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Trump Warns of Violence from Left if GOP Loses Midterms; Senator McCain to Lie in State at Arizona Capitol today; McCain Taps Ex-Political Rivals to Speak at His Memorial Service; Fellow Vietnam Prisoner of War Remembers Life and Legacy of McCain; Senators Send Mixed Messages Over Sessions' Future; New Study Shows Hurricane Maria Killed Nearly 3,000 in Puerto Rico; Bernie Backed Gillum versus Trump- Backed DeSantis Win in Florida Primaries; Trump Warns of Violence From Left if GOP Loses Midterms. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:23] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, I'm Erica Hill in today for Poppy Harlow.

You've got to give it to Florida, bringing in the drama once again on election night. Democratic voters there made the outspent largely overlooked Andrew Gillum, mayor of Tallahassee, Florida's first African-American nominee for governor. Gillum also happens to be the most progressive and the least wealthy of the five Dems who were seeking the nomination, the only one to be endorsed by Bernie Sanders.

He will face his polar opposite in Ron DeSantis, a non-establishment Republican backed by President Trump who this morning is already looking ahead to November. The president writing Gillum -- writing that Gillum is DeSantis' biggest dream. A, in the president's word, failed socialist mayor.

This morning on CNN's "NEW DAY," Gillum said he's not afraid of the campaigner-in-chief.


ANDREW GILLUM (D), FLORIDA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are both scraping from the bottom of the barrel. I actually believe that Florida and its rich diversity are going to be looking for a governor who's going to bring us together, not divide us. Not misogynist, not racist, not bigots. They're going to be looking for a governor who is going to appeal to our higher aspirations as a state.


HILL: Let's bring in CNN's senior political writer Harry Enten and from the "Tampa Bay Times," Tallahassee bureau chief, Steve Bousquet.

Good to have both of you with us. As he said there, he doesn't want to scrape from the bottom and he believed he can bring more Floridians together here.

Steve, give us a sense, you're there in the state, what kind of an appetite is there now as we're looking at two -- not polar opposites only but really extremes in both of their parties?

STEVE BOUSQUET, TALLAHASSEE BUREAU CHIEF, TAMPA BAY TIMES: Right. Erica, what Adam -- what Andrew Gillum pulled off last night is unprecedented in the annals of Florida politics, and it's why the state is so fascinating as you said, as a political laboratory. His get-out-the-vote ground game was superb, he was trailing in the polls all the way through to the last maybe 72 hours, and he put together this coalition that represents certainly the far left-wing silo of the Democratic Party and now he has to broaden that base very, very quickly.

You know, one of the things that's so important about Florida elections is how fast this is all going to happen. It's 10 weeks to Election Day but people in the state can start voting absentee in about five weeks. This won't last very long and it's going to be very intense.

HILL: It will be a full-court press.

Harry, as we look at this, take it into a broader context for us, this fascinating political laboratory. You know, as Steve just said what does it say about the broader look at American politics?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER AND ANALYST: Well, I think on the Republican side the story is pretty easy, right? Ron DeSantis, Trump endorsed, Trump backed. We've seen that across Republican primaries. If you have Trump's endorsement you're most likely going to win.

On the Democratic side it's a little less clear, right? Because Gillum only won with about 34 percent of the vote and we've seen progressive candidates in other states not necessarily do as well in the Michigan gubernatorial primary just a few weeks ago. For instance, we saw the Bernie Sanders-backed candidate lose there.

But in terms of what it sets up for the general election, we get a real test for what the Bernie Sanders people wanted all along in 2016, a matchup of a progressive Bernie Sanders-backed typed candidate, Medicare-for-all versus the Trump-backed candidate hard right wing. And it will be very interesting to see because if Gillum does in fact pull it off it will be very interesting to see for the primary in 2020 whether the candidates that look like Gillum and look like Bernie Sanders will use this and say hey, we can win a general election in a state that Hillary Clinton couldn't.

HILL: It's a great point because as much as we're still focused on 2018, I know a lot of that focus is actually a little bit further on into 2020, and what will happen there. What's fascinating as we're looking at -- and we know this is the Trump effect that we've seen really across the country in different primaries. You embrace the president. You tend to do well in your primary. The big question, how does that work for you in November.

