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Report: Trump Says McGahn Is Leaving This Fall; Cohen Is Resigned to Going to Prison to Protect His Family; McCain Lies in State at Arizona Capitol Rotunda; Desantis Says Voting for His Black Opponent Would Monkey Up the Works. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Hi there, Brooke Baldwin. You're watching CNN. The president is looking for a new lawyer, not for himself personally, in the Russian probe, but for the White House officially in the office of White House counsel. Trump just announced Don McGahn's departure, where else? On Twitter, saying McGahn who got the job weeks after the 2016 election, quote, "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 Don a long time and truly appreciate his service."

The message there, it's confirmation of what sources told CNN in the past days after the president learned exactly how much Don McGahn has cooperated with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, 30 hours worth of cooperation and conversations. "The Washington Post" is reporting that McGahn was not aware that the president was going to send his tweet, but he was not angry about it. So, let's start at the White House with our reporter, Sarah Westwood. And Sarah, you tell me, do we know why the president decided to announce McGahn's exit today?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, Brooke, President Trump seemed to surprise a lot of people by announcing publicly what many have been expecting privately, which is that McGahn will be leaving the administration after the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Of course, President Trump and McGahn have enjoyed a complicated relationship, and at times even bordered on contentious and as you mentioned they hit a speed bump in the relationship earlier this month when we learned how extensively McGahn has been working with Special Counsel Mueller's investigators.

Now McGahn knows more about the Russian investigation and perhaps anyone else having been with Trump since the days of the campaign and having worked with the legal team to shape the strategy for dealing with the Russian investigation. This shocked some on Capitol Hill today. Chuck Grassley, that's Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary, wrote directly to Trump on Twitter, "I hope it's not true that McGahn is leaving the White House counsel. You can't let that happen."

And Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, also reacting unfavorably to the news of McGahn's departure saying it would be a big loss if he were to leave. He worked closely with McConnell and Grassley on judicial nominations. And it was McGahn's spear-heading of that process of the appointment that made him an ally to conservative legal circles. So, his efforts to put more conservatives on the courts is one reason Republicans may not be happy McGahn is leaving.

BALDWIN: Sarah, thank you for that.

Turning to another key player in the President Trump orbit, Michael Cohen cut a deal with prosecutors, and in the end, it turns out it was family first. Cohen pleaded guilty to eight criminal counts eight days ago including two campaign finance violations in which he directly implicated the president of the United States in federal court. So, for that, we'll go to CNN national political reporter MJ Lee. You have this color on this transformation from I'm going to fight, fight, fight, to I really care about my family.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right. We are getting more insight into what led to Michael Cohen pleading guilty last week. And sort of his mindset now as he waits for that sentencing hearing. People familiar with his thinking that we have talked to, say that Michael Cohen is basically resigned. Resigned to the fact that he will go to prison for some time and he still does not expect to receive a presidential pardon from Donald Trump, his former boss. And that he basically feels like everything that he has Done and that he is doing is to protect his family as much as possible. In fact, a friend of Michael Cohen that we spoke to said, "you know who Michael took a bullet for? His family."

This quote, obviously, interesting because Cohen has famously previously said he would be willing to take a bullet for Donald Trump. Now, just to remind everyone, Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts last week, including tax evasion, making false statements to a bank, as well as campaign finance violations. But what we know now is that it could have been so much worse. Prosecutors made it clear that there could have been more accounts coming, his wife could have been implicated and their assets could have been seized.

And one important consideration for Michael Cohen was also just knowing if he had chosen to go to trial, that could have meant huge legal bills for his family. And he did not want to leave his family with that kind of financial burden. Now, we have seen Michael Cohen out and about in town in Manhattan since last week on Tuesday when he pleaded guilty at the courthouse. Friends that we have spoken to say that he does not plan to go into hiding, but as much as possible he would like to stick to his daily routine. All of that, of course, as he's waiting for his sentencing hearing to come in December. Brooke?

