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INSIDE POLITICS

O'Rourke Campaign Raised $6.1 million; Biden Slips in Speech; Trump Spends Weekend Airing Grievances; Cracks in the Republican Party over Trump. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 18, 2019 - 12:00   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:00:10] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS: I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Beto O'Rourke is proving there are bucks to back the buzz. The former congressman reports a new fundraising record in his first 24 hours as a presidential candidate, taking in -- get this -- more than $6 million.

Plus, mission accomplished, but at what price? Once a fierce Trump critic, Senator Lindsey Graham is now a feisty Trump defender. And the White House is about to give him a big reward.

And, how was your weekend? At the White House, the chief of staff feels compelled to say the president is not a white supremacist. And another top Trump adviser again takes issue with her husband whose weekend tweets questioned the president's mental fitness and suggests he's getting worse.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: No, I don't share those concerns, and I was getting -- I have four kids and I was getting out of the house this morning before I got here and talked to the president about substance. So I may not be up to speed on all of them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Back to that drama in a moment.

But we begin this hour with a big, new record by one of the Democrats' big new faces. Beto O'Rourke's presidential campaign announcing it raised more than $6 million in the first 24 hours after going live. The former Texas congressman managing to top even Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign, which reached $5.9 million in its first day. The closest other 2020 candidate who publicized first day fundraising, Senator Kamala Harris, who brought in $1.5 million. O'Rourke campaigning in Michigan today after blitzing through Iowa and Wisconsin over the past several days. The first week reviews were mixed. So the money sends an important message. O'Rourke has staying power in a crowded and wide open race for the Democratic nomination.

CNN's MJ Lee joins us now from Jackson, Mississippi.

MJ, this -- wow, it's a big statement, topping even what we all thought was wow from Bernie Sanders.

MJ LEE, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. And for the other candidate who are watching Beto O'Rourke and the start of his campaign, they should be worried, as you noted. The closest other candidate to come to this kind of number was Bernie Sanders. And at that moment when he put out his number, we were all wowed by that number, right, $5.9 million. And, as you said, Kamala Harris' $1.5 million. Beto O'Rourke clearly showing, and he said so himself this morning, that he believes you can run a presidential campaign based on a grassroots strategy, based on just going after these small dollar donations.

And the big question that's been looming over Beto O'Rourke and his presidential campaign has been, can he do whatever it was that he did in Texas that got people so energized and so excited? Can he do that on the national stage, right? And when it comes to the fundraising, we seem to have at least the answer for now that he is able to pull in that kind of money. But a lot of other questions still remain to be seen in terms of whether he can build out a team that can handle a presidential campaign. It's notable that Beto O'Rourke still does not have a campaign manager. Can he build the kind of infrastructure that you need for a national campaign?

And then, of course, where is he on the important policy questions? That still remains to be seen as well, John.

KING: Remains to be seen, but that money does make a statement. We will see where we go from here.

MJ, appreciate the live reporting.

MJ in Jackson. Our town hall Elizabeth Warren tonight there.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace of "The Associated Press," CNN's Arlette Saenz, Matt Viser of "The Washington Post," and NPR's Ayesha Rascoe.

It is a huge statement. We could show you some of the headlines from the first week on the campaign. "Axios" talking about gaffes, "RedState" saying apologizing for being a white male, "The Washington Times," the conservative paper, Beto O'Rourke says he's mortified after stories about his (INAUDIBLE). Every candidate, you have ups and downs. You prefer they not be in your early days. But when you can report $6 million after being coy for the last several days about how much you raised, what is the message to the other candidates and what is the message about Beto?

JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "ASSOCIATED PRESS": Well, I think the message is that he is going to be a formidable fundraiser. And money matters. It matters because it's a sign of enthusiasm around your campaign. It's also important because this is going to be a long campaign. If you're going to be viable a year from now when we are deep in the primary season, you're going to have to have enough money to sustain the campaign. So I think he is sending a message that he does have grassroots support, that some of, to MJ's point, some of what he did in Texas is at least translating very early at a national level.

