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Trump Announces Don McGahn to Leave as White House Counsel; John McCain Memorial Services to Be Held in Arizona Today; Florida Governor Nominee: Vote for Black Opponent Would 'Monkey This Up'. Aired 6-6:29a ET

Aired August 30, 2018 - 06:00   ET



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

[05:59:21] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, we do everything by the book.

REP. ADAM KINZINGER (D-CA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: The president is clearly worried about what he has said. and he should be worried.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we're really watching a slow-motion Saturday Night Massacre.

RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda.

ANDREW GILLUM (D), FLORIDA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: He understood the dog whistle that he was blowing.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He is an credible candidate that is turning himself into a carbon copy of Trump.


ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Thursday, August 30, 6 a.m. here in New York, 6 a.m. in Westeros, as well. Right?

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: I know that's -- what that's a reference to, but not everybody might.

BERMAN: Stand by. Sand by. It's not every morning you get a major staff upheaval, a Jared and Ivanka sighting, and a "Game of Thrones" reference all in the same story line. So brace yourselves.

This morning "The Washington Post" reports that the White House is being warned "winter is coming." That's an actual quote from the piece. New concern among the president's closest allies that he and those around him are not prepared for the legal and political onslaught, should the Democrats take over the House, up to and including impeachment, "The Post" says.

More related intrigue at King's Landing: "The New York Times" reports, essentially, that JIvanka always pays its debts. The president's daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, reportedly were none too happy with White House counsel Don McGahn, which might have contributed to the Twitter exclusive, where the president announced McGahn was leaving. McGahn did not know that tweet was coming.

Don't forget: McGahn has answered some 30 hours of questions from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team.

CAMEROTA: All right. That's a lot to digest. Luckily, we have three hours.

So, as McGahn prepares so exit, there are more signs that Attorney General Jeff Sessions could soon be shown the door, as well. "Politico" reports that the president has spent the last 10 days lobbying Republican senators to also sour on the A.G. And there are signs it is working. A few powerful senators seem to be taking the president's side, though of course, getting rid of Sessions would open a whole new can of worms.

We have it all covered. CNN's Athena Jones is live at the White House with more.

Hi, Athena.


The president confirming yet another key departure, and we have reported that McGahn would be leaving after the Kavanaugh confirmation fight. Still, the president's announcement via Twitter surprised McGahn. McGahn had not specified the timing of his departure, and he hadn't spoken about it with the president.

The news also surprised and upset some Republicans on Capitol Hill.

This is a significant departure. It comes after CNN and others have reported that McGahn has become an important witness in the Mueller probe, having sat down for some 30 hours of interviews over a nine- month period with Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team.

And we know that McGahn, who represents the presidency as an institution, not the president himself, didn't give a full debriefing of what he discussed to the president's lawyers.

President Trump seemed to acknowledge that yesterday afternoon. Watch.


ACOSTA: Do you know what he said to the Mueller team?

TRUMP: No, not at all. I knew he was going, also, as you know. I had to approve it. So we -- we didn't claim executive privilege.

ACOSTA: Were you aware of what he said?

TRUMP: No, I don't have to be aware. We -- we have -- we do everything straight. We do everything by the book.


JONES: And one more thing about the reaction to this news on Capitol Hill. McGahn has played a key role in helping the president appoint a long line of conservative judges to the bench, from Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court on down. That is one reason, therefore, the negative reaction from folks like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley to this news -- Alisyn, John.

CAMEROTA: OK, Athena, thank you very much.

We have a lot to discuss, so let's bring in Errol Louis, CNN political commentator; Jeff Zeleny, CNN senior White House correspondent; and Jackie Kucinich, CNN political analyst and "The Daily Beast" Washington bureau chief. Great to see all of you.

OK, so Errol, let's talk about Don McGahn. So what was so interesting is that after the president blindsided him, I mean, is the reporting, that he announced it on Twitter before he ran it by Don McGahn, and Don McGahn didn't have any date certain that he was planning to leave, but it was sort of like a preemptive break-up, it sounds like.


