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Pennsylvania Democrat Conor Lamb Claims Victory in District Trump Won by 20 Points; UK Expels 23 Russian Diplomats After Nerve Agent Attack; Trump Signals Wider Senior Staff Shake-Up Is Coming. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired March 14, 2018 - 09:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

Kaboom. A not-so-dramatic reenactment of the political explosion that went off overnight. A Democrat is poised to win a special election in a congressional district that Donald Trump carried by 20 points. A district where no Democrat even bothered to run the last two elections. A district no Democrat really even has any business coming close in.

It's not official yet but Conor Lamb leads Rick Saccone by 641 votes. Saccone has yet to concede but the message is loud and clear. Democrats can compete in more places than they have in years and have a real shot to win the House next fall.

This morning one Republican called it a political earthquake and it is safe to say the party is shaken to its core, that is, C-O-R-E. Inside joke.

CNN's Alexander Marquardt in Canonsburg, outside Pittsburgh.

Alex, where are we this morning?

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, razor thin margins. 641 votes separating these two candidates as you mentioned. That is just .2 percent. Now there are more votes to be counted. All of the votes are in. The results, of course, are not official. Conor Lamb has claimed victory, but we have been speaking with the Saccone campaign. They say that they're not conceding, they're not making any decisions until all of the votes are in.

Now there is no official recount in congressional races in Pennsylvania, but there is legal recourse for the Saccone campaign. If they feel that it's too close, they can petition for a recount. So what's going on now -- I just spoke with a campaign spokesman -- is that they're speaking with lawyers who came in from Washington, who are from RNC and from campaign wing of the Republican Party, the NRCC. So they are going through what options they have, and that will inform the decision that they eventually make.

Now, if this result becomes official, likely later today, it will be absolutely stunning. For the reasons that you mentioned, because of the history in this district, because of the -- of its overwhelming Republican nature in the last few races, but on top of that, just the staggering amount of money that was spent here. $10.7 million spent by outside conservative groups on the Rick Saccone campaign.

And this is how Conor Lamb explained what he says is his victory to "NEW DAY" earlier this morning.


CONOR LAMB (D), PENNSYLVANIA HOUSE CANDIDATE: I describe myself as a Pennsylvania Democrat, looking to get things done and especially to be for and represent working people. And so that's part of a long tradition here. I think people basically understand what it means, and it means that we will work with the other side if that's what it takes to bring jobs here, protect our people. And that seems to be what most people want around here.


MARQUARDT: Now, John, Conor Lamb may be taking that message back on the campaign trail. This is a hugely important election. But it's largely symbolic. Here in Pennsylvania, the state Supreme Court has decided that the congressional district map was too gerrymandered in favor of Republicans, so they redrew it. So if these two gentlemen, Conor Lamb and Rick Saccone want to run again in November during the midterms, they will likely be running in two different districts, and, John, could actually end up serving in Congress alongside each other.

BERMAN: So they could have more time together, just what they want.

Alex Marquardt for us in Canonsburg. Alex, thank you so much.

Let's discuss this. I'm joined by CNN political reporter Rebecca Berg, CNN political commentator Mary Katharine Ham and CNN contributor Bianna Golodryga.

And, guys, look, it's not official yet. It's a 641-vote margin. They haven't declared the race over yet but I cannot stress enough how not close this should have been. Let me just put up the figures once again so everyone can see them.

Donald Trump won this district by more than 20 points. That's not the one I want. Donald Trump won this seat by more than 20 points in 2016. You know, Tim Murphy, who was the Republican who held this seat, was not even opposed the last two elections. Mitt Romney won by 17 points when he ran here.

So, Rebecca, what happened?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Republicans, John, are saying that it was just a bad candidate who didn't fit the district, who didn't run a good campaign. He didn't raise enough money, he didn't define himself, he didn't define his opponent. And that's the message we're going to be hearing -- what we won't be hearing but Republicans will be hearing in a closed meeting later today from NRCC chairman Steve Stivers, I'm told by a source familiar with his planned remarks.

But at the same time, John, the real story here is Donald Trump's drag on Republicans up and down the ballot. If Donald Trump were a more popular president, it's likely we wouldn't have seen this happen. And so what we learned from this race or what we're continuing to learn from this race is that Republicans with their anti-Pelosi message, with their pro-tax reform message were not able to overcome Donald Trump's drag on Republican candidates, and so that's why we see what we're seeing now, a Democrat winning a race where a Democrat shouldn't even have been competitive.