I do think that one of the questions about how he sets up this campaign is how he uses that money. He famously did not have a pollster, did not have a big team around him in Texas. Running for president is a much different situation. You are running multiple Senate races at once all across the country. So how is he going to use that money? And that's the test for all of these candidates as they -- as they go from this early phase into the next phase, which is actually building out an organization and actually running a real campaign.

KING: In that regard he's doing it -- I don't know if backwards is the right word, but unconventional. And we have a president now, the incumbent, who did things in a very unconventional way. But the idea that he's raising all this money, he's running around with a handful of aides, doesn't have a campaign manager yet, can't really tell you some things on policy issues, but --

[12:05:02] MATT VISER, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And like an overwhelming amount of content. You know, Trump does that very well. I was trying to keep pace with Beto in Iowa behind his Dodge Caravan that he's driving around with his aides in and, you know, he's doing eight events a day. He is speaking to packed crowds. There is an energy around him at this stage, and the money illustrates that in a pretty striking way. I mean he was able to raise a lot against Ted Cruz. The question was whether he could raise a lot competing amongst fellow Democrats. And he proves that with this.

The challenge, as Julie pointed out, I mean, I think is some of the specifics that he needs to build a campaign apparatus around him. And he is sort of light when you ask him specific questions. He's very inspirational and works up a crowd, but in the end sometimes he doesn't answer a simple policy question. And I -- and I think that that's OK maybe at this early stage, but if that continues, it could be problematic.

KING: Well, to that point, let's listen here. To the -- some of the -- on the issues today. Beto O'Rourke still campaigning. And, again, some people say he's lucky in the sense that he's a former congressman. He doesn't have to be in Washington for votes. So he can stay out on the road campaigning with his small band in his Dodge Caravan that Matt was chasing around. Don't go ahead of the speed limit here.

But listen today. Beto O'Rourke, here, he's talking about immigration and climate change.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BETO O'ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If you think 400,000 apprehensions on the southern border with Mexico is a problem, wait until the some countries in the western hemisphere are no longer habitable by human beings. You do not want to consign your kids to that fate. So one of the reasons that I like the way the green new deal has been

laid out, the framework for that incredibly ambitious proposal, it does not attempt to disengage our action to climate with the need to rebuild this economy so that it works for everyone.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Again, as the campaign moves on, all of the candidates, not just Congressman O'Rourke, where would you pay for a green deal? Where would that money come from? But tapping there into the energy that is the Democratic base.

AYESHA RASCOE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, NPR: And I think we have to be very careful because we are all very plugged in and we're going to be looking at every single statement he makes.

You know, when people were talking about gaffes and things of that, I think especially at this point and this environment, the idea that kind of these misstatements here or there is really going to derail a campaign is probably unlikely. I think people have a much higher tolerance level than they may have had in the past.

And when you look at him kind of apologizing for certain things, I know also in this day and age a lot of people who don't apologize for much, but I think part of the reason why people used to do it is you could apologize and then you move on. And I think that's what you kind of see him doing. And it is very early. I mean, you know, it's just been like a week.

KING: No idea -- no idea -- no idea who you mean by some people just don't apologize.

RASCOE: Just some -- somebody -- somebody else.

KING: To the point, you used the word gaff.

Arlette, you've been spending most of your time tracking Hamlett from Delaware. But the question of, you know, when -- when are we going to -- when is Joe Biden going to officially get in. My take on Joe Biden, he's running. The question is, does he stop running?

This over the weekend. A friendly audience at home in Delaware, some say it was a gaffe, some say probably not.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE BIDEN (D), FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: I know I'll get criticized and told I get criticized by the new left. I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the -- of anybody who would run. I mean that anybody who would run.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: He's running. You have a -- you have a very smart piece, a part of reporting, a very smart piece, up on cnnpolitics.com right now about the pressure on Biden. And when you see the Beto O'Rourke fundraising numbers, money raised in small donations on the Internet, that brings into full contrast one of the issues. Biden is a more traditional, not a younger politician. He's going to have to go to big events and raise money. It's not going to come in and -- at least not in those numbers we don't expect online.

