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WOLF

U.S. and Mexico Trade Deal; Friends and Colleagues Honor McCain; North Korea Accuses U.S. of Plotting War. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired August 27, 2018 - 13:00   ET

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


[13:00:00] DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you for joining us on INSIDE POLITICS. "WOLF" starts right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

Today we are remembering the life and legacy of Senator John McCain. The reaction to his death continuing to pour in from all around the globe. This hour I'll speak with several of his very close friends and colleagues. All that coming up.

But let's begin right now with some major breaking news here in Washington. What could be the end of the North American Free Trade Agreement, NAFTA. President Trump now says negotiators have worked out a separate new trade deal with Mexico, a deal that excludes Canada. Details are scarce, but in a phone call with the president of Mexico, President Trump called this a good step for the two countries.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I like to call this deal the United States/Mexico Trade Agreement. I think it's an elegant name. I think NAFTA has a lot of bad connotations for the United States because it was a rip-off. It was a deal that was a horrible deal for our country. And I think it's got a lot of bad connotations to a lot of people. And so we will probably -- you and I will agree to the name. We will see whether or not we decide to put up Canada or just do a separate deal with Canada if they want to make the deal.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, right now.

So, Jim, what more do we know about this preliminary non-NAFTA agreement?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, unlike the questions that were asked of the president about John McCain, the president had nothing to say about the late senator. He did go on to a great deal to talk about this new trade agreement that he says that he has struck with Mexico. Now, obviously, this is a preliminary agreement. The final details are still being worked out. Much of what has been under discussion, Wolf, has been the Trump administration and frankly President Trump's insistence that some car production be brought back to the United States. That has been one of the byproducts of NAFTA. A lot of the car production that was going on in the U.S. went down to Mexico.

But, Wolf, in the middle of all of this is sort of this glaring fact that you have some pretty rough relations going on right now between the president and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau. I think it's inescapable that the president reached this trade deal with Mexico. Its outgoing president and incoming president as a way to try to get Canada back to the negotiating table. Canada has so far not really been a part of these negotiations, but the president said when talking to reporters just a short while ago that he does invite the Canadians to be a part of this.

Of course, Wolf, this is part of what the president campaigned on throughout the 2016 campaign cycle. He was very tough on the NAFTA agreement, called it one of the worst trade deals ever negotiated in American history. And this was part of his pitch to a lot of workers in the heartland, in places like Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, places where those voters ended up being critical when it came down to voting time in 2016.

But, Wolf, at this point, we just have scarce details as to what exactly is in this preliminary agreement between the U.S. and Mexico. But it is -- it is a rather striking departure from where things have been for the last generation. NAFTA has been part of the trade lexicon in this country for a long period of time, to the chagrin of a lot of people working in those states where they've seen a lot of factories close down and go overseas. And so this -- the president is trying to position this as a big political win for him obviously heading into the midterm campaign cycle.

But on top of all of that, you're seeing, as a result of this, some pretty glaring bad relations between the president, this White House and the Canadians at this point as they're apparently just not a part of this agreement at this point, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, and his remarks in the Oval Office just a little while ago, the president made no mention at all of the wall, the wall he wants built along the U.S./Mexico border. Has the president, for all practical purposes, given up right now on his campaign pledge that Mexico would pay for that wall?

ACOSTA: Wolf, we hear him talk about this out on the campaign trail from time to time, and what he says is that he will, in some way, get Mexico to pay for this wall somewhere down the road. And I suspect what you're going to hear from his advisers when this question comes up is they're going to say, well, some of the money that will go towards the wall will be in the form of some of this production that they think will come back to the United States as part of this renegotiated trade agreement.

But in terms of how the president positioned this during the campaign where there would be some sort of expenditure on the part of the Mexican government that would help finance the construction of the wall on the Mexican border, Wolf, we've heard from not a single White House official who's ever explained to us how that is ever going to happen. So it sounds like, for all practical purposes, the president has given up on that.