[09:05:04] BERMAN: Yes, as we speak, Steve Stivers, who is the chair of the National Republican Congressional Campaign committee, Mary Katharine, is meeting with Republican House members and telling them be afraid, get your acts together. And look, he's saying yes, Rick Saccone was not the best candidate of all, but he's saying we've got to take this very, very seriously.

And the Cook Political report says there are 47 districts where Republicans are as vulnerable as Saccone because obviously, you know.


BERMAN: So what does this mean?

HAM: Yes, I mean --

BERMAN: What should Republicans be thinking this morning?

HAM: They may be counting their lucky stars that the bomb went off now so that they can start thinking about this because it is hard to ignore.

Look, you can over interpret special elections. It's our job. But you cannot -- I think you can't ignore the fact that every special election even in Trump's supportive areas have had the same swing toward Democratic enthusiasm and away from Republicans. And that matters. If that is the dynamic on the board, then that's what November is going to look like. And they have to localize raises, they have to prepare themselves from

this and they have to separate themselves from Trump if that is what's called for in their districts.

I will say a note of caution for both parties, for Republicans, one, that yes, there are many more districts that are more competitive than this one or at least as competitive as this one. And two, for Democrats, it is important to note that Conor Lamb was an extremely good candidate. I think Rick Saccone was not as bad as they're going to talk about him being.

Conor Lamb was an extremely good candidate. He was picked by committee, not by primary. Progressive voters in Democratic primaries are not going to make the same decisions.

BERMAN: Right. HAM: In picking a Pennsylvania Democrat. It's old model of moderate

Democrat. And so that is where they will lose some competiveness in these seats despite their enthusiasm.

BERMAN: I will say, though, Conor Lamb is no unicorn. Right? Seth Moulton and other congressional Democrats have been recruiting veterans, you know, people who have the same type of resume, both men and women as Conor Lamb. They may not be able to prevail every time in Democratic races where there are primaries, but he won't be the only one just like that.

HAM: He won't be the only one. But progressives are demanding other things on the ground often.

BERMAN: Yes. Often, yes, the wings of both parties often pull their candidates in those directions.

Bianna, we did hear from Conor Lamb earlier this morning. The issue is, you know, is Donald Trump -- is the president a drag on Republican candidates? Listen to how Conor Lamb, maybe the next Democratic congressman from this district, how he sees it.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Do you think it says something about Donald Trump?

LAMB: Not really, other than to say that there are plenty of people here who are still pretty supportive of him from what I can tell. I think that his visits -- he came here twice. I think they probably did contribute to the turnout that we saw.


BERMAN: So it's interesting, Conor Lamb is willing to give the president a little bit of credit for helping turn out some of the voters who helped maybe make it closer for Rick Saccone. That makes a more about how Conor Lamb chose to run the last couple of months, which is he didn't really bother going after President Trump. Is that a model that some Democrats should use?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I think a lot more Democrats will be looking at this model. That's for sure. Mary Katharine was right, it does come down to the candidate and who they are, and he was a good candidate. And he from the get-go said he was running on local issues, that he was sort of ignoring the noise coming out of Washington. His opponent was doing just the opposite.

And you think about what Paul Ryan was even saying last year before the tax bill had been passed when he said, listen, I told everybody to focus on their own constituents and run locally, ignore what's coming out of Washington as much as you can. We saw suburban voters really come out, some that have voted -- many that have voted for President Trump now come out and vote for the Democratic candidate.

And you're going to possibly see more Republicans now coming out and announcing their retirement. And that is something that Democrats really are hoping for going forward. Especially given the amount of money that Republicans put into this race, and I don't care what the president said, trying to hedge his bets, you know, saying reportedly this is about candidates. He did go out and stump for him.

BERMAN: Look, Democrats do hope this leads to more Republican retirements. I have talked to people, Republicans on the inside, and they say there aren't many more Republicans who could even retire if they wanted to because so many have already run to the doors. So we'll see if that happens.

We have a graphic that is in the "New York Times" which is interesting and it gets to something Bianna was just talking about right now. It shows every precinct -- most of the precincts in this district, Pennsylvania 18. The blue marks are where the vote shifted Democratic from the last election. The red marks which you can't see because there are hardly any, are where shifted more Republican.

So, Rebecca, I mean, the shift here was universal. You know, in Democratic districts, in Democratic precincts, even more Democratic. In Republicans precincts, more Democratic as well. Suburban voters and rural voters starting to move.

