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Washington Post: U.S. Denies Passports to Americans Along Southern Border; Interview With California Congressman Adam Schiff; White House Counsel Leaving; Michael Cohen Prepared For Prison? Aired 6-7p ET
Aired August 29, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: leaving Trump. The president says his White House counsel is on the way out, after Don McGahn told Robert Mueller what he knows about critical events in the Russia probe.
We have new information tonight about the tension between Mr. Trump and McGahn that's been simmering for months.
Doing the time. Tonight, new insight into Michael Cohen's state of mind after he pleaded guilty to crimes that implicated the president. Is Mr. Trump's former fixer prepared for prison?
Racist dog whistle. That's how a key Democrat is describing a stunning remarks by the Republican nominee for Florida governor. New reaction this hour to Ron DeSantis' warning that voters shouldn't -- quote -- "monkey this up" by backing his African-American opponent.
And fantastic job? The president boasts about his administration's hurricane response in Puerto Rico, even after a new estimate of nearly 3,000 deaths. The San Juan mayor tells CNN, Mr. Trump should be ashamed of himself.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news on White House counsel Don McGahn leaving his job this fall and what it might mean for the Russia investigation.
Tonight, President Trump claims he isn't worried about what McGahn told Robert Mueller's team during 30 hours of interviews, but sources tell CNN that Mr. Trump was left unnerved, and that he and McGahn haven't been on good terms for more than a year.
McGahn reportedly threatened to resign last summer, a move that helped convince Mr. Trump not to fire Mueller. It's just one of the critical moments witnessed by McGahn that are under scrutiny right now by the special counsel. I will talk with the top Democrat in the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.
First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, the president spoke out about McGahn today. Update our viewers.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: He certainly did, Wolf.
President Trump confirmed reports, including one from CNN, that White House counsel Don McGahn is on his way out this fall. McGahn is little known outside of Washington, but what he knows is potentially very critical to the Russia investigation. But as the president told us earlier today, he's not worried about what McGahn told the special counsel, Robert Mueller, insisting, the president says, that he's done everything -- quote -- "by the book."
ACOSTA (voice-over): President Trump put an end to the speculation, confirming that his longtime aide and White House counsel Don McGahn will leave his post in the coming weeks.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's been here now -- it will be almost two years, and a lot of affection for Don. And he will be moving on.
ACOSTA: McGahn is one of the central figures in special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia investigation in more ways than one. When the president has toyed with the idea of firing Mueller in the past, McGahn was one official who stood in the way.
But, more critically, McGahn has spent about 30 hours in front of Mueller's team answering questions.
QUESTION: Mr. McGahn, was it a mistake to have you speak without limits to special counsel Mueller?
ACOSTA: Still, the president told us he's not worried about that, despite CNN reporting that Mr. Trump was unnerved by the extent of the interview.
(on camera): Any concern about what he said to the Mueller team?
TRUMP: No, not at all. Not at all.
TRUMP: I knew he was going, also.
ACOSTA: 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.
ACOSTA (voice-over): The president's announcement of McGahn's departure first came in a tweet this morning and appeared to take much of Washington by surprise, including the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Charles Grassley, who tweeted: "I hope it's not true McGahn is leaving White House counsel. You can't let that happen."
Republicans will soon find out in the upcoming midterm elections whether the president's leadership is helping or hurting the party. Florida GOP gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis, a Trump loyalist, appeared to use a racist dog whistle on FOX in slamming his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum.
REP. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: 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. That is not going to work. That's not going to be good for Florida.
ACOSTA: FOX later said DeSantis went too far.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We do not condone this language and wanted to make our viewers aware that he has since clarified his statement.
ACOSTA: The president claimed he had not heard the comments.
TRUMP: He is an extreme talent, and he will make a fantastic governor of Florida. So, I think Ron is -- he's extraordinary in so many different ways. I haven't heard that at all, no.
ACOSTA: Potential big looming issue for the midterms, the government's handling of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, where the estimated number of deaths from the storm was just raised to nearly 3,000 people. The president insisted his administration is getting the job done.
TRUMP: I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico was actually more difficult because of the fact it's an island. It's much harder to get things onto the island.
ACOSTA: And two days after the president told Christian conservatives there could be violence if Democrats take control of Congress, we tried to ask Mr. Trump what he was talking about.
(on camera): What did you mean about violence around the midterms?
