Return to Transcripts main page


President Trump Calls White House Counsel Don McGahn and "Excellent Guy" After Announcing His Imminent Departure; Interview with Senator Chris Coons of Delaware; Florida Governor's Race Starts with Racism Accusations. Aired on 8-9p ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 20:00   ET


[20:00:02] JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: The president says he's an excellent guy, so why did he just give him a shove out the door? Was it something he said?

John Berman here in for Anderson.

Those are the two questions tonight about departing White House counsel Don McGahn. Mr. McGahn found out he was departing the same way Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did, by reading the president's Twitter feed. That tweet says, White House counsel Don McGahn will be leaving his position in the fall, shortly after the confirmation, hopefully, of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. I have worked with Doug for a long time and truly appreciate his service.

And sure enough, when the president was asked about it this afternoon, he had nothing but praise.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: A good man, a very good man. Don, excellent guy. Yes, Don McGahn is a really good guy.

Been with me a long time. Privately before this, he represented me. He has been here now, it will be almost two years, and a lot of affection for Don, and he'll be moving on probably the private sector, maybe the private sector, and he'll do very well. But he's done an excellent job.


BERMAN: Which you would expect him to say.

Keeping him honest, though, it doesn't say much, and it certainly did little to quiet the speculation about the real reason Don McGahn might have gotten the heave-ho.

Maggie Haberman from "The New York Times" reports that a daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, who have not had much stage time since act two of this drama, that they were not McGahn fans. According to Maggie, Ivanka was angry over a "Times" report earlier this month about how some of the White House were unaware of just how extensive Mr. McGahn's cooperation with Mr. Mueller really was. Apparently quite extensive. He's given about 30 hours of testimony to

investigators, sitting down several times over many months. We were told the president was unnerved when he learned this only this month.

So, was that a factor in McGahn's departure?

CNN's Jim Acosta put to it the president.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Are you concerned what he said to the Mueller team?

TRUMP: No, no. I know he was going also. You know, I had to approve it.

So, we didn't claim executive -- no, I don't have to be aware. We have -- we do everything straight. We do everything by the book. And Don is an excellent guy.


BERMAN: So, he's still an excellent guy. But is that all he is to the president? Or did he become something else, something more dangerous in the president's mind when news first broke that McGahn was cooperating with Mueller? Did he go from excellent guy, say, to certain member of the rodent species when the president mentioned in a tweet?

The failing "New York Times" wrote a fake piece today implying that because White House counsel Don McGahn has given hours of testimony to the special counsel, he must be a John Dean type rat. But I allowed him and others all to testify. I didn't have to. I have nothing to hide.

We'll ask John Dean about that than in a moment. But the point of the president's tweet, was it to dismiss the idea that he considers Don McGahn a rat or tipping a hand that he does? That is the question.

Perspective now from someone who as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee has had extensive dealings with Don McGahn, Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware. We spoke just moments ago.


BERMAN: So, Senator Coons, today, the chairman of your committee tweeting that he hoped the news of McGahn's departure wasn't true and urging the president not to let that happen. You also had the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell call the departure sad news for our country.

Were you surprised to hear them speak out on this when often they choose to stay silent?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, I was surprised by the news that Don McGahn, the White House counsel, is about to leave. He has worked tirelessly to advance one of president Trump's key objectives, which is to confirm conservative judges. And I did find in working with Don McGahn on judges for Delaware that it's possible to have a constructive working relationship with him.

But I've got my own questions or concerns about what it means that he is departing. My belief is that Don McGahn has been advising President Trump strongly against doing things that would be inappropriate like interfering in the Mueller investigation. And it's my hope that his successor will also take that same position given the ways in which President Trump continues to tweet against the Mueller investigation and to sort of harass and press Attorney General Sessions.

I'm concerned that one of the members of his legal team who I think has been pushing him to be responsible may be replaced by someone who doesn't.

BERMAN: Do you think it's a coincidence that this announcement comes just a week and a half after the White House was caught off guard by the revelation that McGahn spent some 30 hours being interviewed by Mueller's team?

COONS: You know, John, I don't know directly, of course, but it certainly did raise questions for me about whether that announcement created some real tension between the White House counsel and the president.

BERMAN: Any observation on the business organization inside the White House that Don McGahn was surprised to read about this on Twitter their morning?

[20:05:06] COONS: You know, the president has been unpredictable and unconventional since he started as a candidate, and he's certainly run the White House that way. There have been a number of surprising, striking, or even alarming recent tweets by the president. So, no, sadly, I'm not surprised that his own White House counsel, some of his own team members were surprised by that tweet.