BERG: Absolutely. And that was the only way that Connor Lamb was going to have a chance to win this district which went of course by 20 points for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. But the underlying factors here should really scare Republicans, John, because you have not only suburban voters energized for Democrats, just incredible energy on the Democratic side in a special election.

[09:10:06] But also some of these blue-collar voters who might have identified as Democrats before but in 2016 switched their vote to support Donald Trump. Those voters, some of them went back to the Democratic side, said, you know, voting for Trump was a one-time thing, but I'm not necessarily going to support a Republican who supports Trump's agenda, in part because of Trump's own unpopularity. So those factors really should be disturbing for Republicans looking ahead to November 2018.

HAM: Yes, I --

BERMAN: So, Mary Katharine -- go ahead. Well, let me ask the question.

HAM: Yes.

BERMAN: You can answer however you want. The question is, our friend Jason Miller has been on TV saying one of the issues is Rick Saccone wasn't Trumpy enough. He should have been even Trumpier in how he ran for this congressional district. But, look, the president campaigned in this district twice. I think his sons went twice, the vice president went. They spent a ton of money in there. I'm not sure how much more Trumpy you can be other than --

HAM: Well --

BERMAN: I mean --


HAM: Well, and Roy Moore -- Roy Moore out-Trumped Trump in Trump land. Like I'm -- you know, it only has so much appeal. And often that appeal is for Trump himself and not for everyone else. I think Rebecca's point is really important. And this is -- Trump is a populist, he's not a partisan, he's not an ideologue. And so when people crossed over for him, it was highly likely if you give them a Conor Lamb and more moderate Democrats that they might cross back.

So that is something that Republicans have to worry about. And then those who were truly devoted to Trump, this is the line they have to walk, where they have to not distance themselves from him too much because they might lose some of that enthusiasm on the other side which I'm sure is part of this story as well. It's a tight wire act here. And the Republican Party is not famed for being that delicate of these things.

GOLODRYGA: It's a tight wire act that only it appears a few people can pull off, including the president. I mean, I don't think it helped Rick Saccone to come out and say that Democratic voters don't love their country and they don't love America and they don't love God because they chose to vote for a Democrat. I think history will say that's probably not the way to appeal to new voters.

BERMAN: Right. Attacking voters never a good thing. A lesson both Democrats and Republicans have learned over time.

All right, guys, stand by. We have a lot more to talk about. We do have breaking news out of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister Theresa May has expelled 23 Russian diplomats after that nerve gas attack against a former double agent that happened on British soil.

Let's get these breaking details from Nick Paton Walsh live in London.

Nick, what have you learned?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, those 23 Russian diplomats, a pretty big chunk of an embassy, we think about 60 diplomats in total, they've got a week to leave. They're accused of undeclared espionage activity.

Now this is one of a number of measures Theresa May laid out. Another key one, they'll cut off high-level contacts between the UK and Russia moving forward. That's canceling a Foreign minister's visit here to the UK and meaning that no members of the royal family or senior British politicians will go to the World Cup in Russia later this year.

Assets will be targeted here of the Russian state if they're shown to be of use in doing harm to UK citizens here and potentially further sanctions related to human rights.

Now the full scope of the detail here is what's important because some of these things frankly could be reciprocated by Russia and potentially cancel each other out. But Theresa May very clear that the response so far from Russia, quote, "has been sarcasm." And therefore that leaves them with little choice but to presume that Russia is culpable for the use -- a recap here -- of a nerve attack Novichok on Sergei and Yulia Skripal, a former Russian spy and his daughter who were found last Sunday on a park bench in the rural city of Salisbury, losing consciousness.

It's sparked an international incident and in fact later on today the UK will convene an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council in which they will brief them on this particular incident. So important, though Russia has a veto there, but still this is a pretty substantial move by the UK. The question is, does Russia match it and does it really begin to make those in Moscow feel the bite?

Back to you.

BERMAN: It is a major development. We will see if Russia decides to brush it off over the coming hours.

Nick Paton Walsh, thanks so much for being with us.

This morning members of the White House staff and Cabinet might be glued to Twitter. Why? To find out if they've been fired. The president signaling a wider staff shakeup coming soon so who is next?

Plus nationwide protests already under way. These are live pictures from Cherry Hill, New Jersey, just the start. Thousands and thousands of students walking out of school this morning to honor the 16 people killed exactly one month ago in Parkland, Florida. We're on it.



