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Chief Justice Roberts Defense Judiciary in Rare Statement After Trump Criticism; President Trump May Invoke Executive Privilege. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired November 21, 2018 - 20:00   ET


JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Good evening. John Berman here in for Anderson.

It's the night before Thanksgiving and a nation has turned its collective thoughts to gratitude, traveling to be with the family and friends, remembering that we have -- remembering all we have for which to be thankful.

The president of the United States -- well, he's thankful, too. He sent a heartfelt "thank you" today to Saudi Arabia. We'll get to that.

But we begin by keeping them honest on another front -- the president taking a branch of government and trying to snap it in half. He's lashing out at the American judicial community, particularly anyone who rules against him.

What's astounding is this has earned a rare response from the chief justice of the United States. Honestly, this doesn't happen. John Roberts is drawing a line here.

This started after a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Trump administration from barring migrants who entered the United States illegally from seeking asylum. That prompted this response from the president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, you go to the Ninth Circuit and it's a disgrace and I'm going to put in a major complaint because you cannot win if you're us, a case in the Ninth Circuit. I think it's a disgrace when people file -- every case gets filed in the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit, we're going to have to look at that because every case, no matter where it is, they file it practically, I mean practically, for all intents and purposes, they file it in what's called the ninth circuit. This was an Obama judge.


BERMAN: The chief justice of the United States, John Roberts, who, by the way, was appointed by Republican President George W. Bush, took issue with that. The issue was clearly a rebuke.

In an official statement he said, quote: We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them. That independent judiciary is something we should all be thankful for.

Again, it is remarkable that a chief justice had to feel like he needs to issue such a response. He no doubt knew it would get under the president's skin, and it did. After golfing, the president wrote in part: Sorry, Chief Justice John Roberts, but you do, indeed, have Obama judges. Why are a vast number of those cases overturned? Please study the numbers. They are shocking.

He goes on to quote Fox News saying 79 percent of these decisions have been overturned in the Ninth Circuit.

Keeping them honest, despite what the president and Fox News want to claim, there are other circuits with a higher reversal rate than the Ninth Circuit and theirs is only a little higher than average. Also, the judge who ruled against him this week isn't even on the appeals court.

Now facts notwithstanding, I think we can all agree that nothing says it's almost Thanksgiving like the president of the United States telling the chief justice of the United States to study the American judicial system. The president has his issues with the Ninth Circuit, but he also has issues with Justice Roberts because, you guessed it, there was a ruling he didn't like.


TRUMP: Justice Roberts could have killed Obamacare and should have based on everything, should have killed it twice. Justice Roberts turned out to be an absolute disaster. He turned out to be an absolute disaster because he gave us Obamacare.


BERMAN: It's also not the first time the president has scrapped with a Supreme Court justice and vice versa. Remember when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said during the campaign that then candidate Trump was a faker with no consistency, who said whatever comes into his head at the moment, of course, he hit back on Twitter.

Justice Ginsburg of the U.S. Supreme Court has embarrassed all by making very dumb statements about me. Her mind is shot. Resign.

It isn't just the Supreme Court justices that the president has tangled with. The judge in the class action fraud case against Trump University, which wasn't a university, also drew the president's ire. Mr. Trump claimed that Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn't be objected, which is essentially the job description of judge, because he was of Mexican heritage.

Watch this exchange with Jake Tapper. And remember, Judge Curiel was born in Indiana.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: I'll tell you what it has to do, I have had ruling after

ruling after ruling that's been bad rulings. I've been treated very unfairly. Let me just tell you, I've had horrible rulings. I've been treated very unfairly by this judge.

Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I'm building a wall, OK? I'm building a wall. I am going to do very well with the Hispanics, the Mexican --

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: So, no Mexican judge could ever be involved in a case that involves you?

TRUMP: He's a member of a society where, you know, very pro-Mexico, and that's fine. It's all fine. But I think --

TAPPER: You're calling into question his heritage.

TRUMP: He should recuse himself.


BERMAN: The president agreed to a $25 million settlement days after the election.

But the attacks on judges and the judicial system itself, attacks that have started before he was president have continued. The common thread: when a ruling doesn't go his way. It's the court system that is to blame.


TRUMP: The courts are not helping us. I have to be honest with you. It's ridiculous. Somebody said I should not criticize judges. OK, I'll criticize judges.

