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Week of Chaos at White House; Campaign Promise on Trade; Tariffs Could Mean Higher Prices; Trump Meets with NRA. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired March 2, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:19] NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Nia-Malika Henderson. John King is off.

A busy day for the president. You're looking a live pictures in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he and the first lady are paying respects to Reverend Billy Graham.

But back here in Washington, a rumor mill of potential White House departures. Who could leave the president and who is he thinking of pushing out.

And a stock markets slide. While President Trump defends his steep tariffs, the president even found time to weigh in on who does the better impression of him.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is our first private meeting as a family. Here's what's going to happen for the rest of the evening. We're going to play some games. More specifically, the game of Jenga.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Merry Christmas. Merry Christmas. That's a phrase I just came up with.


HENDERSON: Yes, we've said it before, but we really, really do mean it this time. Chaos at the White House has spiraled more out of control than ever because even by the standards of a very traditional administration, this has been a rough, rough week. One of my colleagues calls it the great unraveling. You've got feuds plaguing the West Wing, a confusing, free-wheeling policy on gun reform, new complications for staffers caught up in the Russia investigation. the resignation of a key aide and the effectual demotion of another. Also, a surprise trade announcement that sent global markets tumbling. And despite all of that, the White House today says no, no, no, you've got this all wrong. Things have never been better.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: If this is chaos, I think the American people are glad for it because we just passed the biggest tax cuts in history, ISIS is on the run, we're rebuilding our military, we're rebuilding the judiciary, remaking what that looks like, the economy is strong. We have a lot of positive things happening in this country and that's happening under the direction and the leadership of President Trump.


HENDERSON: Here with me to share their reporting and their insights, Jonathan Martin of "The New York Times," CNN's Kaitlan Collins, Perry Bacon with FiveThirtyEight, and Rachael Bade with Politico.

So we're going to start with this chaos. And, I mean, just really over the last 72 hours, we have a list of all of the things that have gone on and I can't read them all because that would take the entire show.


HENDERSON: But FBI probes Ivanka Trump business deal, H.R. McMaster, he could leave by the end of the month. Hope Hicks, she's resigned. Kelly fights with Jared and Ivanka. That's just a few.

Kaitlan, I'm going to start with you. You've been all over this story.

So on a scale of like zero drama to the hottest of hot messes, where is this White House on that scale?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, that statement from Sarah Sanders just there, that everything is fine, there is no chaos, a well-oiled machine. It's safe to say there is a large portion of staffers who work inside that White House alongside Sarah Sanders that would not agree with that. Because based on my reporting and what my sources say, it's actually the lowest that morale has ever been in the West Wing. Even though it was really bad last summer, those last days of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus running the West Wing, things right now are actually at an all-time low because staffers are exasperated by these stories. They feel like they can't get ahold of it and they feel like the problems just keep coming more and more.

And a lot of it is problems that they bring on themselves, like the one about Jared Kushner yesterday. The White House downplayed that story about him meeting with those executives and then his family's real estate company getting millions of dollars in loans. The White House wouldn't even comment on that. But even White House staffers were reaching out to me to tell me just how bad that story looked.

So it's safe to say things are very chaotic. You never know from one day to the next who's going to be there. We saw that with the Hope -- departure of Hope Hicks.


COLLINS: People were stunned by that.

HENDERSON: Yes. And one of the things -- some of the president's advisers and folks from your paper, J. Mart., talked to Chris Ruddy and this is what he had to say of what's going on in the White House. I always said that it was going to take a while for Donald Trump to adjust as president. In business, Mr. Ruddy said, Mr. Trump relied on a small circle of colleagues and a management style that amounted to trial and error, the strongest survived, the weak died. Mr. Ruddy insisted that Mr. Trump was finding his groove in the Oval Office, but his subordinates are faring less well.

What do you make of that, that Trump seems to be doing fine at this point, sort of Trump unleashed, but it's his subordinates who are suffering?

MARTIN: Yes, that Trump show is flourishing if you judge him by the standards which he sort of sees the world, which is like, am I getting attention and ratings? Like, it's going pretty well, right? If you judge it through the prism of the American presidency, it's spinning out of control. It just depends how you view it.

[12:05:14] The issue is that the folks that work for Trump, most of them are pretty conventional, political operators. So that's why they're talking to folks like Kaitlan and my colleagues and saying, oh, my gosh, what is going on here? Because, to them, it's like, this is not a good thing when a president, you know, will go on one day and flout his subordinate from the NRA and come out for all manner of gun control, on the next day will announce sweeping tariffs with no real prep at all from his staff. I mean, yes, if you're a staffer in that (INAUDIBLE) that isn't very fun.


