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Bernie Backed Gillum versus Trump-Backed DeSantis Win in Florida Primaries; Trump Warns of Violence From Left if GOP Loses Midterms; Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 10:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[10:00:00] ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: The shock has barely worn off from last night's primary election bombshell in Florida but already the drama has begun, as we lead up to November. President Trump starting his morning with an attaboy for the Republican he endorsed in Florida's GOP gubernatorial race and a swipe at the progressive who came from far behind a five-person field to win the Democratic nomination.

Andrew Gillum is the mayor of Tallahassee, the first African-American nominee for Florida governor. This morning he told CNN he is not afraid of the president nor of his opponent, current U.S. Congressman Ron DeSantis.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANDREW GILLUM (D), FLORIDA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis are both scraping from the bottom of the barrel. 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. They're going to be looking for a governor who is going to appeal to our higher aspirations as a state.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Larry Sabato joins me now. He of course heads the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

You know, Florida just keeps on giving. A little bit of drama coming out overnight. But as we're looking at what is shaping up in this gubernatorial race, we're also looking at two extremes, Larry. Where does that leave folks in the middle?

LARRY SABATO, CENTER FOR POLITICS, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: It leaves them trying to find a candidate, Erica. Look, Florida is the largest, most important swing state by a mile. Yes, California is bigger, New York is bigger, but they're one party, essentially. Texas is the same way, more or less.

This race really matters because both the right and the left have put down markers here. They've said for years, give us our kinds of candidates. We'll stir the base. We'll get them out in large numbers in midterms and we'll shock you because we can elect a candidate on the right or on the left. Well, now they've got Florida as their ultimate test case and they're going to have to try and produce. One side will and one side won't.

HILL: Just from a practical standpoint, how nasty is this going to get in the next 10 weeks?

SABATO: You know, we have to get an entirely new grading scale on nastiness because, you know, the old nasty now is considered mild mannered. I'd say very, very nasty. Will there be contests that are nastier? Sure. The 2020 presidential campaign. That's what we can have to look forward to there. But this one will be exceptionally nasty because you can already see all the different dividing streams in American politics coming together, from party and ideology, to race and class. It's all going to be present in this cauldron called Florida.

HILL: So all of that is precedent, especially with each candidate. They're appealing to the folks who help get them to where they are today. Yet as we started off talking about, there is going to be a reach for those folks in the middle. How much do you see that coming from both of these candidates and where can they reach out in a genuine way to try to bring some of those folks over to the side?

SABATO: It's amusing, in a way. They campaigned very hard on the right or the left during the entire primary company. Their interviews last night and this morning, I saw the Gillum interview on CNN, their interviews have tried to reach out to the center. Suddenly, Andrew Gillum is telling, yes, yes, I'm a Sanders progressive. He came in and supported me, and Tom Steyer is for me and George Soros. But hey, I was for Hillary Clinton in 2016, not Bernie Sanders.

On Ron DeSantis' side, he's talking bread and butter issues, family oriented issues, rather than ideological mileposts. They'll both try to do it. But they have something called a record. And, you know, that always kind of weighs you down. And there's videotape or I guess you have digital now. But there is something to show.

HILL: And I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of that being pulled out of the digital archives if you will.

Let's really quickly tough on Arizona, because McSally obviously beating her two more far-right candidates, the two more far-right candidates there in the primary. The big question, of course, is what happens now moving into November for her?

SABATO: Arizona is one of those states, like Georgia, that is gradually changing and becoming more Democratic. There are states becoming more Republican like Minnesota and Maine. But in Arizona, this is also going to be fascinating. You've got two women running. The first woman ever will be elected to the U.S. Senate, though Arizona has had women governors. They're certainly open to women candidacies.

McSally really performed well. She got an absolute majority against two candidates of the far-right. So she starts out in a stronger position than expected, but the Democrat Kyrsten Sinema has been leading in most of the public and private polls. I think that will go right down to the wire. It's going to be very, very competitive. HILL: It's going to keep us all very busy.

