Return to Transcripts main page


Soon: GOPS's Handel Casts Vote in High-Stakes Race; Soon: Pence, GOP Leaders Meet behind Closed Doors; Top House Dems Scrutinize Flynn's Trip to Mideast. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 20, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman. Poppy is off today. To celebrate the fact the White House is holding an on camera briefing and also, perhaps to watch the excitement in Georgia. The most special, special election around and at any moment, the Republican, Karen Handel, she will cast her ballot, one is already the most expensive House race ever.

It should be noted that Democrat Jon Ossoff can't vote as he does not live in the district which has been an issue there, just one of the many issues, perhaps the biggest issue the Trump presidency. This race being seen as a referendum on the president and the margins, razor, razor thin in the polls.

We're joined by CNN's Jason Carroll live from Marietta, inside the congressional district. Jason, what are you seeing?

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You say razor thin, it is just too close to call at this point. And just to give you an indication of just how much interest there has been in this race, 140,000 votes have been cast during early voting. Those are the types of numbers that you normally see during a presidential campaign.

John, you talked about how expensive this race has been. The most expensive race of its kind in history, $50 million spent between both candidates if you also factor in some of the super PAC spending and PAC spending as well. When you sort of look at the lay of the land here in terms of what's happened here in the sixth Congressional district, this has been a district that has been reliably Republican for decades. Donald Trump narrowly carried the district in 2016.

Democrats on opportunity here, Jon Ossoff sort of got in here, started running his race and very early on, very much made it a race about Donald Trump. Karen Handel, for her part, has really been going after Ossoff on a number of issues, saying he just simply doesn't have the experience and he is just a quote, unquote, "typical liberal." When we resell to both of the candidates, they both had a lot to say about the race, both of them trying to pretty much down play the national implications here.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JON OSSOFF (D), GEORGIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: I'm sure there are national implications. It's not my place to assess them. I leave that to pundits and commentators. My job is to make the case that I'll do the best job possible representing the people of Georgia 6th District. And what they want is representation that's focused on them and not this national partisan political circus.

KAREN HANDEL (R), GEORGIA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: What I hear on the campaign trail, it's not about the national implications. It's about who is best suited to represent them in Washington to be their next congressman. And it's me, someone who has the experience and the relationships in this community. My husband and I have lived here for almost 25 years. That's longer than my opponent, pretty much has been alive.


CARROLL: As Handel is cracking a joke there about Ossoff, I also want to talk about Handel herself. She's casting her vote right now in Roswell. So she's getting that underway.

Actually, we should point out, Ossoff is not 25 years old, he is 30 years old. And even though both candidates, John, are trying to down play the national implications here, I mean, let's just look at the reality. The president was down here fund raising for Handel. You've had top Democrats down here stumping for Ossoff. So, the reality on the ground here pretty much speaks for itself.

Let's just also talk about some of the implications here and there are national implications. If Ossoff is able to pull out a win here for Democrats, that gives them sort of this symbolic boost that they need to head again to the midterm elections. And if Handel is able pull out a win here, I mean, this is really symbolic sort of push for GOP lawmakers, as well, who are trying to get the president's agenda through whether it be through immigration reform or health care or tax reform in D.C. But for both sides, at this point, John, the race is just too close to call. John?

BERMAN: You know, the candidates may claim it's not national. But $50 million doesn't appear in the suburbs of Georgia because people all of a sudden care about the suburbs of Atlanta.

All right, Jason Carroll at Marietta, thank you so much. Appreciate it.

Big news on Capitol Hill, what could be a very important meeting about to take place, the vice president of the United States goes behind closed doors with Senate Republicans who have been working out a health care bill behind closed doors.

What is in the Senate health care bill? We don't know because the meetings have been secret. The details have been secret and Democrats don't like that one bit. They took to the Senate pool last night to complain about it.