MARTIN: And to the outside world, it does look like chaos. But, again, I don't know if Trump himself is unhappy about it. This is the way he's always lived his life.

HENDERSON: And -- and -- Rachael.

RACHAEL BADE, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, "POLITICO": You know, beyond not being fun for staffers in the White House, it's also not fun for Republicans on Capitol Hill. We've seen twice this week totally upending GOP orthodoxy. I'm talking about first guns, Second Amendment, you know, Republicans in that -- in the room there walked away just totally slapping their head with their hands saying, what in the world did he just say and why did he say it? And then the next day talking about tariffs, which, again --

HENDERSON: Complete surprise in many (INAUDIBLE).

BADE: Yes. Capitalism 101. This is not something that Republicans support and they're concerned about blowback on this.

HENDERSON: And what do you think, Perry, this means for governing? In some ways we've seen a chaotic White House for months and months and months. What does it mean going forward for this White House in terms of some of the things they said they wanted to do? PERRY BACON, SENIOR WRITER, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: I think Sarah's right, if

you look at -- if you look at the policies, from a Republican perspective, judges, tax cuts, ISIS, she's not -- the story is accurate. If you're a Republican and wants to see Republican policies, that's happening to some extent. Could it happen more with a more dissident president? I'm sure the answer to that is yes, but it's not as if things are not happening.

I think going forward the question is like, I don't think Trump has much of an agenda. He talked about infrastructure. Republicans on The Hill don't like that. He's talking about guns. The Hill doesn't like that. I think there's not a lot of issues left where Trump can govern where the party really agrees. And I think that's going to be a barrier. We're covering this drama about the White House staff in part because there's no health care bill --

MARTIN: Right. Yes.

BACON: There's no taxes -- there's nothing really moving in terms of legislation.

HENDERSON: Good point. Yes.

MARTIN: That's the great untold story is that there's nothing happening substantively on Capitol Hill.

Look, you know, we get wrapped up in what the president says because it's the president of the United States and his words --

BACON: Do matter.

MARTIN: At least traditionally do matter.

But to your point, Rachael, about the gun issue, McConnell and Ryan aren't going to move a gun control bill. So he can float whatever he wants, the president can, it's not going to matter.

I think the tariffs are a different story, though, because the president does have more authority on that.

HENDERSON: Yes. Right.

MARTIN: Please.

COLLINS: Well, and that's the thing, people complain that there are stories about palace intrigue, who's up, who's down in the West Wing, but it really does matter, especially in this White House, because that's how policy gets made in this White House.



MARTIN: Right.

COLLINS: The president can create ideas, just like with these tariffs that he announced, depending on whoever is -- who has his ear that week, just as we saw this week.


COLLINS: Gary Cohn, the president's chief economic adviser, was strongly against these tariffs.

HENDERSON: And at this point threatening to maybe leave because of these tariffs.

COLLINS: Right. And as of yesterday morning thought he had convinced the president, hey, we're not ready to make any moves on this. Let's not go anywhere.

Then President Trump calls in the cameras to this meeting with these aluminum and steel industry executives and announces these tariffs and throws everyone off.

HENDERSON: We're going to get more into that later in the next bloc.

I want to focus a bit more on staffing. You mentioned Gary Cohn. Also questions about Jared and Ivanka and that sort of battle that's going on there between Jared, Ivanka and John Kelly.

A fascinating quote again in your paper, J. Mart. This is what the quote is from this article by Maggie Haberman. Privately some aides have expressed frustration that Mr. Kushner and his wife, the president's daughter, Ivanka Trump, have remained at the White House despite Mr. Trump at times saying they never should have come to the White House and should leave. Yet aides also noted that Mr. Trump has told the couple that they should keep serving in their roles, even as he has privately asked Mr. Kelly for his help in moving them out.

A stunning statement. Perry, what do you make of it?

BACON: Well, the great story of this White House is that the man who is known for firing people never wants to fire anyone. So it's true here.

HENDERSON: No, I think that's right. It's only a tag line. Yes.

BACON: It's only like -- does he like Kelly? I'm not sure. Does he like McMaster? I'm not sure. Does he want Ivanka and Jared to stay? I'm not sure.

BADE: Right.

