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Trump Attacks Sessions Again; Sessions Pushes Back; Hicks Leaves White House. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired March 1, 2018 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:33] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us, and a remarkably busy news day it is.

President Trump described as fuming at his attorney general, this after Jeff Sessions sent a message in words and actions back at the boss who routinely belittles him.

Plus, Hope Hicks is leaving her top White House job. She is uniquely trusted by the president, which also means she knows a ton about the things being investigated by the Russia special counsel.

And the reviews are in. Republicans leave the president's made for TV guns meeting frustrated, confused and hoping he really didn't mean what he said about seizing guns and raising the age to purchase a firearm.


SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), MAJORITY WHIP: The discussion yesterday demonstrated there's a lot of different moving parts here that we can work with and hopefully come up with a package that can pass the House and the Senate and the president will sign.

MANU RAJU, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Are you clear about where the president stands?

CORNYN: Well, I think the president -- this is more of what I would call a brainstorming session. And so we -- we've got a lot of different ideas. But as I said yesterday, it's going to have to get 60 votes to pass in the Senate, and that's really the acid test.


KING: Back to that in a moment.

But we begin the hour with the escalation of a personal feud that some worry could evolve into a constitutional crisis. The president is fuming anew at Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Or, if you drop the president's cartoon vocabulary, he is even madder at Mr. Magoo.

Why the new anger? Because Sessions finally stood up for himself, issuing a public statement yesterday vowing to do his job with integrity. The AG followed up the statement with a public show of independence, maybe even defiance, going to dinner in public with his deputy, Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the work of the Russia special counsel, or oversees the witch hunt is how the president would put it.

That's high drama anyway, but add in this. A new "Washington Post" reporting that Bob Mueller, the special counsel, is asking witnesses about the president's previous runs at firing Sessions, or attempting to force him out.

With us today to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Abby Phillip, Carl Hulse of "The New York Times," CNN's Phil Mattingly, and Jackie Kucinich with "The Daily Beast."

There's a lot going on at the White House. Hope Hicks is -- Hope Hicks is leaving. Jared Kushner's business dealings are in the spotlight.

Let's start here though because of how important this is. Not the first time the president's gone after his attorney general. But when you connect the dots and especially when you see Jeff Sessions publicly asserting his independence, asserting his integrity and then going to dinner with Rod Rosenstein, that's sending a message back to the boss.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and it may actually be the right message to send to the boss. The president tends to like to go on the attack, and then when you push back, maybe he might be angry but he might view that as strength. I mean Jeff Sessions, the Mr. Magoo cartoon character, is a sort of weak figure. And Jeff Sessions is viewed by the president as someone who's weak, who is maybe frail, out of his element.

Sessions pushing back is a different kind of response to what the president's doing. It will be interesting to see what happens with that. I think a lot of people around the president recognize this as the sort of -- the kind of bullying that he typically does with people who work for him. But when push comes to shove, he has not actually fired Sessions yet. And a lot of people actually don't expect that he will.

CARL HULSE, CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": If you would have gone back to the beginning and said that Jeff Sessions was going to be the man standing up to the president and standing between --

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE DAILY BEAST": Or the man attacked by the president.

KING: Right.

HULSE: Right, it just would have been inconceivable. I think you have to remember Jeff Sessions' arc here. I mean he was the U.S. attorney, then couldn't get seated for a federal judgeship. The Senate rejected him. He won a Senate seat. Now he's attorney general. To him this has all been a triumph, a personal triumph. He's in the job that he's always wanted. And he is not going to go away quietly. And, you know, he already sees that the president has -- he's kind of taken some of his best shots. So why would he move?

KING: And you think -- and if you're Jeff Sessions, you think you're actually doing what the president wants, right? You're being tough on immigration. You're cracking down on gangs. You're trying to impose some conservative, judicial reforms. You're working with others on the whole judge issue. And then the president repeatedly calls you weak, calls you disgraceful, calls you worse.

This is what's interesting. You know, the -- from The Hill days, listen to this. As long as I am the attorney general, I will continue to discharge my duties with integrity and honor. And this department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and the Constitution.

[12:05:02] Given the timing of that statement yesterday, Phil, that is a, Mr. President, sit down.


