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Jeff Sessions in Danger?; North Korea Nuclear Negotiations Crumbling?; Florida Votes; Giuliani to NYT: Trump's "Jury is the Public". Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 28, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Now, what would give anyone the idea that President Trump has lost confidence in Jeff Sessions?

THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news. As some Republicans suggest it is OK for President Trump to fire his attorney general, the Senate majority leader jumps in front of the bus. What he said in moments.

A few months ago, President Trump declared North Korea no longer a nuclear threat. Now it appears the nuclear talks may fall apart. Who saw this coming?

Plus, today, voters in Florida head to the polls, while the green blob, sick, smelly slime, is taking over their waters, as if Florida politics could get any more murky.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in again today for Jake Tapper.

And we begin with the politics lead.

The uncertain future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, who once warned there would be -- quote -- "holy hell" to pay if Trump fired Sessions, now says that the relationship between the two men is -- quote -- "beyond repair," suggesting the attorney general be replaced after the midterm elections.

Graham telling CNN this just minutes ago.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Here is what I know, that Trump doesn't like him, and that this relationship has soured. And I'm not blaming Jeff. He can't go on like this. It has either got to get better. It's just not good for the country.


SCIUTTO: Sessions has been the very target of the president's ire essentially since Sessions recused himself from all Russia-related matters last year. President Trump repeatedly insulting Sessions on Twitter over the

Russia investigation, with the attorney general firing back -- quote -- "The actions of the Department of Justice will not be improperly influenced by political considerations."

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

Phil, despite these increased calls from Republicans that the new attorney general might be replaced, minutes ago, the Senate majority leader seemed to try to get in the way of that. What did he have to say?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim, whether it was jumping in front of a bus or slamming on the brakes, the majority leader, despite those rumblings you mentioned from the rank and file inside of his conference, making clear the attorney general should go nowhere. Take a listen.


QUESTION: There seems to be renewed interest, including by some members of your conference, in the job that Attorney General Sessions is doing. Does he still have your confidence? Do you still think he's doing a good job in that role?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Yes, I have total confidence in the attorney general. I think he ought to stay exactly where he is.


MATTINGLY: Now, Jim, let me give you the behind the scenes of that based on aides that I have been talking to over the course the last couple of days.

There are really two issues here, the political and the procedural. On the former, there's a recognition inside Republican leadership the political fallout of a firing or removal of Attorney Jeff Sessions would be nightmarish, as one aide put it today, leading up into the midterm elections.

They don't want any part of that because of the connection to Jeff Sessions' recusal from the Russia investigation. The other is procedural. The idea that they could get a new attorney general confirmed, that even they could get every Republican to support any nominee, no matter how good the nominee was, right now, the leadership doesn't think that's available.

And because of that, the leader and most of his team saying, hey, leave this alone, Mr. President.

SCIUTTO: Phil, we understand that a source is telling CNN that that waning support among some Senate colleagues for Sessions isn't entirely due just to the tension with the president. What is behind it, then? MATTINGLY: Yes, I think this is a really important point. People

think it's about the president's relationship. Obviously, that's what Senator Graham was referring to, or this about the Mueller investigation.

What we're being told us this has far more to do with other policies, most notably criminal justice reform, where Attorney General Sessions has run crosswise with Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley, also Lindsey Graham, very key on criminal justice reform.

On things like immigration, on things like even marijuana policy, where Attorney General Sessions Stands on the policy issues is in a very different place from some very key senators up here when it comes to those issues. I think one of the key points here is not necessarily that those senators are going to lead from behind.

They recognize the potential fallout here. But instead it's that they're not necessarily rushing to his defense publicly like they have in past months. That said, I'm told from several sources senators have been making calls to the attorney general over the course of the last couple of days, letting him know they still have his support.

They would just like him maybe to get more in line with them on some policy issues, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Pressure. Political pressure. Phil Mattingly up on the Hill, thanks very much.