TRUMP: Well, I just hope there won't be violence. I can tell you that...
ACOSTA: Why would there be?
TRUMP: I can tell you that -- because that's the way, I guess, if you look at what happens, there's a lot of -- there's a lot of unnecessary violence all over the world, but also in this country. And I don't want to see it.
ACOSTA: we never really got an answer from the president as to why there would be violence during the midterms.
But, Wolf, the president was also asked about the state of negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program, the problem he claimed he solved at that summit with dictator Kim Jong-un earlier this year.
The president blamed China for stumbles in the nuclear talks, something he did again in a statement later on this afternoon, though Mr. Trump insists he still has a -- quote -- "fantastic relationship." That's how he described it earlier today with the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Jim, thank you, Jim Acosta over at the White House.
Let's talk a little bit more about the significance of Don McGahn's exit from the White House.
We're joined by our political correspondent, Sara Murray.
Sara, McGahn has been very much involved in the critical moments of the Trump White House. What impact could his departure have on the Mueller probe?
SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the short answer, Wolf, is, we really don't know.
But, as you pointed out, he had been a key witness in the Mueller probe. This is someone who has been there while President Trump has sort of spitballed whether he could get Jeff Sessions to unrecuse himself from the Russia investigation. He was obviously there the various times the president has considered whether he can and should fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
And he was there when the president decided to fire James Comey. And so he sort of knows what went into that, what the president's motivations might have been, what his thinking was. And so in terms of a witness to the special counsel's investigation, Don McGahn is pretty key.
BLITZER: We know the White House counsel, Don McGahn, he spent, what, 30 hours answering questions from Robert Mueller and his team. And CNN has reported that the president when he found out about the extent of that Q&A, was unnerved.
Once he leaves, could he provide even more information to the special counsel?
MURRAY: But it's a huge amount of time. And, obviously, the fact that the special counsel has called him in again and again means you really can't rule out the notion that the special counsel might want to come back and ask a follow-up question, that they might have another witness in who could provide more information that they would want to run past Don McGahn to verify.
And it's really hard to say at this point whether Don McGahn has really given up everything he has to give to the special counsel or whether he perhaps might feel more emboldened now that he's no longer officially in the White House to share more.
But one thing is clear. The White House was not getting a ton of information about what McGahn was sharing with the special counsel's team to begin with. You have to imagine that that flow of information is going to get even more narrow, now that McGahn is going to be out of his official White House job, Wolf.
BLITZER: Good point. Very good point, Sara. Thank you very much, Sara Murray helping us appreciate the enormity of what's going on right now.
Let's get some more analysis.
The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Adam Schiff of California, is joining us right now.
Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D), CALIFORNIA: It's good to be with you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Do you fear that the departure of the White House counsel, Don McGahn, will put the Russia investigation potentially in even greater jeopardy?
SCHIFF: I don't know that it puts it in greater jeopardy, but it certainly completes full circle, where the administration initially took a strategy they would cooperate with the special counsel, and now they have pushed out basically everyone that had that view, and they're in full attack mode on the special counsel.
You saw Giuliani acknowledge just the other day that his whole goal is not to tell the truth. It's not to be consistent. It's merely to undermine Bob Mueller. And that was not, I think, McGahn's strategy.
The president is clearly worried about what he has said. And he should be worried. If he worked with McGahn to fashion a pretext for the firing of James Comey, if McGahn was involved in collecting these statements about, well, we're doing this because we disapprove of how he handled the Clinton investigation, when it was really about Russia, McGahn would be privy to those conversations.
He'd be able to say, this is exactly why the president wanted to get rid of James Comey. It was all about Russia. So the president is right to be worried. But I think we have to expect that the White House counsel is representing the presidency and not just the president.
And, of course, for Donald Trump, he cares about nothing about the presidency. It's all about him.
BLITZER: Once McGahn does leave the White House in the coming weeks, will there be anyone around the president, do you believe, Congressman, who will try to protect Robert Mueller?
SCHIFF: Well, I don't know. It's a good question.
I would imagine still that General Kelly is one of the few people that might be able to stand up to the president, to resist the president. Of course, Kelly's done a great many things that I disagree with as well. So there are limits, I think, the degree on many issues that he's willing to confront the president, and others where he's been in agreement with the president that are equally cause for concern.
