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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Sources: Trump Has Broached Firing Sessions Several Times; Family: Sen. McCain Decided to End Brain Cancer Treatment. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 24, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): And new tonight, sources telling CNN Trump has come close to firing Sessions several times but his advisers have convinced him to wait, arguing it could damage his politically and create more problems with Mueller. Trump making clear to aides he has the absolute right to fire sessions if he wants to while taking their advice for now.

[16:30:00] Though Trump has upped the attacks on the special counsel on recent days --

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Mr. Mueller is highly conflicted. In fact --

COLLINS: -- sources say he's wary of crossing a line with him by firing Sessions.

The president's frustration over the Russia investigation on full display this week as his former campaign chair was found guilty, his former attorney pleaded guilty and breaking today, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization was granted immunity in the federal probe into hush payments made to women.

REPORTER: Anything on Allen Weisselberg?

COLLINS: But Trump is staying silent when it came to questions as he left Washington for Ohio today.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Erica, there, the president not answering questions of news on Twitter before leaving the White House. That is that he's canceling the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to North Korea. This would have been Pompeo's fourth trip. He was scheduled to leave tomorrow but the president was citing a lack of progress as far as denuclearizing goes as the reason why he's canceling this trip.

Now, we're told that Mike Pompeo was in the room as the president drafted these tweets and sent them and that John Bolton, the national security adviser, was on the phone and this is the first time we're hearing the president voice public concern about maybe that Singapore or that summit in Singapore was not as much of a success as he initially thought it was -- Erica.

ERICA HILL, CNN HOST: Kaitlan Collins with the latest for us. As we look at the timing, too, of that announcement about North Korea,

it was hard not to look at it cynically earlier today and saying, hmm, perhaps trying to switch the conversation and then we just this reporting in from CNN. State Department officials were in the midst of briefing allies embassies about their objectives for this trip just minutes before the president called it off, Bill. What do you make of that?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: It's hard to know. I mean, I like to give presidents the benefit of the doubt on foreign policy. I think they thought it wasn't wise to have the trip at this time.

You know, just on the Sessions matter, so interesting. What if Trump did fire Sessions? I mean, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, become acting attorney general. I don't think the Senate would confirm someone else. I mean, you just need one or two defections to make it impossible.

Rod Rosenstein is I think the huge figure in the case. Jeff Toobin said correctly, of course, they coordinate like Mueller and the Southern District of New York, but they coordinate under the supervision of the deputy attorney general. And so, the idea that he fires Sessions and then he's got Rod Rosenstein there, that would really be something.

So, Trump has a real problem. I mean, he has -- he doesn't have support in Congress to fire the top ranks of Justice and that's why that investigation goes on.

HILL: Well, it's also fascinating, too, just in the way that he's reaching out. In the tweets this morning, the president quotes Jeff Sessions by saying the DOJ will not be improperly influenced by political considerations, but then, Kevin, in the next breath, he seems to take Jeff sessions to task for not following up on the president's political opponents.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, he seems to have almost daily if not hourly urges to fire Jeff Sessions. And has a really -- to Bill's point, hasn't really thought through the question, well, if not Jeff Sessions, then who? All of those scenarios, many of them being floated around about possibly other cabinet secretaries coming in and serving as acting attorney general, well, I don't think anybody's asked them if they want to be inserted into a constitutional crisis.

So, there -- you know, and the other thing that the president has to remember, and I'm sure that his staff has reminded him of this, is that, you know, the Department of Justice is not just Jeff Sessions. There are career prosecutors inside the Department of Justice, at the southern district of New York taking their job seriously and are not going away with any firing of any attorney general.

(CROSSTALK)

A. SCOTT BOLDEN, FORMER D.C. DEMOCRATIC PARTY CHAIRMAN: And they certainly don't -- forgive me. They don't represent the president or his business interests. They represent the people for the country. And that's the ideal they stand for.

HILL: And what's interesting, though, too, just to touch on something else you said, Bill, you know we are seeing some conservatives sort of change their tune a little bit. Case in point, Lindsey Graham.

So, here's what he had to say about replacing Sessions back in 2017. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: So, that was then, nearly a year ago. There will be holy hell to pay. This is now.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GRAHAM: And I think there'll come a time sooner rather than later where it will be time to have a new face and a fresh voice at the Department of Justice. Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the president and the president has a right to have an attorney general who he feels comfortable with.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: One could dissect what comfortable means in this situation, but, Kirsten, as we look at that, it is fascinating to see that change in tune.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I don't -- maybe Bill can explain it, because this has become a parlor game I think in Washington to trying to figure out what's going on with Lindsey Graham across the board with Trump because it's a completely different tune and kind of unusual for him to be, frankly, current position that he's taking because he typically would be somebody to speak out against something like this.