Bill Kristol, it has been his GOP, well, really his Senate colleagues' support that has shored up Jeff Sessions in the face of these kind of relentless attacks from the president. If that is waning amongst some of them at least, is he in danger today?

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I mean, I still think it would be politically suicidal for Trump to fire Sessions, unless Rosenstein just becomes attorney general, which doesn't really do Trump much good on that.

I don't buy for a second -- I'm sure they've got policy issues with Sessions. I don't think it has anything to do with this. And incidentally Lindsey Graham's attacks, they began, if I'm not mistaken, shortly after he played golf with Donald Trump.


Graham is speaking for Trump. This is not Lindsey Graham changing his mind about Jeff Sessions. Lindsey Graham in a very unfortunate way, in my opinion, has decided to carry water for Trump, for whatever reason, he thinks it's the right thing to do, he himself wouldn't mind being in the Trump Cabinet.

Who knows what. So this is part of the Trump assault on Sessions. I don't think people should kid themselves at all that, oh, a lot of Republican senators independently have decided that suddenly their former colleague Jeff Sessions shouldn't be there. McConnell, I think, knows what's going on. And McConnell thinks it would be disastrous for Trump to fire Sessions. And that's why he stepped up.

SCIUTTO: And that was a pretty clear signal, was it not, from Mitch McConnell there, because he has bided his time occasionally on making public statements like that?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: McConnell's very deliberate. He's very careful about how he speaks.

He's not somebody to talk about having full confidence in somebody if he doesn't actually feel that way. Mitch McConnell does not want any upheaval in the Mueller probe before the November elections, at the very least.

And I think we need to understand -- when we look at candidates, we look at senators -- excuse me -- like Lindsey Graham and some others, some of them are going to have Republican primaries coming up in 2020. And especially in a state like South Carolina, where the president's going to have a lot of loyal support among the Republican base, it could be that Lindsey Graham is trying to make sure he's on the right side of the Republican primary electorate.

And how do you do that? By making sure that you send signals that you are supportive of where the president is as this Mueller investigation proceeds, because if this thing drifts into next year, you're then in the new election cycle, and all of a sudden this becomes an issue in a Republican primary, where people start to say to people like Lindsey Graham, voters, hey, are you with the president on this or are you with Mueller?

NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: I just have to say that is pathetic. And just in the week after John McCain in the past this week, that we had John McCain pass, we have Lindsey Graham, of all people, saying, basically, I'm going to put rule of law and all the principles of democracy over here because I'm worried about a primary in 2020.

I mean, let's just step back and recognize what is happening is the president is attacking his own attorney general because he does not like an investigation of himself. It's just another indication of actions of a guilty person. And the fact that Republicans like Lindsey Graham are running cover for him is outrageous, and really worthy have no respect from the American people or their fellow senators.

SCIUTTO: Let's have a listen, in fairness, to what Lindsey Graham said exactly regarding the position of Attorney General Sessions. Have a listen.


GRAHAM: This relationship is beyond repair, I think. The president has lost confidence in Jeff Sessions. And I'm telling you what everybody in the country knows. This is a dysfunctional relationship. We need a better one.

Is there somebody who's highly qualified that has the conference of the president, will also understand their job is to protect Mueller? Yes, I think we can find that person after the election, if that's what the president wants.



TANDEN: It is only dysfunctional -- I mean, I do not like Jeff Sessions by any stretch of the imagination, but it is only dysfunctional because Jeff Sessions is allowing an investigation of the president, as his duty to the country.

SCIUTTO: Symone, you heard Lindsey Graham there trying to thread a very tight needle.


SCIUTTO: ... who has a relationship with the president, therefore has his confidence, but -- and he said it specifically there -- will also protect Bob Mueller.

Is there such a person?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, look, if I remember correctly, Jeff Sessions at one point in time was the president's biggest cheerleader.

SCIUTTO: First person in the Senate to endorse him.

SANDERS: He was first in the Senate to endorse him.