You know, but, Steve, as we look at even in terms of embracing the president, I mean, that ad, right ,from DeSantis where he's reading "The Art of the Deal" as a bedtime story essentially, working on building a wall with the kids, how much did that really resonate? I mean, yes, we have the poll numbers but just in terms of anecdotally, how much was that really resonating with Floridians?

BOUSQUET: I think it resonated strongly. Trump's numbers with the Republican base in Florida are as high or higher than they are in any state in the country. He's very popular with the base Republican voters. Having said that, it's a whole different universe of voters in November. Totally different. We're a closed primary state which means the 30 percent of voters here who are registered with neither party, they've had no voice in this election. They're likely to be decisive in November. And if Gillum can get those folks out to vote the way he just got Democrats, African-Americans, young people, LGBT voters to vote, the Democrats will have pulled off something amazing.

[09:05:10] I've covered a lot of midterm elections in the state. The midterm election cycle favors Republicans. Always has. Democrats have had trouble galvanizing, motivating their folks to the polls, but, you know, it's a deep purple state, the demographics in Florida are changing very quickly. You know, Gillum and DeSantis, we're seeing a generational shift here in Florida politics. Both these guys are 39 years old and they're both really untested on the big stage.

HILL: It's not just to Florida. When we're looking at the gubernatorial race here, we should point out, you know, the fact that we don't have African-American governors in this country and now there are, what, I think at least eight running, eight African-American candidates for governor, that's really important as the elected officials need to start reflecting more of course their constituents, Steve.

BOUSQUET: Absolutely. Now a governor's race, that is about race and is about black and white, is going to easily pull in all these very divisive issues in this state like the economic inequality that we see in Florida, particularly in African-American communities. The incredible amount of tension in the state over the Stand Your Ground self-defense law. We just had an unarmed black man shot to death outside of St. Petersburg.

This is going to be a -- potentially an extremely volatile election and obviously it's going to be nationalized. It's a nationalized election because of Trump.

HILL: Really quickly, Harry, before we let you go. Just in touching on Arizona, we did see McSally pull it out. She really had to embrace Trump publicly to do that. How much is whomever is appointed to John McCain's seat, do you think, going to potentially change her tune moving into November?

ENTEN: I mean, look, I think for me what's so interesting about when you contrast Arizona to Florida, despite the fact that McSally certainly, you know, became more Trump friendly, and she certainly wasn't Trump friendly in 2016, McSally and Kirsten Sinema are moderates. If Florida is the two extremes.

HILL: Right. ENTEN: Arizona are the two people in the middle and it's just a very

interesting contrast of how politics in this country -- one state doesn't necessarily apply to another, if we're arguing that our politics are going to the extremes, in Arizona it's not necessarily so clear that that's the case.

HILL: Harry, Steve, appreciate it. Thank you both.

President Trump warning evangelical leaders there will be violence from the left if Republicans lose the midterms in November.

CNN national correspondent Athena Jones joins us from the White House with more this morning.

So where did those comments come from -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Erica. Well, this is a warning by the president against complacency, he's warning his base, he's warning his voters, many of whom are evangelicals, that they need to go to the polls in the midterm elections in November even though he's not on the ballot. Why? Because if Democrats take control there will be violence.

That is the warning he told a dinner of evangelical leaders on Monday night here at the White House. Here's what he said. He said, "It is not a question of like or dislike, it is a question that they will overturn everything that we've done and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence when you look at Antifa, these are violent people."

Now we need to stress here, Erica, that there is no evidence that there would be violence should Democrats take control of Congress. Congress has changed hands in the past without there being any violence and of course if Democrats have the votes to make the changes they want to make they don't need to resort to any sort of violence. But what's important here is this talk of Antifa which has become a boogie man of the right.

Antifa being this -- a loosely knit group of anti-fascist counter protesters, the kind of folks we saw take to the streets in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year to protest against neo-Nazis and white supremacists. You see a lot of mentions of Antifa in right-wing media and now the president is trying to use this fear of this group to drive his voters to the polls.

