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Washington Post: President Trump Has Revived Idea of Firing Sessions; President Trump Warns of Violence if Republicans Lose Midterms. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired August 28, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:14] JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Good evening.

It's been quite a day. We learned that President Trump said if Republicans don't do well this November, there will be violence. And he didn't mean it metaphorically. Actual violence, he said.

John Berman here in for Anderson.

The president said that to evangelical leaders, and we'll tell you more on that in just a moment.

First, though, breaking news. Late reporting there "The Washington Post" on the possible fate of Jeff Sessions, attorney general of the United States and the president's long-time personal punching bag. According to "The Post", the president has in recent weeks privately revived the notion of firing him.

This follows reporting on Friday from CNN's Jim Acosta, and there is new urgency now because of what Senator Lindsey Graham said about Sessions earlier today.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: And I supported Jeff from the very beginning. He is -- he has always been a friend. It's not about the lack of friendship. It's just that I see a relationship that seems to be deteriorating by the minute, and we need an attorney general that has the confidence of the president. And if that can be repaired in this relationship, fine. But again, I just don't see that happening.


BERMAN: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also weighed in, saying he has total confidence in the attorney general. However, he's not the one who would fire him. The president would.

"The Post's" Josh Dawsey has much more on that. His reporting starts us off.

All right, Josh. What are you learning?

JOSH DAWSEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: So we reported tonight that President Trump on at least two occasions in the past month has asked his lawyers about the wisdom of firing Jeff Sessions. His attorney general, and suggested that he wanted to fire Jeff Sessions.

Obviously, his opprobrium and frustrations with Sessions are widely known. He has taunted him on Twitter. He has made fun of him in interviews.

Sessions has fired back. "The Wall Street Journal" reported separately this afternoon that five senators recently made a remarkable trip over to DOJ to convince Jeff Sessions to stay.

BERMAN: Let me make sure I get this straight. He is asking his lawyers who are representing him in a criminal investigation about the wisdom of firing the attorney general of the United States?

DAWSEY: Right. And it all goes back to what the president sees as the original sin, the recusal from Jeff Sessions from the investigation. When these various developments flare up, when there is an indictment, when there is news the president doesn't like, whether it's even sharp amount of news on the media probe, he blames Jeff Sessions maybe more than anyone else, and he goes on long tirades and rants about his attorney general.

He has said to many people he wants his attorney general to protect him like he thinks Eric Holder protected Barack Obama, and he is not, you know, fond of having Jeff Sessions continue on the job.

Now, what has happened on the flip side, John, is that his advisers have said this really won't solve any of your problems. It will create new problems. And Republican senators and Mitch McConnell are saying we don't know if we can confirm anyone else. So then you're stuck with Rod Rosenstein, the number two, who is leading the probe already because Jeff Sessions is recused.

BERMAN: So, let me ask you. Your reporting is that, again, his lawyers who are representing him in a criminal investigation, were they able to convince him, convince the president that he should fire Sessions until perhaps after the mid terms?

DAWSEY: For now. Though, it's always a bit of a delicate dance on the White House, advisers will say they convinced a president not to do something, and then he will tweet it. The sense that we got from several days of reporting here, John, is that the president is going to fire Jeff Sessions at some point. It's not going last forever. The question is when.

BERMAN: Yes, it's not a if, it's a when.

How does the fact that senators, including Lindsey Graham -- now I know there are some senators, including Mitch McConnell saying don't fire Jeff Sessions. But there are others opening the door to the notion that they don't think Jeff Sessions should be there anymore. Is that emboldening the president?

DAWSEY: Well, it's hard to say. It is interesting that Lindsey Graham, Chuck Grassley, some other Republicans who are staunch proponents of Jeff Sessions and has defended him repeatedly against the president's urges of firing him in the past are now saying, listen, it's kind of inevitable. Lindsey Graham said today, hey, Jeff Sessions, we'll probably get a new attorney general. Chuck Grassley has basically alluded to that as well.

We talked to a number of senators. My colleague did today, 10, 15 Republican senators on the Hill, and none of them felt that Jeff Sessions was safe.

So, when you have a president who is being not buttressed by his advisers to -- you know, they're really trying to convince not to do something, but he is sensing maybe there is a window here to do it, I think it does not bode well for the future of Jeff Sessions and the fact that Session, who has been something of a warrior for the president's agenda on immigration, on ICE, on other issues taking a lot of guff from the president, the taunts, the tweets, now suddenly seems to be tiring of it a little bit.

[20:05:02] And some of our reporting indicates that maybe he just doesn't want to do this forever, to wake up and be humiliated seemingly every week by the president for something that happened a year and a half ago.

BERMAN: Watch this space. Josh Dawsey, thanks so much.