But the number of people willing to speak truth to power in the administration has continually diminished over time. Donald Trump doesn't want a team of rivals. He wants a team of yes-men and yes- women. And, increasingly, that's exactly what he seems to be getting.
BLITZER: Yes, General Kelly, General John Kelly, retired General Kelly, the White House chief of staff.
Do you see this -- all these latest developments involving McGahn, for example, as a sign that the president could be -- could be at least preparing to pardon Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman who was convicted on eight counts last week?
SCHIFF: Yes, sadly, I think that this increases the likelihood, those like McGahn that might be urging him not to do, that this will be another act of obstruction of justice, will only build a case the president, those voices apparently being pushed out.
It certainly appears that the president may very well be determined to do this to try to remove any incentive that Paul Manafort might have to cooperate with authorities.
And I have to say, what was most discouraging to me about this last week was to hear at least two prominent Republican senators say, if the president wants to get rid of Jeff Sessions because he doesn't like the fact that Sessions isn't willing to get rid of Bob Mueller and that he isn't willing to persecute his political rivals, those senators are willing to go along with that.
That just gives free rein to this president to obstruct justice, to get rid of the attorney general, if he needs, to pardon Manafort, if he needs to, to take whatever action that would undermine the rule of law.
BLITZER: Well, you make a fair point, because it does look at least like some of the president's allies up on Capitol Hill are laying the groundwork for him to fire the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, shortly after the midterm elections. If President Trump got a new attorney general confirmed by the U.S. Senate, that person would oversee the Russia investigation. So what concerns does that raise to you?
SCHIFF: Well, the preeminent concern is that the president looks for somebody who basically will cripple or fire Bob Mueller, that the whole reason that he has a problem with Jeff Sessions isn't about policy on criminal justice reform or any of the other responsibilities of the Justice Department.
He's fully supportive of Sessions' efforts to disenfranchise minority voters. No, the only difference he has with Jeff Sessions is Jeff Sessions listened to the ethics lawyers at the Justice Department and recused himself. Jeff Sessions won't unrecuse himself and fire Mueller.
Jeff Sessions won't falsely persecute, investigate Trump's political rivals. And Donald Trump thinks that the attorney general is basically his lawyer, not the lawyer for the Justice Department, not the lawyer for the American people, but basically the guy that has his back.
And so it's that fundamental motive. Again, this is a recurrent issue with the Trump administration. You may have the authority to fire the attorney general or the director of the FBI, revoke people security clearances. That doesn't mean you have the authority to do any of those things if you're doing it for a corrupt purpose.
And this I view as a corrupt purpose.
BLITZER: How important, Congressman, is Michael Cohen to this Mueller investigation? As you know, Cohen, the former fixer and lawyer, former private lawyer, personal lawyer for the president, he pleaded guilty to eight counts.
And two of those counts, he said under oath that the president was effectively an unindicted co-conspirator, arranging those hush money payments to those two women. Do you think he has information that would be credible to the special counsel, Robert Mueller?
SCHIFF: Well, certainly, his attorney does. Lanny Davis has said that he has information that he believes would be of important and value to the special counsel.
For that reason, I reached out to Mr. Cohen's lawyers as well to invite him to come back to our committee to share whatever information he may not have been willing to share when he first appeared before the committee.
But those allegations that he made in that courtroom, that the president was essentially a co-conspirator with him to violate the campaign laws, I think people need to understand, these were not mere bookkeeping errors. It's one thing if you exceed a campaign limit by a couple hundred dollars because you're making periodic contributions, and it's done accidentally. This was a deliberate decision made after discussion to violate the
laws by hundreds of thousands of dollars, to violate the prohibition of corporate contributions, to keep information from the public of a salacious nature, that is the president having an affair with a porn star, that very well may have determined the outcome of the election.
So that serious business. And if you're going to prosecute Michael Cohen for it, which they have, and you're not going to hold the president of the United States to a different standard, then the Justice Department will have to make a decision about whether they prosecute Donald Trump for the same violations, whether they have the evidence, or whether prosecution would have to wait until he's out of office, what kind of report to make to Congress about that.
So is this pretty serious business.
BLITZER: Do you think Michael Cohen was truthful in his statements when he testified before Congress behind closed doors?
SCHIFF: I don't know.
I would certainly like to bring him back to ask him questions about things that we have learned since his appearance. I would also like to test whether he has additional information, as his counsel seems to be suggesting, of importance to the investigation.
