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Trump Announces Don McGahn Leaving West Wing; GOP Reacts Strongly on McGahn Departure; Trump Wants DOJ to Investigate If China Hacked Clinton's E-mails; Another Trump Organization Employee Talked to Special Council in Cohen Case; Prosecutors: Multiple Trump Organization Personnel Involved in Cohen Reimbursement Scheme; Congressional Showdowns in Florida, Georgia, Arizona; Services Begin for Sen. John McCain. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 11:00   ET


(11:00:00] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Andy Scholes, good to see you.

Thank you all for joining me. I'm Erica Hill, in for Poppy Harlow.

"AT THIS HOUR" starts right now.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANHOR: Hello. I'm Ryan Nobles, in for Kate Baldwin.

We begin this hour with breaking news. Just minutes ago, President Trump announced the departure of a key figure in the West Wing. His tweet, "White House Counsel Don McGahn will be leaving his position in the fall shortly after the confirmation, hopefully, of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. I have worked with Don a long time and truly appreciate his service."

CNN's Sarah Westwood is at the White House.

Sarah, this probably doesn't come too much of a surprise that Don McGahn is leaving. This is someone that had extraordinary access to President Trump. What should we take from this announcement?

SARAH WESTWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: That's right, Ryan. President Trump is announcing via Twitter something we expected for a long time McGahn will be leaving the White House in the weeks ahead. Obviously, the relationship between President Trump and Don McGahn has been at times complicated, even contentious. And there was another speed bump in the road in terms of their relationship just weeks ago when we learned earlier this month just how extensive McGahn had cooperated with investigators on Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe. It's not sure President Trump knew at the time the extent of that cooperation.

McGahn's departure is generating strong reaction from conservatives, including Senate Judiciary chairman, Chuck Grassley, who tweeted moments ago, "Trump. I hope it's not true McGahn is leaving the White House counsel. You can't let that happen."

McGahn's tenure was considered very successful among conservatives, in part, he was able to spearhead the nomination of dozens of conservative judicial appointments, including the two very popular conservative Supreme Court nominees, Gorsuch, who was confirmed to the Supreme Court last year and, obviously Brett Kavanaugh, who McGahn has been extensively involved in working with. We don't know who his successor will be.

CNN is learning that Emmet Flood, a lawyer who joins the legal team in May, is a leading contender. McGahn will leave a big void in the White House in the eyes of conservatives because of being involved in those judicial nominations -- Ryan?

NOBLES: In part, may be why there's pushback from the Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley.

Sarah Westwood, thank you for delivering that breaking news.

Joining me now to discuss this, Julie Pace, a CNN political analyst and Washington bureau chief of the Associated Press, and Michael Zeldin, CNN legal analyst and former special assistant to Robert Mueller at the Justice Department.

Michael, first to you.

In the midst of the Russia investigation, we know Don McGahn has cooperated to a certain extent with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. What does his departure mean for the president's defense?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, McGahn has been recused from the Russia investigation. So he's got nothing to do with the day-to- day oversight of the investigation. That's Emmet Flood and J.D. Maury Raskins (ph) responsibility. His role in the White House has been getting the judges confirmed. Grassley is upset because they've had a good relationship around that.

In terms of Russia, I don't think it's any moment in terms of the judges. They have to find a new person to work with Grassley and keep plowing through these judge appointments.

NOBLES: Julie, that leads me to my question for you. To Michael's point, politically, what itself the impact of someone leak Don McGahn leaving the White House?

JULIE PACE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Any time you have a senior official in a White House who leaves, there creates a little instable as the West Wing sorts out who will replace them, if they will take that job in a different direction. To the point that Sarah made earlier, the impact is broader than that. He has been somebody in the West Wing who conservatives on Capitol Hill have looked toward as someone who is essentially representing mainstream conservatism in the West Wing. We know Trump is not particularly ideological. McGahn was there to help with Supreme Court nominations but also the broader reshaping of the judiciary across the country that we've seen. It's something that Mitch McConnell, Chuck Grassley has given the White House credit for. McGahn has been a central player in that.

NOBLES: Let's read the Grassley tweet again. He said, he's tweeting directly to the president. He says, "i hope it's not true McGahn is leaving White House counsel. You can't let this happen." It seems interesting, Julie, that the Senate Judiciary chairman, who probably has the ability to call the White House and talk to the president about this, is using Twitter as his means of communication, or maybe it's not in this administration.