One of the most interesting elements of this battle, which is now long-running but does feel like it's kind of reaching a tipping point is -- I had one Senate Republican aide say to me, it took a lot to make Jeff Sessions a sympathetic figure in this town. And I say that not in an attack on Jeff Sessions, but he was just -- he was a loner in the U.S. Senate. The majority, establishment Republicans did not like where Jeff Sessions was on most issues.

But I think the most confounding thing of all of this is the point you were just making. What Jeff Sessions is doing and implementing at the Justice Department has been, from an America first policy perspective, as much as the president has been able to lay that out, has been the most effective, I think, probably of any agency across the board, what he's been able to do.

And I also think, to Carl's point, why Jeff Sessions, as attorney general, would not leave the job of attorney general, he is in a position to unilaterally do the things that he railed about on the Senate floor but never could get more than 10 or 15 votes for. And he can do them every single day. And that's exactly what he's done. And why, if you are Jeff Sessions, would you leave that job, even with the Twitter attacks?

KUCINICH: But, in a lot of way, despite everything you just described, the one thing that he did not do was protect the president -- in the president's mind, protect the president on Russia. And that's all that matters. You can't say I'm sorry for that. There's nothing he can do. All of these things, all of these conservative agenda items, for the president, he can't undo what he did.

Now, when you talk to the conservative base, when you talk to people who are talking to the base, they're elated about what he's done with judges and some of the other conservative reforms and agenda items he's implemented. But, again, he's back to square one with the president because of what he did on Russia.

KING: Because he recused himself.


KING: Which any good lawyer said he had really no choice.


KING: He was so prominent in the campaign, how could he be in charge of the Russia investigation, which is about the campaign.

But then to go to dinner last night with Rod Rosenstein in public, given what we know the president thinks not only of Jeff Sessions --


KING: But Rod Rosenstein, who, if you don't know this at home, oversees the special counsel. Bob Mueller can't do things without getting the blessing of Rod Rosenstein, and Rod Rosenstein has given a blessing to do a lot of things the president doesn't like.

And this -- so this is where -- to get inside the president's mindset -- and sorry, kids, forget the movie, there was a cartoon back in the day called Mr. Magoo. You can find it on the Internet if you want. Behind the scenes, Trump has derisively referred to Sessions as Mr. Magoo, a cartoon character who was elderly, myopic and bumbling, according to people with whom he has spoken. Trump has told associates that he has hired the best lawyers for his entire life but is stuck with Sessions, who is not defending him and not sufficiently loyal.

It's the "not sufficiently loyal" part again. The president of the United States, from day one, thinking the chief law enforcement officer of the United States is supposed to be loyal to the president, not the facts or the Constitution.

PHILLIP: And there's a reason that a lot of the president's aides have tried to keep Jeff Sessions from quitting. Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff, on the record has said, I practically pulled Jeff Sessions back into the White House to prevent him from resigning because everyone around the president knows that if he fired Sessions, it would cause a catastrophic effect on his presidency. The Hill has made it very clear they do not want to confirm anybody else for that position. It would -- it would have -- it would be probably, I think in Jeff Sessions' view, it is more loyal to him to stay and be bludgeoned by the president every single day than it is for him to call it quits and throw in the towel at this stage.

KING: And, again, I -- just, I think about the timing. And, remember, the president and his lawyers know a lot more about Bob Mueller and the investigation than we do because the lawyers are all exchanging notes. They know what witnesses are being asked for. They know what documents are being asked for. They know. And so in the last week, we've seen a CNN reporting that Mueller's looking into the president's finances, pre-2016 campaign, dealings with the Trump organization in Russia.

"The Washington Post" reporting today that they're looking into this whole, why was he trying to fire Sessions? Was that part of an effort to obstruct the investigation? There's reporting elsewhere today, NBC news I believe, that they're trying to connect the dots to see, did the Trump campaign know before WikiLeaks released the Clinton and the DNC e-mails? Did the Trump campaign already know that? Did they know it was coming? Were they given a heads up?