But we have learned a great deal since we had him come in. And there are a lot of further questions we would like to ask now that he is, it appears, more than willing to cooperate.
BLITZER: President Trump has already revoked the security clearances of the former CIA Director John Brennan, as you know.
And over the past 24 hours, he's gone after two other officials whose clearances he's threatening to remove, the current Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, and the fired FBI Director James Comey.
Is that potentially, from your perspective, Congressman, obstruction of justice, considering their roles in the Russia investigation?
SCHIFF: I think it's certainly additional evidence of a corrupt motive.
I don't know how strongly that goes precisely to the issue of obstruction of justice, but I think it's unlawful to essentially revoke people's security clearances because they exercise their First Amendment right to criticize the president.
Now, I know some have argued that he has the discretion to give or to withdraw a security clearance. But, again, that doesn't mean that you can do that for a corrupt purpose. And a lot of people depend on a security clearance for their livelihood. That may not be true for James Comey and it may not be true for John Brennan. But there are a great number of people who do work for the federal
government, who are contractors, who cannot get that work if they don't have a clearance. And if you say that it's OK for the president to create an enemies list for these people, it means that it's OK for the president to create an enemies list for other people and deprive them of employment if they criticize the president.
So I think this needs to be challenged. And I don't want to see this become the norm, where this is merely a political tool of retribution by any president of the United States.
BLITZER: So you're suggesting that this could be a threat to others out there to shut up, not say anything bad about the president because he could retaliate against them with security clearances?
SCHIFF: Absolutely, absolutely.
Wolf, you have got to imagine there are a lot of people in the work force right now, who want to get in the work force, who are thinking, if I tweet about the president or I comment about the president, or I go on television and say something about the president, then maybe he pulls my security clearance, because, indeed, that has happened.
People have gone on TV and been added to the enemies list. I think there's a reason why Susan Rice popped up on at least, because she had gone on TV recently. And maybe the president was watching and told his staff, add Susan Rice to the list.
And who else? I think Phil Mudd was added to the list, probably because he was on television saying something the president didn't like.
This is not how America behaves. This is how tin-pot dictatorships behave. And we cannot allow this to somehow become the new norm in this country.
BLITZER: Congressman Schiff, thanks so much for joining us.
SCHIFF: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, we're learning what Michael Cohen is now expecting on his sentencing day after pleading guilty to multiple crimes and implicating the president.
And we're also told another Trump Organization employee has tried to make a deal with prosecutors. Who is this employee?
BLITZER: More breaking news this hour.
We're learning about Michael Cohen's state of mind, as the president's former lawyer prepares to be sentenced following his plea agreement that implicated Mr. Trump. Our national politics reporter, M.J. Lee, been digging into this story for us.
M.J., what are you hearing?
M.J. LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we are getting some insight into why Michael Cohen decided to plead guilty last week, and also his mind-set as he waits for that sentencing hearing.
We have been speaking to people familiar with Michael Cohen's thinking. And they tell CNN that he is now resigned, resigned to the fact that he will go to prison for some time. He still does not believe that a presidential pardon is coming his way from Donald Trump, and that everything he is doing right now, he essentially believes, is the best thing to do in order to protect his family as much as possible.
And one friend even telling CNN that Michael Cohen took a bullet for his family. Now, you recall from last week that Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to eight counts, including tax evasion and campaign finance violations.
And what we also know now is that it could have been a lot worse for Michael Cohen. Prosecutors made it very clear to him that there could be more charges coming, that his wife could have been implicated as well, and that his assets could have been seized.
And another important consideration for Michael Cohen was that he knew that if he had decided to go to trial, that the legal bills would have been massive for his family. And he wanted to make sure that he spared his family from that kind of financial burden.
Now, as you can see there on your screen, we have to Michael Cohen out and about, going around town since the plea deal last week, on Tuesday. We have seen him in Manhattan. We have seen him in his neighborhood.
And his friends say that he is determined to go about his life, that he doesn't want to disrupt his daily routine.
All of that of course, Wolf, as he waits for that sentencing hearing, which is expected in December.
BLITZER: Well said. That's a good point.
You're also getting, M.J., some new information about a potential immunity deal that was discussed with a second Trump Organization employee. What can you tell us about that?
LEE: That's right.