PACE: This is the Trump effect. You go on TV or tweet to get your message through. Even though I'm sure Chuck Grassley also is calling the White House to deliver that message. But I think it speaks to what has been for Republicans the most successful part of this administration. It's not the tax law. It's the remaking of the judiciary. Chuck Grassley has spent so many years on his career on that and he feels over the past 17, 18 months that has been a success for Trump and Don McGahn at the center of that effort.

[11:05:14] NOBLES: So, Michael, getting back to this point of how cooperative Don McGahn has been with the Mueller investigation, we know he sat with them on three different occasions for more than 30 hours. And his attorneys have been clear he has told the truth at every point, his goal wasn't necessarily to incriminate the president he was honest. Do you think that has any role with his decision to leave the White House right now?

ZELDIN: No I think the decision for him to leave the White House was foregone. He and the president are reputed to have a very strained relationship. Almost as strained as the president's relationship with Sessions. I think the time has come for McGahn to leave. I don't think it's related to his cooperation with the White House, with the investigation of Russia by the special counsel. I just think it's the point in time where they will make a change. We will probably see the same thing with Sessions. We may see the same with others. This is sort of the two-year mark. This is when things turn over. These guys work really long, hard hours at these government jobs and they -- this is where they burn out, pretty much.

NOBLES: Julie, this is not the only topic the president is tweeting about this morning. He is calling on the Justice Department to investigate whether the Chinese hacked into Hillary Clinton's e-mail server. Is this another clear indication that the president is trying to put this bias into the Clinton e-mail investigation with this drum beat of criticism against Attorney General Sessions?

PACE: Sure. I mean, he's trying to make the point that Jeff Sessions, he feels, is only investigating things or only leading the Justice Department that is investigating things that relate to his administration and he would like to see them switch gears here. What he misses, though, in these tweets, is that Jeff Sessions isn't recused from simply investigations related to the Trump campaign. He's recused from investigations related to the 2016 election broadly. So it's not within Jeff Sessions' purview to open an investigation into Hillary Clinton because he had to step away from all matters related to the 2016 election. And that should have been no surprise that that would have had to have happened given his role in the campaign. It's Trump who seems to be the only one surprised that Sessions had to have a recusal as election matters.

NOBLES: Julie, Michael Zeldin, stay where you are. We have more breaking news, I want to get your take on.

Sources tell CNN a second employee of the Trump administration discussed a potential immunity deal with federal prosecutors. They're the same Feds who charged former Trump attorney, Michael Cohen, with eight counts last week.

Erica Orden has worked her sources on this.

Erica, what can you tell us?

ERICA ORDEN, CNN REPORTER: So we learned last week that Trump Org, CFO Allen Weisselberg has been granted immunity in a Michael Cohen case. We know there was another Trump Org employee who held potential talks with prosecutors. The employee was not granted immunity and wasn't called to testify before the grand jury.

The court filings, though, show that prosecutors -- prosecutors say that there were multiple Trump Org executives or employees involved in what they called a reimbursement scheme to pay back Michael Cohen for the money he paid to women who had claims against Trump.

NOBLES: A significant development there.

Erica, thank you very much.

We are going to talk now to Michael Zeldin about this development.

Michael, what could lead to an immunity deal like this falling apart, according to Erica's reporting here?

ZELDIN: That they don't need the information that the individual needs to give. That if the person wants to talk voluntarily, they will take that but they won't immunize him. It also could be there's no underlying criminal behavior that needs an immunity deal either. We don't know. Either they received the information they wanted from others or they're determined that this person didn't have information that was relevant to them or it means the person is still in jeopardy and they're not going to immunize them. They will pursue them potentially as a criminal subject of the investigation. Could be any of those three things, Ryan. We don't know yet because the reporting is too early.

NOBLES: Right. This, of course, another person who works for the president's company that is at least negotiating with investigators on some of these key points. Does the president and the White House have to worry another person could flip?