Donald Trump was more than happy to prop him up as the attorney general pick. And all -- many of the senators who are now saying they have an issue with his policy were more than happy to vote for him.

And so my question to Senator Graham would be, what constitutes the confidence of the president? Not recusing yourself from the Russia investigation, saying you are going to fire Bob Mueller, using bully pulpit and mob-style tactics to shut down and investigation potentially of the president and his allies?

I don't know. The American people don't know. But this is just crazy.


SCIUTTO: The confidence of the president, let's admit, is a capricious sort of measurement.


KRISTOL: It's a particular thing that you touched on that the president is upset about is that Sessions recused himself, which has left the slightly bizarre situation where the deputy attorney general is in charge of the Russia probe.

And Rosenstein has run it extremely responsibly, in my view, but also protected Mueller, protected the Southern District of New York. He's got a pretty impressive investigation going there.

If Sessions were to leave, and let's say they brought in a wonderful person, well-respected, and if the Senate would then confirm that person, that person is not recused. That person's then in charge of supervising the Mueller probe and Southern District of New York and so forth.

That's why Trump has a great interest in removing Sessions. And that's why, even though can have whatever views one wants about Jeff Sessions as attorney general, I think people would see the removal of Sessions as really an attempt to go after the Mueller investigation.

DRUCKER: And that's why I think it would be a big mistake actually for President Trump.

So if he is innocent in this -- in this investigation...


DRUCKER: ... into possible collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, as he approaches 2020 -- and, remember, the 2020 Trump reelection starts the day, November 7, the day after the midterm elections.


It is off and running. And if he is innocent in this probe, and if the report that Mueller is going to release is ultimately going to in a sense exonerate the president by not implicating him, and suggesting he's in legal peril, then the worst thing he could do would be to cause this upheaval by removing Jeff Sessions and creating this impression that he's afraid of what Mueller is going to do.


DRUCKER: The best thing you could do is force him to keep Jeff Sessions exactly where he is, and let this thing play out.


TANDEN: I just don't understand.

I mean, all of that logic follows. And yet he's going after Jeff Sessions. So why doesn't that indicate to you that he's guilty?

DRUCKER: Well, I didn't say it doesn't indicate to me that he's guilty or not guilty.

But one thing we know about Trump is he hates the idea that people are targeting him. He finds the idea that he is being treated unfairly the same way my 6-year-old looks at the issue of fairness.

SANDERS: Oh, lord.


DRUCKER: He feels completely targeted by it. And he expected everybody in his administration in the White House at the very least to be like employees at Trump Tower.

Now, look, we're versed in government. We know that that's not the way it works. But I think that that's how the president approached it. And I think that, while he could be guilty, the point is, it could just simply bother him that people aren't doing what he wants.


SCIUTTO: Just ask some of my colleagues in the media.


SANDERS: This exact conversation is why so many members -- all of the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have come out against Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court justice -- nomination to the Supreme Court.

This exact conversation. The president can't even be trusted to credibly conduct business with his attorney general. The president is -- for all we know is thinking about firing -- they are floating things in the press. And this is why so many people are saying Donald Trump, some -- many people are saying Donald Trump shouldn't still be the president.

I'm not saying that. I'm just telling you what the people are saying, Jim.


SANDERS: But he definitely shouldn't be able to appoint a Supreme Court justice.


SCIUTTO: We just have some -- I should mention, we have some news...


SCIUTTO: ... coming into CNN now regarding this story.

A source close to the attorney general tells my colleague Laura Jarrett that session spoke with McConnell, of course, the Senate majority leader, today, last week, and that he has received a number of calls of support behind the scenes from his former colleagues in the Senate amid this public battle with the president.

So, some more words of support coming in for Sessions there, as others seem to be abandoning him.

We're going to have a lot more to discuss going forward, including, did Rudy Giuliani reveal the possible strategy behind the president constantly criticizing Robert Mueller, special counsel, and who he really needs to win over?