BERMAN: So, when it comes to the next round of presidential hirings and firings, make that firings and replacements, the question this morning isn't if but who and when, and for that matter, how? It seems certain that Rex Tillerson will not be the last cabinet member or top administration official to leave.

CNN's Abby Phillip live at the White House for us with the very latest. Who is next, Abby?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it could be any number of people, John. The president seemed to signal that he was eager to get rid of some folks who he thinks don't quite fit what he wants in his cabinet right at this moment.

And it seems that on the top of the list based on our reporting here at CNN could be the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, who very much like Rex Tillerson has not always had the easiest relationship with President Trump.

You know, according to our reporting, there are people being talked to about coming in and doing that job including John Bolton, someone who's been close to the president in the past. But then there are also a series of cabinet secretaries who have been getting these really terrible headlines that have irritated the president and bothered some White House advisers.

You just saw on that graphic there several of them, the VA Secretary David Shulkin, Ben Carson who has been accused of misspending federal funds on some furniture in his office and several others, Pruitt over at the EPA, have been garnering these negative headlines that have really bothered President Trump.

[09:20:05] It's still an open question whether any of those people could be on the chopping block. But certainly, the president seems frustrated that, in addition to all the things that he is battling in his presidency, that his cabinet secretaries are doing the opposite of helping here. They are garnering their own negative headlines.

We have also learned, John, that the president is thinking about David Shulkin and some of the controversies over at the VA and he's thought about another of his own cabinet secretaries, Rick Perry, who is heading up the Energy Department to potentially replace Shulkin.

So, there could be this really sense of musical chairs here in the president's cabinet where he's already replaced Rex Tillerson with his current CIA director. He's moving up the deputy CIA director into the top post there.

And this morning on Twitter, he's been complaining about the pace of confirmations for his nominees for these open cabinet positions and open administration positions. You know, he's blaming Democrats for stalling hundreds of nominees.

And now he has two more people awaiting confirmation, Mike Pompeo now needs to be confirmed as the secretary of state and his deputy, Gina Haspel needs to be confirmed as the CIA director.

There are a lot of people waiting for jobs and the president is now signaling that there could be even more coming down the pike. This could be happening as soon as this week. But, you know, other sources have said it could take weeks. You never know when President Trump changes his mind about what direction he wants to go in and how quickly he wants to move on some of these departures -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Abby Phillip for us live at the White House. In musical chairs, the question always is when will the music stop? Will when these moves come?

All right. My panel is back with me. Guys, before I talk about the administration shakeup, let me give you one piece of breaking news on Pennsylvania. Our Manu Raju is hearing from an official from inside the National Republican Campaign Committee who says they're not ruling out asking for a recount in Pennsylvania 18.

They said they heard reports, anecdotal reports of miscalibrations on some voting machines, information about lines at some polling places and also some issues with absentees. They are not ruling it out. They are not saying they are doing it. I just wanted to put that out there. It may be some time before this election is decided conclusively. However, I do not think the political implications change so much either way. Now, to the issue of the cabinet and the White House staff, Bianna, the president says I'm really at a point where we're getting close to having the cabinet and other things I want.

GOLODRYGA: Yes. So bizarre. I mean, 14 months in. Look, the president is at liberty to appoint anybody who he wants. You can make the argument that given all of the headlines and the warnings that we've had for months about Rex Tillerson's departure, why did he not submit his own letter of resignation?

He was a businessman. I'm sure any of his subordinates that had called him a moron probably would have done the same. Having said that, there's something so undiplomatic about firing your top diplomat the way you do, and not just from a personal level.

You know, he didn't garner much sympathy within the State Department. He expelled many people within the State Department and gutted it and cut its funding, but it's incredible that this president is able to garner so much sympathy from many people who for the most part were not very sympathetic at cabinet members.

But from a larger perspective, when you look at the stakes right now going into the North Korea negotiations, you have diplomats from around the world not knowing which American official has the president's ear, who is speaking for the president.

And it's not as if Rex Tillerson was speaking so out of line with traditional U.S. values when it came to politics and geopolitics worldwide. So, it may be more confusing shorter and long-termer term for some of our closer allies and adversaries.

BERMAN: They didn't think Rex Tillerson was speaking for the president. I think they had a pretty clear view that he wasn't. The question now is there's no one speaking it all. It could take over a month, a month and a half, two months to confirm Mike Pompeo.

