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Don McGahn on the Way Out This Fall; Democrats Accusing DeSantis of Racist Statement. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired August 29, 2018 - 12:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST: Welcome to "Inside Politics." I'm Dana Bash. John King is off. the primary race that trumps them all, a stunner in Florida. A Bernie Sanders-backed African-American mayor is the Democrat's surprise nominee for governor set to take on the republican who came from behind to win his primary thanks to an endorsement from the president.

And another shake-up in the Trump legal team. The president confirming what's been rumored for months, White House Lawyer Don McGahn is on the way out. And Senator Lindsey Graham will be here to sit down with me and share his fondest memories of his colleague and close friend John McCain.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: Lindsey, aren't you a lawyer? Yeah, I am, John. He says, you know the difference between a lawyer and a catfish? No, I don't. One is a bottom dwelling scum-sucking creature and the other is a fish. I'm going to miss these dumb jokes.


BASH: You're looking at live pictures of the Arizona statehouse where John McCain will soon lie in state on what would have been his 82nd birthday. Much more on his life and his legacy including an interview with his dear friend Senator Lindsey Graham in minutes but we begin with two primary races and a bright contrast between the old way and new way in politics.

In Arizona, the old way, two relative moderates winning their primaries. But in Florida, the new way -- the winning democratic candidate comes from the progressive left; the Republican from the party's Trump-loving right.

Andrew Gillum, the Democratic Mayor of Tallahassee, surged to a surprise win in Florida's democratic gubernatorial primary and republican donors thought democrat Gwen Graham would be the one on the ballot in November, that she would be the middle-of-the-road foil to run against Ron DeSantis, the former JAG officer and ubiquitous "Fox News" voice who rode on a Trump endorsement came up from a 15-point poll number from behind and look at where he finished -- 20 points ahead. Instead, he's running against Gillum, a progressive with soaring

rhetoric but hardly battle tested in a big arena. He's going to be pitted against DeSantis who is a Trump-hugging republican.


ANDREW GILLUM, DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE FOR GOVERNOR OF FLORIDA: The way the state of Florida does good. The way the state of Florida to be a leader again is not for us to pray for somebody's else's defeat or demise but for us to figure out a way that we can create a boat that all of us can ride in because I truly believe that a rising tide does lift all boats.

RON DESANTIS, REPUBLICAN CANDIDATE FOR GOVERNOR OF FLORIDA: I did have support from someone in Washington. If you walk down Pennsylvania Avenue, he lives in the White House with the pillars in front of it and I was able to talk to the president. I want to thank him for his support. I want to thank him for entrusting me with viewing me as somebody who could be a great leader for Florida.


BASH: The start this with the contrast means voters looking for a middle ground in purple Florida aren't going to find one. It also means that the drain the swamp fever of 2016 is still alive and thriving. Florida is always important. That's probably the biggest political understatement of the century, but even more so now it will be looked at as a testing ground exploding with national implications for the next presidential race in 2020.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO THE PRESIDENT: The number of the day to remember is 40. There is a 40-point swing for Ron DeSantis. He was 20 points down before this president endorsed him and followed it up with a rally in Florida on July 31st and I can't think of a candidate in this country who has leaned in more to the presidential endorsement than Ron DeSantis.


BASH: Here with me to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Jeff Zeleny and Perry Bacon with FiveThirtyEight, also "The Daily Beast's" Jackie Kucinich. Hello, everybody. You know, Kellyanne Conway is right. I mean, there are a lot of republicans who have leaned in pretty hard but DeSantis, he probably, forgive me, trumps them all. You're welcome. Happy Wednesday, and it was to his benefit in a big way.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No doubt about it. We talk a lot in the midterm election that we shouldn't read too much into what it means in 2020; not in this case. This means everything because we're truly going to see the greatest arguments under way on both sides playing out in Florida. Of course Florida is important because it has 29 electoral votes for 2020. But it's important now because who the sitting governor is, is going to be important but it's going to be a test of messages here.


A lot of democrats are nervous about this because they think he's too progressive. A lot of republicans are nervous because they think he's too close to the president. So it's a fascinating

laboratory but if you think about it, one thing is important to point out. Independents have not had their say in t his race yet; it's a closed primary so only democrats voted yesterday, republicans voted yesterday. Independents who were the most important from Orlando to Tampa, in the middle of the state and elsewhere have not weighed in yet. So that is key. I think there will be a lot of rushing to the middle on both sides in terms of message wise.

JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF WITH "THE DAILY BEAST": You have a candidate in DeSantis that he spent a lot of time on "Fox News" and you heard a lot of that -- that that was primarily one of his strategies. The other thing that Mayor Gillum had for him is he had a bunch of other candidates that were hacking away at each other the entire time and he was polling so low, they weren't really going after him. This is someone largely untested in a statewide race where we've seen this morning things getting nasty. It's not going to get any better.

BASH: Jackie, you mentioned "Fox News," I want to put something up that Mark Caputo who knows his stuff when it comes to Florida politics put on twitter. How DeSantis outfoxed Putnam, I think it's pun day here on I.P., after being endorsed December 22nd by President Trump DeSantis made 121 appearances -- 121 appearances on Fox and "Fox Business." His campaign estimates it would cost the campaign $9.3 million to purchase that kind of TV time.

PERRY BACON, SENIOR WRITER FOR FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: This is one way (inaudible) is changing, you know Adam Putnam was here on the Hill for a long time; you probably know him from that. He went down to Florida, bided his time, won the agricultural commissioner's job, ran for re-election. He had done the right thing in politics and got swept and completely sort of blown out. It wasn't even close at all last night based on "Fox News" and Donald Trump. And it tells you the fact that DeSantis has passed a lot of bills in Congress. What' he's mainly known for, at least to me, is he's been for defunding the Mueller investigation which is kind of how Donald Trump knows who he is and that's how you win the race.

BASH: And the question -- there's so many potential implications for this race. We'll see how it plays out and how candidates deal with the very, very bright spotlight that is going to be on them. I mean it's going to be huge; both of them untested in that kind of national way, I think. But the question also that I've been looking at is authenticity because one of the big reasons why Donald Trump won is because he wasn't afraid to say things that other people wouldn't say and that's true of both of these candidates in Florida.

I mean, Gillum, he had said in the primary, I want to get rid of I.C.E. which isn't in theory the greatest thing to say for a general election. He's like, no, I want to get rid of I.C.E. He's not backing down from any of his liberal positions, Medicare for all and same goes for -- same goes for DeSantis, the republican.

ZELENY: No question, he's also the "I" word, impeachment. He's not shying away from that as a lot of democrats here in Washington are, at least at the moment. But I do think the -- I think we're going to see a lot of adjustment for those independent voters. It has been an untested laboratory but we're only a couple months before early voting starts.

BASH: That's right.

ZELENY: So this is not a lot of time to, you know, readjust themselves, I guess. But I do think that, I mean, I think a lot of us outside Florida will be talking about Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders. But inside Florida, they're going to try to have the local issues as well, like gun control and other things. There's also a senate race playing out. So Florida now, as usual, the most important state midterm.

BACON: But I don't see these guys moving to the middle.

BASH: No, that's my point.

BACON: I think this is going to be a base election. I think Gillum is going to try to turn out young people, minorities in particular. I think DeSantis is going to try to turn out people who love Trump the most. Trump is going to come down, and to be honest with you, I would say don't bring Trump, I would say DeSantis should bring Trump.

BASH: Before we go off what happened last night, I do want to talk about Arizona because that's the old way. You have two of the most moderate members of the House who are now going to run for the Senate seat that is being left by Jeff Flake in Arizona and so that's a completely different ball game. It's the way it's traditionally done. So we're going to see both ways tested.

KUCINICH: Absolutely. I mean McSally also - Martha McSally who won last night had the benefit of running against two, let's call them firecrackers, in Kelli Ward and Sheriff Joe Arpaio. So two very fringy candidates that she was able to defeat, but we've also seen McSally tack herself a little bit closer to Trump. She is someone who wouldn't even say, wouldn't even say whether she voted for him or not in 2016.


So we'll also probably see her get a little bit closer to make sure -- even more closer...

BASH: Yes.

KUCINICH: make sure those voters come out. We'll see if Kyrsten Sinema, who she's going to face off against, if she's there to pick up some of those voters that maybe aren't as enchanted (inaudible) --


BASH: Kyrsten Sinema -- Kyrsten Sinema, Martha McSally, two women.


BASH: So whatever happens in November, there will be a woman in that Senate seat, which is noteworthy I think.

Before we go to break, I want to note that this campaign that we were talking about in Florida promises to be very brutal. Already today democrats are heaving accusations of racism at DeSantis. So the republican nominee gave an interview to Fox News this morning in which he praised his opponent as charismatic but also said Gillum wants to implement a socialist agenda.


