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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
President Trump's Twitter Rampage; Trump's Catch-and-Kill Strategy?; Without Evidence, Trump Suggests NBC Doctored His 2017 Lester Holt Interview. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired August 30, 2018 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: "Winter is coming for the president," one Trump ally reportedly says.
THE LEAD starts right now.
President Trump tweeting furiously with little regard for the truth, the day after news his White House counsel is on the way out with lots of answers for the special counsel.
Decades of dirt. A new report says President Trump tried to buy and kill stories about all the president's women going all the way back to the '80s from a man who now has immunity from the feds.
Plus, his way -- tears, final goodbyes, a few laughs and tributes, as John McCain is remembered in his beloved Arizona, exactly how he wanted it to be.
Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in again today for Jake.
President Trump on a Twitter tear, ripping the Russia investigation and insisting the White House counsel Don McGahn's exit has nothing to do with the Russia probe. Yet his exit comes after McGahn spoke to special counsel investigators voluntarily for more than 30 hours, the extent of which rattled the president, sources tell CNN.
Meanwhile, as the White House counsel is on his way out, multiple White House and Republican sources tell CNN there's growing unease inside the West Wing about what a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would mean for the president.
"The Washington Post" reporting that Trump's allies are worried the administration is unprepared for the coming legal war, one allying saying -- quote -- "Winter is coming and nobody's prepared for war."
CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny is in Evansville, Indiana, where the president will be holding another rally tonight.
Jeff, the president into on Twitter that he's made a decision on who will replace him McGahn?
JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Jim, he did indicate that. He said he had reached a decision. Now, White House officials are less clear if it's a final decision or not, but certainly one leading contender for the next White House counsel is Emmet Flood, who's currently the top lawyer inside the White House overseeing the Mueller investigation.
Now, that is one thing that is clear today, Jim. As the president was tweeting so much, he made no -- he did not hide the fact what was on his mind. We will see if he says it tonight here again in Indiana.
ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump airing a long list of grievances today, agitating about the departure of the top White House lawyer.
A day after praising White House counsel Don McGahn...
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He's a good man, very good man. Don, excellent guy. Yes, Don McGahn is a really good guy.
ZELENY: ... the president suddenly turning defensive over why another top aide is heading for the exits.
"I liked Don, but he was not responsible for me not firing Bob Mueller or Jeff Sessions," the president saying on Twitter, referring to the special counsel leading the Russia investigation and the embattled attorney general who recused himself from it.
After acknowledging he didn't know exactly what McGahn had told Mueller's team during a combined three hours of testimony...
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.
ZELENY: ... he tweeted this today: "The rigged Russia witch-hunt did not come into play even a little bit with respect to my decision on Don McGahn."
The president making clear through his own rapid-fire tweets what was weighing on his mind today. Responding to reports that his daughter and son-in-law wanted McGahn out, the president saying: "Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner had nothing to do with the so-called pushing out of Don McGahn."
And blasting his favorite target, the media, he added: "They love to portray chaos in the White House, when they know that chaos doesn't exist. Just a smooth-running machine with changing parts."
But that smooth-running machine is under the microscope, as the president hits the road for a campaign rally tonight in Indiana, where Republicans are trying to pick up a Senate seat.
CNN has learned Republican senators are privately pleading with the president to wait until after the midterm elections to fire Sessions, fearful of the political fallout. The president is still fuming about Sessions recusing himself from the Russia investigation, but that's not all. He's now openly dismissive of his attorney general's personality and accent, with Politico reporting the president is complaining Sessions talks like he has marbles in his mouth.
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: Make America great again.
ZELENY: Harsh words for the first Republican senator to endorse Trump's presidential bid.
For now at least, Sessions is standing his ground, not answering questions about his future.
QUESTION: Mr. Attorney General, can you explain why you're still on the job after being attacked by the president so much?
ZELENY: So it's clear, Jim, that President Trump has had Jeff Sessions on his mind for so long. It's clear that his -- he does not have a long shelf life in that position.
The question is, will he remain on through the midterm elections or not? We heard Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell say this week he believes Jeff Sessions should stay in that position. Others, however, are sort of warning to the fact that the president should be able to do as he's told.
But, Jim, the bigger question, who will the potential next attorney general be? Will he be able to confirm someone? And will that person also recuse themselves or be in charge of the Russia investigation?
That, of course, is the central point here. The Russia investigation front and center still in the president's mind -- Jim.
SCIUTTO: And we know what the president would want in terms of that investigation.
Thanks very much to Jeff Zeleny there in Indiana.
So, the president very busy today on Twitter, but, heck, these are presidential statements, so we got to run through them almost one by one.
I mean, one of the most revealing is his comments on Don McGahn. The president said: "The rigged Russia witch-hunt," as he's come to call it, "did not come into play even a little bit with respect to my decision on Don McGahn."