DAWSEY: Thanks for having me.

BERMAN: All right. Let's talk about all of this, including what Lindsey Graham had to say, something people quickly noticed that was the complete opposite of what he once said about firing Jeff Session. Take a look at that.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I'm 100 percent behind Jeff Sessions. The chairman of the committee sent a very chilling tweet yesterday. There will be no confirmation hearing for a new attorney general in 2017 if Jeff Session is fired. There will be holy hell to pay.


BERMAN: So from hell to pay to A-OK.

Here to talk about it, two of Harvard Law School's finest, Professor Alan Dershowitz, author of "The Case Against Impeaching Trump", and his erstwhile student, CNN chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

I actually once delivered mail to Harvard Law School. So, this is bound to go well tonight.

Jeffrey, you heard Josh Dawsey say it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when. I mean, there is nothing amusing about firing Jeff Sessions. But now you some senators, including Lindsey Graham saying, you know, this is going to happen. It does change the dynamic. JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Absolutely. Let's remember

what Donald Trump is angry about is when Jeff Sessions did the right thing. When he recused himself in the Russia investigation, which was absolutely the right thing to do, but Donald Trump doesn't think the attorney general works for the American people. He thinks the attorney general works for him like Rudy Giuliani works for him.

Jeff Sessions is now a dead man walking. The Republican Party is the Trump party, and they will confirm if they remain in the majority whoever the president puts up. The dominoes have started to fall. Lindsey Graham, the other senators, they're not protecting Sessions anymore, and he is gone after the election.

BERMAN: We'll see what they do ultimately, if and when there is a new nominee. One thing is clear. The president has the power to fire him.

TOOBIN: No question.

BERMAN: That can happen without the Senate. Whether or not they'll confirm, we'll see.

Alan, before we get to that point, the president is asking his personal lawyers about this. He is asking Rudy Giuliani and Jay Sekulow, who are representing him in a criminal case about firing the attorney general. Is that appropriate? Are those the guys you should be going to?

ALAN DERSHOWITZ, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: Well, certainly he's asking them because he wants legal advice to avoid obstruction of justice or giving ammunition in any way to Mueller. So, he needs advice both from his personal lawyers and probably also from the White House counsel. The White House counsel will tell him he is empowered to do it, but it's not a wise idea. And then he wants advice from his personal lawyers which he's entitled to get because he is under investigation as to what impact this could have on the investigation.

Now, let's remember this is deja vu all over again. Bill Clinton went through this. He did not like Janet Reno. He did not like the fact that she appointed a special prosecutor. But he eventually bit the bullet and realized the political costs of firing Janet Reno, who he didn't get along with, didn't speak to for the last years of his term would impose a much higher cost.

Here the stakes are even greater. It's so complicated. If there weren't a special counsel, the president would, of course, fire Sessions immediately and replace him. But the fear is if he fires Sessions, he might appoint somebody who would then fire the special counsel and we're on to the Saturday Night Massacre, and that would be hell to pay.

So I think that Lindsey Graham was right the first time and not right the second time.

TOOBIN: I don't think there would be hell to pay. I think the Republican Party is the Trump party now. And if he installs a new attorney general, that attorney general may well fire Robert Mueller and, you know, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, and Mitch McConnell, they'd say oh, I have real grave concerns about that. But he is the president, and he gets to make those decisions. He has a free hand because the Republican Party will never do anything to stop Donald Trump.

BERMAN: Professor?

DERSHOWITZ: But remember that the Democratic Party may control the House in the next few months, and remember also that until and unless Mueller is fired -- I don't think he's going to get fired -- he can bring about a hellish result too.

So, I think hell to pay is still appropriate. I think the president should not at this point fire Sessions. I think it would create the appearance that he was trying in some way to end the investigation. He has the power to do it, but I think it would be a terrible political mistake, and also it would be a mistake in terms of what's best for the American people and faith in our system of justice.

TOOBIN: It would create the appearance, Alan. It would create the fact, the only reason --

DERSHOWITZ: I don't agree with that.

TOOBIN: -- he is interested in getting rid of Jeff Sessions is because of the Russia investigation.

DERSHOWITZ: Well, here we have our old fight --

TOOBIN: This is a fact issue.

BERMAN: Professor?

[20:10:00] DERSHOWITZ: Here we have our old fight again. I do not think a president can be guilty of obstructing justice by engaging in a constitutionally protected act.

BERMAN: But, Professor, that's different --

DERSHOWITZ: You said that the beginning of times --


BERMAN: I'd like to silence that while I pose my question here. Just at the right time for me to get my word in here.

Whether or not he has the right to fire Jeff Sessions is different than the reason behind firing Jeff Sessions. The president has --

DERSHOWITZ: I don't agree with that.