[13:05:02] But he's not given up on it, as you know, as a campaign tool. We hear about his vision for a wall at just about every campaign rally. And he claims, falsely, that what he presented to the voters during the campaign is being built on the U.S./Mexico border. Of course we know, Wolf, that there's very little wall construction going on down there. There's fence repairs and that sort of thing, but nothing like what he promised during the campaign, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, no, during his campaign rallies in recent months, he often talks about the wall. He promises the wall will be built. He promises there will be funding for the wall, but he no longer says Mexico will pay for the wall, which always generated a huge amount of applause at his rallies. He stopped saying that, at least for now.

Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, tributes to Senator John McCain. They are pouring in from around the world.

But one voice still notably missing, that would be the president of the United States. We learned the White House did draft a full statement on Senator McCain after his death, a statement that would have praised him, his military service, being a real genuine American hero, but President Trump, for whatever reason, chose to go with just a short tweet instead expressing his sympathy to the family.

And just moments ago, the president repeatedly ignored multiple questions from reporters in the Oval Office during that photo-op when they pressed him on questions involving Senator McCain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Make your way out.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, any thoughts on John McCain?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Press, let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, any thoughts on John McCain, sir?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Press, thank you.

Press, let's go, guys.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. President, any thoughts on the legacy of John McCain?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Didn't answer any questions. And you saw all of his top aides, including the vice president, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Sarah Sander, they immediately walked in front of the desk to prevent -- to prevent any further questioning of the president on this issue.

We are expecting, by the way, to see the president once again shortly. He's welcoming Kenya's president to the United States. We'll see if he weighs in at that time during that photo-op.

In the meantime, joining us now to honor the life and legacy of Senator McCain, a man who worked closely with him over many years, Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy from Vermont.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

I know you admired Senator McCain. You worked closely with him. How are you remembering him on this day?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), VERMONT: I am remembering him as a very, very good friend. I'm remembering the last time we talked. I think we both knew it would be the last time we'd see each other. We -- I've got to admit, it got pretty emotional for both of us saying good-bye and hugging each other good-bye.

I've worked with John on a lot of things. Sometimes we agreed. Sometimes we disagreed. We were both laughing about the fact that we sometimes have a towering argument and five minutes later we'd be back in the cloakroom or out in the hall, arms around each other just laughing our heads off.

But the thing is, you could go to John and say, look, John, we've got to set aside Democratic and Republican labels. Here's something that needs to be done. And we'd work it out. Whether it was for the security of the United States, the betterment of our people, we could do it.

And I -- I have to admit this morning, I got a call from somebody in Washington, how angry they were driving by the White House seeing the flag not lowered to half-staff. Every single flag in Washington and Vermont has been lowered in his honor. It is such pettiness, such pettiness in reaction to a real American hero.

You know, I realize the president never wanted to serve in the military, but he ought to -- he ought to show some admiration for someone who did and served nobly.

BLITZER: We do know that yesterday, for several hours, the White House flag was lowered to half-staff, but for some reason overnight it was raised once again. The flags are at half-staff clearly up on Capitol Hill.

And I want to get to that in a moment, but we've heard so many stories about Senator McCain's very strong friendships, not necessarily restricted by age or party affiliation. You're clearly a Democrat. Senator McCain, of course, was a Republican. And as you correctly point out, you often didn't see eye to eye on many -- on a lot of these substantive issues.

But what does that say about him, that despite differences, partisan differences, he was willing to work with liberal Democrats on some of the most sensitive issues?

LEAHY: I think he and I had the same view of the Senate. It should be the conscience of the nation. And that means both of us have had to say, look, we can't follow what our party says, we have to follow what's best for the U.S. And he would do that.

[13:10:11] I do remember one time, after an argument, he comes over and he starts apologizing for -- and I said, John, you never have to apologize for anything. Anyone who has gone through what you have, you never have to apologize.

But then he would sit down -- I mean I remember we worked on immigration. We worked on other things. He was always there trying to figure out, OK, how do we bring Republicans and Democrats together for the good of the nation. I mean he could be -- he could take a Republican -- he was a proud Republican. But the nation came first. I think a man who served, as he did, who refused to leave the prison in Hanoi until the other prisoners were able to leave, is a man who shows real character.

BLITZER: Yes.