I'm joined right now by CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill. Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, you are absolutely right. We have been speaking to -- Democratic senators. I spoke to Dick Durbin, just earlier this morning, who said, look, we just need three Republicans - three Republicans to say no on this vote and that vote will not take place and Republicans are really kind of banking on the fact that they need every single vote. Every single vote will count. So, you have that critical luncheon that is going to happen later today with the vice president where they really get a temperature of where senators are in the process.

On the House side, it was interesting because John, you might recall of this just last month, there was the big celebration with the president in the Rose Garden.

[10:05:04] Literally, they had been bussed there to really kind of pat each other on the back, if you will. But far from complete with the process. That was earlier.

Since then, we have heard from the president behind the scenes, a meeting with Senate Republicans calling this a mean version, the House version. But House Speaker Paul Ryan weighing in this morning saying that yes, the president is still on board.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: -- the president many, many times, he's excited on what we did in the House.

BILL HEMMER, FOX NEWS: You are saying he's on board then?

RYAN: He's on board. And also, the Senate got their own legislative process. So they are going to take their amendments and I assume they'll change the bill. Big legislation like this doesn't go through the House or Senate with no changes.


MALVEAUX: And John, one of the frustrating things for Democrats is they are feeling like they are shut out of the process and they have been shut out of the process. There has been a big no to any public hearings or debate. A very big push from the majority leader saying they want a vote on this by next week. John?

BERMAN: All right, Suzanne Malveaux watching the Senate for us on Capitol Hill. In the House this morning, new questions over fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn, specifically trips that he allegedly made to the Middle East. What was discussed there? More importantly, where did he stay? What hotel did he stay in doesn't even exist.

CNN crime and justice reporter Shimon Prokupecz joins us with the details and the questions. Shimon?

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME AND JUSTICE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, John. So that hotel he claimed he stayed there was in October actually of 2015. It was a trip to Saudi Arabia. He did reveal this trip, in some details about this trip in 2015 to Defense Department investigators. But, his answers about this trip were very, very vague and now Congressional investigators, some of the leaders on the Hill want to know exactly why he was there.

Just some of the things that he has told investigators, some of the things that he has said publicly are not adding up. There's also another trip that congressional leaders believe he may have taken in the summer of 2015, maybe in June, that he has publicly talked about and "Newsweek" has reported on where he was in Saudi Arabia, working on a deal, a nuclear energy deal between Russia and the U.S.

And they want to know exactly who he was meeting with. Because on his security clearance form, it was this form, this SF 86 form, that he needed to fill out when he came back into office, when he came back to the White House as national security adviser for his security clearance. He needed to fill out this form. And on that form, you are required to list all foreign contacts.

And the congressional leaders are saying, he didn't list any of his foreign contacts. And obviously, now they want to know why. And they have sent a multiple page letter to his lawyer asking questions about all the meetings that he has had across, really, just in the world, in the country, foreign leaders, who he's talked to and what his business dealings with.

And also, John, you know the FBI is continuing its investigation of his business dealings and still a lot of answers that are, you know, that we are still waiting for a lot of answers, just a lot of questions that haven't been answered.

BERMAN: All right, Shimon Prokupecz for us. Thank you so much, Shimon. Appreciate it.

I want to discuss the morning events with our panel. Matt Lewis is here, CNN political commentator, senior columnist for "The Daily Beast," Betsy Woodruff, politics reporter for "The Daily Beast" and David Gergen, CNN senior political analyst.

Matt Lewis, if I can, I want to start with the Georgia race. The multiple choice question. The Georgia special election is either a, the most important election ever, b, the most important election of all time, c, the most important election in history or d, all the above?

MATT LEWIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND SENIOR COLUMNIST "THE DAILY BEAST": D. Right now, because the election - I would say that this is the most important election in history and this is the most important election happening this day.

BERMAN: It may not be living up to all the hype, but it is important, why?

LEWIS: Yes, it really is. Look, you know, special elections are not predicted, you can't extrapolate whoever wins is going to mean that their party wins. You know, the House of Representatives in the midterms. But it does give momentum. It's better to win than to lose.