BERMAN: Well, no, look, you can decide later on whether it's obstructing justice. You can't argue that the president has told us that he doesn't think Jeff Sessions should recuse himself and feels betrayed by the acts of Jeff Sessions. He told us what he is upset about that.

DERSHOWITZ: I have no doubt about that.

BERMAN: Right.

DERSHOWITZ: I have no doubt about that. And he never would have appointed Jeff Sessions to be attorney general had he known that Sessions was going recuse himself.

My disagreement with Jeffrey, and it's a fundamental disagreement, and we may never know the answer to this is that a president in my view can never be charged with a crime for exercising his constitutional authority, even if he is badly motivated the way George H.W. Bush was badly motivated when he pardoned Casper Weinberger and the five other people.

If the act is constitutionally authorized, it cannot at the same time be a crime. You can't probe the motive of a president in deciding whether something is a crime. Jeffrey disagrees. And if he were in my class, we would have a great debate about that, and I would grade him A-plus for his great arguments even though I think he might be wrong.

BERMAN: Too bad --

TOOBIN: I wished I had gotten the A-plus in real life.

BERMAN: Finally, finally, getting lauded. He deserves it.

Ultimately, it is in Jeffrey's opinion, maybe not even your opinion professor that matters here. It's going to be Robert Mueller's. It's what Robert Mueller chooses to argue along the lanes of obstruction of justice. We will see. We do not know yet.

DERSHOWITZ: It's up to the court eventually, not Robert Mueller.

BERMAN: Eventually, eventually, although depending on the strength of what Robert Mueller writes, the assigning body might not be a court. It might be the Congress of the United States. So, again, Mueller has a lot of power here if he chooses to use it.

Let me ask about timing, because that's vital here. And, Jeffrey, I think this gets to where your argument might be wrong, which is that there may not be hell to pay on November 10th if he fires Jeff Sessions.

TOOBIN: Right.

BERMAN: There may be hell to pay if it's next week. There is an election going on here. And I could see Republicans saying, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, this is a bad idea until November.

TOOBIN: Yes. And I think that's what Mitch McConnell is saying. Mitch McConnell is defending Sessions for now, and I don't think he wants the tumult of a firing before November, before the election, but I think whether it's before election day or after, Sessions is gone. BERMAN: Alan, do you think Jeff Sessions is a good attorney general?

TOOBIN: I think Jeff Sessions has been a good attorney general in many ways. Look, I don't approve of any of these policies. I don't approve of the immigration policy. I don't approve of the policy of preventing from people from coming into the country based on countries.

You know, if you're a Trump supporter, you might think he was good attorney general. But as a liberal Democrat, no, I don't think he is a good attorney general any more than I think that the administration is a good administration. So you're asking the wrong person.

As to whether he is a good person for Trump, he has had a mixed record. He is strong on immigration and he hasn't been, quote, loyal.

But remember, there is another point too. We have a very odd system in America in which we expect the attorney general to be schizophrenic. As a member of the cabinet, he is supposed to be loyal to the president. But as the chief law enforcement officer, he is supposed to be loyal only to objective law enforcement. That's very difficult to do.

Robert Kennedy had a tough time doing it. Many of the other attorneys general have had a hard time doing it. That's why presidents often have demand loyalists among the attorney general, and they may not be entitled to have a loyalist when it comes to the administration of justice.

BERMAN: All right. Tonight's episode of the soap opera of Jeff Sessions. Alan Dershowitz, Jeffrey Toobin, thanks so much.

Next, more breaking news. Details of the president's fire and brimstone remarks to evangelicals about what would happen if his political party does badly this fall? He says there will be violence if Democrat wins.

Later, what's it like being chosen to read a famous man's final public words? We'll ask Rick Davis, the man who delivered McCain's powerful farewell message.

Stay with us.


[20:18:43] BERMAN: More breaking news. Our other big story tonight happened behind closed doors in the White House state dining room. President Trump hosted evangelical leaders preaching the virtues of Republican victory in the midterms this fall and warning of dire consequences should the Republicans lose.

The dinner took place last night. The details leaked out today.

CNN's Jim Acosta joins us now with the latest.

Jim, what exactly did the president say last night? What was he threatening would happen if Republicans lose?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, these are some pretty fire and brimstone comments coming from the president. He had this dinner last night with evangelical leaders over here at the White House, and it sounded like he was trying to scare them into some sort of enthusiasm to get to the polls coming up on these midterms.

He is awfully worried about it. His team is awfully worried about it. And that is the way he put it, in very incendiary language to these evangelical leaders, warning what would happen if Republicans lose control of the Congress.

