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Trump Announces White House Counsel Don McGahn Will Leave This Fall; Navy Grad Surprised by Letter from John McCain; Race for Florida Governor Turns Ugly; Ron DeSantis Tells Florida Voters Not to Monkey Up the Election. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 30, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: -- in the "Washington Post" that the White House is unprepared for a possible Democratic takeover of the House in November and had no strategy to handle a possible impeachment nor enough staff to deal with everything that could come their way. The ally actually using this "Game of Thrones" reference. "Winter is coming and the White House is not ready."

The president meantime insisting the White House is a smooth running machine, no chaos there, saying he is excited about McGahn's replacement, although he isn't revealing who that might be.

We begin with the president's executive time, tweets on Don McGahn. Athena Jones is at the White House with more on that. And the Twitter is keeping us all very busy this morning -- Athena.

ATHENA JONES, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Erica. That's right. The president has tweeted at least 10 times since starting just before 7:00. He just re-tweeted a tweet that he tweeted an hour or so ago correcting the spelling of White House counsel.

Let's show that so we can read it to you. He said, "I'm very excited about the person who will be taking the place of Don McGahn as White House counsel. I like Don but he was not responsible for me not firing not firing Bob Mueller or Jeff Sessions." That is of course a reference to our reporting that last year the president wanted McGahn to convince Attorney General Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. Of course that's not what happened. That's led to a lot of anger toward Sessions from the president.

We also reported that last year the president wanted to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller. McGahn threatened to resign to prevent him from doing so. The president taking issue with that reporting from us and other outlets. But notably naming the person who will be replacing Don McGahn.

We've learned that Emmet Flood who's already a lawyer here at the White House working on the Russia legal strategy is someone that is in the running but that hasn't been officially confirmed -- Erica.

HILL: Athena, also, there's more in this "Washington Post" report in terms of what is or is not happening at the White House involving counsel around the president and that there's not enough staff, no strategy, they're not anxious enough about what could happen come November if Democrats are to win back the House.

JONES: That's exactly right. The "Post" reporting that Trump's allies are worried he doesn't understand, he doesn't fully grasp the magnitude of what could be at stake if Democrats do take the House and not just because they might pursue impeachment but also investigations that could really hamper this White House. Democrats have indicated that they want to do a series of investigations. So they could be dealing with subpoenas and requests for testimony and issues that allies of the president say the White House is not yet prepared to handle.

They said they don't have enough staff in terms of the legal team and that when it comes to sort of basic communication staff, they worry that they're not able to do, you know, sort of basic talking points and sort of handle this kind of war room that you'll need if you were having to deal with a bunch of investigations.

Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani said Democrats want death by a thousand cuts for this administration. And one of his allies used a "Game of Thrones" reference saying winter is coming, and folks here just aren't prepared -- Erica.

HILL: Athena Jones with the latest for us. Thank you.

Joining me now to discuss CNN's chief legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin. You know, there's actually a lot to dig through here but I just want to pick up on some of the president's latest tweets because he has been very this morning on Twitter to put it mildly. The fact that he's saying, oh by the way, the Russia investigation didn't come into play even a little bit with respect to my decision on Don McGahn.

There's a couple of things at play there. Not only, oh hey, just so we're all clear, it wasn't about Russia, throwing that out there for you on a platter from the president. But also my decision on Don McGahn, which is interesting because it raises the question, so who else was involved in the decision? Was it just the president? Was it -- you know, we have a lot of questions in that regard.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Well, and that suggests almost that McGahn was fired.

HILL: Right.

TOOBIN: When McGahn has put out the word for a long time that he was planning on leaving by the end of this year after the midterms, after --

HILL: After Kavanaugh.

TOOBIN: In the two-year mark. You know, the White House is a Machiavellian tough place to work. You look at the senior people at the White House, it's almost 100 percent turnover, which is unprecedented in modern White Houses. So it's not surprising that McGahn is on -- is leaving. But, you know, I think for the rest -- for us citizens, what matters is how that will affect the government rather than, you know, who is in and who is out. HILL: In terms of how that will affect the government, there's this

-- there is the Office of White House Counsel, which is obviously there for the presidency.

TOOBIN: Right.

HILL: Not for the president, as we know. There's been a lot of talk about that over the last couple of weeks. In this "Washington Post" report, they're also talking about the turnover in the Office of the White House Counsel. There are only about two dozen attorneys there right now. There had been as many as 35. More are leaving. How --

TOOBIN: Four to five deputies are leaving.

HILL: Right. So there will only be one left I believe after Friday.

TOOBIN: Right.