I have had ruling after ruling after ruling that's been bad rulings, OK? I've been treated very unfairly.

It's really big problem with the court system.

It's a bad system. Let me tell you.

And I listen to these judges talk and talk and talk. So unfair.

People are screaming break up the Ninth Circuit. I'll tell you why, that Ninth Circuit, you have to see, take a look at how many times they have been overturned with their terrible decisions. Take a look.

It's really sad when every single case filed against us is in the Ninth Circuit, we lose, we lose, we lose, then we do fine in the Supreme Court. What does that tell you about our court system? It's a very, very sad thing.


BERMAN: So, apparently, in the president's mind, the only capable judge is one who was A, not appointed by someone he doesn't like, B, doesn't rule against him and, C, isn't of Mexican descent.

Basically, the thinking seems to be, the only fair and impartial judge good judge is the one biased in his favor.

Keeping them honest, Lady Justice may be blind but she can see that makes no sense.

Joining us, Supreme Court biographer and CNN Supreme Court analyst, Joan Biskupic, author of the upcoming book, "The Chief: The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts".

You know a lot about the chief justice, Joan. You know he's been quiet when it comes to the president's previous attacks against him. You know he's been asked to comment on some of the president's feelings about the judiciary. So why did he come forward this time?


And you know that montage you just showed demonstrated how predictable President Trump's actions and speeches here, but not this chief justice. I think what it comes down to this time, John, is the particular kind of insult that President Trump leveled this time and a larger context of timing that I'll get to.

But, first, think of what President Trump accused the judge of in the asylum case, being an Obama judge. He cast him in the politician who named him to the bench as if he was an extension of that politician.

Chief Justice Roberts picked up on that precise language of the Obama judge. He was parroting back what he said. And I think that was just going too far after episode, after episode, after episode. I know other judges had implored the chief justice to speak out and I think this insult he finally felt merited it.

But one other thing, John, that I think is important for all of us to remember is the context that we're in right after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings which were so polarized. And the chief justice's concern about the Supreme Court's own reputation, not just the full judiciary, but how people see this court being so divided 5-4, the five conservatives were all appointed by Republican presidents. The four liberals were all appointed by Democratic residents. And he has tried to fight that.

So, what he's striking out at is not just President Trump's portrayal of the judiciary, but what he fears might be the public perception of the judiciary also.

BERMAN: Might be a lonely battle for the chief justice and it might be a rear guard action at this point given where we are. We'll get back to that in a moment.

But I do want to ask this, because given that he knew, he had to know that the president would respond to his statement, you know, do you think that chief justice will say anything else publicly at this point? BISKUPIC: John, you're exactly right. I think it took all he had to

respond at this time because he didn't want to provoke a man who is so easily provoked. I do not believe you'll hear another word from him on this subject until possibly his end of the year report that comes at the end of December where he assesses, you know, the judiciary for the year.

But I do not see him coming back. The last thing chief justice Roberts wants to do is enter a political arena with a spat going back and forth. And, frankly, he will never do it on Twitter, ever.

BERMAN: I think that's 100 percent correct. That statement in January will be from 10,000 feet, a big, sweeping platitude type thing, but he may choose the way in there.

Joan, stick around. I want to bring in Carrie Cordero, former counsel to the U.S. assistant attorney general for national security and a CNN legal analyst, and Rice University history professor and CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

Carrie, I want you to weigh in because it is remarkable that we're sitting here the night before Thanksgiving watching the president of the United States going after the chief justice.

[20:10:01] So, what do you make of this?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think, John, that it has to be put into the broader context of the president's continuous verbal attacks on the justice system more generally. This isn't the first time that he has tried to denigrate particular judges, as you laid in your piece before. He has constantly attacked prosecutors, including the special prosecutor.

He has verbally gone after the justice department, his attorney general, his former attorney general, his former FBI director. So I think it has to be taken in that broader context, but I think what we're seeing with Chief Justice Roberts response today is that people of integrity who are in the government, who understand in a way that the president does that our institutions are bigger than one person are going to be speaking out more commonly because the president's attacks, his verbal attacks and his consistent effort to denigrate these institutions and to try to make the American people think that the rest of the institutions are weaker than he is, people in these government agencies and these institutions are going to have to take on a more public and a stronger effort to push back against it.