We are learning about a second Trump Organization employee who apparently had discussions with prosecutors in the Michael Cohen case about a possible immunity deal. Ultimately, they were not offered an immunity, and they did not testify before a grand jury.
Now, CNN has not been able to actually identify this person. But, again, we know that this was a Trump Organization employee. Now, of course, what we knew last week was that there was one Trump Organization executive -- this is Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer for the company.
He was granted immunity. And he, of course, is such a key player because he knew -- he had information about these payments that Michael Cohen made to various women to try to keep them quiet during the 2016 campaign.
Now, what we have learned from prosecutors is that there were multiple people who worked for the Trump Organization who were a part of this sort of reimbursement scheme that Michael Cohen participated in. And, again, now we know that there was a second employee who tried to have discussions and tried to get an immunity deal -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed.
M.J., thank you very much.
Just ahead: Has the White House counsel been helping Robert Mueller? And when -- and will Donald -- Don McGahn's exit make the special counsel more vulnerable?
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, President Trump is praising his White House counsel as a really good guy, even as he's showing him the door.
[18:31:31] Let's talk a little bit more about the breaking news on Don McGahn. He's leaving his post, according to the president, this fall. How this could all figure into the overall Russia investigation. Our political and legal experts are here.
Sara Murray, the president had only nice things to say about Don McGahn today, but the relationship has been less than perfect.
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes. I mean, in private I think the president has had some more cutting things to say to Don McGahn. You know, we know they've had some blow-ups. We know that at certain points Don McGahn has threaten to quit.
But I think, you know, the president's sort of funny posture today is partly a reflection of the fact that he's heard from a lot of people on Capitol Hill that Don McGahn has really been instrumental, not only in getting his Supreme Court pick, you know, one, all the way through and the second one on his way, but also getting all of these judges named to all of these different courts across the country. That's been a big part of this president's legacy that we don't talk about very much that Don McGahn has been integral to. But there certainly have been some points of friction between him and the president, as well. BLITZER: Yes. Michael Zeldin, the president says he's not worried
about those 30 hours of testimony that Don McGahn gave the Mueller probe. But I assume he probably is pretty worried about it.
But how helpful to the Mueller probe is that kind of testimony from the White House counsel?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It depends on what McGahn was privy to, but if he is the one who knows about the president's deliberate deliberations, his thought process, and it's very helpful to Mueller. And also to Ty Cobb's strategy, who started this whole process of putting McGahn in front of the -- Mueller, it undermines Mueller's need for the testimony.
So in some sense, it's a win for Mueller that he gets the view of McGahn and what the president was thinking at these key moments, and it helps the president legally, because he says, "You now don't need me. You've got everything." So there's a bit of a win-win here that is not really talked about that much but I think is important.
BLITZER: You know, Ron Brownstein, we know McGahn intervened at one point to stop the president from firing Robert Mueller. Does his departure, which is going to happen the next few weeks, make the Mueller probe more vulnerable?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: The short answer, I think, is yes. After -- particularly after the election. Look, I think, you know, as we talked about yesterday, Lindsey
Graham's comments in the last few days, I think, cannot be underscored enough. I think he is clearly signaling to the president that the Republican -- if the Republicans maintain control of the Senate, they will acquiesce in a removal of Jeff Sessions after the election. And certainly the eliminate -- the leaving of the administration of Don McGahn would eliminate one more internal roadblock to such a removal, because the threat of resignation might cause the president to hesitate, at least -- at least somewhat.
And you know, look, even if Democrats win the House, given the nature of the states that are up, it's going to be very hard for them to win the Senate. It's possible the Republicans may even increase their majority by a vote or two. If nothing else, replacing John McCain with a more Trump-friendly senator from Arizona will give them more of a cushion.
So I think all of the signs, all of the stars are pointing toward enhanced risk of another attempt by the president to fire the attorney general after the election, especially after Lindsey Graham's comments.
BLITZER: David Swerdlick, how do you see it?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, no. I think that the president is putting, as Sara said, a good face, a good gloss on this. But if you took this as a resignation that was just isolated, you would see that it was sort of just par for the course of someone halfway through their first term. If you had a situation, though, where everybody else around the president has left, sort of steadily -- communications directors, chiefs of staff, et cetera -- I do think that it suggests a bigger pattern of problems within this White House.
[18:35:06] BLITZER: I suspect you're right.