HILL: I mean, how concerning should that be for the American people? What does that mean is not happening?

TOOBIN: Well, the thing that's really striking is that remember for the first two years of the Trump White House, they have had no oversight from Congress.

[10:05:04] They have had only support from the Republican House and the Republican Senate. If the Democrats re-take the House, which certainly seems possible at this point, they will be dealing with an entirely new set of problems. What do they do when the House Judiciary Committee subpoenas the president's tax return? What do they do when he -- they subpoena internal White House documents regarding how energy policy was made, how environmental policy was made?

Those require substantive responses. You need lawyers to do that. You need human beings. And if there are no -- is nobody there, that's when you say, winter is coming.

HILL: Right. And so -- and that's part of what, too, were talking about in this "Washington Post" report. The president is really focused on what he wants to see as the red wave. And so he's really focused on trying to get -- you know, or trying to hold on to control with Republicans, while not addressing, as we learned in this article, there's not enough staff, there's not enough strategy. He's not anxious enough, said one person, about what could be coming.

What -- I mean, if you're in that White House right now, and if you were advising someone, how many people should they have? What kind of a war room should be set up right now to -- just to prepare for this potential onslaught? Not even the I word.

TOOBIN: Well, I mean, I think the best thing you could do is at least look at the precedence. Look at what was it like in the Obama White House when there was a Republican House and Senate? What was it like in the George W. Bush White House after 2006 when the Democrats retook the House? It was a lot of work. And you needed substantial numbers of people. You also need communication strategy.

You know, you need to be able to respond not just legally, but to fight back politically. That requires people. And it just looks like there are not that many people there.

HILL: Jeff Toobin, always appreciate it.

TOOBIN: All righty, Erica.

HILL: Thank you.

I want to bring in now CNN political analyst Jackie Kucinich from the "Daily Beast" and from the "Wall Street Journal" politics and business reporter Shelby Holiday.

As we mull over -- you know, there are legal issues obviously that we are talking a lot about this morning, there's the Don McGahn issue I mean, there's also how all of this, Jackie, does come into play as we're moving into November and the president's focus simply on the election. You can't really separate the two, though, Jackie.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's true. I think the president's staff wants him more focused on the election than perhaps what's going on inside his own White House, because he is better on the campaign trail than when he is tweeting incessantly as he's been doing this morning. He seems to get himself in less trouble.

But you can't really -- what Jeffrey was talking about there in terms of who is, you know, going to be fielding these requests, not only is McGahn leaving, four of his deputies are either out the door or going to be out the door, including someone who is in charge of compliance with government ethics.

So this is going -- this could be a problem. And they're having trouble getting people in the door, because -- in part because of the president's legal trouble and because these people don't want to come in and immediately have to lawyer up because of what's going on with the special counsel and the White House.

HILL: It's amazing to think that that's part of the consideration. There's also issues to the president saying flatly to Jim Acosta yesterday, he's unafraid of whatever Don McGahn may have told the special counsel in those 30 or so hours of interviews. Meantime, Alan Dershowitz is saying, look, if McGahn spent 30 hours talking with Mueller's team, the president would probably be smart to keep him around as opposed to cutting him loose, Shelby.

SHELBY HOLLIDAY, POLITICS AND BUSINESS, WALL STREET JOURNAL: Yes, that was a really interesting interview by Alan Dershowitz. He said the president should be worried. You know, Alan Dershowitz says he's not paid for his legal advice but he likes to give it on television. And we know President Trump listens to him. And Alan Dershowitz's message is, you should be very worried.

This is somebody who is cooperating with an investigation into the president himself. As "The New York Times" reported, he may have done so because he was worried about getting thrown under the bus. And so that leaves a lot of questions about what exactly he's telling these investigators, even though the president is putting on a tough face and saying he is not worried at all and he authorized it. Alan Dershowitz said it wasn't very smart to authorize it. You probably should have rein him in a little bit more. Executive privilege is a very real thing that should have been invoked in this case.

There are major questions, though, about McGahn leaving and also what that means for Sessions. And you know, "The Wall Street Journal," my colleagues at the "Journal" had a great piece about Republicans expressing support for Sessions and giving him encouragement over breakfast. So while we've heard Senator Lindsey Graham and some others say that maybe they're warming to the fact that Sessions should leave and Trump deserves an attorney general who works for him, there are other Republicans who are very supportive of Sessions, want him to stay in the role.

And, you know, with the passing of Senator John McCain, that 50-49 margin in the Senate is not -- it's not a strong margin for the president to get somebody confirmed for this job. He's in a very tough situation.