[11:09:54] ZELDIN: Sure. If the investigation here is the beginnings of our transparency into a broader southern district of New York financial crimes investigation against the Trump Organization, it is beyond the FEC, Cohen, Stormy Daniels payment issue we saw the other week, then that's a bad sign for the Trump organization. Because nobody wants their private books and records to be inquired of by the Internal Revenue Service or the Department of Justice to determine whether or not there's a financial crime. We just don't know again if this is limited to the Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal payments, it's not as scary, if you will, for the White House than if it is to the beginnings of a broader financial crimes investigation, in which case the White House should have more to worry about.

NOBLES: According to Erica's reporting, this person not granted immunity, did not testify in front of a grand jury. Does that mean that they didn't necessarily cooperate with prosecutors? Or is there still a chance they may have contributed to the investigation in some capacity?

ZELDIN: It could mean one of two things, either, one, as you just said, they could have cooperated without an immunity agreement. Witnesses do speak to prosecutors all the time without immunity deals. Immunity is sort of a rare occasion in the criminal justice system. Or it could be that they determined that this person is a target and we're not going to immunize them. They want to pursue them as a criminal defendant type of a relationship. And so we just don't know. We just don't know.

NOBLES: Michael Zeldin, thank you for your perspective. We appreciate it, responding to this breaking news.

Still to come, the primary upset in Florida that set up a showdown between a Bernie Sanders-backed progressive and a Trump-loving Republican, what it means for the midterms and beyond.

Plus, soon, the first services to begin to honor the life of Senator John McCain, as we learn new details about why McCain picked President Obama not President Trump to be a part of his ceremonies. Stay with us.


[11:16:22] NOBLES: So have you ever wondered what would happen if Bernie Sanders faced off against Donald Trump? Well, will you get your chance coming up on Election Day because of the results that took place in Nevada overnight. That's where Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, won the Democratic primary, and surprising results setting up a showdown of an arch supporter of Donald Trump, that is Congressman Ron DeSantis.

Gillum pulled off a stunning victory last night. Take a listen to what he had to say.


ANDREW GILLUM, (D), TALLAHASSEE MAYOR & SENATE CANDIDATE: All of the issues we care so deeply about, what's beneath my name is the belief that we ought to pay teachers for doing what they are worth for the most difficult job on this earth.


GILLUM: What is beneath my name is our belief that our public education system and our public tax dollars ought to be used for the public education system to educate in these off years.



NOBLES: And Mayor Gillum will take on Congressman Ron DeSantis in November. DeSantis getting a big boost of President Trump's enforcement.

Joining me, CNN politics editor, Harry Enten.

Harry, first of all, from your view, could this be the first time that on a stage this big we've seen someone in the mold of Donald Trump facing off against someone in the mold of Bernie Sanders?

HARRY ENTEN, CNN POLITIC EDITOR: You have this race in Florida and just north in Georgia you will have something similar with Brian Kemp going up against Stacy Abrams. We have a big test in the south. This is what the Bernie Sanders people said, if you run to the left, if you provide a true contrast with Donald Trump, and have a personal back story, you can beat Donald Trump. Florida and Georgia will test that theory.

NOBLES: The president is already weighing in on this. He's trying to typecast Gillum, describing him as the biggest dream for the DeSantis campaign, he's calling it. He calls him a failed Socialist mayor. The last time the Democrats won statewide in Florida, there was a liberal African-American at the top of the ticket by the name of Barack Obama. Is Gillum more like Bernie Sanders or Barack Obama?

ENTEN: I think he's both. What you need in that state, you need heavy African-American turnout. Bernie Sanders suffered from that. Hillary Clinton was drawing huge African-American voters. Yes, Gillum goes after the Democratic base the progressive base. He is someone that appeals to American voters and young voters. Someone that can do all three can with in Florida.

NOBLES: Florida may be different from Georgia as a microcosm of the country. A decidedly purple state, goes back and forth in elections. Conventional wisdom has been, after a primary, you get back to the center to appeal to those Independent voters. Do you feel the case can be made here that they will run up the base and their voters in their respective camps to win?

ENTEN: Look, they have an won in the state of Florida. Whatever they were doing, nominating white moderate candidates wasn't working. Why not do something new? It's a good test case for 2020. Because if Gillum is able do that in a midterm election and bring them out when they are more likely to vote in 2020, if you run to the left, if you are progressive and provide a true contrast, you can win. That can potentially help them in the primary.