BERMAN: Interesting question. You've seen it on other fronts, too, since the midterm election, has something changed where people feel more free to speak out. We'll talk about that much more in the coming days.

Doug, I want to ask you. I was racking my brain recent history for any time when a president and a chief justice were going head to head like this. I couldn't think of anything, but historically speaking, is there precedent? DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No, we have nothing

like this. When FDR tried to so-called pack the Supreme Court, move the number from 9 to 15, there was a feeling of general warfare between the Supreme Court and FDR. What you have here is I think Chief Justice Roberts becoming America's justice on that. Enough is enough.

The fact that Trump was disparaging of the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals is utterly disgraceful. Robert's silence would have been in a way, you know, almost backing Trump. So he stood up and we can all applaud him this Thanksgiving that our Supreme Court is intact. You know, after the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, many people wondered, there goats the Supreme Court forever and it's all become politicized.

But Roberts is stepping up and saying, no, I'm an independent-minded Supreme Court justice and the court's not going to fall by the way of Trump's ploys. In the end, John, Donald Trump is trying to -- you know, he's got a New York southern district problem and he has a wider agenda of trying to just disparage judges all over the place because he might have to do that as a strategy in '19.

BERMAN: Joan, we talked about that. I thought that maybe Justice Roberts is fighting a lonely battle here when he's trying to make the judiciary apolitical. You read any article in any paper about a court from a federal -- a decision from a federal court, and it's always Obama appointed, or Reagan appointed, or Bush appointed. We always note which president appointed which judge and we're keenly aware of the political nature and makeup of the Supreme Court. So, in a way, is Donald Trump, the president now just voicing a situation we all perceived to be true anyway?

BISKUPIC: Well, he's taken it much further than any of us would. It's of a different nature, John.

Yes, we do, I do, you do, most news media will cite the appointing president because, frankly, it is a political system. It's a political system of appointments, we just saw that. And that's been the case since day one with the federal judiciary.

But what President Trump is saying here is not simply that someone was appointed and might have a particular inclination, he's saying that goes to the wins and losses that he will experience. He's saying outright, automatically, in fact, I think he used the word automatic when he was referring to the Ninth Circuit, automatic loss for this administration. And that is different, John. It's different than saying, you know, a particular judge happened to be appointed by President Clinton or President Obama versus George W. Bush or President Trump.

So politics has always been in the system but Donald Trump is on the same -- that there's no rules here. There's absolutely no rules and he is going to attack judges personally and undermine the larger integrity and legitimacy of the third branch. And I think that's what particularly concerns Chief Justice Roberts, the legitimacy of the third branch.

It doesn't have money. It doesn't have an army. It only has its stature here.

BERMAN: You know, Carrie, it strikes to me that the president told the chief justice of the United States to go study, the judiciary. I can't imagine that sits well with any judge.

[20:15:01] CORDERO: Well, the chief justice certainly doesn't need a lesson on the Constitution or on the judiciary from the president. The president has a fundamental -- I won't call it a misunderstanding, he has a non-understanding on the way the system is set up, on the checks and balances amongst the different branches of government, and on the independence of the judicial system.

So, I think this is just one moment in time. This is just today where it happened to be the chief justice who felt the need, both to send a message to the judges throughout the country that he values their independence and that he wants the country to know that they are independent and they are not beholden to the individual who happened to appoint them, nominate them for confirmation to the bench. But this is part of the broader understanding of government.

And the president doesn't seem to have that understanding. He doesn't seem interested in adapting to it. What he consistently is doing is trying to push down the other branches of government. But I think it's going to backfire. I think eventually the institutions are going to prevail and he will end up leaving the presidency much weaker than he found it.

BERMAN: Justice Roberts could be a deciding vote on some cases the president cares a lot about. I don't imagine Justice Roberts will hold any grudges, in that sense when he decides them.

Doug, how much of this is how the president operates? Because I have to say, in just this week, he's gone after, you know, four star admiral, four bar admiral, William McRaven, the guy who was in charge of U.S. Special Forces in the raid on bin Laden. He doesn't seem to care about the institutions. He just seems to care about whether people in the institutions are with him or not.

BRINKLEY: Exactly. I mean, you're either pro Trump or against Trump. He's been at war with the FBI, the CIA, you name it.

But, you know, it strikes me that he's just trying to change the conversation. This was the good week for Donald Trump. The deal he's made with the Saudis to basically become a lobbyist for Saudi Arabia. The stock market tumbled 500 points, his daughter Ivanka with the e- mail scandal.

