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Trump Relents Under Pressure, Offers Respect to McCain; McCain's Last Message Warns Against 'Tribal Rivalries'. Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired August 28, 2018 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We very much appreciate everything that Senator McCain has done.
[05:59:27] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Anybody who tarnishes the reputation of John McCain deserves a whipping.
SEN. JIM INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: John McCain was personally to blame. He disagreed with the president in certain areas.
GOV. JOHN KASICH (R), OHIO: You're never going to have another John McCain. Do I think that his life will inspire other people? We certainly hope so.
RICK DAVIS, FORMER CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN FOR JOHN MCCAIN: Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the greatness of America.
SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: He always belonged to America and now he belongs to the ages.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Tuesday, August 28, 6 a.m. here in New York. And this morning, we have a picture to show you from the White House. The flag there, you can see it there in the early morning hours --
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Can you?
BERMAN: Barely, but it's there.
BERMAN: It has been lowered back to half-staff in honor of the late Senator John McCain. For a time yesterday, it seemed like it was the only official flag not lowered to honor the senator. And this morning, we have remarkable new details about why and why the president refused to utter a word of praise for the senator for so long yesterday. "The Wall Street Journal" reports the president felt the television
coverage of McCain's passing was, quote, "over the top and more befitting a president." Over the top for the six-term senator, one- time Republican presidential nominee who endured five and a half years as a prisoner of war. Over the top.
As for what befits a president? Well, that almost writes itself.
The important thing is the president caved to pressure from Congress, veterans' groups and members of his own staff; and he did release a statement finally, saying he respected McCain's service to the country and did order the flag to remain at half-staff until McCain is buried. The president also appeared on camera last night, where he said he appreciated, quote, "everything McCain has done for the country."
CAMEROTA: And John, it is very interesting to learn which advisers have influence over the president. So we'll get into that.
We're also learning new details about the ceremonies to honor John McCain. His colleagues in the Senate draped his desk in black and placed these white flowers on top of it.
Former presidents Obama and Bush will deliver eulogies. President Trump will not go, but he has asked Vice President Mike Pence to make remarks at McCain's funeral.
But this morning the focus is on the fallen senator's final words. There was this letter that was read by one of his long-time aides, and McCain in it encouraged Americans to unite around the ideals that connect us rather than focus on our divisions. And in a clear message to President Trump, McCain pointedly asked Americans to tear down walls, rather than build them.
So we have a lot to cover. Let's start with CNN's Athena Jones. She is live at the White House -- Athena.
ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Alisyn.
The president finally relenting after facing mounting pressure and bipartisan pressure to release a full, respectful statement and to lower the flag atop the White House back to half-staff in honor of McCain. A source tells CNN the president resisting doing more throughout the day, despite urging from several senior staffers, because he felt that the TV coverage of the passing of Senator McCain was over the top.
TRUMP: Our hearts and prayers are going to the family of Senator John McCain. We very much appreciate everything that Senator McCain has done for our country.
JONES (voice-over): President Trump finally addressing the death of John McCain on camera, after choosing to ignore multiple opportunities to comment about the late senator.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Mr. President, any thoughts on John McCain?
Mr. President, why won't you call John McCain a hero, sir?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why won't you say anything about John McCain?
JONES: Under enormous pressure, President Trump releasing a statement earlier in the day, noting, "Despite our differences on policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain's service to our country." The president also ordering the flag to be lowered to half-staff after the American Legion released a pointed statement, urging the president to do more to honor McCain.
SEN. JOHNNY ISAKSON (R), GEORGIA: I would say to the president or the -- anybody in the world, it's time to pause and say, this was a great man.
SEN. BOB MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: President Trump obviously shows how little he is and how petty he can be when he cannot put aside whatever his differences were with Senator McCain.
JONES: At the Senate, McCain's colleagues lining up to pay tribute to the decorated war hero and six-term senator, McCain's desk topped with a vase of white roses.
FLAKE: We are fortune to have known him best in Arizona, but he was bigger than any one state. He always belonged to America and to the world. And now he belongs to the ages.
JONES: Back in Phoenix, McCain's final message for the American people read aloud by his long-time aide Rick Davis.
DAVIS: We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred, and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
Do not despair of our present difficulties. We believe always in the promise and greatness of America because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.
Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you and God bless America.
[06:05:00] JONES: Now President Trump announced Monday that Vice President Pence will make remarks at McCain's memorial at the Capitol on Friday. This after a source tells CNN McCain did not want the president to attend.
We also learned that chief of staff John Kelly, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and national security adviser John Bolton will represent the administration at McCain's funeral on Sunday -- Alisyn. CAMEROTA: OK, Athena. Thank you very much for all that background,
Let's talk about it. We want to bring in CNN senior political analyst John Avlon; Toluse Olorunnipa, White House reporter for Bloomberg News; and CNN political analyst David Gregory. Great to have all of you.