He says: People say I'm not voting because the president doesn't like Congress. It's not a question of like or dislike. It's a question that they will overturn everything that we've done, and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence.

John, it's not all together clear what the president is talk about here. Obviously, we've had peaceful elections in this country for generations now. And, of course, you know, whether or not the Democrats would be able to overturn parts of the president's agenda, that is also a sign he is not really tethered to reality on this one, because obviously anyone they'll be is passed through the Congress, he would have to sign into law.

[20:20:11] So, if he doesn't like the Democrats what the Democrats who control the Congress are doing, he could just get out his veto pen -- John.

BERMAN: He did reference Antifa in these comments, as well, Jim, didn't he?

ACOSTA: He did. Just after these comments, talking about what Democrats would do to his agenda, saying that there would be violence, he said look at Antifa. That's obviously conflating the Democrats who are running for election right now with a very far left group which has had some violent outbursts at various events around the country. But, obviously, the president there trying, really going overboard and conflating those two things.

BERMAN: I understand the president also urged pastors to help out from the pulpit. How so?

ACOSTA: That's right. I mean, he is asking these evangelical leaders, these Christian conservatives to get their voters out to vote in these midterm elections. Obviously, there's got to be a concern inside the White House because of all these headlines that we've seen in recent weeks about porn star payoffs that the president may be worried that base of support which was critical in 2016 may not come.

They may sit on their hands and their pews come this November. But the president said in these remarks that were recorded last night that this is a referendum on free speech. He also said it was a referendum on religion, which, of course, it's not, John.

BERMAN: All right. Jim Acosta for us at the White House, thanks so much.

ACOSTA: You bet.

BERMAN: Perspective now from Symone Sanders, Jim Schultz, and A.B. Stoddard. We should note that Jim once worked for the president and has signed a nondisclosure agreement covering that period.

Jim, I've got to ask you, is it appropriate for the president to be warning anyone in private, let alone the evangelicals, that if the Republicans lose in the midterm, there'll be violence?

JIM SCHULTZ, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE LAWYER: Look, I don't know where he was going with the violence comment. I'm really not sure about that. But what we do know is this -- the most important thing to conservatives is judges. The president's done a very good job at appointing conservative judges.

If the Senate goes the other way, it's going to be very, very difficult to do what he has done -- what he continues to do as it relates to judges and United States Supreme Court justices. As it relates to the House, you know, the thing that wasn't talked about is impeachment. That's something that needs to be worried about.

BERMAN: But if you want to worry about judges and impeachment, fine, say judges and impeachment, don't say there is going to be violence. You agree that violence is just different than that, correct?

SCHULTZ: We have peaceful elections.

BERMAN: Right.

SCHULTZ: I'm not sure what the president was referencing there. I have no idea. That's not what I would have said.

I would have talked about impeachment. I would have talked about judges. I would have talked about his agenda, and that's what is going to get the base fired up.

BERMAN: Symone, the president did talk about Antifa. Antifa is not on the ballot in these 435 congressional districts and Senate races that are up right now. He seems to maybe be conflating the two. What did you see there?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I see that -- I don't know if the president doesn't know what he is talking about or if he is attempting to make Antifa the Democratic Party. Look, Antifa is not the Democratic Party. Democrats all across the country are running on the issues.

What the president did behind closed doors with the evangelical, the Christian right community last night was stoke the flames that do not exist. He is contributing to this very hostile climate that currently exists in our political discourse. And it's on the president to dial it down.

I think he is flailing, John. I think he is scared that a blue wave is in fact coming if folks turn out to vote, and the president sees that perhaps the days of his agenda flying through Congress are numbered.

BERMAN: A.B., how do you see this? It is very unusual for an elected official, especially the president of the United States to say hey, vote for me. Vote for my people, and if you don't, there is going to be fire in the streets.

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Well, John, see, that's different. If you heard Rudy Giuliani last week saying if there was impeachment of president Trump, there would be a people's revolt. I at first glance thought the president was saying that his supporters would be upset and there could be a civil unrest if the Democrats took the House back.

But it's even stranger for those tries to follow this at home, the president was basically saying if the Democrats are in charge in the Congress, in the House of Representatives, they will unleash some kind of flash mob of Antifa after, I don't know, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican leaders, Ivanka and Jared over at the West Wing, I mean this is beyond bizarre.

It did sound like he was saying, you know, if I pay a political price mix, supporters will be mad. But it's not what he's saying. He is saying the Democrats are going to put Antifa into some position of power to use violence against Trump supporters and the Trump agenda. It's not only reckless and so inappropriate, but it's extremely bizarre.

SANDERS: John, if I can say one other thing, it sounds like the president is trying to bully the Christian right, the evangelical community and other folks into turning out to vote this fall.