BERMAN: So, you brought up the role that Don McGahn has played in the Mueller investigation, and also perhaps in the tenure -- the ongoing tenure of Jeff Session. So, let me asked the president has once again revived the idea of firing Sessions over the past month.

Sessions had been receiving plenty of protection from his Republican colleagues in the Senate. But that seems to be over, at least for. Lindsey Graham said yesterday the relationship between the president and Sessions is beyond repair. And that the president probably should replace him after the midterms.

Why the change? Why the change do you think? And without these Republican senators supporting Jeff Sessions, do you think that gives the president the political cover to fire him?

COONS: Well, just to be clear, other Republican senators said recently that this was a terrible idea, that the attorney general should not be dismissed. Attorney General Sessions, someone with whom I have many policy disagreements over issues from voting rights to immigration, is one of the earliest and strongest supporters of President Trump. He was the first senator to endorse him. They share many positions on a wide range of issues.

So, frankly, I was surprised by Senator Graham's statement. Senator Graham followed it up by another statement that he still insisted that President Trump not interfere in any way with the Mueller investigation.

My concern here, John, is given how closely Attorney General Sessions and President Trump align on so many issues, his pressing the attorney general to resign really I think is all about the president's desire to interfere in or end the Mueller investigation.

BERMAN: You brought up the fact that senator graham said he would insist whoever replaces Sessions promised to protect Robert Mueller. But do you believe that Republicans, when push comes to shove, when the next nominee comes up, will insist on that? How can they insist on that short of passing a law which I know you've been pushing for but isn't going anywhere?

COONS: Well, on your point that it's not going anywhere, back when we introduced it, Senator Tillis, Senator Graham, myself, Senator Booker, we introduced bills to protect the special counsel by making it harder for president to fire him by giving him a remedy to go to a three- judge panel and be reinstated if that was an improper firing, we were told we'd never get a hearing. Then we got a hearing. We were told we'd never get a markup. We were able to get a markup. We were told we'd never get it out of committee.

By a 14-7 bipartisan vote, including a vote from Chairman Grassley, our bill got out of committee and is now on the floor. And I'm convinced if Majority Leader McConnell would give us a vote, it would pass by a veto-proof majority. So I just -- I am more optimistic about the relevance and value of that bill perhaps than others.

BERMAN: Senator Chris Coons, thanks so much for being with us.

COONS: Thank you, John.


BERMAN: So, it's times like these, you find yourself asking why don't we have a former White House counsel who served during a major scandal to talk to? Well, luckily tonight we do.

Former Nixon White House counsel John Dean, he joins us, along with David Gergen who also served in the Nixon White House, and Harvard's Alan Dershowitz who most certainly did not. He is the author most recently of "The Case Against Impeaching Trump."

Welcome to you.

And, John, I want to start with you, as a former White House counsel who knew too much, how much of this departure has to do with the fact that maybe Don McGahn knows too much? JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Well, it's very hard to

tell. The way it was done is what raises some suspicion since it was done by a tweet. But apparently, it was done in reaction to a leak. So, we really can't be sure that this was any kind of anger that he had towards his White House counsel. And it doesn't -- it's not clear whether he had planned to do it through any normal procedure and then just suddenly decided to do it. So I can't tell at this point. I don't try to guess what's in Mr. Trump's mind.

BERMAN: Professor Dershowitz, what's the risk to the president to have his White House counsel leaving in the middle of an investigation? And is there any risk to Don McGahn as someone who is a witness in this investigation?

ALAN DERSHOWITZ, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: I think there are risks on all sides. There is a risk to keeping him as White House counsel. Hard to imagine somebody being a witness against the president and White House counsel at the same time that does raise the specter of the conflict of interest at the same time that I've raised over and over again concerning Rod Rosenstein. Can he be a witness and can he be conducting the investigation?

But, you know, as the godfather said, keep your enemies close to you.

[20:10:01] If they were afraid that McGahn would be turning against the president, the best guarantee would be to keep him close, not to let him go. What the president has done is letting him go and praising him, hoping that that will keep him from providing even more information.

Remember, this is not the first time this kind of thing has happened. Go back to the Clinton administration. Clinton did not like Janet Reno. He didn't trust her, but he bit the bullet, and he didn't fire her because he understood that the political consequences of firing her, the perception that he was trying to interfere in the investigation by Kenneth Starr would outweigh the benefits of having a new attorney general.

And I think the same thing is true with this president. I think on reconsideration, it would have been far better to keep everybody in place, maybe add to the team, as he's done by adding Flood and others. But the idea of firing or allowing to resign raises all kinds of risks, both for the president, but also basically for the administration of justice.