[10:10:04] HILL: It is fascinating to look at what has changed with Jeff Sessions. And, you know, it only takes a couple of people to start saying more things publicly, as we hear from Lindsey Graham. But, you know, Chuck Grassley saying, look, we can find now in our calendar.

Jackie, looking at this, you know, there is this reporting from CNN and others, too, that fellow GOP senators are increasingly resigned to the fact that Sessions is not long for the job, that it could happen very quickly. That could have a major impact. Simply the fact that it is being discussed in this way and there's talk about political reporting, the president actually trying to -- actively trying to flip Republicans to pull back their support for Sessions, Jackie. To have those conversations out there weeks before the midterms, not the best strategy.

KUCINICH: Right. Well, if the president -- I think most Republicans, even if they are -- the president definitely is like testing the fences, seeing where there's weaknesses and seeing who he can flip and get on his side. But I don't think there's anyone who really wants to be going through a fight over the attorney general going into the midterms because it will -- Democrats will make this about Bob Mueller and they will have something else that is not the economy to talk about on the campaign trail.

And so if you want to break this out into the open, that's what you do. So I think you have a lot of -- including Lindsey Graham, someone like John Cornyn, saying, OK, let's look at this -- let's get through the midterms before you make any staffing changes.

HILL: We'll see if that happens.

KUCINICH: We'll see.

HILL: As we -- we'll see.

KUCINICH: You never know.

HILL: We never know anything at this point. Do we? That -- I mean, that's the one -- that's the one consistency, the inconsistency.

Shelby, if we -- you know, going back to the loss of John McCain here, we've heard so much from Lindsey Graham over the last few days about their relationship, about how he's approaching things now. Part of that has come as part of the questioning about his take on Jeff Sessions. He also said, though, in that interview with the "Today" show that whoever would come in and be nominated would have to basically promise to protect the Mueller investigation. Is that realistic?

HOLLIDAY: I think that's a really important thing that he said. And I think that that's probably in line with what other Republicans are saying as well. Is it realistic? I do think it is. I think there are Republicans who take the Mueller probe seriously, they think it is a legitimate probe. It's been upheld by numerous judges. So legally, at this point, it is very sound.

And I think there are Republicans -- Senator Ben Sasse is a great example who say we don't want an attorney general who's just going to go firing his way through the Justice Department. There are also some questions about what would happen if Sessions is actually fired versus if he stepped down voluntarily. And I think that's why we're seeing some senators, Sasse is one of them, Cornyn, we have Kennedy, some of these senators who went and expressed support for Sessions himself.

They are all there saying, don't leave, because if you leave, that gives President Trump a lot more leeway to put in -- possibly put in an acting attorney general and then nominate someone he wants. And if he's fired, that could be a very different scenario. It could play out in different ways.

So I do think what Lindsey Graham is saying, he's kind of playing both sides, but I think it's important that he, at this point, is standing by the Mueller probe.

HILL: Shelby Holliday, Jackie --


KUCINICH: I'm sorry. I just wanted to tack on and say that, you know, we have to see who will actually stand up to Trump because there is a lot of talk but when it comes down to it, if they do something-- if Trump does something that they don't like, it gets really quiet in the Senate pretty fast.

HILL: That is a fair point. Jackie Kucinich, Shelby Holliday, great to have both of you with us. Thank you.

KUCINICH: Thank you.

HOLLIDAY: Thank you. HILL: Still to come, services continue today for the late Senator

John McCain. As we're now learning more, one of his final acts, sending a letter to a recent graduate. Just ahead, you will hear from the young man who received that letter. Plus Florida's race for governor is off to an ugly start, to put it mildly. And my friends, we still have more than two months to go until the midterms.

Plus a new report says the passport renewals of hundreds of Hispanic Americans who live near the border are now being denied. These people accused of having fraudulent U.S. birth certificates. What's really going on here?


[10:18:34] HILL: Hours from now, the family of John McCain will arrive at the Arizona state capitol where the late senator's casket will be taken in to the North Phoenix Baptist Church. Special tributes will be made by former Vice President Joe Biden, Arizona football star Larry Fitzgerald, several members of the McCain family. Afterwards, Senator McCain's body will be flown to Joint Base Andrews ahead of his ceremony at the U.S. capital tomorrow.

CNN has just learned Roberta McCain, John McCain's 106-year-old mother, will attend services at the capital. She will also attend the services scheduled for this weekend.

Joining me now is a recent graduate from the Merchant Marine Academy who received a special surprise earlier this week. Sam Bongiorno got a letter of congrats in the mail from John McCain. That letter dated August 25th, the same day he passed away. Sam Bongiorno joins us now.