All of this is happening -- Trump knows a lot more about it than we do, which is why, again, I'm going to go back to the Jeff Sessions' statement. This department will continue to do its work in a fair and impartial manner according to the law and the Constitution. That Jeff Sessions decided to issue that statement yesterday. Given everything that's going on speaks volumes to me about just the level of the pushback, to use your words.

HULSE: Yes, I think the frustration that Trump is showing here is about Russia. Everything that's kind of happening around him right now is related to this Russia investigation. And he just thinks, that Jeff Sessions, if he wouldn't -- if he would have stood up at that time and stopped this. So he sees Sessions as the root cause of all his problems. And so he's lashing out at him.

But Sessions is down there in main justice. I think he's feeling pretty comfortable because, as you said, they know they can't confirm someone very easily surrounded by supporters. He's got some backing on The Hill that he really didn't have. And I think he feels OK.

KING: And that --


KING: Please.

PHILLIP: And, just quickly, Trump's base loves Jeff Sessions.

[12:10:01] KUCINICH: Yes, very true.

KING: Right. Right.

PHILLIP: They have rallied around him. The Tea Party base. Every time he's under fire, they come to his rescue because they want him in that particular job to implement the Trump agenda.

KING: And you mentioned, he was more of an outsider on Capitol Hill, more of a loner on Capitol Hill.

Listen here. Lindsey Graham today saying the president should back off. Lindsey Graham has said that before. But this is Richard Shelby, his colleague, Jeff Sessions' colleague from Alabama, interesting language, and defending his friend or his former colleague and taking issue with the president.


SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: I wouldn't be anybody's whipping boy. I wouldn't be belittled because the president's saying you don't have any confidence in me. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Well put.

What -- well put and a signal, I think, to the point you were both making about his relative isolation in the past. That this would be a red line, right? With -- there's always -- every couple days, if not every couple weeks, we go through the -- is the president about to make another run at the attorney general. The attorney general's statement yesterday, the strongest he has issued, essentially is, to me, a dare almost to the president. You know, go for it. Go for it. That would -- that would provoke a crisis.

KUCINICH: Well, but this president, the way he talks about Jeff Sessions is like he can't fire him, saying, you know, when he puts these missives out on Twitter saying, AG Sessions should do x, y and z. It's like, well, he works for you, man. If you don't like him, remove him. Well, he can't, to your point. Like --

KING: He's asking him -- he's asking him to do things that either go afoul of the process --


KING: Or afoul of the facts.


MATTINGLY: And I think that the afoul of the process, afoul of the facts kind of underscore the importance of the Sessions statement beyond the personal implications of it, beyond the fight between the president and the attorney general.

The Justice Department is made up of thousands of career officials. It is filled with components, whether it's, you know, the FBI or the ATF. All of these types. They all work underneath Jeff Sessions, technically, and I think there's been certainly our Evan Perez, Laura Jarrett have been reporting on morale issues. A lot of people very confused, perplexed about what the relationship is. That is Jeff Sessions not just standing up for himself, but also standing up for the career prosecutors that aren't political appointees, that weren't brought there because they voted for the president, but are there to do good work on cases that we will probably never hear about at any point and are very frustrated or maybe even concerned about the direction things are going. So I think that statement had a dual purpose there, but no question about it, that is the strongest pushback we've seen to date, I think.

KING: And just -- and just one of the continuing dramas -- I was going to call it interesting dramas -- continuing interesting dramas of Trumpland.

Up next, one Trump insider likens it to losing a limb. But now that she's finally on her way out, how will the president replace Hope Hicks?


[12:16:29] KING: Welcome back.

The woman who insiders say knows everything, or at least more than most, is leaving the Trump White House. Hope Hicks, the president's confidante, right-hand woman and communications director, announced her resignation last night. Even members of the inner circle describe Hicks as innermost.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: We've been here for 13 months, but Hope is one of those unbroken threads between the early days of the primary campaign all through the campaign, on the plane practically every day, including on weekends, with candidate Trump, during transition with him and with us and certainly here since day one in the administration.


KING: All that means she'll be hard to replace. And it means more West Wing turmoil and turnover. Friends say Hicks has talked for months of finding the exit, but the timing here is what it is. She told the president she was leaving the day after spending nine hours taking questions from the House Intelligence Committee.

