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GOP Slugfest in Arizona; Arizona Heads to Polls; Hurricane Maria Death Toll; North Korea Warns of Talks Falling Apart. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired August 28, 2018 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] DANA BASH, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm Dana Bash. John King has the day off.

Behind closed doors right now, a Justice Department official that the president called a creep and a disgrace is getting grilled on Capitol Hill for his role in the Russia investigation.

Plus, North Korea warns the Trump administration denuclearization talks could fall apart.

And former CIA Chief General David Petraeus sits down for a rare interview and shares what he'll remember most about John McCain.


GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, U.S. ARMY (RET.): I'd been confirmed to go to Iraq and command the surge, and my aide handed me the phone and said, Senator McCain wants to talk to you. And so I thought this is going to be a warm, congratulatory call. And I said, senator, thanks so much for all you did to support me during this process. And he said, when do you leave? And I said, senator? He said, when do you go to Baghdad? And I said, well, I go back to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and wrap things up and he hung up. I mean he was impatient. He was relentless. He was determined.

No one had our backs more than he did.


BASH: We start in a state that's been under the spotlight since Saturday. Today, the same day Arizona is preparing to pay tribute to its senior senator, John McCain, Republicans in the Grand Canyon state are going to the polls for the other Senate seat, the one big vacated by Jeff Flake. And what's really fascinating about today's contest is that it speaks to what we've been discussing since McCain's death, what and where is the heart and soul of the Republican Party, both in Arizona and around the country? Three candidates, none embracing McCain, all allies of President Trump.

Former State Senator Kelli Ward, who joined the campaign trail by -- had some controversial figures from the right, and Joe Arpaio, firebrand, former sheriff of Maricopa County, who got the pardon, of course, from President Trump, and Congresswoman Martha McSally, the establishment candidate who appears to be the frontrunner.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Twenty-six years in uniform. She's taken the fight to the enemy and the establishment.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My friend, Martha McSally, she's the real deal. She is tough.

MARTHA MCSALLY (R), ARIZONA SENATE CANDIDATE: Like our president, I'm tired of PC (ph) politicians and their BS excuses. I'm a fighter pilot, and I talk like one.


BASH: Someone else talked like a fighter pilot. His name was John McCain. So, look at that, a fighter pilot turned politician in Arizona.

McSally sounds, looks, feels like someone who would be a McCain Republican, right? As you saw there, she's wrapping her arms really tightly around Donald Trump.

Let's get straight to Arizona. CNN's Nick Watt is following this closely.

Nick, what are you seeing and hearing about how the polls are going? What are you seeing from voters there?

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, this voting station has been open since 6:00 a.m., and it's been, I would say, a trickle because Arizonans do love to vote early. And we've actually got a little bit of analysis of those early votes, which suggests that turnout will be high. And one analyst has actually said that Democratic turnout in certain precincts is, quote, gangbusters. Of course, that will give us an indication as to how engaged people really are for the midterms.

And if the Democrats are going to take the Senate, they really, really need this seat. And it is attainable. Donald Trump only won Arizona by, I think, 3.6 percent. And around 35 percent of registered voters here are registered as independents. So there is a lot of middle ground to fight for.

Now, on the Democratic side, Kyrsten Sinema, you -- who is a congresswoman, looks to have that one locked down, looks like she will be the candidate. She's a center left.

Now, on the Republican side, it's a little bit more of a gun (ph) fight and it's what one local news site called a Trumpian hug fest. All three candidates, as you mentioned, trying to prove their pro- Trump credentials. Joe Arpaio is saying that President Trump had my back. I've now got his. Kelli Ward, of course, on the bus with Mike Cernovich, Tomi Lahren, it's going to be very interesting to see if McSally really does win this nomination. Jeff Flake, the outgoing senator, has said that she is the Republicans' only shot of keeping this seat. Dana.

BASH: Certainly think a lot of Democrats and Republicans agree with that.

Thank you so much for that reporting, Nick Watt.

Here at the table to share their reporting and insights, Sirius XM's Olivier Knox, Julie Hirschfeld Davis from "The New York Times," Jenna Johnson with "The Washington Post," and "Bloomberg's" Sahil Kapur.

Hey, guys. What's today? Tuesday? Happy Tuesday. Who remembers these days?

I just think that this is so interesting. The timing could not be more ironic or telling. You know, you can probably use all of those words to describe it because this is actually an issue that John McCain himself had, trying to find his way in the Republican Party nationally, but also in Arizona. And now that's happening with the other Senate seat.

