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Interview With Delaware Senator Chris Coons; Trump Rips FBI and Justice Department Heads; McCain's Prognosis; O.J. Simpson Granted Parole; McCain "Reviewing Options" After Tumor Removed. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired July 20, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The other big news today, an unprecedented rhetorical attack on our nation's chief law enforcement officers by the president of the United States.

THE LEAD starts right now.

After being dissed by the same man who nominated him, Attorney General Jeff Sessions today saying he's staying in the job as long as appropriate. But what is appropriate in a world where the president says he wouldn't have hired you if he'd known you would do what most people agreed was the right and ethical thing?

The Juice will be loose. He was acquitted for his wife's murder and that of Ron Goldman, but now O.J. Simpson is about to become a free man again after serving nine years for armed robbery and kidnapping.

Plus, he's vowing to return to sparring with fellow lawmakers after a brain cancer diagnosis, and he's already tweeting about his differences with Trump about U.S. policy in Syria. So what is the prognosis for maverick of the Senate, John McCain?

Good afternoon. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Beginning with our politics lead today. The nation's top law enforcement officials find themselves in the extraordinary position of defending their right to keep coming to work today, after the president of the United States attacked the top officials at the Department of Justice and the FBI.

In an interview with "The New York Times," President Trump attacked the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, the former head of the FBI, the acting head of the FBI, and, of course, special counsel, Robert Mueller, who's investigating his campaign's possible ties to Russia.

The subtext of many of these criticisms being that these men do not seem to understand how they should be trying to serve him, Donald Trump, the president, instead of serving the American people or, for that matter, justice.

The most humiliating of the many belittlements in the interview was perhaps his personal rebuke of the first U.S. senator to ever publicly support him, the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for being -- quote -- "very unfair" to him by recusing himself from the Russia investigation after it was revealed, of course, that Sessions had been during his confirmation hearing less than transparent about contacts he had had with Russian officials, and then giving the president zero heads-up about it.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Zero. So, Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have -- which -- which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job, and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, thanks, Jeff, but I can't -- I'm not going to take you.

It's extremely unfair, and that's a mild word, to the president.


TAPPER: I spoke with four Republican senators today to see what they thought about what the president said in this interview.

One spoke to me on the record. The other three spoke to me on background because they didn't want their concerns to devolve into a food fight with President Trump.

Republican senator number one told me -- quote -- "I'm very disturbed that the president would throw Jeff Sessions under the bus. I think Sessions did the right thing ethically and the right thing legally. To undermine the attorney general is very bad form for the president."

That senator continued: "One gets the impression that the president doesn't understand or he willfully disregards the fact that the attorney general and law enforcement in general, they are not his personal lawyers to defend and protect him. He has his own personal lawyers, and, of course, the White House has the White House Counsel's Office. The attorney general is America's top law enforcement official. It's unclear if he understands that. And that's pretty disturbing."

Again, that was a Republican senator.

A second Republican senator told me -- quote -- "I know Jeff Sessions to be a person of real integrity, which is why he recused himself. I don't think it's good for any president of the United States to undermine the federal judiciary."

A third Republican senator told me -- quote -- "If you're Jeff Sessions, it's got to be tough to come to work the next day."

But Attorney General Sessions did come to work today. He said this:


JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: I have the honor of serving as attorney general. It's something that goes beyond any thought I would have ever had for myself. We love this job. We love this department, and I plan to continue to do so as long as that is appropriate.


TAPPER: President Trump went on in the interview to attack former FBI Director James Comey, accusing him of lying. And he went on to impugn the reputations of the acting FBI director, Andrew McCabe, as well as the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein.


And, of course, he suggested that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, appointed by Rosenstein, had many conflicts of interest.

But amidst all of this, perhaps the most troubling part of the interview was that the president would not rule out firing special counselor Mueller if Mueller looked into his and his family's finances.


QUESTION: Mueller was looking at your finances, your family's finances unrelated to Russia. Is that a red line?

QUESTION: Well, that be a breach of what his actual charge is?

TRUMP: I would say yes. I would say yes.


TAPPER: "The New York Times" reporters followed up, one asking, would you fire Mueller if he went outside of certain parameters of what his charge is, another asking, what would you do?

The president saying: "I can't answer that question, because I don't think it's going to happen."

The third Republican senator told me he was stunned by this remark -- quote -- "Maybe I shouldn't be that the point,' he said, "but this one seemed to go a little further. Any thought of firing the special counsel is chilling. It's chilling. That's all you can say. And that would certainly cause Congress to hire its own somehow. I can't imagine it happening, but many of us couldn't have imagined he'd fire Comey, either knowing it would lead to Mueller or something like that."

Republican senators one and two expressed concerns about the appointment of a special counsel, which they view as often leading to fishing expeditions, but, regardless, they could not believe the president was saying that he possibly would fire Mueller if he looked into Trump's finances, if he crossed that red line.