And if Democrats fail, then that would be the second. They failed in Montana, now they would have failed in Georgia. That would take the wind out of the sails. If you are a Democratic donor who wants to take back the House and you have tried twice now to contribute money and lost on both occasions, you're not going to be motivated or excited to do that. So, this isn't predictive but yes, it matters.

BERMAN: And Betsy, I'm being sort of anti-spun by both sides on this race. I have never sensed so much fear. In fact, neither side wants to play expectation games. Neither side wants to predict victory because both sides simply, they are terrified to lose this race.

BETSY WOODRUFF, POLITICS REPORTER "THE DAILY BEAST": Right, exactly. I think they both understand that at least from a messaging perspective, the stakes are really high.

[10:10:01] Now, another important component here for this race where actually could have more predictive value is the direction that Georgia is moving as a state. You know, for years, national Democrats have been saying, they think Georgia's statewide races could be competitive for them because of the Hispanic population in that state is growing. It is becoming younger just across the board.

Democrats were hoping that potentially, Clinton could have been more competitive there in 2016. They spent a lot of money trying to win a Senate race there in 2014. So, if Ossoff manages to pull off a surprising win. That could indicate the long-term Dems strategy for turning Georgia in the sort of the new Virginia is more possible than it may look right now.

BERMAN: But look, Democrats are the same demographics or their friends for years. And if they can't win there, it means it's not as good of a friend as they are hoping.

But, David Gergen, on the other hand that running out of hands right here. Is it safe to say, David, that this race would not even be close? We would not be even talking about it if not for President Trump?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Oh, yes. This has everything to do with Trump and the Republicans maintaining control. They come out of this with a victory. They maintain their momentum. It helps them on the health care bill in the Senate. On the other hand, if they get beaten, you know, it's a setback. It incurs Democrats and it could stir some moderates in the Senates the other way. It could pull them the other way.

But John, I must say, I think a lot depends on the size of the victory. If it's a one or two-point victory, the winner will have a symbolic statement, a symbolic message. But I think it will be fairly soon. On the other hand, if it's a victory of say five to ten points for whoever it is, that would be very meaningful, much more meaningful. I will be watching the turnout levels, too. But I think the size of the victory matters. BERMAN: David, if I could shift gears, if I can because we are getting breaking news out of the White House. And I was joking that it should be neither breaking nor news. But the White House is going to hold an on camera briefing today for the first time in more than a week.



BERMAN: Sean Spicer is -

GERGEN: Oh, isn't that news?

BERMAN: Well, but that's my point. I mean, this is something that you would think would happen without question. It hasn't been happening. What do you make of how the White House is handling its communications right now? The fact that they decided to do this today, what does that mean and also the future of Sean Spicer. If in fact, he's moved up into a different roll or moved out. Do you think that might change how things go?

GERGEN: John, my experience has been that a White House is always better when it's more transparent, when it has a trusting relationship, the information flow is steady. People know they are professionals. You got a Mike McCurry type figure in the White House, press secretary's role. And everybody looks at that with respect and you know, looks up to it.

This chaotic and now we do it, now we don't kind of attitude toward briefings, toward telling people things. I think is damaging this White House. It is obviously causing problems inside, but I think it's also eroding the trust and the president's capacity to build any support beyond his base. I find it astonishing that they have gotten into this.

So, you know, when Jim Acosta walked out saying we are being stone walled, these briefings are useless, we have hit a new low. I think it's really bad for democracy. Press briefings are a way to hold people accountable for their actions.

And frankly, I think regular press briefings force the White House, force the whole administration to up the quality of their game because they are online every day. Every day, they are held accountable. And I think it makes things better in the White House and they govern more effectively.

BERMAN: Matt Lewis, my peripheral vision tells me you were nodding your head in affirmation?

LEWIS: Yes, absolutely. Look, avoiding the press is not a solution. It's a postponement of what's to come. It's an act of desperation. It's not something -- it's not a strategy.