[12:05:07] JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": Right. And this is sort of a microcosm of the midterm congressional elections coming up, where Trump is looming large over all of these contests. Many Republicans are trying to hug him, to the extent that they can, particularly in these tough primaries where you really need to drive up the intensity among the voters who feel the most strongly on the Republican side, the staunchest conservatives, the people who put him over the top in 2016. You really need to get those people out.

But, of course, for Republicans, this could be a big risk because if you do nominate someone, like a Kelli Ward or even a Sheriff Arpaio, Republicans are keenly aware, and Democrats certainly know, that that could be a person that could be more difficult to get over the line in the general election.

BASH: And, Julie, that's precisely the argument that Jeff Flake, of course who is retiring, in large part because he knew he couldn't win this kind of primary because he had been so outspoken about Donald Trump, that's the argument that he's making about the race to fill his seat.


SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: If you run to the right, particularly in a year like this, and then have to recover for a primary, a general election where early voting is just a few weeks away. I'm very concerned about the direction of the party. I don't think that we're putting our best foot forward. And we may win an election here or there, but, in the end, you know, the party will go the way of the wings I think if we continue to drill down on the base and not try to appeal to a broader electorate.


BASH: You remember the wigs, Olivier. Is that going to happen?


BASH: I'm just kidding.

KNOX: You wound me.

No, but you know what I do remember, I remember that John McCain in 2010, build the dang fence.

BASH: Yes. Yes.

KNOX: And I would invite anyone who is confused about Arizona politics, go back and watch that because if you tinker with the characters and the voices a little bit, you get essentially what is a Trump ad. A very Trumpy had.

BASH: Yes.

KNOX: But McCain's history was a fight in 2010 and Flake's decision not to fight this time around really exemplifies the way we've come now. There's no universe in which Jeff Flake's a moderate, right?

BASH: Absolutely.

KNOX: There's no universe in which he's not a conservative. What he -- what he is not is Trumpy enough. And so when you see those two races this year versus the McCain re-elect, I think it tells us a lot about where we are and where the Republican Party is.

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG": Yes, the symbolism is especially strong in Arizona where you have Jeff Flake and John McCain fading out at around the same time. And you have a field of candidates on the Republican side who want to be the next senator and are competing for President Trump's affections and who are trying to align themselves with him. It shows the direction of the party shifting away from John McCain's brand of institutionalism and pluralism and toward Trump's brand of nationalism and nativism.

JENNA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE WASHINGTON POST": And really going out of their way to embrace Trump.


JOHNSON: I mean especially with McSally. This is someone who would not publicly endorse him, was critical of his comments on that "Access Hollywood" tape, won't publicly say if she voted for him or not and now --

BASH: For Donald Trump, yes.

JOHNSON: For Donald Trump. And now you see her kind of embracing some of his immigration stances, you know, talking about meetings she has with people in the White House. She knows that she needs his supporters to win this primary. BASH: And that's exactly --

KAPUR: And Kelli Ward is not sufficiently supportive of Trump on immigration because Trump supported one compromised bill that had some provisions on DACA. Kelli Ward says that's amnesty.

BASH: And let's -- you mentioned that McSally is trying as hard as she can to get right with Trump voters. That really is the fight. Let's listen to a couple of the candidates, Kelli Ward and Martha McSally, in their conversations with our own Kyung Lah.


KELLI WARD (R), ARIZONA SENATE CANDIDATE: She's pretending to be a supporter of Donald Trump. She's running as though she's Kelli Ward. And we don't need a cheap imitation. We've got the real thing.

MARTHA MCSALLY (R), ARIZONA SENATE CANDIDATE: I had a 97 percent voting record with the president's agenda, more than anyone else in the Arizona delegation. So those are just the facts.


BASH: She is a fighter pilot. She is a veteran. She is, you know, everything when it comes to national security at least that you would think would be so up McCain's alley, that she would want to run on the banner of John McCain, the hero, the patriot. And she's saying, I'm just like Donald Trump, not I'm just like John McCain. It is so fascinating to me.

DAVIS: It is. And it is, as Sahil said, it's such an interesting -- it's such interesting timing. You know, he's just passed away. The whole country is publicly mourning John McCain. And --

BASH: And they're about to open the doors in the capitol in Arizona today for him to lie in state.

DAVIS: For him to lie in state.

But I do think that that ad is fascinating because she has all the symbolism of, I'm a hero, like, I'm a person like McCain. She's not saying McCain, but there's the clear echo of, I'm a fighter pilot, I fought for my country. She wants people to know that about her and potentially to have independents in the general election, I would think, sort of think of her in that way.

BASH: Yes.

