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Florida Republican Candidate Using Coded Racist Language?; White House Counsel Leaving; John McCain Remembered; Arizonans Pay Respect to McCain Lying in State. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 16:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: We just got a preview of what the midterms could look like. And it ain't pretty.

THE LEAD starts right now.

It is Trump vs. Sanders, or pretty close to it, after a primary night that is giving us a glimpse of how divided and how ugly the next few months could get.

Plus, breaking news: a monumental White House exit. The man who may know better than anyone whether President Trump obstructed justice is on his way out. What kind of crisis could he leave behind?

And this: overcome with emotion, Senator John McCain's family paying their final respects as this very hour the public gets its first chance to say goodbye to a national hero.

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

And we begin with the politics lead. The primary election that could signal the divide between Democrats and Republicans getting even bigger in Florida.

Andrew Gillum, a progressive candidate backed by Bernie Sanders, scored the Democratic nomination. He would be the first African- American governor of Florida. That is if he can beat Republican Congressman Ron DeSantis, the far right candidate endorsed by President Donald Trump.

But the morning after DeSantis won his party's nomination, he was on FOX News using language that many are calling racist today, this while talking about his opponent.


REP. RON DESANTIS (R), FLORIDA: The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda.


SCIUTTO: CNN's Phil Mattingly joins me now.

Phil, the face-off, hard not to say it, getting off to an ugly start.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, just within a matter of hours. Look, it's a race that will put somebody in position to decide things like Medicaid expansion, the drafting of the new congressional map, lay the groundwork for a swing state in 2020.

But, Jim, as you noted, it has already started into a fierce battle and it doesn't look like it's going to ease anytime soon.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): The Florida governor's races is turning heated in a hurry.

DESANTIS: He is much too liberal for Florida.

MATTINGLY: Just hours after the primaries were called, Trump-backed Republican Ron DeSantis stirring controversy with this attack on his Democratic opponent, Andrew Gillum.

DESANTIS: The last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state.

MATTINGLY: Florida Democrats immediately seized on the comments directed at Gillum, the first African-American to win a majority party nomination for governor in the Sunshine State, calling them -- quote -- "disgusting" and accusing DeSantis of launching his general election campaign with racist dog whistles.

The DeSantis campaign responded. The comments were -- quote -- "obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses," adding, "To characterize it as anything else is absurd."'

ANDREW GILLUM (D), FLORIDA GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE: It's very clear that Mr. DeSantis is taking a page directly from the campaign manual of Donald Trump, but I think he's got another taking coming to him.

MATTINGLY: Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee, pulled off a surprise upset Tuesday night fueled by progressive grassroots energy and the support of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

GILLUM: I actually believe that Florida and its rich diversity are going to be looking for a governor who's going to bring us together, not divide us, not misogynist, not racist, not bigots.

MATTINGLY: Gillum ran on support of Medicare for all and legalizing recreational marijuana and has called for the impeachment of President Trump.

DeSantis firing back on Gillum's progressive platform with a twist.

DESANTIS: He is an articulate spokesman for those far left views. And he's a charismatic candidate. And I watched those Democratic debates. None of that was my cup of tea, but, I mean, he performed better than the other people there.

MATTINGLY: DeSantis has closely aligned himself with the president, even running a primary ad featuring him teaching his children Trump- inspired lessons.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Ron loves playing with the kids.

DESANTIS: Build the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He reads stories.

DESANTIS: Then Mr. Trump said, you're fired. I love that part.

MATTINGLY: The president tweeted his congratulations to DeSantis Wednesday morning, calling Gillum "the biggest dream for Republicans because of his record."

Gillum telling the president to "@ me next time, @realDonaldTrump."

A fiery start to a hotly contested race with massive implications for 2018 and could also offer a window to the state of American politics heading into the 2020 presidential campaign.


MATTINGLY: And, Jim, President Trump was asked about DeSantis' comments today, said he hadn't heard him, but he was an exceptional candidate, kind of underscoring the fact he's going to be very present in this race.

And one of the most interesting elements about this race, Jim, is the ideological battle here. Usually, in governor's races, particularly in states like this, you see candidates try and swing quickly back to the center. There is no more stark contrast than what you see in this race in terms of where they stand on the issues, the ascendant Trumpism in the Republican Party, the progressive movement over on the other of things.


This will be a test case that just about every party will be keeping a close eye on, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes, is it a bellwether for the country?

Phil Mattingly, thanks very much.

To the panel now.

Symone, you heard the comments from Ron DeSantis there. In your view, was that an intentional dog whistle?


