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INSIDE POLITICS

RNC Backs Moore; Moore Pro-Life Stance; Conyers Stepping Down; Trump Can't Obstruct Justice; Mueller's Russia Probe. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired December 5, 2017 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:31] DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Dana Bash. John King is off.

Just days before the Alabama special election, Republican reversal. The GOP establishment is getting back into Alabama to help elect Roy Moore. And tonight in Alabama, I'm told, Steve Bannon will give a fire-breathing campaign speech alongside Moore. Bannon, who finally got the president to side with him and endorse Moore will make clear he is not letting Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell off the hook.

Plus, the president's legal defense on Russia is under scrutiny as new questions about obstruction loom over the investigation.

And, will the government keep the lights on? Congress is now gearing up for yet another shutdown showdown.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: We should all be working to avoid one. And I must say, I don't believe my Republican friends. Leader McConnell and Speaker Ryan want a government shutdown. The only one at the moment who's flirted with a shutdown is President Trump.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Just a few weeks ago, Republicans here in Washington were moving heaven and earth to distance themselves from their candidate for Senate in Alabama after Roy Moore was accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct and one woman who said he molested her when she was just 14 years old. The Republican National Committee stopped sending money. The president was uncharacteristically quiet about it. And the Senate majority leader took the extraordinary step of saying this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: I think he should step aside.

QUESTION: Do you believe these allegations to be true?

MCCONNELL: I believe the women, yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: What a difference three weeks makes. Now GOP Leader Mitch McConnell is saying the voters should decide. The RNC reversed itself, putting money back into Alabama now. And the president fully endorsed Moore, whom he called yesterday and said, go get'em.

We'll get to why this GOP whiplash is happening with Moore in just a minute, but first let's contrast that with how the Democrats have handled sexual misconduct allegations against one of their own, Congressman John Conyers.

Democrats, despite arguing generally to stand up and fight sexual harassment against women, were slow to drop the hammer on Conyers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), MINORITY LEADER: We are strengthened by due process. Just because someone is accused, and was it one accusation? Is it two? I think there has to be -- John Conyers is an icon in our country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: Finally today, under pressure to stay consistent, Democrat leaders convinced Conyers to resign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JOHN CONYERS (D), MICHIGAN: I am retiring today. And I want everyone to know how much I appreciate the support. My legacy can't be compromised or diminished in any way by what we're going through now. This too shall pass.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: To be fair, there are big differences here. Roy Moore was never someone the GOP leadership wanted in the Senate race in the first place, and John Conyers has a long career and a civil rights legacy. Still, the tale of these two situations and the reversals in both are worth discussing.

And that's where we're going to start right now with our reporters who are here to share their insights. CNN's own Jeff Zeleny, Mary Katharine Ham from "The Federalist," "The Daily Beast's" Asawin Suebsaeng and Olivier Knox from "Yahoo! News."

Welcome, one and all.

Mary Katharine, I'm going to start with you on this whole sort of question, first and foremost, about the Republicans going all in now saying, you know what, we've got to get back in there. We've got to get Roy Moore elected. Obviously they're doing it reluctantly, but they're doing it. What do you make of it?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, "THE FEDERALIST": Yes, actually it's a classic RNC move to -- this actually looks worse than having stuck with him the whole time. They're going to like dramatically get out of it and then join back in to make it as obviously nakedly political as possible. Pardon the word naked.

But, look, this is -- the conduct of which he's accused is gross. There are multiple accusations on the record from these women, contemporaneous reports of it, an M.O. that lines up and some physical evidence that he was in these places and giving high school women (INAUDIBLE) to high school girls.

There's a lot here. But the voters on the ground -- and I think this is what they're responding to -- are saying, we don't care. And the -- one of the reasons they don't care is that interview with Nancy Pelosi. There are other reasons too. But I do think that icon comment from Nancy Pelosi, it's this kind of sexual predator chicken we're playing where it's like, if your bad guys get to stay, our bad guys have to stay, where we are sort of unilaterally disarming. It's a very bad way of doing business on both sides, but that's where we are.

[12:05:20] BASH: And -- go ahead.

ASAWIN SUEBSAENG, "THE DAILY BEAST": I think one of the impressively depressing things about the Republican Party and the White House and President Trump explicitly endorsing Roy Moore against Doug Jones is how predictable it was. Now it's explicit. But just a week after the sexual assault and misconduct allegations started coming out against candidate Moore, you could already see the -- not just the president himself, but the entire White House messaging apparatus shifting back into the direction of Moore, focusing on how awful they thought Doug Jones was.

