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White House Reels From Repeal Defeat, Advisers' In-Fighting; White House Communications Director Promises Firings To Combat Leaks. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired July 28, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:34] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Poppy Harlow. Breaking overnight, the thumb heard around the world.




HARLOW: The thumb of John McCain, that is, an opposable dagger in Republican efforts to repeal and replace ObamaCare after midnight in dramatic fashion. After being cornered by colleagues, lobbied by the Vice President, called by the President himself, the Senator from Arizona voted no on what could be the Republican's last best chance to overhaul ObamaCare.

He did it with a simple thumbs-down. And that thumb not just casting judgment on health care reform but perhaps on the entire Trump presidency.

BERMAN: Yes, a presidency that seems less focused on policy than personality, a White House consumed with itself, senior advisers hurling f-bombs at each other. And one adviser is saying that another likes to blank his own blank, and we don't even know if Steve Bannon can touch his own toes.

All this as the Republican agenda withers in the shadows. The silent thumb of John McCain speaking volumes about all of that. This is a huge moment for health care and the presidency. As we speak, House Republicans are meeting right now to try to figure out what to do next.

We got a lot to cover. Let us begin with CNN's Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill where he's been for the last 72 hours straight. Phil, what's going on right now?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Look, it's interesting you note that House Republicans are meeting right now, guys, because that meeting was supposed to be about health care and the next steps and the potential vote later today to go to conference with the bill the Senate was supposed to pass but did not.

And if you want to get kind of a sense of how dramatic last night was, there were audible gasps in the Senate chamber when Senator McCain voted no. Now, guys, it's worth noting, there was some sense going on in the hours leading up to it that he was certainly not quite a yes yet but the willingness to do that, the willingness particularly after Republican leaders had been lobbying him furiously, had been trying every which way possible to get him on board.

As you noted, Vice President Mike Pence was on hand to be the tie- breaking vote if McCain voted yes. At one point, pulled him off to the side outside the chamber. I'm told he was lobbying him for about 20 minutes, trying to walk him through the process of how this would all work.

At one point, the President called the Vice President, who then handed the phone to Senator McCain. President Trump trying to lobby Senator McCain. Nothing working. McCain joining Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins. Three no votes, enough to sink this effort.

Now, why did McCain actually do this? And you just got a lot of theories running around, but I want to read you at least latter half of his statement that underscores kind of his key complaint that we heard throughout the day.

And it says: the Speaker's statement that the House would be willing to go to conference does not ease my concern that this shell of a bill could be taken up and passed at any time.

Now, here's what he's -- if you guys think back, 12 hours ago -- it seems like about seven days ago at this point -- Senate Republicans had pared back their process. They hadn't been able to pass anything at all. What they were doing was a bare bones effort to just get the process into conference.

A lot of senators, not just Senator John McCain, made very clear they were uncomfortable with the possibility that the House would just end up passing that bare bones bill, only taking away some of the mandates with major repercussions to insurance markets.

The Speaker put out a statement saying he was willing to go to conference. The Speaker had personal phone calls with senators saying that they're willing to go to conference. That wasn't enough in the end.

Now, obviously the President has some skin in this game. He responded shortly after the vote with a tweet saying: three Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I said from the beginning, let ObamaCare implode. Then deal. Watch.

Obviously, a major legislative loss for him, as you guys had pointed out, but I just want to add some context here because I think it's important and you guys know this well. But in the U.S. Senate, the idea that a majority leader would be putting a bill on the floor that would eventually fail is almost an anathema. The idea that he would be putting the bill on the floor that

Republicans have campaigned on for seven years that is responsible for their majorities in the House, the Senate, at least partially responsible for the man who is currently sitting in the White House, and have it fail by just one vote in this dramatic moment that nobody was totally sure was actually coming, it was surreal.

You can't kind of even overstate the drama that was actually there. The big question now, guys, is what comes next. I was talking to a member who is about to head to the House Republican conference now, and he said, we thought this was going to be about health care. Now, apparently, it's just a happy August conversation.

