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Interview with Angus King (ME-I); President Trump Speaks about John McCain; Episode Concerning President Trump's Behavior after John McCain's Death Reviewed. Aired 8-8:30a ET
Aired August 28, 2018 - 8:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[08:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. Welcome to your NEW DAY. It is Tuesday, August 28th, 8:00 here in the east. And this morning, the flag at the White House, it is at half-staff in honor of the late Senator John McCain. We have new details about why President Trump initially refused to praise Senator McCain. The "Washington Post" reports several administration officials said the president was frustrated with the television coverage of McCain's death and felt, quote, besieged. The president did ultimately cave to pressure from congress, from Veterans groups, from members of his own staff. He did release a statement saying he respected McCain's service to the country and order the flag to remain at half-staff until McCain is buried. The president also finally appeared on camera last night saying something out loud, this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Also, our hearts and prayers are going to the family of Senator John McCain. They'll be a lot of activity over the next number of days, and we very appreciate everything that Senator McCain has done for our country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Meanwhile, one of John McCain's closest friends and Senate colleagues, South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, looks to turn the page from the controversy to just moments ago talking about his friend on the "Today" show.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: Let's talk about John. It's all over now. The flag is down. When the president mentioned John, he got applause. I hope you'll remember how people feel about John. John Kelly, the chief of staff, has been terrific. He's reached out to Cindy, the entire family. John has seven children and a bunch of grandchildren, and says what can I do to help. And the president told General Kelly whatever they need they get.
So let's look forward. Clearly they had a contentious relationship, but he's not the only one to have a tense relationship with John McCain.
(END VIDEO CLIP) CAMEROTA: It's touching to hear his words, and we'll play more for you. Though Senator McCain is gone, we are still hearing his words. In a letter read by his longtime aide, John McCain encouraged Americans to unite around the ideals that connect us rather than around our divisions.
BERMAN: I want to bring in White House reporter for the "Washington Post" and CNN analyst Josh Dawsey. Josh, thanks so much. It was your reporting that first revealed president initially rejected directly praising Senator McCain. That of course led to the flag controversy yesterday. Now that it's all over, do you get the sense from the people you are hearing from the White House that they're glad they put this behind them? Do they feel like they have?
JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. But they wanted that one from day one, John. This was a uniquely Trumpian episode, in some ways that two days later he ended up at the place where his aides wished he would have begun in the first place. He came out with a simple statement saying we respect John McCain, the flag will be at half-staff, we'll help the family, we'll do anything we can, and that is what they originally wanted him to do.
But the president at first wouldn't put out a statement, was entirely silent Sunday and Monday morning, and then yesterday afternoon under pressure from a number of advisers, besieged by television coverage, frustrated with so people going on television and criticizing him, the American Legion, members of Congress, it was an outpour, really cascade of criticism of the way he handled it. And then the president put out a kind statement of John McCain, he again gave kind words last night at a dinner about John McCain and you saw earlier. So it's a bit of an episode to be over, but for many in the White House, they wondered, why did this episode need to happen at all?
BERMAN: It didn't. The president chose for this to happen. And as Lindsey Graham noted, he got applause last night at this dinner for evangelicals at the White House when he praised Senator McCain, and that wasn't a group that John McCain had any super close relationship to, but they were relieved that it was over. You have some reporting on what seemed to bug the president so much on Sunday, the day after John McCain died. What is that?
DAWSEY: It's that so many people were going on television praising John McCain while making either explicit or implicit criticisms of the president. He thought a lot of it was hypocritical. He felt that a lot of people were out to get him. And the more he went, he told staff I would have put out a statement that would have been warm and effusive for John McCain, it would have seemed disingenuous. Everyone knows I don't like the guy.
But what the argument that people around him made was even though you didn't like John McCain, even though you fought with him or at least were very critical of him at times, and he was critical of the president, he was a war hero, he was five-and-a-half years in a Vietnam prison, served in the Senate for decades. A simple statement would do. I think the president understood that a lot of Republicans were not the biggest fan of John McCain. We saw a poll right before he died where his approval rating was in the 40s among Republicans where the president is among the 80s. But even those who don't like John McCain, he voted against the Affordable Care Act repeal, or whatever provision of the day was in Congress, they still thought he deserved a modicum of respect upon his death. And seeing the flag go back to full staff after one day yesterday was jarring to many.
[08:05:01] BERMAN: Indeed it was, and the statement he ultimately released didn't real as hypocritical and the statement he made out loud last night to evangelicals didn't sound like hypocritical. And in fact, Josh, you have some reporting on how the paper statement ultimately was put together?