Sam, it's good to have you with us. That must have been quite a moment as you went to the mailbox and you received this letter on Monday, taking on obviously added significance because the senator had just passed.

SAM BONGIORNO, NAVY ENSIGN: That's right. Yes, it was very bittersweet to get a gesture like that from someone that has been a role model to me for many years. And it was an honor to have been able to receive that as one of his last letters that he sent from his office.

HILL: And what did he say in that letter to you?

BONGIORNO: He congratulated me for being one of the few people to come from an academy and follow in his footsteps, become a naval aviator.

[10:20:10] I believe he sends that to a number of different people from the state of Arizona who also follow the same program.

HILL: John McCain is someone, as I understand it, you've looked up to for a long time. You wanted to join the military from the age of 10, wanted to be a fighter pilot. You're making that move as we mentioned as well. When you were at the Merchant Marine Academy, did you and your fellow

midshipmen, did you talk about Senator McCain, about his service, about his legacy at all?

BONGIORNO: He definitely came up a number of times. Most noticeably in Secretary of Defense Mattis' graduation speech, where he mentioned that the Maritime Service actually will enlarge you and you know, it's not a restriction on your character or your individuality. It's a way to express yourself and to build a career.

HILL: As you think about Senator McCain, what are some of the words that you would use to describe him?

BONGIORNO: I think McCain was a very honorable man. I've seen a lot of interviews with him. And one of the things that struck me was just how often he would admit his mistakes or admit that he was wrong. And I think that that was crucial to his success and to his reputation as someone that could be trusted to, you know, help run the country. And I think that that was a big factor in his military career as well.

HILL: He is quite a role model for you to look up to. Really special for you to have that letter. I imagine that's something you're going to keep forever.

BONGIORNO: Yes, absolutely. This weekend, I'm hopefully going to frame it. And I'll definitely cherish the gesture of goodwill. You know, in a way it was kind of passing the baton to a new generation. I consider it a gesture towards not just me but my peers as well who are also joining me in, you know, becoming junior officers and trying to learn to fly these aircraft.

HILL: Well, Sam, best of luck to you and thank you for your service, and for your decision to make that move, to -- you know, it is not an easy thing, as we know, to be accepted into one of the service academies. To get where you are, you had to work really hard to get there.

Thanks, again, Sam. We look forward to seeing where you go next.

BONGIORNO: Thank you. It was an honor to be on the show.

HILL: Florida's race for governor, off to an ugly start. A television interview has one candidate already defending himself against accusations of racism.


[10:27:41] HILL: We're but barely two days into the Florida governor's race and already the Republican nominee Ron DeSantis is facing serious accusations of racism. His opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum is Florida's first black nominee for governor in a major party.

So let's put everything out there on the table for you. These are the comments that DeSantis made during an interview. This is what set off the controversy. Take a listen.


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


HILL: DeSantis then went back on television to explain his comment. Gillum says he is not buying it. Take a listen.


DESANTIS: It has zero to do with race, Sean. It has everything to do with whether we want Florida to continue to go in a good direction, building off the success, or do we want to turn to left-wing socialist policies which will absolutely devastate our state? And here is the thing. I believe people should be judged based on their ability and character regardless of race.

ANDREW GILLUM (D), NOMINE FOR FLORIDA GOVERNOR: Looking at the whole clip, I think he was clear about what he meant and he understood the dog whistle that he was blowing. And I understand that he intends to speak to a particular part of the base to incite them.


HILL: Joining me now to discuss, CNN political commentator, former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign Symone Sanders, and CNN political commentator and Republican strategist Alice Stewart.

Good to have both of you with us. So, Symone, Andrew Gillum says DeSantis was simply taking a page right out of President Trump's playbook from the campaign. Do you agree?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I would definitely agree. I mean, what we didn't show in the clip is that DeSantis also referred to Mayor Gillum as articulate. And articulate, it's also a code word. It is something that frankly some white people use to talk about black people because they do not expect them to be able to speak well. That is a -- that is a dog whistle in and of itself. So that coupled with the monkey it up comment is why many people are calling DeSantis to the carpet on his comment.

HILL: Alice, do you buy his explanation?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think he could have handled this much better.

Look, Erica, I'm old enough to remember when apologies were not taboo in politics. And in my view, my recommendation would have been to say, I'm sorry, that's not what I meant, full stop, move on, game on to November. And the reality is, if you do look at his full quote, he was being complimentary of the mayor, he was saying he ran a good campaign, and then he also --