BERMAN: David Gergen, you have noted that Don McGahn has been a White House counsel of enormous importance and influence.

DAVID GERGEN, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER TO NIXON, FORD, REAGAN & CLINTON: Absolutely. And one of the most effective people in the White House at doing the big job that he came to do. And that was to help recruit, shepherd through a great number of judges who would meet conservative standards and would be regarded as, say, quote, safe choices by conservatives. And he's now got over 50 judges have come through the pipeline coming out through the McGahn office and up for confirmation. And half of those, 26 are for these very prestigious, very significant courts of appeal around the nation.

We've seen a number of decision even in the first few months of the Trump administration that have been made by appointees say of President Obama or President Clinton who have gone against Trump. And McGahn is ensuring that the conservatives are going to have a very powerful voice.

So I'm with Alan in one sense. I just don't know why he is letting go. In fact, I'm really curious about why he did it in such an insulting fashion.

This is a man who, after all, has been there for him time and time again and brought him Gorsuch and brought him Kavanaugh. Two and Kavanaugh is likely to go through here in coming days. And yet, he is forced out the door by the president. And what I would consider a humiliating fashion, especially for someone of Don McGahn's stature, and very importantly his effectiveness for the president.

BERMAN: Yes, he did it on Twitter as opposed to a phone call or God forbid, face the face in person.

GERGEN: Yes, right.

BERMAN: John Dean, based on what we read about Don McGahn, it wasn't easy being Don McGahn inside the White House. According to "The New York Times," he had been telling people that a day without a single summons to the Oval Office was a good day.

DEAN: Well, that's very believable.

And here's the thing, though. The circumstances have changed since my era as White House counsel. He represents the office of the president and not the president as a personal individual.

So, that makes a difference. And that resolves a lot of conflicts he has. And I'm sure he explained that to Trump, and Trump also knew that there were questions as to whether their conversations were privileged.

So, it wasn't an impossible job, and he kept his head down and did the judgeships where his office proved very functioning and very vital.


BERMAN: So, Professor Dershowitz -- go ahead. Let me ask this question. You can answer how you want. I think sometimes you've been misunderstood in your defense of the president, because among other things you said he should not fire Jeff Sessions.


BERMAN: He should not fire Robert Mueller. And Don McGahn, we understand, has been crucial in holding the line on that. It may be because of Don McGahn and Don McGahn only that Robert Mueller wasn't fired one year ago, and same thing with Jeff Sessions.

So are you concerned with the absence of Don McGahn might mean?

DERSHOWITZ: Yes, of course. I think McGahn has been a source of imposing the rule of law on the White House. Look, I'm not defending Trump. I'm not defending his actions.

I've only expressed my professional scholarly views on what I think the law is and what I think the Constitution says.

I want to explain one thing. There are three kinds of privileges. The president does not have a lawyer/client privilege with the White House counsel, but he does have executive privilege with the White House counsel. And then there is a third area that's very much in doubt that the courts have generally ruled against, and that is if you are a subject of an investigation, you can have a joint defense privilege with other people, and some have tried to raise that about White House counsel. But the courts have generally ruled against it.

But the president and his legal team made a decision to waive executive privilege. And I think maybe they may be regretting that decision, because they don't know exactly what McGahn said to Mueller.

[20:15:05] And that creates the problem of having a White House counsel who may end up testifying against you while advising you as the president, as the incumbent of the presidency in the White House. So, that's the possible --

BERMAN: Professor, are you telling me -- Professor, are you telling me that when the president tells us he is not worried at all about what Don McGahn said for 30 hours behind closed doors to the special counsel's investigators that maybe he's not being fully honest there?

DERSHOWITZ: I can't imagine he isn't worried. If he's not worried, he should be worried. Whenever somebody on the inside spends 30 hours with somebody who is trying to get you, you got to start worrying. And you should have started worrying even before that happened and thought seriously about what your options were to reduce the amount of worrying that you're going to have after the fact.

BERMAN: David Gergen, I cut you off. Go ahead.

GERGEN: Yes, I just want to say, look, I think what all of this portends, John, is that we're ten weeks away from the midterms, and not much is -- I think the White House is going to be careful not to rock the boat too much between now and the midterm. But afterwards what this suggests what's going on right now is President Trump has cleared away one of the main barriers in McGahn who would have objected to firing session, especially has objected to Mueller being fired, would resign over that, which would cause a real problem.

I think this is in preparation for forcing Sessions out after the midterms, bringing in someone, trying to get it through the Senate who is going to be much more sympathetic to the president and would then potentially block any report from Mueller from going public, could do thing -- could stop short of firing Mueller, but could in effect force into confidentiality.