DAWSEY: The president dictated much of the statement, and he began "While we disagree on policy and politics," before going on to give John McCain respect. And I think you're right. I don't think that was disingenuous. The statement said we didn't agree with each other, but he deserves respect upon his death. And that's what his aides wanted all along. The first statement that the president was nixed was far more kind to John McCain and said he's an American hero, it talked about his service in the Senate, his time as a POW. It was a pretty lengthy statement, a paragraph or so that contained praise for John McCain. And the president did not want to sign that one because he thought it would not be a accurate representation of his feelings. But this one yesterday it seems he was willing to sign.
BERMAN: Josh Dawsey, the episode appears to be over. But as you note from inside the White House, people there fill like it was an episode that never had to happen to begin with. Thanks so much, Josh, for your reporting.
CAMEROTA: Let's bring in Josh Green, he's the national correspondent at "Bloomberg Business Week" and Jonathan Martin, national political correspondent for the "New York Times." Both are CNN political analysts. Guys, great to have you.
It is so touching to listen to Lindsey Graham this morning, and really for months now Lindsey Graham talk about his dear friend John McCain. These guys were best friends. And one of the great I think really endearing things about them is that they were such public best friends. They talked about how much time they loved each other. They talked about how much they liked to spend together, how funny they found each other. So Lindsey Graham is obviously emotional this morning. So here is just another moment of his talking about his dear friend John McCain.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: This man was the conscience of the Senate. He was at times the conscience of the nation. And if I had to pick one person in this great land to explain to someone from a different planet who are these Americans, it would be John McCain with an assist from Mark Salter. He had a romantic view of our nation to his last breath, and literally almost the last thing he said to me was I love you, I have not been cheated. He was not cheated.
(END VIDEO CLIP) CAMEROTA: That's so beautiful and so touching, Josh. And so we also got to hear John McCain's words as I think Lindsey Graham was alluding to. And so, I guess this whole episode, the controversy about the president struggling to memorialize John McCain, I guess after that these two and a half days we can move on?
JOSHUA GREEN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think so, I certainly hope so. I think that's probably up to Trump and whether he has any more feelings about McCain that he wants to share in the hours ahead. But barring that, yes, I do think it's time to move on to a more appropriate way to remember John McCain. We'll see that as his body sits in state first in the Arizona capital, then in Washington.
Again, though, I think what galls Trump about this episode, he is somebody who experiences life through the medium of cable television, and the praise and the appreciation, the outpouring from just about everybody for John McCain I think frustrated Trump because that's how he wants to be treated, and of course he isn't. And as Josh Dawsey mentioned earlier, it's impossible not to compare the two men, how they comport themselves. And I think that's one reason why Trump couldn't resist turning this into a crisis in the way that he has.
BERMAN: I have to say watching Lindsey Graham there have a number of feelings, number one, we should all have a friend as close as John McCain was to Lindsey Graham, and I'm so happy for both of them that they did have each other. Joe Lieberman was part of that group also. Then there's the political side of it, Jonathan, which is that Lindsey Graham in a way, is the walking embodiment of the pulling forces within the Republican Party. Here is the best, closest, dearest friend to John McCain who for a long time shared exactly the same values as John McCain, and Lindsey Graham has developed a personal relationship with President Trump, and you can see him being pulled in those two directions.
JONATHAN MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He does reflect the moment that we're in. And Lindsey Graham, he is facing reelection in 2020 and the possibility of a difficult primary. And if President Trump is a friend rather than an enemy he has a better shot of surviving that primary. And that's the nature of politics.
And by the way I think even some of the biggest McCain defenders said privately that McCain himself acted the part of a politician when he had to, John. You and I both recall that he basically dropped the immigration issue in 2008 during the primary when it was clearly a political loser for him in the primary, he kind of moved on.
[08:10:05] And then when he did have to face a primary of his own in 2010 after coming back to the Senate he went down to the border and filmed an ad about build the dang fence. So John McCain is a towering political figure in the history of the country, but he was a political figure. He made certain accommodations when he had to. And of course, in this moment of his passing he's been recalled for his bipartisanship, his public spirited next, as he should. But it shouldn't obscure the fact that he made accommodations to the politics of the moment when he had to the same way that his friend certainly is now. CAMEROTA: Jonathan Martin, I just want to stick with you for one more
second because you have reporting on that also very bifurcation that we're seeing in terms of what the Arizona governor now has to do. So does the Arizona governor choose a John McCain-style replacement for John McCain, or a Donald Trump acolyte for the replacement for John McCain's seat?