So, first of all, do you buy that, that it didn't come into play at all?
ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I find this president has a tendency to project what he's worried people are thinking in these. And I don't see how it wasn't the factor. I mean, there had been grumbling for some time that he was unhappy with him. But all of a sudden right now he's going out just weeks after this came out. And then I love how he says, well, my kids, it wasn't their idea or anything.
And I don't know how much we were even talking about that before that. So I find it hard to not infer that this is what he's concerned is the truth and that we might...
BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": For me, the startling thing is the "my decision on Don McGahn."
It was well known around town among his lawyer friends that McGahn was going to leave after Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed. That would be his victory lap. He got two -- from a conservative point of view, two excellent Supreme Court justices confirmed, a whole ton of circuit court judges. And he wanted to get out I think before the rubber really hit the road in terms of Sessions, and maybe the Mueller report.
So this is McGahn's choice. But Trump can't stand the idea that a grown man who is his White House counsel has chosen to resign after two years, which is a perfectly normal span of office. Trump has to be -- I guess this is the narcissistic personality. He has to be the one in charge. It has to be his decision to fire him McGahn, in effect, which is a foolish thing incidentally for Trump to want to say.
SCIUTTO: The White House was confronted about this, said, did the president just confirm that he fired Don McGahn?
The White House said, no, no, no, it was his decision to announce that he was leaving via Twitter.
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's a courtesy.
It really seems like, looking at these tweets, that he was reacting to the spate of stories that just came out, one of which -- I can't remember if it was "The Post" or "The Times," so forgive me -- said that Ivanka and Jared Kushner were unhappy with Don McGahn, and that's one of the reasons that he was pushed out so unceremoniously, because there wasn't really -- as Bill said, there wasn't really a timeline.
We knew he was leaving. It just didn't -- we didn't know when. So it seems like -- and it had to do with how Don McGahn sat down with Mueller for 30 hours. Jared and Ivanka reportedly were not happy about that.
So it seems like that is -- if we're putting the pieces together, he was either being told of this news or was watching it on the cable and live tweeting, which is always weird when you're not watching the same thing that the person is live tweeting.
SCIUTTO: Here's what the president said on that. "Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner had nothing" -- all caps -- "to do with the so-called pushing out of Don McGahn."
But, Amanda, I mean, CNN is reporting -- and not just CNN has reported this -- that when it was learned that Don McGahn had sat down with the special counsel prosecutors for 30 hours voluntarily, that the president himself was not happy with that. Can we presume that that was part of the calculation here?
AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think there's a thread line that runs through a lot of tweets in Trump's commentary today.
And it has to do with the possible obstruction of justice case. Don McGahn as White House counsel was privy to a lot of events that circle around obstruction of justice issues regarding either Trump pressuring James Comey to drop the case on Mike Flynn, the firing of James Comey. The list goes on and on.
But it all goes back to that question. And if Trump is really sitting down with lawyers and advisers, and talking about the possibility of impeachment. And obstruction of justice cases, clearly, I think based on everything that we have seen play out in public, going to be much stronger possibly than a conspiracy case, because we can see all that play out.
And the fact that Don McGahn sat down again for 30 hours has got to be just nagging him.
SCIUTTO: I think it's worth connecting the statements today with what is clearly a pattern with this president, which is to attack the credibility of both witnesses and evidence in this investigation.
Right? James Comey was in the room when he was -- when he was fired, certainly, but when he made the request regarding Michael Flynn. He's been attacking James Comey for a year. On facts as well, I mean, he even went so far as to claim that what he told Lester Holt about firing James Comey, even though we have seen it on videotape -- we're going to deal with this more in the next block -- a million times, somehow to claim that that was made up.
I mean, is this not part of a strategy, as opposed to just the -- his letting loose as he gets angry?
KRISTOL: Yes, I mean, it's jury tampering on a grand scale.
Well, take the Manafort for case, which was a pretty and cut and dry case, and he did get one juror to not convict -- vote to convict on 10 counts. And now let's talk about the American public as a whole. Let's talk about the House and Senate as a whole, especially the Republican Party.
He wants to sow enough doubts, throw enough mud wall, make it confusing, enough attack the prosecutors in O.J.-type way, that enough of his supporters can rationalize to themselves with him.
He's given up on persuading, I think, anyone who wasn't already on his team, but he's trying to get his team to stick with him, no matter what the Mueller report says.
SCIUTTO: Hold the beachhead, in effect.
ZELENY: Well, no, no, no.
And some of this is just a bandwidth issue, right? He understands that he is the president. When he tweets something out, you have to report on it. And so if he can just burn up a piece of the conversation by putting this out there, he's taking away time that could be used to focus more on what he's done wrong.
And so I absolutely think it's a strategy. And this is what's so hard, I think for -- in the news business nowadays, is how do you get it all in?