What's the current mood in the -- Camp Biden?

ARLETTE SAENZ, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: I mean Biden and his team are closely watching these figures that have come out. And also him waiting to get in has given him the chance to kind of size up the field. And now they're just working, trying to get all the elements in place to put him in a position where he can seize command of the field once he enters. So they're working on lining up major endorsements, including from black lawmakers, who could be key to support for a Biden candidacy, as you move beyond Iowa and New Hampshire into states like South Carolina. They're also looking at gaming out the scenarios for what a lunch would look like. And they've been floating some possible locations for a kickoff rally. Two of those potentially being Wilmington, his home state, and then also Scranton, Pennsylvania, which is really central to that Biden middle class message. That's where he was born. So it could be a natural place for him to go back to.

And there's also been some discussion about potentially picking a running mate early that would generate some enthusiasm among Democrats and also try to focus this race during the primary against President Trump. And you've seen the former vice president in his speeches really go after President Trump, showing that he's trying to make this a direct match-up between the two of them.

[12:10:11] KING: Out of the box, because he's made us wait, number one, and because of his experience, and because he's a more traditional candidate, at a time you think the party's looking for something different. He's going to have to be close to perfect. And I think they get that.

He does have the president's attention. The president tweeting this morning, Joe Biden got tongue-tied over the weekend when he was unable to properly deliver a very simple line about his decision to run for president. Get used to it, another low IQ individual.

That's that, you know, high, substance-based conversation we're going to have in the campaign from the president.

VISER: Trump loves to the -- sort of the color commentator on this Democratic field.

KING: Right.

VISER: Making fun of Amy Klobuchar, you know, and her announcements in a snow globe or whatever, and Beto and his hand movements which are significant. You know, he does move his hands quite a bit.

But to the point about -- you know, I think Beto and Biden are occupying some similar and interesting space, and both sort of draw out the other's weaknesses. You know, Biden has a deep resume, but a problematic one, and Beto has a very light one. And, you know, Biden is older and Beto brings out that generational change. And so the two of them sort of both fighting over some similar political terrain, you know, not as lefty and progressive as the rest of the field. It's going to be fascinating.

PACE: And it's no surprise that Biden, if he does fully get in, is waiting until April because he wants to wait past the first quarter fundraising numbers. Biden has deep relationships with Democratic donors. But, to your point, he's going to have to do this the old- fashioned way. It's unlikely he would get a $6 million grassroots, you know, piggy bank on his first 24 hours. So his numbers aren't going to look quite as impressive off the bat. So he wants to wait until after everybody else has to put out their money before he really gets in the game.

VISER: Biden hasn't been on the ballot by himself since 2008.

KING: Right.

VISER: You know, so I think these lists that all these other candidates have, these e-mail lists, are extensive, and Biden has a lot of catching up to do.

KING: That's a great point. We will watch. We will watch. It's a fascinating race. Interesting statement today from Mr. O'Rourke.

Up next for us, a remarkable -- two remarkable defenses from two of the president's top aides amid a big debate about the president's character and, some say, his state of mind.

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[12:16:11] KING: The president making clear today he thinks it is unfair that his character is being questioned because of his response to the massacre in New Zealand. The media, the president tweets, is working overtime to blame him for the horrible attack in New Zealand. No one here is working even one second to blame the president for the attack. But they are legitimate questions about his reaction to it. Those questions range from why he ignored the facts about a spike in far-right violence and why he didn't specifically denounce white nationalism, to why he spent his weekend airing grievances about the late Senator John McCain and General Motors as the world discussed hate and violence? Included in this debate, two remarkable White House statements in the span of 24 hours. The first from the White House chief of staff.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The president is not a white supremacist. I'm not sure how many times we have to say that. And to simply ask the question every time something like this happens overseas, or even domestically to say, oh, my goodness, it must somehow be the president's fault speaks to a politicization of everything that I think is undermining sort of the institutions that we have in the country today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The second statement came today from presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway. The weekend into Monday debate about what the president did and didn't say about New Zealand and the debate about why he felt it more important to, again, disparage Senator McCain than say something supportive about Muslims included Conway's husband. George Conway is a prominent Washington attorney and a well- established critic of his wife's boss. His Twitter take yesterday, quote, his condition is getting worse. Followed up with a tweet today from the pages of the diagnostic manual for mental disorders.

