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President Trump Finally Releases Statement Following McCain's Death; Senate Remembers John McCain; White House Lowers Flag for McCain After Facing Public Pressure. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 27, 2018 - 16:00   ET


JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto.

We begin with the national lead.

Any moment, the Senate will convene for the first time since the passing of Senator John McCain, honoring the legacy of the man who held his Senate seat for more than three decades.


Just moments ago, the White House lowered the flag above the White House to half-staff again. The administration had been criticized for raising the flag its regular position late last night far more quickly than usual for someone of Senator's McCain standing.

CNN's Phil Mattingly is on Capitol Hill for us.

Phil, tell us what the mood is there. He had so many friends on both sides of the aisle.


A gut punch was what one senator said when I asked how people were feeling, basically a reflection that, even though everybody knew this was coming, the scale of the loss, not just to individual senators, but the entire institution, is so very real.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): The U.S. Senate preparing to say goodbye to one of their own.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I have admired him, like I said, my -- my entire life. And it's -- it's tough to imagine the Senate without him. It's tough to imagine politics without John McCain. But we need to go on.

MATTINGLY: Senator John McCain, a tribute to his three decades in the Senate, will lie in state in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, an honor bestowed on just 30 people before him.

Funeral preparations are under way, with a five-day journey from McCain's home state of Arizona through Washington and a final resting place at the U.S. Naval Academy. JOSEPH BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Courage and

loyalty, I can think of no better description of the man we're honoring tonight, my friend John McCain.

MATTINGLY: Former Vice President and longtime Senate colleague Joe Biden to eulogize McCain at a service Thursday in Arizona. Biden lost his son Beau to the same cancer that claimed McCain's life.

In Washington, a service at the Washington National Cathedral, where the mavericks senator, who meticulously planned his own funeral, asked the men who bested him in his two quests for the presidency to speak for him, former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and a final private burial next to his Navy classmate and best friend in Annapolis on Sunday.

For members of the U.S. Senate, a chance to honor their friend.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: You don't meet many great men as you go through life. John McCain was one of them.

MATTINGLY: The Democratic leader introducing a resolution to rename the Russell Senate Office Building for McCain.

SCHUMER: I want generations in the Senate and in the world to remember him.

MATTINGLY: And remembering McCain not just as a colleague, but a mentor.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I think this is a part of John McCain that a lot of people don't know about, is that he took younger senators under his wing.

MATTINGLY: One who pushed senators in a way that only McCain could.

FLAKE: I was getting beat up at home by the press and by local elected officials for challenging spending. And John McCain made his way back to me on the plane. And I thought, oh, no, he's going to go after me too. And he put his finger in my chest and just said, "Don't back down."

He said, "You're in the right, and they will come around." And it was all that I needed.

MATTINGLY: And with that distinct sense of humor.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I have had so many people say such nice things about me recently, that I think some of you must have me confused with someone else.


MCCAIN: I appreciate it, though, every word, even if much of it isn't deserved.

(END VIDEOTAPE) MATTINGLY: And, Jim, if you want a recognition of how much John McCain means to the institution, take a look on the Senate floor in just a few minutes.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will speak. I'm told it will be deeply personal remarks. It's worth noting, even though they're in the same party, their battles on legislative issues were legendary. And yet and still the respect from McConnell and members of both parties, it is distinct and very real, Jim.

Thanks so much, Phil.

Let's go right to Senator McConnell. He has just begun speaking on the Senate floor.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: ... from Arizona, John McCain.

John took full advantage of the months since his diagnosis. His hard work continued, but happy reminiscing, fond farewells, final reflections and time with family actually came to the fore.

I was privileged to spend a small share of that time with John. We sat on his back porch in Sedona under the desert sky replaying old time.

John did things his way these last months. For his colleagues here, the time confirmed a sad, but obvious truth. The Senate won't be the same without John McCain.

I think it's fair to say the passion that John brought to his work was unsurpassed in this body. In more than 30 years as a senator, he never failed to marshal a razor-sharp wit, a big heart, and, of course, a fiery spirit.


When John saw an issue the same way you did, you knew you had just found your most stalwart ally. You would thank your lucky stars, because when you found yourself on the other side of that table, as I think all of us learned, you were in for a different kind of unforgettable experience.

Either way, serving alongside John was never a dull affair. I found myself on both sides of that table over the years. John and I stood shoulder to shoulder on some of the most important issues to each of us, and we also disagreed entirely on a few subjects that helped define each of our careers.

