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PA. House Race Too Close to Call But Dem Claims Victory; Trump Signals Wider Senior Staff Shake Up Is Coming. Aired 6-6:29a ET

Aired March 14, 2018 - 06:00   ET

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


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Wednesday, March 14, 6 a.m. here in New York. And we do begin with breaking news.

[05:59:19] The special election for House seat in Pennsylvania is too close to call. Too close for CNN to call, I should say, at this hour. But that did not stop Democrat Conor Lamb from declaring his own victory over Republican Rick Saccone. Saccone vows it is not over yet.

So here's where we are a at this hour, though of course, it could change during our show. Lamb holds a narrow lead of just more than 600 votes in the state's 18th Congressional District. But absentee and provisional ballots are still being counted.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right. The big clue will be when the state, or the commonwealth in this case, certifies the election results. The secretary of state will do that. We're watching.

Lamb's strong showing in this staunchly Republican district that President Trump won by 20 points, is sure to make Republicans anxious about the November midterm elections. It is also a message to Democrats about what kinds of candidates need to be cultivated to be competitive in GOP districts.

All this as we're told to expect more instability in the top ranks of government after yesterday's very public firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. The question is who is next to go?

We have it all covered. Let's begin with Alex Marquardt, live in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Well, they said it would be close. They were right.

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You're absolutely right, Chris. This is an extraordinary night, and this drama continued into this morning. They said it would be close, and look at these numbers.

The two candidates, now that all of the ballots are in, are divided by just .2 percent. Alisyn and Chris, we just got a new batch of votes. Lamb is still leading with 641 votes. But from our understanding, Saccone could still pull it out in those remaining votes. It's a long shot, but he could still do it. That's why he didn't concede last night. That's when, when the two candidate went to bed, Saccone had not conceded. But as you mentioned, that did not stop Lamb from claiming victory at his election headquarters. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CONOR LAMB (D), PA HOUSE CANDIDATE: It took a little longer than we thought, but we did it. Tonight, we celebrate regaining our voice and our vote in the great business of governing this country we love.

RICK SACCONE (R), PA HOUSE CANDIDATE: We're still fighting the fight. It's not over yet. We're going to fight all the way to -- all the way to the end. You know I never give up.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MARQUARDT: Now, I spoke with the Saccone camp after Lamb made that victory speech. They said that this morning Saccone is going to wake up at home. The campaign is going to huddle with lawyers from Washington from the RNC, from the NRCC, ad figure out the best way forward, figure out what their options are.

Now just to remind the viewers why this is such an incredibly important election. This is a district where, as you mentioned, Trump won in 2016 with 20 percent of the vote. In the last two congressional races, 2014 and 2016, Democrats didn't even field a candidate.

An incredible amount of money was spent on this race: some $10.7 million from outside groups backing Republican Rick Saccone. It would be a huge embarrassment to President Trump and to Republicans if they were to lose this district.

But another really interesting facet of this race is that it's really largely symbolic. These two men, if they want to be in office, if they want to be in Congress after the midterms in November, they're going to have to run again.

The Pennsylvania state supreme court has ruled that the congressional districts who are jerrymandered in favor of Republicans, they have redrawn that map. It is looking now like Saccone, if he wants to be in Congress, will have to run in the new 14th District and Lamb would have to run in the new 17th District.

So no more mention of this 18th District. And Alisyn, Chris, there is a possibility that both of these men could be in Congress after November.

CAMEROTA: OK. Thank you very much, Alex. We'll keep back as those numbers keep ticking up.

Meanwhile, let's bring in CNN political analysts. We have John Avlon and Ron Brownstein. Great to see both of you.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Good morning.

CAMEROTA: So let's assume that Conor Lamb is the winner, though as we say, the votes are still being counted.

So John, what -- of it's just mostly symbolic, what does this say? Does it say more about how Republicans are feeling today, or are Democrats activated?

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is a huge signifier and a wild night. Coming down to the wire, showing that every vote matters. But the reason it really matters, is because it's a question of whether we have a crystallization, a confirmation of that blue wave that Democrats are hoping and praying for, that long ball, whether they can take back the House in '18.

