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Trump Responds to Criticism over Don McGahn Leaving; Some Lawmakers Advise Trump Not to Get Rid of Sessions; NYT: Trump Tried to Buy, Bury Decades of Dirt of "National Enquirer"; Arizona Memorial Service to Sen. McCain to Begin Soon. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired August 30, 2018 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:09] RYAN NOBLES, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, again. I'm Ryan Nobles, in for Kate Bolduan.

The big question for the White House this morning: Why is one of the key figures in the Trump administration White House, the White House Counsel Don McGahn, leaving in the fall? On Twitter, President Trump is batting down accusations he is getting rid of McGahn because he answered 30 hours of questions in the Russia investigation.

This is what the president tweeted: "The rigged Russia witch hunt did not come into play, even a little bit, with respect to my decision on Don McGahn."

The president announced McGahn's departure yesterday in an unceremonious tweet that a CNN sources says even McGahn wasn't expecting.

CNN's Jeremy Diamond is at the White House.

Jeremy, the president said that he is excited about McGahn's replacement. We have some idea as to who that may be. Are we getting any indications from the White House as to who he is picking to replace McGahn?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ryan, I just spoke with a senior White House official who says the sense inside the White House is no final decision has yet been made as to who will succeed Don McGahn as White House counsel. That's despite the president's tweet this morning where he said, "I am very excited about the person who will be taking the place of Don McGahn as White House counsel. I like Don but he was not responsible for me not firing Bob Mueller or Jeff Sessions. So much fake reporting and fake news."

Despite the fact that the president hasn't yet officially named a successor for Don McGahn, this senior White House official this morning said Emmet Flood really does appear to be the top contender at this point. He is the White House's special counsel handling everything with regard to the special counsel's investigation into Russian interference and these questions of obstruction of justice. When you look at Emmet Flood as a potential successor, you have to keep in mind is that Emmet Flood was Bill Clinton's lawyer during his impeachment proceedings. Obviously, as the White House is increasingly having an eye on the November midterm elections and the possibility that Democrats could take over the House and become a problem for the president, both with regard to additional investigations into the White House and the possibility of an impeachment against the president, Emmet Flood could be the perfect contender from that perspective. But at the same time, Emmet Flood is not the ideologue that Don McGahn was. He is not the person who will go after the deregulatory agenda with the same zeal that Don McGahn has, something that helped the president seal a key portion of his conservative legacy and something that has also made Don McGahn a favorite of many conservatives.

A lot of questions still here at the White House this morning despite the president's tweet that he is excited about a successor. I guess, Ryan, he will be excited about whoever takes over for Don McGahn after he leaves for -- he leaves the White House once Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, as this White House has said.

NOBLES: That's a very distinct possibility, Jeremy. It seems as though the president maybe deciding between his legal and political future with this pick. We will see who he goes with.

Jeremy Diamond, thank you, from the White House.

Let's talk more about this. Joining me now, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, a CNN political analyst as well as a White House reporter for the "New York Times," and Page Pate, a criminal defense attorney and a CNN legal analyst.

Julie, let's get the White House view on this first. The president claims that he doesn't really pay attention to media coverage, right? He never watches television, he isn't reading all the papers. But in a series of tweets, he is directly responding to the criticism about McGahn leaving. What does this tell you about the president's thinking?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think, obviously, he wants to push back on the notion that with McGahn's departure he won't be prepared for the potential legal onslaught he might be facing should Democrats take the House. He wants to put out there the notion that he has a clear plan of who will succeed Don McGahn and it's all going to be fine. We heard him say yesterday to reporters that he had nothing to fear from what McGahn told the special counsel, Robert Mueller. He clearly wants to push back on this narrative that he has somehow isolated himself and become more defensive because McGahn is leaving.

Now, we should say, McGahn had planned to leave. So this is really about the way in which he announced it. But he is also really sowing confusion about that. He initially said this morning that this was a so-called pushing out. Now he is saying it was his own decision, which is clearly the reason he wanted to tweet yesterday was to get in front of this and make it seems like it was his idea. So he is leaving a lot of doubt there about what the way forward is and what the circumstances were under which he decided to part ways with McGahn.