You hear all this talk today. It's like losing a limb. He trusts nobody more. She's his sounding board. Is that puffery exaggerated or is that fact?

PHILLIP: That's fact. I -- it's hard to understand how the White House will move forward without Hope, in part because of how she is such a constant for the president. And he has so few of those left now.

Beyond just being close to the president, she's close to his family. She is practically like his family. She's a rare person in a dual role who is like a daughter but also works for him, really works for him. When he needs something done, he goes to Hope.

So there are a lot of questions about what happens with President Trump. How does he manage his day-to-day without someone there who can execute for him in the way that he wants them to, who he trusts. But then there's also a question of, what does this mean for the rest of them? If Hope can't take it anymore and has decided to call it quits, then what does it mean for all the rest of the folks there who have an even tenuous -- more tenuous attachment to the president.

KING: And what -- that's the personnel question and the president's own zeitgeist, if you will, his mood question. The conversation among the white collar attorneys who swap information about the Mueller investigation, trying to figure out where it's going, that is that they think she's in considerable jeopardy, or she's at least of considerable interest.

Again, because of that unique role, this is just a partial list of the things that Hope Hicks is central to as Bob Mueller tries to answer questions. What does she know about the question, did the Trump campaign know about the hacked DNC Clinton e-mails before they were released to the public? Did they get a heads up? Did the campaign deliberately mislead about Russia contacts? Trump's mindset in firing James Comey. Attacking the Department of Justice, FBI, special counsel, Jeff Sessions. She's there in the room when the president is doing this venting and fuming. She's a consistent bridge between Trump and his sons and the Trump Organization, including being part of that Air Force One meeting to craft Donald Trump Jr.'s statement, the initial statement was misleading, about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians. So she's leaving the White House.

In an odd way, if you're the president, you're going to miss her for advice and counsel, but are you also going to be a little bit nervous that somebody who is so central to many of these questions in the investigation is now not at the office across the hall?

MATTINGLY: I mean I think to some degree it's just only natural that you would be.

Look, there's never been any sense that there's any break between the two of them. There's never been any sense that she would go astray of whatever the president's wishes are. I just think that the natural inclination is, you would want somebody in house, in your office, in the same place they've been for the better part of the last two and a half years, whether as a security blanket that she's always been for him, whether as a sounding board that she's always been for him, and then also, because you would know presumably what she would be talking to people about throughout. And I think that's -- that's a shift in whether or not anything actually comes from that.

[12:20:06] And, again, I certainly haven't heard that anything would. And I find it hard to believe, given her relationship with the president and the family, that there would be any split there. I think it would just be a natural sense for the president to be a little bit concerned, or at least the team to be a little bit concerned.

KING: Right. Right. I wouldn't suggest for a second that she's going to turn on the president.

MATTINGLY: No. No, no.

KING: But if the truth -- but if she tells -- if there's something in the truth that is trouble, and she's a witness.

KUCINICH: Well, and I think we saw a little bit of that after her testimony where she said she told little white lies for the president and the president reportedly wasn't happy about that. There's some dispute of whether she was yelled at or not or whether he was just unhappy.

But I think that's a crack. He sees that as a crack in the loyalty. And if -- and for this president, given how much she's seen, given how much she has been a part of, that's problematic and that has to be scary.

KING: Right. He issued a statement yesterday saying how awesome she was and how incredible. I don't say that disrespectfully. How much she meant to him.

KUCINICH: And it's probably true.

KING: It's probably true.

Another part of this is, she is unique, innermost, as I said, but it's also a part of this continuing churning at the White House. Just last year, 34 percent of people in the Trump -- first highest first year staff turnover of the last five presidents, according to this study here in the Brookings Institution. Now, already this year, not included in those numbers, Hope Hicks, Rob Porter, Dina Powell, Josh Rafel (ph), Jeremy Catz (ph), Reed Quarters (ph). Many of you at home don't know these names, but these are people who are close to the president, trusted the president, trust of Jared and Ivanka. What does this mean in this White House that here we go, more churn.