[14:05:00] BALDWIN: Stay with me, I want to bring you into my bigger conversation here with legal experts standing by. Caroline Polisi is a federal and white-collar criminal attorney and with us CNN analyst Michael Zeldin who a special assistant to Robert Mueller at the DOJ. So welcome to the rest of you. Michael, let me begin with you. Let me jog back a second to the news of Don McGahn and his departure post Brett Kavanaugh Confirmation. It was all of 11 days ago that we all learned he had sat and cooperated with the Mueller team, gave them, you know, about 30 hours, and we know that that unnerved the president. And now we hear he's leaving. Connection?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I Don't think so. I know there's reporting that the president was unnerved by this, but I Don't credit that anonymously, Brooke. The deal for the testimony of Kavanaugh, rather McGahn, was really well-orchestrated by the White House counsel and special counsel ty cobb. This was Done through the justice department's coordination to make sure the privilege wasn't fully waived. And I think that everyone knew that McGahn was going into testify pursuant to the agreement with the DOJ on privilege. So, I know it's an easy thing to say causation, the president was unnerved and therefore is losing his job. I just Don't think those things add up I think it is more likely that McGahn has just spent his 18 months and now it is time for him to leave. The relationship as Sarah testified to in her statement at the beginning of the show was rocky. And so, I think it is time to move on. The other thing to keep in mind, too, is that McGahn was recused from the Russian investigation. So, if he leaves and Emmet Flood replaces him, then you have a White House counsel who is not recused and can handle both the duties of the White House counsel's office and Russian investigation. Which is something that may portend the future with respect to Jeff sessions as well.

BALDWIN: Interesting. I want to get to Emmet Flood, you brought him up as a potential replacement, Caroline, just to underscore, this is someone, Don McGahn has been part of this White House leading the White House response to this Russia investigation for 18 months, has been with Trump during pivotal moments. He's the guy who basically single-handedly kept Trump from firing Mueller. And we learn he's leaving.

CAROLINE POLISI, FEDERAL AND WHITE-COLLAR CRIMINAL ATTORNEY: Right. I mean, it's no secret that the reporting has been that Trump maybe has blurred the distinction between what a White House counsel is and what his own personal attorney is. You know, the refrain we have heard is Don McGahn is not the president's personal lawyer. He represents the office of the presidency. So that sort of realization was shocking to Trump after he heard about this 30 hours he spent with Robert Mueller, but he had the ethical obligation. He's a government attorney, so his first obligation is to the special counsel's investigation. I think that may have been quite shocking for Trump.

BALDWIN: Can you just give us a quick, you know, 411 on Emmet Flood, who could potentially replace him?

POLISI: Sure. I do think that my other colleagues would probably be more --

BALDWIN: Oh, sure.

POLISI: But that's fine. I do think in talking about McGahn and talking about really anybody who is very close to the president and has worked so closely with the president in any capacity, it's important to point out that loyalty is always, always key for the president. But I Don't think he can make the distinction between a person who works for him and is doing the duties, he said there's a distinction between a personal lawyer and somebody who does work for the office of the presidency. And someone who is supposed to always have their back. And I wonder when he's thinking about this and the fact that Don McGahn is leaving, if it ever occurred to the president, this person is in that position to do a certain role and is not always going to be protecting Donald Trump, the man and the person.

BALDWIN: OK. Looking at you, I want to ask about your reporting on Michael Cohen, and Caroline, a white-collar criminal attorney, this whole client who will fight tooth and nail initially and then reality strikes and you think about your kids and your wife. How typical is this transition?

POLISI: So, so, so very typical, Brooke. And this reporting really answers a lot of questions. Of course, I was here with you when that news broke that Michael Cohen took what is known as a straight plea. He pleaded guilty just to these eight charges. And there was no cooperation agreement. And we were all scratching our heads, because we thought for sure there must have been -- because there's this idea of leverage back and forth.

[14:10:00] Well, now we're realizing that what was the leverage that the SDNY had over Cohen? His family. So, if this is a tried and true tactic that federal prosecutors use all the time. I see it every day. They bring in -- they implicate your family and say there's criminal exposure for your family. Now we are hearing about potentially his wife could have been implicated but now we see where the deal aspect comes in. Use all the time. I see it every day. They bring in -- they implicate your family and say there's criminal exposure for your family. Now we are hearing about potentially his wife could have been implicated but now we see where the deal aspect comes in. This wasn't technically a deal he took, but given what he was facing, now we know what he was facing, a myriad of charges and family exposure, there was a deal in all respects of the word.

