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Burt Reynolds Dies; White House Hunts For Anonymous Op-Ed Writer; Brett Kavanaugh Confirmation Hearings Continue; Warren: Trump Officials Should Invoke 25th Amendment If They Think He's Unfit for Office. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 6, 2018 - 16:00   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Everyone in D.C. playing a dangerous game of "Clue" today.

THE LEAD starts right now.


President Trump reportedly white-hot, as, one by one, senior members of his administration race to issue personal denials about who authored that explosive anonymous "New York Times" op-ed. Almost 20 senior administration officials so far insisting, in the immortal words of Shaggy, it wasn't me.

Plus: shouting, bickering, rule-breaking. If you thought Judge Kavanaugh's Supreme Court hearings were going to settle down, think again, as senators today bring down the heat on the judge onto each other.

Plus, some sad breaking news in the pop culture lead today, mourning the moss of macho. The legendary actor and director Burt Reynolds dead at 82 years old. And even Sheriff Buford T. Justice has to marvel at the wild ride the Bandit had.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We begin with the turmoil roiling the Trump presidency. President Trump today lashing out after a one-two punch exposing senior officials in his administration expressing concern about his temperament, his impulsiveness, his studiousness, and more, most recently laid bear in a stunning "New York Times" op-ed written by an anonymous senior Trump administration official in today's newspaper, as well as in the pending book by Bob Woodward based on hundreds of hours of taped interviews and dozens of sources in President Trump's inner circle.

But the truth of the matter is, these new detailed accounts only confirm the concerns and fears that we have been reporting for more than a year-and-a-half, concerns expressed in various stories, CNN, "The New York Times," "Washington Post" "The Wall Street Journal," and Michael Wolff's book "Fire and Fury," and on and on.

Republicans today publicly admitting, yes, there are lots of Trump people who have these concerns about the president. (BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

SEN. BEN SASSE (R), NEBRASKA: It's just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week. So it's really troubling, and yet in a way not surprising.


TAPPER: It's all of a piece, really.

Anthony Scaramucci, the short-lived former White House communications director, described at time senior administration officials protecting the country from the president. This was July 2017.

He saw them in a negative light. We covered that on the show.


ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: There are people inside the administration that think it is their job to save America from this president. OK, that is not their job. Their job is to inject as president into America.

TAPPER: What are these Trump administration officials doing to rein in President Trump and why do they feel the need to do so? Why are they so concerned about the president's behavior that they think they have to -- quote -- "save America from this president"?


TAPPER: Then, in October, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, he described senior aides to the president as containing him and serving as what he called an adult day care center.


SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I think Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Mattis and Chief of Staff Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos.


TAPPER: Now, allies of the president suggest that the smartest strategy for the White House today would be to ignore this "New York Times" op-ed, not give it oxygen, not lend it credibility.

Instead, of course, we have seen a river of denials, from Vice President Mike Pence, to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, and on and on, each one insisting he or she did not author the anonymous "New York Times" op-ed.

Now, of course, each denial only serves to keep the story alive and each denial lends credence to the possibility that it could have been that person, Vice President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, anyone else.

So why do these statements of denial keep coming?

Well, a top White House official tells CNN's Jeff Zeleny that the president has clearly sent a signal he likes it when his top officials issues these denials. Recall just yesterday he praised Defense Secretary Mattis and others who denied some of the statements attributed to them in the Bob Woodward book.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He wrote the most beautiful statement. I appreciated the statement of John Kelly, and I appreciated the statement of many others.


TAPPER: These new denial statements, the source tells Jeff Zeleny, today are being printed out and hand-delivered to President Trump for him to read.

Now, this all might seem a self-defeating strategy. Perhaps one might even call it impetuous, petty, ineffective.

And one might recall the senior Trump administration official writing in the op-ed in today's newspaper -- quote -- "The president's leadership style is impetuous, petty and ineffective."

There might be a better way for a president to rebut these accounts from senior administration officials that are harsh and very critical than to confirm the very qualities in his reaction.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins is at the White House for us.

Kaitlan, whether it's Woodward or "The Times" op-ed, why is the White House not only giving the story more oxygen, but they seem to be doing so like every 15 minutes?


KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, a sense of paranoia already existed here in the West wing before the events of this week. And now with this book and this op-ed written by somebody who still works in this administration, the president's longstanding fear that people who work here are out to get him is resurrected and even heightened.

And now today, one of the most surreal days at this White House, where some of the highest-ranking people in this government, people that the president handpicked to be in those positions, are tripping over each other to issue denials that it was them who trashed the president.


COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump seething tonight, demanding names, as he and the rest of the White House go on a frantic hunt to find the author of the anonymous op-ed calling him petty, ineffective and ill-informed.

The rampant speculation forcing more than a dozen senior officials to issue statements denying they trashed the president, including the vice president, Mike Pence, who said this today:


COLLINS: Pence calling on the unnamed author to step down immediately.

PENCE: Anyone who would write an anonymous editorial smearing this president, who has provided extraordinary leadership for this country, should not be working for this administration. They ought to do the honorable thing and they ought to resign.