Who knows? The idea that is a break up tweet not even a break up text adds to the notion of chaos in this White House. Jonathan Karl, terrific reporter at ABC has sources telling him that the way they look at this is not that the president has lost control, it's that he's taking controlled and running things the way he wants now, Mary Katherine. I wonder what the implications of that may be?

HAM: Look, I think some of that may be true. I think some of the first picks, like a Reince Priebus's chief of staff were off-brand for him and trying to make this fit with his new look and this new presidency and sort of marry himself with the GOP. Some of that didn't work out.

I think actually Pompeo will likely be more compatible with him than Rex Tillerson was. He may hear things about Russia better from someone he likes personally like a Pompeo than he did from Rex Tillerson. So, I think that matters. But this part where you can't even call somebody, I just have a personal issue with that. I think it's very classless. This is like the online dating app of White Houses. There's a lot of fire, meeting a lot of people. There's not a lot of vetting at the beginning.

[09:25:10] No thought to compatibility and at the end you get a text or get ghosted. Like that is not a great way of doing business and certainly in running the administration you want some consistency. I'm happy for him to change, especially if the changes mean more compatible with him that does have a bit more running time, but this is not the way to do it.

BERMAN: Look, it's not the way to behave in a high school relationship let alone a business or presidential administration. Rebecca, some people are looking at the departure of Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo much more in line with the president's thinking, and saying, the White House, the administration is losing one of the sources of restraint.

You know, Rex Tillerson was a force along with Mattis and maybe McMaster who kept the president in line. Does anyone really restrain Donald Trump from doing what he wants to do? Do we have any evidence of that really at this point?

BERG: I guess it's all relatively speaking here, John. I mean, no one can restrain Donald Trump, no one has taken away his Twitter. No one has changed who he is. But they can pick their battles strategically and try to work within the Donald Trump mold as much as possible.

And so what you were referencing, Senator Bob Corker acknowledged last year, he said that former Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and also Chief of Staff John Kelly were the only people in this administration who were separating it and the country from chaos. So now we're down one of those people.

Of course, that's Bob Corker's view, but he is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Obviously has a great deal of a stake in this. So, there is this question of will Pompeo try to control Trump at all?

The answer is probably no because they are so simpatico. They see eye to eye. He's probably not going to get as much pushback, Donald Trump, as he would have from someone like Rex Tillerson.

BERMAN: You know, Bianna, and of course, this is happening in a world where there's so many things going on. We just saw Great Britain, the U.K. expelling 23 Russian figures from inside that country because of the nerve gas attack. Rex Tillerson called out Russia pretty directly in his statement yesterday. Didn't thank the president but made sure to call out Russia. You see any shift with Mike Pompeo coming in on this important front?

GOLODRYGA: Look, Mike Pompeo knows how to speak to the president and about the president in ways that I think are more soothing to the president as opposed to Rex Tillerson. Mike Pompeo never denied. In fact, he said that Russians will continue to try to infiltrate and influence our elections in the years ahead.

He also said that Russia did influence our election in 2016. Mike Pompeo, though, does know to say there are other outside factors, there's Venezuela, Cuba, Iran. There are other hot spots in the world. I think the president appreciates so there isn't so much focus just on Russia solely.

But I think the big test is going to be, yes, they do see eye to eye when it comes to Iran. But we know that Pompeo is very hawkish when it comes to North Korea. So, what's going to happen in these negotiations? The stakes are very high.

Of course, the president continues to attack the Iran deal that his predecessor, President Obama made. So, the stakes are even that much higher going into North Korea and the president saying the only way that they can go forward is if North Korea denukes. The big question is, why would they ever have an incentive to denuke if the president wants to tear up the Iran deal.

BERMAN: We just got a few seconds left here, I want to make this one statement and note that Jeff Sessions is still the attorney general, a man whom the president, Rebecca, has been targeting and going after vocally for a long, long time, still has a job. What do you make of that?

BERG: He's an unlikely survivor, that's for sure. It's a toxic relationship between the two of them, but there were reports last year that Sessions submitted his resignation to the president and the president rejected it. So, he's just serving now at the pleasure of the president. We'll see how their relationship progresses. Clearly, there are a lot of other cabinet secretaries right now who could be in the crosshairs -- pleasure of the president doesn't mean what it used to.

BERMAN: Check your Twitter. If you're serving in the cabinet, check your Twitter. Rebecca Berg, Mary Katherine Ham, Bianna Golodryga, thanks so much. Appreciate it.

The protests have already begun. Students across the country walking out of school to protest gun violence. We're going to have a live report from Parkland, Florida next.