So David Gregory, it's fascinating to watch the anatomy of the president's shifting statements. So he was, according to all of the reporting -- this is from CNN, this is from the "Wall Street Journal," this is from "The Washington Post" -- he was dug in for two days. He didn't want to say something nice or laudatory about John McCain, in part -- and this is interesting -- because he felt that it would be inauthentic, that Americans know that these two didn't like each other and that it wouldn't ring true if he were to say something nice, he felt, of course, not understanding that this is about John McCain's life, not about their feud.
But then the reporting says that it was John Kelly, chief of staff; it was Bill Shine now in the communications department; and it was Sarah Sanders who played a really, according to "The Wall Street Journal," fundamental role in getting him to change his mind. And it's just interesting, because we don't always often see how it works and how the president can change his mind. Your thoughts?
DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, a couple of things. First, this is just another self-imposed controversy that is petty and that is so pointless, because yet again the president has demonstrated that he is -- he's thinking about himself, his grievances, his opinions rather than the office he holds.
The office of the presidency commands that you show graciousness in this moment, because it's not just about you. It's about an office that would pay tribute to a patriot, whether you're a Republican or a Democrat. Look at the presidents who have praised him, members of both parties who have praised him and who have honored him because of his service to the country.
The president doesn't have to be inauthentic. He can -- he can hate John McCain. I mean, you know, nobody is going to say that he has to love him, but the president of the United States needs to go big, needs to be gracious. Needs to speak for the citizens of the country who are all eager, whatever their political feelings, whatever they felt about John McCain. He was not always popular. But who would show graciousness toward this patriot for the way he served the country, for the hero that he was, for the contributions that he made. It's just so easy to do. And anybody, whether you're in the military or whether you're serving the president in any capacity in government where you have a sense of the fact that this is bigger than you, which is something John McCain always understood, would have done the right thing and not just created this -- this distraction that was unnecessary.
BERMAN: So Toluse, you were in the room, I understand, at the White House last night. The president did this event with evangelicals there where he did finally speak words of praise and respect out loud for John McCain. I've seen the tape of it a few times. And it almost seems as if there's this sense of relief in the room from evangelicals, which wasn't really John McCain's crowd, by the way. But the people in that room seemed to say, you know, "Thank you, Mr. President, for saying this out loud."
TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Yes. That was the culmination of a very long day where we were sort of wondering, as a press corps, will he or won't he actually address this, as the drum beats of recriminations and negative public backlash were starting to roll out from veterans' groups, from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
He ended the day at an event that was not supposed to be open press. It was originally a closed-press event. There were not supposed to be reporters in the room, but they changed the format at the last minute and brought reporters into the room. And the president read, from his prepared statements, remarks that a lot of people were waiting to hear. They weren't fulsome. They weren't effusive praise for John McCain, but he said that "Our hearts and prayers are with his family, and we appreciate what he's done in terms of serving the country."
A very small remark that meant a lot in the room. He got pretty strong applause in the room because, as you said, there was relief. I don't think for the evangelical community and for a lot of Americans, it's not really positive to see the president fighting with a fallen war hero, someone who is seen and respected across the country for his decades of public service; to see the president not lowering the flags to half-staff, not putting out any type of statement beyond a tweet. I think a lot of Americans were waiting for him to at least rise to the moment and say something nice about a man who served his country for decades upon decades.
CAMEROTA: John, it just shouldn't be that hard. I mean -- I mean, it just shouldn't be that hard.
JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No.
CAMEROTA: This is the interesting thing about it. It's just the easiest thing in the world. Sometimes these things are proforma. He could have just even said a proforma note of condolence and somehow lauded John McCain. It didn't have to be heartfelt. He could have just issued it. And people -- it wouldn't have spun this media cycle for, then, those 48 hours.
[06:10:00] And the president was frustrated, we're told, by the media cycle. He felt that his deal with Mexico should have been getting more oxygen, but he doesn't -- he didn't connect the dots of where -- how this whole thing started.
AVLON: This is example 1,000 of the president stepping on his own story by making something more difficult by simply not being decent.
This is a minimal viable standard. You don't get in fights with dead people. That's not sporting. It's not presidential, to say the least.
And look, one of the great presidential feuds of all time is Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy. And when Bobby Kennedy was assassinated, Lyndon Johnson gave a fulsome, heartfelt, sincere tribute on air, on the radio. Mr. President, you can Google it. And that really is the standard. It's basic. It's human.
And the fact that he resisted and his chief of staff and his communications director and his press secretary had to weigh in again and again; and he finally relented, I suppose to his credit. But it's a day of unforced errors; and it's indecent, and it's beneath the presidency.