Larry Sabato, always good to speak with you. Thank you.

SABATO: Thanks, Erica.

[10:05:00] HILL: Joining me now to discuss Abigail Tracy, staff writer for "Vanity Fair" and Toluse Olorunnipa who's White House reporter for Bloomberg News.

Good to have both of you with us. Look, there was a lot of focus on both of these states, obviously, moving in and on to this point.

Toluse, when you look at what we saw coming out of it and even just the reaction from the White House this morning, not entirely surprising. How much focus do we expect from President Trump, especially in Florida, moving into November?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, BLOOMBERG NEWS: Yes, Erica, Larry said it pretty well when he said Florida is the biggest swing state in the country. It's probably the most important swing state as we look towards 2020. President Trump is a part-time resident of Florida. He cares a lot about what happens in that state. Not only personally but also for his political future.

Democrats are trying to pull off what has not been done for the last 20 years, which is win as a Democratic -- have a Democrat win in the governor's race there. Full disclosure, I happen to be from Tallahassee, Mayor Gillum was my hometown mayor. So President Trump saying, you know, there is a bunch of crime and horrible things happening in Tallahassee is reflective of what President Trump is going to try to do.

He's going to spend a lot of time campaigning for Ron DeSantis, trying to make sure that Republicans keep the governorship in that state. But also there's going to be a number of high ranking heavy hitter Democrats who are looking towards 2020 as well. We already saw Bernie Sanders go down there. You're going to see a large number of people trying to help Mayor Gillum win that race, pull off something the Democrats have not been able do and look towards 2020 and potentially have that swing state go back into the column for Democrats.

HILL: Even more folks making their way to Florida than the normal --

(LAUGHTER)

HILL: Ones of choice that we're going to see over the next 10 weeks.

Really quickly, too, I just want to pick up on what you said about being from Tallahassee. What have you heard from folks this morning, just anecdotally, about how they're feeling in terms of where the state is this morning, waking up?

OLORUNNIPA: Yes. They realized that this is something that defied the polls. That the story that Andrew Gillum was able to tell on the campaign trail about being the son of a construction worker and a bus driver, rising through the ranks of being sort of this young dynamic progressive is a story that is really attuned to the times and the Democrats are looking for someone who can bring out voters who haven't normally turned out during midterm elections.

The last two governor's races were won just by 1 percent. Republicans were just able to squeak through. And part of that was because there was a deflated Democratic base, people did not turn out. And they're hoping that Andrew Gillum can put together a coalition of the Bernie voters, the Hillary voters, a lot of the independents, and pull off a victory here.

It's going to be tough because you do have President Trump putting a lot of focus on this race. But they're thinking that they may be able pull this off.

HILL: Abigail, the president meeting earlier this week with evangelical leaders. And we're learning that in that meeting he warned about the upcoming election, the midterms. He warned about Democrats taking the House and the violence that would come with it. Talking about Antifa, and that there would be a violent reaction. It's an interesting message for the president. Is it one, though, that could actually work?

ABIGAIL TRACY, STAFF REPORTER, VANITY FAIR: Well, I think it's interesting. I think as Toluse just noted, you know, when he is discussing Tallahassee, he is relying on a similar strategy and similar tactic and sort of, you know, riling people up in terms of preying on their fears. And we definitely saw that during the campaign. Whether it will work during the midterms is a different question, though.

I think, you know, when you are looking at the way -- the way in which he was appealing to evangelical leaders during the campaign he used a similar sort of language, but also many of these large promises, you know, that he would appoint conservative Supreme Court justices who would immediately overturn Roe v. Wade. And I think one of the interesting things that you're seeing now is his rhetoric in that meeting with evangelical leaders was really kind of focused on look at what I've achieved so far. We have to make sure that that's not taken away from us.

HILL: Right.

TRACY: That we're not robbed of those.