KUCINICH: Well, we see Giuliani is also echoing this, and he's putting together -- he actually spoke to The Daily Beast this afternoon.
And he's putting together his own report to counter the Mueller investigation. But it is basically -- what this thing is going to do, it's aimed at discrediting what they think might be in the report.
And it's a lot of publicly available information that's going to be in this document that hasn't been released. But it's going to be aimed solely at discrediting the Mueller investigation.
SCIUTTO: What does this remind you of? The GOP memo, right?
Nunes. Put out competing narratives. Grab as much as you can of the public sphere really in terms of -- make them skeptical, and then call that a victory.
CARPENTER: But challenge is, I think -- I mean, for reasonable people, especially for us in the news and commentary business, is to focus on the original source.
We all saw the tape of Donald Trump speaking with Lester Holt. The tape spoke for itself. And so I wrote a whole book about how Trump gaslights people. And this is a prime example of how he does it again.
But, everyone, look at the tape.
KUCINICH: Will this be in the paperback?
CARPENTER: Yes, I will update it.
CARPENTER: But his gaslighting of Comey and the entire national security complex has been amazing.
And this is another revelation of that.
SCIUTTO: Well, listen, we have a lot more to talk specifically on that day.
Coming up, though, President Trump said on tape, as we were saying, that he had Russia on his mind when he fired former FBI Director James Comey. Now he's saying that the tape was fudged somehow? Where's the evidence for that claim? Is there any evidence?
And inquiring minds want to know. What are all the dirty secrets a report claims President Trump tried to buy from a checkout aisle tabloid?
[16:16:38] SCIUTTO: President Trump's latest conspiracy theory is a flat-out lie. In a rant against the media, he tweeted in part, quote, when Lester Holt got caught fudging my tape on Russia they were hurt badly. Number one, no one was caught fudging anything, number two, no one was hurt badly, number three and most importantly, the tape speaks for itself.
Here is what NBC aired on May 11th, 2017, two days after the president fired FBI Director James Comey.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: But regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it. And in fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: That is what the president said on tape. The public has been seeing this tape for, what are, at 15 months now. What is the president trying to do here? Is he trying to claim that that didn't happen or that it was edited somehow?
KRISTOL: I'm struck that he raised the Lester Holt interview this morning, which hasn't been in the news, particularly, has it?
KRISTOL: Which makes me think Amanda is right. They have heard something at the White House that makes them worry that the obstruction of justice case is further along perhaps than we realize. Maybe somebody else flipped.
Maybe Mueller is about to indict some more people. Maybe they have information. They told the president they don't need to have an interview with him because these are now targeted the investigation, maybe an unindicted co-conspirator, whatever.
Why was Lester Holt on his mind? That has been something we've been debating. CNN has been in the news. Lester Holt's interview was a long time ago.
Somebody realizes this is part of a pattern of obstruction and this begins to start discrediting however as you say unreasonable or ridiculous, his attempt to discredit is.
KUCINICH: He tried to do that with the "Access Hollywood" tape. He was telling people he didn't think it was him.
SCIUTTO: He told a senator, I mean, "The New York Times" reporter, he told a senator, though, that wasn't my voice. I mean, you talk about gaslighting, Amanda Carpenter, the author of the book on gaslighting, right?
CARPENTER: They also start well (ph).
CARPENTER: What is really interesting about this clip that we forget is that this is Trump trying to clean up another big lie because they floated to the world that he fired James Comey because of poor treatment of Hillary Clinton during the campaign.
KRISTOL: Trump was very upset about that.
CARPENTER: It seemed like this is true. All of his aides said it is, yes, because we are protecting Hillary and then he comes out and says, oh, yes, it was actually about Russia.
SCIUTTO: Remember who drafted the memo, Rod Rosenstein by the way, small detail in history. Here is another thing about this tape, Robby. I want your thoughts on this.
The president's own lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has constantly referred to the Lester Holt interview as evidence for his own arguments. Have a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RUDY GIULIANI, PERSONAL ATTORNEY FOR PRESIDENT TRUMP: I could right now give you the answer that he is going to give to the question, why did you fire James Comey? He gave it. He gave it to Lester Holt on tape. He said that to Lester Holt when he was interviewed within days of
doing it. You have a contemporaneous statement of his intent. So, how is that obstruction?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: That is the president's lawyer saying that the president said this on this tape and then using it to his advantage. I mean, the explanation is that Rudy Giuliani I think was making the case that he doesn't have to answer this question to the special counsel because he has already said it on tape, by the way, treating that tape as a fact and not as fudged.
[16:20:08] Robby, who believes him is my question?
MOOK: Well, keep in mind, Rudy Giuliani said the truth isn't the truth, you know? I think it's interesting in a lot of Giuliani's interviews, I think one of his tactics has been to say, well, it was all out in the open sort of implying he is not hiding anything. So, it can only be bad if he is hiding it.