NOBLES: Right. Page, to Julie's point here, politics and the president's personal legal issues aside, there's now a serious staffing problem at the White House. Not only is Don McGahn leaving, but there are several other members of the White House counsel's office who are also leaving their positions. These are crucial roles, aren't they? What could this mean for the business of government that there are going to be so many vacancies in White House counsel's office?

[11:05:07] PAGE PATE, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Ryan, you are absolutely correct to point out this is going to be a major change at the White House. It's not just McGahn. It's the people that were working with McGahn. They were trying to keep on top of all of the judicial nominations that the president put forth. They did a great job with that. But now, as this investigation, the special counsel's investigation gets closer to some sort of conclusion or resolution, that office is going to be incredibly busy.

I do think it's interesting, if they bring Flood in to be White House counsel, you are now bringing the defense of the special counsel's investigation into the White House. What Don McGahn had been able do is keep that separate. That's no longer the case. The White House will now be enmeshed in defending the president in connection with the special counsel's investigation because one of his main lawyers may move into that position. It's going to be a hectic time. That's the last thing the White House needs at this point.

NOBLES: That's right. There's a big difference between being the president's personal lawyer as opposed to being the White House counsel whose responsibility it is to protect the presidency.

Page, CNN's Jim Acosta asked the president if he was concerned about the time McGahn spent with Robert Mueller. Listen to how the president responded.


JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Any concern about what he said to the Mueller team?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No. No. I knew he was going. I had to approve it.


TRUMP: We didn't claim executive --


TRUMP: No, I don't have to be aware. We have -- we do everything straight. We do everything by the book. And Don is an excellent guy.


NOBLES: What do you make of that, Page?

PATE: I think the first takeaway is that he does not know what Don McGahn told the special counsel's office. No prosecutor sits with a potential witness for 30 hours just to talk about the weather or to talk about one isolated part of the investigation. This was a wide- ranging interview. It's quite possible, if the special counsel's investigation continues along that line, that McGahn could become a witness in connection with that case. It was surprising and perhaps a mistake for the president not to assert some sort of executive privilege to prevent that type of an interview and that level of cooperation. I guess we will see once we know what McGahn has actually told the special counsel about the White House and President Trump.

NOBLES: Julie, Page, we have a lot more to talk about so stick around.

We will talk more about some other things happening in Washington. The future of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, it seems to be in question right now. The president has been very vocal about his frustration with Sessions ever since he recused himself from Russia- related matters last year. But now there are members of Congress that are strongly advising the president publicly and privately not to fire Sessions, at least not just yet.

Joining me now, CNN politics reporter, Lauren Fox.

Lauren, what's the mood there on Capitol Hill right now? What are you hearing from Republicans?

LAUREN FOX, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: You are right, Ryan. Behind the scenes, Republicans on Capitol Hill have been pleading with the president not to fire Jeff Sessions, especially ahead of the midterm elections. Their fear is that if the president fired Sessions, it would lead to some kind of political firestorm up here on Capitol Hill and put the majorities of Republicans in jeopardy ahead of the midterms.

But we should note that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell this week gave Sessions a bit of a big nod when he said that he wanted the attorney general to stay exactly where he was. Obviously, a big change for the majority leader to be constantly saying that Jeff Sessions should be staying exactly where he is. A lot of strongest Republicans on Capitol Hill backing him.

But a lot of other Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee have been saying that President Donald Trump may have to replace his attorney general after the midterms.

Here is what Lindsey Graham, a prominent Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, had to say, Ryan.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Do you think he would fire attorney general Sessions today if he could?

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I think he wants an attorney general that he has a better working relationship with. To those in my business who say you are stuck with Jeff Sessions, I like Jeff Sessions, but do you have -- how smart do you have to be to understand this is not working?