Kellyanne Conway reacting on the White House grounds a bit earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: No, I don't share those concerns. And I was getting -- I have four kids and I was getting out of the house this morning before I got here and talked to the president about substance, so I may not be up to speed on all of them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: CNN's Phil Mattingly joins the conversation.

I'm not even sure where to begin in the sense that, again, the president's aides would push back and say, a lot of this is a media creation. Cable looking for television. That was Kellyanne Conway's husband who tweeted those things. And, again, they have a history here, but he keeps doing it and he keeps doing it and he knows she's going to be asked about it. And the fact that the White House chief of staff has to -- feels compelled to say the president is not a white supremacist, I don't even know what to say about that.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's usually not a good sign generally when you have to go on air on the Sunday show and say that.

But I thought more interesting to me was the point of -- you -- I -- we have to keep saying this over and over and over again. And it's one of those, OK, if that's the case, then take a step back and ask the question why. And I think you make a good point here. This isn't the kind of outward blaming of the president for what happened. It's more of a kind of sin of omission. This isn't -- this isn't the most difficult part of politics, being compassionate, showing empathy, showing sympathy for something like this, and it's kind of kind of low-hanging fruit. It's a couple tweets. It's a solid statement. It's not a denial of what's actually happening. And then everybody would leave it alone.

And I think the reality for Mick Mulvaney, White House staff, the president, generally is why people keep asking about this is because the president doesn't seem to respond to this in a normal way. Now, to be fair, the president doesn't seem to respond to anything in a normal way, and they would argue that's why he's in the White House.

And I think -- I think what kind of boggles the mind here is it's just such low-hanging fruit, which --

KING: To that point, the president was asked, do you think white supremacy or white nationalism's on the rise? He said, no, I don't.

PACE: Yes.

KING: No, I don't. The statistics are overwhelming and they're against that.

Now, you say, you know, how should you do this? Here, this is the president's own secretary of Homeland Security. You get asked about this issue. How about this?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: But we should not and cannot and must not ignore the real and serious danger posed by domestic terrorists. We, too, have seen the face of such evil with attacks in places such as Charlottesville, Pittsburgh and Charleston. And in the wake of the New Zealand tragedy, I want to make one thing very clear. We will not permit such hate in the homeland. There is no room in this great nation for violent groups who intimidate or coerce Americans because of their race, religion, sex or creed.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[12:20:19] KING: Great example. A great example. So why won't the boss follow the lead, if you will, or lead his deputies?

RASCOE: That is the issue right there, that this is coming from Secretary Nielsen, or you'll have a statement from Sarah Sanders. But you're not hearing that same language from the president. And even though he responds to everything maybe not the way a normal president would, if there's an attack by a Muslim on, you know, an attack -- an attack by a Muslim, you will hear from the president very quickly telling foreign countries, you need to get smart, you need to do this, you need to do that. But you don't hear that here. You get one kind of statement, I'm sending out my condolences, and then you -- and then you don't hear any more on it.

PACE: Similarly an attack by a --

KING: And then you --

RASCOE: Yes.

KING: Right.

PACE: By an immigrant living in the United States on someone else here. And that is where we get into this problem. And Mick Mulvaney, I'm sure he's very frustrated that he is spending his weekend answering these questions. But he's having to answer them for a reason. There's a difference in the way that the president responds when there's an attack perpetrated by a Muslim overseas, by an immigrant living in the United States than when there is an attack in a different set of circumstances.