LEE: And for so long We were psychoanalyzing the Cohen relationship with Donald Trump and the fact they were so close for so long. But each man for Cohen and Trump, you sort of saw each of them trying to distance themselves from the other. Cohen initially we know from all of the reporting over the last couple of months, that he hoped to see some signs of support from the president, will he go on Twitter, will he make a public statement supporting him? And initially, he did say the raid was ridiculous, that shouldn't have happened, but then very quickly we saw Trump saying things like, he didn't to that much work for me. Basically, minimizing that relationship. And obviously the same goes for Cohen.

BALDWIN: Is it possible, here's my last question back over to you, Michael Zeldin in Washington, because he's resigned now to sit behind bars for however long, might prosecutors get any more out of him?

ZELDIN: If he has anything to give, I think that Michael Cohen will give it. Because under the federal sentencing guidelines, when you plead guilty, you get a break. When you cooperate, you get a break. And so, I think what Michael Cohen is trying to do is minimize the amount of time he will spend in jail. And to Caroline's point, when he pleaded guilty to a fewer number of charges, that also limited the amount of forfeiture the government could take from him. Forfeiture is the sort of taking of elicit moneys from him. And he wanted to make sure his family wasn't bankrupt. So, there was a lot going on in Cohen's mind, but in the end, Brooke, if he has something to give, I think the sentencing guidelines pressure to give it will overcome the loyalty he may have to the president or anybody else.

BALDWIN: Got it. Michael, MJ, Caroline, thank you very much.

Coming up next, after a stunning upset in the Florida gubernatorial primaries, now two candidates supported either by Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump are about to have a clash of very different ideas. But not even 24 hours after their victory speeches, controversy is already erupting. One side accusing the other of using a dog whistle to sort of language involving race. We'll have a conversation about that.

And dangerous prediction? President Trump warns of violence if Republicans lose in the midterm elections. Is this governing by fear? We'll discuss that.

And next, we will go back to Arizona where the late senator John McCain's body is lying in state in phoenix. One of his former campaign advisers who was just inside the ceremony at the state capitol will join us live. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.


BALDWIN: Your heart just goes out to the family there of the late Senator John McCain. Today's special ceremony inside the Arizona state capitol. John McCain's body is lying in state what would have been his 82nd birthday there today. Stephanie Elam is there, just watching Meghan McCain, it grips your heart.

STEPHANIE ELAM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It gets me every time I see that video and see Meghan McCain really sobbing there at her father's casket. And there are a lot of people who are dealing with their emotions today after today's ceremony here before the public goes in. And one person who was inside was Charlie Black. He's here with me now. You were a senior adviser to his 2008 presidential campaign. You knew Mr. McCain well.

BALDWIN: Knew him for 40 years.

ELAM: 40 years. What do you think he would take from the services and all that is happening over the next five days?

[14:20:00] CHARLIE BLACK, FORMER ADVISOR, MCCAIN 2008 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: He may look back on it and think it is too much. But on the other hand, you have to allow nation and the world to say farewell and honor him. He would be particularly well to know that today many, many average Arizonans can come in to say good-bye. And tomorrow at the funeral, there will be a thousand seats for the general public. That's what he liked to do. He would want to people to get to say good-bye.

ELAM: You said he was pretty cerebral when it came to this. Tell me a little bit about his planning.

BLACK: He and Cindy did a lot of the planning along with some help from the staff. And you know, he was -- he accepted that he was terminal. He wasn't sure how soon he was going to die, so it was just another event to plan, another job to plan out and make decisions. And John never got too emotional about those sorts of things. His emotions were more positive when he was passionate about the country or things he stood for.

ELAM: You kept in touch with him over the last year, you saw him fairly recently.


ELAM: Give us a sense of what his spirits were like as he was approaching the end?