FOX: A lot of Republicans, I have to say, have been telling me and other reporters on Capitol Hill they feel badly for Jeff Sessions. They feel terrible about how public the feud between him and President Donald Trump has become. But a lot of them urging the president, stick with Jeff Sessions until at least after the midterms -- Ryan?

NOBLES: Lauren Fox, thank you for that update. We appreciate that, live from Capitol Hill.

We do have breaking news. A new report that Donald Trump wanted to buy and bury everything the "National Enquirer" and his publisher had on him. That's decades of dirt, much more than just the stories of Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. The "New York Times" says the plan was devised by former Trump fixer, Michael Cohen, during the presidential campaign. Cohen facing prison time for paying hush money to two women who claimed to have affairs with the candidate. Cohen says Trump told him to make those payments.

Candidate Trump and Cohen discussed the payoffs in an audio recording obtained by CNN. There are hints on that tape about a bigger deal. Take a listen.


[11:10:25] MICHAEL COHEN, FORMER ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP: I need to open up a company for the transfer of all the info regarding our friend David so that I'm going to do that right away. I'm actually --


TRUMP: Give it to me.

COHEN: And I have spoken to Allen Weisselberg about how to set the whole thing up with --


COHEN: Yes. And it's all the stuff -- all the stuff. Because here you never know where that company -- you never know where he will be.

TRUMP: He gets hit by a truck.

COHEN: Correct.


NOBLES: Jim Rutenberg broke this story with Maggie Haberman. He is a media columnist for the "New York Times." He joins us now to discuss this. Jim, Donald Trump and Michael Cohen worked on a plan to buy material

about Trump from AMI, which is the parent company of the "National Enquirer." What type of material were they planning to buy and how far along were they in this process?

JIM RUTENBERG, MEDIA COLUMNIST, NEW YORK TIMES: Per that conversation, that recording, which you obtained, they were pretty far along. They were talking about how to pay for it, how to structure it. They were talking to -- per that tape again -- Allen Weisselberg, who was CFO of the Trump Organization. This has been understood since you obtained the tape and we heard wind of it before that, in fact, it was about this Karen McDougal catch and kill. That's the case of the former "Playboy" model who alleged an affair and the "Enquirer" bought her story, sat on it. Mr. Cohen says it was at Mr. Trump's direction with Cohen's help. In fact, this tape itself, you hear them. It's all the stuff, all the stuff.

NOBLES: You are reporting also adds some important context to what we heard on the tape, right, the recording of them discussing those payments. When you hear them talk about "all the stuff," is it possible that they are talking about everything the "National Enquirer" had?

RUTENBERG: That's as we understood it. What do they have? We heard about the safe, which has captured the public's imagination.

NOBLES: Right.

RUTENBERG: Whether everything was in a safe and there was a safe. But there were other places to store files. The "Enquirer," before Pecker becomes the chairman in 1999, very aggressively covered Donald Trump. He was -- they were based in Florida near Mar-a-Lago at the time. They were also a scrappy tabloid with some really aggressive reporters. They had tips, they had source notes, all "Enquirer" stories that are lost to our modern times because they don't come up on Google. And then, of course, in modern times we know, in more recent history, we know about the contracts like the one involving Karen McDougal. AMI also had insight into Stormy Daniels. There was a lot at risk in that building for Mr. Trump at the time. Then, not president. Of course, David Pecker was very loyal. They could rely on him. But as Mr. Trump famously says, maybe he gets hit by a truck.

NOBLES: That was my next question. Pecker becoming a central figure in this drama. You report that on Trump and Cohen's concerns about Pecker and his future, he wasn't necessarily talking about the possibility of him getting hit by a truck in a serious manner, but they were, in a larger sense, concerned about where he might end up in future. What were they worried about?

RUTENBERG: Well, there were rumors, at least Michael Cohen was hearing rumors that Mr. Pecker might go to "Time." But there were always rumors Mr. Pecker would want something to do with "Time" magazine. I personally haven't heard about him leaving AMI for that. But anyway. And I had always wondered -- I've been covering this story for 10 months. What I never understood is why would the candidate Trump with so much on the line trust any third party, even a loyal protector. That seemed to be dawning on them as well in real time.