[20:25:00] And if those are the tactics that the Republican Party and the president have resorted to because they cannot run on the issues, it's a sad place for us to be. But this is -- you know, we are a democratic republic. This is not the type of language that an American president should be using.


SCHULTZ: This president doesn't need to bully anybody as far as religious conservatives.


SCHULTZ: As it relates to the accomplishments that he's had. No doubt about it.

The other thing he doesn't have to energize them about is the fact that there are a ton of Democratic socialists on the ballot that people should be concerned about.

SANDERS: Oh, my gosh. Again, when all the Republicans have to resort to are name-calling about Democratic socialists and Antifa, you know they're in trouble and hot water. SCHULTZ: It's their words. They're referring to themselves as

Democratic socialists. That's not my words. That's not my words.

BERMAN: But even Democratic. Democratic socialist is very different than saying people are going to be violent, Jimmy. You yourself said --

SCHULTZ: Agreed. No, I agree.

BERMAN: You did. We have peaceful election.

SCHULTZ: John, you got it right on that.

BERMAN: And even by your own argument, though, that he doesn't need to say this to evangelicals, then why? Why bring this up? I guess he didn't think there would be a recording in there.

So maybe he spoke his feelings, A.B., but if he didn't need to convince these people that they need to vote for fear, why would he say that?

STODDARD: Well, President Trump uses fear very effectively. He did it as a candidate, and he continues to do it. He continues to talk about immigration, what's going on at the border. He tweeted last week that there needs to be unpleasant consequences, including I guess he was hinting at family separation.

And he talks about fear all the time, MS-13. Everyone is a member in the Democratic Party of MS-13, and they're always pro immigrant crime. It is very effective. And actually trying to sort of frighten evangelical voters about complacency in the midterm elections is a good tactic.

But saying that once Democrats take over if they don't vote, that there is going to be violence is just beyond the pale. I mean, it really is. He also said some other things in there which I think we'll hear a lot more of if Democrats take the House back, which is that his voters like him but he is not on the ballot.

And they think that he doesn't like Congress. So maybe they won't turn out because they think that he doesn't like congressional Republicans. That's a real issue here. He is trying to say actually please spare me the Democrats and make sure that you get out your vote.

BERMAN: That's a whole other interesting political argument, and we'll see where that develops over the next few months how he tries to run with or against or separate congressional Republicans, to be sure.

Symone, there is the language of altercation that the president has seemed to use from the beginning, whether it's knocking the crap out of protesters at a campaign rally or talking about being able to shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue here. The type of language he uses does have that taint.

SANDERS: Yes. The president seems to think, again -- I laughed when Jim talked about a bully, that the president doesn't have to bully anyone into voting with his words. He is the original bully. He uses scare tactics and violence and fear because he seems to think it is affective.

One could argue in some respects, it is -- it is what got him to the White House. But I would venture to say that the American people do not have a stomach for this for too much longer going forward.

And if the president would like to, and if any of his supporters, any folks in the White House, anyone, would like to dial back the rhetoric, would like the rhetoric to be dialed back, would like to get back to a place of understanding where we could work across the aisle, let's start with the White House. Let's start with the president of the United States of America.

BERMAN: Jim, an effective way to go or should he dial it back?

SCHULTZ: I think dialing back is a good idea, but he does not have to dial back his bullishness. I mean, his bullishness is what got us the results in Mexico as it relates to NAFTA. It got results overseas --


SANDERS: I can't let the lies go, John. I used to work on trade issues, and there are no results that happened in Mexico. There is no deal without Canada. The president was using this as a distraction.

SCHULTZ: We're going get there. Just stop. Understood --

SANDERS: You stop. You weren't telling the truth.


SCHULTZ: That's absolutely wrong. There has been some major headway made with Mexico. There was a major announcement the other day.

SANDERS: But is there a deal?

SCHULTZ: We're getting better trade agreements, no doubt about it.

SANDERS: There is no deal. Got it.

BERMAN: A.B., you want the last word attend of this peaceful discussion?

STODDARD: I think, John, what you were talking about with in terms of how closely the president associates himself with congressional Republicans, how much he support theirs campaigns, decides to make things not difficult for their campaigns like firing the attorney general and whether or not he continues to talk about violence which will put the pressure on congressional Republicans to disagree with him --

BERMAN: Right.

STODDARD: -- is going to be an interesting thing to watch in the next eight week.

BERMAN: A.B. Stoddard, trade warrior Symone Sanders and Jim Schultz, thanks so much for being with us tonight for again peaceful discussion I do appreciate it.

SANDERS: Thank you.

BERMAN: Senator Lindsey Graham, one of John McCain's closest friends on Capitol Hill took the elector on today to add some context and poignancy in the wake of Senator McCain's death.