This is a district that's classic. It is a Trump district in a classic swing state that not only Trump won 20 points ago. But as Alex pointed out, Democrats didn't even field a candidate the last two times. And regardless of the outcome, and Lamb seems to be keeping -- keeping a close edge, it's a confirmation that this blue wave is real. That real. That means Democrats are motivated, and Republicans are depressed, and swing voters are swinging against Trump towards the "D."

CUOMO: So let's bring in the professor on this one. Understand that there are about 1,400 special ballots still out there to be read. The simple math tells you that Saccone has to win about 70 percent of them to overcome the gap with Lamb right now.

But regardless of that, what do you see and what is relevant about this district? What is the message for the GOP but also the Democrats going forward?

BROWNSTEIN: Well, the first point is the one John made. It continues the pattern we see, just enormous Democratic energy and a surge in Democratic turnout. If you compare Connor Lamb's share of total votes to what Hillary Clinton got in 2016, it's a much higher percentage than what Saccone was able to match up what Trump got.

CUOMO: He's also a very different candidate.

BROWNSTEIN: Exactly. And that's -- but that's consistent with what we are seeing in the special election.

On the other hand, I would say that this says that the white working class communities are still a tough, tough slog for the Democrats. I mean, Conor Lamb did better. He's a different candidate, as you point out, than Hillary Clinton.

[06:05:13] But still, in the most white blue-collar parts of the district, Westmoreland County, Saccone got 57 percent; Washington county, he got 53 percent. Those are gains from 2016, but they're still tough, grudging gains from 2016 in those areas.

And it says to me that the principle Democratic opportunity is still more of the white-collar suburbs. And the big measure is the part of the district, Chris, where Lamb did better -- did best, around Allegheny. Places that look like that are the epicenter of the Republican vulnerability in 2018. But this also shows that Democrats with the right candidate, localized

to local conditions, a la what Rahm Emanuel did in 2006, when he recruited a lot of conservative Democrats to run in, you know, red- leaning areas, can put some of those places in place. Southern Illinois, upstate New York, a couple districts in Iowa. Maybe central valley in California. Democrats have to localize.

But I still think that, after last night, you would say the principle vulnerability for Republicans remains more white-collar than blue- collar, even though Lamb made some gains there.

CAMEROTA: John, I mean, isn't that also a message to Democrats, to Chris's point, that -- that the kind of candidate, if you want to win over Republican districts, is the Conor Lamb model, which is veteran, personally pro-life, though he said he would respect abortion laws.

I mean, that's not --

CUOMO: Anti-Pelosi. Anti-gun control.

CAMEROTA: That's not the -- that's not the anti-Pelosi version (ph).

AVLON: That's a big deal. And I think it goes to the heart of the Democratic civil war that we don't talk about enough, the Hillary- Bernie divide in '16. If folks want to get more ideologically pure on the left. They run those candidates, they're not going to pick up seats like this that are necessary to hit a majority.

Conor Lamb doesn't check off all the liberal litmus test boxes. You know, he is tight with unions, but he's a former federal prosecutor. He doesn't -- he said typically he would not support Pelosi, therefore blunting that attack from the right. So that's a real message Democrats need to take to heart. Both parties are going to have to play beyond their base.

And the fact that this is won in those suburban districts outside of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, that's a crucial -- that's a crucial stretch for Democrats. We don't know who's won yet.

CUOMO: But Ron, tell people why parties don't usually like to do this? You know, Conor Lamb on paper is an independent-Democrat hybrid. Right? Or narrowly, you don't want these guys and women in your ranks, because you may not control the votes. I mean, there's a reason.

BROWNSTEIN: I mean, look, the idea that every -- given the diversity of the country, it's very hard to build to 218-seat majority. That everyone is in lock step. Connor Lamb is not a Republican. He is a blue-dog Democrat. He's conservative on cultural issues, but on economic issues, he ran against the Trump tax cut. He defended Social Security and Medicare. As John said, he defended unions. He's someone that has become someone extinct as those blue-dog Democrats really annihilated in the 2010, 2014 election.