[16:35:15] Because, of course, it's not really -- I mean, it's technically true the president should have whoever, you know, makes them comfortable but Jeff Sessions actually does everything outside the Russia -- recusing himself from the Russia investigation that Trump wants. So, the only reason he would have a problem with him is because he's interested in trying to obstruct justice.

MADDEN: And one of the questions I would ask, too, is, are Lindsey Graham's comments reflective of a larger change in attitude or opinion amongst other allies up on Capitol Hill? I don't that's the case. I think Jeff Sessions does still enjoy a lot of strong support from senators up on Capitol Hill and would still find it problematic if the president were to fire him. HILL: So, Scott, if that's the case, would you see, though, other

Republicans because he does enjoy as Kevin pointed out, still enjoys support on Capitol Hill, would this be the point where we could start to see Republicans speak up?

BOLDEN: Well, I think so. At least in the past, Senator Sasse and others from Nebraska has certainly said that. But Lindsey Graham is really interesting. When I first heard his comments in the interview I started to think he caught deal with the president to be the next A.G. and maybe the senators and House will accept him as the next A.G.

But the problem with all of that is, is that Trump buries himself if he fires the A.G., the current A.G. Sessions because it's a step towards obstruction. I fired you because you didn't fire Mueller. So, I fired you because you didn't fire Rosenstein. All these fires, he would have to fire three or four people and then put someone in place that he would support who wants to shut down Mueller and he is a subject of that investigation.

That's why he won't fire him and lastly is the point that -- I'll raise this point. Maybe Trump knows he can't fire him for political reasons, maybe he wants to force Sessions out. Maybe he wants Sessions to resign to make his life easier and to give himself some political cover. Really interesting to watch.

HILL: I'll say that's --

MADDEN: He spent 25 years in the Senate. He's not going anywhere quick if he's at DOJ.

HILL: And I will say, that's something we have been talking about since March of 2017 when he recused himself. Maybe trying to get Sessions to step back based on yesterday's comments? I don't think that's happening today.

BOLDEN: That's why I'm the lawyer on the panel and not the political folks.

HILL: There we go.

Shifting gears, tough news today about Senator John McCain. His family says he is ending his treatment for brain cancer. We'll speak with CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta who the senator chose to break the news about the diagnosis with last July.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:10] HILL: Tough news today about Arizona Senator John McCain. His family says after a year of battling brain cancer, the senator has decided to end medical treatment.

McCain was diagnosed last summer with an aggressive form of glioblastoma, which doctors discovered after a surgery, to have a blood clot removed. His daughter Meghan tweeting today, my family's deeply appreciative of all the love and generosity you have shown us during this past year. Thank you for all your continued support and prayers. We could not have made this far without you. You have given us strength to carry on.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta joins me now, CNN's chief medical correspondent.

And, Sanjay, you were one of the few reporters who actually were permitted to review Senator McCain's medical records when he ran for president in 2008. You're, of course, also a practicing neurosurgeon and you deal with patients with these types of cancer.

This is such a difficult decision and such a difficult conversation to have for both the patient and the family about when is it time to stop treatment and so much of this goes back to quality of life, Sanjay.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. There's no question about it. I think in some of these conversations happened almost since the time of diagnosis, Erica, you know? So, this diagnosis for Senator McCain was in July of last year, so, some 13 months now since he was diagnosed.

He had an operation, you remember, because there was a blood collection just above his eyebrow on the left eyebrow and they weren't sure what caused that blood collection. When they removed it, that's when they found the tumor. But really, at that time, you know, you sort of -- once you have the diagnosis, you're saying, well, here are the various options, here's the likelihood of them having a significant impact and you're constantly weighing risks and benefits.

And I think when's happened now is that in discussions with his doctors and his family I'm sure they say, you know, the benefits just don't outweigh the risks or the toll that these therapies take in my body anymore. It's a tough as you point decision but I think that's typically what happens.

HILL: Yes. You know, I know we have talked about this certainly over the past year, but just remind us. I mean, we talk about this as an aggressive form of brain cancer. In some ways, it almost feels like an understatement.

GUPTA: I tell you. You know, I started training in neurosurgery 25 years ago, Erica. It's hard to believe. And what I will tell you is that over that time, quarter century now, we have not made a significant dent in terms of overall survival when it comes to this particular cancer, glioblastoma, or some people call it GBM. It is an aggressive brain cancer. It's a cancer that starts in the brain, as opposed to somewhere else in the body and spreading to the brain.