CAMEROTA: That -- that the president had caught wind that Don McGahn wanted to leave, so he decided to kind of do it before he was broken up with.

BERMAN: "You can't dump me; I dump you."

CAMEROTA: That's right.

LOUIS: You can't -- right, you can't quit; you're fired.

CAMEROTA: Yes. Are you familiar with that one?

BERMAN: I've read about it.

CAMEROTA: That dynamic? OK. So what's interesting is that then we heard from McConnell, and we heard from Senator Chuck Grassley. Here's what McConnell said: "Don was the most impressive White House counsel during my time in Washington, and I've known them all. His departure from the White House, whenever that may be, would be a big loss for the Trump administration and the country."

It was so interesting that Senator McConnell was speaking sort of hypothetically. He started that statement by saying, "If this news is true." This wasn't from the media. This was from the president's Twitter account. He doesn't know or trust if that news is true. LOUIS: That's right. Well, we've seen a lot of back and forth,

right? We've seen different policies announced on Twitter and then kind of dialed back. We've seen different administration officials go out and try to make policy and then have it contradicted by the Twitter feed. So it's unclear what's going to happen.

And even now, frankly, it's a little bit open-ended. We don't know what's going to happen with the Kavanaugh nomination. We don't know what's going to happen with the election. We don't know if all of this is going to look very, very different come November.

I think, though, what the leader, McConnell, is really referring to is that McGahn's influence has really been on sort of central core conservative Republican objectives. Getting lots of conservative judges through the process and dealing with deregulation. McGahn himself has said that he wants deregulation to be a big part of his legacy, if and when he does leave.

BERMAN: It's really interesting, because this is in the context of McGahn leaving under these somewhat chaotic circumstance. This is in the context of what "The Washington Post" is reporting this morning, that people close to the president are nervous he's not taking this whole thing seriously enough. And by that, I mean the prospects of Democrats taking over, hearing after hearing, impeachment.

We referenced "Game of Thrones" because "The Washington Post" did. I'm not sure you're a fan of the show, so I want to give you some context. That's what we do here. This is the --

CAMEROTA: Are you going to act out a scene?

BERMAN: This is the context for what "Game of Thrones" is talking about. Watch this.


SEAN BEAN, ACTOR: Winter is coming.


BERMAN: All right, so now you understand.

CAMEROTA: Now I understand everything. Thank you.

BERMAN: Just to be clear, he doesn't last till season two. OK?

CAMEROTA: Spoiler alert.

BERMAN: There's, like, seven season.

CAMEROTA: Oh, great.

BERMAN: That guy doesn't last till season two.

So Jackie, it is interesting, "The Post" story, that there is this concern that the White House doesn't have its act together for what might be coming.

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, this White House isn't -- isn't filled with what we'd call a bunch of planners, mostly because they have to deal with daily crises that are usually of the president's making.

So the fact that the president isn't taking this seriously isn't terribly surprising. And that he's -- they also said in the story that he's more focused on the midterm elections. And that's probably why, is that that could lead to his undoing, should the Democrats take the House. They don't want to talk about it, but there is still, you know, behind the scenes some ruminations about what the next steps would be, should Democrats get that power. And they're worried, and they should be worried.

CAMEROTA: So Jeff, what do you think? That these various Republican leaders are trying to sort of telegraph to the president their concerns about Don McGahn leaving and everything else?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Look, it shows one thing. I mean, to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Don McGahn is a beacon of establishment, of trust, of credibility, someone in the White House who speaks his same language, if you will.

That's why -- there was some sense of alarm at the sense, is this really possible he's leaving? I thought, you know, almost hoping it's not so.

But this was not a surprise that Don McGahn is actually going at some point. The question is the timing. And the question is why the president decided to sort of get ahead of this.