Just ahead, we'll hear some of what he had to say, and I'll speak to the senator's former campaign manager.


BERMAN: Senator Lindsey Graham fueled controversy today with his words concerning one of his old colleagues, Jeff Sessions. He talked heartstrings with another. His remarks on the Senate floor about his old friend John McCain brought tears to the eyes of many who heard them, not to mention his own. Here's what he had to say.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: I learned that failure and success are the different sides of the same coin. That John told me I have become better from my favors because it teaches us, and I've been tempted by my success. And without my failures, I never would have been successful. So to those who are striving as a young person, remember John McCain. He failed a lot but he never quit. And the reason we're talking about him today and the reason I'm crying is because he was successful in spite of his failures.

He taught me that honor and imperfection are always in competition. I do not cry for a perfect man. I cry for a man who had honor and always was willing to admit to his imperfection. If you're thinking about getting in politics, the one thing I would ask you to look at when it comes to the life of John McCain, that it's OK to tell people I screwed up. I got this wrong. I want to make it right.

[20:35:15] Honor is in my view doing the right thing at your own expense. And he did that time and time and time again. He lived life to its fullest. He was often disappointed, but he was never deterred from getting back up and going at it again. Love. Not a word often associated with Senator McCain, but it should be. Because if you were loved by him, you knew it. You were loved with all your faults, and I was lucky to have that love by him.

If you want to help the country, be more like John McCain. I believe there is a little John McCain in all of us. And the little John McCain practice by a lot of people, can make this a really great nation.


BERMAN: Senator Lindsey Graham talking about a friend. Yesterday someone else who was close to Senator McCain had both the duty and the honor of reading his old friend's farewell message. My conversation with Rick Davis in just a moment.

First, a moment or two from his deeply felt rendition of John McCain's final published words.


RICK DAVIS, SPOKESMAN, MCCAIN FAMILY: Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I've tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them. I've often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I've love mid life, all of it. I've had experiences, adventures, friendships, enough for ten satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets, but I would not trade a day of my life in good or bad times for the best day of anybody else's.


BERMAN: I spoke with Rick Davis a short time ago.


BERMAN: Rick, we know Senator McCain was a close friend, and we are sorry for your loss, and we could hear and feel the emotion during the remarks you gave yesterday. What was it like reading those moving words?

DAVIS: Well, a combination of challenge of trying to do justice to John's final remarks and try to actually get a breath. It was very nerve-racking and -- but I was really inspired by John and the family and their willingness to want me to have that moment to communicate to the public John's remarks. So I knew I couldn't let him down, and I'm quite certain he would have given me a very hard time and talked about what a choker I was. So I'll beat myself up for a little while. But I'm glad -- I'm glad the public has his last thoughts, and I hope people spend a little time on them. You know, I hope it wasn't just a one and done. And I think that's what he really wanted. Yes.

BERMAN: We've all spent time thinking about those words and listening to them. Both things can be true. He would have made fun of you because that's how he was, and you did a great job delivering them.


BERMAN: It's a both things can be true at the same time. You did get to spend so much time with him and the McCain family in the final days and really over the last months of his life. What was that like?

DAVIS: Well, I spent a lot of time with him over 25 years. And since his -- since his illness and since he's been here in Sedona especially, I've tried to be with him, you know, every couple of weeks. So, you know, I saw the progression of the disease and what it did to his body, but his spirit and his mind stayed strong to the end, and he was really an inspiration to us. He was always worried about how we felt. He kept asking me and others like Mark Salter and Carly, how are you doing? You OK? I'm like, I'm not the one with the disease, John. I'm worried about you. But his compassion was really strong, and we greatly appreciate, that's probably one of the things I'll remember most.

BERMAN: You wonder where he was drawing, but whether it was the five plane crashes that Lindsey Graham talked about today, or whether it was the five and a half years he spent as a prisoner of war. You wonder if that affected his approach to his own mortality, his approach to his final days.

DAVIS: Yes, I think he actually thought he would die a quiet and peaceful death just how he did. He used to say when we would be on this horrific airplane, you know, flights during the campaign, getting bounced around in these light aircraft.

[20:40:12] Don't worry, I'll never die in an airplane. And I guess he was true to his word. He always said I'm going to die in bed. And we always thought that was silly. Like the guy was a man of action. He was in every part of the world all the time. He was on his feet constantly. The idea that he would be peaceful was odd to us. And yet it was a beautiful thing. He was there with his family in -- and one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth, his ranch in Sedona. And on a gorgeous day, and it was peaceful.

BERMAN: How is the family doing at this point?