HILL: It's interesting. All of this could be overturned immediately, which is somewhat ironic as we've seen -- you know, everything the president -- yes, it could. I mean, a lot of things can be overturned. They can also be overturned when somebody else, you know, gets the White House as we saw with President Trump.

It's fascinating, though, that this message, I wonder how public it will become? Because this was meeting with evangelical leaders behind closed doors here. Could it be that direct, though, on the campaign trail? TRACY: You know, I think one of the interesting things about Donald

Trump is when you watch him, when you watch him goes to these different campaign rallies, and, you know, he sort of tests these lines, right? He sort of tries -- he dangles something out there to see if there is a response. And I think in this audience among evangelical leaders, there likely was one of those responses that suggests that, you know, it might be something that he returns to. Whether it will be sort of as strong in terms of his language and in terms of his rhetoric remains to be seen. But I certainly think that this is, you know, a strategy or a tactic and line that we are going to see resurfaced.

HILL: We'll see if it going to be -- gets picked up by others as well.

[10:10:02] Toluse, the other big topic, of course, today in Washington, Jeff Sessions. It is no secret that the president would like Jeff Sessions to leave his post as attorney general. Kellyanne Conway was asked this morning if she had -- if the president still had confidence in the AG. She didn't answer that question on the White House lawn this morning. We're seeing a shift in terms of what we're hearing from some Republican senators. What are you hearing? Where do things stand this morning for Jeff Sessions?

OLORUNNIPA: Yes, whenever I talk to sources within the White House, they make it pretty clear that even though Jeff Sessions is pushing for the president's agenda in the Justice Department, every time the president hears the name of Jeff Sessions or sees him, he thinks about the recusal, he thinks about the Russia investigation, he blames Jeff Sessions for the cloud that's hanging over his administration with this ongoing Mueller probe.

And he just can't see past that. And Republicans have been trying to get the president not to take any action before the midterms because they know how explosive this would be. But they are starting to basically realize that the president is likely to make this decision at some point, so they're trying to sort of massage the messaging around it and say, you know, the president deserves to have someone who he has confidence in and this is not a lifetime post, and a number of attorney generals don't stay through for the full presidential term.

So you're hearing from some senators trying to lay the groundwork for President Trump getting rid of their former colleague Jeff Sessions. But there are still a number of senators on the Republican side, they are saying that Mr. Sessions is doing a good job and there's no reason he should be ousted from his post.

HILL: Abigail Tracy, Toluse Olorunnipa, appreciate you both joining us this morning. Thank you.

Still to come, I'll speak with the evangelical leader who was in the room when the president warned of violence if Republicans were to lose the midterms. What does he make of that message?

Plus the first memorial for Senator John McCain begins in just hours. Ahead, much more on how the late senator is being remembered by some of his closest friends.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:16:19] HILL: President Trump trying to rally his base, rather, at a dinner with evangelical supporters this week. And at that event he painted a stark picture for Republicans if they suffered losses in the midterms, saying, quote, "They," meaning the Democrats, "will overturn everything that we've done and they will do it quickly and violently. And violently. There is violence," he said. "When you look at Antifa, these are violent people."

Let's talk with someone who was in the room. Tony Perkins joins us now. He's of course president of the Family Research Council.

Good to have you with us today. So you were in that meeting.

TONY PERKINS, PRESIDENT, FAMILY RESEARCH COUNCIL: Thank you, Erica.

HILL: The president -- the president, those comments, his stark warning coming out of his touting a number of accomplishments for conservative Christians in terms of his agenda, what he's managed to do. How did you take the president's comments about warning that things will turn violent if Republicans were not successful?

PERKINS: Well, thanks for the question because I know that there has been some audio that's been out there that was kind of a little snippet of what the president had to say. And I think it is important to the know what he said in the context of what he said. And he did go through a list of what's been accomplished under this administration as it pertains to religious freedom and the freedom of religious expression.