All right, guys. Stick around. There's more news. Is the president in complete denial right now about the hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico. We're going to talk about his latest boasting about the administration's response, as one official accuses him of shameful and deadly neglect.
[17:40:05] BLITZER: Tonight, President Trump doesn't seem fazed by the dramatically revised death toll from the hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico. He's still praising the administration's emergency response, despite nearly 3,000 deaths now accepted by the Puerto Rico government, instead of just 64. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNTIED STATES: I think we did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico. We're still helping Puerto Rico. The people of Puerto Rico are great people. They work very hard. But Puerto Rico, I would say, was by far the most difficult of the group. And you know, right now FEMA and all of the people that work so hard there, they were very brave and they have done some job. But Puerto Rico had a lot of difficulties before it got hit.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The mayor of San Juan is using very different words than the president to describe the administration's handling of the hurricane hurricane nightmare. She spoke earlier today with CNN.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
CARMEN YULIN CRUZ, MAYOR OF SAN JUAN: The Trump administration killed the Puerto Rican with neglect. The Trump administration led us to believe that they were helping when they weren't really up to par and they weren't doing it. They didn't allow other countries to help us.
Shame on President Trump. Shame on President Trump for not even once, not even yesterday just saying, "Look, I grieve with the people of Puerto Rico."
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Ron Brownstein, is it appropriate for the president to say they did a fantastic job in Puerto Rico?
BROWNSTEIN: Look, this was -- this is a tremendous tragedy. And obviously, that language is completely divorced from reality. You know, most of the time, we debate the intent and the choices of the administration policy. But there are issues, as well, with execution. I mean, just think about what's happening in the border separation,
where there are still hundreds of kids who have not been reunited with their parents. And, you know, the U.S. government is saying they really have no means of doing so.
So I think this is about double the number of fatalities as in Katrina, and certainly, you know, George W. Bush faced enormous criticism over that. Where is that now from the Republican -- again, this is another example of where the Republican Congress has chosen to abandon and really abrogate their -- abdicate their oversight responsibilities.
BLITZER: And Sara, you went with the president last year when he visited Puerto Rico briefly. Remember, he was throwing those paper towels.
Just some perspective: remember, these are U.S. citizens, the people of Puerto Rico. We'll put up on the screen some of the hurricane death tolls. Now confirmed, Maria in Puerto Rico, 2,975; Katrina, 13 years ago almost exactly right now, 1,833; Sandy, 147; Harvey, 68; Irene, 49; Irma, 44.
And the president said fantastic job today. And he didn't express his deep condolences, his remorse, his sadness over this number of nearly 3,000 U.S. citizens dead.
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No. I think one of the things that has been really horrifying from the beginning is that the president does not get this. He did not get it when he was visiting Puerto Rico initially, and he certainly doesn't get it now. I remember being on the ground there, and we arrived a couple days before he did. You know, and how completely separated from reality he was, when he was out there, you know, throwing paper towels, suggesting that, you know, everything was going to be fine and things were already getting better.
Most people there didn't have power. They didn't have fresh water. Roads were not cleared, so emergency assistance couldn't get to people. Houses -- people were driving as close as they could to San Juan and parking on the side of the road to try to call friends and relatives for help or to let people know they were alive, because there was no cell phone service.
And Trump was on the ground at that time, saying that everything was going great, and the fatality count was so low. Anyone on the ground in Puerto Rico at that time who has left the city of San Juan knew that that number was going to go up. Because there were so many homes that were destroyed, so many places that emergency assistance still couldn't get in touch with.
And the president at no point has taken any responsibility for the number of fatalities or for the response that we saw from this administration. And it really is shameful that the death toll has reached that number, and the president is still out there touting it like this was some kind of resounding success. BLITZER: Fantastic job, he said. You know, David Swerdlick,
Hurricane Katrina, as we all remember 13 years ago, was pretty much a defining moment for President Bush at that time and not a good one either.
How do you think the president, this president, President Trump, will be remembered in the aftermath of the hurricane in Puerto Rico?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He's got a number of things that are already tarnishing his legacy. This will certainly tarnish his legacy, Wolf.
It was not just a failure of a governmental response. It was a failure of presidential leadership to even tie the struggles on an island that is part of the United States to the broader struggles of the rest of the mainland United States that was also facing hurricanes.