John treated every day, every issue with the intensity and seriousness that the legislative process deserves. He would fight like mad to bring the country closer to his vision of the common good.

But when the day's disputes were over, that very same man was one of our most powerful reminders that so much more unites us than divides us, that we should be able to differ completely on policy and stay united in love of our country.

And John himself once put it, we have nothing to fear from each other. We are arguing over the means to better secure our freedom and support the general welfare. But it should remain an argument among friends who share an unshakable belief in our great cause and the goodness of each other.

John and I sure had those fights. And we sure had that friendship. I'm just glad we never found ourselves in opposite dugouts.

Now, you see, John and I spent years as neighbors in the Russell Building. Often, when softball season rolled around, our offices would take the field as one united McTeam, we called it.

Now, as a seriously wounded war hero and a childhood polio survivor, I would have to say John and I didn't exactly have the makings of an elite double play duo. I took the mound once or twice, but I admit we mostly offered moral support.

Moral support,really, that's what John McCain gave this body and this country for so long. His memory will continue to give it, because while John proudly served with us as the senator for Arizona, he was America's hero all along.

Just this month, Congress finalized a major bill for our all-volunteer armed forces that we named after John. This might seem like a small detail, but, really, it was a fitting capstone for a career so thoroughly defined by service in and then service for the rights of those who wear our nation's uniform.

Generations of McCains have served with distinction in our great Navy. As John described his Scottish heritage in one memoir, the McCain's were bred to fight. And fight, they have.

One by one, McCains have entered the academy's gates in Annapolis. One by one, they marched past a centuries-old battle bearing the phrase, don't give up the ship.

But while honorable service is in his DNA, John's story was never simple. At Annapolis, as he would come to explain with relish, his major distinctions were mostly the weakness of his grades and the length of his disciplinary record.

The first miracle in John's military career was the fact that he somehow made it through school. But he prevailed, and bigger tests soon came.

He stared death in the face aboard the USS Forrestal, and again when he was shot down and dragged and battered and broken into the hands of our nation's enemies, five-and-a-half hellish years in captivity, merciless beatings for the uniform he had worn and the values he would not renounce.

That stubborn, rebellious streak went from a stumbling block to a saving grace. Stubborn and virtue sustained John.

He declined early release, in solidarity with his brothers. He never gave up the ship. We all know this story, but while John didn't shy from sharing his experiences, he insisted he was no hero and no saint.


He measured his life in simpler terms. When asked about his diagnosis last year how he would like to be remembered, here is what he said: He served his country, and not always right, made a lot of mistakes, made a lot of errors, but served his country, and I hope could add honorably.

He will certainly get that wish.

For many, the service and sacrifice that John rendered overseas would have been more than enough, more than a lifetime already. But, somehow, John McCain was convinced that he still owed his country more.

In 1983, he arrived in Congress. John knew exactly what it meant to swear to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. When he was sworn in here in the Senate four years later, he was no stranger to pledging to protect the Constitution from enemies foreign and domestic.

The following years brought legislative accomplishments, to be sure. But while John's constituents were lucky to have him as their senator from Arizona, John also remembered out titles say United States senator.

He worked across the aisle on the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, whose work helped heal the wounds of war and normalize relations with Vietnam.

He led congressional delegations on overseas travel that were famously as grueling, as grueling as they were educational. John was seemingly immune to jet lag. And he was never more excited than when he had an opportunity to share American values abroad.

And, of course, he was singularly devoted to the men and women of our armed forces. From countless visits with deployed units in Iraq and Afghanistan to his committee meetings right here in this body, John honored their sacrifices in a way that only he could.

He never forgot that, notwithstanding the grandeur of our military might and technical prowess, our armed services are made up of people, of our constituents, of volunteers, of the brave.

John's favorite...

SCIUTTO: You are listening there to the Senate majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, delivering somber, heartfelt words about the late Senator John McCain, his colleague in the Senate there, perhaps demonstrating a lost tradition in the Senate, that is someone praising a colleague that they had differences with. But as we were listening to the senator there, there was breaking just

in news from the White House.

The White House once again lowering the flag above the White House to half-staff. And the president now releasing a new statement, his first direct comments about the senator personally.

CNN's Abby Phillip joins us now from the White House.

Abby, what did the president have to say in the statement?