Recess is coming. We'll see what comes next on health care, guys.

BERMAN: Not sure how much of a happy August it really is. High drama, high stakes, and high impact with this, Phil. I mean, this really matters a lot.

[09:05:05] Thank you so much for your reporting. Great reporting all night.

Joining us now, CNN Political Analyst Alex Burns and Abby Phillip, Christine Romans, CNN's chief business correspondent, and CNN Senior Political Reporter Nia-Malika Henderson.

Nia, I want to start with you. Just wow! I mean, wow! This is after seven years, you know, of efforts from the Republicans to repeal and replace ObamaCare. It ended last night with John McCain's thumb. I mean, this, is it just about health care being hard to fix?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, in some ways, yes. I mean -- and I think it's also about this repeal and replace, right?

I mean, it was a great slogan, but when it came down to the real details, when it came down to making a policy argument about how they could do this, how could they -- how they could deliver on their promises to lower premiums and to deal with some of the Medicaid problems and issues in expansions that were certainly of concern to these senators who are in those states that expanded Medicaid, they couldn't bridge the divide.

I mean, it's really about, could you craft a bill that Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Rand Paul like, right? And John McCain. And in the end, they ended up not being able to do that.

As Phil said, you know, you know, this was great for them as a slogan, and you could see some of that slogan airing even in the end, this idea that this final bill was the Freedom Act or whatever it was, I mean. And in the end, they wanted to be free of this bill in so many ways and that's exactly what ended up happening.

HARLOW: Alex, the President isn't happy, but he could have done a whole lot more. A big part of this is on the President, is it not? And as you noted on Twitter, his final message, his final sale on this one, was my Attorney General is terrible.

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Right. Over the last week, Poppy, you've really not heard a big aggressive pointed public sales pitch from the White House to the country about why this is important. You saw a lot of private lobbying of senators, of governors, by administration officials like Vice President Pence, like Secretary Tom Price.

But this would have been an unprecedented event if the Senate had passed and the House passed as well a piece of legislation transforming a major social program and a huge slice of the American economy without any sustained effort to explain to the public what was in it and why they should support it as well.

And as you mentioned, over the last week, the White House has been clearly far more consumed in terms of what ordinary people are hearing from them with staff drama than with health care.

BERMAN: You know, Abby, let's reflect for a moment on John McCain, right, and the sort of the endnote to a dramatic week for him. You know, he flew black, you know, and allowed debate to begin to the chagrin of Democrats, to the delight of Republicans. And then, last night, he gives a thumb down to the, you know, chagrin of Republicans and to the delight of Democrats here. What is this moment for him?

ABBY PHILLIP, WASHINGTON, D.C. REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, it is sort of an opportunity for him that's borne out of circumstances, on really unfortunate circumstances.

But in this case, this is a senator who has spent his lifetime essentially in this chamber. He isn't afraid of the President or the Vice President. He doesn't really have anyone to answer to at this stage. And he was a little bit more free to make a decision that would have put him on the other side of Senate Republican leadership.

At the same time, this is John McCain. He's known for being a maverick but he is also a party guy. He's a party guy that went along with the process of opening up debate on this, which many people believed was essentially naive because the process would have been closed and not -- would not have included Democrats as he wanted it to.

So it's a little bit of a contrast here. The party guy who allowed the vote to go forward, and the maverick who, essentially, on his kind of -- as his daughter put it, in the winter of his life, putting out --

HARLOW: Right.

PHILLIP: -- giving an opportunity for this bill to go in a completely different direction and putting a thumb in the eye of this President and of senate leadership.

HARLOW: Yes. McConnell, you know, it seemed, wanted him to come back, of course, to have their colleague back with them but also because he was going to be a yes on motion to proceed. BERMAN: Right.

HARLOW: And then, now, look at how he voted. Christine, ObamaCare, this morning is the law of the land.


HARLOW: It will remain that way until --

ROMANS: It is.