DAVIS: But she also, as much as she's talking to Trump's voters, she's also -- and I think they all are talking to the president himself, the last thing they want is to rub him the wrong way and get a nasty tweet from him. Of course, they would all love his endorsement. But what they really cannot afford is to have the president somehow distancing himself from them at this critical of a time in their primary. And I think that's also part of the strategy here. [12:10:17] BASH: And you bring up a good point. The president hasn't endorsed because all three of them have been very, very nice to him. And Arpaio, obviously, he has a very special connection too since he helped campaign with Donald Trump and then Trump pardoned him.

All right, everybody stand by.

Up next, are the president's dreams of being the only one to finally get rid of North Korea's nukes imploding? We'll talk about that next.


BASH: Welcome back.

Breaking news just in to CNN.

A study commissioned by the government of Puerto Rico now says Hurricane Maria killed thousands more than the government initially said. According to analysis by the George Washington University's Milken Institute of Public Health says the storm claimed 2,975 lives. The Puerto Rican government initially said the hurricane killed 64 people.

[12:15:13] CNN's Leyla Santiago joins us now.

And, Leyla, you know, the obvious question is, how could they possibly have such a disparity between what they initially said and this extraordinary and very tragic number?

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, and the other really big question here is, will the government of Puerto Rico, now that this study has come out from George Washington University, the official study commissioned by the government, now that it has come out with this finding of 2,975, will the government of Puerto Rico change its official death toll that as it stands right now is still at 64.

This is a study I've had an opportunity to look over, just actually talked to researchers here at George Washington University. They point out issues that led to possible death, issues with communications, issues of things that could have led to what you're saying. The government saying 64 when they believe it could be nearly 3,000. Issues of communications, how the death certificates were filled out.

And, this is important here, they say that they have more work to do. This is only phase one of their study. They really still want to talk to families of those who lost loved ones. That has not happened. And I think it's very clear -- or, excuse me, very important to understand that this is a study that points out how many deaths are sort of above average at this point. They don't have a list of 2,900 deaths. This is what they are saying is statistically the number of deaths that is above average. But gives you an idea of why it is much higher than the official death toll.

The question now, will the government of Puerto Rico finally change that number? BASH: Absolutely. And, of course you know much better than anyone that

we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that what we're looking at on the screen here is beyond tragic. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in a natural disaster, which is just -- it's horrible and obviously shouldn't happen.

Thank you so much for that reporting. Appreciate it, Leyla.

And turning -- turning to the Pentagon now, right after his Singapore summit with Kim Jong-un, the president said that the North Korean nuclear threat was over. Well, today, two and a half months later, his defense secretary was asked if he agrees. His answer, well, it's not so simple.


QUESTION: Does the Pentagon share that assessment?

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: You know, Tom, you're asking for a straightforward answer on a complex subject. The bottom line is, there was progress made. The whole world saw that progress when the two leaders sat down. We also knew very clearly this was going to be a long and challenging effort to negotiate this away.


BASH: There are also new complications today in the denuclearization process that the president claimed was done. North Korea back channeled a letter to the United States in which it warned talks were in peril. Meanwhile, the defense secretary was asked if the U.S. would suspend any more joint military exercises with South Korea beyond the ones the president called off after the summit.


JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We have no plans at this time to suspend any more exercises. We've suspended several exercises at the direction of the president. The good-faith effort was made. We have had -- we have done no planning for suspending others. Obviously we know what exercises are out there. So we could do that if directed to. Right now there are no plans to go further.


BASH: CNN's Barbara Starr joins us live from the Pentagon.

Barbara, you can put Pentagon speak into laymen's terms better than anyone. So, let's hear it. Explain what he was trying to say and what the significance is.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it all boils down to progress in Singapore turns into politics between North Korea and the \United States right now.

On the question of exercises, what the secretary is really saying is, he's not committing to anything right now. They canceled the initial round this past several -- this past year. And as they look ahead to scheduled exercises for next year, they'll make up their mind when they get to it.

And it's coming right now, as you say, when the North Koreans are trying to put a little doubt about the progress of the discussions with the U.S., suggesting that the discussions are hitting a snag. And the president responding by saying, OK, well, Mike Pompeo's not going to North Korea then. So you're seeing a lot of political maneuvering on both sides.

What it adds up to, I think, we're only going to know in the months ahead.


[12:20:01] BASH: Barbara, thank you so much for that reporting.

And back here around the table.

Olivier, what's your take on this?

KNOX: Well, it's interesting to watch what North Korea is doing. The most important thing they're doing right now, I think, is moving like gangbusters to normalize their relations with South Korea. That's putting a bit of a wedge between the United States and that ally.

