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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Jeff Sessions in Danger?; White House Counsel Leaving. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:30:02]

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And he can speak very well for himself. He said he doesn't think anything is wrong.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Trump enlisted McGahn in a failed effort to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the Russia probe.

And McGahn once refused Trump's order to direct the Justice Department to fire Mueller, according to a person familiar with the matter -- these episodes catching the attention of the special counsel, who is investigating Russian meddling and possible obstruction of justice.

QUESTION: You're aware of what he said?

TRUMP: 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.

PHILLIP: Also surprised by McGahn's departure, Senate Republicans.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, who worked with McGahn on judicial nominations, tweeting: "I hope it's not true."

And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell lamenting "the sad news for our country."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP: Now, the White House did not say who would be replacing Don McGahn upon his departure, but our sources have told us that Emmet Flood, who is a lawyer here in the White House who was brought into deal with the Russia probe, is one of the top candidates.

Now, Flood has an interesting background. He was a lawyer for former President Bill Clinton during his impeachment trial. He also dealt a little bit with Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation as a lawyer for her.

But he is close to Don McGahn and is believed to be the likely successor in that role -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Abby Phillip at the White House, thanks very much.

Back with the panel now.

So, just a reminder. Here's the president this afternoon praising McGahn in effusive terms.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: He's a good man, very good man. Don, excellent guy. Yes, Don McGahn is a really good guy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: CNN's own reporting is, the fact is that McGahn and the president have not had a good relationship. Some of that has bubbled over.

I understand "The New York Times" is reporting right now that the president's wanted to get rid of him for some time.

Is this, Amanda Carpenter, sincere praise from the president?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Probably not, but when does he actually offer sincere praise?

The question for me is, how did Don McGahn last this long, given everything that he's seen? And we know the legal stresses that this president puts the White House counsel, who is loyal to the White House, not the president primarily, under.

I think it's amazing. I think he should take -- get the second Supreme Court pick confirmed and get the heck out of there. The question is who on earth could play this role in the White House? Because aside from the whole Russian collusion case, there are other major legal struggles going on.

There's people looking at the Trump Foundation, the Trump Organization, two potential legal conflicts that impact Jared and Ivanka Trump, who play roles in the White House. And so this is -- not only will that lawyer have to deal with impeachment. They will have to keep all that madness straight.

SCIUTTO: Well, the thing about McGahn is, McGahn famously refused the president's order to fire the special counsel, Robert Mueller. With McGahn gone, does that put Mueller in greater danger?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's hard to say, because if Emmet Flood -- if in fact he does replace him, he is someone who's been involved on the front lines of the Mueller investigation.

You would think that he wouldn't want the president to do anything that would further jeopardize him. But to your question on how Don McGahn stuck around that long, I think it had everything to do with reshaping the judiciary.

That's one of the reasons I'm McConnell is sad to see him go, because he had really been ushering that process through to get these traditional nominations through. Now that a lot of this has been done, it kind of had been assumed he was going to part ways with the president. But we will have to see who he ends up putting in that place. I think that will a difference for Mueller.

SCIUTTO: You mentioned Mitch McConnell's warning.

I will just quote him here. He said: "If the reporting is true about Don McGahn's time at the White House coming to an end later this year, it will be sad news for the country."

That's Mitch McConnell. But listen to Chuck Grassley, again, a Republican, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate. He said: "I hope it's not true McGahn is leaving White House counsel. You can't let this happen."

Very, very strong words there. Is that just about judicial appointments?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think it's about your disappointment.

I don't know -- this has been very underreported, but folks do not understand that a hostile takeover of the courts by folks who are not even approved by the American Bar Association is happening. There are judges on the list right now that are not approved by the American Bar Association.

And Donald Trump's lasting legacy, among other things, will be that he was able to reshape the courts for a generation. And that is something that Grassley and McConnell are very tied to, and I think they don't want to see their ally in this effort go.

SCIUTTO: Listen, there's still a lot of judges sitting on the bench who were appointed by Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. This is a generational effect.

On another point, because this gets to another legal issue, which was there, and the president was asked about this, McGahn sat down voluntarily with the special counsel for some 30 hours. The president said today that he was not concerned about that testimony.

Let's have a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Any concern about what he said to the Mueller team?

[16:35:03]

TRUMP: No, not at all. Not at all.

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: I knew he was going, also. Yes, I did 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(LAUGHTER)

SCIUTTO: Well, a lot of things you can question there.

I mean, we should note. We checked it.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: It's a very large book.

The president, to our understanding, did not have to approve him going there. But, anyway, is the president actually, Kirsten Powers, worried about what McGahn might have told the special counsel?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: I can't read his mind, but, yes, by all accounts.