I think one of the problems for this president, in addition to that, is that in his first two years, you've seen some of these situations where he hasn't sort of embraced the idea that this is the job. It's not just the things he wants to do. It's the things that the president has to do, whether it's a flood, a hurricane, a swine flu. Things come up, this is the job, you're the man in charge, how do you respond?
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: And, by the way, real quick, can I just say real quick? The severity of the hurricanes that we are experiencing is a very inconvenient truth, to borrow a phrase, for their efforts to repeal all of the efforts both in terms of automobiles and power plants under the Obama administration to deal with escalating risk of climate change. So, there's another reason why they don't want to focus on the catastrophic impacts of this and Harvey as well in Texas.
BLITZER: I want all of you guys to standby. We are getting more breaking news right now in the president's immigration policy at the U.S. southern border with Mexico. "The Washington Post" Latin America correspondent Kevin Sieff is joining us on the phone now from Mexico City.
And, Kevin, you have some shocking new reporting that hundreds, possibly thousands of Americans who are of Hispanic descent have been denied trying to renew their U.S. passports with the State Department telling them their birth certificates are fraudulent. Tell us what you've learned.
KEVIN SIEFF, LATIN AMERICA CORRESPONDENT, THE WASHINGTON POST (via telephone): Yes. What's happening on the border right now, particularly the Texas/Mexico border is you have hundreds, probably thousands of people who are applying for U.S. passports because they wanted their family in Mexico, because they want to go on vacation. And instead of getting their passport back, now they are getting a letter from the State Department that the State Department does not believe that these people are U.S. citizens. So, not only are being denied passports, but their citizenship is being questioned.
They then began very long legal process in court to prove their citizenship in sometimes absurd means. So, they are after evidence of their mother's prenatal care and provide affidavits from the midwives who delivered them, these documents that no one would have.
We believe this is happening because the government suspects that, you know, 30, 40, 50 years ago, midwives in south Texas provided fraudulent birth certificates for a number of people who in fact are born in Mexico. And this thing happened in a number of -- several cases but it happened 50 years ago -- 40, 50 years ago.
And now, what is happening, the administration really saying it happened decades ago as a reason to deny probably thousands of people passports and what's happening after they're denied passports is their citizenship is put into question. And in some cases, they've been detained by ICE and put into deportation proceedings.
And these are people who served in the U.S. military. These are border patrol agents. These are police officers, these are people who have been voting in the U.S. for their entire lives. People who by any measure are U.S. citizens.
BLITZER: Yes, it's shocking indeed. I read your article.
Kevin Sieff reporting for us from Mexico City of "The Washington Post", thank you for that report.
And let's get some reaction.
Sara, what do you think that all of a sudden he mentioned someone that served in the U.S. military, served as a cadet in the border patrol, now a Texas state prison guard, all of a sudden he gets -- wants to get his passport renewed, and they say, well, we think your birth certificate was fraudulent. You got to show us a lot more evidence.
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, this seems like another example of implementing a policy without thinking about how it's going to play out, what the ramifications are going to be, what perhaps the unintended consequences are going to be. Maybe these are the intended consequences. Maybe they don't really care how many American citizens they actually hurt if they feel like they have an opportunity to weed out a couple of people who may have gotten their birth certificate illegally, you know, 50 years ago.
But it does make you wonder as an American citizen, is this what you want your government's resources to be poured into as this moment?
BLITZER: And, Ron Brownstein, these are mostly Hispanic Americans clearly that they are now going after raising questions about their U.S. citizenship.
BROWNSTEIN: Look, the pattern is very clear, Wolf. I mean, we talked about this before. You know, Hillary Clinton won 16 of the 20 states that have the highest shared immigrants in their population. Donald Trump won 26 of the 30 with the lowest share of immigrations in their population.
He was elected primarily by the parts of America that are touched the least by immigration and he has moved pretty unrelentingly against any form of immigration since he took office not only undocumented or illegal immigration, but also legal immigration. It just kind of continues the long pattern from the Muslim ban to ending temporary status protection for immigrants from Central American countries, to the border separation, to the proposal to cut legal immigration by half.
It is a core principle I think of this administration embodied in Steven Miller, but certainly extending beyond that to resist immigration in every form, ostensibly before the economic and security reasons, but I think ultimately because of its impact of changing, literally changing the complexion of America and diversifying the country.