Plus, this breaking news -- the response just in from the governor for Puerto Rico after a report today showing that the number of deaths attributable to Hurricane Maria almost 50 times higher than first acknowledged.


[16:17:03] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

In our politics lead, Rudy Giuliani says it's been three weeks since he's heard from the special counsel team. But that is not stopping the president's lawyer from arguing his case to who he really thinks holds the power, that is the American people.

CNN's Sara Murray joins me now live.

So, Rudy Giuliani says the president is having his day in court, already, but in the court of public opinion.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. Still no word, of course, on whether President Trump will ultimately agree to sit for an interview with Robert Mueller. But Rudy Giuliani making it clear that in the meantime, he is going to wage a publicity war.


MURRAY (voice-over): Despite President Trump's lawyer laying out an imaginary deadline --

RUDY GIULIANI, PRESIDENT TRUMP'S PERSONAL LAWYER: This should be over with by September 1st.

MURRAY: -- special counsel Robert Mueller isn't biting.

I figured we wouldn't hear until after the Manafort trial, but we still haven't heard from Mueller. Rudy Giuliani tells CNN's Dana Bash: I have to figure they are planning something.

Adding in an interview with Fox News --

GIULIANI: I think if it isn't over by September, then we have a very, very serious violation of the Justice Department rules.

MURRAY: With the midterm elections fast approaching, there's no such rule Mueller has to go dark. But a longstanding Justice Department custom is prosecutors tend to avoid investigations related to announcements within 60 days of an election.

Giuliani says Mueller's office is still considering their latest offer regarding a possible Trump interview with Mueller. Giuliani believes Mueller's team may be considering issuing a report without talking to Trump or subpoenaing the president, setting up a potential league battle ahead of the midterms. Mueller may be quiet, but Giuliani has been anything but, even weighing from his golf retreat in Scotland.

GIULIANI: It would be totally horrible. I mean, there's no reason. He didn't collude with the Russians. He didn't obstruct justice.

MURRAY: In an interview with "The New York Times", Giuliani acknowledging his strategy is part legal, part political. Trump's jury is the public, Giuliani tells "The Times", saying his defense of the president starts with his base, then it stretches to independents, then to Democrats, and insisting for many Americans, impeachment goes too far.

GIULIANI: You only impeach him for political reasons and the American people would revolt against that.


MURRAY: And, of course, we've heard more of that impeachment chatter ever since Michael Cohen struck a plea deal and implicated President Trump in a crime involving those hush money payments to women. We'll see if it all of that has any bearing on whether Trump ever sits for that interview with Mueller.

SCIUTTO: Sara Murray, thanks very much.

Back to the panel now.

Neera, I hate to accuse you of having go to law school but using --


SCIUTTO: -- your great law experience, I mean, in the current -- and this is frankly, it's a political case as much as legal case here. Is this in your view a credible, winning defense for the president to try this in public?

TANDEN: I think the reality is, he only has his defense because he has no case. He's trying -- he has a political answer because he doesn't have a legal answer.

[16:20:02] And I think the issue here is Mueller does have one. I mean, let's just be honest. All of this has been a crazy charade. Donald Trump saying he wants to speak to Mueller. There's nothing stopping him from talking to Mueller today.

We have been doing this for months. This whole Rudy Giuliani show, saying he wants to speak to him, but the lawyers are advising against him -- there are limits and there's parameters. The whole thing is, this is an investigation of what the Russians did in our elections, it's also an investigation of the president. If he has nothing to hide, go talk to Mueller today and move this on.

But one of the reasons, just another indication he wants to fire Sessions. He wants to stop the probe. He doesn't want to speak to Mueller. It's an indication he has things to hide because, perhaps, he's actually guilty. SCIUTTO: On that point of will he or won't he, Alan Dershowitz, who

often spoken in support of the president here, had a revealing answer just on CNN this morning about why he thinks it's been three weeks since Rudy Giuliani heard from Mueller. Have a listen.