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: But I will. Yes, by all accounts, he is.

And I think, as you have pointed out, they already had a strained relationship. And that just was the final sort of straw, I think. I don't think that's something that the president's going to overlook.

CARPENTER: I mean, you just think about all the things that Don McGahn saw, starting with Sally Yates, who's been acting attorney general running into the White House and saying I think Mike Flynn is compromised.

The firing of James Comey. What was being instructed, as reported by "The New York Times," is that Trump wanted McGahn to fire Mueller by instructing the Department of Justice to do that. He was there for all these major decisions.

And knowing the careful, thorough lawyer that he is, of course he has notes. And of course he's going to have very consequential things to tell Robert Mueller. And it's never a good thing when your White House lawyer is a witness to a special prosecutor investigation.

SCIUTTO: I was just going to say, in effect, Don McGahn is a witness on the obstruction of justice, which we know is a key line of investigation for the special counsel.

SANDERS: And, I mean, look, if even Michael Cohen wasn't really willing to go down for Donald Trump, I really don't think Don McGahn is going to put his life in jeopardy and his livelihood for this president.

SCIUTTO: All right, well, listen, thanks so much. A lot more to talk about. Coming up: kiss of death. Kellyanne Conway refuses to say the president has this attorney general's back, as more Republicans clear the way for Trump potentially to wield the hatchet.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:41:18]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: How are we feeling about Mr. Sessions this morning?

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: Oh, he's great. I talked to the attorney general yesterday, actually. He's working very hard on MS-13 gangs, opioid crisis, immigration.

QUESTION: Does that mean he still has the president's confidence?

CONWAY: He's the attorney general, the chief law enforcement (INAUDIBLE) and they're doing great work over at the DOJ.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: That was counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway refusing to answer whether President Trump still has confidence in Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

It comes on the heels of several reports that Mr. Trump has told aides this month that he wants to fire Sessions over his recusal in the Russia investigation. Today, the attorney general ignored reporters' questions on this.

To our panel now.

Kirsten, first on the effect here potentially on the Mueller investigation. If Sessions goes, if McGahn goes as well, two folks have stood in the way of getting rid of the special counsel, does this put him in greater danger?

POWERS: Does it put Sessions in greater danger?

SCIUTTO: Does it put Robert Mueller in greater danger?

(CROSSTALK)

POWERS: Yes, definitely. I think that's the whole idea. That is the reason that Donald Trump wants him to go.

I mean, we have to remember whatever you think of Jeff Sessions, I'm personally not a big fan, he hasn't done anything really that's fireable. And Ben Sasse, Senator Ben Sasse, has come out and basically opposed this.

Granted, he's not a Trump fan at all. Has basically said, I'm not going to fire somebody for not being a partisan hack. I think that's the best said way you can say it, is that he hasn't actually done anything, except execute the president's agenda on everything, and then recuse himself.

So the one problem is that he's recused himself. And it seems like you have senators sort of coming around to Donald Trump's side, but based on what? Again, you're going to let him be fired and replaced over not being a partisan hack?

SCIUTTO: Symone, there's an interesting dynamic here, because Democrats did not like Jeff Sessions coming in. Many refused to vote for him, but ironically now see him almost as the defender of the republic here on this issue.

SANDERS: I don't know if I would pin Jeff Sessions as a defender of the republic.

But I don't think the president should necessarily fire him. But if in fact he does, what's going to happen? Is the president going to allow Rod Rosenstein to serve as the acting attorney general? Will he be able to get someone else confirmed?

If the president thinks he's right to go through a confirmation hearing with a potential new attorney general, they're going to have to put that person on the record. And members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, particularly the Democrats, are going to ask if this person is going to protect Robert Mueller, if he is going -- that person, he or she, is going to pledge not to fire them.

I don't think the White House wants those problems.

KUCINICH: I do wonder if this happens after the midterms, depending on how emboldened the president feels.

(CROSSTALK)

KUCINICH: But if Republicans keep the Senate, and perhaps the Republicans keep the House, the president is going to feel -- it's going to be directly proportional as to how emboldened he feels.

So I do wonder how Jeff Sessions' fate is tied up in that. Now, I would not put it past the president to fire Jeff Sessions in 20 minutes.

SCIUTTO: By tweet.

KUCINICH: By tweet.

So there's always that. It doesn't seem like he's going to do it before the midterms, but who the heck knows.

SCIUTTO: The words from Republicans have been interesting, because Mitch McConnell did put out a statement of support for him yesterday.

But other Republicans, certainly not. His former fellow Alabama senator, I should say, Richard Shelby, he told "The Washington Post": "Nothing lasts forever."

Republican Senator Roy Blunt, he said -- quote -- "Cabinet members seldom last the entire administration. And this is clearly not an exception."