BACON: And I think that's sort of intentional because it seems like he wants people to leave. He doesn't want to push them out. He wants -- doesn't know which -- he doesn't want anybody to get too much power besides the president himself.

So the -- a lot of this palace intrigue, I think, is sort of a feature of Trump and his governing style. He has several campaign managers. He's on communications director number -- it will be number five when they replace Hope Hicks. Obama had five in from 2009 to 2017.

HENDERSON: Right. Yes.

BACON: So I think some of this is like what Trump likes and how he kind of -- like J. Mart. said, like, kind of how Trump likes it. So it may be distracting to us, and I'm sure if you work in the West Wing --

HENDERSON: Well, it seems to --

BACON: It's not very reassuring, but it seems to be kind of how Trump likes to govern.

HENDERSON: And, Kaitlan, McMaster, again, talks about him leaving. And you're right, there's been all of this talk about any number of staffers leaving. McMaster seems to be particularly unhappy at this point. What do we expect to see from him?

[12:10:07] COLLINS: Well, we're seeing the president be able to hold on to the people he doesn't necessarily want in those positions, while the people he does want to stay in the White House, like Hope Hicks, are fleeing the scene because it's such a toxic work environment, not just because of the president, but for many other reasons.

But McMaster, we have long reported that he is essentially on his way out. It's never been a question of if, it's always been a question of when is he going to leave.

HENDERSON: At the end of this month is what people are saying now.

COLLINS: And now it seems like it is more imminent than it ever has been because these two men have never gotten along. They brought McMaster into the West Wing because Mike Flynn obviously had to leave. And Trump does not like McMaster, and the feeling is very reciprocated in this relationship.


COLLINS: Because the president doesn't even -- even when they're -- McMaster is briefing the president on something, the president doesn't like the way he briefs him. It chafes him. He doesn't like his demeanor. He thinks he's condescending when the president asks these questions that are not a typical question that a national security adviser would get. And he much prefers someone like the defense secretary, James Mattis, because he's more patient with the president and he'll explain something without, you know, giving off this kind of air, like why did you ask that question?

So that -- this isn't a surprise, but it does seem McMaster is on his way out.

HENDERSON: That McMaster might be out.

COLLINS: They are trying to figure a way of an exit for him. But then if you look at -- over at the Department of Justice, the president and his attorney general can't get along either but the president won't push him out.

HENDERSON: With Sessions pushing back mightily this week. COLLINS: The president won't push him out. Jeff Sessions doesn't --


COLLINS: He seems to be digging his heels in.

HENDERSON: He says, I'm not going anywhere. I mean that's Jeff Sessions (INAUDIBLE).

COLLINS: He's not going anywhere. He's going -- he's essentially daring the president to fire him at this point.

HENDERSON: Yes. Yes, and (INAUDIBLE) Perry --

BACON: (INAUDIBLE) and the next day fire him.

HENDERSON: Yes, we're going to have to -- you're going to wrap it here. But as you said, Perry, the president likes that tag line "you're fired," doesn't really like to follow through.

Up next, President Trump says he wants to fight a trade war. Some of his Republican allies and leaders around the world say he's making a huge mistake. It even sparked rumors that his chief economic adviser was considering leaving the White House.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He didn't want this, to be clear.

PETER NAVARRO, DIRECTOR, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL TRADE COUNCIL: Even the president -- hang on. Now, hang on. We -- I was in a meeting with the president yesterday, in the afternoon. Gary was in great spirits. We have vigorous debates in this White House. The president wants that. And all life is good.



[12:16:16] HENDERSON: President Trump is coming right out and saying it. He wants to launch a trade war. At 6:00 a.m. the president tweeted, when a country is losing many billions of dollars on trade with virtually every country it does business with, trade wars are good and easy to win.

Investors, however, don't really like trade wars. The Dow down over 200 points after yesterday's 400 plus point drop. And Republican lawmakers and big business are absolutely slamming this move.

The normally Trump friendly "Wall Street Journal" editorial page saying that it's the biggest blunder of his presidency. The tax increase will punish American workers, invite retaliation that will harm U.S. experts, divide his political coalition at home, anger allies abroad and undermine his tax and regulatory reform.

Trump's top trade adviser says the criticism is no surprise. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PETER NAVARRO, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL TRADE COUNCIL DIRECTOR: Politicians have come and gone for the last 20 years giving away our wealth to foreign countries for bad trade deals. So the people who are coming out of the woodwork now to criticize the president are the same ones who criticized him during the election. He's just fulfilling the campaign promise of the people in Ohio and Michigan and North Carolina. The people who make things with their hands.