So the fact that the president's now coming out saying, I explicitly endorse this fighter named Roy Moore, and he's a great guy and people of Alabama should vote for him, it was almost like this was preordained and prewritten. And the amount of time it took for the Republican Party to come back home to Roy Moore, despite the child molestation allegations, actually was even quicker than it took for the GOP to come home to Donald Trump in October 2016 when he was facing his own on rush of sexual assault and harassment allegations.

BASH: And, Jeff, the reality is, as you were both alluding to, the way that Republicans tend to deal with things, they argue, is the way they should deal with things. They listen to their voters. And that, at the end of the day, this is what the voters in Alabama want, which is why they're going to go in and help him. But that's obviously only half the story, right?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No question. I mean it's a question of, are they leading or following? So they are following the lead of the voters. No question at all. And the Republican Party is following the president. And the president is the leader of the Republican Party.

The Republican National Committee, this decision to get back in, I talked to a few officials there, it's unsettling for them, frankly. And -- and they also worry about the ramifications of 2018. But the National Republican Senatorial Committee is not getting back in, at least as of now. They have one more week to do so, I guess, but they are not getting back in.

The question here is are there -- you know, is there any fallout from this? If Roy Moore was not likely to win, the president would not have done what he did and the RNC would not be doing it. They sense that he's winning, so they sense that -- you know, just to go with this.

And the hypocrisy that has come up, you know, because the Democratic situation and people in the media as well has given the president fuel, I'm told, and license to do exactly what they're doing. And he feels no shame or apology about it. He believes what he's doing is right and has likened it to his own situation here. So we'll see what the fallout is, you know, in months or years to come. Maybe there won't be any.

BASH: And you mentioned 2018. Olivier, that's, obviously, a big thing we're looking at. This is a special election, but it is next year and all of the House members, all the House Republicans, obviously, on the ballot, a third of the Senate, and particularly in the Senate you still have the very real dynamic of the Bannon wing of the party trying very hard to unseat incumbents. They believe that they've had success just in a couple of retirements.

But tonight I am told that that is sort of the thrust of the argument that Steve Bannon is going to make when he's down appearing with Roy Moore in Alabama. Mitch McConnell, OK, you're sort of with us now, sort of kind of, but you're not -- but you're not off the hook. And he's going to argue that the deplorables, the voters in Alabama, won on this and they're pulling everybody that way. What are the implications going forward?

OLIVIER KNOX, "YAHOO! NEWS": It's been really interesting to watch Steve Bannon turn Mitch McConnell into sort of the poster child for Republican promises that were made and never kept. That's been a very interesting dynamic in this race.

The Republicans I've talked to think that Roy Moore is toxic for their brand in 2018. They expect to see him pop up in ads all around the country, not just in Alabama, not just in the south but everywhere.

We've heard Mitch McConnell come out and say before, look, can we please stop running these kinds of candidates? But if Roy Moore does prevail, well, one of Mitch McConnell's main arguments for that, which is that these kinds of candidates can't prevail -- can't win, if he prevails, that's going to be enough to (INAUDIBLE).

BASH: And I want to get to Conyers in just a second, but I want to play, for you in particular because I'd love to get your reaction to this, a remarkable interview that our own colleague, Poppy Harlow, did this morning with the spokeswoman for Roy Moore, who brought up not once but a couple of times that fact that Poppy is eight months pregnant as part of her argument. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JANET PORTER, SPOKESPERSON, ROY MOORE CAMPAIGN: Here's a question that should be asked. If you care about child abuse, you should be talking about the fact that Judge Roy Moore stands for protection, not only of our Second Amendment rights so we can protect ourselves against predators, for the rights of babies like your eight month baby that you're carrying now. Doug Jones says you can take the life of that baby and we should pay for it, even fund Planned Parenthood, who wants to sell the organs.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Let's leave my child out of this. Let's leave my child out of this.

[12:10:13] PORTER: Well, it's really the children of Alabama that we're talking about. And the Alabamans understand that if we're talking about what's at stake here,

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: So, obviously, the argument that they are making is -- and doing it seems with some success in Alabama, is, if you send Doug Jones, you're going to have a pro-choice Democrat there. And these allegations aside, which obviously they claim are not true against Moore, he's a staunchly pro-life Republican.

HAM: Right. First of all, cheap shot to invoke people's children. I've had it done to me when I'm discussing like marijuana policy. And it's like, I can have a thought outside of the fact that I'm a mother and it doesn't have to always go back to that. It often doesn't for dads. So I sympathize with that.

BASH: Touche.

HAM: Look, this guy is credibly accused. He's said in the past that he did not know any of these women. And then he's like, oh, yes, I did. He's lying about this.

But there are many voters on the ground who much like -- I think are looking at a redo of sorts of Trump versus Clinton are saying, this is a very bad and hard choice to make. And there are many people on the ground who care deeply about pro-life policies. And they look at a Doug Jones and they say, you could have given us somebody who was a little more moderate because it is Alabama.