I also heard yesterday he was also reacting to news reports that were saying that Don McGahn was leaving. He wants to look like he's in charge of this process.

I think more interestingly, though, was the answer from the president yesterday afternoon. He was asked if he knows everything that Don McGahn has said.

Don't forget: he has sat down for some 30 hours of questioning with Bob Mueller and his team. So he is the person inside the administration who has talked the most to Mueller. The president was asked if he knows what he said. He said, "It doesn't matter. I authorized it. I'm aware that he talked." But he doesn't know specifically what he told him, and that is the point here.

So the fact that they are letting go the person who cooperated the most, perhaps, I find very interesting. Because from the outside, Don McGahn, you know, is certainly still irrelevant to this. But there's a school of thought you might want to keep on the inside as this Mueller investigation keeps going.

BERMAN: Alan Dershowitz was saying that to me last night.

ZELENY: Right. BERMAN: It may be better to keep him Dershowitz in -- to keep McGahn in the building.

ZELENY: Right, exactly.

BERMAN: Let me play, actually, what Jeff was just talking about, the president's statement on that.


ACOSTA: Are you concerned about what he said to the Mueller team?

TRUMP: No, never. Not at all. I knew he was going, also. As you know, I had to approve it. So we didn't -- we didn't claim executive --

ACOSTA: Were you aware of what he said?

TRUMP: No. I don't have to be aware. We -- we have -- we do everything straight. We do everything by the book.


BERMAN: Jeff's right, and when he says, "No, I don't have to be aware," he's saying, "No, I'm not aware."

CAMEROTA: But he's also saying, "I trust him." I mean --

BERMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

CAMEROTA: "We don't have anything to hide. He can say whatever he wants."

BERMAN: Absolutely. He is saying that, but 30 hours of testimony is a lot. And there's another story out this morning, which we talked about, which is this "New York Times" version of this concern within the White house story, which Errol, has Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, as players. And we really haven't seen them since Act II of this drama. They've been remarkably quiet over the last few months.

LOUIS: It's true.

BERMAN: But they apparently were unhappy with Don McGahn, according to "The Post," particularly -- according to "The Times," I should say, particularly because of what the president was talking about there, learning that McGahn talked for some 30 hours. And maybe they had something to do with all of this.

LOUIS: Yes, despite what the president said yesterday in response to Jim Acosta, they have great -- they have a lot of reason to be worried.

In those 30 hours, even if it seems like an innocuous conversation took place, what somebody like the White House counsel can do is fill in all kinds of blanks, help make clear who was in what meetings, put the whole time line in place, help Mueller in ways that the president can't really anticipate and apparently did not learn about. And so they should really be worried that a lot of information has been provided to their adversaries.

And despite the talk about doing everything by the book, they haven't done everything by the book or there wouldn't be an investigation. I mean, the reality is, the firing of James Comey and everything that has followed since then has been a problem for this administration.

And to the extent that they have a White House counsel who's now cooperating with the investigation, they have cause for concern.

[06:10:05] CAMEROTA: OK, Jackie, let's talk about what's happened with Attorney General Jeff Sessions. So yesterday, we heard Lindsey Graham say, basically, it can't go on like this. That their relationship had soured with the president -- between the president and the attorney general so badly that something had to give. It couldn't go on like this. He seemed to be suggesting that Jeff Sessions wasn't long for this position. And he seemed to be normalizing it and not kind of explaining the entire can of worms that this would open legally in terms of the Mueller investigation, et cetera.

So now we know from "Politico" a little bit of the back story --


CAMEROTA: -- of what, perhaps, prompted all of that, so here it is.

"Trump raised the prospect of firing Sessions last week in a phone call with Lindsey Graham, according to two Capitol Hill aides, who said that Graham pressed the president to hold off until after the midterm elections. The president has also complained loudly about Sessions to several Republican senators, according to a GOP chief of staff."