The fundamental problem isn't that they are having press briefings. It's that the press secretary doesn't know what's happening, cannot communicate, cannot -- probably doesn't talk regularly to the president. The president is freelancing, changing things on the fly. And how do you fix that?

Well, look, I don't think that Donald Trump could bring in a Mike McCurry, right? I don't think that someone of that stature is number one, going at this point to come to the White House. Number two, I don't think Donald Trump would listen to him.

Who might Donald Trump actually listen to? Someone like a Laura Ingraham. I think if you know -- any other circumstance, this would be a crazy idea. But Laura Ingraham would be somebody who is famous, very tough and has been around a while. I think she could go to Trump and say, no, I'm going to go out there. You have to tell me what's going on.

BERMAN: We will see. That name isn't political for a long time, you know, no developments on that as far as we know.

Betsy, if I can, if we can go to Michael Flynn for one moment. This development from Shimon Prokupecz was reporting right now. Questions about travel, he answered the least questions about how he filled out form, more and more questions about Michael Flynn. You know, I have to think, if I'm the president's lawyers or even his political advisers right now, they are looking at the fired national security adviser as, perhaps what could be their thorniest problem.

[10:15:01] WOODRUFF: Right, exactly. And it points to broader concerns in the White House which is that Mueller's investigation and the other investigation into the president's associates will move beyond just a narrow question of whether or not the president's campaign staff colluded with Russian leaders.

Flynn's travel to the Middle East, the fact that he said, he went to a hotel doesn't actually exist. That's not necessarily something that's Russia related. But it indicates that all these questions, all these investigations could go into areas, into focuses that could end up being very troubling for the administration.

In the White House right now, that's the biggest concern. That over the course as this investigation plays out, things will turn up that aren't on anyone's radar right now. Particularly as far as financial dealings go. And the Flynn news this morning is an indicator that the dragnet that Mueller is currently pulling across Flynn's associates, Trump's associates, could get some surprises.

BERMAN: Matt Lewis, I have time for a ten-second question. Do you think there will be a vote on health care before the July 4th recess? Yes or no?


BERMAN: David Gergen, yes or no?


BERMAN: Betsy?

WOODRUFF: Yes. But I can't say if it will pass or not. BERMAN: Very interesting, a lot of faith in Mitch McConnell right there to get it through or at least get a vote. It would be fascinating to see. Matt Lewis, David Gergen, Betsy Woodruff, thanks so much for being with us. Appreciate it.

GERGEN: Thank you.

BERMAN: All right, some other major news this morning. The death of Otto Warmbier's sparking outrage. The question this morning, how will the White House act?

Plus, we have heard all the analysis. What do the voters inside this Georgia congressional district think other than I think I want this all to end?

And too hot to fly, extreme heat forcing airlines to ground dozens of flights.


[10:20:45] BERMAN: It is a crucial day for the Senate bill to repeal and replace Obamacare. The Vice President Mike Pence is headed to Capitol Hill to meet with senators today.

Joining me now, Republican senator, Mike Rounds of South Dakota. Senator, thanks so much for being with us.

SEN. MIKE ROUNDS (R), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: Thank you. Appreciate the opportunity.

BERMAN: So, Senator Rounds, what can you tell us about how this Senate bill deals with people with pre-existing conditions.

ROUNDS: Every single discussion that we've had has included provisions to protect individuals with pre-existing conditions is one caveat. And that is, that they maintain insurance coverages in force or at least, they have a plan to maintain it, whether it be through Medicaid or through a private carrier or through a group carrier. The plan is is that there has to be some message to keep people convinced that they need to keep coverages in force so when they are healthy they contribute premiums to help those that are not health.

BERMAN: Do you know how the Senate bill addresses those needs?

ROUNDS: Well, as I say, all of the provisions -- and I don't know which final provision we'll end up with, but most of them, simply, they all recognize that if you have pre-existing conditions, you have coverages today, those coverages will remain in effect.

The place where it varies will be, what is the penalty if you decide that you know, you are healthy right now and you're just going to skip making premium payments and you know, wait until you get sick before you buy insurance.