This just in from the White House. After a day of controversy about why the White House flags remained raised, even though there was a request by a bipartisan group of senators to lower them, the White House has now issued a statement addressing John McCain specifically.

I will read to you it in its entirety.

It says: "Despite our differences in policy and politics, I respect Senator John McCain's service to our country and in his honor have signed a proclamation to fly the flag of the United States at half- staff until the day of his internment. I have asked Vice President Mike Pence to offer an address at the ceremony honoring Senator John McCain at the United States Capitol this Friday.

"At the request of the McCain family, I have also authorized military transportation of Senator McCain's remains from Arizona to Washington, D.C., military pallbearers and band support, and a horse and caisson transport during the service at the United States Naval Academy. Finally, I have asked General John Kelly, Secretary James Mattis, and Ambassador John Bolton to represent my administration at the services."

Now, this is the first time, Jim, since Saturday, since John McCain died, that President Trump has directly addressed the senator himself. He initially put out a statement about two sentences' long that offered his condolences to the McCain family, but didn't address McCain at all, leaving it to first lady Melania Trump to say that McCain was honored for his service to the country.

Now, after days of this back and forth, the White House has now lowered the flag above the White House behind me, after people raised this question. Why has it taken so long for them to do that in response to those requests?

The president actually did not answer several requests from reporters today asking him to comment on McCain five times. So, here we are, Jim, the White House finally moving to correct what seems to be a major misstep on their part.

SCIUTTO: Abby Phillip, thanks very much at the White House.

[16:15:03] .

But we should note, the president delivering what many people on both sides of the aisle had called for here.

Dana Bash, the statement from the White House, the lowering the flag, again, having raised this morning, kind of creating this confusion around Washington because some buildings had it at half-staff, others -- the White House did not.

Do we know what led the president to in effect change his mind on this?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Pressure. I mean, unrelenting pressure. It's not as if there wasn't pressure before, but as Susan and I were talking about it as we were listening to Mitch McConnell, the veterans' groups coming out saying this is ridiculous. These are my words, not their words, but basically, unpatriotic to be this petty with this man who served this country for so many years under such duress, was beaten and tortured for defending the values of this country when he was -- when he was a Vietnam prisoner of war. Never mind the fact that he is the sitting armed services chair, a very --

SCIUTTO: Of the same party, we should note.

BASH: Oh, yes, never mind that.

SCIUTTO: There is that.

BASH: I'm not even talking about politics, I'm talking about basic, you know, basic American values.

So, you know what? It's about time. It's a pity that this was even a discussion, that this was even, frankly, a distraction from what should have been a united front from every single person who is an American citizen, never mind the president of the United States.

SCIUTTO: Susan Page, we do often see the president dig his heels on on things, particularly that he has found personal affronts in John McCain's disagreement with him in public. The president, it appears, has taken personally, at times. Is this a surprising move, in your move, to reverse course, in relatively short time?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: I'm not sure in a 24/7 news world, this is a short time. I think it is not surprising that he balked initially, and I think it is not surprising that he's reversed course. And I do think it underscores the point Senator McCain made in his parting statement to the nation which was just released today, where he said, we weaken our democracy when we think of ourselves as members of tribes rather than Americans.


PAGE: Senator McCain's statement did not mention Donald Trump by name, but it seemed very much directed at Donald Trump and the tone he set for our nation.

BASH: Can I add one thing? I think you are right about that. What makes this even worse is this

wasn't about tribe. This was about personal animosity by the president.

And that is exactly what we have heard over and over again from John McCain as we have been playing his own words from his book, from his speeches, even from his final letter to the nation that you don't put your personal animosities or, you know, grievances first, particularly when you are trying to act as a patriot.

SCIUTTO: Adolfo, you worked for Senator McCain. You also have since then supported President Trump. I wonder, are you disappointed that it took the president this amount of time to express that gratitude to John McCain in respect for him?

ADOLFO FRANCO, FORMER ADVISER, JOHN MCCAIN PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: Well, I have a unique perspective here, I guess. Ifs I was a surrogate for John McCain in his books, first in the books and presidential campaigns and had wished he'd been elected president of the United States. And I owe my entire career in Washington to him.

Yes, I do support President Trump. I will say that the document here, that John McCain supported President Trump 83 percent of the time on policies. I realize we are talking about something else today.

But on this issues specifically, first, I am glad we got to the right place. I'm not going to speculate, frankly, because I don't know what is in President Trump's mind. Of course, there were press reports that President Trump was not to be invited to the event. He is a human being as well as we all are.