BERMAN: Yes. You know, David Gregory, and there are people who say, "Well, he finally did it. We should leave it alone." He did do it. And he did do it, and think his paper statement, had he released it first thing, would have put this all to bed right away. His public statement out loud last night to the evangelicals was pitch perfect, but it took a long time to get there. And you can't grade the guy on a curve here just because he behaves differently in this type of situation.
And the White House knew it. I mean, Sarah Sanders all along was pushing for it. They knew inside that this was going to be an issue. And it strikes me as just very telling that the president of the United States had an issue with so many praise being heaped on John McCain, that his problem with the coverage was it was too effusive about the senator. It was over the top.
GREGORY: Right. Well, look, McCain made him look bad. And in death and in dying, he made it very clear -- he exacted his revenge on Trump by speaking out at a critical time, a figure who stood up for freedom around the world, stood up for democracy in America.
And this episode will pass, as distasteful as it is. The pettiness will move on, but we are in this moment, right? Where you have a figure like McCain, who was often out of synch with his own party, who did make enemies within his own party. I mean, John, you and I remember, you know, he and George W. Bush, especially after South Carolina, were real enemies. And it got personal. I remember after he won the Arizona primary, and Bush didn't call. And McCain was on his plane making that look like, what is wrong with these people? I mean, that tension and that acrimony held on for a long time.
And McCain, a supporter of Iraq but then really broke with the administration on the issue of the treatment of prisoners, was a real thorn in their side.
And yet the elegance of rising above our political differences is on display. George W. Bush, the president, will eulogize John McCain. That tells us who we are in our politics, not the kind of tribal politics that means a figure like President Trump would speak so disparagingly about McCain and then, because of a health care vote, hold onto this personal hatred that doesn't allow him to rise above, as president, and do the right thing.
BERMAN: Let's talk about the elegance, the elegance of John McCain's final message. We saw elegance right there. We'll talk about that in just a moment. Gentlemen, stand by. Because that last message that Rick Davis, his long-time campaign manager and aide, read out loud yesterday tells you everything about John McCain. It tells you everything about how he saw the country at the moment of his passing.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[06:17:27] DAVIS: We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment, hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down; when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: Beautiful words read by Senator John McCain's long-time aide, Rick Davis. The senator wanted those words passed along after he died.
McCain talked about his pride as an American and the common causes that bring us all together.
Let's bring back Toluse Olorunnipa, David Gregory and John Avlon.
And Toluse, you note that those words are elegant. They are beautiful, but they could be seen as a traditional tribute to American exceptionalism, you note, which they are, but now because of the time we're in, they're being read as a kind of rebuke to the president.
OLORUNNIPA: Yes. It's amazing how things that were normally just sort of traditional and nonpolitical have become political and have been seen as a referendum on the president. These are words that you could expect from any passing politician, talking about, you know, American exceptionalism, talking about how the country should always try and strive to live up to its ideals. And it's seen as a -- basically, a pushback against President Trump who, in Senator McCain's view, did not live up to those ideals and often fell very far short.
We saw a number of statements coming from Senator McCain when he was still alive, really pushing back very directly against some of the things the president said, whether it was in the Helsinki press conference or in the aftermath of Charlottesville, really calling for the president to stand up for the American ideals that Senator McCain fought for.
And this statement, even in his death, is a clear rebuke of the type of America that President Trump has tried to embrace and the whole idea of Trumpism, this "us versus them" mentality. I think that's part of the reason Senator McCain decided not to invite President Trump to his funeral, and it's part of the reason President Trump struggled so long to put out a statement, because as he said in his statement, "We have disagreements on both policies and politics."
CAMEROTA: David Gregory, there's something, obviously, so poignant about knowing that Senator McCain planned his own funeral and wrote these words to be read posthumously. It really focuses the mind, you know, when you have to make those priorities and make those choices. And so that's the message that he wanted delivered.
Obviously, the country is not there right now. You know, obviously, that's not a message that resonated in the past election. We are divided. But the pendulum swings back and forth. And, you know, we'll see what impact and what legacy John McCain has.
[06:20:15] GREGORY: Well, I think that's the right point. And I think, you know, we can't forget, even in a kind of ceremonial time for a figure like McCain, that there is a lot of tension in our democracy, ideological tension; and that's what democracy is all about.
And John McCain always was on that inflection point. You know, he didn't win the presidency. He didn't get the nomination in 2000, because he wasn't really right with the Republican Party.
He finally got it in 2008, and then it really wasn't the moment for a guy who was as hawkish as he was, as pro-Iraq War as he was, as close to Bush as he became, ideologically and politically, for him to win the presidency.
And he is a representative of the conservative establishment, certainly in the Obama years, that a lot of populists, a lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives rejected in voting for President Trump. So that's real. That tension is real. And it did spill over into this relationship.
