35] KING: Topping our political radar today. The Arizona Senator Jon Kyl announcing he will step down at the end of the year. He was appointed to fill the seat of the late Senator John McCain back in September. Arizona's Republican governor now gets to name a senator to serve until 2020. Sources familiar with the conversations in Arizona tell CNN to look for an announcement as early as this weekend. And the likely choice these sources say, is Congresswoman Martha McSally who just lost a race for Arizona's other Senate seat.

SEUNG MIN KIM, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: This is a fascinating choice for the governor who initially had some resistance to McSally in part because she just lost. But I'm told Senator Kyl is for this and they're working with the McCain family on this to try to make this happen and happen fast.

And importantly, Mitch McConnell and for Martha McSally and we have reported that he has been lobbying Doug Ducey, the governor of Arizona hard for that appointment. She was clearly one of their price recruits, lost a tough race to Kyrsten Sinema. But that's a choice we could -- likely to be seeing pretty soon.

ZELENY: And her concession was so gracious in that video.


ZELENY: Almost seemed like I should be joining the Senate.

KIM: And she said Kyl is her mentor. She's a Kyl protege.

ZELENY: Right. It seems like that will happen but --

HENDERSON: And it's good to add to the ranks of women in the Senate especially on the GOP side.

KING : And to your McConnell point, there are lot of other Republican elements in the state of Arizona that are like the one's McConnell doesn't like there and around the country, tea party people and he wants somebody who not going to vote for Mueller with the Mueller time but somebody who's more establishment, reliable.

KIM: Not giving him a headache.

KING: Not -- that's -- thank you, that's (INAUDIBLE).

Up next, speaking of headaches, the president searching for a new chief of staff. So who's on the running and who wants the job?


[12:47:20] KING: Welcome back.

The president is said to be narrowing his list to be his new chief of staff. One candidate is the former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie who met with the president yesterday to discuss the job. Sources though stressing no offer was made. Other names we know to be on Trump's shortlist, his former campaign adviser, David Bossie and the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker.

Unusual to let your current chief of staff say, I'm leaving without having a replacement. Nick Ayers was the VP chief of staff, we thought he was going to (INAUDIBLE) and he said no, thank you.

Where are we here?

ZELENY: All this has been in a week. A week ago at this point, the president thought he was going to name Nick Ayers in that position. He backed the president and do a corner on this. It was the president himself who came out and said John Kelly is leaving. He didn't have to say that, so that is always sort of thing created here.

The reality here is there are many people in Washington and beyond who do not want this job at all for all of the reasons we've been talking about all hour-long on this show and others. So, many people who are coming in and talking to the president, including the former governor of New Jersey or doing so, I believe out of respect and they want to give him advice on things. They actually want him to succeed. Many people do not want the job.

So, those three are potentials, they're could be others who are in the White House right now in lower level positions who could be elevated. Like Johnny DeStefano, who's the deputy chief of staff, a counsel to the president or others. But it's a challenging, challenging job made harder by the guy just down the hall.

LERER: But it was also a job that everybody in town wanted. People would skim for the job, you're the second most powerful guy in Washington. You have control over -- you know, you have a direct line to the president. You're the gatekeeper among gatekeepers. I mean, this is a power -- traditionally, historically, this is a powerful job.

ZELENY: There's no gate on this Oval Office though.

LERER: It's amazing.


HENDERSON: And if you take it, you lead the White House with a tattered reputation in many ways. But I think Reince sort of, you know, left with his reputation somewhat intact, but John Kelly certainly did not. He came in as the adult in the room and now on not so much.

KING: Well, to that point, we have -- because they say pictures are worth a thousand words. This one worth a million. This is John Kelly and Reince Priebus at the -- at a White House holiday reception, you see the great -- the White House is always beautiful.


KING: -- at Christmas time. And they're on holiday reception. I got some messages from some Republicans yesterday who were at one of the receptions, maybe it's same one. Political reception and who say that the president went out of his way to heap praise on Jared Kushner, saying how well-organized he is and how tenacious he is. And what a great job he's done on pushing and sticking with criminal justice reform.

Is -- they took that as, oh God, is the president promoting him. Is the president getting ready -- is there any chance the president of the United States would ask his son-in-law to be his chief of staff?

KIM: Sources have told us that that's not in the mix. There's other reporting that may indicate otherwise.

[12:50:01] At the end of the day, we never know what's going to happen until he makes the actual decision.

But that photo, that's smile on John Kelly's face is I don't think I've seen him smile that large before. But unfortunately for him, the White House spokesman indicated earlier this morning that he may just have to stick around through the new year, until the New Year.

ZELENY: And they're selling like eggnog and the fact that he'll be getting a much deserved rest to make you smile over Christmas.

KIM: Eggnog.