You know, this is part of what is such a problem about Donald Trump because he does these things. He has no shame about it and just moves on with his day. But I -- it seems to be a rhetorical tool. And, obviously, I don't think there is a coordinated legal strategy here at all.
This is why I -- you know, people are bemoaning the loss of legal capacity within the White House. I don't think it's going to make a difference because I don't think it's been coordinated at all.
CARPENTER: I think it is one thing with Rudy Giuliani, because in some interviews, he talks about how he was with Donald Trump through the campaign and he saw it all firsthand and that's why you should trust him. I think there is a good chance he goes from being President Trump's lawyer to a witness to this case, because he has gargled things so badly and claims to have a first-hand account of all of these experiences, so I wouldn't be surprise.
SCIUTTO: You wouldn't be one of the first of Trump's former lawyers who become to witness in the case. As we know, Michael Cohen is after his guilty plea, that a separate thing, Southern District of New York.
I just want to remind folks that we talked about the "Access Hollywood" tape. There is another instance where the president tried to discredit evidence that the whole world saw. You may remember his meeting in Russia in Helsinki. That is the "Access Hollywood" tape. We already referred to that.
We refer to another case, and this is following the meeting with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki after which the president said it was something about a misspoken word on a transcript to explain everything. Have a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) TRUMP: I came back and I said what is going on? What is the big deal? So I got a transcript. I went out and reviewed a clip. It should have been obvious. I thought it would be obvious. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word "would" instead of "wouldn't".
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: Keep in mind, if we took you back to Helsinki, multiple times he raised questions about the U.S. intelligence assessment about Russia's interference in the election. The president tries to wipe that away by saying in one of the sentences I should have added the contraction at the end. It is part of a pattern, Bill Kristol.
KRISTOL: Is that part of your book, too?
CARPENTER: The new edition when I --
KRISTOL: It's amazing how he just does this, right?
You know, just on Robby's point, I take your point that their legal strategy hasn't been super coordinated. So, maybe McGahn's departure wouldn't matter. But I'm not sure. I think at key times and I believe McGahn has a lot to answer for things. He's allowed to have been and allowed to have to do as White House counsel.
Having said that, I think at key times, he stopped Trump from doing things that would be rash and self damaging. I am struck that both senator McConnell put out the statement praising McGahn, Senator Grassley, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, tweeted something, oh, I hope he is not going. I do think serious people like Grassley and McGahn who have some insight into the White House are nervous that, it's each of the people who have been something of a guardrail, something of a check on Trump, one by one they are departing.
CARPENTER: How much would they depend on people like Don McGahn to be the guard rail without them doing the heavy lifting? I mean, seriously. Like once this blows apart is somebody going to do something? Because the president lies and lies to this obscene form and everybody expects somebody else to do something to stop it. And that never happened.
SCIUTTO: More convenient for somebody else to jump in the line of fire, right?
KUCINICH: I was going to say, I wonder if the McConnell and Grassley statements had more to do with his role pushing through judicial nominations because he was working very closely with them because it doesn't seem like anyone really has any control on what the president does in some of his more rash --
KRISTOL: Well, he hasn't fired Sessions. I think there were moments when he wanted to do that. We know he wanted to do it. There has been good reporting that McGahn was one of the key people who said you can't do that. But I also agree on the court, they are happy with his work on the court.
SCIUTO: McGahn is gone and now some Republicans are opening the door to fire Sessions as well. We'll see if he follows through.
Stick around. There's more to talk about. A new report claiming that Donald Trump was so concerned about the dirt that one popular tabloid had on him going back to the 1980s that he tried to buy all of it. What could be in those files?
[16:29:04] SCIUTTO: We are back now with our politics lead.
President Trump was so concerned about potentially damaging stories coming out before the 2016 election that he and his long-time attorney Michael Cohen plan to buy and bury all the dirt that the "National Enquirer" had collected on him dating back decades. That according to a bombshell story in the "New York Times" and the two men could apparently be heard on tape discussing a potential payout.
CNN's Brynn Gingras joins me now live from New York.
Brynn, some of this dirt on Trump predates Cohen joining the Trump Organization.
BRYNN GINGRAS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim, all the way back to the '80s, according to that "Times" report. And it really gives you a sense of the relationship Trump had with AMI chief David Pecker who ran the "National Enquirer" who many times would buy these stories and then make sure they didn't see the light of day. It also shows you Trump's mindset, right, how he worked to control negative information about himself long before he became president.
GINGRAS (voice-over): "The New York Times" reporting that Donald Trump and his former personal attorney Michael Cohen once discussed a plan to buy all stories the "National Enquirer" had collected on Trump, going back to the 1980s.