And you know, but John McCain, the statesman, found his voice as a kind of resistance voice on the right to -- to this president when a lot of other people have fallen silent.
BERMAN: So this letter that Rick Davis read out loud really was a kind of farewell address from Senator McCain, not just to the country but, I think, to the world. And if only we had an expert with us at this table.
CAMEROTA: I know. Someone who had written a book on something like this.
BERMAN: On farewell addresses.
John Avlon, you wrote about George Washington's farewell address. And there are similarities here.
AVLON: Actually, it really does track, and I think the parallels were something not studied but imbued by -- by Senator McCain.
But it really follows the Washington farewell pattern that is later echoed in farewell addresses like Eisenhower. There's a thanks to a nation for a lifetime of service in war and peace. There's an admission of making mistakes but hoping that an effort at honorable service will outweigh them.
But more importantly, there's a warning to future generations based on the lessons of his life and the bedrock American values. And you saw that again and again, a plea to the fact that we are a nation based on ideas and ideals, not blood and soil. Saying we need to rise above tribal rivalries that have caused violence throughout the world because America is the antidote to that. A warning, essentially, that the demagogues' calling card of "us against them" is the opposite of "e pluribus unum," "Out of many one," America's motto.
And so there is this implicit and fairly clear rebuke to President Trump, but it's really a measure of how outside the bounds many of our political debates have become. You know, America, it's been said, is an ideology. It doesn't have one. And the fact that there is this ideological debate between what John McCain is establishing, which is this bedroom American value system, warning that we can't take them for granted, and what Donald Trump represents politically, is stark. And that's, I think, part of the message he was trying to compart with his farewell address.
GREGORY: Can I just say -- this is a little more superficial, but isn't it also striking, in this era of the president's relationship with the media, John McCain had a great relationship with the media. He used to refer to the media as his base.
GREGORY: And he cultivated that. He cultivated it. And that went through ups and downs, too, but he cultivated that back in 2000. And that is part of this farewell that is celebrated.
BERMAN: He also called us jerks and Bolsheviks, but I think --
AVLON: But that was a term of affection.
CAMEROTA: That was a term of endearment for him.
So Toluse, it was interesting to see the tributes from the Senate. And they also seemed to sort of cover the spectrum. So here's an example of a really emotional one from Jeff Flake and then Senator Jim Inhofe, with a different take. So watch these back to back.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
FLAKE: We are fortune to have known him best in Arizona, but he was bigger than any one state. He always belonged to America and to the world. And now he belongs to the ages. Farewell, Senator. Farewell, John. I yield the floor.
INHOFE: I think that John McCain was partially to blame for that, because he is very outspoken. That he disagreed with the president in certain areas and wasn't too courteous about it. So it's one thing about John McCain and the president, they're both very strong-willed people.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CAMEROTA: Well, that was an interesting tone for that day, Toluse. What were the thoughts on Capitol Hill? OLORUNNIPA: Yes. This is -- it really shows the internal debate
going on in the Republican Party between Trumpism and traditional conservative. And we're seeing a number of traditional conservatives like Jeff Flake leave the stage and prepare to retire, while people who are loyal to Trump are getting the endorsements and being able to survive the primary battles.
[06:25:02] And it really shows the imprint of President Trump on the party. We're going to see some of that during the elections later tonight, in the primaries in Arizona and Florida; how people who hew themselves very close to President Trump are able to win politically, at least in their primary elections; and people who fight for traditional conservativism or potentially speak out against President Trump find themselves without a party or without a home within their party.
So this is really an incredible, internal debate that's happening within the Republican Party, and it does seem at the moment that people who are siding with President Trump, at least within the party, are winning.
OLORUNNIPA: We'll have to wait until November to see whether or not that plays well for the party or whether or not they come to regret that decision.
GREGORY: How about Inhofe -- can we just say one thing about Senator Inhofe? Just stop. I mean, that was the most ridiculous thing I'd ever heard.
Senator Inhofe from Oklahoma, a stalwart supporter of the military, really? You're going to blame John McCain?
GREGORY: This guy, this President Trump said he wasn't a hero because he got shot down? You don't think McCain is going to find a way to respond to that? He was discourteous to the president? Come on. I mean, I can't believe that.
AVLON: It's a sign -- it's a sign of -- it's a sign of the Stockholm Syndrome that exists even at the highest level of senior membership of the Senate. And for a longtime colleague like Inhofe to say that, that he's to blame for speaking out against the president discourteously, is -- is stunning.
CAMEROTA: I think McCain might find a way to respond to Inhofe. Stay tuned.
BERMAN: I have no doubt that McCain preemptively said a lot of things to or about Inhofe over the years that probably helped create that moment.
GREGORY: Yes, exactly.
CAMEROTA: All right. Gentlemen, thank you very much.
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