COLLINS: As high-ranking officials scrambled to issue emphatic denials that it was them, sources tell CNN aides were printing out their statements and hand-delivering them to Trump while he fumed inside the White House, telling aides he knew there were people out to get him.

His closest staffers trying to push the suspicion out of the West Wing.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: I just have to correct the record. It's not clear to, us anyway, that it's somebody in the White House. And they're saying senior administration official. That could be many people.

COLLINS: On Twitter, Sarah Sanders urging people to ask "The New York Times" about the identity of the "gutless loser," saying: "They are the only ones complicit in this deceitful act."

Trump's anger only intensifying since his public outburst yesterday.

TRUMP: When you tell me about some anonymous source within the administration, probably who's failing, and probably here for all the wrong reasons now, and The New York Times is failing.

If I weren't here I believe "The New York Times" probably wouldn't even exist.


COLLINS: Now, Jake, the president just left the White House a few minutes ago. And he didn't answer questions about this op-ed, including whether or not he would take Senator Rand Paul up on his suggestion to issue lie-detector tests to some of the staffers who work here in the White House and have security clearances.

But he will have a stage tonight and a microphone and an arena full of his own supporters when he has a campaign rally in Montana. And we could hear from the president more on this then, since we know that in the last 24 hours, his anger has only gotten worse -- Jake.

TAPPER: What could go wrong?

All right, Kaitlan Collins, thank you so much for that report.

So, first of all, I just want to say how odd I think it is to see all these senior administration officials giving this story more credibility by even acknowledging that it could have been them.


He's been reading the leadership guide written by Kim Jong-un, where each person has to pledge their fealty to the dear leader. And this is -- this idea of each person coming forward bearing the piece of paper, as you did, to say, look, look, sir, it wasn't me, that's the kind of leadership that I think Trump...

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Like the Cabinet meeting where they all talked about what a historic honor it was.

And it does have that feel. All of these officials look as though they are their planning for an audience of one.

TAPPER: But just as somebody who wants President Trump is succeed -- I guess all Americans wanted to succeed in one way or another -- but this doesn't seem like a wise strategy.

We're talking about it more. Now we have sound of all these people talking about it. Secretary of State Pompeo is overseas talking about that.

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. No, I'm not sure it's a wise strategy. I'm never sure that anything is a strategy or rarely wise.


HAM: But I'm not really going to blame him for being very mad about this.

TAPPER: Oh, sure. No, the anger, yes.

HAM: Even if the management situation is largely, partly at least, of his own making, he should be mad about it. And, frankly, if I were in the administration, I might be denying it too, because I would not want to be known as the person who anonymously took this move.


Kirsten, listen to this tweet from the president. He wrote -- quote -- "If the gutless anonymous person does indeed exist, 'The Times' must for national security purposes turn him or her over to government at once."

Now, if Barack Obama or George W. Bush had written something like that, this city would be on fire. No one's even talking about this tweet today.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN COMMENTATOR: Right, because I think that train has -- the ship has sailed, the train has left the station.

Whatever it is, we are just used to him saying crazy things. And so it doesn't mean we shouldn't still get upset about them or Still be outraged by them, but nothing -- no national security violation even took place here.

There was no classified information that was released. There was nothing. It just doesn't apply. The person is free to do this. I think that -- I personally think they should have come out -- they should have quit their job and they should have come out and said it publicly, as should all the other people who allegedly feel the same way.


But it's ridiculous to suggest that somehow there's been a national security...


TAPPER: You say that, but President Trump, who calls himself the Hemingway of Twitter, had a Hemingway-esque one-word tweet. "TREASON?," all caps. Treason.

As a matter of law, this is not...


TOOBIN: This is not even close. It's just not.

Treason is a crime involving assisting the military of a foreign nation at a time of war, none of which none of which applies. But it is also indicative of this broader issue in the Trump presidency, which is that the president thinks that all federal employees work for him, like his personal lawyers do, not the taxpayers, not the government of the United States.

It's of a piece with the -- his tweet last week where he said the Justice Department shouldn't have indicted these two Republican congressmen because that would lose the Republicans two seats, the sense that the Justice Department shouldn't be working for the broader public good, as opposed to just for Donald Trump. He has no understanding of that distinction.

HAM: But there's another thing that this points out to in the themes of this presidency, is the fact that the president and his supporters are convinced that there is a unique and pernicious effort, media and entrenched...

TAPPER: Deep state, yes.


HAM: ... entrenched interests in this town to get together to undermine what he's doing on a daily basis. And it must be said that an anonymous op-ed run by "The New York

Times" that has given a ton of credibility right off the bat seems intent on convincing him that that is exactly the case.

TAPPER: What was the -- I mean, you don't know who wrote this, but the intent of this does not seem necessarily to improve matters. You put it in "The New York Times"?


BROWNSTEIN: Well, I don't think it's been approved matters in that way.

It's designed to improve matters by making the case that there needs to be this kind of -- it seemed to me more like trying to rally other people toward this position inside the administration. In some sense, all of this -- all this op-ed did, like the Woodward book, is say that the people closest to the screen are watching the same movie as the rest of us, right?