So, he decided to demonize over the holidays the U.S. circuit court of appeals, Northern California, liberal, et cetera, and lo and behold, Chief Justice Roberts slammed him, slammed him hard and I think won this showdown. Donald Trump is now in a muted probably seething and angry at Justice Roberts for calling his comeuppance.

BERMAN: It's one more relationship that bears watching over the coming months. That is for sure.

Douglas Brinkley, Carrie Cordero, Joan Biskupic, thank you very much. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you.

CORDERO: Thanks.

BISKUPIC: Happy Thanksgiving.

BRINKLEY: Same to you.

BERMAN: All right. The president's lawyer says special counsel Robert Mueller could still try to get more answers from the president on potential obstruction of justice. The question is, will he answer? And what kind of a time line are we looking at? The latest on that next.

And later, David Axelrod, he sat down with former President Obama for a wide-ranging interview and what the former president said when asked if he thought that he could defeat President Trump if he was allowed to be on the ballot in 2020.


[20:22:13] BERMAN: The president has submitted written answers to questions from Robert Mueller's office, but there could be more coming. Today, the president's lawyer Rudy Giuliani said the questions he answered so far included what he knew about the meeting with Russians at Trump Tower, and the president asking Russia to find Hillary Clinton's missing e-mails.

CNN's senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins us now.

And, Jeff, it was really interesting. It caught my attention when Rudy Giuliani suggested that the special counsel might not be done with the president. Do you have any sense why he said that? What more do we know?


One of the reasons is because so far those written questions have really taken the president several months to answer in his back and forth with his lawyer entirely pertained too before the president was elected. There is a gray area in the word of Rudy Giuliani about the time election to the time the president was being sworn in. So, we do believe that the special counsel has some questions about that transition period, if you will.

And of course, he has questions about, you know, potential obstruction of justice. Even though those written questions are in, Rudy Giuliani was signaling earlier today that he does believe that the special counsel will have more questions about that, but he said the Trump team is going to push back on all of that and claim executive privilege. So, that is where this fight could be headed. Of course, it's important to know if that fight actually would go forward.

I mean, the Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is in charge of the Russia investigation. So, that's why all of this matters here at this point if this goes further, would the Justice Department essentially approve those questions going forward, would they subpoena the president or not?

So, it's clear that these written questions were before election. It seems Bob Mueller has questions after election and then after he was sworn into office as well, John.

BERMAN: Yes, it's interesting because Giuliani suggested that maybe the special counsel would want to ask more. Did Giuliani let on whether or not he had an indication from the special counsel's office that they were going to push further? It doesn't seem likely to me that Giuliani has no idea on this.

ZELENY: I mean, the fact that he was mentioning it at all, the fact that this isn't a likely finish seems to me that he may have had an indication for that. And we've seen the president's lawyers talk about this on television because they know the president will see it that way. And they want to -- I think, it was my sense to sort of lower expectations that this is over at this point.

But the sense of think of all of the people, other witnesses who have spoken to the special counsel's office. They are not under the same obligation of only before the election. Don McGahn has spoken to the special counsel's office for some 30 hours or so. So are many other witnesses here. So, that is why Rudy Giuliani seemed to be indicating when he was saying today that he thinks there could be more questions.

[20:25:03] The question is, do they need this information from the president or does Bob Mueller and his team have this information from other people?

But you do get the sense, John, that this certainly -- even though we're nearing the holidays and the end of what was supposed to be wrapped up a year ago may not be wrapped up at all.

BERMAN: All right. Jeff Zeleny, down in Florida, thank you very much.

Joining us now, former Trump White House lawyer James Schultz, and former federal prosecutor and CNN legal analyst Laura Coates.

So, Laura, let's game out the scenario we were just talking about with Jeff Zeleny there. Say Robert Mueller does want to ask the president questions about why he fired FBI Director James Comey, say he does want to ask obstruction of justice questions and his attorneys say he shouldn't have to.