HULSE: I think in terms of legal jeopardy is one thing with Hope Hicks, but it just contributes to the isolation of the president. And I think this is also part of what you're seeing with the upheaval over there right now. This is another -- this is someone he had full trust in and they entrusted her to, you know, carry out his orders even if she had to commit some white lies. And I think that this is -- you know, right now, Ivanka is the person who is closest to him there. And so who can he go to on the staff and say, you know, his innermost thoughts and that they won't -- and that they 'll help him out there.

KING: And so listen, again, consider the source, that the person who had the communications director job for about 10, 12 minutes, before Hope Hicks got the job, Anthony Scaramucci, he's still in touch with a lot of people inside the White House and he says Hope Hicks is leaving at a time of incredibly bad morale and he blames the chief of staff.


ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think it's the chief of staff. I think there's a -- there's culture of fear inside the White House and people are afraid to talk to each other.

The morale's terrible. And the reason why the morale is terrible is that the rule by fear and intimidation does not work in a civilian environment. And so here we are. It's messed up. It will be up to the president to figure out if he wants to fix it or not. I predict more departures.


KING: And here we are. It's messed up. And as Mr. Scaramucci says, up to the president to fix it. This is a -- this is like watching a soap opera.


KING: This is -- this is like, you know, forgive me for my child, this is like Luke and Laura. You can tune in every day to check in on the relationship, and you check in -- if you watch it a year later, you didn't miss anything. Every day the place is messed up, the president should fix it, but this one targeting Kelly, culture of fear.

PHILLIP: And to think that John Kelly was actually brought in to bring an end to that. And, in fact, he has become the center of that. And it's because, you know, everything in this White House is about factions. Everything is about whose side are you on? Who wants you in and who wants you out. And John Kelly is now, we know as a fact, no exception to that. And that -- and maybe that doesn't say as much about John Kelly as it says about President Trump, who is the one constant in this whole thing. But it's problematic. Anthony Scaramucci was fired by Kelly. He has allies who are still in the building, who maybe are still concerned about their fate under Kelly. And that's what he's voicing.

KING: Hope Hicks and Sarah Sanders among the people --


KING: Who I don't know if I'll (ph) call allies, but who have talked -- who have talked repeatedly --

PHILLIP: And Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

KING: Jared Kushner (INAUDIBLE).

A lot of people -- one of the questions in town was -- is now, will Hope Hicks leaving, for whatever reason, bring a more traditional White House? Will the president go to a more traditional operation where it's not all family, friends, Trump Organization insiders?

MATTINGLY: Yes, the counter to kind of how bad this could be for the president, given his relationship with Hope, is the fact that they don't run a traditional communications operations from a long term planning perspective, right? In a traditional White House, the communications director is setting things up, both strategically and on messaging for weeks and months in advance. That's what we've always seen and that's what this White House has never had. Whether the communications directors either didn't exist, didn't have the power, or were Hope, who, obviously, had a ton of different things to be doing.

When you talk to people on Capitol Hill, one of their biggest frustrations is, they're never totally sure what's coming. They're never totally sure what's happening. And they don't really have a sense from a long-term planning perspective of how to message whatever the issue is of the day. And going into a midterm election, they'd really like that information if they could get it.

Perhaps there is a possibility that the new communications director could do that. The obvious kind of caveat to that is, the president doesn't necessarily operate like that on a daily basis, so it's a little bit difficult to have a job where you're planning two, four, six weeks in advance.

[12:25:09] KING: And we're in the middle of a midterm election year where a lot of the good communications people have been taken up by the campaigns and they have reluctance to go into this White House because of this constant turning and volcanic (INAUDIBLE).

HULSE: Well, I think that you're also going to see this going forward in all sorts of places. People aren't wanting to go in to this administration.

KING: Right.

HULSE: I hear this all the time, at agencies, they're having a really difficult time recruiting people for, you know, what would normally be in Washington a really highly desirable job.


All right, everybody, hold their breath. More to come.

Up next, lawmakers from both side of the aisle meet with the president on a brainstorming session on guns and they find a bit of common ground, but here's their question, where does the president really stand?


KING: Welcome back.

[12:30:00] Is this just political theater or is the president laying down some serious markers on policy? The Democrats in the room were smiling, even winking. The Republicans were gulping and hoping the president was just playing to the cameras and really didn't mean things like this.