The sanctions regime (ph), the maximum pressure campaign, seems to be wobbling a bit. You've seen the Trump administration impose sanctions on several entities for violating those sanctions. I'm told there are a lot of others entities that could -- that could qualify for those kinds of sanctions.

The point about the North Korean nuclear threat, though, not to get too semantic, threat is capability plus intent. That's why we don't hear a lot about the threat -- nuclear threat to the United States.

After the Singapore summit, a number of Trump administration people came away thinking that Kim really did want to denuclearize. And that is what led them to make the comment that they didn't see -- that they thought the threat might be over because the intent was going away. I think they were wrong at the time. I think they would be wrong to say that now. But it's getting hot.

BASH: And what do you -- what do you think in terms of the White House that you cover every day? I mean President Trump, rightly so, was very proud of himself for getting further than he thought anybody else had. Took a big chance, a big risk, in meeting with a dictator to try to focus on the end, never mind the means. What does your reporting tell you about what's going on about -- within the National Security Council and the president's thinking on this?

DAVIS: I mean I think they -- so the president came out immediately after the summit and made these incredibly exuberant remarks, you know, as you mentioned earlier, that, you know, the threat is gone, you know, that the meeting itself had been a huge success. And everyone at the State Department, I think, and in the White House who works in the national security area realized that there was going to be a lot of groundwork to be laid and a lot of follow-up that was going to have to happen to make that a reality, that that wasn't actually the reality at that point, but they were going to work very hard to make that the reality. And I think what we've seen in the weeks and months since is those efforts have run into a series of brick walls or dead ends, and we've seen Mike Pompeo wanting to move forward with this, you know, appointment of a special envoy and the scheduling of new meetings, but realizing through this letter and through the communication that they're having with the North Koreans and the South Koreans, frankly, that this is not actually on the track that they want it to be on.

BASH: Right.

DAVIS: And they can't keep saying that these things are a reality if they're not. And so -- and what you heard Mattis say just then, I mean, his wording was very careful, as it always is. The president directed us to call off those military exercises. Well, if you recall, that took everyone by surprise a bit right after that summit.

BASH: Yes, it did.

DAVIS: And so we did it when he asked us to. But at this point, they're looking at the landscape and they don't -- I don't think he sees any likelihood that that's going to be happening again.

BASH: And, let's remember, we've seen this movie before in several presidencies of both parties trying with Kim Jong-un's father and grandfather to find a way around this and then ended up at a stalemate. And that's something that Angus King, independent senator of Maine, made very clear today.


SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: This administration doesn't seem to want to remember history. This is the fifth time we've been in negotiations about nuclear weapons with North Korea, and the dance has been pretty much the same each time. They come up, they talk about making concessions and backing off, they get concessions from us or from the Chinese or from other people that are interested, and then they backslide.

So this is not unusual. And I'm afraid -- what worries me is that the administration might lurch from excessive optimism to excessive pessimism and let slip at least an opportunity to keep talking.


BASH: There's somebody who caucuses with the Democrats saying just at least stay at the table.

KAPUR: Right. And there is a political component to all of this, which is that President Trump did get high marks from the public for attempting diplomacy with North Korea, which came after a long period of saber rattling that made a lot of people nervous about, you know, potentially the worst happening. I was in Tennessee some weeks ago, and the Democratic candidate, Phil

Bredesen, praised the president for trying something new and different. That's where we were. But the polls show that the -- that that -- the president's handling of this issue seems to be slipping a little bit. And I wonder how voters are going to react between now and November given that this was one of the few things, along with the economy, that the president was getting high marks for.

JOHNSON: Yes, in the moment, it was an example of him not caring what history was, not caring what had happened in previous administrations and just doing what he wanted to do. And people liked that. But now he's having to deal with the consequences of doing what he's doing. And voters are seeing, oh, right, that history that we forgot about.

BASH: Right.

JOHNSON: That's playing out again

BASH: And, look, we're in the middle of this. We don't know how it's going to end. And why don't we just quote John McCain now. It's always darkest before it's black.

[12:24:48] Up next, speaking of John McCain, he certainly was one of a kind, but does that mean he's the last of a dying breed? We'll discuss, next.


BASH: Welcome back.

Later this afternoon, John McCain's best friend in the U.S. Senate will take to the Senate floor and speak about the comrade he lost and also about the maverick's mission coming to an end.

Over at the White House, the president finally did what friends and colleagues were begging him to do, the right thing, releasing a statement on the death of McCain, saying, despite our differences on 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.