There are a lot of things a new attorney general could do and might do, and I don't think they're healthy for the country.

BERMAN: We've got to leave there it.

Alan, we've got to go there. So sorry.


DERSHOWITZ: --fire the old people. But who the new people are going to be.

BERMAN: We are waiting to see that.

DERSHOWITZ: Who replaces them.

BERMAN: We've got two days before Labor Day weekend. A lot can happen before then. Keep your phones nearby, gentlemen.

John Dean, David Gergen, Alan Dershowitz, thanks so much.

Coming up, the Florida governor's race now set in almost immediately accusations of racism on the part of the Republican candidate, a strident supporter of President Trump. So did his remarks about the Democrat who would be the first -- who is the first African American nominee for that state, did they go over the line?

And later, President Trump's assessment of how his administration handled the Puerto Rico hurricane disaster a day after the official death toll skyrocketed to nearly 3,000.


[20:21:51] BERMAN: A political earthquake in the primary elections overnight in Florida, and this evening, the aftershocks are just as strong. The Republican winner in last night's primary, Congressman Ron DeSantis, is a fervent supporter of President Trump. And this is what he had to say on Fox News about his Democratic opponent, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, who would be Florida's first African- American governor if elected.


RON DESANTIS (R), NOMINEE FOR FLORIDA GOVERNOR: Let's build off the success we've had on Governor Scott. The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.


BERMAN: So that phrase "monkey this up" set critics on fire. Many saying it amounted to a dog whistle of racism.

Gillum himself reacted later on day as it happened on Fox News.


ANDREW GILLUM (D), NOMINEE FOR FLORIDA GOVERNOR: It's very clear that Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump. But I think he's got another thing coming to him if he thinks that in today's day and age, Florida voters are going to respond to that level of derision and division. They're sick of it.

What we're trying to offer in this race --


SHEPARD SMITH, FOX NEWS HOST: Was that racist or -- was that racist or a figment of speech?

GILLUM: Well, not the handbook of Donald Trump, they no longer do whistle calls. They're now using full bullhorns.

SMITH: And that was bullhorn?

GILLUM: And what I've got to say than is we've got to make sure that we stay focused I think on the issues that confront everyday people. I'm not going get down in the gutter with DeSantis and Trump. There is enough of that going on. I'm going try and stay high and try to talk about the North Star and what the future is for the state of Florida and the people of this state. I think that's what people want. They're just so sick of this.


BERMAN: So, Fox News anchor ultimately said on the air that the network did not condone the language DeSantis used and noted the congressman had clarified his statement. Obviously, the stage is set for dramatic and possibly polarizing showdown in November.

Joining me now, former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo, Amanda Carpenter and Marc Lamont Hill.

So, Marc, the DeSantis campaign is denying that this was any kind of dog whistle. They say the congressman was, quote, obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies say that Andrew Gillum espouses.

Do you buy that explanation from them?

MARC LAMONT HILL, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I do not. This is a classic strategy where you throw out something like this which will anger people, which will outrage people, which will insult people. And then when we respond, as we're supposed to, the other side, those who are supportive of him come out in defense of him. It's really a way to rally his own base around racism.

And as the mayor said, it's not even a dog whistle at this point. It's a bullhorn. The relationship that's often asserted between black people and monkeys in white supremacists' logic is one that's deeply know, it's well-known. And very rarely do people use phrases like "monkey it up" in everyday speech.

BERMAN: Michael Caputo, should Congressman DeSantis have known better? MICHAEL CAPUTO, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN AIDE: Oh, I suspect -- you

know, listen, Andrew Gillum, it surprised everyone.

[20:25:01] He shocked the world with his come-from-behind victory. I don't think that Congressman DeSantis has faced off against a candidate as promising as Andrew Gillum. I think he made a mistake with his words.

I don't believe for a second that Ron DeSantis is a racist nor that he uses a racist coded language. I think that's a tactic of the left and the supporters of Andrew Gillum and the opponents of Ron DeSantis to muck this up.

BERMAN: Amanda, you know you're in trouble, Amanda, when Fox News comes on not long after you say something and knows that we do not condone this language. And I'll also note that DeSantis campaign hasn't apologized for it yet.

AMANDA CARPENTER, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR FOR SEN. TED CRUZ: Yes. The DeSantis campaign said anyone who would characterize this as racist is acting absurd. Well, the fact that Fox News had to issue a statement said that they will not condone that language tells you something, that it's not absurd, that it is offensive, that the network that gave this candidate millions of dollars in free air time is putting him in the time-out box for a little while.