We should note that while he's trying to equate Democrats with Antifa, there is no equivalence there. There is no evidence that Antifa -- folks in Antifa are even really part of the Democratic Party so this is coming down to the president trying to use fear to drive his voters to the polls, telling them, if you don't vote, if you don't vote for Republicans, there's going to be violence -- Erica.

HILL: And it is quite a message. Athena, with the latest for us. Athena Jones, thank you.

Let's dig a little deeper now with CNN political commentator Errol Louis and Caitlin Huey-Burns, national political reporter for RealClearPolitics.

You know, as Athena laid out, this is really about the president playing on fears here but how much of this message, A, really was resonating with evangelical leaders, do we think and, B, is a message that they're going to bring home to their congregations and try to sell?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Well, evangelical leaders have been endeared to Donald Trump throughout his presidency and during the campaign because of the policy initiatives that they think that he is championing. Obviously judges being a key component of that.

What's really interesting to me is that the Republican Party and Donald Trump have some things to sell the American people, right?

[09:10:02] The economy is relatively good on paper, seems to be humming along. They have the tax cuts, of course, that they passed last year that they hoped would be centerpiece to their midterm message. But you're not seeing the president talk about that because he knows that in order to rally up his base of support he needs to kind of focus on the more divisive issues and really get them kind of scared about Democratic takeover and what that would mean.

Of course you hear a lot of Republican candidates on the trail talking about the specter of impeachment saying that -- you know trying to target those voters who might be soft on Trump, who might not like everything he's doing but saying, you know, do you really want Democrats to take over control and unravel all of the Republican agenda items?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: And the president needs evangelicals in particular to be not just scared but also distracted. Right? I mean, we've had this credible evidence coming from the president's own personal lawyer that he knew about and helped arrange, helped coordinate payments to a porn star, to a Playboy Playmate in order to sort of cover up stuff that evangelicals have had a hard time, frankly, looking past. They've --

HILL: Although they have done it more easily, we should point out, with this president than with others in the past and have even said look, we think he's turned over -- I mean, I'm paraphrasing there but there has been more than one who has said we think he's trying over a new leaf. He's really trying.

LOUIS: It's locker room talk.

HILL: Right.

LOUIS: All kinds of excuses but I think the president knows probably better than any of us that what we're doing to find out is going to make it very, very hard to sort of make that same sale and I heard him sort of trying to ramp up the fear factor.

HILL: Right. LOUIS: As a matter of trying to inoculate these evangelicals to get

them to focus on something existential, you know, immigrants are coming to kill your daughter or something like that as opposed to what they're going to be hearing in the closing weeks of this campaign.

HILL: It is fascinating, though, because, to your point, Caitlin, there is a message here other than that that the president could run on, and in many ways he's got a good built-in base. Right? There's a good portion of the base, it's not changing as we know. So he actually needs to appeal outside the base to bring more people in, right? So the fact that he is trying to play up violence and fear as opposed to hey, look at my economy, hey, look at what's happening -- I just had this great, you know, conversation with Mexico, we're bringing Canada in. You know, we're really twisting them. All these things are happening and yet again he goes back to fear.

LOUIS: Yes. I mean, it tells you something. Look, they have -- the Republicans, the administration, they have a good news story to tell around the economy. Record-low unemployment, there's a booming stock market economy that affects people's retirements and so forth.

The level of polling that they can do, the level of intel that they have about what's moving people tells us that they already know that people are not buying that.

HILL: Right.

LOUIS: That they're not rushing out to the polls because their 401(k) is up 7 percent this year. What they're going to do therefore is switch to issues like immigration that speak to something deeper, a sort of more base-level motivation.

HILL: Which is -- and we know that that works, right? We know that was exactly what worked in 2016. When it does to come to Democrats, and you touched on this a little bit, you know, the messaging from Republicans is they're going to want to talk about impeachment. Well, a lot of Democrats have heard that and they're afraid to bring up the I word for various reasons but Democrats also have to be really careful with their message because there isn't one message for the Democratic Party that is going to work across the board. And that was proven not only in 2016 but it's playing out, too, as we're seeing even in different states in these primaries.

