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Trump Slams Sessions; Senate Takes Up Obamacare Repeal and Delay; Trump Reinstates Military Transgender Ban. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired July 26, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Top here at the United States Senate. Republicans have moved to their Obamacare repeal and replace debate. A couple of key votes coming up today, including one we expect in just a very few minutes. We'll take you live to the Senate when they get around to that debate as Republicans try to sort out their path. Can they reach consensus on repealing and replacing Obamacare.

Another big story in Washington today, White House aides tried to calm a brewing war between the president and the attorney general, but will the boss go along?

And the Trump road show visits blue collar Ohio. It's a campaign revival, plus this.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Sometimes they say he doesn't act presidential. And I say, hey, look, great schools, smart guy. It's so easy to act presidential. With the exception of the late, great, Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office.


KING: He said that. He really did.

With us to share their reporting and their insights, Abby Phillip of "The Washington Post," Jackie Calmes of "The Los Angeles Times," Jackie Kucinich of "The Daily Beast," and CNN's Dana Bash.

Cabinet members, the old saying goes, serve at the pleasure of the president, except for Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He now serves at the displeasure of the president.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want the attorney general to be much tougher on the leaks from intelligence agencies, which are leaking like rarely have they ever leaked before, at a very important level. These are intelligence agencies. We cannot have that happen.

I told you before, I'm very disappointed with the attorney general. But we will see what happens. Time will tell. Time will tell. (END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Time will tell, the president said there. That was yesterday.

Earlier today, detente appeared to be in the works. Word leaked from the Justice Department that Sessions plans a crackdown on leaks and White House aides were complementary. But the president does not appear ready to make peace. In yet another Twitter attack just an hour or so ago, the president asked, quote, why didn't A.G. Session replace acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, a Comey friend. Trump went on to say he wanted him replaced because McCabe's wife received political campaign support, a campaign she ran and received support, from allies of Hillary Clinton. McCabe, more importantly you might recall, has promised Congress to make sure Special Counsel Robert Mueller has all the resources he needs to conduct his Russia election meddling investigation.

Now, the president makes no secret he blames Sessions for the fact the Mueller investigation exists. He told "The Wall Street Journal" yesterday, quote, "if Jeff Sessions didn't recuse himself, we wouldn't even be talking about this subject."

So it did appear this morning perhaps they were trying to find a face saving way out here. Jeff Sessions says I'm going to get tougher on leaks. The president backs off. The president tweets again after all this plays out this morning, clearly still mad at the attorney general. What's the end game here?

ABBY PHILLIP, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Look, the best thing that Jeff Sessions can do right now for President Trump is to not resign. I think if Trump gets his way here, we know that he wants Sessions gone. We know that he's not willing to do it himself, otherwise he would have done it. He has the power to do that.

But if he does do that, it is very, very clear that that would touch off a series of really explosive events on The Hill. Republicans are signaling very strongly that they would push back hard on Trump's move to both get rid of Sessions and what would -- what would be taken very clearly as a signal that what he wants to do is install someone who can act on the Russia probe.

This is a point at which people who are close to Trump know that there's really no way to kind of get him off of this issue. The best thing that Sessions can do is stay on, try to signal to Trump very strongly that he is enacting the agenda, that he's dealing with leaks. But there are a lot of people both within the administration and out of it who understand that Trump firing Sessions, no matter how angry he is, would be a really catastrophic mistake for this administration.

KING: To that point, nobody can get the president off this. Is there nobody who can go to the president and say, sir, you know, agree or disagree with the reasons you're mad at Jeff Sessions, you're hurting yourself. You're undermining your own legal standing. You are raising suspicion that you want to get rid of the attorney general and now you're mad at the acting FBI director, you're attacking the special counsel, you keep saying people aren't protecting me. You're just raising suspicions that you have something to hide. Stop this, sir.

JACKIE KUCINICH, "THE DAILY BEAST": If he is, they're not -- he's not -- if they are, he's not listening, because you do have political allies of Jeff Sessions speaking out telling the president, listen, like, this is a guy you need, particularly on the immigration issue. Yesterday Sessions announced that sanctuary cities would -- might not get the funding that they used to get. So he's already -- Sessions is enacting parts of Trump's promises and agenda. Trump doesn't seem to care.

So -- and the backlash from that community, which was very supportive of this president, would be harsh and it would be loud.