DAVIS: They're strong. I mean, they've been tested over time. I mean, the one thing about John McCain, you know, you spend a lot of time with him and he is going to harden you like steel. And they've been great. Cindy has spent an enormous amount of time, you know, caring for John and keeping the family organized. And I know that they're all together right now, and that's a great blessing. With this has brought a unity to that family and time to be spending together that they don't usually get.

BERMAN: What does it say about Senator McCain? And you had the chance to announce the funeral program. What does it say that two men who thwarted his Presidential ambitions -- I'm talk about George W. Bush and then President Obama, what does it say that they're going to be two of the people that eulogize him?

DAVIS: Well, he was very clear that that's what he wanted. He worked on every detail of this plan is for the next five days starting tomorrow. And the thought it was important. He had a relationship with these two Presidents, both men who kept him from achieving his goal of being President, but he knew he could work with them. Over time he's developed a personal relationship with them, and he felt it was an important message that even in defeat, he thinks he's honoring them by having them at the ceremony. And of course they will do what they can to honor his memory.

BERMAN: I'm sure they feel honored to receive this request. No question about that. So there has been so much talk about what Senator McCain represented to the country, what he meant to politics, what he means to the sense of bipartisanship going forward. What about you? You know, you worked with him for 25 years. What are you going to miss most about your friend?

DAVIS: Oh no, six daily calls where he says what do you know? And you had to have something ready. I mean the pressure every day to be John McCain's friend and adviser, you know, his intellectual curiosity, inquisitiveness, drive. You know, he made you a better person by raising your standards to his. And I hope I can maintain that as long as I can and try to do what I can to ensure that the memory of that attitude in his life and his views has a place not only in the party, in the country, but around the world.

BERMAN: Well, he wouldn't have picked you for the job you have right now if he wasn't proud of you. Rick Davis, thank you for what you're doing, and thanks for your time.

DAVIS: Thank you.


BERMAN: More on Senator McCain's passing and the military's reaction to President Trump's delay in honoring him, coming up.

But first, there is breaking news about Hurricane Maria which devastated Puerto Rico for nearly a year. Government officials have maintained the storm claimed no more than 64 lives on the island. Today that number changed, dramatically. Details ahead.


[20:47:41] BERMAN: It has been a big night of breaking news already. Here's more. New figures for the cost in human lives of Hurricane Maria on the island of Puerto Rico, and these numbers are shocking. Until today, the official death toll stood at 64. Now the governor says the official number is almost 3,000. 2,975 Americans killed.

CNN's Leyla Santiago was really one of the first reporters to do extensive on the ground reporting in the aftermath of Maria and investigated those early death toll numbers. She joins us now. Leyla, I understand these new numbers come from George Washington University, a study out of there. What else are you learning from that?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, I spent some time actually today speaking with those researchers, and one of the first things they made clear that this is actually a study regarding excess death. So they basically looked at exactly how many deaths they believe should have happened without Hurricane Maria, and this is the excess. But even more importantly, and I've talked to you about this before, John, that they established some recommendations, ways that possibly in the future Puerto Rico could use this information to -- to prevent deaths in the future. They talked about lack of communication. They talked about only having protocols in place for a category 1 hurricane at the time. So some interesting things when it comes to what the challenges were and what recommendations or what protocols can be put in place to possibly prevent this in the future. But let me be clear again. This is the number they believe in excess deaths. This is not a list of nearly 3,000 cases. That has yet to be done.

BERMAN: All right. So we all remember last year when President Trump visited Puerto Rico, and praised officials for the low death toll.


BERMAN: What's the White House saying tonight?

SANTIAGO: So we asked them about that as well, and actually, while they did -- while Sarah Sanders did talk about that they want to be supportive of Puerto Rico in being transparent, in continuing to look into these deaths, they really aren't pulling back any previous statements that the President made. I asked the researchers about that today, and they did bring that up and said that it was a premature statement to make, and even in the study itself from George Washington University, by the way, a study that the government of Puerto Rico commissioned and paid for.

[20:50:07] There is some mention about interviews that they did with people on the ground that expressed frustration over those comments from President Trump when he visited the island.

BERMAN: Leyla, very quickly, you said this is the number of excessive deaths. There's no list. Will there ever be names associated with it in the traditional sense?

SANTIAGO: Well, so that's the hope. That this was phase one of the study. They want to continue to do this, to talk to family members to get a better understanding. But here's the thing. There's no funding for that yet. And, remember, Puerto Rico is in debt, $70 billion in debt. So how they will move forward in paying for this p they decide to do will be a pretty big challenge.

BERMAN: Leyla Santiago, we thank you for your reporting on this. And your reporting has been a big part of getting the facts here, so thank you.

SANTIAGO: You bet.