And here's a thing. Ron DeSantis is a smart, educated man. He went to Yale undergrad, Harvard law, became a JAG lawyer in the Navy. He knows how to use language.

So, that's where I'm kind of stuck on this, because I think he does know better. And even if it were a mistake show, he should be smart enough to try to repair it.

And here's what I think is really sad. He is a good credible candidate with a great story that is turning himself into kind of a carbon copy of Trump. If you go on his website, it's just pictures of him and Trump. I've been endorsed by Trump. And he's clearly trying to ride Trump's coattails into the general election, where I think he would be a better stand alone candidate.

And if he is going to tie himself to the Trump train, you know, if it wrecks, you know, that just makes it all the easier for interest Democrats.

BERMAN: Marc, how much of a factor do you think race will be in this election?

HILL: I think it will be a huge factor. I don't think it will be the only factor. What we've seen over the last 24 hours is that this is a populist election. In many ways, this is like a proxy battle between Trump and perhaps Bernie Sanders in terms of values.

And so, I think, ultimately, Florida voters are going to want someone who has the right values, who has the right vision for the state. But very clearly, Republicans know that they can win this race with heavy turnout. One of the ways to rally that Trump base to turn out in November is by pushing the race button, by stoking the racial fire and by forcing people on the left to react in the way that we did in the last 24 hours.

So, it's a very careful strategy. That's why it's important for people to not just react, but also vote.

BERMAN: Hey, Michael, what's wrong with saying sorry? Hey, I didn't mean that I'm sorry if anyone perceived that it way? And the second part of that question I suppose would be, is this the general election launch that you think DeSantis' campaign was hoping for?

CAPUTO: Of course not. I think DeSantis campaign lost its first battle today in the general election. It won't be the last one they lose against Andrew Gillum.

He is a strong candidate. Let me tell you something. In Florida, where the Democrats and the general need to get young people and African Americans out, running an established politician who is African-American and young is a pretty good way to do it. So, he actually -- DeSantis faces a more difficult race than he would have say if another Democrat had won.

But in my mind, the socialism that is behind Andrew Gillum's policies, the idea that he is the first and the highest ranking person out there calling for impeachment of the president, those are themes that are not going to fly in Florida, especially when a goodly -- a double- digit number of people who have escaped from socialism in the western hemisphere have come to Florida will vote against it.

But in addition, I think the people of Florida are smart enough to understand that this is a ploy where the left, including Andrew Gillum, are trying to accuse racism where it just doesn't exist.

BERMAN: Amanda, you want to weigh in there?

CARPENTER: Yes. I do think the national component to this gubernatorial election is interesting and not good at all for Florida voters. If you're scanning the headlines to learn about these candidates today, you would learn that one is for impeachment, the other is against the rigged witch-hunt. You know, one is for Medicare for all. The other is for repealing Obamacare.

But these are people who are running for governor. You know, where is the talk about the toxic green slime washing up on Florida shore or the people being shot up all over the place in the state of Florida? It seems to me this race is becoming so nationalized, they're both taking the ball off state issues, and that's not a good strategy for either of them to win.

BERMAN: I want to make one more note and we're going to have to end this segment here. Michael Caputo said that Andrew Gillum is a socialist, he does not call himself a Democratic socialist. There are plenty of candidates around the country who are. He does not adopt that label.

Michael Caputo, Amanda Carpenter, Marc Lamont Hill, great to have you with us tonight. I do appreciate it.

All right. Coming up, the day after Puerto Rico said the death toll from Hurricane Maria is nearly 3,000. The President was asked about the government's response to the natural disaster that killed so many Americans. The President said, quote, "We did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico". We're keeping them honest on that claim, next.


BERMAN: 13 years ago today, a natural disaster struck the gulf coast. But as bad as Hurricane Katrina was, and it was horrible, nearly everything that happened next turned into it a man-made disaster as well, one of the very worst this country has ever seen. A failure on too many levels to mention. And for all that misery that people endured, it was compounded as they watched just a few days into it all as the President of the United States said this.


GEORGE W. BUSH, FMR PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: Again, I want to thank you all for -- and brownie, you're doing a heck of a job. The FEMA director is working 24.

They're working 24 hours a day.


BERMAN: The President, President Bush was praising Michael Brown, brownie, director of FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He was a political appointee with no real experience, and many saw the praise for him as the ultimate example of adding insult to injury and misery and homelessness and death.