So it sounds like, I mean, he's doing a campaign to get people on his side and make whoever the replacement would be easier to get through the Senate.

KUCINICH: Well, right, you have, I think it was -- I think it was Lindsey Graham last week that said whoever would end up being in that position would have to say that they would -- they would want Mueller to stay as special counsel.

Now, I don't know that they can make good on a promise like that. That's a really tough promise to make when it comes to this president.

That said, there is another back story here, where Jeff Sessions really hasn't done a lot to ingratiate himself to his former colleagues, who feel like they've been protecting him, people like Chuck Grassley, people like Lindsey Graham on the issue of criminal justice reform and sentencing reform.

These two senators have been trying to push that through. And Jeff Sessions has been really hostile to that. So they feel like that the goodwill they've given Jeff Sessions isn't necessarily coming back. So you know, there also is that at play.

BERMAN: It is interesting, Jeff Zeleny, that appears to be this lobbying effort to get what we heard out loud for the first time over the last few days, which is senators expressing doubt over Jeff Sessions.

ZELENY: No question, and I think that, if Jeff Sessions was not a former senator, there would not have been this reservoir of support for him in the first place.

I mean, the reality is, the president can pick his own attorney general. It would not be all that unusual for an attorney general to leave after the midterm elections. Of course, most attorney generals are not recusing themselves from a major investigation the Justice Department is overseeing. That's why this is unusual.

So there's no doubt Jeff Sessions will be leaving at some point. It could happen today. It could happen sometime in October. We don't know. But the reality is, he'll be on his way out. The question is who will replace him. and if it's someone close to this president, will they, too, have to rescue themself? So that, of course, is the, you know, drama hanging over all of this, who the next A.G. will be.

BERMAN: If they want to get in good with the boss, I would suggest not --

CAMEROTA: Not doing that. Don't do that.

ZELENY: Good suggestion.

CAMEROTA: Jeff, Jackie, Errol, thank you very much. Stick around. We have many more questions for you about what's happening in D.C.

Meanwhile, there are emotional farewells in Arizona today for the late Senator John McCain today. In a few hours, former vice president Joe Biden will deliver the eulogy at a memorial service for John McCain. Thousands are expected to attend.

And CNN's Nick Watt is live in Phoenix. We've already seen so many emotional moments, Nick.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Alisyn. This is now day two of John McCain's fond farewell. He died at his ranch here in Arizona on Saturday. And yesterday, here at the state capital into the evening, thousands of people waited in line to file past his casket and say goodbye.


WATT (voice-over): They waited in line in 102-degree heat to pay respects to the man who settled here in his 40s and served them in Washington, D.C., for 35 years, as congressman, then senator.

GOV. DOUG DUCEY (R), ARIZONA: John McCain was Arizona's favorite adopted son.

WATT: Governor Ducey speaking earlier at an intimate ceremony attended by friends, colleagues --

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: We are grateful for his life and for his sacrifice.

WATT: -- and family.

The late senator's daughter, Meghan, inconsolable. Cindy McCain, a touch of the flag-draped casket, mourning her husband of 38 years.

DUCEY: John is probably the only politician who could get us to set aside politics and come together as a state and a nation, as we have.

WATT: At the service later this morning, former vice president Joe Biden will speak. He and Meghan McCain bonded on "The View" about the same cancer that took Biden's son, Beau, and would take her father.

JOE BIDEN (D), FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: One of the things that gave Beau courage, my word, was John. Your dad, you may remember when you were a little kid, your dad took care of my Beau. I know if I picked up the phone tonight and called John McCain and said, "John, I'm at Second and Vine in -- in Oshkosh, and I need your help. Come," he'd get on a plane and come. And I would for him, too.

WATT: At the National Cathedral in Washington Saturday, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, both former foes, will eulogize their fallen friend.


