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Trump Says He Won't Fire Sessions Before Midterms; McCain Spent Eight Months Planning Funeral. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired August 31, 2018 - 07:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- my heart.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can't debate his character or how much he gave to our nation.

[07:00:06] JOE BIDEN (D), FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: John's going to take his rightful place in a long line of extraordinary leaders. We shall not see his like again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone. Welcome to your NEW DAY. I would like to make a note of the date if we can. It is the Friday before Labor Day.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: That sounds like the ides of March.

BERMAN: It sort of is. It might be, right? Because there are those who suggest today could be the day that Special Counsel Robert Mueller takes some action in his investigation, if there is action to take, since election season officially, or semiofficially, launches next Monday.

So is it a coincidence that, in a new interview, President Trump is calling the Mueller investigation illegal?

There was news in this interview. The president also made clear that Jeff Sessions's job is safe, for a little while. He seemed to give us an end date of sorts for Sessions's tenure.

CAMEROTA: And for the first time, the president also addressed his handling of Senator John McCain's death as the senator's body was brought to Washington, D.C., for a memorial service today. So he was asked if he missed an opportunity to unite the country during this week, and the president said no.

Then when asked if he thought that McCain could have been a better commander in chief than President Obama, President Trump interestingly would not comment, but he did say that he has a very strong opinion.

So we're joined by one of the reporters who interviewed the president, Bloomberg senior White House correspondent Margaret Talev; as well as former federal prosecutor Laura Coates. Great to have both of you. So Margaret, first set the scene for us. Give us the color, what was

happening behind the scenes during this interview, what his mood was. I mean, you know, everybody knows that the president claims to hate the press, but he sure sits down for long interviews when asked by the likes of you.

MARGARET TALEV, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG NEWS: It was a somber day, Alisyn, as you know. The entire day's news coverage was about Senator McCain's funeral, the service that began there in Arizona, is moving here now.

And so as we waited to go in the Oval Office. We sat inside the White House and watched while all of the networks and cables carried scenes from that service and then the motorcade to the airport.

Then we went into the Oval Office, and President Trump was in very good spirits, very welcoming, wanted to talk politics, wanted to talk economy, which is what we went in there to talk about with him, and wanted to talk about a lot of issues. His social media director, Dan Scavino, as well as press secretary Sarah Sanders joined us.

And I would say he was in a great mood. Very much on the offense and very eager to talk about how his posture, that he's going to basically double down on his posture when it comes to trade, NAFTA, Mexico, Canada, the WTO, China, the E.U., tariffs, all of the above.

But when it came to some of these domestic questions, whether it be Mr. Mueller's investigation or Senator McCain's passing, he was of a different mind-set. I would say he was a bit more defensive, equally defiant, perhaps. But those were conversations he was, I guess, a little bit less interested in having.

BERMAN: Well, let's play -- you talked about John McCain. Let's play what he said about Senator McCain. We've been talking about Senator McCain's passing, the memorials all weekend. The president, basically, was defending how he has behaved all week, despite the criticism. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: We had our disagreements, and they were very strong disagreement. I disagreed with many of the things that I assume he believed in. But with that being said, I respect his service to the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: So Margaret, the other thing that was going on in the room was Sarah Sanders, who has really had to push the president to show some respect for Senator McCain this week, she was in the room and glaring at him during this time -- explain.

TALEV: You say glaring. I might say looking intently at him. but yes, maybe she would have answered that question differently. She's not the president of the United States, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He did it, and then he teased her and sort of said jokingly that Sarah is about to have a breakdown, you know, over there.

This has been a very uncomfortable for the White House staff for most of the past week, because many of them personally hold a different view about the way this should have been handled. All of them, I think, uniformly see that there would have been a political upside to the president being a bit more magnanimous about the legacy of someone -- when a politician, when a sitting president is able to praise and bring people together around someone whom he personally disliked very much and who disliked him very much, it shows a different political approach, and it's the more traditional approach.

And it's not one that the president felt that he needed to do. In fact, he told us. He said, "I've done everything that they asked us to do," meaning Senator McCain's family and those groups that were advocating for the flag to be once again lowered to half-mast and so forth.

[07:05:00] CAMEROTA: So Laura, one of the headlines made in Margaret's interview is that the president had a new insult or adjective for how he sees the Mueller investigation, and look, it's our job to fact check. And thank goodness you're here, because sometimes these things get into the ether, and then people wonder if there is a germ of truth to this.