ALAN DERSWHOWITZ, LEGAL SCHOLAR: I suspect they can't come to the same conclusion I came to several weeks ago, that the tactic of the Trump team, I have no inside information on this, but the tactic of the Trump team is to make the Mueller team an offer they can't accept, so that in the end, there will be no sit-down and the Trump team can say, look, we made them an offer, it's their fault. They didn't accept it.


SCIUTTO: David, Bill Kristol, do you think that's right? That this is all been a charade as Neera was saying?

DRUCKER: Well, look, I think this is about trying to get this in a court of public opinion. This is a political exercise if and until we have a Mueller report with indictments and anything that implicates the president, if that ever happens.

And look, Bill and I were talking about this before the show. Everything that the Trump team is doing in terms of talking about what they have said to the Mueller team, what the Mueller team has said to them is all been about trying to shape what the public thinks about this investigation and what it might reveal, so that by the time the Mueller report comes out, it's all been litigated and litigated in the favor of Trump because, impeachment and arguments about impeachment are political, even though they could be a response to something illegal, they are a political solution to legal and other problems. And the way you avoid getting to that point is by winning politics.

SCIUTTO: Symone, there's, of course, the experience of Bill Clinton and the argument this will be a challenge. Let's say the Democrats win the House, still open question. But, will it be politically advantageous to pursue impeachment if Bill Clinton's experience was that that actually short up his support following the Republican attempt to impeach him? What is your thinking?

SANDERS: Well, you know, Jim, I think that look -- first of all, Democrats in the midterm elections are not running on impeaching the president. They are running not on Donald Trump, they are running on the issues.

SCIUTTO: Intentionally, right?

SANDERS: Intentionally, because that is what is resonating. And I think Democratic voters, not just Democratic voters, but Republican voters and independent voters alike, want members of Congress and elected officials who are going to actually do work for them, who are going to do something for them. And one could argue the Republican held Congress and their Republican has not done much. So, I think when Democrats take back the House, because I feel good

about turnout for 2018, there will be I think a conversation that we'll have within the Democratic caucus. But I don't think the Democrats are going to take back the House and you'll see folks run towards impeachment. If Democrats take back the House, it will be because the American people voted to have elected officials, Congress, do their job and hold the president accountable.


KRISTOL: They can't impeach without getting plausible grounds --

SANDERS: One could argue, Bill, come on now, what is possible, like the president was named as unindicted co-conspirator?

KRISTOL: Well, I -- no, I think that would -- well, let's see. I mean, Mueller will have to lay it all out and I agree that there's plenty of reasons I think he may well be able to lay out a case maybe on collusion, more likely I would say on obstruction, but we'll see what he does and we'll see how that plays out.

I do think Trump has tried hard, Giuliani, the whole thing is an attempt to discredit obviously, or to lessen support for the Mueller investigation and preemptively discrediting the report as much as possible, at least among Trump's base, among supporters. I wonder if this little flurry now with Sessions and a little sense of panic with Giuliani saying it's got to be done by September 1st, maybe that work for them doing something dramatic, is they sort of -- they have success, some of us back a little on it. They eroded support for Mueller. They didn't ever really succeed in tipping it over.

Look at the polls. They hung in an uptick for Mueller. I wonder if there's a little sense that they've sort of played that string out as far as it goes.

SCIUTTO: All right. Again, a lot more to talk about. Gone are the days of John McCain style politics in Arizona. The Trump type takeover playing out today in McCain's home state, that's coming up.


SCIUTTO: In our politics lead now, President Trump and the late senator, John McCain, both looming large as Arizona Republicans cast ballots today in an incredibly contentious primary race to replace the state's other Republican and Trump critic, Jeff Flake. All three have embraced the president on the campaign trail, but Trump has not yet formally endorsed any one. And one candidate even continued to attack McCain as his family announced he was ending treatment for brain cancer.

CNN's Nick Watt is in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

Nick, whoever the Republicans pick, he is going to have a tough battle though in the general election. That's right?