[20:35:08] More than 1,800 men, women and children died as a result of Hurricane Katrina, many because the planning for it and immediate response to it was so badly mishandled. That tragedy became the genesis of this program's keeping them honest reports. And so it is with some irony that we turn our sights tonight, 13 years after Katrina, to Hurricane Maria. The storm, the new official death toll in Puerto Rico and President Trump's reaction to it today, because even though the number of dead now attributed to the storm has risen by a factor of nearly 50 from 64 to nearly 3,000, here's what the President said when asked about it today.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: Yes, I think Puerto Rico, I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico. We're still helping Puerto Rico. The governor is an excellent guy, and he's very happy with the job we've done. We have put billions and billions of dollars into Puerto Rico, and it was a very tough one. Don't forget their electric plant was dead before the hurricane. If you look back on your records, you'll see that that plant was dead. It was shut. It was bankrupt. It was out of business. They owed tremendous amounts of money. They had it closed up. And then when the hurricane came, people said what are we going to do about electricity. It wasn't really the hurricane. That was done before the hurricane. But we've put a lot of money and a lot of effort into Puerto Rico, and I think most of the people in Puerto Rico really appreciate what we've done.


BERMAN: Keeping them honest, many people, especially in Puerto Rico, Americans by the way, many do not share that view. They watched others die unnecessarily. They lived for months without power or clean drinking water. They lived with the not unfounded belief that their island, a part of the United States, was being overlooked by the federal government. And whether or not that suspicion was fully justified, it only grew when just days after the storm hit, the President was already essentially declaring victory.


TRUMP: What is your -- what is your death count as of this moment? 17?


TRUMP: 16 people certified. 16 people versus in the thousands. You can be very proud of all of your people, all of our people working together. 16 versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud. Everybody around this table and everybody watching can really be very proud of what's taken place in Puerto Rico.


BERMAN: When he spoke those words, most of the island had no power, no running water or access to hospital care. When he spoke those words, we now know people were dying. And now the true scope of death is becoming more fully known and is utterly staggering, the President of the United States is still pointing to what a great job he did. Here what's the mayor of San Juan said about it today. She is, we should point out, a long-time critic of the President. We should also point out that the new number sadly appear to affirm her early criticism.


CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, MAYOR, SAN JUAN PUERTO RICO: He's trying to appease his own mind and his soul, if he has one, about this 2,175 deaths by saying you know what? It is the fault of the people of Puerto Rico. No. We had electricity before Maria came. Maybe he doesn't know that Irma came 15 days before that and really hit us, because, you know, he thought he was being so bright by telling us that we are an island surrounded by water, lots and lots of water, ocean water. This is like telling somebody that's gone through a fire that it's their fault that they didn't run fast enough. No. It is your fault, Mr. President. You should shame on yourself and your administration. You left us here to die because you were more concerned about the political spin than about the human reality that we were dying.

(END VIDEOTAPE) BERMAN: It's a bitter reality, a wake-up call, one that the President apparently has yet to hear. Joining me now is retired Army Lieutenant General Russel Honore who led the military response after Hurricane Katrina. General Honore, always a pleasure to speak to you. I'm wondering what went through your mind today when you heard the President's comments.

RUSSEL HONORE, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It sounded like the President was, again, feeding his own ego. Kind of remind me of an amateur magician John, who starts to believe his own magic. He puts a narrative out that he wants to believe while at the time those statements were made, the people of Puerto Rico were suffering. The first two weekends of this storm the President was out playing golf. The absence of an ability to show any empathy for people who are suffering and then at the same time during the response to make statements about how bad all Puerto Rico was before the storm, then during the response to say he suspended the Jones Act, but he reluctant to do it because his friends in New York was call him that they were going to loose money. We shouldn't even have the Jones Act.

[20:40:04] It is a relic of the past. We should not have it. It's designed to feed the pockets of rich people in New York. And yet this President continues to create his own narrative of what a great job. Even FEMA has admitted the shortcomings. And FEMA can't go to argue with the President, but they know what they've got to do. They know they did not have enough assets on the ground. They know they didn't respond quick enough. They know they did not request the military soon enough.

Look, I beat General Buchanan to Puerto Rico, and I flew there on a Delta jet. What's wrong with that picture? Our military is an expeditionary force. Can go anywhere in the world any time. They will asked for late and didn't ask for enough more than 100 helicopters, 12,000 federal people in Puerto Rico compared to 20,000 federal troops, 20 ships and 40,000 national guard troops in Katrina. What's wrong with that picture?

BERMAN: So, general, the President again today defended the response by saying it was more of a challenge because Puerto Rico is an island surrounded by water. Is there any validity to that?