And, you know, it is typically treated with a combination of surgery and then chemotherapy and radiation. There's various new trials and things that are underway, but right now, median survival is 14 months. That's -- you're right in some ways, it's depending on the perspective, but it's hard to imagine, you know, it is an understatement to call it another form of cancer.

HILL: When you look at that, though, the median survival 14 months, Senator McCain has fought this, you know, for a fair amount of time even within that window, especially given his age.

[16:45:00]

GUPTA: Yes, I mean you know, that median survival of 14 months is with the various therapies and he is you know, he's been receiving those therapies up until now. He's you know, older but you know a lot of times in medicine we say it's not your physiological age, it's more your biological age and he's you know, he's also a fighter you know, as everyone has talked about. He's also fought another form of cancer in the past, melanoma. So he's been through this in the past, obviously, but this is -- this is a tough cancer and he's at 13 months right now. You may remember Senator Kennedy had the same type of cancer back in 2008 and it -- you know, it was about 14 months before he -- before he died as well. So that's around the average time.

HILL: Yes, Sanjay, always appreciate it. Thank you.

GUPTA: You got. Thank you, Erica.

HILL: Up next, Senator McCain's first television interview after he went public with his diagnosis.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I'm not trying to paint this as a rosy picture. This is a very virulent form of cancer. It has to be fought against.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] HILL: The somber news today from the family of Senator John McCain, the 81-year-old has decided to stop receiving medical treatment for brain cancer. His wife Cindy writing on Twitter, I love my husband with all of my heart. God bless everyone who has cared for my husband along this journey. Just weeks after his diagnosis last year, Senator John McCain returned to work on Capitol Hill and he sat down with Jake to talk about his health, his decades of service, and now he hopes he'll be remembered. Here's part of that interview which was one of the last ones the Senator gave before returning home for intense treatment.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: How's your family taking it, Cindy, and Jack, and Jimmy, and Bridget, and Meghan?

MCCAIN: Well, you know, it's tough and we've tried to include them in when we have conference calls with the doctors -- and by the way, Mayo Clinic and they're paying me nothing for this is excellent. NIH has been really good and so I'm getting the best treatment that anybody could get and I'm very happy, I'm very happy with my life. I'm very happy with what I've been able to do. And there's two ways of looking at these things and one of them is to celebrate. I am able to celebrate a wonderful life and I will be grateful for additional time that I have. TAPPER: We were talking about old memories. I covered this straight talk expressed your campaign in 2000. I have a very vivid memory. One time we're flying on your airplane during that 2000 presidential race and you remember that plane was a bucket of bolts and that was an awful plane.

MCCAIN: It was on the cheap.

TAPPER: And we were going through turbulence. It was a bad turbulence. People on the plane were scared, I was scared, you were standing in the aisle holding a glass of vodka, I think, and you were saying they can't kill me in a plane. I can't be killed in a plane because obviously, you'd survived a number of plane crashes and as a Navy pilot. Does this face off with mortality feel different than previous ones you have faced?

MCCAIN: The other ones I had much more control, obviously. I was flying the airplane you know. Although the melanoma was similar to this, but it's similar in that the challenges are very significant, obviously. But everything so far has gone very, very well and I'm very grateful, and that I've had no side effects, no nothing except and frankly an increased level of energy. And I want to thank the doctors and the nurses and the attendants and all of those who inflicted so much pain on me. I didn't know I had any blood left but I'd like to thank them for their wonderful care. They're wonderful people.

TAPPER: Last question on health and then we move on to issues and that is you went through chemo and radiation to fight this cancer, when do you find out if it worked?

MCCAIN: On Monday we will take an MRI but so far all indications are very good. But again I'm not trying to paint this as a rosy picture. This is a very virulent form of cancer. It has to be fought against. We have new technologies which I won't bother you with the details of that -- make chances much better. But Jake, you know every life has to end one way or another. I think it was a playwright, I think -- I think his name in a minute, he said I always knew that no one could live forever but I thought there might be one exception.

TAPPER: (INAUDIBLE)

MCCAIN: You got to have -- you got to have joy. Listen, those joyful memories of the campaign in 2000 are some of the most enjoyable times of my life. We were the underdogs, we were fighting our way up. We went to Sedona, remember? I mean, everything was so magic about that campaign and I'm very grateful for having the opportunity. Remember, I'm the guy that stood fifth from the bottom of his class at the Naval Academy.

TAPPER: My last question for you and I hope I don't run this clip for another 50 years but how do you want the American people to remember you.