So he's now, for the first time, calling the Mueller investigation illegal. He -- you know, he doesn't offer any sorts of basis for that, but that's his new term for it. So can you, just for our viewers one more time, explain how these things generally unfold and there is a protocol and a legality about them?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Certainly. This is a balls and blank assertion by the president of the United States. This is not an illegal investigation, although I see that he now prefers alliteration to, perhaps, the term "witch hunt." But it's not illegal.

What he's doing is parroting, I think, largely the arguments made by Roger Stone's own former assistant, Andrew Miller, who's making this claim now in the courts to say that the reason they feel that Robert Mueller's investigation is illegal is not simply because it may be a witch hunt, in their mind. But it's because he is a man who, under the statute, has very little day-to-day oversight. And they believe he does not have accountability. And for those two combined reasons, they feel that this is somebody who is able to go rogue at the drop of a dime, who has no one he has to report to, and that's simply not true.

As we know, Rod Rosenstein, as the acting attorney general in this capacity because of Sessions's recusal, he doesn't have daily oversight where he has to have him cross the "T's" and dots the "I's" personally, but he certainly has to oversee what is happening and be able to either allow, acquiesce or actually deny certain actions he wants to take. And so you do have the oversight, if not the day-to- day over -- accountability here.

But I think we are trying to make is the argument that, listen, if the witch hunt strategy isn't working, then let's go to the tables and say this whole thing is illegal. It may be inconvenient, but it's not legal.

CAMEROTA: And just to remind our viewers, who may have lost the chronology in their head. Let's just quickly put up this full screen about how it unfolded that this investigation with Robert Mueller began.

In January, the Senate -- at a Senate hearing, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, denied any contact with the Russians during the Trump campaign.

In March, "The Washington Post" reported that Sessions did have contact with the Russian ambassador. The next day, Sessions recused himself from the campaign-related probe, which makes sense because he was caught misleading this Senate committee.

Then, a few days later, President Trump fired James Comey. That was the trigger to what happened a few days later when the deputy A.G., Rosenstein, had to appoint Robert Mueller.

So you can see, there were sort of errors that they made that then brought us to Robert Mueller, and none of it -- I mean, all of it, I should say, legal.

COATES: And by the way, Alisyn, one important date that should be in there, or a different range of time, is that he didn't actually just decide on his own. Jeff Sessions actually had the support of career prosecutors and also DOJ officials who said that he should recuse himself. It wasn't coincidental. It was because he knew that it was inappropriate for him to carry on in that particular steed.

So that idea of having the corroboration from people who are career and in the DOJ really bolsters the thought that everything afterwards is not illegal; it's just inconvenient to the president.

BERMAN: I will tell you, this is all starting to come together a little bit for me, as I listen to this good conversation here. The president suggesting the Mueller investigation is illegal. The president suggested yesterday on Twitter the Lester Holt tape where he said he fired James Comey because of Russia was fudged. It wasn't. the investigation is not illegal.

Maybe he is feeling backed into a corner right now. Maybe he is feeling backed into a corner because of the timing of what Mueller might do today. I don't know. But it is certainly worth watching over the course of the day.

One other new piece of information, Margaret, I want to throw to you. I'm just seeing a brand-new -- as in released moments ago -- poll from ABC News and "The Washington Post," where 49 percent of people polled support Congress initiating impeachment proceedings. Forty-nine percent support impeachment proceedings. Forty-six percent oppose it. So a plurality support impeachment proceedings.

The president talked to you, Margaret, about impeachment yesterday. And if we can put that up on the screen so I can read it, about what the president had to say. Well -- do we have it here? CAMEROTA: Right here.

BERMAN: All right. "So you get elected as a Republican or a Democrat, and the opposite party gets put into the House, that will mean, 'Oh, let's impeach him.' Can't do it. If you look at the definition of impeachment, that's a high bar, and that will take a hard time to fight. And if you're doing a good job -- I'm doing a great job."

So this is a separate argument that he's now taking about impeachment with some doing a good job, why would you want to impeach me? Yes, and I think, you know, John, he's making a political gains case. He's not saying that Congress doesn't have the right or the authority to -- to proceed down that course.

What he's saying is twofold. No. 1, he thinks it would backfire politically, because he can make a case to Americans that the economy is better, the stock market has been up, you know, GDP, so on and so forth. And that people will say, "What are you doing?"

And he's making a secondary argument that this is kind of another, like if you break the glass, you can never put it back in the box again. What he's saying that there's nothing extraordinary about Democrats' issues with him in particular. That he's not as bad as Bill Clinton was in terms of scandal. And that if Democrats were to proceed with impeachment proceedings against him, if they were to be in charge, that it would then be open season on every future president. If it were a Democrat was president and the Republicans controlled the House, there would be automatic impeachment proceedings.

