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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 7-7:30a ET

Aired March 14, 2018 - 07:00   ET

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


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

CONOR LAMB (D), PA CONGRESSIONAL CANDIDATE: We celebrate regaining our voice and our vote in the great business of governing this country we love. Thank you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[07:00:20] ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Joining us now is the Democratic candidate in that Pennsylvania House race, Conor Lamb. Good morning.

LAMB: Good morning.

CAMEROTA: I hesitate to call you "Congressman-elect," because it feels a tad premature, because these votes are still being counted. Why are you so confident?

LAMB: Well, one of the strengths of my campaign all along has been that we have leadership by local people. And this is a local race run by local people. So we have people all over the district following this, and you know, they have seen a lot of elections here. And we feel confident about how it's going to turn out.

CAMEROTA: But I mean, there are still, at our latest count, 1,398 absentee and provisional ballots still being counted. So couldn't those swing the victory to our opponent, Rick Saccone?

LAMB: It's possible. I mean, I don't know what the exact numbers are at this moment. But again, you know, we feel confident based on the way we ran this and our efforts to get absentee ballots to people that need them, that we're going to be competitive on that side of the ballot, as well.

CAMEROTA: But of course, as you know, Rick Saccone says that he is not giving up. Have you heard from him since you declared victory last night?

LAMB: No, I have not.

CAMEROTA: And what do you think when he says that he's not giving up. We're going to fight this all the way to the end. He says, you know, "I never give up. We're fighting the fight." LAMB: Well, we've known that we were in a tough race here for, you

know, the last five months. We expected it to have a good fight on our hands. And we were willing to wage a pretty good fight ourselves.

So I wouldn't really expect anything else. And you know, I congratulate him on fighting hard the whole way.

CAMEROTA: So what do you think allowed you to have this incredibly close race and this probably narrow victory in this, you know, consistently red district?

LAMB: Well, we worked very hard, and this is my home. So you know, you call it a red district. I just call it western Pennsylvania. We worked extremely hard to get out and campaign in person over every square inch of this district.

And I think just through talking to people, looking them in the eye, figuring out what the issues are for them and then trying to come up with solutions to them, we seemed to have reached a lot of people. And we saw huge turnout yesterday on both sides, which I think is great. People around here are really engaged. And you know, I was happy to be part of that excitement.

CAMEROTA: As you know, President Donald Trump came to your district to campaign for your opponent, Rick Saccone. But he did mention you a few times during that speech. So let me just remind everybody of what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I mean, Nancy Pelosi, you can't have that. And Conor Lamb. Lamb the Sham. Lamb the Sham. He's trying to act like a Republican. So he gets -- he won't give me one vote. Look, I don't know. Looks like a nice guy. I hear he's nice looking. I think I'm better looking than him. I do. I do. I do. And he's slightly younger than me. Slightly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: There's a lot there to parse. Mr. Lamb, I don't think -- why do you think that Lamb the Sham didn't take hold?

LAMB: Well, I don't know, I mean, just apart from that, there was a lot of foolishness in this election and a lot of really cartoonish campaigning. And I think by the time of the president's visit last weekend, people were kind of tired of that entire approach.

I mean, I had people, especially elderly people, coming up to me almost every day and just saying, "Man, I hate those ads against you. It's not right. It's not worthy of us." And so I think there is a little bit of burnout on that type of campaigning before the president ever got here.

CAMEROTA: Do you think the president is better looking than you?

LAMB: I really have no opinion on that. CAMEROTA: Strange. Do you think that your -- that this very close

race and what appears to be your narrow victory, 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. And look, I was at a lot of polling places yesterday with cars parked outside that had President Trump's bumper sticker on them. So he's a popular person here.

But I think that what happens when you campaign in real life as much as possible, is that those divisions go away. Everyone gave you a fair shake. And I know that there were people that voted for the president who also voted for me. And, you know, I thank them for hearing me out. And, you know, I'm looking forward to fulfilling my promise of actually representing them.

[07:05:18] CAMEROTA: Look, as you know, obviously, you see this race as very individual, and it's about you. But lots of people look at it as a bellwether and as a symbol of something.

And so, they're trying to figure out if you're the model of a Democrat that can win in a district that leans red. And so, you know, your positions are interesting. I mean, you're obviously not straight up and down the kind of Democratic platform. You know, you were, I don't know -- I mean, you can characterize it yourself. You're anti-gun control. I mean, I guess. You're, you know, personally pro-life.

How do you explain your positions within the Democratic Party?

LAMB: Well, I found that most people would rather talk about things on a case-by-case basis. And so we did that. And I did it honestly. You know, 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 the long tradition. 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 or protect our people. And that seems to be what most people want around here.