[11:19:58] NOBLES: That brings us to Arizona. McSally running against two Trump-like candidates. She is walking a fine line between the establishment and President Trump. Do you think she moves closer to the middle? Arizona is a red state. President Trump won there.

ENTEN: Look, Martha McSally is different than Ron DeSantis. She has a much more moderate voting record. On the Democratic side of the aisle, she has a moderate record. So Arizona is the complete opposite of Florida. In Arizona, you have what we normally think of as politics, you go towards the center in the general election. In Florida, we have a different test case.

NOBLES: Then if you are advising Martha McSally, do you tell Donald Trump to come into Arizona or keep him as far away as possible?

ENTEN: If you're looking at the polling and see Donald Trump is more unpopular than popular in the state of Arizona, I would probably keep, advise her to say, Donald Trump, can you stay, tweet some things out. Ron DeSantis is a different story. Trump's numbers are better for him than --


NOBLES: Expand on that. The president's numbers are firm in Florida and close to his disapproval numbers, right?

ENTEN: Exactly. You don't see that in the governor's race. You see it in the Senate race where, Rick Scott, the current governor, is running strongly in the general election against Bill Nelson, that fits this mold of the old white male, more moderate. It will be interesting, if Gillum wins, and Nelson loses. The progressives base will have a big argument to make in 2020.

NOBLES: It can bolster Bernie Sanders' 2020 hopes.

Harry, thank you so much. Appreciate you're being here.

ENTEN: Thank you.

NOBLES: Coming up, the first services honoring the life of Senate John McCain set to start moments from now. It comes as we learn new details on why McCain asked his former rival, President Obama to live his eulogy at his funeral. That's next.



[11:26:32] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I learned that serving a cause greater than yourself hurts. Anybody in the military can tell you the risk you take. He couldn't put his jacket on, he couldn't comb his hair because he got hurt serving a cause greater than himself.

So to those who are striving, as a young person, remember John McCain, he failed a lot but he never quit. And the reason we are talking about him today and the reason I'm crying is because he was successful in spite of his failures.


(END VIDEO CLIP) NOBLES: An emotional Senator Lindsey Graham there, honoring the life of his great friends and colleague, Senator John McCain. A hero's sendoff for McCain begins just a short time from now on what would have been his 82nd birthday. His body is due to arrive at the capitol building, where he will lie in state today. Long lines of mourners are expected at a public viewing following a private ceremony in the rotunda. The state and the nation beginning a five-day farewell to the decorated Vietnam war hero, prisoner of war, and six-term Senator.

Joining me now to discuss the life of Senator McCain, Democratic Senator Jack Reed, of Rhode Island. He's the ranking member on the Armed Services Committee, which Senator McCain chaired up until his death.

Senator, you also spoke on the floor of the Senate to pay tribute to McCain. You are obviously a Democrat. He's a Republican. You are Army. He's Navy. The two of you were able work together on the Armed Services Committee for many years. What do you want Americans to know about John McCain?

REP. JACK REED, (D), RHODE ISLAND: John McCain is an extraordinary American hero, who dedicated his life to this country. As an aviator, his terrible experience in Vietnam as a prisoner and then as a congressman and a Senator. He did it selflessly. He did it with sacrifice and great compassion and ultimately because he understood the potential and the decency of all Americans. He wanted to summon that decency and potential and use it to the next generation. Wonderful man.

NOBLES: You and Senator McCain traveled to Vietnam together in 2015 to mark the end of the war. What can you tell me about that trip?

REED: It was for me a memorable trip to be in Hanoi and to be actually in the Hanoi Hilton, where John was held and to have him talk about it, very candidly, but with some emotion, was just memorable. It showed to me the courage he had. I don't think that frankly I could have endured what he endured. I think very few people could. Then to come back, and what was really remarkable, not to be bitter, not to be dismissive. In fact, John was one of the key brokers of the recognition of the Vietnam by the United States. We were there celebrating the 40th anniversary of the end of the war. So it was remarkable to bear that punishment without bitterness or regret, and to be constructive and positive was remarkable.

[11:29:58] NOBLES: So many stories about the grace of John McCain, no doubt about that.

Our Jeff Zeleny was reporting Senator McCain asked Barack Obama and George W. Bush to eulogize him. They were surprised, the former presidents, when they got the call from Senator McCain. They were political rivals at one point.