HENDERSON: And, Perry, this is -- he's exactly right, this was President Trump, campaigner Trump's promise, right? This whole idea that America was being ripped off by other countries and he was going to right the ship.

BACON: I'm surprised because I know he campaigned on this, you're right. But most of his agenda and his governing has been very pro-Wall Street. He's -- the tax cuts, rolling back regulation. He's been really praised by Wall Street, by "The Wall Street Journal," as you noted just now. So this was a move that while consistent with his long-time rhetoric is also very disruptive of the economy. And the one thing he talks about all the time is how high the Dow is and now he's risking this one thing that's sort of a central view of his success over a policy that I think he probably could have avoided and therefore avoided the fight here.

HENDERSON: And he's aides, Kaitlan, at this point, are pushing back on the notion, that this is going to harm the economy. You had Wilbur Ross, who was a big proponent of this plan, saying this in terms of expectations that this would change prices.

We'll get to that in a minute.

This is a look at where the price increases could come. Beer -- we all love our beer -- plane tickets, new cars --


HENDERSON: Candy, electronic devices and kitchen appliances.

So how does the White House deal with this blowback, a lot of which has come from Republicans and business friendly places as well?

COLLINS: Well, the president himself doesn't seem to mind the blowback at all. He's not even backing off what happened. He's doubling down on it.


COLLINS: But I should note, that they couldn't even give us details of what these are going to look like because the White House wasn't ready to prepare this --

HENDERSON: Right. COLLINS: To announce this, and the president just did it himself.

But the West Wing is very divided over this because the president here is siding with Peter Navarro and his commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, on these new tariffs. He's going against his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, here, who precisely made this argument to the president. This is a president who often touts his success by saying, look how great the stock market is. Look at this. Gary Cohn said basically -- made this argument to him that if you impose these tariffs, it's going to affect the stock market. And we saw the stock market was rattled yesterday.

So the question is, if the president thinks that when the stock market is up it's an indication of how successful his presidency is going. When the stock market is down, does he also see that as an indication of where that's going?

So it certainly has divided the West Wing. I can't overstate what -- how much chaos was surrounding this decision yesterday and how it was going back and forth and no one knew what was going to happen until the president called those reporters into the room and made this announcement.

HENDERSON: J. Mart., you want to jump in?

MARTIN: It's the -- it's the first time that he's really substantively challenged conservative orthodoxy --

[12:20:04] BACON: Definitely. Yes.


MARTIN: In over a year of being president.

COLLINS: Except for the day before when he was talking about guns. But, yes.

BACON: It was -- it was like a fake (INAUDIBLE) sorry.


MARTIN: Substantively challenged orthodoxy.


MARTIN: Him floating ideas with Diane Feinstein about guns.

HENDERSON: So if he can do something about this medium (ph).

MARTIN: Yes. Exactly.

The big surprise of 2017 is that Trump became a Republican, right? I mean Trump governed as, really, any of the other candidates would have governed, except for his, you know, Twitter feed and his rhetoric, well, you know, obviously different. But the actual substance of what he did, I mean, how many other candidates in 2016 wouldn't have signed that tax bill that Congress put on his desk?

This is actually him saying, I do believe in something that's not party orthodoxy. And, by the way, he's believed in them for 30 plus years.

HENDERSON: Yes, this has been consistent.

MARTIN: The one -- the one sort of, you know, through line of Trump's public views is on protectionism.


MARTIN: America is getting ripped off. He's changed the bad guy over the years, like it was Japan and Korea for a while --

HENDERSON: It was -- it was China. This --

MARTIN: Now it's China. So not surprising in that sense, but it's surprising because he hasn't acted on his impulses in the last year and now he is.


BADE: Yes, that's a great point.

HENDERSON: And, quickly on that -- quickly, I want to --

BADE: People can be horrified, but they can't be surprised by this.



HENDERSON: And the responses here, I'm going to play Ben Sasse. This was the -- to your point --


HENDERSON: About how this is upsetting Republicans.



SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: So this is leftist economic policy and we've tried it a whole bunch of times over the last two centuries. And every time American families have suffered. It's bad policy. I get that the president ran on a bunch of this, but there are a whole bunch of issues where once he got into the White House, he started listening to advisers and he got to positons that are better for the country in the long term.