CAMEROTA: You know you're going to have to do this again in eight months.

LAMB: That's true. It's a special election and a very special experience. Let me tell you that.

CAMEROTA: I mean, are you -- does that mean you're going to immediately hit the campaign trail again?

LAMB: Well, no. I mean, I made a promise to the people of this district, the 18th District, that I would campaign for them, that I would listen to them. And I was giving the responsibility I would serve them and them alone. And so I plan to spend the rest of this year fully representing the people of this district and fulfilling the promise that I made.

And, you know, we'll let the rest of it shake out. But there's a lot of work to be done just in, you know, trying to bring solutions to the problems that we talked about for the last six months.

CAMEROTA: All right. Conor Lamb, we'll be very -- watching very closely as these roughly 1,400 absentee ballots continue to be counted during our program. Thanks so much for being on NEW DAY.

LAMB: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: Chris.

CUOMO: All right. Joining us now is CNN political analyst David Gregory and CNN politics reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza.

David Gregory, Conor Lamb is about as far from Donald Trump as a TV persona as you can get. Now Alisyn is like a master of trying to get, like, those personal tidbits in there and, like, moments of levity. He ain't having it, that guy.

CAMEROTA: He wasn't falling for my charm.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He's probably been up all night, too.

CUOMO: I think that that's what served him well in the district, though, right? I mean, the guy just oozes integrity. He served his country with distinction. He served as a public servant as a prosecutor. And he was just selling people on the proposition that "I'm for you. I'm not about any of this other stuff."

And right now it looks like it may have worked for him. Trump did raise an interesting point, David. And, you know, we didn't hear Lamb address it yet. Do you think that this type of Democrat may vote with Republicans sometimes, and what does that mean for the evolution of the Democratic Party?

GREGORY: Yes, right. Well, as you were talking earlier this morning, he harkens back to a time when blue-dog Democrats actually survived in the Congress who had more conservative views culturally but were certainly Democrats on taxes and entitlements and that kind of thing.

I thought what he just said to Alisyn was actually a lot if you unpack it. First of all, he talked about the potency of President Trump and his support in that district, a district he won by 20 points, yes. And now it may actually fall to a Democrat. That's huge. That's a huge development. And says something about all the Democratic energy.

But it still talks about the persistence, the persistent potency of, you know, white working-class voters who have shown up since Trump came on the scene and did so again. And that's important.

But these are at some level local elections. And that local energy, the Democratic energy can go for a Democrat with the national state of mind. But it still is really funneled and filtered through who is this guy and do I know him? Is there a sense of do I have a sense of where he or she is from? And we're seeing, as we saw in Virginia. We saw it in other parts of the country, where you have special elections where they're not the kind of Democrats, not a Hillary Clinton Democrat, per se, not a kind of Democrat that's on the ascent within the party if you think about the demographic coalition. Yet, they are the ones who are pulling off these special elections.

CAMEROTA: So Chris, it is still too close for CNN to call that race, though Conor Lamb declared his own victory. But as we said,, there are still all of these provisional ballots. He's only 641 votes ahead at the moment, and there are something like 1,400 absentee votes that are still being counted.

[07:10:10] However, how do you see what happened last night?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT AND EDITOR AT LARGE: Well, obviously, we focus on who won and who lost. Because that's what matters in the end. Right? It's either a seat for Republicans or a seat that Republicans held or a seat that the Democrats picked up.

But I think it's really important to put it in the broader context. Democrats should not have even come close to sniffing at this district. There are 114 districts less friendly for Democrats than this one. OK, I mean, this -- more friendly, rather. More friendly. So 114 districts where Donald Trump did worse than in this district. That's a big problem. This race is effectually a tie.

I think Conor Lamb is going to win based on the -- the vote that's out in his margin. It's effectively a tie. But a tie is telling in a district like this that remember the Republican nominee who was forced out amid a sex scandal, Tim Murphy, the opponent, he didn't have a Democratic opponent in 2014 or 2016. This is not a seat that anyone circled when it came open and said, "Look out. You know, this is going to be a barnburner."

Yes, Conor Lamb was a better candidate. Yes, Rick Saccone did not raise the sort of money or run the sort of moderate campaign he should have. Even so, in a neutral political environment, this is a six- to ten-point Rick Saccone win. That it isn't that is hugely telling.

CUOMO: So who does this -- where are the lessons here, David, right? I mean, you know, it's easy to sell, well, the GOP didn't have to be anxious about this, but what does it tell them that they need to do? The Democrats seem to have a more obvious case study. If Lamb wins, they can say, "OK, we have to have the candidates to the locality where they're running in these Republican places. We can't just have a cookie cutter candidate."