HUEY-BURNS: Right. Well, what's really interesting here is we're in a midterm election, right? So this is obviously going to be a referendum on the party in power so when you're talking about base voters they will be energized by the idea of placing a referendum on the Republican Party in this election. It works in midterms and we've seen that before.

What you're seeing on a candidate level is a little bit different, though. So they're trying to harness that energy in the base that is, you know, very revved up in terms of opposition to Donald Trump but also, you know, Democratic strategists say that talking about things like health care is a key driver of Democratic messaging right now and also, of course, the economy, to Errol's point. Talking about the economy could be a challenge but talking about

things like wages, talking about things like paying for health care and kind of your daily life, that's what you're going to see some of these candidates in these swing districts try to hone in on. And of course for 2020 that's when you need the more aspirational message and a more cohesive message.

HILL: Right. It is really just -- I mean, here, what, 10 weeks?


HILL: Until November?

LOUIS: It's a fascinating puzzle. Which way are the undecided voters going to break?

HILL: Yes.

LOUIS: Which way are the swing voters going to swing? And just as we saw in the previous segment, it's going to be a different question in Florida compared with Arizona. It's going to be different regionally. It's going to be different depending on the office that we're talking about. The candidates who are involved. What the Democratic Party has decided to do, what you're hearing and what the reporting really reflects is that they're telling people do whatever is going to work.

HILL: Yes.

LOUIS: In your particular race. If you want to run against the president and a promise to impeach him, go for it. If that's not going to work in your district, keep your mouth shut about impeachment.

HILL: Know your audience.

LOUIS: It's a very practical business.


LOUIS: It's a very practical business.

HILL: Have respect there, life doesn't. Caitlin and Errol, appreciate it, thank you both. Hours from now, the first services will begin to honor Senator John McCain, his years of service to the nation. Our next guest was a prisoner of war with Senator McCain. He says he saw his desire to run for office begin while they were being held in Vietnam.

Plus, the president's tense relationship with his Attorney General, a very public feud. Mixed messages today on Capitol Hill regarding whether Jeff Sessions should stay. So are the AG's days numbered?

And the Hurricane Maria death toll skyrockets in Puerto Rico. Nearly 3,000 people dead as a result of the storm, making Hurricane Maria one of the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history.


[09:20:00] HILL: Today at the Arizona state capital in Phoenix, Senator John McCain will lie in state on what would have been his 82nd birthday -- in a private ceremony for family members and friends. Following that ceremony, the Capitol will open to the public so they too can pay their respects.

Meantime, we're learning more about why Senator McCain wanted political rivals -- President Obama for example to speak at his funeral. Joining me now is Cnn's Stephanie Elam, she joins us from Phoenix, Steph, good morning.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN: Good morning, Erica. And what we're expecting to see here today, it will be just before 10:00 a.m. local time when the motorcade will bring Senator McCain here to the Capitol building in Phoenix. And we should see this ceremony beginning around 10:00 a.m. local time as well.

And some of the people that we're expecting to hear from, Governor Doug Ducey is expected to speak as well as Senator Jon Kyl and Congressman Jim Kolbe who is also a Vietnam veteran as well. And then the benediction is expected to be given by Senator Jeff Flake, and after that's done and McCain immediate family views his casket, then they will begin to open the doors to everyone else.

People here who want to come and pay their respects will be able to come in and do that. They say they're going to leave the doors open as long as there is people in line. And then tomorrow, there will be another memorial service at a Baptist Church, north of here and that's where we expect to hear from former Vice President Joe Biden.

And it's interesting to note, Erica, that he has really -- we know the senator was very much involved in planning how these days of his eulogizing him, memorializing him, how all of that was going to happen, and it's clear that he wanted a bipartisan display, if you will.

And so when the senator does leave his home state of Arizona for the last time and heads to D.C. when he has his funeral at the National Cathedral. The two men that he asked personally to speak will be George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The two men who served as president and the two men that kept him from the White House.

So even in death, we're seeing that Senator McCain wanted to make a statement, saying what he saw best for the Republic is reaching across the aisle and working with people and showing that by doing that, it's the best for the country.