Kind of like the filibuster rule or some of these other things that have hardened in recent years, where there used to be more bipartisan compromise, and now it's just a partisan war. He seemed to be saying impeachment is kind of the next third rail in that. If you do this to me, every president after me will face the same thing.

CAMEROTA: The same argument as the renaming of the Russell Building, which is all buildings will -- on earth will --

BERMAN: Every building is going to have to be renamed. There's going to be this rash, this tidal wave, this tsunami of building renaming. Then what will we do?

CAMEROTA: I don't -- I don't -- what would this studio be called. All right. Laura, Margaret, thank you both very much.

TALEV: Thank you.

BERMAN: Cuomo Hall. This studio will be named Cuomo Hall.

CAMEROTA: He would love that.

BERMAN: And he was the one who told me to say that?

CAMEROTA: Sure. Is he in your ear right now? BERMAN: We're talking about it.

CAMEROTA: Meanwhile, Senator John McCain meticulously planned his own funeral, so Washington is getting the message, and we'll tell you what he was trying to say.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BIDEN: The last day that John was on the Senate floor, remember what he was fighting to do. He was fighting to restore what we call regular order. To start to treat one another again like we used to.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: That was Vice President Joe Biden speaking about his friend's final days.

Senator John McCain, we've learned, meticulously planned his own funeral, and part of that planning, included his surprise request for two of his past political rivals, presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, to deliver eulogies at tomorrow's funeral in Washington.

So joining us now are David Frum. He's a former speech writer for President George W. Bush. And CNN political commentator Jen Psaki, the former White House communications director for President Obama. Great to have both of you here --

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Great to be here.

CAMEROTA: -- on this poignant time. And so, Jen, because we know from reporting that John McCain planned his funeral and had the time to do that, every detail is kind of imbued with meaning. And it feels like the biggest one is his choice of who to deliver the eulogies. And with Barack Obama, these two were not particularly friends. I'm not sure that they were close. And so what was the thinking.

PSAKI: You know, you're absolutely right, Alisyn. I mean, they had a tough -- a hard-fought campaign in 2008. But President Obama had genuine affection for Senator McCain. He had great respect for him. I think he was -- I know he was honored to be asked to deliver the eulogy at his funeral. And it's really incredible, because though they were not personally close, this is really an act of public service that he planned for, for when he knew he would pass. And that's, I think, what his intention was in asking both President Obama and President Bush to speak at his funeral.

CAMEROTA: And David Frum, we all remember how bitter the battle between George W. Bush and John McCain during that presidential primary got, so why do you think that, at the end of his life, John McCain reached out to George W. Bush to be a part of this funeral?

DAVID FRUM, FORMER SPEECHWRITER FOR FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, Alisyn, as you say, the 2000 primary race was much more bitter than the 2008 presidential race. In 2008, John McCain had the comfort of knowing he was really beaten by events. If you have the greatest stock market collapse since 1929 a month before a presidential election, the incumbent party is probably not going to do all that well.

But in 2000, this was a hand-to-hand harsh contest. John McCain felt that he had been targeted by tactics that he regarded as underhanded. And it took a long time for the relationship between John McCain and the Bush White House to renew itself. Really, close to three years.

So I think what John McCain is -- was trying to do here is to model what he -- the way he thinks political adversaries should treat each other. Both when it's comparatively easy, as I think it was for him with President Obama, and when it's extremely hard, as it was for him with George W. Bush, to say nonetheless, there is a symbolic unity. Politics isn't war. And to contrast that with some more recent behaviors we have seen, where politics is treated as war.

CAMEROTA: Jen, it's interesting, the reporting about how Barack Obama felt when he got the call in April from John McCain. He was surprised.

PSAKI: Yes.

CAMEROTA: You know? So tell us what -- what you know about him and how he would receive that request?

PSAKI: Surprised and -- and flattered, really. I mean, even when you're a former president, and you've obviously been asked to speak on a number of world stages, you know, John McCain is somebody who has been a leader in different ways of the Republican Party, the opposing party, and to be asked to speak at his funeral is no doubt an honor.

And I think he has always been struck by Senator McCain's resistance to the racist and right -- and sometimes extreme ideologies that are coming from a wing of the Republican Party. And that's something that he saw and sees an opportunity to highlight.

[07:20:10] That when we look at President Trump and what he is stoking around the country, that stands in quite a contrast to what John McCain and many Republicans, many people from the opposing party of President Obama have tried to fight against over time.