Quote: "That's just making the bad situation he's in worse," said senator one. "Not smart," said Republican senator two. "You have got a special

counsel. Let the individual do his work. Don't comment, don't interfere, just let the special counsel do his job."

Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, is the only senator who would go on the record. She is not one of the other three senators I referred to.

She said -- quote -- "It would be catastrophic if the president were to fire the special counsel."

Mr. President, these are Republican senators, some of whom are considered strong supporters of yours, all of whom want you to succeed. And their message to you on this issue is, cut it out.

Just moments ago, President Trump was asked about his relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and here's how that played out.


TRUMP: Great job.

QUESTION: Mr. President, does Jeff Sessions still have your full support?

TRUMP: Thank you, everybody.


TAPPER: Not exactly a ringing endorsement, no comment, in fact, from the president as he wrapped up an announcement related to his make America great initiatives this week.

Let's go to CNN's Sara Murray, who is at the White House.

And, Sara, a similar question was asked at today's briefing, and that was at least acknowledged.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Jake, and it's a natural question.

After he said all of these negative things about his own attorney general, does he want his attorney general to resign? Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, essentially, well, Jeff Sessions is still here, isn't he? Here's what she said at the briefing today.


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: As the president said yesterday, he was disappointed in the Attorney General Session's decision to recuse himself, but clearly he has confidence in him or he would not be the attorney general.


MURRAY: Now, that may be the public reaction we're getting from the White House, but, privately, sources are telling my colleague Jeff Zeleny that this has had really a chilling effect on staffers in the West Wing.

There was no one who was more loyal to President Trump along the way than Jeff Sessions. He was the first senator to come out and endorse President Trump. And it was very lonely road early on. And so they're looking at this and saying, if he's not even loyal to Jeff Sessions, who will he be loyal to?

Now, you talked to a number of senators, Jake, but, of course, our colleagues on the Hill caught up with a number of them too. And they had their own messages for President Trump. Here's a sampling of what they had to say.


SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), CALIFORNIA: We proceed, and we will do our due diligence. And we have got two committees now in the Senate. We have one committee in the House. You have a special counsel. So a lot of investigation is going to take place, regardless.

SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: The independence of our judicial officials and Justice Department officials is highly critical to the functioning of our democracy.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: The president makes a lot of statements off the cuff that sometimes come back to haunt him, and that's one of them.


MURRAY: So that is the message from the Hill: Despite those protests, Mr. President, the investigations are going to carry on, not only on Capitol Hill, but also at the Justice Department -- Jake.

TAPPER: Sara Murray at the White House for us, thank you so much.

So, what does a member of the Senate committee investigating possible Trump campaign ties to Russia think about the president's red line for the special counsel? We will ask him next.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: We're back with our politics lead now.

President Trump slamming his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for recusing himself from the Russia probe and warning special counsel Robert Mueller not to go too far in investigating his or his family's finances.

Joining me now is Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said today

that President Trump has confidence in the attorney general; otherwise, he wouldn't be there.

In your view, do you think President Trump was trying to send a message that Sessions should step down, should quit?

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, I thought it was really striking that, in interview with "The New York Times," a media outlet that the president has often criticized, that he chose to do two things that struck me as inappropriate, one, to brush back special counsel Bob Mueller by saying, he better not go too far in looking into my finances, and the other suggesting that he wished he hadn't hired the attorney general and he wouldn't have if he'd known he would recuse himself.

In both cases, Jake, I think the president is confusing what the role is of the Department of Justice. The officials who lead the Department of Justice take an oath to uphold the Constitution, not a loyalty oath to the president.

And I think, if the president mistakenly thinks the Department of Justice is merely a political extension of the White House, then he ought to have a good look at the Constitution and the importance of the independence of the investigatory and prosecutorial functions of the FBI, the DOJ, and, in this case, special counsel Bob Mueller.

[16:15:15] TAPPER: Do you interpret what President Trump said today about Sessions -- we'll get to Mueller in a second -- do you think he was trying to suggest to him that he quit?

COONS: If I were in Jeff Sessions' shoes, if I were attorney general, I think this was a suggestion I should quit. It is strikingly a disloyal from someone who should be grateful that Senator Sessions was literally the first senator, now Attorney General Sessions, was the first senator and in some ways the longest and most dogged defender of Donald Trump in the course of his campaign. So, I think he both misunderstands why the attorney general recused himself, and shows a striking lack of loyalty to one of his strongest and earlier supporters.

TAPPER: There was an interesting moment in the interview where the president said it wasn't until Richard Nixon that the FBI began reporting to the Justice Department out of courtesy.

He said, quote, the FBI person really reports directly to the president of the United States, which is interesting. You know, which is interesting, and I think we're going to have a great new FBI director, unquote.

Your committee just unanimously approved Christopher Wray to be the next FBI director. It now goes to the Senate floor. Do you think President Trump is trying to send a message to him, you work for me, pal?

