Return to Transcripts main page


"Resistance" Op-ed Amplifies Paranoia Inside Trump White House; Mike Pompeo, Mike Pence Deny Writing New York Times Op-ed; Senior Trump Official Admits in Op-ed to Working Against Trump; Trump Demands NYT Turn Over Anonymous Op-ed Author to Government; Trump Cites NYT Op-ed Amounts to "Treason"; Trump's Supreme Court Pick Faces More Questions in Congress; Stocks to Rebound as Investors Watch U.S.- Canada Trade Talks. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired September 6, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:26] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Top of the hour, good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

This morning a president who has lived his whole life with the credo, quote, "always attack back, except a hundred times more," and that's a direct quote, by the way, is doing just that or trying to after what may be the single most devastating attack that he has faced in his political life.

It comes from a person identified only as a senior official in the Trump administration in a new op-ed for the "New York Times" backing up some of the scariest claims from the president's critics and the worst fears of the president himself.

The anonymous author writes, quote, "The dilemma which he," Trump, "does not fully grasp is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know. I am one of them."

It is stunning. He or she, whoever wrote this describes a president's leadership style as, quote, "impetuous, adversarial, petty and ineffective," and adds to that, quote, "the root of the problem is the president's amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making."

So a lot of question this morning. The obvious questions, who is the senior White House official who wrote this and what will this do to a White House already grappling with dysfunction and distrust?

Well, the president has blasted the writer as, quote, "gutless," demanded that the "New York Times" turn him or her over to the government if this person even exists, the president writes. This morning the president claims the deep state and the left are desperate over the strong economy and the expected confirmation of his second Supreme Court nominee who, by the way, has his hearings resuming this hour. We'll take you there.

But let's begin at the White House this morning with our Abby Phillip.

This is remarkable, it is stunning, it is a one-two punch for the president. What are you learning about how this is impacting him and what it means for what is going on right now in the West Wing?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, an already paranoid president and his staff are now spiraling deeper into that paranoia. The president started the day yesterday thinking that the witch hunt that he wanted was to find the staffers who cooperated with Bob Woodward on that tell-all book but by the end of the day it had expanded to include this anonymous senior administration official who wrote a scathing "New York Times" op-ed describing him as essentially unstable.

But the problem now, even as White House aides are searching for this person, scrutinizing key words, even asking reporters who they think this person might be is that it could literally be anyone. Listen to how Kellyanne Conway describes the search.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: I just have to correct the record. It's not clear to us anyway that it's somebody in the White House. They're saying senior administration official. That could be many people. There are I think thousands of political appointees, hundreds of folks who would qualify under that title alone.

What rings true to me is that people are trying to have it both ways. They want to serve in the government and they're pretending that they're somehow protecting the country from Donald Trump.


PHILLIP: Well, the president is obviously angry about this. We saw it ourselves yesterday when he responded directly to this person he has called gutless but it's clear that this White House is taking seriously that this person does in fact exist. It is not a hoax, it's not something made up by the "New York Times," and even senior administration officials like Mike Pompeo, the secretary of State, and Vice President Mike Pence are now denying that they were the ones behind it.

Meanwhile, President Trump later today is heading to Montana for a campaign rally. That's likely to be something that is very unpredictable. It always is but even today, Poppy, I think we could be in for a doozy.

HARLOW: Right. I mean, what will he say about this? Is he going to completely ignore it? That's hard to imagine.

Abby, thanks for the reporting from the White House this morning.

Let's talk about all of it. Ron Brownstein is here. Salena Zito, Josh Rogin also join me. Good morning to you. Salena, let me begin with you. There are -- I

mean, this is a wow. There are a lot of wow moments from this White House.



HARLOW: But this is like an "oh my goodness, what's going on" wow. Explain to us how big this is and what it does to a White House. It seems to be on a hunt on two fronts, right? Looking for who talked to Bob Woodward for that book and then who wrote this.

ZITO: Right. I mean, yes. I don't know if there is a big enough word to describe what happens. Right?

HARLOW: Right.

ZITO: And so, you know, look, this is -- this would make a just regular person feel paranoid let alone the president of the United States.

[09:05:07] It comes on the heels of Woodward's book so it just sort of reinforces that notion, right? And so when you're in the White House, I certainly have no idea what they're doing but I would imagine what I would be doing and that's, you know, reflecting on who this is, why this is. But then I also think an important thing to think about is how people at home are looking at this.


ZITO: So if you didn't like President Trump to begin with, whether you're a Democrat or a Republican, this just reinforces your belief system that this is who he is. If you did like him, then this reinforces the belief system that institutions are not to be trusted and people are out to get him.