BERMAN: Let's check in now with Chris Cuomo to see what he's working on for "CUOMO PRIME TIME" at the top of the hour. Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: So what the President is saying about Google, is this about a legit infraction or is it a distraction? We're going to take you into that. We have a White House insider going to give us their take on it. I'm getting a deeper into the church situation. The more we learn, the A.G. prosecutor from Pennsylvania was on with Wolf today. He says he believes there's proof it went all the way to the Vatican. We have a priest tonight, John, who I know personally, who sent letters sounding the alarm on McCarrick decades ago. What happened to those letters? What happened when he tried? And it is a key to understanding this situation.

And then we're going to have a nice debate for you and an argument about something the President said to preachers from the evangelical church. He said he needs them come the midterms, and you know what I say? He's right, and I'll make the argument why.

BERMAN: A nice debate. Always looking forward to that. Chris, thanks so much.

Coming up, the American legion being given credit for helping persuade President Trump to lower the White House flag back to half-staff in honor of John McCain. Just ahead, we'll hear from some legionnaires' as they gather for a convention. Their answers might surprise you.


[20:56:20] BERMAN: For much of yesterday, the flag above the White House was at full staff rather than half-staff in memory of the late war hero and Arizona Senator John McCain. But under pressure from many quarters, not the least of which was the letter from the American legion, President Trump finally restored the flag to its place of respect in honor of McCain. Legionnaires' are gathering now for their annual convention, so we asked 360's Gary Tuchman to attend as well and hear what they had to say.


GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): There are nearly 2 million members of the American legion. One of those members was Senator John McCain.

DON FLOYD, AMERICAN LEGION MEMBER: I think John McCain was one of the greatest heroes this country has ever seen.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Here in Minneapolis at the 100th Annual American Legion Convention, you hear that sentiment over and over again from these wartime veterans who in many if not most cases voted for and support President Donald Trump. Glenn Whitaker is an army veteran seriously wounded at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in a grenade blast during the Vietnam War era. He strongly supports the President.

(on-camera): Do you think, though, that President Trump was disrespectful to John McCain, particularly in his dying days?


TUCHMAN (on-camera): How did that make you feel as a veteran, as someone wounded for this country?

WHITAKER: Because we are family.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Many of the veterans here are emotionally pained by how a President who for the most part admire acted towards John McCain

(on-camera): Who here believes that John McCain was a hero? Does anyone believe he wasn't a hero? No hands. So when you heard President Trump say he wasn't a hero because he doesn't believe that people who are captured are heroes, was that insulting?


TUCHMAN (on-camera): How did that make you feel?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's ridiculous. I mean they paid more than we did. Yes.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Jerry Tarquinio from Illinois served in the army in Vietnam.

(on-camera): Do you supported Donald Trump for President? Do you believe John McCain is a hero? If you could talk to the President about the way he acted towards John McCain while he was alive and the way he's now acting while he's passed away, what would you say to him?

JERRY TARQUINIO, AMERICAN LEGION MEMBER: I'd tell him that he was very disrespectful for that. But I don't agree with it.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): American Legion members were so upset by the President's behavior following Senator McCain's death that the organization released a statement urging the President to make an appropriate presidential proclamation noting Senator McCain's death and legacy of service to our nation and that our nation's flag be half-staff through his interment. Marine veteran Joe Plenzler is the Legion's national director of Media Relations.

JOE PLENZLER, NATIONAL DIRECTOR, AMERICAN LEGION MEDIA RELATIONS: I think we were measured in our statement. It was a request to the commander in chief saying hey, this is a long-standing tradition. You know, we'll direct your attention back to you what's been done in the past and ask you follow tradition.

TUCHMAN (voice-over): Anna Brown knows tradition. The World War II marine corps women's reserve member has now been alive for 94 of these American Legion conventions. She voted for Donald Trump.

(on-camera): If you had a few seconds for him, what would you say?

ANNA BROWN, AMERICAN LEGION MEMBER: Well, maybe I would say I don't like the way he treated him. But, you know, what's been done as been done and there's nothing I can do about it to change that.

TUCHMAN (on-camera): Does that make you sad?

BROWN: I mean he should be -- should -- maybe he should apologize or -- yes, it makes me sad.


TUCHMAN: There are about 12,000 veterans attending the convention, John, which means that when we were in the convention hall, we were surrounded by about 12,000 American heroes. So not surprisingly, everybody we talked to is troubled by the way Donald Trump handled this. But the intensity of the feeling really has to deal with the persuasions, the political persuasions of veterans we talked to. For example, people who really like Donald Trump tend to say, yes, John McCain is a hero, but this is the way President Trump is. He says a lot of things, and that's his personality.

[21:00:04] But others including Democrats and people who didn't vote for Donald Trump are very angry with the President.