KING: And the prime minister of New Zealand herself -- the prime minister of New Zealand herself, who showed how you lead in a situation like this. You go into the community, you hug people, you share empathy with them. She said she asked the president to show some love and support for the Muslim community. No specific references at all from the president. Instead, 30 tweets and retweets over the weekend -- we can show you some of them -- airing a whole range of grievances.

Now, the president has every right to have his opinion and to be mad about things. But, again, you're the leader of the free world, at a moment when the world is having a conversation, a, just feeling horrible and sharing the pain in New Zealand to just deciding that, you know, you're going to air your grievances about anything. But --

VISER: And you -- all of his aides and advisers are out sort of explaining his comments. They'd need to sort of get that phone taken away. You know, I mean the Twitter -- and this is not a new observation. It's been a theme of his presidency. But his, you know, executive time and being alone and tweeting I mean illustrates who he is and sort of what he's doing, but his advisers struggle to put that back into context or to rein that in and so you --

KING: You can't. You can't. He is the most transparent president in many ways, and that's what he's -- that was what was most important to him this weekend.

VISER: Yes.

KING: Other people had a different opinion. That was what was most important to him.

Up next for us, a 2020 campaign question for the president. Is he losing at least a bit of his grip on the Republican Party?

But first, another Iowa campaign tradition. Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar finds some local swag at the famed Raygun (ph) t-shirt shop. Spending some money. Help that Iowa economy.

We'll be right back.

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[12:27:31] KING: Senator Lindsey Graham is celebrating a big reward today. Vice President Mike Pence will be on hand next weekend to kick off the Republican senators' 2020 re-election campaign, giving the Trump seal of approval to a senator who once called the president a bigot and a jackass. Graham's conversion from Trump antagonist to Trump ally is a remarkable flip and proof on the president's hold to the conservative Republican base.

There is still some pushback. Remember, 12 GOP senators broke with the president just last week in the debate over his border wall national emergency. And just today, George W. Bush, using remarks at an immigration ceremony, to reminded us that not long ago, and with the old Lindsey Graham's help, the last Republican president had a very different tone on immigration than the current Republican president.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: America's elected representatives have a duty to regulate who comes in and when. In meeting this responsibility, it helps to remember that America's immigrant history made us who we are. Amid all the complications of policy, may we never forget that immigration is a blessing and a strength.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: It seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? Remember McCain, Kennedy, Bush? Lindsey Graham was a key player in that. He's taken a different -- but he got his reward, right? Everyone said when Lindsey Graham flipped, why did he do this? And part of it was to ward off a primary challenge in 2020. Mike Pence at your kickoff event. Mission accomplished.

VISER: Yes, this is why. I mean, yes, it shows Lindsey Graham's political astuteness to doing what he has to do to get re-elected, but you know, not living up necessarily to the principles and his idolizing of John McCain. I mean McCain was the one that spoke out.

And this weekend was interesting. There wasn't -- we've gotten used to President Trump's attacks on John McCain and it seems so formulaic how those responses go. And there's not as much pushback these days to President Trump attacking John McCain.

KING: And, to that point, again, Lindsey Graham was McCain's best friend in the Senate. Senator -- put up -- you can put up on the screen here, the president tweet a number of things about Senator McCain this past weekend. We understand the president's upset John McCain didn't vote with him on health care. That's a legitimate reason for the president to be upset.

John McCain died seven months ago. The president, again on New Zealand weekend, decided to tweet all this stuff, last in his class, all these other things about John McCain. And Lindsey -- Lindsey Graham, you would expected to push back, he really didn't. He didn't push back at the president at all.

[12:29:56] Lindsey Graham just tweeting, you know, John McCain, in his devotion to the country, he stepped forward to risk his life. Nothing about his service will ever be changed or diminished. So Lindsey Graham protecting himself there by praising John McCain but not one pushback saying, Mr. President, please, stop.