[12:05:03] DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. And the answer to your question, my understanding is, the question of isn't there anybody around him who can say this is going to hurt you, is that over the past, you know, month or two -- well, however long ago it was, that Sessions recused himself, the president has gotten more and more worked up, more and more angry about it and about the -- you know, what the repercussions of that are and that the president has sent people to try to get Sessions to quit. Try to send signals to him. And it didn't happen, which is why the president took it in his own hands, which he has done before. First with "The New York Times" interview last week. Then, of course, with these series of tweets and the statements like we saw yesterday to try to, you know, force him to quit.

And I think that the fact that he's not quitting, and he's being encouraged to over the past, what, 24, 48 hours, you've seen this ground swell of support to try to signal to Sessions, conservatives have your back, don't go anywhere, focus on immigration and other issues is really fascinating push back from Republicans.

KING: Right. And the domino effect of that among other grown-ups in the cabinet, about if you're treating Jeff Sessions this way, what does it say about your management style, what does it say about us. He was (INAUDIBLE). This's another domino effect of all this.

But I want to keep this conversation focused mainly on, this is the attorney general who has a unique place because of the investigation.

JACKIE CALMES, "THE LOS ANGELES TIMES": Right. Right. And it wasn't just a month ago that Sessions recused himself, it was five months ago. It was more than two months ago that he offered to resign reportedly and Trump turned him down. He could have done it then. It's, why now? Why -- we can only presume it's because the president feels so up against the ropes somehow about the investigation and now --

KING: And he knows a lot more about the investigation than we do. That's what (INAUDIBLE) --

CALMES: Exactly. Absolutely.

KING: From watching the past administration and when these things bubble up. CALMES: Right.

KING: The president knows a lot more about what's happening than we do.

CALMES: Right. And how his son-in-law and closest confidant has already undergone two days of questioning by the House and Senate Intelligence Committee and their staffs and so he knows even more. I'm sure they've talked. But it's just -- it makes everything he wants Jeff Sessions to do, which by all indications Jeff Sessions already was as much as any cabinet member carrying out Trump's agenda, but it makes everything he does now look like it's so political because it's --he's trying to save his job.

KING: And Abby mentioned this at the start, one of the interesting things here -- and you mentioned part of this, you see a break from the president on this. The Trump base has been very loyal. You see part of the social conservative base saying, if we have to choose between Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, we trust Jeff Sessions more because we've (INAUDIBLE) a while. We'll get to that in second.

On Capitol Hill today, a condemnation from Republicans saying, Mr. President, you don't understand. A, you're hurting yourself. B, we like and trust Jeff Sessions. And listen to part of this here, including Lindsay Graham, who's turning around the words of the president. One of the tweets from the president was that Jeff Sessions was very weak.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The weakness is that the president is trying to not use his power, he's trying to get Sessions to quit, and I hope Sessions doesn't quit. And if the president wants to fire him, fire him.

SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), ALABAMA: We don't have to sit around and say we like what's going on, and we like somebody that's obviously being brutalized and -- when he shouldn't be and he doesn't deserve it.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), MAJORITY WHIP: And I think it would be incredibly disruptive and make it more difficult for the president to accomplish his agenda.


KING: The number two Senate Republican, disruptive, more difficult to accomplish your agenda. They're having a hard enough time doing anything anyway. And, number two -- and then Senator Shelby, of course, is from Jeff Sessions' home state of Alabama. Brutalized? Brutalized. That's a Republican -- a senior Republican senator saying the Republican president is brutalizing the top law enforcement officer of the United States.

CALMES: You know what's so striking about this is just the irony of this drawn out humiliation of a former United States senator, his first and for the longest time only senator who had endorsed him during the campaign. He's doing this. And this is the man who became famous over 14 seasons for saying decisively, you're fired.

KING: Right.

CALMES: And, I mean, how do you explain that?

BASH: Because that's Hollywood, that's not reality.

CALMES: And there -- and that's not a small matter, because that was the persona that a lot of people were voting for.

PHILLIP: They liked it. Yes. It's been just really striking to see how the revisionist history of Trump's relationship with Sessions --


KING: Right.

PHILLIP: You know, telling "The Wall Street Journal" that it didn't matter that Sessions endorsed him. That Sessions only endorsed him because he felt it was inevitable. That's not at all true.