LEAHY: That's why -- it bothers me somewhat on the flag of the White House because John McCain had so, so much character. And it shows a lack of character in not lowering the flag at the White House.

BLITZER: What does it show to you that there was a draft statement that was submitted to the president praising Senator McCain's -- his unique role in American history as a POW, as a war hero, but the president decided, for whatever reason, he wasn't going to release that. What does that say to you?

LEAHY: It shows what a strong person John McCain was. And it shows that one of the two was strong and not weak. And I think the fact that John McCain's family has invited Barack Obama and George Bush, both men that he ran against, to come and give a eulogy, that shows what Americans should do, not try to divide people, but to bring people together.

John McCain tried to bring people together. Just before we went on the news, you were showing about NAFTA. Excluding Canada, NAFTA won't pass the Senate. I mean the only way it passed last time was because Canada was part of it. It sort of falls in the same category, we're all waiting for Mexico to pay for a wall. I mean President Trump promised that, gave his word that they'd pay for it. Well, my reaction was open a bank account. When that money comes in, we'll spend it on the wall.

But you're not -- I mean this kind of thing, Canada is our greatest trading partner. It comes across as petty. It is not what John McCain would do. John McCain tried to rise above petty politics. And that's why you're seeing so much admiration for him from both Republicans and Democrats.

BLITZER: Yes. And we're going to have a lot more on Senator McCain coming up.

Senator Leahy, thanks so much for joining us.

LEAHY: Thank you. And thank you for honoring my good friend.

BLITZER: Yes, well, he deserves it.

This hour, the president has, by the way, another chance to address the passing of Senator John McCain. We're going to hear from the president later this hour. We'll see what, if anything, he says.

Also, why North Korea says the U.S. is secretly plotting right now to unleash war. That's what North Korea is now saying. We have details. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:17:57] BLITZER: Soon, President Trump is expected to speak as he greets Kenya's president over at the White House. But will he answer any questions from reporters about Senator John McCain's death? He ignored repeated questions from reporters earlier today in the Oval Office.

Meanwhile, the White House flag returned to full staff after just one day, while other federal buildings remain half-staff in honor of the U.S. senator.

And this, a source now telling CNN, White House aides did, in fact, draft an official statement on Senator McCain after his death, but it never went out. The president, instead, simply sending out a brief tweet expressing his sympathy to the McCain family.

Joining us now to discuss this and more, White House reporter for "Bloomberg News," Shannon Pettypiece, and CNN political analyst and White House reporter for "The New York Times," Julie Hirschfeld Davis.

Ladies, thanks for joining us.

What would have been a big deal if the president would have released that statement which his top advisers had drafted for him?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, it would have been an easy thing for him to do. That's what presidents usually do in a situation like this. But we know, we've heard for months, that President Trump has a real grudge against Senator McCain. He did not want to say anything particularly nice about him, either about his death or about his life and his legacy. He just didn't want to go there.

And so he couldn't bring himself to do even kind of the most, you know, sort of basic of presidential statements saying John McCain has died, he was a hero, here's his legacy or something along those lines. He just didn't want to do that. He didn't I think feel comfortable given their history together of doing that.

And I also think, you know, he felt that John McCain represented a brand of politics and the establishment that he wants to hold himself away from and he wants to keep at a distance. I just think he couldn't really see a way clear to do what his advisers were offering him, you know, the chance to do.

BLITZER: Because there is, as a lot of our viewers will remember, Shannon, an ugly history going back to 2015 when the president was asked about John McCain being a war hero and he said he wasn't a war hero, he was captured, he was a POW, and if you're captured, you're not a hero.

[13:20:04] And then, in recent months, he, out on the campaign trail, has repeatedly gone after Senator McCain for voting against the Affordable Care Act and, for all practical purposes, stopping it from being completely repealed.

SHANNON PETTYPIECE, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG NEWS": I mean this isn't the first time, though, a president has disagreed with someone who died while they -- you know, and had to say something while they were in office. That happens. People on different political parties, you know, will die while someone is in office. You say something courteous about them, though. I think that's what shows the difference between this White House and previous White Houses is that in the past, and maybe the person could have really detested the deceased behind closed doors, but they would publicly at least come out and show some sort of courtesy, you know, show some sort of support for the family.