And so it's very interesting to note that as he took the time to plan this, he had over a year while he was fighting brain cancer, Erica, to think about this, and this is something that meant a lot even though he wasn't necessarily close with either of those two men like he was with Vice President Biden.

HILL: A statement from Senator McCain even posthumously there. Stephanie Elam with the latest for us, Steph, thank you. Joining us now, a man who knew John McCain very well, they met in some of their darkest days, former U.S. Naval Commander Everett Alvarez, spent eight years in the same Hanoi Prison Camp where Senator McCain was held captive.

He first met John McCain there, the two remained friends, he actually worked with McCain during his 2000 presidential run and joins us now. Mr. Alvarez, we appreciate you taking the time for us today.


HILL: When -- I know you've said that the first time that you saw and met John McCain in that Hanoi prison, you had this sense that he may become a politician someday -- in a very positive sense of the word, I should say. What was it about him at that moment that gave --

ALVAREZ: Well --

HILL: You that thought?

ALVAREZ: Well, that was my speculation when I first met John. His animation, his eagerness to learn, his personal relationship with others, it was, you know, just sitting back, watching the animation and he had -- he -- it was a fast-pace. Here was a man that was in a hurry, in a hurry to do things.

And you know, given the experience that we had had, I'll just -- I'll be honest with you, we had a very tough situation there with the beatings, the torture for years, the deprivation, the hunger, the conditions were tough and we recognized that we were going to make it, but we had to stick together.

We had to be a very cohesive group, we had to work together to reach a common goal, and that was to return home and with our dignity and with our honor and we did. At the end, we emerged, each individual -- most of us, I would say with our values strengthened, with our beliefs, with our faith in God and our faith in our country -- our faith in the American people.

And we were coming home to the greatest country on the face of this earth. John was one of us. John had the experience, the hard times as well as many of us, and we had a greater sense of what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. John chose to be a public servant. He wanted to work on a cause greater than himself which he did.

[09:25:00] And entering his political career, I believe it was the base that was demonstrated to the rest of us when we were still there that led him to his career as a politician, a senator where he worked hard and became a giant among his peers.

And I can understand the frustration that he faced that he articulated that quite eloquently in terms of the bickering, in terms of the partisanship, because I can pretty well imagine that John felt that our country has yet to achieve its greater -- its greatness that it's meant to have. But we can only do that by working together as a group just like we

did when we came out of Vietnam. And I believe that his strong belief was that we could achieve its greatness and I can imagine that he would have said, you know, we've come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

HILL: And in that -- in that message that he left as well to be shared after his death.

ALVAREZ: Exactly --

HILL: He also of course told Americans not to despair, to hold out hope and to keep working toward that. You worked with him as we mentioned on his 2000 campaign. You two remained close, this is a bond that I think most people would understand would bond you for a lifetime.

You've also been asked to be an honorary pall-bearer. We know the senator planned much of what is about to unfold over the next several days himself. When you got that call that Senator McCain wanted you to be an honorary pall-bearer, what went through your mind?

ALVAREZ: Well, I immediately thought that I would do it, of course. But the fact that he was planning this and he had this on his mind, I thought was revealing of John. John is very astute, he's very intelligent, he has great vision when it comes to the laying of the land and the politics, the politics of it.

I had spoken to John a few -- a couple -- few months before I got this invitation to be an honorary pall-bearer, and that was the last time I spoke to him because it was very difficult. I recall that his words were to the effect -- you know, you and I have been together through a lot and then his voice started to crack, and it was difficult, it was difficult for me, and -- but I will never forget the sense of that conversation and the meaning that it had with respect to the bonds we had over the years.

So John was -- if he was with us today, I'm sure he would be reminiscing about a lot of this on his 82nd birthday.

HILL: Everett Alvarez, we still appreciate you taking the time to join us, sir. Thank you.

ALVAREZ: Thank you. A lot of discussion this morning about whether the future for Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, his role in that job, could his days be numbered? We've got a pretty good idea of course, about how the president feels, what the president wants to do about it.

Now Senate Republicans though sending mixed messages about whether their one-time colleague should in fact be fired.