HONORE: Time and distance does add to the difficulty of getting to a place. Look, during a real disaster, John, whether it's Katrina, Harvey, Maria, wherever, you'll never be there on time when people have been devastated by the wrath of a heavy, big storm like Maria. You'll never be there on time. But we should have sped up the response by making the military be the primary responder, working in support and helping FEMA. FEMA was already overloaded with Harvey and Irma, something they had never done before.

And here they're trying to manage Puerto Rico. They're trying to manage as opposed to the Pentagon stepping up and sending in the assets that should have gone in and maybe could have saved some of the people lives. And that's a stretch because that country was destroyed by the storm. The grid was down, broken, bridges broken. But we've got port opening units. The port was closed, not used. We have airfield opening units, standing by, not used. What's wrong with that picture? We have expeditionary medical units, not used. What's wrong with that picture? And while send less than 100 helicopters.

We can do better, and I hope in those lessons learned, U.S. northern command and the Pentagon will lean forward. And when we have a heavy storm like a Maria coming, they will send out a flotilla of ships to follow the storm in like they did for Irma. They did not do that for Maria.

BERMAN: Is advice.

HONORE: And we can do better. The military can do better. Their job is to save American lives.

BERMAN: Advice as we are now in the midst of hurricane season, General Russel Honore, again, always a pleasure to lean on your experience. Appreciate it.

Coming up, mourners lined up all day in Phoenix to honor the late Senator John McCain. Just ahead, I will speak with one of his pallbearers, someone you might not expect.


[20:47:01] BERMAN: Today was the beginning of John McCain's long journey to his final resting place. It continues into this evening. The Senator's casket lying in the state capital building in Phoenix, people passing by, paying their respects on what would have been his 82nd birthday. These are live pictures from Phoenix.

Among the first to honor the late Senator was his widow Cindy McCain. You can see her bending over the casket. She lingered for a bit before moving on. Very poignant images. As Senator McCain had meticulously prepared the plans for his funeral, including invitations to former Presidents Obama and Bush to deliver eulogies.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny reports that McCain phone Obama in April and asked him if he would speak, George W. Bush, Zeleny says got a similar call, both were surprised at the calls and the request both because of course, both denied the Senator, Senator McCain the White House. They beat him in various elections.

Another surprise detail is who Senator McCain asked to serve as one of his pallbearers. He's a Russian national and vigorous opponent of Vladimir Putin named Vladimir Kara-Murza, he joins us now.

Vladimir, thanks so much for being with us. How did you find out that Senator McCain want you'd to be a pallbearer at his memorial service?

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA, VICE CHAIRMAN, OPEN RUSSIA: Well, Senator McCain passed the message through a mutual friend back in April. He was planning his funeral service, and he conveyed the message that he liked me to be one of the pallbearers. And I have to tell you, I didn't want to think about it or speak about it. This is the deepest honor, but also of course it's the most heartbreaking honor and the saddest honor you can think of. And I think it's symbolic that among a small group of people that Senator McCain has chosen to be his pallbearers at his memorial service will be a citizen of Russia. Because one of the -- of course one of the biggest lies propagated by the Kremlin media, by Russian state media is that John McCain was somehow an enemy of Russia.

This is, you know -- this is how they described him in life, and this show they continue to describe him in death, if you just look at the headlines run by Russian state media in the last few days. You'll see phrases as America's chief Russophobia, an implacable enemy of Russia. Of course nothing could be further from the truth. John McCain was never an enemy of Russia or the Russian people. He certainly was an enemy of the Kleptocrats in the Kremlin, of the people who have used up power in Russia, of the people who have turn Russia into a looting ground and then autocracy at home, and into a source of aggression, well face (ph) you call them for what they are. He called them as always he spoke the truth. He calls them thieves and murders and liars.

And, you know -- but I can tell you somebody who's worked with Senator McCain on several issues that are important to Russian civil society and the Russian Democratic movement, you know, the doors of his office were always open to Russian human rights, council (ph) to Russian Democrats, to Russian civil society, and we had no biggest and more committed supporter on Capitol Hill.

BERMAN: So do you think, then, that by asking you his friend, who happens to be a Russian citizen who was often at odds with Vladimir Putin, that he was sending a message to Vladimir Putin and maybe even to President Trump?

[20:50:01] KARA-MURZA: You know, not everything is about politics and not everything is about PR. What's important for me is that, you know, this is a deeply personal and again most heartbreaking honor. And, you know, it's very important for me to have this opportunity to say one last good-bye to somebody who has been a strong and committed supporter to the cause of freedom and democracy for the people of Russia, who always, you know, engaged in public advocacy for Russian political prisoners, who spoke the truth about the Putin regime, who didn't hesitate to criticize --

BERMAN: Right.