KING: It's a smile of a man. I know Boston Irish when I see it. That's the smile of a man who sees the off-ramp.

Up next, prosecutors say Michael Flynn helped them substantially. So why then is the president still singing his praises?


[12:55:19] KING: Michael Flynn's time in the special counsel spotlight, nearing its end. He'll be sentenced in court next week, and prosecutors have recommended he serve no jail time but the legal maneuvering not quite over. Later today, Mueller's office will respond to the defense's suggestion that investigators mislead Flynn by interviewing him without a lawyer present by not reminding him that it's a crime to lie to the FBI.

The president has seized on that suggestion and says he doesn't think Flynn gave Mueller anything. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: They took a man who's a general and a respected person and a nice man. And I don't even know what he said about me, because you know, maybe they scared him enough that he'll make up a story. But I have a feeling that maybe he didn't. He's a tougher kind of a guy than Cohen.


KING: Tougher kind of a guy than Cohen. That's the key point. Is the president's anger with Cohen perhaps warping his view of Flynn? This is the court filing from prosecutors about Michael Flynn, quote, the defendant's assistance to the government has substantial -- was substantial and merits consideration at sentencing. Some of that benefit may not be fully realized at this time because the investigations in which he has provided assistance are ongoing.

I read that and that says, what are we waiting for? Russia, collusion, cooperation, business dealings. Is the president so mad at Michael Cohen he's maybe not understanding how big of a Flynn problem he has?

LERER: I mean, look, they don't -- the special counsel investigation is not giving you no jail time for not talking, right? Like you earned that reward. So clearly he is probably giving some things up.

ZELENY: But the president's definition of if you're tough or not means you don't cooperate with law enforcement. So again, it's another example of undermining the Justice Department and the rule of law here. So we'll see what the sentence is when it comes out next Tuesday. The judge does not have to follow that recommendation, but we don't know what else these other investigations that were -- that the feds have out there.

It might be involving the inauguration. It might be involving the transition period. We don't know.

KING: And I just want to read this again because I don't think the president was aware of this when he -- I get his anger of Michael Cohen but, you know -- but, "General Flynn provided timely and substantial assistance to law enforcement. In total, he participated in 19 meetings with the special counsel's office and other components of the government, totaling approximately 62 hours and 45 minutes. Additionally, General Flynn has produced thousands of documents to the Department of Justice."

LERER: And he fired Flynn for lying to him.

HENDERSON: Yes. But he's saying here that if the FBI or the deep state or whatever that duped Michael Flynn into lying. You know, I think one of the things about Flynn is he's got a lot of supporters among grassroots folks, he was a big star at the convention, led the lock her up chants. So in some ways, it seems like maybe Trump is a little nervous about attacking him because he's sort of a Trump guy. KIM: And to your point, I mean, the potential legal implications aside which are could be severe. I mean, the political implications and all the details that we're seeing with, all the new memos and the potential -- and the cooperation that Michael Flynn and others are giving him have serious ramifications on the Hill as Democrats look at all these new details that come out with every single new document and say, this could be potential impeachment fodder and they take charge in just a couple short of weeks.

KING: And we will see. We'll wait for the memos this afternoon and we'll see how Mueller responds and set sentencing next week.

This is my favorite. I started my career in Rhode Island. Flynn is from Rhode Island, had some friends in Rhode Island. He spend a lot of time there.

This is from an AP story out today and I just find it wonderful for number of bases. "Flynn has been having fun with his old high school gang. Random people approach him in public with hugs, handshakes and requests for photos. His supporters plan to rally outside the courthouse the day of his sentencing in a lucrative consulting gig could await him. His Rolodex has got to be amazing, a longtime friend Rocky Kempenaar said. I just know he's not done. I don't know what he's got up his sleeve. He loves our country, he just wants to give and give and give."

Now, I will say this, there are a lot of people who think, you know, maybe you don't go to prison, but you committed crimes. You're a disgraced national security adviser, that you're done. There is a great tradition in Rhode Island of second chapters. I give you by the (INAUDIBLE).

Also, there's a great tradition in Rhode Island of learning up against the law and then finding a new chapter.

ZELENY: In Washington as well but I think there still is a mystery about Michael Flynn. What happened in his career. He was leading the Defense Intelligence Agency, had such a long (INAUDIBLE) did he take the wrong path here or a different path. Perhaps, that was something that would come out at sentencing as well.

KING: It's a remarkable story, a remarkable fall from grace. But still one of the many chapters that we know a little about. And to your point, not a lot about. Where is the special counsel going? We shall see.

Thanks for joining us in the INSIDE POLITICS today. Hope to see you back here Sunday morning as well, 8 a.m. Eastern. Hope you can get up early.

Stay with us,. Lot of breaking news still ahead. Brianna Keilar starts right now. Have a great weekend.