BLACK: Well, he was still fighting, up until maybe four to six weeks ago, he was still trying to do exercises, walk a few steps, stand up and sit down to try to get back in shape. Because he wanted to get well and go back to the senate. But then the treatments, really, were so hard on him. They eventually wore him down and he was not able, even when he was not able to get up out of bed or anything, he still was in good spirits. Still wanted to have a good conversation with his family and friends. And he was in good spirits. Just as he said, as he wrote in the posthumous letter, he was positive about his life and wanted everyone else to be.

ELAM: What do you remember about him, because you know him in a way most of us Don't, what do you remember the most about the senator.

BLACK: Two things, one of my job in the campaign was to be his debate coach. If you think it is easy to have John McCain do 60-second bites or 30-second bites, I will always remember his patience. His country first, that is not a corny thing, that's how he lived.

ELAM: There's been so much discussion about his legacy and what he wanted in reaching across the aisle. Is that his greatest legacy to the Republic? Do you think he would be bothered by the fact there's been so much discussion about this in the last few days?

BLACK: Well, no. Listen, he believed that congress should operate as it was designed. So, a committee system with bipartisan compromises and committees that did allow you to go to the floor of the house or the senate. And he spoke out for that in the last visit to the U.S. senate, but no, he believed America should be the champion for freedom in the world. And he played a big role in that. And he believed congress aught to work and have the ability to work together to get things Done. So yes, those would be two things he wanted to be remembered for.

ELAM: Mr. Black, we appreciate it. We are sorry for the loss of your friend while the rest of the country processes the death of a war hero and statesman.

BALDWIN: Beautiful interview. Stephanie Elam, thank you. 40 years, a long time. What an honor to know someone like him. Stephanie, thank you.

Coming up next, after a stunning upset in the Florida gubernatorial primaries, it's a face-off between two candidates, one supported by Bernie Sanders and the other by Donald Trump. Already a controversy, next.


BALDWIN: Let's talk about that stunning upset in the Florida gubernatorial race. Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, Bernie Sanders backed progressive. Outspent by millions won the Democratic nomination. He is the first black candidate to do so on a major party ticket in Florida

In November, he'll face Congressman Ron Desantis whose campaign surged after Trump endorsed him. What began as a conversation about polarization, extremes here between progressives and Trump Republicans, is now morphing into a conversation about race. After Desantis appeared on Fox News just hours after his victory and said this.


REP. RON DESANTIS, (R), FLORIDA: He is an articulate spokesman for the far-left views. And he's a charismatic candidate. I watched the Democratic debates, none of that was my cup of tea, but he performed better than the other people there.

So, we have to work hard to make sure that we continue to have Florida in a good direction. Let's build off the success of Governor Scott. The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up with the embrace of the socialist agenda, huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.


BALDWIN: Monkey this up, that's what folks are jumping on. The Florida Democratic party responding with this, it is disgusting that Ron Desantis is launching his general election campaign with racist dog whistles. The Desantis campaign firing back, "Ron Desantis was obviously talking about Florida, not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd."

[14:30:00] So, let's go there, to CNN political commentators, Angela Rye, board member with the Congressional Black Caucus Institute. She's known Gillum for 13 years and is campaigning for him in Florida. And Ben Ferguson is with us, a conservative host on "The Ben Ferguson Show." Angela, first to you, since you know Andrew Gillum, but hearing Desantis' soundbite, monkey this up, what did you hear?

ANGELA RYE, BOARD MEMBER, CONGRESSIONAL BLACK CAUCUS INSTITUTE: Let me start with a positive first. Brooke, this is an exhilarating moment for me to watch my friend who has spent his entire career in public service going from the SGA president at Florida A&M University to then becoming a Tallahassee city commissioner, the youngest in history. To now serving as the mayor, three kids, Davis is right there in that picture. And a phenomenal guy who doesn't just perform well and we is not just articulate, but he's brilliant.

And he has a body of work to stand on it that demonstrates that. What is so unfortunate about what Congressman Desantis did. He started the campaign the same way Donald Trump did. He started by trafficking in racism and otherizing Andrew who is true to the form all the way down to the toe of Floridian. He could've just said, you know, I can't wait --