NOBLES: Jim Rutenberg, excellent reporting from the "New York Times." Thank you for being here.

We will continue this discussion now with Julie Hirschfeld Davis, a CNN political analyst and a White House reporter for the "New York Times." And Page Pate rejoins us as well.

Julie, this story is about more potentially damaging stories that could come out. How is the White House and the president in particular going to react to this?

HIRSCHFELD DAVIS: We have seen when the president is faced with a possibility that's damaging information could come out about him or that people who know things about his past that may not be flattering are all of a sudden willing to speak out, he often lashes out. This is sort of more of the same theme that we have been hearing. It's already in the public domain. The president has not publicly owned up to it that he had been involved in paying off former mistresses, a former adult film star and a "Playboy" model for alleged affairs they had with him. It's not as if some of these things will be a surprise to the public. But the idea that there's a whole portfolio of information that Donald Trump wanted to keep private about himself -- we know how deep his relationship was with David Pecker, and he was a source for a lot of the reports surfacing in the "Enquirer" at this time. They had kept back a bunch of information that they had about then-private citizen Donald Trump that would be quite a problem if it came out about President Trump. This has got to make him even more nervous about what some of the revelations could be. Although, it's not clear they have a legal ramification in quite the same way as these payoffs did, given that they were in a campaign finance context. He may be a little bit less nervous about these revelations than the ones we have learned about.

[11:15:53] NOBLES: Julie, I know you have to run. Thank you for your contribution.

But we will continue the conversation with Page.

Page, to Julie's point here, the reporting is that Cohen and Trump had devised a plan to buy up the "National Enquirer" material. As Julie was mentioning, on its face, do you see any legal exposure for Michael Cohen or President Trump? Is this something they are allowed to do?

PATE: Ryan, it all depends on timing and purpose. If the reason for entering into this deal is to try to keep this stuff from the public in order to benefit Trump, the candidate, then you do have an arguable campaign finance violation, which can be a federal felony offense, as we saw with Michael Cohen's plea. The question becomes, what was the deal? Were they intending to bury all this stuff so they could protect Trump as a potential or, at that point, an announced candidate? If so, then it's like the Daniels and McDougal deal. It's part of the bigger picture of let's pay these folks money which will benefit the campaign. And if you are going to do that, even though the president himself is not limited in how much he can spend, you have to report it, you have to track that money and, clearly, that was not done here.

NOBLES: Page, I thank you for your contribution. We appreciate it.

PATE: Thank you, Ryan.

NOBLES: Coming up, the ugly start to the Florida governor's race. The Trump-backed candidate under fire for saying voters would, quote, "monkey this up" if they elected the first African-American opponent. That's coming up.

Plus, the Arizona memorial services for Senator John McCain set to begin moments from now.

Stay with us.



[11:21:57] NOBLES: Less than an hour from now, the late Senator John McCain takes another step in his final journey. His family is set to arrive next hour to the Arizona state capital before heading to North Phoenix Baptist Church for a memorial service. The Senator and his family attended the church for many years.

CNN's Dana Bash is there. She's going to be part of our special coverage coming up at noon.

Dana, you have covered Senator McCain for a long time. There's been so much talk about how meticulously the Senator planned his memorial services. Just tell me how it's playing out there right now and what we can expect over the next several days.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Ryan. Certainly very meticulously planned, up to not just the speakers and the attendees but the specific Bible verses that will be read, the songs that will be sung both here in Arizona later this morning, and, of course, throughout the next couple of days back in Washington.

I want to also -- on our way here to the North Baptist Church along Central Avenue in downtown Phoenix, it really did seem kind of impromptu and organic. There were American flags lined up, stuck into the grass along the sidewalk. And not just that, Ryan, several McCain lawn signs, old campaign lawn signs from various campaigns that he has had here in Arizona that, again, seemed to be organically placed along the motorcade route that will take him here to the North Baptist Church.