MCCAIN: He served his country and not always right, made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of errors but served his country and I hope we could add honorably.

[16:55:00] TAPPER: I think that we can say honorably. Senator John McCain, it's always great to have you here. Do not be a stranger. There's a seat for you anytime you want.

MCCAIN: Thanks.

TAPPER: It's great to see you.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

HILL: Bill, you have covered John McCain for decades and you wrote this last year, before I ever met John McCain, I was in awe of him. I've gotten to know him pretty well over the last couple of decades and I still am. There are a lot of people who would agree with you.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: It's really wonderful that you share those clips from Jake's interview which you really see what an impressive man he is and he's got such a wonderful life but to also have that attitude as the approach as he -- as he foresees you know, the end. I mean to have that sense of gratitude and joy and pride, I think but also you know, tempered. He's a genuinely a modest man is in his way and is emphasizing he's made mistakes but he did -- he has served this country honorably. He has been an incredible example. And I do think in this current moment of Donald Trump, the National Enquirer, and Michael Cohen, and the one thing after another, it's good to have an example of honorable service out of a life well lived.

HILL: You know, it was interesting you bring that up because when he returned to the Senate last year he really you know, became one might say once again but certainly in this environment the conscience of Congress demanding colleagues stand up, right, and serve as a check on the presidency. He's put a lot of examples out there. But to Bill's point, Kirsten, sometimes it feels like there's not a place for that in politics anymore.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Well, there is a place for it. Those just aren't people who are willing to do it and I think that's why this feels like such a loss even for people who disagreed with him. I certainly had a lot of disagreements with him over foreign policy and I always heard from him also when I said things he didn't like and you know, was told repeatedly I was going to make his head explode and things like that. But you know, he had a wonderful sense of humor also and he was somebody who you know, was always joking and sort of playing tricks.

He used to -- with me. I don't know if people have seen this Saturday Night Live where you know he's stalking the woman he comes up behind her and he would do that to me at my desk that was in the newsroom and he just went behind me like hello Kirsten and every time I was like scream, you know. And it was so creepy but he was he was like that he was just he was a funny, warm, nice person or is, I don't -- I mean I'm just saying back then, and then on top of it, I think he's somebody who holds a really important place in American history and he has this long experience in history that other people just don't have. HILL: And you hear him talk about there in that interview of Jake

last year how fortunate he feels to be able to in his words celebrate a wonderful life. Kevin, in his recent memoir he wrote, before I leave I'd like to see our politics begin to return to the purposes and practices that distinguish our history from the history of other nations. I would like to see us recover our sense that we are more alike than different. As we -- as we celebrate John McCain and his life and his achievements and his contributions to this country, I mean is there a sense that the conversation that perhaps can inspire in a different way now that we're at this point.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I mean, John McCain inspired a lot of people, the public service as well just by -- through his example. And you know we're talking about are there people who are going to pick up that mantle, I think there are. There may be fewer of them nowadays but there will be people who will pick up that mantle and carry on his legacy. One thing I would really know which is it's easy to have a lot of your friends and your allies talk nice about you at a time like this but what's most notable is the people who once were opposed McCain or his political you know, political opponents their lauding him in the same way. He earned the respect of even those who opposed him maybe on policy or ran campaigns against him and that's a telling tribute to the kind of person and the character that he -- that he has.

HILL: And Scott, that's what I think we would see, the reaching across the aisle and you know, and the honesty too. As Kirsten pointed out you would hear if he wasn't happy. But Scott, just being able to do that and then to laugh at yourself and to talk about those things, that's important.

A. SCOTT BOLDEN, FORMER CHAIRMAN, D.C. DEMOCRATIC PARTY: Yes, he was just say humanly decent, was at his core. My last memory of John McCain and I'll be quick about this is when he was in the campaign in 2000, he was an underdog, he stood in this room with a bunch of supporters, town hall and one of the supporters start talking about Barack Obama being a Muslim and not born in America. And he stood up and it was his supporter and you know how badly he wanted to win and he said that's not what this campaign is about.

HILL: Yes, that is a moment I would hope we all remember for some time.

BOLDEN: And we miss in politics these days. That's what we miss.

HILL: It's true. I appreciate all of you joining us today. I appreciate you sharing your memories as well. Thanks to all of you at home for joining us this afternoon. This Sunday morning on "STATE OF THE UNION," Jake talks to Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona, of course, know Senator John McCain well, and the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Congressman Adam Schiff. All that of course starts at 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. Eastern on Sunday. Our coverage continues now with Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM."

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, money man talks. The President's inner circle is looking more like --