KUCINICH: Or that it was because of the crowds.

PHILLIP: Or that --

KING: Right. Right.

PHILLIP: Or that it was because of the crowds. That is not at all true. Sessions stuck his neck out and lent ideological legitimacy to Trump and his message.

KING: Right.

PHILLIP: I talked to conservatives this week who said, Jeff Sessions has been strong on immigration and strong on border security for longer than Donald Trump has. People in the conservative grass roots understand that. They don't necessarily want to stick it to Donald Trump yet, but they are standing up for Jeff Sessions, and that's important.

KING: Right. To that point let me -- let's bring in Erik Erikson, who was not a Trump fan at the beginning but agrees with much of the Trump agenda, has a conservative web site called "The Resurgent" longtime ally of Jeff Sessions, says, all the Trump supporter who have suddenly turned on Sessions because their cult leader has turned on Sessions will soon find themselves cheering on the very amnesty they have long opposed. Sessions is the last major line of defense against amnesty in this administration.

[12:10:13] You have these social conservatives essentially making clear, they don't trust Trump. They don't' trust Trump to keep these promises. They think he made them to get through the Republican primaries. And they think if Jeff Sessions isn't there, that Donald Trump will open his --

BASH: Exactly. And that's what you were -- I think you were trying to get to, Abby, that Sessions and the legitimacy that he handed to Donald Trump at a critical part of the Republican primary season, legitimacy with his own -- Sessions own conservative base to say, come on, guys, he's fine, he's one of ours. You cannot underestimate it.

But I also think -- the sound bite you played from John Cornyn, who is the number two Senate Republican, talking about bring disruptive. The question has been over and over again, when are Republicans on Capitol Hill going to say, enough, stop, enough? Maybe this is the point where it's going to happen. Maybe this is the point where they are -- they are genuinely going to, you know, go down to the White House and say, you cannot do this. I don't care if your back is up against the wall on the investigation. You cannot do this.

PHILLIP: It will grind to a screeching halt if Trump fires Jeff Sessions.

BASH: Yes. Right.

PHILLIP: It will grind to a screeching halt. Both Republicans and Democrats.

KING: Yes, there are some -- there are some who would say, how would we notice.

PHILLIP: Yes. Fair enough. But, I mean, to say that that would create the specter of crisis in this town I think is an understatement.

KING: I think you do -- you do see that. We'll continue this conversation throughout the show.

Also, some good news for those of you watching. Congressman Steve Scalise has been discharge from the hospital. This according to a statement from MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Scalise had been for six weeks battling life-threatening injuries after that shooting, of course, on the Republican congressman during a baseball practice. The hospital says Scalise now starts some intensive rehab. We wish the congressman, the House Republican whip, the best as that plays out.

When we come back, we're waiting for a big vote in the United States Senate on health care reform.

We'll also continue the conversation about the president sparring with his attorney general.


[12:16:26] KING: Welcome back.

Live pictures. That's Democrat Ron Widen on the floor of the United States Senate. They are debating Senate Republican plans to repeal and replace Obamacare. The Democrats, of course, are voting no on just about everything. But we expected a big vote this hour. But we're now told that is likely to be delayed.

Let's get straight up to CNN's Phil Mattingly. He's on -- live on Capitol Hill with the unenviable tasks of sorting out this confusing process in the Senate.

Where are we, Phil?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, asking a lot of legislative councils a lot of budget questions over the last couple days.

Look, what we are waiting for is the repeal only vote. Essentially the 2015 repeal bill. Something that had been brought up as a fall back possibility by Majority Leader McConnell last week and was summarily discarded after they very clearly didn't have the support for it.

Now, that has been delayed until at least 3:30. We're trying to figure out why right now. But I think it's important to note, and, John, you know this very well, as you go through this process, it's very complicated. People are trying to file amendments, seeing what amendments would be second degree amendments and other amendments, trying to figure out timelines as we move through this process, this 20 hours of debate that they are currently allowed to have on health care. And so things like this will happen with this move in fits and starts.

But I think the big question right now, the big overarching question, that repeal only vote is expected to fail and then what happens next? We have a series of amendments that people want to put up. Will any of them be able to get 50 votes to move forward? Right now it looks like the answer is no and so what does Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell going to end with that can get him 50 votes and actually move this forward?