BASH: Because they do exist on the Democratic side.

HAM: I mean they do exist. They certainly exist in Alabama. And I think had the Democrats thought they might have a shot at this earlier, maybe things would have gone differently. And there would be somebody different than Doug Jones. But that -- it is a hard calculation for those people to make. It wouldn't be hard for me because I probably would abstain, but --

BASH: Let me -- let me just ask about John Conyers. He's resign -- he said I'm retiring today. That means he's resigning.

What does this mean for the Democratic brand and whether they can continue to claim the moral high ground? Does this get them closer to that or do they still have a problem given the fact that Al Franken is still out there with allegations that he's admitted. SUEBSAENG: Well, not just for the Democratic brand but the health of

the Democrat party, but also for the brand and health of the Republicans Party. I think people who cover Capitol Hill know that there are at least several other shoes to drop on this issue, whether on the Democratic or Republican side. Like, whatever the Democratic Party right now is doing with regard to a Conyers or a Franken or the Republican side is doing with regards to Roy Moore, there is still a lot more work to do in terms of the culture of harassment. They exist in a lot of industries, including in Capitol Hill.

BASH: Including and especially. I mean we've all walked the halls of Capitol Hill and --

ZELENY: Right. And we still don't know the details of who received settlements.

I think that the reality is going into 2018, I'm not sure this is going to be much of an issue in the midterm elections because both sides are not sort of free and clear on this. I mean it's an equal opportunity situation here. So -- but the bigger question for a Roy Moore when he comes, I mean Mitch McConnell here, regardless of, you know, he probably loses in this because he is going to -- if Roy Moore wins, he's going to have a member who is likely to not agree with him on things.

HAM: Right.

ZELENY: And -- which is one of the reasons he didn't want him in the first place. So this is, you know, even one more headache for Republicans next year.

HAM: Well, and I want to say, politics is also probably distinguishing itself as more problematic than Hollywood in punishing people for this. Like, the fact that it is an equal opportunity so everybody goes, well, what are we going to do? Again, that is not helping the actual problem. It still is --

ZELENY: And leadership's in pretty short supply.

BASH: Yes, exactly, except for the fact that, I mean, call me completely naive, these people who Americans elect to be in power are supposed to be held to a higher standard. And, in fact, they're being held to a lower standard --

HAM: Yes.

BASH: It turns out than people in Hollywood.

All right --

ZELENY: Because they make the rules for themselves.

BASH: Yes, they do. That's a whole nother discussion.

Everybody stand by.

Up next, what does $7 million buy? Two indictments, two guilty pleas. That story, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:18:04] BASH: Welcome back.

New information on how Robert Mueller is putting your tax dollars to work. This morning, the Justice Department said the special counsel has spent nearly $7 million so far in the Russia election meddling probe. The payoff so far, two indictments and a pair of guilty pleas that now have the president's legal team testing a legal strategy straight from the Richard Nixon playbook.

Yesterday, one of the president's lawyers said the president can't obstruct justice because he is the president. Today, the Trump legal team seems to be reconsidering the wisdom of that argument. Ty Cobb, a lawyer for President Trump, told "The Washington Post" that the theory was only a theory and not an official legal strategy, saying, it's interesting as a technical legal issue -- that's -- this is according to Ty Cobb -- but the president's lawyers intend to present a fact- based defense, not a mere legal defense.

We're back around the table.

Jeff, you go to the White House every day. What do you make of this? How -- let's just start with the -- sort of the difficulty in explaining. It all started with the president's tweet on Saturday --

ZELENY: Right.

BASH: Suggesting that he fired Michael Flynn because he knew that Michael Flynn had lied to the FBI. And since then we have seen a series of attempts at an explanation of that and also a decision and a discussion -- public discussion of whether it even matters because he's the president.

ZELENY: I mean one of the things that is clearly going on, as you were reading through all of that, is a muddled message. And that may be a strategy here, to try and raise questions and, you know, kind of blur the -- or obscure everything that's happening here.

But there also are disagreements among lawyers, which is not all that unusual in a case like this. But, you know, there are quiet whispers among some in Trump's circle, is it time for new lawyers? We've heard that how many times over the last 11 months? A lot.

[12:20:03] But this kind of raises the point that everyone is not necessarily on the same page or are they simply trying to try their arguments in public and have a trial balloon, if you will, here.

But the last few days, three days or so, has certainly given pause to the fact that this is not consuming everyone in the West Wing. In fact, it largely is, including the vice president's office as well. We're doing some reporting on that as well that, you know, he is largely -- that his knowledge of this is also coming under sharper review here. So, look, this is just one thing that I assume Republicans will seize

on the price tag of this. It's something that, you know, has happened before. But, you know, this is well underway so --

BASH: Yes.