What argument would the Mueller team make that he does?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, besides, yes, you do need to do so, you're not above the law. Well, first of all, they'd have to argue the notion of explaining why executive privilege does not apply in this context. So, certainly, the president does and has the prerogative to have open and candid conversations with members of his cabinet, people who he can rely on for advice. You want to have a candid discussion without the president or the cabinet members without having it revealed at some future point in time. So, you do want to protect the executive privilege. But you just can't assign executive privilege or assert it any time you like. It has to actually be in the nature of what you're doing, number one. You had to actually be a member of the executive branch at that point in time. And, of course, when he was a candidate he was not. At the time of the Trump Tower meetings, he would not have been. At the time of the upcoming rallies and discussing the promises about perhaps dirt on Hillary Clinton, which have alluded to being mentioned of WikiLeaks and why Julian Assange or Roger Stone would be of interest, he was not a member of the executive branch.

So, they would have to actually substantiate that assertion of privilege. If you're Mueller, you have to do a cost-benefit analysis whether you're going to try to fight that in court, whether you're going to rely on the head of the Justice Department who's the acting A.G. to allow you to subpoena and follow through on compelling compliance subpoena. It's a long game. That's why they started with written questions to test the waters.

BERMAN: So, Jim, if Mueller does issue a subpoena, it would have to be approved by the new acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker. So if Whitaker wanted to squelch it, if he wanted to put it to bed, what grounds would he use? How could he argue that executive privilege applies for instance to the transition?

JAMES SCHULTZ, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: Well, you know, executive privilege is a very gray area, whether executive privileges can apply at the transition. That's something that has not been tested by the courts. Mueller has to decide whether it's essential to the outcome -- to the carrying out of justice in that matter and how important is that information to Mueller in making determination whether he needs it or not.

And then, again, it's got to be a balancing act test. Do we take it up the chain, to the DAG and then ultimately to the attorney general. And that's the question Mueller is going to have to answer for himself before he even makes his way to Whitaker.

BERMAN: What do the higher courts think about executive privilege, Jim? Have they weighed in on this?

SCHULTZ: Look, the Nixon case dealt with documents. We haven't dealt with executive privilege as it relates to conversations. There's never been a president that's subpoenaed successfully relative to conversations. It's only been documents.

So, we'd be a new ground there. That's why we have courts. That's why we have the D.C. circuit, that's why we have the Supreme Court. And if ultimately, the president objects to going in and speaking with Mueller if he's asked to testify, it will likely end up before those courts.

BERMAN: In conversations there's a gray area, Laura. Transitions are a gray area upon a gray area. We don't know if executive privileges extend at all to the transition period, and it could be that there's a lot to ask about that period.

COATES: Of course. It's a flow chart. When does it apply, when does it not?

It most assuredly doesn't apply if you were simply a candidate. There is more of -- the gray area actually is more limited than people are making it out to be. It's very limited to the point in time when he was known to become the president of the United Stats, arguably around the time of the inauguration, arguably around the time he would have been briefed on a number of issues perhaps of national security interest, et cetera, where he would be reasonably relying on his cabinet members for very substantial information.

Now, the gray area does not extend to when he was hoping to be the president of the United States. Imagine all of the candidates who were on the stages, battling to be a part of a different debates, who could say, well, I was expecting to be perhaps the president, therefore, whatever conversations I had or documents I had are going to fall under that.

Remember, one of the good things about there being a statute right now that Mueller is under that actually sets the parameters of his job is that if there is disagreement, John, in some way between what he would like to do about getting a subpoena or trying to have it compelled to be complied with is that if he and Whitaker should disagree about how to carry out his particular objective, he has a job to do. He can go to Congress, and he can go to the Senate and the actual members of the House as well and talk about this.


[20:30:00] LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: -- Whitaker should disagree about how they carry out to pick their objective. He has a job to do. He can go to Congress and he can go to the Senate and the actual members of the House as well and talk about this. So there is some other area he can go to rely and figure out who else could be of assistance in getting what he wanted to get to done, if, if Whitaker was an obstacle.

JAMES SCHULTZ, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: I have to say, though, Robert Mueller seems to have --



SCHULTZ: I said like we saw in the fast and furious when they asserted executive privilege to Eric Holder. They asserted executive privilege about Eric Holder's conversations with President Obama at that point in time. You're going to see this play out through the courts. Whether they go to Congress or not it should -- should the President refuse to testify or should the President refuse to answer further questions. You're going to see those play out in the court system regardless of what you do with Congress.

BERMAN: Yes. But Robert Mueller would have to choose to have that fight and I don't know if we've had an indication, Laura, just to give a quick last word on this. Have we had an indication that Mueller wants this kind of public fight?