We didn't play this part of the clip, but he also called Mayor Gillum articulate. Articulate is something that white people say about black people, because they don't expect them to be able to speak well.

I don't -- or children, because you say, oh, the child is so articulate. Mayor Gillum is neither a child -- is not a child. He's a grown man that was the whole mayor of a city.

So, look, Ron -- the Republican nominee has clearly stated where he's going to be. Andrew Gillum is amazing. Yes, Senator Sanders and I will say Julian Castro were the two only national political figures, if you will, to come down and back him.

But this isn't a Bernie vs. Trump thing. Where Gillum is amazing, he is running on a progressive ticket. He is being authentic. And I think his authenticity is what has made the voters -- what made the voters flock to him. And that is what is going to lead him to victory, I think, come November.

SCIUTTO: Kirsten, Amanda, Jackie, do you agree on DeSantis' comments?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: absolutely. I mean, there's no question. I mean, what would be the other way to interpret it?

I don't -- and I think that he should be more sensitive, I think, to those issues. I think, like you said, it wasn't just the monkeying up comments. It's the articulate comment, which by now everybody should know...

SCIUTTO: Code words, right.

POWERS: The code words, yes.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I got to say I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that someone like DeSantis would be so dumb as to say something like that.


POWERS: You're surprised by dumbness?


CARPENTER: Here's the thing. He is Yale undergrad, Harvard Law, congressman, long career in the military. He knows what he's doing.


CARPENTER: If you concede that he's smart, why did he say that? Why did the FOX News host not interrupt him and say, sir, would you like to clarify your statement? What did you mean by that?

It's like, do we not see what's happening here? And more so, this race, I don't understand what he's doing, and also the Democratic candidate. None of them are talking about Florida issues. It's impeachment vs. witch-hunt.

Meanwhile, Florida is covered in toxic green slime. Kids are getting shot up all over the place. (CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: He's doing a better job about it.


SANDERS: He's been talking specifically about Florida issues.


CARPENTER: Yes, but the race is nationalized.

And I had to keep checking to make sure they are running for governor and not senator.


But you have seen that in a number of these races so far, have you not?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And I think that's going to be the challenge, right, for both of these candidates to stick to issues that impact Florida,instead of getting pulled, because both -- Gillum more than DeSantis is going to be put on candidates that might not be so progressive, particularly in Florida.

I think there are four House seats that are very much for play right now in Florida, that maybe those candidates aren't as progressive as Gillum, who's going to be the top of the ticket. We have already seen this Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in different places. They're making Dems all like her. And they're not.

Midterms are very different. There isn't usually an overarching theme. It's every man and woman for themselves.

SCIUTTO: And I want to get to that point later, because there's some contradictory evidence as where the party has been going to.

But before I want to do that, you heard Phil mention there that president was asked about the DeSantis' comments by my colleague Jim Acosta. Let's look how the president answered.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Yes, I didn't hear that, Jim. I have been now -- I have been actually working on the deal with Canada.

So I have not heard it. He is an extreme talent, and he will make a fantastic governor of Florida. So, I think Ron is -- he's extraordinary in so many different ways. I haven't heard that at all, no.


SCIUTTO: The president we know has been watching TV today because he was tweeting about things that he saw on FOX News. Do you buy that answer?


And I'm sure Jim Acosta fell gaslit, as do I. All Donald Trump does is watch television. So the idea that he didn't see the comment is crazy.

But I will just say to this point about the race. Andrew Gillum ran on issues. That is how he got elected. He'd beat Gwen Graham, who was the establishment favorite to win, former daughter of a governor, had EMILY's List and all these other folks backing her. No national folks wanted to touch Gillum, except Bernie and Julian Castro.

So, the way he won was a good ground game and run on the issues. He's talking about Medicare and Medicaid, like the lack of expansion in the state. He's talking about stand your ground. He's talking about the gun laws and Scott's inability to have done anything about it.

So he's talking about the issues.

POWERS: Yes, I mean, I do think if you look at the bigger picture of what's happening, that the progressives are running on issues.

I mean, they just are. Now, whether you agree with the issues or not, that's up to you. And they're winning on these issues at much higher rates than they have in the past.

The Republicans are running on being close to Trump, right? I mean, it's like -- it's not really about issues.


SCIUTTO: The president, I think he's got a 36-6 record in terms of endorsements.


POWERS: Right. But it's who can suck up to Trump the most and be the most like Trump and get Trump's approval.


But it's not really -- whereas the progressives are really talking about making some pretty serious changes to the way Democrats are thinking about some big issues.

KUCINICH: Well, and independents haven't weighed in, in this state yet.