REP. RON DESANTIS, R-FL.: He is an articulate spokesman for those far-left views, and he's a charismatic candidate, and you know, I watched those Democrat debates. None of that is -- was my cup of tea, but I mean, he performed better than the other people there. So we've got to work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction, let's build off the success we've had on Governor Scott. 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.


BASH: So the Florida Democratic Party called those words "racist dog whistles;" the DeSantis campaign says that's absurd. The candidate was, quote, "obviously talking about Florida not making the wrong decision to embrace the socialist policies that Andrew Gillum espouses."

Up next, the president makes a key personnel announcement. Where else? Twitter.


BASH: Another top Trump official is on his way out of the White House. Counsel Don McGahn will leave the administration this fall. President Trump confirmed the news himself in a tweet this morning, saying he'll leave after Brett Kavanaugh is hopefully, as he says, confirmed to the Supreme Court. White House correspondent Abby Phillip joins me now. Abby, what is the significance of losing McGahn?

ABBY PHILLIPS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well hi, Dana. We knew that Don (ph) McGahn was planning on probably leaving the administration this fall. But what makes this moment a little bit different is that we had just learned that Don McGahn had cooperated extensively with the Mueller probe. 30 hours of testimony at the direction of the president, who authorized him to speak but it became clear the White House wasn't certain that he had cooperated for that much time. The president was a little bit surprised to find out how long he was

in there speaking to investigators. So that is the backdrop for what we are hearing now. But also the other part of this is Don McGahn's role as someone who has been there for a lot of key moments that are now a part of this Mueller probe. He was the subject of a presidential order to fire Mueller, which he refused to carry out according to some reporting from The New York Times.

And Mueller also was part of the president's efforts to get Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, to not recuse himself earlier in the administration. But there are also some Republicans on Capitol Hill who are lamenting this for another reason as well. McGahn played a critical role in getting many of President Trump's judicial nominations in to the Senate and through that Senate process.

And so there are some Republicans who are seeing this as the end of that era. He was a key figure pushing Trump's transformation of the judiciary in this administration. So a lot of different fronts this McGahn news is really playing on. But I think one of the key points here is the backdrop of this is the Mueller investigation and the role that we now know Don McGahn played in this investigation that is still ongoing, Dana.

BASH: Abby, thank you so much. And up next, word that someone else within the Trump organization discussed cutting a deal with prosecutors in the Michael Cohen case.


BASH: Checking now what's on our political radar today. Sources tell CNN that a second Trump organization employee discussed a potential immunity deal with federal prosecutors in the Michael Cohen case. Prosecutors ultimately decided against granting immunity to the employee whose identity could not be determined by CNN. We learned last week that Allen Weisselberg, the Trump organization's chief financial officer, was granted immunity for providing information about Cohen.

The New York Times is reporting that the former CIA officer running for congress in Virginia is accusing a GOP superpac of improperly obtaining her federal security clearance application. Democrat Abigail Spanberger says the Congressional Leadership Fund is using the information for political purposes. The superpac, which is aligned with House Speaker Paul Ryan, denies the allegations.

And a Florida congressional candidate who hit TV screens with an ad pushing impeachment lost his bid for his Democratic nomination. State Representative David Richardson lost to Donna Shalala in a primary for Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen's seat. Here's one more look at the ad that made waves.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's one word official Washington does not want you to hear. It's [ bleep ]. It's (EXPLETIVE DELETED). It's impeachment. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BASH: And up next, few people were closer to John McCain in the U.S. Senate than Lindsey Graham. Senator Graham is going to be here to talk about his friend, up next.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The bottom line is, folks, that the people that he served with in jail will tell you the same thing in prison that I will tell you. He is loyal to his friends, he loves his country and if he has to stand up to his party for his country, so be it. He would die for this country. I love him to death.





SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-SC: It is going to be a lonely journey for me for a while. I am going to need your help. And the void to be filled by John's passing is more than I can...


BASH: For Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, as you just heard, the hardest part of the week hasn't even happened yet, probably. The emotional test part (ph) you just saw, is behind him, maybe.

Graham returned to the Senate floor yesterday, stood next to that now- empty desk of his close friend and colleague, John McCain, spoke for about 18 minutes about their bond, what McCain taught him, how deep his understanding of compromise is, and how that must endure.

And at one point, Senator Graham told his colleagues, quote, "If you want to help the country, be more like John McCain."