COATES: No. And, in fact, maybe the opposite is truce that he is being and willing to compromise and even have written questions in lieu of the expected oral testimony and statements. This is isn't in and of itself a compromise he didn't have to make is that you do see that he is malleable in some way. Whether he is manipulable, I doubt.

BERMAN: That's a very good point. I will note enclosing only that if it does go up to the courts, this could be decided by the Supreme Court and one of the swing votes could be a guy that the President has been fighting with today, Chief Justice of the United States John Roberts. So we'll see. James Schultz, Laura Coates, great to have here with us tonight. Appreciate it.

So, first the President gives a pass to Saudi Arabia for murder, now he thanks them. And a sitting member of Congress basically says the President is acting like a rhymes with witch. We'll explain why next.


[20:35:47] BERMAN: So the day after President Trump more or less gave Saudi Arabia a pass for killing a U.S.-based journalist, today, he thanked them, it is Thanksgiving, after all. This is what he wrote, "Oil price is getting lower," he said on twitter. "Great. Like a big tax cut for America and the world. Enjoy $54, which is $82. Thank you, Saudi Arabia, but let's get lower."

This is Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker today hit back hard of the President's declaration on Saudi Arabia saying, "He took our nation to a very low level in the wake of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi." And Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard had this to say, "Hey, Donald Trump, being Saudi Arabia's bitch is not America first."

Joining me now, "Washington Post" Columnist Max Boot, author of "The Corrosion of Conservatism: Why I left Right," and "New York Times" Investigative Correspondent Mark Mazetti.

And Mark, you were part of a team that wrote a really interesting article today about the messages being sent by the President around the world. You call it something of a blueprint for foreign leaders, a guide to how they might increase their standing in the eyes of the U.S. president as well as how far they can go in crushing domestic critics without raising American ire.

MAX MAZETTI, WASHINGTON INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, NY TIMES: Right. I mean the President made it pretty clear in a statement yesterday that if you buy American arms, if you could potentially create American jobs, you can get away with a whole lot and he values his allies and partners based on what they may provide to the United States, what's good for Boeing is good for the United States.

And there was nothing at all about, you know, what America might see in his allies in terms of values, et cetera. And so what we wrote today was really how other countries might see the reaction of the Khashoggi killing as a way to do what they want at home, but curry favor in the Trump White House based on what Mohammed bin Salman seems to have been -- seems to have done in this case.

BERMAN: It's getting away with murder, Max. And does it send the message that other countries can do the same?

MAX BOOT, COLUMNIST, THE WASHINGTON POST: Of course, it's a horrible message to send. This response to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi shows that Donald Trump's foreign policy is a value free zone.

I mean, Donald Trump is tougher on Admiral Bill McRaven, the person who was responsible for killing Osama bin Laden than he is on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who is responsible for killing Jamal Khashoggi. So, there is something wrong with this vector, John

BERMAN: And what about the thank you? The President knows that he stirred things up yesterday with that statement. He knows the coverage is out there and even in light of that he decided to say thank you today.

BOOT: It is just so bizarre. It's not like oil prices are down because the Saudis are doing us a favor. In the first place, Saudi Arabia is about 13 percent of world oil production. They don't set the world price of oil. There was a miscalculation by oil producers who thought that demand would be higher than actually is, but this is part of a consistent picture with Trump of acting as a supplicant to dictators.

You would never know from this that the United States, we are the stronger party in this relationship. The Saudis need the United States, John, much more than we need the Saudis but Donald Trump acts as if he has to kiss up to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

BERMAN: At this point, Mark, is there any sense that the United States is getting anything for this? Has Saudi Arabia said, "Hey, you know what, we're going to give you oil for free or we're going to pay double for your weapons." Or I did see some statements from some other gulf nations today basically saying that they were grateful that U.S. stuck by Saudi Arabia. Are there any benefits at all to U.S. foreign policy?

MAZETTI: Well, Max, is right. I mean, one of the interesting things yesterday was how much Trump -- President Trump wanted to say that he is basically powerless, right? He can't push Saudi Arabia or else they could cut production and raised oil prices. So, the American President really doesn't have much power in this situation.

But to the specifics of what we do or don't get, I mean, it's been pointed out that all of these numbers floating around about the hundreds of billions of dollars of arms deals, actually, a lot of it is just promises that haven't seen fruition and most people don't think will.