And I think the protocol that he followed, who knows who gave that instruction was precisely followed, which was in a normal circumstances, the flag is at half mass for a short period of time. And that's exactly what had happened.

SCIUTTO: I'm not certain about that. The position has been for --


SCIUTTO: -- to keep at half-staff through internment.

FRANCO: It matters, if you look at the code, which is 4 USC Section 7, the exact protocol was followed here. Obviously, Senator McCain, I would have had it on, of course, the entire time, personally. But certain individuals, it has been a longer period of time.

Again, I think this is about honoring president -- President McCain, Senator McCain. I'm glad we got to the right position. I think the president -- I don't know if it was a veterans group, I think this is speculation. I don't think there's anybody to say it.

SCIUTTO: Were you disappointed that wasn't a more natural reaction?

FRANCO: I would have wanted the flag at half mass the entire time, yes, I would have preferred that. [16:20:05] I don't know what was in the president's mind when he felt that maybe Cal Coolidge once said, if you don't say it you don't have to explain it. For all I know, the order was initially, just do what normally is done in these circumstances. And again, there wasn't a thinking or maybe the president didn't give the advice he should have from his counselor.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that's being more than kind to President Trump. This is a sad example for, I think young people in politics. I think of so many people like myself, the first time I could cast a ballot was 2008 election for Obama. I was in college.

When asked, did you weigh on the campaign trail? I was in school. But I remember the concession speech from Senator McCain. I remember throughout his entire career, I have been reading about him all weekend, just about the level of respect and decorum and courage and just friendship that he has displayed.

And Donald Trump is the total opposite of everything John McCain stood for. And for young people, specifically in this time in politics, who were entering into the arena, who are seeing the vitriol that is going on in our current political discourse, this was an opportunity for Donald Trump to lead from the front, to lead by example and he didn't. And so many young people I think should understand, that while I didn't agree with Senator McCain politically, I respect him.

And we can disagree, politically, but respect folks for the work they have done for the country. And just in this moment and time, I wish more people could see examples of that. And Donald Trump, he just fumbled the ball. I'm disappointed and just disgusted.

FRANCO: Can I say something on that quickly? I don't disagree with a word you said. However, there's a however. We just heard Senator McConnell. Most of the individuals, unlike President Trump have had 20, 30 years of working together, Ted Kennedy and John McCain, 10 years ago at the funeral and so forth.

Donald Trump is in a completely, unconventional figure that's come into our political life.


SANDERS: I think that's an excuse. You don't have to be here 20 years to -- I hope he could have read the history, the John McCain history. You can read how he was ejected from his plane. He broke his arms.

FRANCO: I don't know about this --

SANDERS: You do know. The excuses for Donald Trump here.

SCIUTTO: You are saying he's not an experienced politician.

FRANCO: Right. The last person who is going to be in position to say anything negative about John McCain is myself. I adored him and revered him and owe everything to him.

However, I do think and important for this program, to explore the whys. There are some elements to this that I think are different. He doesn't have the 30 years here in Washington. He is not experienced.

Yes, you might say that's a human reaction of someone. For all I know, the president felt that he wasn't going to be part of this event. He was not going to be invited to lay low. It was his instinct.

When that didn't work out, we see now the president is in the right place.

SCIUTTO: I think our moms and dads thought of lessons before anybody came to Washington about how to treat when someone passes away.

But let me ask this because Senator Mitch McConnell, part of his message was, even in disagreement, you can respect someone. He said these are arguments in Senator McConnell's words, among friends who share belief and great cause. And that was interesting to hear from the Senate majority leader because it reflected what McCain said, to some degree in his final statement.

I just if I want, if we can, to play from Rick Davis, a key point to this. And you referenced this before, Susan, about just not being a nation of blood and soil, but of shared ideals. Let's have a listen.


RICK DAVIS, MCCAIN'S FORMER CAMPAIGN MANAGER: I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world's greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world.


SCIUTTO: Let me ask this question as best I can, not intended to be in a partisan way. But that sentiment is one that many Americans certainly aspire to and associate with their country. But it is one that many Americans say is lost today.

I'm curious, I'll throw this to the group -- who, because Senator McCain was a politician, Republican, long-term Republican but often worked with both sides, worked with both parties, was willing to make compromises. Who, in the Senate today, picks up that torch and has the credibility, but that willingness to carry that on?