And it's not as though, Alisyn, all Democrats running in Republican- leaning districts have to be culturally conservative. You really have to look at this through two different lanes. I mean, you do have the blue-collar places where Republicans made enormous gains in 2010 to 2014 and where Trump ultimately won. They followed the path and won in 2016. In those places, you do need more cultural conservative Democrats, if you want to be. That was shown in 2006.

But in the white-collar suburbs of the big metros outside of Philadelphia, Orange County, California; Northern Virginia; Denver; Minneapolis; Chicago. IN fact, they may be better with candidates who are to the left on the cultural issues, particularly things like guns. So there -- the overriding message is one size does not fit all. And to win a majority, you have to be a coalition.

AVLON: Which is why an ideological strait-jacket doesn't work for parties trying to reach a majority. And it's another affirmation that suburbs are the swing. One final thing that Ron mentioned a second ago. In '06, the last time Democrats took back the House, it was Rahm Emanuel in the House and Chuck Schumer on the Senate side. And they ran this play before very effectively. And you can see signs of this coming forward for '18.

BROWNSTEIN: And look, the overall level of Democratic energy, though, right? I mean, that is just important here. I mean, you're seeing consistently in race after race, Democrats are significantly overperforming. And it doesn't mean that Republican in a district is less than plus 20, Republican has been to be quaking in their boots tonight. It does mean that Democrats are going to be showing up in big numbers. And particularly in those white-collar suburbs, you're seeing a big movement away from the Republicans.

And last night was the first time we really saw any crack in that last line of Republican defense, which are the blue-collar communities, the exit polls in Alabama, Virginia, even though Democrats, Republicans won over 70 percent of noncollege whites in those elections. That could not have happened last night for it to be this close.

Still a tough terrain for Democrats but a beginning of an opening in the wall that Conor Lamb showed. With that blend of cultural conservatism and new deal Democratic economics. You still can committee in these places even if it's tough.

[06:10:04] CAMEROTA: OK. Ron Brownstein, John Avlon, thank you very much. We'll obviously watch it throughout the program. And coming up in our next hour, the Democratic candidate Conor Lamb, who is claiming victory, will join us live on NEW DAY.

Another staff shakeup at the White House. And more senior members of the administration may be out, maybe even this week. What does this say about the future of team Trump? We discuss.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUOMO: All right. The style in which the president fired Rex Tillerson is one avenue of criticism. But just the fact that you have another major part of the executive out. And he may not be the last. That's something that we must discuss. The president signaling more fires could be coming. CNN's Abby Phillip live at the White House with more. Whom do we

think could be next? Why are these changes happening? What do we know?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN ANCHOR: Well, good morning, Chris. Yes, the president is in a mood to fire people this week, apparently, with one year into his administration. He's starting to get rid of some of these advisers who he's clashed with on a personality and on a policy level. And a senior adviser to the administration tells us that there could be more coming as soon as this week, Chris.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm really at a point where we're getting very close to having the cabinet and other things that that I want.

[06:10:06] PHILLIP (voice-over): President Trump hinting that more senior officials could be on the chopping block after abruptly firing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Twitter. Sources tell CNN that national security adviser H.R. McMaster could soon be headed out the door and that President Trump has been pursuing potential replacements for chief of staff John Kelly, despite praising him on Tuesday while speaking to Marines.

TRUMP: I think he likes what you do better than what he does, but he's doing a great job. He misses you.

PHILLIP: Sources say the president has also grown irritated with embattled Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and is making plans to remove him. Mr. Trump eyeing Energy Secretary Rick Perry as his replacement, the president citing foreign policy disagreements with Tillerson as the main reason for his firing.

TRUMP: We got along, actually, quite well, but we disagreed on things. When you look at the Iran deal, I think it's terrible. I guess he thought it was OK. I wanted to either break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently. So we were not really thinking the same.

PHILLIP: By contrast, Mr. Trump praising likeminded current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who he has chosen as Tillerson's replacement.

TRUMP: We're always on the same wavelength. The relationship has been good. And that's what I need as secretary of state.