KARA-MURZA: -- U.S. presidents of both parties including his own for being too accommodating and too friendly with Vladimir Putin. And you know, frankly, Senator John McCain is one of the people thanks to whom I'm able to sit here and speak to you tonight.

BERMAN: Well, tell us about that. Tell us about how you met.

KARA-MURZA: Well, we met, this was back in 2010, when we began to work together with Senator John McCain and with the late Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov on a piece of legislation called the Magnitsky Act, which was a U.S. law which was eventually passed in 2012 that imposed targeted personal sanctions against Putin regime officials who engaged in corruption and human rights abuse. This was not sanctions against Russia, I want to stress. This is important. These were personal individual sanctions against the people who abused the rights of Russian citizens, of my compatriots and who steal to money to Russian tax payers to corruption and Boris Nemtsov the Russian opposition leader called it the most pro-Russian law ever passed by a foreign parliament.

And Senator McCain was a leader on that legislation. And we worked on many issues in these ensuing years. And he always, you know, spoke the truth about the Putin regime. He always spoke in support of the rights and freedoms of the Russian people. He was somebody who was profoundly honorable and decent and principled, and I will always consider it among the greatest privileges and the greatest blessings of my life to have known and to have worked with Senator John McCain.

BERMAN: A deeply meaningful request at his passing. Vladimir Kara- Murza, a pallbearer at this memorial service this week. We appreciate you being with us.

KARA-MURZA: Thank you.

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

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: That was really interesting, J.B., and really gives a look into what John McCain was about. A very complex man.

We're going to be taking on a new name in politics tonight, Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, the man of the moment for the Democrats, the first African-American nominee for governor in the state of Florida. He's here to talk about how he won, the challenges ahead, and the tough questions of what that race might be about with the phrase we heard his opponent say today.

We have some great debaters that are going to take on the same issues as well as the nature of what's happening in politics, and we have a fact check. We are not forgetting Puerto Rico, my brother. What happened there now, the new study that's come out. Why all the silence from leadership? Next.

BERMAN: All right. Chris Cuomo, thanks so much. Looking forward to it.

A lot of times it seems there's nothing President Trump likes better than a good conspiracy or two or maybe more. Coming up, we'll examine a few new doozies fresh this week.


[20:57:17] BERMAN: It's no overstatement to say that Donald Trump's path to the White House began with a single conspiracy theory, that being that Barack Obama wasn't an American. The so-called birther conspiracy. Then citizen Trump made hay with it, making unproven accusations, saying he had sent his own team of investigators to Hawaii to investigate it. None of it was true. All of it was debunked many times over. But no matter, it served as a launch pad for Mr. Trump's embrace of conspiracy theories extending right into his presidency, right into this week. Here's Randi Kaye.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): President Trump first jumped on the latest Hillary Clinton conspiracy, which has already been debunked, presumably after seeing this.

LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Now there are reports, and this doesn't surprise me in the slightest, that China was hacking her e- mails in real time.

KAYE (voice-over): That was last night. Then right after Fox's Laura Ingraham signed off President Trump parroted the theory in a tweet. "Hillary Clinton's e-mails, many of which are classified information, got hacked by China." The report, as the President called it, actually began before Ingraham, when conservative website the "Daily Caller" claimed that a Chinese company in Washington acting as a, quote, "front group" for the Chinese government had hacked Clinton's private server. And the "Daily Caller" likely got their story from known conspiracy theorist Texas congressman Louie Gohmert, who talked about it last month.

REP. LOUIE GOHMERT, (R) TEXAS: The problem was that it was going to an unauthorized source that was a foreign entity unrelated to Russia.

KAYE (on-camera): Unrelated to Russia or China or, it turns out, to anyone. That's because according to the FBI, who conducted the investigation into Clinton's servers, none of this is true. The bureau today releasing a statement saying, "the FBI has not found any evidence the servers were compromised."

(voice-over): And that's not the only conspiracy theory the President's been promoting over the past few days. Just yesterday before dawn Mr. Trump turned his sights on Google, tweeting "Google's search results for Trump news shows only the viewing reporting of fake news media. In other words, they have it rigged for me and others so that almost all stories and news is bad." Trump was parroting an article by a conservative blog and a report on Fox Business.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Google blatantly suppressing conservative media outlets from Americans searching for Trump.

KAYE (voice-over): Sure sounds nefarious. But there's a problem. There's no real evidence to support the claim. In fact, Google was forced to respond saying, it never ranks search results to manipulate political sentiment. But just like any good conspiracy theory, it lives on. The President this afternoon.

[21:00:07] TRUMP: I think Google is really taking advantage of a lot of people --

KAYE (voice-over): Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.