Something we've seen a lot of over the last 24 hours is this idea that we're going to ratchet back to kind of a pared back plan that we can get everybody on to and just tell everybody we've going to figure it out in conference with the House. That is a very, very dangerous game to play, but essentially almost what we saw yesterday with the procedural vote, just move it forward. Just keep moving it forward. Keep giving momentum to it. And at some point we'll get to the point where we can actually start making the hard decisions.

Is that where we're going to end up? Right now that looks like the likeliest scenario. But I think it's important to note, over the course of the next 36 hours, we are going to see dozens upon dozens of amendment votes, lots of back room negotiations trying to figure out a path forward. And I think a lot of pressure as well, trying to get this to the next stage. Will they get there? Right now it's still an open question, John.

KING: Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill. We'll come back as there's more information on now the delay of what we thought would be a big vote this hour.

Phil, thanks very much.

Another big policy announcement, a surprise announcement from President Trump today on a question his defense secretary had recently said it would take months more to properly study. The president says he is restoring the ban on transgender individuals serving in the United States military. The announcement came in a series of morning tweets.

After consultation with my generals and military experts, the president said, please be advised the United States government will not accept or allow transgender individuals to serve in any capacity in the U.S. military. Our military must be focused on decisive an overwhelming victory, the president said, and cannot be burdened with the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail. Thank you.

Those tweets from the president this morning.

Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon now to explain.

Barbara, I thought the defense secretary wanted six more months to think this through?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Indeed he did. There was a memo from him, Defense Secretary James Mattis, just a few days ago about having this delay and spending another six months thinking through how all of this might work.

Now, already there is some bipartisan criticism from Capitol Hill about this because just last week the House, on a bipartisan basis, defeated an amendment that would have banned the military for paying for gender reassignment surgery.

[12:19:55] And Senator John McCain, of course, Republican chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, this morning issuing a statement about his concern on the very point you made, John. The Pentagon was supposed to spend some time, some months very rationally thinking all of this through, looking at what would be involved. Would there really be disruption? Would there really be large medical costs? The estimate from the Rand Corporation is there could be somewhere between 1,300 to maybe 6,000 people who are transgendered persons who serve or want to serve in the U.S. military.

One of the key -- perhaps the key unanswered question that is so concerning to so many that President Trump put on the table with this tweet is that he said people will not be allowed to serve in any capacity. And that -- unless there's some pretty quick clarification -- would open the door to commanders forcibly removing people from military service who are already serving honorably. Whether they get an honorable discharge or not, forcing them out of the military if they are a transgendered person because the president says will not be allowed to serve.

So two questions, should they -- people who are recruited into the military, could transgendered people be recruited in or people who are already serving, will this country really force them out of uniform, out of military service.


KING: Barbara Starr live at the Pentagon. Excellent questions. I suspect this also might end up in the courts.

Let's bring the conversations into the room.

The president's the commander in chief. The president has the right to set policy. Everything about this president is different. This is certainly different. Your own defense secretary, a general himself, a retired general, just said, as Barbara said, I need six months to think about this.

For those of you who haven't followed this, the Obama administration, a year ago, just over a year ago, said it would allow transgender individuals to serve in the military. But at that time, it said, let's take a year to study how to make this work. And so this -- the year is up. And James Mattis, the defense secretary, said I need six more months. I just go here. My people are just getting here. Give us six more months.

The president tweets this out this morning. Normally when a big policy announcement like this -- the president can make it. He can make that decision. The president's going to go first. But then the Pentagon is ready with a briefing -- a policy paper, ready with a briefing, ready to answer some of those questions Barbara Starr just went through. Instead, the president tweets and the Pentagon goes, oh.

PHILLIP: Yes, right, that's exactly the issue here is that we are not really sure how this process played out, which is not uncommon with this White House, where decisions are made in the West Wing and they don't necessarily permeate through the rest of government.

But on an issue as big as this, we have, you know, between 11,000 and 15,000 transgender troops currently serving. The president's tweet is very broad, but the details are not there underlying it. And that's why you're seeing even Republicans on The Hill essentially saying, we need to know more. This is not the sort of thing that you just throw out there on Twitter and not have any thought --

KUCINICH: John McCain said that.

KING: Right.

PHILIP: Not have any follow-up there.