WATT: And in just a few hours from now, a motorcade will take McCain's casket to the North Phoenix Baptist Church for that service, then on to the airport, where the Arizona National Guard will bid a final farewell to McCain from the state that he loved so much. McCain's casket will land at Joint Base Andrews about 7:30 p.m. tonight and then the nation will get its chance to say good-bye -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Nick Watt for us in Arizona. Nick, thanks so much.

We should note Jeff Zeleny -- we'll ask him about this -- has some really amazing details of how the planning for this funeral all took place.

CAMEROTA: We look forward to hearing about that.

BERMAN: Really interesting stuff.

Also, Florida's race for governor, off to a really interesting start. What one candidate said during an interview that had him fighting back against accusations of racism, and also had FOX News --

CAMEROTA: Apologize -- or clarifying.

BERMAN: -- clarify themselves. But interesting.

CAMEROTA: Very interesting. Very interesting.


BERMAN: Florida's race for governor taking an ugly turn. Republican nominee Ron DeSantis being accused of using a racist dog whistle after his opponent, Andrew Gillum, became the first black nominee for governor in a major party in Florida.

Here's the comment that caused the controversy.


RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: We've got to work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction. Let's build off the success we've had off Governor Scott. The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda.


BERMAN: In a statement, the DeSantis campaign said, "Ron DeSantis was obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies of Andrew Gillum -- that Andrew Gillum espouses. To characterize it as anything else is absurd."

Let's bring back Errol Louis, Jeff Zeleny, Jackie Kucinich. Look, we're just months after Roseanne Barr had the whole issue with what she said about Valerie Jarrett. He used a phrase there that people will look at and say is racist in a vacuum.

In that same thing -- we didn't play it, Errol -- he also went out of his way people will say that Gillum is an articulate spokesman, another word that is sometimes used. What do you make of it?

LOUIS: Well, look, I spend a lot of time in Florida, I should say. My wife's from down there. My mom's from down there, a ton of relatives. I was down in Duval County just last week, as a matter of fact. Nobody knows the phrase, "monkey this up," right? So the idea that this was just some --

CAMEROTA: But doesn't he mean -- here's how I heard it, OK? Don't monkey with it.

LOUIS: Yes, but he didn't say that, right?

CAMEROTA: But I think he -- I think he conflated "don't muck it up" with "don't monkey with it." I mean, I'm just giving you a --

LOUIS: T hat's very generous of you to bend over backwards for that. I -- I would say, based on many years of experience and looking at what we know is the history of Florida politics, and it's very much a southern state. Make no mistake about it. Those kind of accidents don't just happen, and with 98-odd days to go until the election, I think we're going to see a lot more of these "accidents" where --

CAMEROTA: So you heard a dog whistle loud and clear? LOUIS: NO question about it. I wouldn't call it a dog whistle. I

call it a bullhorn. I mean, this is somebody who is, you know, sort of preparing for what's going to undoubtedly be a very ugly campaign.

And frankly, with the name calling, you know, going straight to socialism, because somebody runs on a platform and appears to have won on a platform of suggesting that they take care of sick people in the state. I mean, it's going to be a very divisive and very bitter campaign.

BERMAN: And Jackie, I talked to Amanda Carpenter last night who was saying maybe he didn't mean it like that, but he should have known better. This is a guy who chooses his words very carefully. And obviously, if you hear the whole statement again, it does seem like DeSantis is going through --

CAMEROTA: Well, there's a cluelessness. Don't get me wrong.

BERMAN: There is a cluelessness.

CAMEROTA: I'm saying the best way to spin it is a complete cluelessness and lack of common knowledge.

BERMAN: Ron DeSantis, Harvard -- you know, Yale, JAG --

LOUIS: Yes, yes. Clueless Ivy League graduate, right.

BERMAN: Clueless, Jackie. That was the question.

KUCINICH: He should know better. He -- if he's not -- he's not running for a national office, but he may as well have acted like he is, because this is going to be a race that -- that's watched very closely.