Bob Corker, of course, an outgoing Republican senator, he says, "The fix is in."

Amanda, as you lose the that support here, that doesn't look good for Sessions.

CARPENTER: They're getting squishy on Sessions, which is saying something, considering he's their longtime colleague.

SCIUTTO: Yes.

CARPENTER: And I just -- I think Sessions should be applauded for standing firm.

And I think he's staked out a position at which I hope he adheres to that President Trump should fire him rather than him step down because there is a big campaign going on and talk radio among conservative media types to encourage him to just step down, resign because the Russian investigation is that too out of control. And keep in mind this is kind from people who said Jeff Sessions is the best person we have in that White House and they applauded him for not recusing himself from the campaign.

JIM SCIUTTO, CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: The first Senator to come up and support him.

CARPENTER: So that was the right decision and now they are drinking the Kool-Aid following Trump's lead and saying well, it would be nice if he just stepped down.

(CROSSTALK)

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I was quickly just going to say it also might change how he can replace him under the Federal Vacancies Act whether he's fired or resigned. And so if he's -- if he resigns, I think it's much easier going for Trump. If he's fired, it changes the dynamic socially.

SCIUTTO: Meaning --

POWERS: It's just it's not clear. It's -- I think people don't have a lot of clarity on what happens that there's a different dynamic and then there's a different political dynamic obviously as well. I think if you're resigns, people would say OK, he left. Yes, he was pressured both different than being fired.

SCIUTTO: So who takes -- who wants that job and who does the President want for that job?

CARPENTER: But who the President -- who could the President choose? I mean, President Trump has said very clearly, I chose sessions because he was loyal to me, out of loyalty. Well, anyone that you view as loyal to you is probably active in the campaign and Jeff Sessions participation in the campaign is why he had to recuse himself. And so we could just go right back to where we started. SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right back to where we

were. I think -- I also think it's jarring that -- let's just say the Republicans hold the Senate and Jeff Sessions is fired. If the President fires sessions, he's firing him because of the Russian investigation, solely because of it. And say whatever you want about the investigation in the House, but in the Senate, it's been bipartisan the Russian investigation and it's been highbrow. I'm hard-pressed to believe that Senators that truly believe Robert Mueller should be able to carry out his entire investigation without interference will think it was OK for the President to fire his attorney general because of his --

SCIUTTO: And he thinks because -- that's why the President said he fired James Comey and that's why the President said he removed the security clearance of John Brennan. So a lot of -- and things that we know of interest with the special counsel on that charge. Thanks very much to the panel. We've covered a thousand topics. Coming up, just because you say it out loud does not make something true but does the President know that? His eyebrow-raising assessment about the government's handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:50:00] SCIUTTO: We're back now with our "MONEY LEAD." First, it was Trump, now it is Bernie versus Bezos. Former Democratic Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders taking an aim at Amazon accusing the company of underpaying its employees. Sanders suggesting that Amazon founded by one of the richest men in the world now Jeff Bezos should be taxed if their employees still require public assistance like food stamps just to survive. In response, Amazon called Sanders' claims, "misleading and inaccurate and said that Sanders is referring to many people who choose to work only part-time.

In today's "POLITICS LEAD," he boasted about using truthful hyperbole in his book the Art of the Deal, but not the President's lust for exaggeration is having serious implications at home and abroad, whether it be in a nuclear crisis with North Korea that is certainly far from over, or in a U.S. territory such as Puerto Rico where earlier today the President once again applauded his Administration's response to Hurricane Maria.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico. We're still helping Puerto Rico. I think most of the people in Puerto Rico really appreciate what we've done.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Appreciate what we've done. The President's praise of himself comes just one day after the government adjusted its official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to nearly 3,000. That's right, from 64 to nearly 3,000, 50 times. CNN's Tom Forman reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The hurricane raid, buildings fell, people died and President Trump praise his administration's response in Puerto Rico saying the death toll could have been so much worse.

TRUMP: 16 versus literally thousands of people. You can be very proud.

FOREMAN: But now a new study puts the fatalities closer to 3,000. The White House is demanding full accountability for the discrepancy and the Mayor of San Juan, a Trump critic, has assailed his premature celebration.

MAYOR CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: The Trump Administration killed Puerto Ricans with neglect. The Trump Administration led us to believe that they were helping when they weren't really up to par.

FOREMAN: Yet still today --

TRUMP: I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico.

FOREMAN: It's not the first time Trump has seemed to jump the gun by declaring success. After his meeting with North Korea's Kim Jong-un, he insisted he had a signed commitment to denuclearization.

TRUMP: It's very comprehensive, it's going to happen.