MARTIN: I think it's none of the above, Alisyn. I think it's C. I think the governor, Doug Ducey of Arizona, who is neither a Trumpian Republican or a McCainiac. He's a chamber neither fish nor foul. He's really more of a kind of Chamber of Commerce, pro-business kind of Koch friendly, frankly, Republican. I think what Governor Doocy is going to do is try to square this circle but finding somebody who is inoffensive, but somebody who is not going to anger the McCain family and the McCain loyalists, but somebody who also is not going to offend President Trump and his acolytes in Arizona.
I think there are a handful of conventional conservatives who could do that. but to the McCain folks, that's a bit of a letdown, because they want to see somebody fill the shoes that reflected the kind of bigness of McCain. And Barry Goldwater, guys, don't forget McCain took the Goldwater seat, so there is a golden lineage in this seat that Ducey is now going to fill.
BERMAN: I will note, you only gave him an A and B option. You didn't give him an option C.
CAMEROTA: I saw that.
MARTIN: I took it, John.
BERMAN: He went far beyond the rules.
I do want to play if I can, because I do also think this was a remarkable moment yesterday and one of the really pinnacles of these last few days is when Rick Davis, longtime aide to Senator McCain, read the letter that McCain wanted to be read after his passing almost as if anticipating the discussion and debate that might ensue at the time. So let's listen to Ric, Davis.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICK DAVIS, FORMER MCCAIN CAMPAIGN MANAGER AND FAMILY SPOKESMAN: We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sewn resentment and hatred and violence in all 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: Josh, that seems very different than President Trump's inauguration speech written by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller there, and you've written books about this. There is a political divide. And he talks about political tribalism. Often people look at that and say Democrats versus Republicans. No, no, this is all within the Republican party, this divide.
GREEN: I think the tribalism he's referring to, there's pretty clearly tribalism on behalf of Trump and against moderate Republicans, Democrats, and everybody else. The distinction that stands out to me is that John McCain in that statement has what I would call a classically romantic view of America and American exceptionalism that stands in stark contrast to all the noise about American carnage and so on that we heard from Trump and from Steve Bannon pretty consistently throughout Trump's presidency, and with his final breath or his final statement, McCain wanted to make one more push, one more remainder in a moment when I think he knew that all Americans would be listening to remind us all what America should stand for.
CAMEROTA: I'm just not ready to classify it as romanticism to say we should focus on commonalties and unity over our divisions.
BERMAN: Dial that back. That's way out there.
CAMEROTA: I know. I'm sorry to go full on idealistic this morning, but let's leave it on that note. Josh, Jonathan, thank you very much.
MARTIN: Thank you.
CAMEROTA: How should the Senate honor John McCain's legacy? We'll ask one of his colleagues because there is a movement afoot to rename a Senate building, so we'll get him to weigh in.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
[08:18:19] SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: When John saw an issue the same way you did, you knew you had just found your most stalwart ally.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: His life is a story of American heroism personified. But maybe most of all, he is a truth- teller.
SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: He always belonged to America and to the world. And now he belongs to the ages. Farewell, Senator. Farewell, John.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Those were senators paying tribute to their colleague Senator John McCain.
Joining us now to talk more about McCain's legacy on the U.S. Senate is independent Maine senator, Angus King.
Good morning, Senator.
SEN. ANGUS KING (I) MAINE: Good morning, Alisyn.
CAMEROTA: Boy, it sure gives you a lump in your throat to listen to all of the tributes pouring in for Senator John McCain. And beyond the personal inspiration, because you were on committees with him and have known him for so long, I'm wondering what will be missed now in the Senate with his loss.
KING: Well, I think -- and this has been commented on, he had two characteristics that were remarkable. One was an instinct for compromise and for finding common ground. That's what that final statement that John played just a few minutes ago said. That we are a country that has more in common than we have dividing us but we seem to be focusing on the divisions right now.
He was a person that reached across the aisle. Most -- you know, most notably in my career here on working on the bipartisan immigration bill which got 68 votes in the Senate. I mean, what gets 68 votes these days? Didn't get taken up in the House but he was one of the keys to making that happen. He understood how essential that was in a democracy.
And one of the things that worries me, Alisyn, is that we're getting to the point where compromise itself is viewed as a dirty word, as something that you can lose an election over if you're viewed as being reasonable.
[08:20:09] That's number one. That was one of his great legacies I think that we all have to remind ourselves. The other thing that I haven't heard mentioned in the last couple of days. He was one of the few politicians I have ever seen who would admit mistakes. He talked about -- in fact in the final statement he said I've made lots of mistakes, I hope the good has outbalanced the bad.