HARLOW: -- or if something changes, so what does it mean for American people?

ROMANS: And open enrollment is just in three months, so this administration has to decide whether they want to beef up the advertising and the roll out for open enrollment.

They have to decide how the IRS is going to handle the next tax season, whether people will be fined for not having -- there still is a law in place here that has several government agencies, federal agencies, that are responsible for rolling it out, and it's wounded.

This law is wounded, no question. You've got -- I can show you a picture of the states with counties with only one insurer. And that is expected to increase. There are three states that have counties with no insurers at all. That's 25,000 people who don't have access to the ObamaCare markets right now because of the insurance problems and the companies that are dropping out and premiums are rising.

[09:09:56] So, fix it or forget it. That's the question for Congress and for Washington right now and for this White House. They do have incredible leverage at HHS, at the IRS, you know, to decide that they want to fix it or at least hold it together so it doesn't implode.

BERMAN: You know, we're going to have both Democratic and Republican lawmakers on. We're going to ask them, what now? You know, this is on you. What are you going to do about this now?

Nia, I want to take a step back and reflect on, really, the last 24 hours here and sort of the metaphorical thumbs-down that John McCain just gave not just to health care but, in a way, the presidency. You know, saying, I'm going to block right now your signature only, you know, legislative initiative that's out there right now.

Yesterday, we had the Boy Scouts of America saying, you know, we didn't like your speech, your political speech. We have the military saying we're not going to implement your transgender policy. And you have a lot of senators saying we're not going to let you fire Jeff Sessions.

This is a whole lot of people, institutional people including people of his own party, saying you are not doing this right, Mr. President.

HENDERSON: Yes. It's interesting because early on in the week, even before the health care bill went down, I was texting with a Republican. I was like, you know, this seems to be sort of a different kind of week, and we've seen from this President difficult weeks before.

But I was talking to this Republican, and they were saying this seems like it might be the worst week of this presidency so far because there was failure on so many different levels. I mean, even a rebuke from conservatives, right, who were upset at his treatment of Jeff Sessions.

Scaramucci's first week has not gone well. It's gone disastrously. So --

BERMAN: You think?

HENDERSON: Yes, I'm going to say that. I'm going to say that, and we'll see what happens with him. But you're right. I mean, there was this rebuke from all levels. And Republicans, who we hadn't seen before, basically putting a red -- you know, a line in the sand in terms of what this President had been doing.

And I think, you know, this -- we'll see what happens. We'll see if there are any further shake-ups in this White House, if they sort of get the message. But it really was an extraordinary week for this presidency in terms of blowback from so many different corners and people you would think would be supportive of this presidency, right?

People from the military. Obviously, the Boy Scouts, a very traditional organization, having to send out a letter essentially saying, you know, we didn't agree with what the President said in front of those 40,000 boy scouts. So really extraordinary week, and we'll see in anything changes, if the President kind of gets the message that this didn't go well.

HARLOW: All right. Thank you very much, all of you, Alex Burns, Abby Phillip, Christine Romans, Nia-Malika Henderson.

BERMAN: It is interesting. The President hasn't, you know, put anything out. No statements yet this morning --

HARLOW: What do you say?

BERMAN: -- either out loud or in the 140 characters he like to us.

HARLOW: Maybe he's speechless? I don't know.

BERMAN: Doubt that. We will see.

HARLOW: A lot ahead for us this Friday. Sorry, not sorry. The White House chief of communications calls the Chief of Staff a, quote, a paranoid schizophrenic. And that, folks, is the only part we can say on television. And today, no apologies for what he said. No reaction from the President on that whole tirade, at least not yet.

BERMAN: All right. And no regrets. Jeff Sessions says he made the right choice recusing himself from the Russia investigation. Wonder what the President thinks about that. And some really important news about sanctions overnight. Russia

punches back. These are on sanctions the President has yet to even sign. Will he sign them? American diplomats kicked out of Russia. We'll give you the latest, next.