The people I'm going to watch on this are those suburban female voters who went into him reluctantly and have peeled away in some primary races and some special elections. You know, that's the long term effect if you're thinking purely about politics.

HARLOW: And Ron Brownstein, when you look at some of the specific language, which by the way our reporting now is that they are doing exactly that in the White House, looking at some of the key words.


HARLOW: Trying to decipher, you know, does someone we know use those words a lot, who could this be? Because we know it had very minor editing from the editors at the "Times." Here are some more of the language that struck me, quote, "The president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic." And then it goes on to say, "The root of the problem is the president's amorality."


HARLOW: This is, you know, not just stunning in the language. I think Zeke Miller, AP White House reporter, pointed that well. It's not just amazing that someone, you know, on the team, if you will, wrote this, how many people could have written it.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. I'll throw in my own linguistic kind of herring here which is that there's an echo of the founding credo of the Republican Party where there's a three free-free in the op-ed. The founding credo of the Republican Party was free soil, free labor, free men. So someone I think -- someone knows -- someone who knows the history of the Republican Party. Look, I actually think --

HARLOW: There you go.

BROWNSTEIN: I actually think the two mayor stories we're dealing with today are intimately connected and the second to a large extent explains the first. I mean, what this op-ed says is that there are a large number of people inside the administration who do not believe that President Trump is equipped by either temperament or intellect, or judgment, to be the president of the United States.

There are also a large number of members of Congress, including Republicans who feel the same way behind closed doors, and yet because of the second story we're dealing with today they largely bite their lip, which is that President Trump is the guy who picked the lock, who won the White House and that is what is equipping them to do what they want on regulation, taxes, and judges which the person who writes the op-ed talks about as well.

And so despite all of these doubts that the people who are closest to the president are experiencing, they are largely circling -- almost entirely circling the wagons around him because he is the vehicle through which they are getting what they want.

HARLOW: Well --

BROWNSTEIN: And I think that dynamic -- there's no hint at all that that dynamic will change --

HARLOW: Right.

BROWNSTEIN: -- at any point as long as Republicans control the Congress.

HARLOW: That's a great point and they point out whoever this author is, you know, it's not because of the president that we're getting this, it's in spite of the president that we're getting this done.

Marco Rubio, Josh, who is not concerned about speaking out against the president when he disagrees with the president, slammed the author of it this morning. Let's read you his tweet. Quote, "America has one duly elected president. Anybody serving at his pleasure should do so faithfully. When they feel they no longer can they should resign with and speak in their own name so the country can evaluate their insights with a full understanding of where they are coming from." Does he have a point?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: It's a legitimate opinion. I happen to disagree with it. Someone else who disagrees with it is Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker who said that those very people who disagree with the president should stay in and do their jobs because we need adults and professionals in the room.

And you know, to build off what Ron said, the reason this is so credible is because it builds upon a mountain of evidence and a mountain of reporting that's been done by journalists, reporters for the last three years that reinforces this idea that there are serious concerns at the highest levels of the administration about the president's fitness for office and his lack of a moral compass, et cetera, et cetera.

You know, what do we do every day? We talk to senior administration officials who have gripes about the president. That's what everyone is doing, and guess what? There's a lot of them and this administration leaks like the Iraqi Navy and what you find when you talk to these people is there is a range of views from people who support the president 100 percent to people who support the president zero percent.

HARLOW: Right.

ROGIN: This person seems to be in the middle like 20 percent or 30 percent, 40 percent on a good day. That's important. That's in the public interest. That's, you know, what our professionals think about their leadership and that's our job is to bring that to the public.

[09:10:07] HARLOW: So, guys, listen, I want you all to listen to Senator Lindsey Graham, another Republican who, yes, supports the president on a number of things, golfs with the president, but also openly disagrees with the president. Here's his take.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: At the end of the day, the president has every right to be upset and this will matter nothing in 2020. He's either going to win or lose based on what he does for average people not based on articles or books.


HARLOW: This, Salena, is going to matter zero come 2020. Is Lindsey Graham right?

ZITO: Yes. You know why? Because every other day we have a wow story so this wow story will be buried behind -- maybe 1700 other wow stories between now and then. I mean, and that's the problem that I think any -- that people are grappling with and trying to understand the electorate is that people are so overwhelmed by all of the news and they also had an expectation that he was going to be different and disruptive. That he wasn't -- like within the norms of presidencies. That they're like, I'm not listening to this and also I sort of expected this, and I think that's the big challenge going forward.

HARLOW: But what --

ZITO: Because none of these are normal reactions.