SUEBSAENG: And in terms of this being all consuming when it comes to the Trump White House, that also includes the space in the front, middle, and back of Donald Trump's own mind. As we reported a few days ago at "The Daily Beast," the president of the United States has actually suspected for weeks now that Michael Flynn could have flipped. And this was considered quite a big blow, at least in certain respects to the president, because not only did he professional respect Michael Flynn so much, but he had personal affinity for the guy. And this isn't someone that the White House, as much as they did try last Friday by referring to General Flynn as a former Obama administration official. This is not someone they can --

BASH: That argument lasted about five seconds.

SUEBSAENG: Four and a half by my estimate.

This is not someone they can laugh off as a George Papadopoulos, as a coffee boy. This is not someone they can even pretend was a second tier figure in Trump world like Paul Manafort, who, of course, was a top tier figure. This is someone who knows a lot from the campaign, from the transition, and from his time as national security adviser. One of the most powerful people in the country, if not the world.

BASH: So you mentioned the -- and we talked at the top of the segment about the price tag. So far $7 million, which I believe, if you compare to like Ken Starr, it's probably peanuts. But -- you know, and they're just -- and they're just getting started.

But there is starting to -- you're starting to see in some conservative circles more of a push against Robert Mueller. And "The Wall Street Journal" editorial page, which has not been pro-Trump at all -- in fact I would say just the opposite -- is starting to go after Robert Mueller. Look at part of what they said this morning.

Mr. Mueller is too conflicted to investigate the FBI and should step down in favor of someone more credible. The investigation would surely continue, though perhaps with someone who doesn't think this job includes protecting the FBI and Mr. Comey from answering questions about their role in the 2016 election.

KNOX: This is almost more important than the muddled legal strategy. This is the political strategy.

BASH: Yes.

KNOX: This is laying the groundwork for the president perhaps to try to push Mueller out entirely. It's a lot more important.

The reason the legal strategy is muddled is that its biggest x-factor is the president himself. BASH: Right.

KNOX: You never know what he's going to say on Twitter. You never know how that's going to modify your legal argument. So there's a reason for that. Just also the fact that his lawyers are sort of characters.

But on the political side, this political campaign is echoed across conservative media. You're seeing it a lot more. It's really ramping up. And this is the one -- this is the one to watch because at some point, you know, the White House is going to have to make that decision and try to push the DOJ to get rid of Mueller.

HAM: Well, and it's not just in conservative media where criticisms have been leveled. Our own reporting at CNN has talked about the senior FBI official --

BASH: Yes.

HAM: Who was asked to step down by Mueller. Who, if you grant that he's a good actor and a fair man, which many have, then that matters. He was asked to step down because of anti-Trump sentiment. So there's two theories of the case here. I think parts of which are true on each side, one that there's a giant global conspiracy in which the Trump administration, or Trump campaign knowingly colluded to throw an American election, two, that this is all a giant hoax. That's not true. We know that Russia meddled. But Trump insists that and that it was a political attack from inside the intelligence community on him. There are pieces of evidence for that part of that argument of the case and I think that the story of this guy being involved in Hillary's -- the statement that cleared Hillary, the interview of Flynn and this is problematic.

KNOX: But the campaign predates that now (ph).

ZELENY: But the question here though, do Republicans on Capitol Hill, would they go along with pushing Mueller out at this point? Because initially that was very controversial. In fact, several senators tried to discuss legislation and things just because --

BASH: And they're still working on it, to protect the special counsel.

ZELENY: Right. So just because "The Journal" editorial page -- which has been mixed on President Trump -- they, you know, I'm not sure that people will follow along with that because that would be -- if the president -- and we do think he's still entertaining the idea. He's never totally closed that door.

KNOX: Right.

ZELENY: Boy, that would change everything in the wake of all of this.

SUEBSAENG: And in terms of the potential sacking of Robert Mueller, it's not just Republicans on Capitol Hill. Some of the president's closest advisers, in and outside of the White House, have been urging him for months not to go ahead with anything like that because of the political firestorm and potential political Armageddon that could follow with something like that.

BASH: Right.

[12:25:05] SUEBSAENG: Even someone like Steve Bannon, who has been more of an extremist about this in terms of whispering into President Trump's ear, they still talk pretty regularly on the phone even though he no longer works in Trump's West Wing. In terms of telling him to get cover from Robert Mueller --

BASH: Right.

SUEBSAENG: He has never said, order the firing of the guy.

BASH: OK, everybody stand by because President Trump is getting ready to touch a third rail of diplomacy. The location of the U.S. embassy in Israel. Will he go against the wishes of some U.S. allies or please his base? That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:30:04] BASH: Welcome back.