Dana, you have spent a lot of time on the Hill.

BASH: Credibility and willingness are different, because the answer is there's nobody like John McCain and there won't be anybody like John McCain because of the service that he gave to the country, because of the fact that he was a prisoner of war, because -- that's just on the military side.

[16:25:08] But then on the political side, except one really tough primary that he had a couple years ago, he was in a pretty safe seat.


BASH: Which gave him running room. That, combined with the fact that he is a superstar. I mean, he's a political superstar. I mean, how many times have you walked through an airport with him?

So, all of those things combined make him different than everyone else. The good news is, that he spent a lot of time mentoring younger senators on both sides of the aisle.

SCIUTTO: Who were his apprentices?

BASH: Chris Coons. OK, so Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware, particularly on foreign policy. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Minnesota.

And then on the Republican side, Marco Rubio and others, and traveled extensively with them all over the globe to spend time with them, in order for them to understand where he's coming from, but also to show them how it's done. And so many of them I have talked to and had been on television to explain that.

SCIUTTO: Do you see a voice in that category?

PAGE: You know, one thing to remember is John McCain didn't start out being John McCain.

BASH: Exactly.

PAGE: His first year in the Senate, he was not a towering lion of the senate. He earned that status. And there are senators who have an opportunity, and as you say, a desire to earn that status. The problem is politics now make it so hard for anyone to be bigger than their party.

SCIUTTO: Hard to win a primary.

PAGE: Senator McConnell's words were, really wonderful. But remember when John McCain came out and voted no on the repeal, what they call the skinny repeal? Remember the look that Mitch McConnell gave him?

FRANCO: The body language.

PAGE: So, McConnell knows how fierce politics have become and how difficult it is for anybody who wants to do something that is a little bigger and more bipartisan.

SCIUTTO: Let me take a moment because we have on the telephone, former Senator Jon Kyl. He's a long time close friend of Senator McCain's, also a former colleague in the Senate.

Senator Kyl, thanks very much for taking time to join us.

JON KYL (R), FORMER ARIZONA SENATOR (via telephone): Sure. I'm happy to join you. SCIUTTO: I wonder if you can react now to the president's statements

just out this afternoon after something of a delay, responding personally to Senator McCain's loss. What is your reaction to that and his decision to, again, lower the flag to half-staff at the White House?

KYL: I am pleased the flag has been lowered. Like a lot of Americans, I'm not glued to the television set all day, so I don't know what the president said.

SCIUTTO: I can tell you -- let me quote you from the statement. Despite our differences on policy and politics, the president said, I respect Senator McCain's service to the country. And in his honor, I signed a proclamation to fly the flag of the United States at half staff until the day of his interment. He also notes he authorized General John Kelly, James Mattis and Ambassador John Bolton to represent his administration at Senator McCain's services.

So, a statement -- a personal statement, and also some moves there to show respect for Senator McCain.

KYL: And I think that's totally appropriate. Senator McCain will have a special place in the history of the United States as well as the hearts of Americans and because of his long government service and a great deal of sacrifice on his part, it's perfectly appropriate for the president to communicate those sentiments and especially so given the rather tense relationship that exists between the two of them.

SCIUTTO: You, of course, served alongside Senator McCain for nearly 20 years. You called him at times, quote, the conscience of the Senate. I wonder who you see that can and will fill that role now.

KYL: I think the commentary you had just before I joined you is a pretty good expression of the fact that nobody sets out to do this, everybody makes their own way, they all have their own personalities and contribute in their own ways. So, nobody is going to try to be just like John McCain. There are a lot of people in the Senate who reach across the aisle and work with each other, and that was one of the things that John did.

He also tried to ensure fairness on both sides. I can remember when I first came to the Senate, he came on the floor angry about the fact that a Democrat was not being allowed a vote on an amendment. I have no idea what it was about now. But he was trying to ensure Democrat or Republican, you have a right to offer an amendment and get a vote on it.

And he -- I'm not sure there are many in the Senate right now given the partisan issue of everything who would stand-up for the other side the way he did.

SCIUTTO: I know you have close personal friends, too, and I don't want to be entirely immersed in politics of this. Do you have a favorite personal memory of your time with the senator that you'd like to share? KYL: Well, you don't want to share too much personally. But I will

say this, you know, John was always active and engaged. He was hard to keep up with. But, the times that I will cherish the most are the times we had together quietly at his place at Hidden Valley in Arizona.