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, all eyes once again on the White House for potential new eruption of anger over Republican's stunning overnight failure to repeal Obamacare.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So far, the president has been silent, but this caps a tumultuous week inside the west wing as it broils with growing Republican defiance, presidential insults and this verbal knife fight between two of his top advisors. I suppose we should warn you viewer discretion is advised.

CNN's Athena Jones at the White House with the very latest -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, John. Well, I'm not going to repeat some of the profanity you're talking about from Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci directed at Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and another of the president's top advisors, Steve Bannon, but that has been getting a lot of attention along with the failure of this health care repeal.

Let's talk about that first. We know this went down overnight. The only response we've seen from the White House so far is a tweet in the early morning hours about 2:25 a.m. from the president not long after that bill went down when he tweeted "Three Republicans and 48 Democrats let the American people down. As I've said from the beginning, let Obamacare implode then deal. Watch."

So clearly that tweet showing the president is not going to change his strategy of publicly blaming and shaming his fellow Republicans, who stood in the way of getting this go through.

Of course, we've been talking about this all morning. This is a huge blow to the president and White House. They are still struggling to show that they can get things done legislatively six months into the job.

When it comes to the Scaramucci matter. What's so interesting here is that it's really, really uncommon, we can't highlight this enough, to see such a public display of animosity coming from a communications director to other senior members of the White House staff.

He repeatedly used the "f" word in a phone call with "The New Yorker's" Ryan Lizza in talking about Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. He used other vulgar terminology we can't say on tv to refer to Bannon.

You know, Scaramucci himself later tweeted, it's not an apology, but just saying, you know, he uses colorful language. He will refrain from doing that in this arena, but will remain passionate about pushing the president's agenda.

Asked about this last night, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the incoming press secretary said he's using colorful language. I don't anticipate he'll do it again. But she has also talked about how the president, President Trump encourages competition.

She said healthy competition, which he believes can get results. But so far, this infighting is proving to be much more of a distraction. And when it comes to the disruption of Washington, that the president and his team promised, this idea coming in with a better way of doing things, the only disruption we're seeing so far is here at the White House.

[09:20:07] It looks like it's standing in the way of him getting his agenda through.

HARLOW: Getting anything through. Athena Jones, thank you.

So as Athena just said, Scaramucci is certainly making the headlines. He's on a hole hunt as well. The new White House communication director one week in promising to fire everyone until the White House leaks are plugged.

Joining us now, Ned Ryan, former speech writer for President George W. Bush and CEO at American Majority, and Alex Conant, former communications director for Marco Rubio and former White House and Republican National Committee spokesman.

Nice to have you both here. Alex, you wrote a piece about this just yesterday, and you said look, these leaks -- you can fire everyone. These leaks are not going to stop because one key thing is missing in the White House. And that is?

ALEX CONANT, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, MARCO RUBIO FOR PRESIDENT: Unity. You have all these different factions in the White House, who feel empowered to leak against each other because they are trying to seek advantage.

Look, this is a cultural problem at the White House. There is no unity. There is no loyalty and there's no self-discipline and it starts at the top. When you see the president attack members of his cabinet and undermine his own staff, then they are not going to be loyal to him.

There's no such thing as blind loyalty in politics. It's a two-way street. Same thing with self-discipline. The president gives off- the-record interviews to reporters all the time where he says more than he should. The staff knows that and they follow his lead.

BERMAN: You know, Anthony Scaramucci himself says a fish rots from his head, but there are two fishes he says that don't smell, the president and Anthony Scaramucci. That is according to Anthony Scaramucci.

HARLOW: True quote. BERMAN: I'm not making this up. Ned, you know, where does this lead the White House right now? (Inaudible) suggesting this morning that maybe Anthony Scaramucci will try to step away from the spot light a little bit. Maybe a good idea. What do you think happens now inside the west wing?

NED RYAN, FORMER SPEECHWRITER FOR PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, first of all, I want to agree with Alex and say everybody that works inside the west wing and the White House serves at the pleasure of the president and should be putting his priorities first, not their own.