PHILLIP: Pompeo will enter a State Department void of senior leaders after Tillerson departs at the end of the month. At the CIA, current deputy director and 30-year veteran Gina Haspel is Trump's pick to take Pompeo's place, which would make her the first woman to lead the agency. Haspel faces a tough confirmation hearing because of her role in the CIA's interrogation and detention program. She played a role in the agency's destruction of tapes of the torture of terrorism detainees.

Senator John McCain urging his colleagues to scrutinize Haspel's record.

REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: Yes, she implemented orders and was doing her job. Gina is a -- is a solid professional. She has great experience.

PHILLIP: President Trump also firing his long-time personal assistant John McEntee, who sources say is under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for serious financial crimes. Sources say that McEntee was escorted from the White House on Tuesday, but shortly afterwards the president's reelection campaign announced that he'll be joining as a senior adviser.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: Well, when President Trump is facing a situation where he now has a lot of senior aides that he needs to fill up at the State Department but he's also losing aides at a rapid pace. Rex Tillerson and John McEntee are just two of several aides who have been departing in the last several weeks, including Hope Hicks, the communications director; Josh Raffel; Rob Porter and others.

The president right now is in Los Angeles, where he wakes up in California after his first trip there of his administration. And he's heading to St. Louis to visit a Boeing plant. He will return to Washington later tonight to get on with some of the business of staffing the government -- Chris and Alisyn.

CUOMO: All right, Abby, thank you very much.

Let's bring back John Avlon. Also joining us, CNN political analyst David Gregory. You've got how the Tillerson thing was handled. And that made a lot of waves yesterday. And then you just have the simply reality that Trump continues to thin out the ranks and put in loyalists. Where are your concerns?

CAMEROTA: David.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first of all, on style what you see is the president seeming very confident. There is a lot of spin there that now he's finally getting it the way he wants it. This is not the way he wanted it. He's got a chaotic administration that is -- reflects his own erratic behavior and decision making.

And in this particular instance, now he's got somebody who is probably closer -- not to his personality but to his thinking on some hot- button issues internationally. Mike Pompeo is a hard liner. Certainly a hard liner on issues like North Korea and Iran. But he's also proven himself to be a pretty shrewd insider, not just within the West Wing but also in the government overall, which is, I think, a plus for the country and a plus for the role as secretary of state.

What I think is of concern is that the president still, out of his own insecurity, goes out of his way to show he's in charge by breaking as much of the china as he can in the process of doing it. By saying, "Oh, yes, he sees it one way. Well, we disagree about that, and by the way, I'm the boss." He leaves that out. But in case anybody missed that, that's what he's saying. He's the boss. He's in control. He's feeling confident. It's going to be done his way.

Note one difference between a lot of these people who get fired. From a loyalist like Hope Hicks, who ultimately got into a situation where the president looked bad, to perhaps H.R. McMaster, apparently annoys the president with some of his presentations and the like, to a guy like Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, who's certainly no shrinking violet. But you never hear from him publicly. He does all his work privately. I think that's what the president prefers.

[06:20:10] CAMEROTA: Here's, according to CNN, the list of who President Trump is considering firing next, who may -- whose heads may be on the chopping block. David Shulkin, veteran of -- secretary of veteran affairs. Jeff Sessions, as we know, attorney general. H.R. McMaster, as we've been talking about, national security advisor. John Kelly, who as we know has been somewhat in the cross-hairs. Ryan Zinke, interior secretary.

John, when the president says, "I'm close to having the cabinet I want," who -- who forced him to have that last cabinet? Who speaks for those?

AVLON: Yes. Exactly. I mean, typically, administrations begin fielding their strongest team. That's not to say there's not room for refinement and refocusing. But let's call this what this is. I mean, with this sort of survivor bracket we just placed on air, that kind of anxiety and fear runs through an administration. That is a sign of dysfunction, not refocusing and retrenchment.

I mean, Tillerson lasted 14 months as secretary of state. I did some math. That's actually 42 Scaramuccis, which is the official new unit of measurement --

CAMEROTA: Stop it.

AVLON: -- for the administration. But that is an unhealthful sign. Bad blood between those two. Pompeo going to be much more in line, Tea Party congressman. Very aggressive.