And this White House is just not going to do that. And once this president locks his mind in on something, he does not change it. He does not compromise. There is no grudge too small, too slight, to little that he will look past.

BLITZER: Because even the past year, when he was clearly dying from brain cancer, the president would still go out there and speak ill of John McCain on the campaign trail.

Why is the WHITE HOUSE flag now at full staff as opposed to half- staff? Yesterday it was at half-staff.

DAVIS: Well, and as you pointed out earlier, all the other buildings in Washington, they're still at half-staff.

There is a provision in the law that when a member of Congress dies, the flag gets lowered for 24 hours to half-staff. But in cases like these when you have a revered senator who's been serving for decades, a war hero, certainly was the case with Senator Ted Kennedy when he died, the president will issue a proclamation extending that period usually through the funeral or the burial of the deceased. And -- but that would have taken an official act by President Trump. The proclamation would have had to say something, presumably something good about Senator McCain. And as we've seen, as we've been discussing, he's not willing to do that. He still feels that Senator McCain was his enemy, worked against him, said bad things about him and he just doesn't -- he just doesn't want to do it. And so you see the physical manifestation of that with the flag.

BLITZER: Yes, issuing a proclamation, you know, Julie's absolutely right, the president would have had to sign that proclamation and he would have had to say, John McCain, war hero, great American, great patriot and he clearly didn't want to say that.

PETTYPIECE: I even saw a statement from McConnell and Schumer asking that the military ensure that flags at government buildings are flown at half-staff until McCain is buried. I don't know if that means they're going to send the military in to lower the flag at the White House, if that's how the military coup will unfold, but it certainly shows too that bipartisan side making whatever efforts they can to make sure that that honor is extended even if it isn't happening at the White House.

BLITZER: You know, Senator Schumer wants to rename the Russell Senate Office Building the John McCain Senate Office Building. A lot of Democrats are on board. I assume a bunch of Republicans are as well.

What are you hearing from the White House? What are you hearing from Capitol Hill? Is that likely to be renamed?

DAVIS: Well, it seems like if Democrats agree, and obviously Richard Russell was a Democrat, and Jeff Flake, the other Republican from Arizona, is onboard with that. I would not be surprised to see other Republicans sign on in that effort. It's not something that the president would have to sign is my understanding, so I wouldn't be surprised also if the White House just sort of didn't touch the issue.

But, clearly, that would be a big, symbolic thing. And I think folks on Capitol Hill are looking for as symbolic -- as many symbolic ways as they can find to honor McCain's legacy. And at a time when the president is really not playing that unifying role, we see, you know, Congress and certainly former presidents Obama and Bush will be eulogizing Senator McCain playing that role for him.

BLITZER: At the National Cathedral. That will be on Saturday morning when that takes place.

I want you guys to stand by. We're expecting to hear again from the president. The Kenyan president is in town. We'll see if he says anything about Senator McCain.

Much more coming up, including the possible fallout from the abrupt cancelling of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip to North Korea. He was supposed to be there this week. Why Pyongyang is now accusing the United States of, quote, hatching a criminal plot.

And later, we'll speak with Florida Senator Bill Nelson about his favorite memories of Senator John McCain and why he says the president is not acting presidential right now.

Stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:29:09] BLITZER: North Korea's state-run newspaper is now accusing the United States of plotting to, quote, unleash a war while negotiating with, quote, a smile on its face. The newspaper in Pyongyang alleges that U.S.-based forces in Japan are conducting secret drills involving what it calls man-killing special units with the intention of invading North Korea. U.S. forces in Japan say it's not aware of any such drills.

All this comes just days after President Trump cancelled Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's planned visit to Pyongyang this week.

To discuss this and more, I'm joined by former U.S. Ambassador to China, Max Baucus. He's also a former Democratic senator from Montana.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

So what do you think -- why do you think that there has been this fiery rhetoric now coming from Pyongyang?

[13:30:03] MAX BAUCUS, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO CHINA: I think it's an internal consumption. I think President Kim -- every once in a while he does this, stirs up the people in his country as some outrageous charge against the United States. I think that's basically it.