And we look at the issue -- he talked about the Johnson amendment, which is in many ways symbolic. But he talked about the Johnson Amendment, he talked about HHS mandate, you know, the Little Sisters of the Poor, the nuns being forced to fund contraceptive in their health care. That's gone.

He talked about the freedom of religion in our nation's military, those things that are important to the evangelicals. And he said, look, this is not a time to be complacent. I think that was the message that was received by those in the room that, look, don't think that this is just going to continue. If there is a turnover in the House or the elections, they all have consequences, we know that, this stuff could end.

And it could be overturned very quickly. Don't think it's just going to trickle out because we see the energy on the other side. Now he did make a reference to Antifa which has in many ways become the face of the left. Now I don't -- I don't think anybody in the room suggested that there was going to be --

(CROSSTALK)

HILL: I think most Democrats and political candidates --

PERKINS: -- violence across the nation.

HILL: Right. But I'm going to stop you for a second there. It's a reach to say that Antifa is now the face of the left. I think that would be a bit of a stretch.

PERKINS: Yes, I think -- well, I don't know. I mean, you talk about violence, the violence is on the left. You see Antifa that are right. You don't see any evangelicals out there rioting. You know, bumping cars.

(CROSSTALK)

HILL: You did not see evangelicals so let's talk about the far right, the far right and what we have seen in Charlottesville and other places, there is a lot of violence there.

PERKINS: Yes, but I can tell you this.

HILL: So this is --

PERKINS: The evangelicals do not embrace them or want anything to do with them. And that is the base of the president. In terms of violence, in terms of silencing those who want to engage in the political process, we denounce that. We believe everybody in America should have a right to participate in our process. And when you begin to suppress people and their views, that's when have you violence. And I think you see that more on the left. You see the violence coming forth on the left.

(CROSSTALK)

HILL: Look, the --

PERKINS: On Antifa, you see the Southern Poverty Law Center.

HILL: The president is the one who says both sides. The president is the one who said both sides. So it is -- there is not an equivalence there. But I do want to move on from this because the other thing also you said --

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS: Let me just be very clear. Erica, let me be very clear. We don't believe that there is any room for violence in our republic when it comes to shaping the future of our country. We have --

HILL: I think many Americans will appreciate you saying that, they appreciate hearing that from you. I do want to pick up on something you said as well, though, you talked about the president talking about the Johnson Amendment. And he did in listing that, and talking about his gains, talking about, you know, getting rid of Johnson administration. This of course is what forbids churches, other organizations, from endorsing presidential candidates. He did not get rid of that law. It is still on the books. That is there. That has not changed. [10:20:02] PERKINS: Yes. What he did by executive order, he

suspended the implementation or the enforcement of the Johnson Amendment. But really, the -- and we actually talked about this at the dinner Monday night, the tax exemption for churches and non- profits is really symbolic. All right? That should not keep us from speaking out on the issues, speaking out on the direction of our country. And it's really much like the issue of Merry Christmas. It is symbolic. But it's deep in its symbolism and it means a lot to evangelicals because it represents an effort to try to silence the church and its voice in our culture and our country.

So, you're absolutely right, it's not gone, although Congress is working on it. I think it's going to come back in the next version of the tax reform bill. So it's still there, it's still being discussed.

HILL: Right.

PERKINS: And I think the president should be commended for focusing on that because he's communicating a message to religious Americans.

HILL: He is. He is communicating that message to you but the message should be accurate, should it not? Because this is a president who has on multiple occasions had a challenge when it comes to fact. So in terms of his credibility moving forward one should not --

PERKINS: Well, Erica, I think --

HILL: To say that he got rid of a law that is actually still there, would you agree?

PERKINS: Well, but in -- well, from a standpoint of it being enforced today and churches being silenced by the IRS, it's not happening.

HILL: From the standpoint of being factually accurate.

PERKINS: So it is gone for now. But -- well, that's why he went on to say that all this can be gone, all this can be overturned. The next president can eliminate that executive order.