KING: Yes. Well, both process and policy. John McCain, to your point, the president's tweet this morning regarding transgender Americans in the military is yet another example of why major policy announcements should not be made via Twitter. That's on the process. He also goes on to talk about the substance.

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a retiring Republican House member from Florida, no American, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity, should be prohibited from the honor and privilege of serving our nation.

BASH: And she also has a transgender child.

KING: Right. BASH: I think -- you said it, of course, exactly right, that the issue is process and surprising everyone and not really knowing what the policy is. But also just kind of taking a step back, how far the culture of this country has come. I mean in 2010, John McCain voted against repealing don't ask, don't tell.

KING: Right.

BASH: Now, seven years later, in addition to him being upset about the process, he explicitly says that people who want to be in the military should be allowed to regardless of their gender identity.

KUCINICH: That's right.

BASH: I mean it is kind of amazing if you take a step back, you know, that there is bipartisan outrage, not just about surprising everybody, but about the fact that a lot of Republicans say that they should be able to serve.

KING: And to that point then, why Donald Trump -- why President Donald Trump on this -- remember, Donald Trump -- some social conservatives got mad when he said during the campaign, Caitlyn Jenner can use any bathroom she wants in the Trump Tower. He is not perceived as a cultural warrior. Why?

CALMES: Well, he also said to them -- he said in the campaign, and they didn't like it, I -- of LGBT people, I will fight for you. And now he doesn't want them fighting for him or any other American apparently. It's just the only way to see this is as a play to his base at a time when he's feeling so beleaguered, to use a word he likes to use.

KUCINICH: You know, and let's not forget who his vice president is. Vice President Pence is very conservative, tried to implement some policies in Indiana that he ended up getting in trouble for, having to do with restricting the rights of LGBT individuals. So this strain is not absent from this White House in its highest levels.

KING: Right.


PHILLIP: And we know that they got some advice from The Hill, from people like Mark Meadows, who are socially conservative. So they did sort of reach out to that branch of the Republican Party for guidance on how to move forward with this. And notably on the other side of that, there are people within the White House and the administration, Ivanka Trump, Rex Tillerson, who have been very vocal about LGBT rights and were clearly not listened to on this matter.

[12:25:20] KING: And the president has sparked another policy conversation, as you note. This is from the former vice president, Joe Biden. Every patriotic American who's qualified to serve in our military should be able to serve, full stop.

Joni Ernst, Republican senator from Iowa, herself a combat veteran, just said this, Americans who are qualified and who can meet the standards to serve in the military should be afforded that opportunity.

Another veteran, this is a Democrat in the United States Congress, Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, saying, when my Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq, I didn't care if the Americans troops risking their lives to help save me were gay, straight, transgender or anything else. All that matters was they didn't leave me behind.

BASH: I think Jackie hit the nail right on the head, and that is -- and I'm, you know, not to be too completely cynical, but I think we've been around long enough to see what happens when a politician's back is up against the wall and they see their support slipping and -- to a danger zone, particularly among their base. And as much as, you know, as I just said about Republicans --

KING: And particularly in Donald Trump's case, that that's all he has.

BASH: Right. That's all he has. Exactly. Exactly. You know, Republicans, whether it's Cory Gardner of Colorado, a purple state, or, you know, John McCain, who tends to be nowadays more moderate on those issues, there is the strain in the conservative base who may not be happy about the way their hero, Jeff Sessions, is being treated and sees -- and sees that, well, he's got us on this particular issue.


KING: Is -- does he view the world as that simple and that transactional that you -- this -- I lost this lever, so I'm going to go over here and pull this lever?

CALMES: Well, and yesterday, last night, he was in Ohio with a campaign rally like speech. The day before that he gave a campaign like speech to an audience in -- and appropriately a lot of people thought of Boy Scouts. And, you know, it's like the permanent campaign for him. Unlike any other president incumbent we've ever seen, he's formed a campaign committee this early in his presidency. But if this is just -- you know, if you -- if whenever he's in trouble, you can count on him throwing something like this into the mix to play to the base.

KING: Well, perhaps politics was the motivation, but he's raised a very significant policy issue too for his Pentagon. And we can hear it. It's going to reverberate all -- in Washington and the country. We'll keep on top of that.

When we come back, Jackie just mentioned, the president on the road, Youngstown, Ohio. Campaign redux? Some promises repeated? We'll give you the score when we get back.