So, you know, my hope is that moving forward senior officials inside the White House would ask themselves before they speak to anybody outside of the White House whether it's press or anything else is what I am about to say in the best interest of the president and his agenda. If it's not, you don't say it.

And if you're driven by personal motivations and not the president, maybe it's time that you leave. But I will say this about Scaramucci really quickly. He is right about the leaks. The White House leaks have to stop and the interagency leaks have to stop as well.

And as we're looking at are there potential shake-ups coming, my hope would be if there is going to be a twitching up of the team, if you will, I hope it happens sooner rather than later because again, this is distracting from some very positive narratives for the White House -- by the way, yesterday -- story that they stepped on the GPS testimony -- all of these things.

HARLOW: Hold on.

RYAN: They just need to get out of their way.

HARLOW: How can the guy who is saying he's going to fire everyone for the leaks, you know, lie detector tests, all of it, how can he say that effectively and have it happen, when he is leaking all of this other stuff and when he is saying Reince is on his way out and saying what he said about Reince and Steve Bannon.

BERMAN: Blank his own blank.

HARLOW: You said it, not me.

RYAN: This is why I'm encouraging all senior officials inside the west wing in the White House to ask themselves is this a benefit to the agenda of the president. Take it internally, have these conversations.

The thing that's amazing about this, first of all, having tension inside a west wing is not unusual. Having it litigated in this public manner is. Take it internally, have these conversations, deal swiftly with this, move on, focus on the agenda.

BERMAN: You know, it's not usual. It is also detrimental. As Poppy points out, there's an enormous pot kettle problem here with Anthony Scaramucci and the issue of leaking. You run occasionally in circles within the Republican establishment here.

Reince Priebus, you know, what's his future? You know, CNN has great reporting overnight from a whole team of people where one person close to the president called Reince Priebus the worst chief of staff we've seen in 25 years.

CONANT: Well, look, I think there's plenty of finger pointing to go around inside the west wing as to why there's so much dysfunction. Ultimately the buck stops at the president's desk and the president has not instilled a common purpose amongst his staff that is any bigger than defending his own reputation.

That is the simple truth. What is the purpose of the Trump administration and does everyone in the west wing agree that that is their purpose there? And that what they're working towards together? That's not happened to date. I think that's why you see all these different factions.

They just don't share a common vision inside that west wing and the president likes it that way. He likes to have people within his orbit feuding with each other. The problem is that leads to high dysfunction as we've seen over the last couple of months in the White House.

They need to unite and they need to show more loyalty and self- discipline as I wrote in my piece in "Politico."

[09:25:01] HARLOW: I think they need to do some trust falls together. Actually (inaudible) go away for a weekend.

BERMAN: Can you imagine this group on a retreat.

HARLOW: No, but I'll go cover it. Newt Gingrich really quickly, Ned, called this a soap opera on Fox News. He's been a big proponent for the president. Really, joking aside, what does it mean for the American people who were relying and betting their livelihood on this administration?

RYAN: Well, again, I want to encourage them. Let's get past the drama. Take it inside, deal with this. Again, tension's not unusual. Take it inside. Don't litigate this in public. Make any changes that have to happen make them quickly and go and focus on the agenda.

There are a lot of good things happening. Again, we want to talk about the soap opera and we are not able to talk about the $10 billion into Wisconsin with Foxconn. We are not able to talk about it. Take this inside, have it inside the west wing. Stop litigating this in the public.

BERMAN: You know, we are not talking about Foxconn, but you know, -- we're also not necessarily talking about health care success because it failed overnight and maybe there is some linkage there. Ned Ryan, Alex Conant, thank you so much for this discussion. No swear words were spoken here. Small moral victory.

HARLOW: Quite an achievement. BERMAN: The president has not even signed off on the new Russia sanctions, but this morning the kremlin is fighting back. New developments you want to hear. Stay with us.