But if in a matter of weeks, he also gets rid of his V.A. secretary, which may be next; his national security adviser; possibly his chief of staff. Because apparently "great job" is the new euphemism for "You're going to get fired soon."

This is a really destabilizing thing for something as serious as national security, which goes well beyond this soap opera of it all.

CUOMO: Right. Look, and also, to parts of the Trump base, David, they will hear this, and they'll be, "Good. Shake is it up. Shake it up. This is why we brought him here." And they will gloss over the fact that he's shaping up his own -- shaping up his own mistakes.

But there is a practical effect every time you do something like this, when you're seeing it play in the State Department right now, which is no leadership. And that means that the mandate, different operational capacities. And they already have all these staffing challenges all over the place. I don't know if we have a graphic of that. But there's still a large number of appointments, you know, 18 months into this administration, that haven't been made.

So you're under capacity; you're underperforming when you don't have the leadership in place. That matters, too.

GREGORY: It does. But in this way, I'm sorry. I think there's a new opportunity here for Mike Pompeo. I think Rex Tillerson -- I said yesterday, I have the same question for Rex Tillerson as of yesterday as I did on day one, which is what were you thinking, coming to work with this president given your background?

But he also did not cover himself in glory. He was incredibly reclusive. He was not accountable to the press. He showed a kind of -- you know, at some level, kind of disdain for diplomacy compared to how he used to do things.

Mike Pompeo, who's coming from the CIA, which is a tough bureaucracy, a tough career bureaucracy, I think has an opportunity to finally shape the State Department back up, get it back in play. And because you heard -- maybe you saw Henry Kissinger quoted this morning in "The New York Times," he does understand kind of the political linkages being closer to this president. That may be a much better thing for capacity.

And for what John was alluding to in national security, you've got to have good lines of communications and a good interagency process. How does state deal with defense, deal with the CIA, deal with the national security adviser and ultimately with the president?

What worries me is that what the president doing is purging people who can effectively say, "Put the brakes on this. Think about this differently." He may not feel that he needs the influence, the tutoring that he needed in that first year.

CAMEROTA: Let's talk about Gina Haspel. She is the president's pick to now head the CIA as Pompeo moves on. And so she was notable, because she ran this secret prison in Thailand where there were brutal interrogation tactics used. Here's what John McCain, no stranger to torture, has tweeted about this: "The torture of detainees in U.S. custody during the last decade was one of the darkest chapters in American history. The Senate must do its job in scrutinizing the record and involvement of Gina Haspel in this disgraceful program."

How hard do you think her confirmation process will be, John?

AVLON: I think it's going to be tough. I think she'll probably still make it, a Republican majority. And traditionally, the elevation of senior members of these life staffers at the CIA, George Tenet being an example, is actually stabilizing for the agency. A lot of times these political appointees don't last long and are bad for morale. But she was directly involved and implicated in the darker chapters in our recent history, not only the sort of off-books Thai prison but also implicated in an attempt to destroy videotapes of some waterboarding procedures. So it's going to be a tough confirmation. And certainly, no one's got moral authority like McCain.

CUOMO: Her role and responsibility is going to be vague. Phil Mudd puts it well. You guys all know him. That you can't hold someone accountable for operating a program that was decided above their heads. So that will be a fair point of analysis, as well.

Gentlemen, thank you.

[06:25:00] CAMEROTA: All right. He was widely regarded as the planet's preeminent scientist. Our world is mourning over his death today. A look back at the remarkable life of Stephen Hawking next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CUOMO: All right. This is important. Newly-released e-mails cast doubt on claims by HUD secretary Ben Carson that he had little or no involvement in the purchase of that $31,000 office dining room set. The e-mails show Carson and his wife personally selected the furniture. One e-mail sent to Carson's assistant even refers to the furniture, "the secretary and Mrs. Carson picked out."

A spokesman initially denied Carsons -- that the Carsons had any knowledge of the purchase. Carson eventually canceled the order, claiming he was surprised by the price tag.

CAMEROTA: All right. We do have some breaking news now. The world mourning the news that famed scientist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76. The British astronomer and theoretical physicist lived an incredible life overcoming debilitating lifelong battle with ALS and, in the process, making science popular and even cool.