HARLOW: But what about, Ron, I want you to get your take but also please just weigh in on the, quote, "whispers of the 25th Amendment." I mean, a radical way that members of Congress and the vice president can get rid of a president they think is unfit. That that was talked about within the administration.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Well, first on that, it only underscores my first point which is how deep the concerns are about his fitness to do the job and yet so many of those who have those concerns have chosen to bite their lip because he is the vehicle through which they advance -- Marco Rubio will be more relevant to comment on whether he believed the portrait that the op-ed is painting than to kind of offer a view on whether it was appropriate to do this.

Look, I think -- what Lindsey Graham said I think is flat out wrong. Unemployment is 4 percent and the president's approval is only around 40 percent. Those two facts should not happen in the same universe. The only reason his approval rating is so low is because there are so many voters who despite the good times economically believe he is in fact as the op-ed argues unfit to be president and that concern --


BROWNSTEIN: -- among that --

HARLOW: Except --

BROWNSTEIN: There is an portion of the electorate that does not have that concern but that concern is going to drive the midterm in the suburban districts and is critical for 2020. I mean, it's the reason why it's such a -- to be (INAUDIBLE) with a 4 percent unemployment.

HARLOW: Except the polls were wrong last time and there was that silent secret Trump vote. But I have to get --

BROWNSTEIN: Poppy, that is not right. I mean, that's just not right. That's not true.

HARLOW: Tell me, why am I wrong?

BROWNSTEIN: Because basically in the national polling he polled basically, you know, what the national polling had. Yes, it is possible that the composition of the electorate on Election Day in 2020 could look different in polls today but a president with a 40 percent approval rating that is a big hill to climb in terms of changing the composition of the electorate that much.


BROWNSTEIN: So he ultimately I think has to improve that. I'm not saying he can't win. I'm saying the reason why he is in such an equivocal position despite the good economic times is precisely because there are so many voters, particularly white collar voters who normally vote Republican, who believe he is not displaying the qualities they expect in a president.

HARLOW: Fair. Quickly, Josh, on real implications for the U.S. president's position on the world stage, Richard Haass, you know, head of the Council on Foreign Relations, writes that this is op-ed will reinforce questions around the world as to what is going on in the United States. What does it do to the U.S. on the world stage?

ROGIN: Well, I think it's embarrassing basically and it undermines the administration's ability to get stuff done when there's no predictability and when world leaders don't know who to listen to and they don't know what the president thinks. But those aren't problems created by the leaks, those are problems created by the issues the leaks are meant to address, OK. And what we have on foreign policy is basically what the leaker said which is two foreign policies, one being run by the government and one of what the president says in tweets and they interact in fascinating and random ways and everyone that I talk to around the world, and foreign diplomats, they're just confused and that can't be a good thing for America or its interests.

HARLOW: Guys, thank you. Spirited, important debate. Appreciate it. Ron, Salena, Josh, thank you all.

Minutes from now what would have been the lead story had it not been for this stunning opinion piece is the Supreme Court hearings on Capitol Hill. You will hear again from the president's nominee, Judge Kavanaugh, in just moments. A grueling day ahead of questioning from lawmakers. We'll take you to Capitol Hill live.

Also the president thanking Kim Jong-un this morning saying he has, quote, "unwavering trust" in the president and wants to denuclearize before Trump leaves office. We'll get into that.

But first, we are pulling back the curtain on why the "New York Times" decided to publish this anonymous opinion piece blasting the president and the secretary of State this morning is responding for the first time.


[09:15:00] HARLOW: Anonymous opinion piece blasting the president, and the Secretary of State this morning is responding for the first time.


HARLOW: Who is it? That is the parlor game going on across the country this morning and no doubt within the West Wing who wrote that stunning "New York Times" opinion piece. This morning, the president's Secretary of State is denying that it's him, and said Mike Pompeo is taking a page out of his boss' playbook, taking a swipe at the "New York Times" for even printing the piece. Watch.


just -- I find -- I find the media's efforts in this regard to undermine this administration incredibly disturbing.


HARLOW: All right, Brian Stelter; a senior media correspondent, host of "RELIABLE SOURCES" is with me, and you, my friend spoke to the man, a big part of making the decision to publish this, the op-ed editor from the "New York Times". What did you learn?

[09:20:00] BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim Dow, he is the one that received this message through an intermediary, saying to this senior official who wanted to talk, wanted to share this op-ed. Here's Dow in his own words speaking with the "New York Times" actually on their podcast this morning, going into more detail about it happened.


JIM DOW, NEW YORK TIMES: It began with an intermediary who I trust and know well, and they told me that there was this individual in the Trump administration who was very interested in writing an op-ed, and would I want to see it?

I almost always say yes, I'm interested in looking at things and we'll take it from there.