The other thing is that this is a candidate that has -- I'm trying to think of another word to hug, because it's closer than a hug, to President Trump. Who himself has had several incidents that many have characterized as racist. So it -- he -- it's not a good look. It's not a good look for him, and, you know, maybe in the future he should shy away from -- or be more careful about his words. Because it's clear that this was interpreted the way it's being interpreted.

BERMAN: And you know this, I mean, FOX very quickly came on and clarified, saying, "We don't condone the language."

CAMEROTA: Not that quickly.

BERMAN: It was -- I mean, within the same day.


BERMAN: And so to me that was like, look, if FOX is coming out, if they know there's something of concern here, you know it is worth paying attention to.

CAMEROTA: I totally agree. That was notable. And then it was also notable that Sean Hannity on FOX said was there -- he was interviewing DeSantis and said, "Was there anything racist?" Because that is how they're spinning it.

Meaning the correspondents and other anchors on his very own network, he was trying to make it an "us against them," but in fact, it was Sean Hannity against the daytime lineup. Jeff, how did you -- how did it play in Washington?

ZELENY: Well, look, I mean, there's no question, if he didn't mean it specifically, he also could have put out a statement saying, "Look, I did not mean that at all," and it could have been a more conciliatory statement.

The reality is there are some conservative African-American voters in Florida who may be turned off by this. The reality also is that this is going to be, you know, a vile, competitive race. We're going to see mailings, you know, things under the radar here. So I don't think it was a very good first day of this.

And the president, of course, did not want to weigh in on it at all. He said he had not seen this controversy when he was asked yesterday at the White House.

So we'll see. We'll see how he continues to campaign here. Perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt. We'll see if the monkey language continues.

BERMAN: He didn't apologize, which is out of the Trump playbook right there. So maybe that is a sign. And we have noted how close the two are.

[06:25:05] Jeff Zeleny, you've got some really interesting reporting about how some of the funeral planning for the McCain events this week went about and how, particularly, the former presidents were involved.

ZELENY: It's so interesting. I mean, because on Saturday at this memorial service at the National Cathedral here in Washington, the 43rd and 44th presidents of the United States will be standing and giving a eulogy to John McCain. Both of them, of course, stopped his dream from being in the White House.

But I was learning, just wanting to know more about this relationship. And it was John McCain himself, who asked them back in April if they would give a eulogy at his funeral. It's when he was planning every stage of this himself.

Of course, this is a lesson in civility, at least, in the words of friends of John McCain, who want you know, essentially send a message that you can agree and be agreeable with rivals. You can, you know, sort of have a common purpose.

Of course, this message unspoken in all of this is aimed at the man in the White House who's not invited. We also know that Sarah Palin is not invited.

It's also, I think, to be honest here, a sense of John McCain also trying to sort of try and reclaim some of his brand, if you will. Because by not having Sarah Palin at the service, as well -- and this was the wishes of his family, we are learning -- he is also trying to perhaps put something back in the bottle that he helped sort of create back in that 2008 campaign. I mean, that's when this vitriol was beginning.

But I think, more to the point here, to have Barack Obama and George W. Bush, big rivals of John McCain, speaking for him, it's something that John McCain wanted. It's his final lesson that we'll see on Saturday.

BERMAN: Jeff, Errol, Jackie, thanks so much.

I will note about Sarah Palin, you know, I've covered her for a long time in different capacities. She was always very careful only to say the nicest things about John McCain specifically. I mean, I know there's a complicated relationship there, but the both of them were careful about it --

CAMEROTA: I agree.

BERMAN: -- when they talked about each other.

CAMEROTA: I agree. There was no public bitterness, but this is a final statement.

BERMAN: It is, and it may be more about the family than John McCain himself, for all I know.

CAMEROTA: All right. So a heated debate ahead of New York's gubernatorial primary. How Governor Andrew Cuomo and Cynthia Nixon got under each other's skin. We'll play some portions.