For example, in his recent book astonishingly he admits that his support for the Iraq war was a mistake. Now I can remember as recently as five years ago he was all still gung-ho about the surge and the Iraq war. That's an important element of humility I think that's an essence of real leadership.
CAMEROTA: He seemed to personify I think humility. I mean, Jake Tapper was asking him how he wants to be remembered and he once again was self-deprecating and said that, you know, he admits that he's made lots of mistakes. I mean, he's publicly admitted that his choice for vice president in his presidential bid was a mistake. You know, he says things that are impolitic. I mean, that was obviously part of his charm.
And so moving forward, what do you think will happen with -- I'm thinking of armed forces and foreign relations, things that were so important to him and of course I'm thinking about that because of North Korea, and it seems as though whatever deal existed if there even was such a thing hammered out -- not even hammered out, agreed upon with a gentleman's handshake between President Trump and Kim Jong-un seems to be falling apart.
There's this secret letter that the "Washington Post" has first reported on about how it's -- from Pyongyang, they seem to want to, I guess, rewrite some of the agreement and then as you know President Trump decided that Mike Pompeo, secretary of State, should not go back for another visit. So where are we?
KING: Well, I think one of the problems is that this administration doesn't seem to want to remember history. This is the fifth time we've been in negotiations about nuclear weapons with North Korea and the dance has been pretty much the same each time. They come up, they talk about making concessions and backing off, they get concessions from us or from the Chinese or from other people that are interested, and then they black slide.
So this is not unusual and I'm afraid -- what worries me is that the administration might lurch from excessive optimism to excessive pessimism and let slip at least an opportunity to keep talking. I think this is a long road and it's not going to happen overnight. And we're -- and as I say what worries me is that they're going to stop negotiations and then we're back with some very, very unattractive alternatives.
I think, you know, John McCain was no slouch when it came to the use of military force but I think he understood the extremely dangerous situation in North Korea. Probably the most dangerous situation in the world right now. And that talks continuing towards some kind of goal and realistic goal in terms of timing and what we might actually achieve, that's what we've got to do.
CAMEROTA: Boy, I mean, it sounds like those talks are falling apart particularly since President Trump has canceled Mike Pompeo's fourth trip there just hours before it was supposed to happen. And so do you understand today what did come out of that meeting with Kim Jong-un and President Trump other than elevating Kim Jong-un on a national stage, what the U.S. did get?
KING: Well, it certainly did that and, you know, I was pretty skeptical at the time again because I've seen the history unfold going back 25 years that anything really concrete was accomplished. To me what was accomplished was simply opening a channel between our two leaders that could lead to something productive if Kim Jong-un is finally ready to say we don't need these weapons.
But we've got to understand they view this -- they view nuclear weapons as an insurance policy and frankly I think our abrogating the Iran deal didn't do any good in terms of these negotiations. Because if you're Kim you say, but wait a minute, I signed an agreement with these guys on nuclear weapons and three years later it's just thrown in the trash can. So it's a long process and I think the president was overly optimistic when he -- just flying home and saying, you know, North Korea is no longer a worry.
That wasn't the case. But as I say, what worries me is we'll go from that excessive optimism to nothing will work, no more discussions, cancelled meetings and then we're in a very, very dangerous place because there are no good options. I can tell you from serving on the Arms Services and Intelligence Committees there's no such thing as a surgical strike. This is not something where we want to face some kind of military result.
[08:25:03] CAMEROTA: Yes. Back to Senator John McCain's legacy. Chuck Schumer, Senate minority leader, has suggested that the Russell Senate Office Building be renamed the McCain Building. Are you in favor?
KING: Yes. I'm standing in the Russell rotunda. It was only named the Russell Building sometime in the late '70s. When I worked here as a staff member this was called the old Senate Office Building or affectionately we referred to it as the old SOB and I can't imagine a more appropriate place to put John McCain's name. His office was just down the hall here on the second floor.
I think it would be a great tribute to John McCain and, you know, sometimes you do change the names of buildings to make them more current and I think it would be a living memorial, the work that goes on here and perhaps occasionally remind us of what our obligations are.
CAMEROTA: Senator Angus King, thank you very much for being on NEW DAY. Great to talk to you.
KING: Thank you.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: They have a building called the old SOB named after Senator McCain. That is an appropriate tribute.
BERMAN: John McCain, he endured what few others have in service to his country. We're going to talk about his military legacy and more with his very close friend, the retired general David Petraeus, next.