And that's one of the reasons DeSantis has spent most of his campaign on FOX News. He's been -- over 100 times I think he's been on FOX News throughout the primary. And that was one of his main methods of communicating with people. That's not going to work in a general election, where independents actually do get to make their voices heard.

SCIUTTO: Now, on that point, I mentioned this earlier.

David Leonhardt in "The New York Times," quoting some data from The Cook Political Report, noted that the nine congressional races in Florida and Arizona yesterday, that the Democratic Party -- that the Democrats had -- and these are races that Democrats have a good chance of flipping -- that they put up fairly moderate candidates in those races.

I mean, is it correct to say that, by and large, as you look at these races, that the right and left wings are winning, or is that not backed up by the data?

POWERS: No, I mean, it's not right to say -- but what it is right to say is that there are far more progressives that are winning than in the past.

So there are enough -- there enough that could potentially win, like around 40. I mean, you can correct me. But where they could reshape the Democratic Caucus in the way that the Tea Party did. And so you do have people that are winning in places where it's a red state, and maybe they're not going to win the general election, or maybe they're just replacing another Democrat.

But even where they're replacing another Democrat, they're still going to reshape the caucus.

SCIUTTO: But so the question then is, Tea Party obviously had good success in the general. Do these progressives do well in the primary and not match that success in the general?

CARPENTER: I mean, I see so many corollaries between what's happening on the progressive side with the Tea Party, primarily because you see these insurgent candidates, like Gillum, who are beating their establishment-funded candidates. They don't have much money, but they're getting the message out.

They're activating the grassroots. They're generating a lot of enthusiasm. And they're presenting a bold contrast to what's being offered in Washington by running on specific issues, while so many Republicans like DeSantis are running on the president's coattails, and not much else.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, there's a lot more to talk about.

But, meanwhile, he's reportedly convinced President Trump not to fire Jeff Sessions in the past. So who will hold this president in check now that White House counsel Don McGahn is leaving?

Then: saying goodbye to a war hero, senator, husband and father. Family, friends and the public begin their emotional farewell to John McCain.


[16:16:32] SCIUTTO: In our national lead now, the heart-wrenching and emotional good-bye from Cindy McCain to her husband today, this as their children looked on. Their daughter Meghan overcome as she walked past for the final time her flag draped coffin. You can see it there. Right now, Arizonans are paying their final respects to the man who served them for more than three decades.

I want to bring in CNN's Nick Watt. He was inside the room for this ceremony.

Nick, emotional there certainly for the family and it seems for the Arizona public as well.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely. Listen, Jim, they've actually started letting people in early (AUDIO GAP). They have been standing in line in 102 degree heat for a few hours now. Yes, inside this morning in that service, it was intimate, it was emotional. As you mentioned, Meghan McCain breaking down, clasping her brother Jimmy's hand.

Cindy McCain, John McCain's wife of 38 years, stoic. I saw here dabbed away one tear. And as Governor Ducey described her husband as a fighter, she nodded in agreement.


WATT (voice-over): As the political world struggles to find words fit to honor him, the family of John McCain struggling with the loss of above all else a husband and father as memorials for the late senator begin.

FATHER EDWARD A. REESE: See our tears for our brother, our father, our husband, our fellow citizen, our senator.

WATT: The tireless senator from Arizona lying in state at Arizona state capitol on what would have been his 82nd birthday.

McCain meticulously (AUDIO GAP) services designed to send a message of bipartisanship even after his death. In an attempt to put petty partisanship aside, McCain asked his two former presidential rivals to eulogize him at his funeral.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: John said that night that President Obama is now my president. So, he healed the nation at a time he was hurt.

WATT: Barack Obama and George W. Bush will speak at McCain's memorial service at Washington National Cathedral Saturday, glaringly absent is President Trump.

McCain did not want the president at his funeral. Trump criticized his service and his capture in Vietnam during the election. And McCain famously voted down Trump's attempt to repeal Obamacare.

It took the president more than a day to respond to repeated calls to appropriately pay tribute to McCain.

REPORTER: Why won't you call John McCain a hero, sir? WATT: And perhaps a final jab at the president, McCain asked a

Russian dissident and Putin critic to be one of his pallbearers. Even in death, the senator of Arizona appealing to the better angels of our nature.

GOV. DOUG DUCEY (R), ARIZONA: John is probably the only politician who could get us to set aside politics and come together as a state and a nation as we have.


WATT: Governor Ducey also described the late Senator McCain as Arizona's favorite adopted son. And you can see that is true by the lines of people here to pay respects. There will be a funeral here tomorrow morning and then the senator's body will be flown to Washington for a ceremony in the National Cathedral. And he will be buried on Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery in Annapolis, Maryland -- Jim.