But how do you see it?

GREGORY: So I think, you know, to Chris's point, it's about what they do and what they don't do. They did tax cuts. That's going to be important if you're conservatives in conservative districts, you know, saying we got this through. If they don't do gun legislation, the tariffs play, you know, tough for conservatives, actually, if you're a free trader around the country. So these things play different ways. Here is the big point. We look

back in our recent history, these big national issues. Health care. The Iraq War. They have created huge waves. Well, what do we have now? We have Hurricane Donald Trump in all of its manifestations. Policy. Erratic behavior. Chaotic administration. Threats from overseas. And -- and this dark cloud of the Russia investigation.

That is enough, combined with a sense of angst, anxiety, anger and more among Democrats to say we've got to show up. We've got to show up in huge numbers. Those are the elements of a wave. I think it's a lot bigger than what Republicans can even do at this point.

CAMEROTA: So Chris -- yes, go ahead, Chris.

CILLIZZA: Just to add, I mean, I think it's fundamental. David is exactly right. I think it's fundamentally about Donald Trump's popularity or lack thereof. Yes, no question he was more popular in this district in Southwestern Pennsylvania than he is nationwide.

That said, Donald Trump was in that district three days before the election. And in a district he won by 20. And now appears that the Republican is going to fall marginally short. But it appears as though he's going to fall short.

Again, the fact that Donald Trump was even in the district, the fact that they felt the president needed to go there to try to save Rick Saccone, speaks to where the playing field is. It is not this. It is not even. It is this. It is tilted, and it is tilted significantly towards Democrats. That is the result of Donald Trump's first year in office. And I don't think anything, really, the congressional Republicans can do between now and November that fundamentally changes it.

Donald Trump may be able to change it a little bit. But I don't know that Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, can.

CUOMO: Right. I'm just saying it's instructive that Conor Lamb in this race wasn't that -- that proxy of outrage against Trump. He didn't campaign that way. He tailors it to what people would be for in his district, and it paid off. A little counterintuitive, based on the negative reaction to Trump.

CAMEROTA: Gentlemen, thank you very much.

CUOMO: President Trump signaling that more senior officials could get the boot. How will his new national security team shape foreign policy? We're going to ask former Defense Secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:18:46] CAMEROTA: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's abrupt firing via Twitter yesterday may be only the start. The president signaling he may be ready to dismiss more senior officials.

CNN's Abby Phillip is live at the White House with more. What are you learning, Abby?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, good morning, Alisyn.

President Trump is about one year into his administration, and it seems like he's ready for a do-over when it comes to his cabinet. He is looking, apparently, to bring in more people who are more aligned with his America-first agenda. And a senior administration official tells CNN that this week we could see even more staff departures and rivals coming to this Trump administration.

(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.

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 very 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: Tillerson and McEntee are just two of many administration officials who have been leaving in several weeks, a process that seems to be accelerating. President Trump also putting his cabinet on notice that more of them could be on the chopping block soon, and he is waking up this morning in Los Angeles before heading out to visit a Boeing plant. He'll return back to Washington and to the task of staffing his government later tonight -- Chris.

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

Joining us now is former defense secretary and former CIA director Leon Panetta. He also served as President Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff. Good to see you, sir.

LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY/FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Nice to be with you, Chris.

CUOMO: And let me ask you a personnel question. Do you remember Ms. Haspel from your time at the CIA or by reputation?

PANETTA: I do. She worked as an officer when I was director of the CIA.

CUOMO: Is it fair for her to come under scrutiny for her leadership role when it came to the Thai interrogation center and the types of operations that were carried out there?

PANETTA: Well, I would hope that the -- the Senate would look at her entire record. She was a good officer. She served the CIA well. Obviously at that time circumstances coming out of 9/11, I think people need to look at the situation as it was at that time. Those -- those approaches to interrogation were stopped when President Obama came in.

And so I think what they need to do is look at her full record. Because I'm glad that they have a first woman as head of CIA. And I'm glad that it's Gina because, frankly, she is someone who really knows the CIA inside out.

CUOMO: So you support the nomination of Haspel, even though she oversaw those kind of programs which the Obama administration and under your watch, that you ruled were improper? PANETTA: Yes. No, I think -- I think she really ought to be judged

based on her entire record. And I do believe that, when you look at the entire record, that she is somebody who can serve at the CIA, I think, with distinction.