FOREMAN: He even called off war games with South Korea. But now talks aimed at an actual deal to shut down Kim he's nuke program appear to be falling apart. Trump bragged about how he's pushing NATO partners to pay more for their own defense.

TRUMP: And now it's going up very substantially and commitments were made.

FOREMAN: But foreign leaders have disputed the depth of his claim. And now comes the latest, the President's boast that his new trade agreement with Mexico is flat out historic.

[16:55:07] TRUMP: This is one of the largest trade deals ever made, maybe the largest trade deal ever made. And it's really something very special the two countries were able to come together and get it done.

FOREMAN: The problem, several other deals including the North American Free Trade Agreement which Trump is trying to replace are much larger and Congress still has to approve the Mexico arrangement so it's not done yet anyway.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: In one of his books Trump once argued there is no harm in claiming that something is the biggest and greatest even when it's not. But when political parties, foreign governments and citizens must rely upon your word, exaggerating than not delivering the goods at very least makes it hard to know what you actually have and have not accomplished. Jim?

SCIUTTO: Tom Foreman, thanks very much. Tom there reference to the President's explanation for this. I'm going to quote directly from his book The Art of the Deal on hyperbole. "He says people want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole." It's an innocent form of exaggeration and a very effective form of promotion." Kirsten -- I mean, Amanda is this the way a president should speak.

CARPENTER: No, let me -- I have to jump on this just because I'm fascinated by that passage and it was actually written by his ghostwriter Tony Schwartz who has since disavowed that passage and he explained it in an interview with The New Yorker in July 2016 before Trump won the election saying it was a way of saying it's a lie but who cares. And the most interesting thing/theory about the Trump presidency is that he has always been able to cultivate people around him who would tell the lies but kind of laugh about it and say who cares. You know, it's not just Trump doing this. And so you know, just dwelling on that and seeing how that plays out in the White House in terms of things like budget, immigration, war you see the consequences of it and maybe people should listen to Tony Schwartz who see how far this is gone.

SCIUTTO: Is it -- and this question has been asked writ large a number of times, is it working, at least for version of the country, right?

SANDERS: Well yes. For Trump's base it is absolutely working. But the problem is Trump's base is not the entirety of the people in America nor are they the entirety of Republican voters if we want to be honest. I think this -- with what Donald Trump said about Puerto Rico today, it's just it's gut-wrenchingly horrible. More people died in Puerto Rico than Hurricane Katrina to less than in 9/11 so I think the people in Puerto Rico care if he's lying. I think that you know Mexico and Canada care if he's telling the truth about this trade deal which there is no deal yet.

And so I think his lies are beginning to catch up with them and more and more people I think now we're willing to call it thing a thing and a lie. The President is, in fact, a liar. Maybe a year and a half ago it would have been shocking for anyone to say that about a sitting President of the United States, today it's just the truth.

SCIUTTO: You know when I heard him make the comments about doing a fantastic job in Puerto Rico after the death toll like I said increased by a factor of 60 and made me think of the you're doing a great job (INAUDIBLE) Trump during Katrina and that that phrase stuck with Trump. It was really hard to rack up with Bush -- sorry -- with Bush, stuck with him and he paid a political price for it. But you get the sense that that statement today will disappear in the ether tomorrow.

POWERS: I think that one of the things that Donald Trump understands is that the world has sort of it operates on some certain norms, right, and in Washington operates on certain norms, and it's based on the premise that everybody is going to observe some basic norms whether you're a Republican or a Democrat and I think this is what John McCain is sort of trying to send the message as you know, as he -- as he left this world.

And what happens when someone shows up and decides I'm not going to do that anymore, it's a kind of terrorism in a way. You know what I mean? Because there's nothing you can really do about it and it just creates such chaos because nobody does this. And so you kind of lose words to explain it and I think it works for him definitely with a Republican Party I think beyond his face and maybe you'll disagree with that but I think people have decided that you know, well, OK he sells some little you know fibs here in there. And it's like no they're not fibs, they're blatant lies and they're meant to just -- to mislead people.

SCIUTTO: I suppose the question, Jackie, is does it -- so you have the base, you may actually buy this stuff for not care about but do you have folks in the middle who it raises questions where -- about basic facts where there wouldn't be questions before?

JACKI KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I can answer that question after November 6th because I really don't think at this point Trump asking any consequences for the fact that he doesn't tell the truth. And I think really and I feel like a broken record saying this but I really think the midterms are really going to give us a lot of clarity to how upset people are or if they're fine with what's going on.

CARPENTER: I would take quickly the consequences are coming if you can see that. The court case is playing out.

KUCINICH: Right.

SCIUTTO: Thanks to all of you appreciate it. Our coverage continuing in just a few moments here with Wolf Blitzer in "THE SITUATION ROOM"