BERMAN: Do you know - ROUNDS: That's where I think we've got some changes that will make of - from what it is right now. And that is, I think we'll look at a time delay before your coverage should become effective again.

BERMAN: I understand that's what you hope is in the bill. The question is do you know that's what's in the Senate version right now? Have you seen the Senate version of the bill?

ROUNDS: No, because we talked about several different versions that could be included in it. There was a proposal that would have had to simply a financial panel team involved in it. But I think the one that most of us have been lobbying for is this one that would have a time delay.

BERMAN: Are you concerned that you haven't seen the Senate version of the bill, yet you might be asked to vote on it within the next seven days?

ROUNDS: I think we would all like to have had a chance to look at a completed version. But all of the different segments of the bill, we've talked about. We've talked about the fact that we want to keep a Medicaid plan in place, but we want also stabilize the market conditions that are out there right now. The reason that we are trying to do that is because we are looking at 40 percent increases in Obamacare next year, if we are not careful.

BERMAN: And in health care is, you know, one sixth of the economy. It is a very important thing, which is why people think it needs to be discussed and some people think it needs to be discussed in the open.

One of the people who have thought in the past it needs to be discussed out in the open is the senate majority whip, John Cornyn. Who wrote, "The people have a right to know what is happening behind closed doors with secret health care negotiations." Now, that is Republican Whip John Cornyn. He wrote that, of course, he wrote it back in 2010. But do you think he is living by the standards that he set back then?

ROUNDS: Look, in 2009 and 2010, Republicans were criticizing Obamacare as being done in secret. Today, you will hear Democrats talking about our plan to reform Obamacare, to repeal and replace it in the same fashion. We understand the politics involved in this.

But let me just share with you. We've got a committee of 52 members that are meeting three times a week right now to go through the process, trying to put together the bits and pieces that actually create a national health approach is better than what it is today. We recognize -- look, if we all just came out and we had a whole bunch of different ideas and we just started throwing them at the board, some of it would stick and some wouldn't. -- The American people to say, gee, we don't like this, we don't like that and then, it'll be a whole lot of misunderstanding.


BERMAN: When you at least grant there's a touch of irony? -- ROUNDS: No question about it. I think there is. You know, look, if we could do this according to what we call traditional regular business, I think that would be the preference of most of us within the United States Senate today. Run it through a committee.

But doing that takes a huge amount of time. We are running out of time because by next year, we are going to have -


BERMAN: It's a sixth of the economy. You know, there are people who will say, you know, take the time. Heck, if it takes time to get it right, take the time.

[10:25:00] ROUNDS: Well, I think in this particular case that time, the amount of time it is going to take is going to be defined by two things. Number one, whether or not we can get 50 votes in the United States Senate, Republicans and Democrats combined. But I think everybody agrees, it's going to be Republicans, so 50 out of the 52. And the vice president got to be in town. So, I think that's going to be the critical issue here on this particular one.

BERMAN: You may need to entertain Mike Pence every day for the next 30 days personally, Senator. Just last question here, you on the special counsel, Robert Mueller, on the investigation, the Russia probe. You have said he has a job to do, let him do his job. You think it would be a big mistake for the White House or the president to move to fire Bob Mueller. From what you've seen over the last week, are you pleased with the way the White House associates and allies have addressed the issue of the special counsel?

ROUNDS: I think the fact that counsel has apparently suggested to the president that it would not be wise. Once again, speculation on our part that he intended to even consider it, but based upon press reports, there was a consideration.

We think the fact that key members got in, sat down and said, look, this isn't the right thing to do. I think that's an important thing to have happen. And I think right now moving forward -- allow him the opportunity to do his job. It's the most appropriate way to move forward.

BERMAN: All right, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, always a pleasure to speak to you, sir. Thanks.

ROUNDS: Thank you sir.

BERMAN: A U.S. student dies just days after his release after 17 months in North Korea. Senator John McCain calls it murder. Now, there is pressure on the president to take action.