(CROSSTALK)

HILL: So let me pick up on that then. Absolutely. And this president has done a lot of that. It is the power of the president. We saw so many things that he overturned by executive order.

PERKINS: Yes, You're absolutely correct. You are absolutely correct.

HILL: Everything he wanted to do, right? And that's what we get in any election, right? And some people are going to be happy.

PERKINS: You are absolutely correct.

HILL: Some are not. But --

PERKINS: Yes. HILL: Do you believe that it was a smart message for the president to

equate changes because of a -- an election and politics will automatically lead to violence? That is a dire message. Is that something that you want to bring back --

(CROSSTALK)

PERKINS: Well, yes -- no, no, I don't think -- that's not what I heard.

HILL: Is that the image that you want to bring back? But he did use the word violence and he used it more than once.

PERKINS: He did.

HILL: Was that smart on his point to go that dark?

PERKINS: Look, Erica, let me just say this. As a former reporter, I've been a defender of the media. I covered politics and I became an advocate and I got into it. And I've been a defender of the media. And I know you're just working with what you have, you have that snippet of what was said there. But I'm just saying in the broader context, what he said was this. He said look, he was communicating, and I believe the vast majority of the hundred of us who were in the room, this is what we heard.

That this is not a time to be complacent. That there is this energy on the left. It's being manifested in violence. I did not hear him say that an election is going to lead to violence. I think what he was drawing on was the fact that there is this -- there is this vengeance, there is this effort on the other side that's not mediocre. It is very clear. It's very strong and don't think that this election is just going to unfold on its own.

So I think that was the message that was being communicated. I did not hear him -- I did not interpret him to say that the outcome of the election is going to lead violence in the streets and violence in the churches. I did not interpret it as that.

HILL: So you're saying that -- so you didn't interpret it that way. But he did, in fact, are you disputing the fact that --

PERKINS: He used the word violence, yes.

HILL: OK.

PERKINS: But I think --

HILL: Right, so let me -- but picking up on that, so you're talking about how you interpreted it.

PERKINS: Right.

HILL: As other Americans are hearing this message --

PERKINS: And I was in the room. I was there for -- HILL: Exactly.

PERKINS: I was there for the whole conference.

HILL: And that's why we want to talk to you. That's absolutely why we wanted to talk you.

PERKINS: Yes, exactly.

HILL: And that's why I want to hear how you interpret it. That's how you interpret it. This is a message that the president gave out. Obviously, one would imagine he is hoping that it gets back to, you know, folks who you interact with every day, the congregation of some of those evangelical leaders. Is this a message that can unite the country?

PERKINS: I think the message was this. This is not a time to be complacent. If you are happy with the direction of this nation and you're right, not everybody is. OK. Not everybody was happy under Barack Obama. I was not happy with his policies and the vast majority of evangelicals were not happy. But if you're happy with the freedom of religious expression in this country once again, having a revival of the First Amendment, then this is not a time to be complacent.

Because those on the other side when they take control are not going to be -- they're not going to be unfocused. They're going to be focused in overturning what has been accomplished in the last two years. That was the message and that is the message that's being communicated in churches across America.

HILL: Tony Perkins, appreciate you joining us today. Thank you.

PERKINS: All right, Erica. Great to be with you. Have a great day.

HILL: You too.

Still to come, it seems that GOP senators can't agree when it comes to the fate, the future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[10:29:23] HILL: Mixed messages this morning from Capitol Hill over the future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the man the president has of course publicly bashed on Twitter repeatedly and privately talked about firing. Sources telling CNN Sessions is getting hold of support, though, from some Republican senators, most notably, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: This of course comes after the stunning about-face by McConnell's Republican colleague Senator Lindsey Graham who opened the door to getting rid of Session, saying the attorney general's relationship with the president is, in his words, beyond repair.

Joining me now to discuss Republican Senator John Hogan from North Dakota.