And even when there's disagreements, and they've had many disagreements over the course of time -- I worked for President Obama -- on many domestic policy issues, they shared an agreement on how we should be -- approach our role in the world in some degree; not necessarily always on war, and use of military force, but certainly that America is a country that is a force for good in the world. That we should be proponents for freedom of speech, that we should be proponents of democracy. And that's something that is lacking from this White House and the current leadership now.

So, you know, I think as he's thought about what to say, and how to approach this and the honor that he's been asked to speak at this funeral, that's what people should hear from him. And it's really helped him reflect on -- on you know, some of these values that are missing from the White House now.

CAMEROTA: David, of course, I'm reminded of that moment during the final days of the presidential race where Barack Obama was under so much assault from right-wing radio, and cable, and all the birther stuff. And that moment in the town hall, I guess in New Hampshire -- I forgot now -- where the woman stood up to try to get John McCain to say something like that. And she said, you know, just sort of -- she was just repeating the blather that she had heard in some -- on some conspiracy theory, right-wing nonsense, and he took the microphone back from her and said, "No, ma'am. No, ma'am. He is a good, decent man."

FRUM: Well, John McCain is, in many ways, a very old-fashioned personality. He harkens back to -- he got his formation in a period when the two political parties were less like tribes than they are now.

And in the Senate, he was the last of a kind. He was an old-fashioned kind of dealmaker, and the Senate doesn't work that way anymore.

I think that may be one of the reasons that his own political hopes were less successful. That he was somebody who would have been a classic kind of candidate for president in 1976 or 1980. This incredible record of sacrifice and heroism. That was once something that propelled you to the White House. Today, you get propelled to the White House more by tribalism.

And that was not John McCain's America. And one of the things that maybe we all should be reflecting on today, is not just about him, but what in ourselves prevented us from accepting his offer to provide leadership to this country. I think when we look back on it, maybe we'd have been better off, had we said yes.

CAMEROTA: I've thought so often about a tweet from his son that he sent out in the middle of this week, the 28th, right as the memorial services were starting in Arizona. And his son is, I think, 33 years old. He's a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, and he speaks in the vernacular that his dad, you know, would understand as a fighter pilot.

He says, "Call the ball, old man. Green deck for landing." He says this term which means conditions optimal, ceiling and visibility unlimited. And I just find that so poignant, Jen, that you know, his final message is his Dad is in that sort of, you know, military vernacular of the war hero. You know? I mean, what John McCain has come to represent for all of us.

PSAKI: Yes. No, I think that's such a poignant tweet. And I think, as David said, he's almost like a hearkening back in time in some ways. I mean, he had stumbles in his career, no doubt. And we all know that. They've been widely reported.

But he -- he represented something about service to the country that, obviously, started off with military service and a harrowing experience in Vietnam but then continued for decades in the Senate and standing up for -- for an unpopular position at many times, trying to lead bipartisan efforts on issues like immigration, campaign finance reform.

And even now we've seen, as -- even with his passing that he is trying to send a strong message to the country that we need to go back to thinking about bipartisanship. Compromise shouldn't be a dirty word. That we can disagree without being disagreeable. And even as the extremes of both parties have, you know, received most of the headlines, that's an important lesson, because I think that's what most Americans really relate to.

CAMEROTA: Well, we will hear more of that message and those themes at least over the next two days. Jen Psaki, David Frum, thank you both very much.

FRUM: Thank you.

PSAKI: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: John.

BERMAN: Great discussion there.

President Trump says he may have to, quote, "get involved" with the Justice Department, but what can he really do? Former director of national intelligence James Clapper joins us, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Our Justice Department, and our FBI, have to start doing their job and doing it right, and doing it now. Because people are angry. People are angry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: President Trump taking on the Department of Justice and the FBI at a rally overnight. But a new "Washington Post"/ABC News poll shows that when it comes to handling the Russia investigation, 62 percent say that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing it right. Just 23 percent support the president's attacks.

I will note, by doing it right in this case, Jeff Sessions has recused himself from that, and that is what the public seems to be supporting.

We want to bring in former director of national intelligence James Clapper, a CNN national security analyst, to get your assessment.

Director, thanks so much for being with us. You looked at the president's statement last night. You've seen his tweets over the last few days, some of the language he's used, the interview with Bloomberg, where he calls the Mueller investigation illegal. And you think this shows it's starting to get to him? How? Why?

JAMES CLAPPER, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, I just think the -- the volume and the, to me, irrationality of some of the things he's saying in his tweets, at least, tell me that, you know, the walls are kind of crashing in on him.