[18:50:11] BLITZER: Very quickly.
SWERDLICK: Yes, no, it was great reporting by my "Washington Post" colleagues. I agree with Ron there. It may be said to be about economics, but it's about signaling to a certain part of the president's base that he's doing something about immigration, whether or not it's something that needs to be prioritized.
BLITZER: All right, guys, a shocking story indeed.
Just ahead, there's more news, including tears and tributes to a true American hero. Take a look at this, we're showing you some live pictures coming in from Arizona state capitol as its citizens honor the late U.S. senator, John McCain, as official ceremonies marking his passing begin in his beloved home state.
[18:55:38] BLITZER: Twenty-five years ago this month, Ruth Bader Ginsburg made history as the second woman to be sworn in as the United States Supreme Court justice.
Now, the new CNN original film "RBG" takes an intimate look at Justice Ginsburg's life and legacy, including her famous friendship with fellow Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Even though they had differing points of view, they were dear friends. I'm sure they were taking at each other the whole time but they kind of enjoyed it.
JUSTICE RUTH BADER GINSBURG, U.S. SUPREME COURT: Justice Scalia would whisper something to me. All I could do to avoid laughing out loud is I sometimes pinch myself. People ask me what was your favorite Scalia joke. I said I know what it is but I can't tell you. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They enjoyed going to the office together, they
enjoyed discussing particular operas. And, of course, they appeared together in an opera.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: They did.
Joining us now, Eugene Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, a long time friend of Justice Ginsburg and her family.
Gene, thanks so much for coming in. Why were they such good friends?
EUGENE SCALIA, SON OF LATE SUPREME COURT JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA: They had a lot in common. People forget that. They had the same job, right? And in fact they were on the lower court of appeals together as well.
They had both been professors. They're both New Yorkers, so there was a lot in common. But then there were the differences.
And they -- that was part of the strength of their relationship, that my father was perceived as conservative, she as liberal. But they had this love of the law and they liked to hash ideas out and arrive at what they thought was the right answer in part sometimes debating one another.
BLITZER: They admired each other pretty dramatically.
SCALIA: They did, they did. They also had fun together. I omitted that they I guess as was mentioned in the segment, they loved music, they loved opera, so they had fun. It was a rich relationship. And their spouses were really important of this.
BLITZER: The vice president, he invoked this relationship. He mentioned this relation -- connection with Brett Kavanaugh, who is now a nominee to become a Supreme Court justice. Let me read to you what Vice President Pence said.
Justice Antonin Scalia was confirmed 98-0 and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg received support of 96 senators. If we lived in a more respectful time, Judge Brett Kavanaugh would be overwhelmingly confirmed by the United States Senate.
What do you think he meant by if we lived in a more respectful time?
SCALIA: I'm not sure. Certainly Supreme Court nominations have become much more controversial and difficult than when my father was up before the Senate. Things really did change dramatically with Robert Bork's confirmation hearing in 1987. Certainly, there's been a change in that.
BLITZER: Yes, there certainly has been. This is going to be a very close contest right now to see if Kavanaugh gets more than 50. He needs 50 because the vice president can break a tie if necessary. Thanks very much for coming in.
SCALIA: My pleasure, thank you.
BLITZER: I know you saw the documentary. I saw it. It's truly, truly excellent.
And I want our viewers to tune in this Monday, September 3rd, 9:00 p.m. Eastern for the premiere of the CNN original film, "RBG." You will learn, you will enjoy.
Finally tonight, the long and painful farewell to a Senate legend has begun. The body of John McCain now lying in state in the Arizona capitol rotunda after the first official ceremony honoring the senator, former Republican presidential nominee and war hero. Senator McCain's widow, Cindy, leading the procession of family, friends, and colleagues paying their respect. Their grief is still so fresh after Senator McCain's death on Saturday.
Senator McCain's daughter, Meghan, unable to hold back her tears as she passed her father's flag-draped casket, along with her sisters and brothers.
Arizona's top political figures remembering Senator McCain's love of his state, his love of our country, a country he served for most of his life. Today would have been the senator's 82nd birthday.
And right now, a public viewing is under way at the state capitol. Tomorrow, the former Vice President Joe Biden will honor his long-time friend in Phoenix. Services are planned here in Washington later in the week with eulogies from former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush. We will, of course, have special coverage honoring Senator McCain.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.