[20:40:00] They're sort of empty paper in terms of what actually will be delivered in terms of what the Saudis might buy from Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed, et cetera. So I mean the United States relationship with Saudi Arabia is complicated and it always has been. And there's been always a certain amount of hypocrisy that's gone into it. But one of the interesting things also from this is how much the President basically made Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman one and the same, that he has to support Mohammed bin Salman because the relationship with Saudi Arabia is important. It needs to be pointed out because we often forget he is not the king yet.

BERMAN: Right.

MAZETTI: And you're not the king until you're the king. So, it is very interesting this administration has thrown its lot with this young crown prince and indeed if he's king, he could be king for decades. But he's not there yet and it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

BOOT: I think the point that Mark is making is a very important one because Donald Trump is conflating Saudi Arabia with the crown prince. But remember, the crown prince has only been in office for a year. We have had 80 years of the U.S.-Saudi alliance without the crown prince. There is no reason why our relationship with Saudi Arabia has to be contingent on the crown prince.

In fact, there are many examples in the past where the U.S. turned against despotic leaders like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and maintained our alliance with those countries. And I would argue now given how toxic MBS has become, we would actually strengthen our relationship with Saudi Arabia if MBS were moved out of the line of succession.

BERMAN: Mark, you know, the crown prince is going to the G-20? Next week, is he continuing to play on the world stage?

MAZETTI: Right. And that's -- this is part of the script. They will -- he will continue to be the leader, the purported leader of Saudi Arabia on the global stage. It seemed as if President Trump in a statement yesterday was trying to basically end this matter, as if we're done, we're past the Khashoggi killing. We're moving on. We're moving on to bigger and more important things.

Now, you know, we'll see if history turns out that way. But they clearly want to turn the page on this and go on to the other issues they want to deal with on Saudi Arabia.

BERMAN: Mark -- Max Boot, Mark Mazetti, thank you very much for being with us. I really appreciate the discussion. Happy Thanksgiving to both of you. I'm thankful for you. Appreciate it.

MAZETTI: Thanks, John.

BERMAN: All right, David Axelrod's exclusive interview with former President Barrack Obama. He asked him if he were hypothetically on the ballot in 2020, how he would match up against President Trump. The answer, it may surprise you.


[20:46:36] BERMAN: Tonight, we have an exclusive interview with former President Barack Obama. This week he sat down with his old friend and former top strategist, CNN's David Axelrod. Their conversation at the University of Chicago was for "The Ax Files" podcast.

It comes after President Obama spent weeks campaigning for Democrats running in the midterm elections and he said he's proud of how his party did. He talked about that and they looked ahead to 2020. Axelrod asked his former boss a pretty interesting question.


DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Do you think if you were on a ballot in 2020 that you would defeat President Trump?

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I mean, I -- look, you know, I will not answer that direct question for obvious reasons.

AXELROD: The reason I ask is because people say, well, you know, we can't have another candidate of color, we can't have a woman because --

OBAMA: Well, that kind of stuff I don't buy. I am -- as you know, I'm fairly confident.

AXELROD: Yes. That is apparent.

OBAMA: And, you know, when I left office I think people felt after having gone through all kinds of ups and downs that I've taken the job seriously, worked hard, been true to my oath, observed and hopefully strengthened the norms and the rules and the values of our democracy.

And I think America was more respected around the world than it was when I came in. And, yes, I feel very confident that I've -- if I was in a position to -- had it not been for both the constitution and Michelle, to continue in office.

With respect to going forward, the idea that there are some demographic or profile of a particular candidate, that is the optimal one or the ideal one. That's just not how I've seen politics work.

I think people respond to candidates who speak to the moment in some fashion. And, you know, you're the first one, Ax, who talked about the fact that you sort of don't know how somebody's going to play out until they're in the race.


OBAMA: And they're off and running. I think it's fair to say that although by the time I announced I was running for president, people were familiar enough with me that they thought this guy has talent. They didn't necessarily think we were going to win. In fact, I think the odds were --

AXELROD: I think they wanted to see you run the whole gauntlet just to see how you handle it. OBAMA: Yes, exactly. I think our current president, nobody expected that that would happen, but it did. You don't know how all these various factors are going to converge until you try.