STELTER: And after a bit of several days of vetting, of fact- checking, the "Times" editors did conclude this was legit, this person really was who they said they were and it was worth publishing is something really unprecedented at the "New York Times" to have a senior official --

HARLOW: Yes --

STELTER: Given anonymity like this. And of course, it's happening on the opinion side, not the news side --

HARLOW: Right --

STELTER: So now you have the paper's reporters --

HARLOW: Well --

STELTER: Trying to figure out who it is.

HARLOW: Jodi Kantor who is one of their, you know, best investigative reporters writes this morning, "so basically, "Times" reporters now must try to unearth the identity of an author that our colleagues in opinion have sworn to protect with anonymity."

STELTER: Yes. HARLOW: How far, Brian, because you know, the president said this is,

you know, treason, he tweeted treason. And then he said that for national security purposes, this person should be turned over.

STELTER: Right --

HARLOW: I mean, that's concerning, to say the least, how far is the "Times" going? What are they doing to protect the identity.

STELTER: I think last night, there were conversations about responding to the president. The editors decided not even bother, it's obviously preposterous to suggest the "Times" is going to hand over the source, they've chosen to protect this source, they say they've taken a number of different measures to protect this source.

But at the end of the day, this is not about the source, it's not about the "New York Times", it's about the message in the op-ed. You've got Pompeo there, saying the media is out to get the president, but it's people within the administration who are speaking out, not just to the "New York Times", but also through Bob Woodward, through our colleagues here at Cnn.

People are trying to blow whistles all over the place, and that is concerning. That's the big story, and frankly, the president's reactions is unhinged reactions by ranting against the "New York Times" and complaining about the leaker and saying he should be turned in -- he seems to be proving the people right.

HARLOW: Brian, thank you.

STELTER: Thanks.

HARLOW: Important conversation to have with the man who made the decision, thank you. Joining me now, Cnn chief legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. So Jeff, let's talk about some of what the president has said and how he has responded.

You know, aside from the absurdity of calling for the "Times" to turn over their source, you know, as if what's the administration going to do -- that aside, even though it should not be a side note, legal issues here, any legal ramifications for someone writing this? I mean, the president says national security issues.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, the person who wrote this is clearly a political appointee of one kind, and apparently, some sort of high level political appointee. So this person certainly could be fired and will be fired and understandably would be fired if he or she is identified.

And there's no legal problem with that. The political appointees serve at the pleasure of the president. They can be fired for political reasons because they are not doing the job that the president wants.

So there would be no legal impediment to firing this person. Beyond that, I don't think there are any legal issues. HARLOW: Yes --

TOOBIN: There's no -- there's no criminality here. It's of course absurd --

HARLOW: Well --

TOOBIN: To suggest this was treason which involves helping --

HARLOW: Right --

TOOBIN: An adversary during a war time, but you know, their firing is certainly -- would be --


TOOBIN: Appropriate.

HARLOW: And remind people what -- those that are, you know, convicted of treason could face.

TOOBIN: Death.

HARLOW: Right. And the president in one word said treason --

TOOBIN: Yes, so I mean, you know, with his usual flair for understatement, the president is, you know, making this absurd claim. But I do think we should, you know, we should point out that there could be and certainly would be legal consequences to some -- you know, in terms of employment if this person is identified --

HARLOW: Sure. What about the 25th Amendment? I mean, that struck me -- you know, was perhaps like among the top three things that struck me in this. That there were according to this senior administration official, quote, "whispers, early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment." I mean, what case would have to be made for that to have happened?

TOOBIN: Well, the 25th Amendment, which most people don't even know anything about, and it was added relatively recently to the constitution is a provision for removing the president from office in a different way than impeachment.

It was really designed for situations where the president was incapacitated --

HARLOW: Right --

TOOBIN: For a medical reason. And it begins with the cabinet, the president's own cabinet voting to remove him from office, and then it has to be ratified by Congress. It's never been invoked. It's never -- it's never happened.

[09:25:00] But -- and it's certainly, there's no evidence that the cabinet here is interested in invoking it at all. But just the mere fact that it was discussed does suggest the degree of unease or even panic --

HARLOW: Yes --

TOOBIN: That senior government officials felt about the way Donald Trump was conducting himself.

HARLOW: OK, Jeffrey Toobin on double duty this morning, so stay with me, we're going to talk about Kavanaugh in just a moment because in minutes, the president's pick for the Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh faces another round of grilling on Capitol Hill, we'll get into that.

We're also moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street, the Dow looking like it will move higher, rise at the start of trading. Investors keeping a very close eye on those trade talks today again between the U.S. and Canada -- we'll keep you posted.