You mentioned that this is going to be the first formal ceremony, formal memorial before he goes -- leaves Arizona for the last time and goes back to Washington. And the person who is going to eulogize him, the main headliner is his very, very longtime friend and former vice president, Joe Biden. The two of them have known each other not just from their days as Senators together, Ryan, but when John McCain was finally released as a POW back in the -- in the 1970s, he ultimately realized that he couldn't fly again because of his wounds and his injuries. He became a military aid to the U.S. Senate. Joe Biden was a very young Senator at the time. John McCain arranged the trips that Joe Biden and other Senators would take, traveled with them around the world. He joked he was responsible for carrying Joe Biden's bag, which was a joke, but actually very true. That's how long their friendship has endured. We are going to hear some really poignant words as you can imagine from Joe Biden as well as former aides from his days as a representative here in Arizona when he first started and other family members, including a couple of his children will read passages from the Bible that Senator McCain himself chose.

[11:25:04] NOBLES: Dana, of course, the vice president, in addition to their long relationship together, he, of course, knows the struggle because his son passing from the same illness. His remarks today will be particularly poignant.

Dana, we look forward to your coverage coming up, starting at noon.

Dana, thank you for being here.

BASH: Thanks, Ryan.

NOBLES: Joining me now is Michael Crow. He is the president of Arizona State University. He knew Senator McCain for decades.

Michael, thank you for joining me.

You were there yesterday at the service with Senator McCain's family. Watching it on television, it seemed the emotion was still so raw. Describe what it was like to be in the room.

MICHAEL CROW, PRESIDENT, ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY: Well, hi, Ryan. It was real emotion, heartfelt emotion from everyone, the family, other leaders there, citizens that were there. This is a raw thing. A great leader has been lost and that emotion can be felt.

NOBLES: Governor Ducey, I thought his remarks were particularly interesting. He called John McCain's Arizona's favorite adopted son. He did not come to Arizona until he was in an adult. What did it mean to the state of Arizona to have him represent them so passionately in Washington?

CROW: Arizona is one of the places where it's the last of the 48 lower states to be added to the union. Lots of people come here from elsewhere. John came here, served in the House and in the Senate, and became a true leader within the state, driving forward the new kinds of ideas that people in Arizona come here to help implement. So John's energy and his creativity and all the things about what he has made his life devoted to really resonated with the people of Arizona in very significant ways. That's why he has been so successful here and why his legacy will be so lasting.

NOBLES: You have talked about your shared admiration for Teddy Roosevelt. What did Roosevelt's legacy mean to Senator McCain and how did that shape the creation of the McCain Institute, which is in Washington, that's a part of Arizona State? CROW: Teddy Roosevelt, we both shared this view that Roosevelt was a

president of action, that he believed in the American ideals and American exceptionalisms. So the idea of the McCain Institute for International Leadership now in Washington and here in Phoenix is all about action-oriented engagement, how can we produce the next generation of international leaders. People are coming in from all over the world as a part of that institute. They embed themselves in American culture. They go back and try to drive forward the idea of American exceptionalism. So Roosevelt and McCain and the McCain Institute is driven by those sets of objectives.

NOBLES: Many of your students will learn about John McCain as part of history, as opposed to someone contributing on the daily basis now in the present. What do you want those students and other people around the country to know about the man you knew, John McCain?

CROW: The really most important thing about our students and other young people that are coming up to understand about John is that he believed more in the country than anything else. He knows that the country is a place in which ideas are highly diverse and wild, and that the only way to come forward is to love your country, to advance your country, and to work together. Not to fight, not to argue, not to denigrate, but to work together to make things happen. That's the message that we're pushing to our students. That's the message we're hoping that John's legacy can really have at its core.

NOBLES: Michael Crow, thank you so much. We appreciate you being here.

CROW: Thank you, Ryan.

NOBLES: Stay with CNN this afternoon as we honor the life of Senator John McCain. Special live coverage of the memorial services, anchored by Wolf Blitzer and Dana Bash, begins at noon.

We'll be right back.