COONS: Well, President Trump sends all sorts of messages. Some of them focused, some of them unfocussed. Some of them in long form interviews, some in Twitter rants. Frankly, what matters here is what Christopher Wray understands about his job. And he comported himself well in front of the Judiciary Committee, the reason he got a unanimous vote that was he persuaded the members of the committee that he understands his obligations to the Constitution, not loyalty to the president.

TAPPER: The White House is saying that President Trump was making it clear that special counsel Robert Mueller should not, quote, move outside of the scope of the investigation. In your view, do you think President Trump was threatening special counselor Mueller in any way? If you peek too much into my family's finances, I'm going to fire you?

COONS: Well, the language of the interview certainly was implicitly threatening, and suggested that Bob Mueller should stick solely to things directly related to Russia. That's not the scope of the special counsel. He's looking into obstruction of justice and looking into whether or not there was inappropriate collusion between Russian officials and the Trump campaign, but as he investigates, as this goes along, I would expect him to follow the facts where they lead and to reach whatever legal conclusions are appropriate.

One of the things that makes Bob Mueller strong as a special counsel is that he's clearly got bipartisan support here in Congress, he is well-respected as a career federal law enforcement officer, and I suspect he's not intimidated at all by the statements by the president in the "New York Times" interview.

TAPPER: Susan Collins, senator from Maine, Republican, told me that if the president fires Mueller, it will be, quote, catastrophic. Another Republican senator told me that if he fires Mueller, he suggested that Congress would seek a way to continue the investigation beyond just the committees.

What do you think would happen if President Trump fired special counsel Mueller? What do you think the Senate would do?

COONS: I think there would be very widespread rejection of that action as being a fundamental threat to the rule of law in our country. And I think strong action would be taken on a bipartisan basis by the Senate and the House. I think the president really underestimates the extent to which there is deep bipartisan concern about this ongoing Russia matter, and real enthusiasm on both sides to see it resolved, to get to the bottom of it, and to understand whether there's a there there, and there needs to be some prosecutions and some further consequences, or whether there's nothing there, and it's been fully investigated and it should be something we can move passed.

There's a real hunger on the part of many members of both parties to have this resolved appropriately. And if the president steps in and cuts it off by firing Bob Mueller, I think he will pay a very heavy price here in Congress.

TAPPER: Senator Chris Coons, Democrat from the small wonder state of Delaware, thanks so much, sir. Good to see you.

COONS: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: A diagnosis of brain cancer is not stopping Senator John McCain from paying attention to what's going on on Capitol Hill. So, what are McCain's options for fighting this disease? Stick around.


[16:23:26] TAPPER: We're back with the health lead today. We just learned that President Trump has called Senator John McCain, who is, of course, fighting brain cancer back home in Arizona.

Today, the senator is showing his wit and his dedication to work in Washington. He issued a statement about the Syrian war and he also tweeted this, quote: I greatly appreciate the outpouring of support. Unfortunately for my sparring partners in Congress, I'll be back soon. So standby.

Privately, the Arizona senator and his family are trying to decide how to treat his latest diagnosis, glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor discovered during a craniotomy above his left eye last week.

Let's bring in CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who spoke exclusively with McCain's physicians with the senator's permission, of course.

And, Sanjay, McCain has a long history with skin cancer. How might that factor in to what treatment he might consider?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it's a great question, and two points to make about that. First of all, sometimes the treatment for other cancers, such as if you got radiation for another cancer, can increase your chances of developing something like glioblastoma. I looked into that, and I reviewed his medical records back in 2008, it doesn't sound like that was the case. He didn't receive radiation at that time. So, that probably didn't increase his chances of glioblastoma.

So, really, it shouldn't affect what treatment options are available to him. Typically, it's chemotherapy and radiation, sort of specified to that part of the brain, in combination. But there are other treatments. There's about 150 clinical trials, ongoing right now, Jake, looking at all sorts of different things from vaccines to viral vectors to even the polio virus as a potential sort of treatment for glioblastoma.

[16:25:02] So, there may be various options.

TAPPER: We shouldn't sugar coat, this is going to be a tough battle for the senator. You obviously mentioned chemotherapy and radiation as potential options for McCain. Is one more severe than the other? Is one preferable?

GUPTA: You know, in this case, they are typically given in concert. You know, either just one right after the other, even at the same time, what I would say is that chemotherapy, you know, people tolerate it differently, but to acutely or in the short term, that can be harder for people to tolerate. The radiation in the longer term can be harder to tolerate because it tends to have a sort of more delayed affect on brain function overall.

So, they both, they both are hard to take I think the point you're making. And despite that, you know, prognosis across the board, with everybody, median survival is around 14 to 14 1/2 months. There's about 5 to 10 percent of people who will live five yeas or more.

And the fact that he has done so well with the previous cancer does sort of increase his chances. But again, we shouldn't sugar coat it as you point out, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, thank you so much.

So, is the special counsel investigating possible Trump campaign ties to Russia likely to look into the Trump family finances? What we know about the investigation, next.