CUOMO: Why is it unfair if somebody gets on her case and says, "I don't want somebody who is comfortable doing those kinds of things"? What's being missed in that criticism?

PANETTA: Well, again, I just -- I just think it's important for people to put it in context. When we -- when we had 9/11, people were very concerned about what attacks would occur next. And, you know, there was a lot of effort to try to see if we could determine where terrorists were located.

And I understand the mentality at the time. I don't agree with the -- with the standards that were put in place. But at the same time, I think we just need to think about that time and the way we approached the threat to the country. Just judge that and look at her entire record. That's all I ask.

CAMEROTA: Look, I mean, I just -- I'm asking you, because if Leon Panetta says that Haspel is a good choice for the CIA, it's going to resonate with some of the same people who might criticize her in this confirmation hearing. Thank you for going on the record about it.

What is your take on the turnover in these top positions in general? The president says, "This is me just getting comfortable with the way I want it. I like this kind of disruptive thing, bring people in, bring people out."

[07:25:16] What do you make of it?

PANETTA: Well, you know, I think the president of the United States can't be surrounded by a bunch of "yes" people. I think that's dangerous.

I think you have to have people in the cabinet and in the White House who may disagree with -- with the president from time to time. But a president has to be big enough to be able to listen to those views and then make the decision that the president wants to make. I think the president needs to be willing to have people who disagree with him on policy and still be loyal to them.

I thought -- I thought the way he handled the firing of Rex Tillerson was really disgraceful. Because as president of the United States, you want to at least have the courage to face people directly and tell them why you may not like them or get along with them. But give them the opportunity to resign with a degree of dignity. And that was not done here. And I think that -- that unfortunately is a reflection of how this president operates.

CUOMO: It's interesting. That's something I wanted to get your take on. Thank you for bringing it up.

You know, this is a man who is known on reality TV for his catch phrase "You're fired." But he shows time and time again that he does not fire people to their face. What is the effect of that on leadership in your experience?

PANETTA: I think if you're a leader, you've got to be somebody who's willing to deal honestly with the people that serve you. And by the way, you're the one who selected these people.

CUOMO: Right.

PANETTA: It's not as if -- it's not as if somebody else selected them. The president selected them.

CUOMO: And he said wed bring in only the best. And we've never seen turnover like this in any administration.

PANETTA: That's right. I mean, it -- this is his decision. And he's the one who bears the responsibility.

But as a leader, you do have to have the courage to deal with people honestly and truthfully and to just tweet out that you're going to fire the secretary of state. Very frankly, I think that demeans the office of the presidency. He's got to have the guts to be able to look at people in the eye and tell them honestly if they're going to lose their job and not try to hide behind a tweet. That's the way presidents are supposed to operate.

CUOMO: His commodity thus far has been that he's an improvement over President Obama, because Trump is strong and Obama was weak, that he was looking to be conciliatory with countries and that Trump is about being muscular in his foreign affairs. Have you seen that carried out? Do you think it's a meaningful distinction?

PANETTA: Well, what I'm worried about is that this is a world in which we're facing a number of flash points that are very dangerous to this country. And a president of the United States has to deal with all of those threats in a way that provides a policy approach that fits what the United States wants to do to protect our national security.

I don't see that larger strategy here. I think this president ad hocs his decisions on most things and operates by the seat of his pants, as opposed to taking the time to develop policy, to go through the discussion that's necessary on these serious issues and then come to a decision that he and his team support.

He is constantly rejecting the advice of his national security team. He's got a very good national security team. He ought to listen to them. Because frankly, they understand the impact of these foreign policy decisions.

If you're going to -- if you're going to bring on good people who know what they're doing, for goodness sakes, listen to them, because these issues are not something you want to deal with casually or erratically.

CUOMO: I'm out of time. But let me get you on record quickly. Do you support the nomination of Mike Pompeo, going from CIA to the State Department, based on what about him in his time from the CIA?

PANETTA: Yes, I know Mike Pompeo. He's done a good job at the CIA. He's a good manager. He has the trust of the president, which that's important.

But I think most importantly, he's got to restore the State Department to what it was. He's got to hire people who are experts. He's got to build a diplomatic team. We operate in this country by power, but we also operate by diplomacy. And I'm afraid the diplomatic side has been undermined a great deal.

CUOMO: Leon Panetta, your perspective matters. Thanks for offering it on the show, as always. Be well, sir.

PANETTA: Thanks, Chris.

CUOMO: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: All right. It's a nail-biter in the Pennsylvania special election. The Democrat is claiming victory in this deep-red congressional district. Is the GOP anxious about November elections as a result of this? We ask a Republican congressman from Pennsylvania next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)