And your generalizations that we draw about, well, a woman is not going to win this time. Oh, this is ideal time for a woman. You had one black guy so you can't you can't have another black guy.

[20:50:10] AXELROD: But you know why the -- I mean, I'm not subscribing to that theory, but you know why it comes up because you spoke --

OBAMA: Because I'm a black guy.

AXELROD: Right. You spoke -- you're great. You're great. For those of you who are listening and not watching, the President enjoyed his last comment. Your reaction to the midterm elections, you jumped in there. I remember you telling me the Bushes had taught you a lesson in how to be a former president and that was basically to give room and space, but you felt the need to jump in there and campaign.


AXELROD: And how do you feel about the results? The President said it was a nearly a total complete victory for his side but --

OBAMA: I think we did very well and the reason I was particularly happy was to see the significant increase in vote totals, the percentage of people who voted. The percentage of young people who voted --


OBAMA: -- was heartening to me.


BERMAN: So I had a chance to speak to David Axelrod about this exclusive interview and much, much more. Take a look.


BERMAN: So, David, President Obama won't answer your question about whether he could have one another election in 2020, but you know better than most people. Do you think he believes he would've won?

AXELROD: Well, look, I think he was wise not to answer that question, but he also -- when you listen to him speak after that he -- it was very clear. He's a pretty confident guy as he noted and I think he is very confident about that.

But really I ask him in service of a larger question which is that, you know, there is this rumbling that an African-American candidate or a woman couldn't beat Donald Trump and he was very strong on rejecting that notion and suggesting that it's the qualities of the candidate and not their demographic group that will determine whether or not they are going to be a successful candidates. So, you know, he made that transition and he made that point very strongly.

BERMAN: He didn't run himself, obviously in 2018, but he did jump into the election more than most past presidents did, in a way breaking from some transition -- tradition, I should say. How hard do you think that was for him?

AXELROD: Very. I think it was always his intention. You know, he told me when I was working for (INAUDIBLE) Bushes have given me a lesson in how to be a former president. And he always appreciated the fact that whether they agreed or disagreed, they always gave him the time -- the room to do what he thought was right.

And, you know, you know that he's been renascent about joining the public debate over the past couple of years, but I just think he felt a sense of urgency about this election and there was so much interest in having him out there that he felt he had to answer that call.

What was interesting to me today was that he was in no mood to sort of spike the ball in the end zone. When we -- when I brought up the midterm elections, he acknowledged he thought the result was good and then he quickly transition talking about the turn out among young people.

We're in an audience at my Institute to Politics at the University of Chicago and he emphasized that young people voted in larger numbers than they had in past midterm elections and how much that pleased him. So, I think he felt like, "I've done my work and now I'm going to step back again and not get into the middle of the fray."

BERMAN: Today we saw President Trump once again break with his own intelligence community. He put out that statement, exclamation points and all before even being brief on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. How do you think President Obama would have handle this?

AXELROD: Well, much differently. We didn't have a chance to talk about this today because the story broke after our conversation wrapped up. But I think most presidents would have made it clear to the Saudis that this was unacceptable and that you can't have someone ordering a hit like this and still be dealing with the world as the face of that nation and expect that kingdom and expect the world to respond positively to it. That is not the message that is being sent.

The message that is being sent is as long as you're on the Trump team every -- anything goes. And we will look the other way. Remember, President Trump in Saudi Arabia said we're not going to tell other people how to run their countries.

So, you know, this is -- and, you know, it's reminiscent of what we saw with Putin, standing side by side with Putin and dismissing the intelligence in saying, well, he says he didn't do it.

I mean, if an American president can't rely on his own intelligence, then we have a very deep problem. And if he'd -- and if he ignores it, then America has a very deep problem in the world.

[20:55:011] BERMAN: David Axelrod, host of "The Ax Files" podcast and television show, thanks so much.

AXELROD: All right, John, good to be with you.

BERMAN: Reminder, don't miss "Full Circle," our daily interactive newscast on Facebook where you get to vote on what stories we cover. Get all the details and watch it weeknights at 6:25 Eastern at

There is more ahead tonight. Up next, the war of words between President Trump and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, a rare rebuke from Justice Roberts directed at the President and the President fires back. The latest when we continue.


BERMAN: Good evening, John Berman here. Chris Cuomo is getting after it somewhere near Turkey. Thanks for spending part of your Thanksgiving eve with us.