[16:20:01] SCIUTTO: And another chance for the public to view him here at the capitol as well. Nick Watt there in Phoenix, Arizona.

Washington honoring McCain on Saturday were both President Obama and President Bush will deliver eulogies on Senator McCain's requests, maybe not a subtle message to Donald Trump who McCain did not want there, but to a divided country as well.

I want to bring in CNN's Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, interesting because there's not a lot of friendly history between McCain and both Bush and Obama. They were surprised by McCain's request to them.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They were indeed, and that's one of the questions so many people had once this was announced. Had President Obama in particular developed some type of a relationship with McCain that we didn't know about. So I talked to friends of both men and it turned out they really hadn't. But you in April, President Obama received a phone call from Senator McCain. He said, I have a blunt question for you, will you deliver a eulogy for me? Shortly after, he made the phone call to George W. Bush.

Of course, these are two rivals, people -- the two men who stopped McCain from winning the presidency. But it's all part of the lesson and message McCain is trying to send out.

And so, I talked to several McCain advisers, including Steve Duprey, who is a longtime aide and friend of Senator McCain's, and he explained it like this. He said: I think John McCain is imparting a lesson in civility by asking the two men who defeated him to speak as an example to America that differences in political views and contests shouldn't be so important.

He goes on to say that we lose our common bounds in the civility that is or used to be a hallmark of American democracy. So, that is something clear Senator McCain trying to give a message here certainly unspoken, but President Trump is the intended recipient.

SCIUTTO: Right, and overcoming past differences here because with Obama for instance specifically, even before they ran against each other, they there was some occasional tension.

ZELENY: A lot of tension. There were generational differences. I mean, when President Obama -- Senator Obama arrived in the Senate in 2005, I was covering him then at the time, and, boy, they fought over a lot of things. Senator McCain did not necessarily respect the idea of him running for office, that he thought he was ready to be president.

I was going back to look at some of those old campaign clips in 2008. Take a look at this clip that Senator McCain said in 2008 about Senator Obama. He said: I don't seek the presidency on the presumption that I'm blessed with such personal greatness that history has anointed me to save my country in its hour of need.

Searing, sarcastic, classic John McCain. Yet, he wants President Obama to be delivering the eulogy for him. And it is a sense that he is trying to leave this again, final message and also perhaps writing a bit of history in what Senator McCain's own role was in what has now become this, you know, rather cantankerous, loud Republican Party.

SCIUTTO: No question. And just for everybody involved, right, a message that despite differences, you can overcome them and here is my way of highlighting that point.

ZELENY: Indeed.

SCIUTTO: After death sadly.

Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much.


SCIUTTO: He was reportedly the firewall when President Trump tried to fire the special counsel. What will happen now that Don McGahn is leaving the White House?


[16:27:51] SCIUTTO: Today, President Trump is confirming in a tweet of course what has been whispered for weeks now, that White House counsel Don McGahn will be leaving this fall. The departure after at times intense relationship with the president and coming only weeks after the discovery that McGahn has cooperated extensively with Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation.

CNN's Abby Phillip is at the White House.

Abby, the president said he appreciates McGahn's service but the history between these men has frankly not been rosy.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. McGahn has been in this administration since the very beginning, but

our sources tell us that for about a year you now, they have not been especially close and in that time, McGahn has also become a witness in the Mueller probe. But his departure while it was expected at some point this year, it was not expected that President Trump would announce it over Twitter. That came as a surprise to many of McGahn's allies and even members of Congress.


PHILLIP (voice-over): A top White House aide at the center of the Mueller probe now on his way out.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Don McGahn is a really good guy, been with me for a long time. Privately before this, he's represented me. He's been here now almost two years, and a lot of affection for Don.

PHILLIP: Days after learning that White House counsel Don McGahn was interviewed by special counsel investigators for 30 hours, President Trump tweeting 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've worked with Don for a long time and truly appreciate his service.

REPORTER: Are you concerned about what he said to the Mueller team?

TRUMP: No, not at all.


TRUMP: I knew he was going also. I had to approve it.

PHILLIP: For 18 months, McGahn was a central figure in this White House legal dramas.

DON MCGAHN, WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: I'm the one that has to walk into the Oval Office and advise the president on various recommendations.

PHILLIP: McGahn leading the effort to fill the federal bench with Trump picked conservative nominees spearheading the search for two Supreme Court picks and navigating a slew of controversies.

TRUMP: My counsel came, Don McGahn, White House counsel, and he told me and I asked him, and he can speak very well for himself, he said he doesn't think anything is wrong.