HENDERSON: Rachael, Republicans don't like this. Some Democrats, like Sherrod Brown, actually do. BADE: Yes, Republicans on The Hill are petrified of this because, like you guys mentioned, there's nothing they can do to stop this. The White House can do this unilaterally.

Sasse called it a job killer. Orrin Hatch, a top Republican in the Senate, said that basically it's a tax hike.

And just to come back to tax reform. You know, Republicans are planning to campaign to keep their control of Congress on tax reform and the economy. Right now they're pointing to, you know, the benefits of tax reforming saying, look, you know, we are trying to help, you know, your bottom line, American voter. However, If this goes through and the prices go up, you know, on beer cans, cars, anything, food prices, this could really have a blowback for them. How are they going to be able to campaign on the economy when there's going to be these price increases?

HENDERSON: But it could, in the short term, help the candidate, the Republican candidate, in that western Pennsylvania district coming up on March 13th. So we'll see. He's already embracing it.

Up next, P)resident Trump has a friendly chat with the NRA. Will it change his tough talking points on guns?


[12:26:54] HENDERSON: Welcome back.

The White House is kind of like a box of chocolates. You never know which president you're going to get. Republicans today hoping it's the Second Amendment loving candidate they elected, not the guy from Wednesday.

Now, that guy sounds like a Manhattan liberal who wants to grab all the guns. To conservatives, Wednesday was their nightmare. The man they fear that Trump really is emerging again.

The president, however, is said to listen to the last person he talks to. And the latest to win an audience with the president, and this was revealed last night in a tweet, good, great meeting in the Oval Office tonight with the NRA. That was the president's tweet.

Rachael, I'm going to go to you on this. Senator Murphy responded to the news that President Trump had a meeting with the NRA. He says, fascinating since I assume the president told them about the support for universal background checks, raising the age for rifle purchases and protective orders he announced on TV yesterday.

What do we know about what the president believes and will push for in terms of gun control?

BADE: Well, not a whole lot because he keeps changing his position, obviously, right? You can't have both. Clearly the president that was in that meeting on Wednesday is different than what we're seeing today in terms of him saying, I'm going to put due process -- or the NRA saying he respects due process. Republicans on The Hill are going to be overjoyed, obviously, from last night's meeting with the NRA.

I talked to Warren Davidson, who is a Republican from Ohio, a conservative, who was telling me, when he was hearing about this meeting, he was getting these angry texts from constituents. He did not believe it. He felt something had to be taken out of context. He asked for the clip of the entire conference, watched it and said he was totally floored.

So Republicans were hoping that, you know, he would not keep this position on this, on guns, and they're seeing him walk it back right now. They're going to be overjoyed on this.

MARTIN: How would they be floored, though? I mean I -- I think there's some degree of play-acting on the part --

HENDERSON: Of Republicans or the president or both?

MARTIN: No. Well, I don't think it's play-acting with the president. I think he just does this because it's what he does and he responds to whoever he's talking to in the moment. But I think like in the House especially, if the Warren Davidsons of the world, who, by the way, has John Boehner's old seat --

BADE: Yes.

MARTIN: In the House, we should note, I just think some of this is them living in a world that like they want to pretend exists. I mean they -- they know that this president isn't a dogmatic conservative. That he does tend to reflect whatever the mood at the moment is.

But I think because their voters like him so much, folks like Warren Davidson, the Freedom Caucus, have to do this sort of shtick where they want to make him more conserve than he actually is, because if you don't live in that -- in that sort of parallel world, then you're kind of slighting your voters that love him, right?

HENDERSON: And you had Sarah --

MARTIN: And it gets awkward --


MARTIN: When he goes on TV and does the whole gun control thing, because it's undeniable, right? It's like -- it's not fake news. It's not some like -- well, the context was awful (ph). It's him saying it on live TV, right?

BADE: No, but they were like -- they we making that argument, though. We talked to other Republicans on The Hill who were not condemning -- those who were not condemning what he said outright. Roy Blunt told us, oh, that was yesterday, today is today, suggesting --

MARTIN: It's incredible. It's incredible.


BADE: And we had another Republican say something along the lines of, President Trump didn't mean what he said yesterday.


BADE: So, I mean, they are making excuses for him saying, oh, he did not (ph).


[12:30:04] But you do have Sarah Sanders and folks in the White House having to go on cleanup duty. Here's what she had to say in terms of where the president is on guns.


SARAH SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Yes, I don't think the NRA has had concerns with this president.