I mean, they're describing from inside what we seem to see from outside. But I feel like in some ways the most important part of this is the idea that well, we're getting all of this other stuff done, therefore, it is OK to continue with a president who I believe is manifestly unfit for the job by temperament, intellect, and judgment.

That is essentially what congressional Republicans -- Bob Corker essentially said that today, and Ben Sasse. This is what we see.

TAPPER: Let's play the Bob Corker sound, if we can.


CORKER: Again, I didn't look at it as new news. Anyone who's had any dealings over there knows that this is the reality that we're living in.

And so I don't know. I think a lot has been made out of nothing. I think the biggest issue they're going to have is figuring out who wouldn't have written a letter that. So...



TAPPER: That is the senior Republican of the president's own party saying the biggest problem is finding who wouldn't have written it.

BROWNSTEIN: But just think about what he is saying.

In essence, what congressional Republicans have been saying for the last 20 months and what now in the Woodward book and this op-ed people in the administration are saying is, yes, we agree in private that the president by temperament, judgment, intellect is not fit for this job.

But because he is the key to the lock, he won the White House, he is the one who gives us the power to achieve what we want on other fronts, like today, potentially a Supreme Court justice, as well as tax cuts and regulations, everything else, we are essentially not going to call that out in public, or if we do, like Corker, we're not going impose any consequences.

And I think that is to me is the real meaning of all of this. If, in fact, all of these Republicans believe that he is unfit, are they unwilling to do anything about it because he, unlike Romney, unlike McCain, he's the one who won, and because he won, they are getting what they want on the policy front?

TAPPER: We're going to do another block of panel on this. So, everyone, sit tight.

I will come to you first. It's the real-life game of "Clue" taking over talk in the hallways of the nation's capital. Who wrote the "New York Times" op-ed?

And the Bandit's wild ride, the unforgettable life of actor Burt Reynolds, who died today at 82 years old.

Stay with us.



[16:18:42] SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: If senior administration officials think that the president of the United States is not able to do his job, then they should invoke the 25th Amendment.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a possible 2020 contender, weighing in on the stunning "New York Times" op-ed in which an anonymous senior Trump administration official claimed that members of the cabinet actually considered at one point invoking the 25th Amendment to begin proceedings to remove President Trump from office.

Today, nearly every top administration official publicly denying penning the op-ed.

Let's continue our conversation.

So, one of the questions is -- we were just talking about this before the break, Bob Corker making the statement about the biggest mystery is who wouldn't have written this op-ed. But he -- and Ron said that he doesn't do anything about it. What should he do about it?

MARY KATHARINE HAM, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, what Republicans are contending with and should contend with is the extremely important fact that the American people elected Donald Trump president of the United States. And one of the arguments against Donald Trump and one that I have made at times is that he breaks norms and he undermines institutions. If you take for granted that like because I criticize this guy every three days and like some of the things he doesn't hate, other things he does, that I am therefore empowered to oust him in some way which seems to be sort of the resistance take. It's like everyone must be part of the resistance if they disagree with Donald Trump.

[16:20:03] What it does is it undermines institutions and it breaks norms. So, they can -- they can do things but they have criticized him and many have along the way. And it just -- it seems unclear to me exactly what the ask is here.

TAPPER: What did you think Republican senators should be doing beyond criticizing?

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, ideally, they would try to figure out who these people are and if there are that many people that feel this way, then they should be investigating it. I feel like, and I feel like it would help a lot if this person would come out and say who they are and go to Congress and tell them the other people that feel this way. And there can be some sort of an investigation.

Now, of course, they're not going to -- the problem is the Republicans aren't that interested in investigating him. But you have to at least try. I mean, this isn't just people having a difference of opinion, right? These are people saying he is fundamentally unfit.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: I don't think they should -- the Republicans in Congress should investigate who wrote the piece, they ought to investigate the administration.

POWERS: That is not what I'm saying.

TOOBIN: That's not what you said.


TOOBIN: What about oversight?


RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: There is a lot of space between ousting and acquiescing, right? I mean, you just take two examples. You know, Bob Corker is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. William Fulbright was chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where the president from his own party in the White House and he convened the hearings on Vietnam that were the absolute turning point in the history of American public attitudes about Vietnam.

There is plenty of opportunity for Bob Corker to seriously examine what happened in Helsinki for example, or what's happening in North Korea. Or take another example, if you believe as Ben Sasse and Jeff Flake had been saying, that they are worried about how politicized the enforcement of justice is in this administration, could you not say, I will not vote either in the committee, that vote in the Judiciary committee, I will not vote in the committee or on the floor that confirm Brett Kavanaugh until you give us a vote on the legislation to protect Bob Mueller.

I mean, there are things they can do. They are choosing not to do them because they have made the decision that either they believe the policy gains they are getting are worth the risks or that politically, mobilizing the base is more important than showing independence.

TAPPER: Or they believe, as Senator Lindsey Graham seemed to be telling Wolf Blitzer earlier, that his voters don't care about this as much as the people in this room. Let's me just play this Lindsey Graham bite and I'll come right to you.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I've never heard that before, this palace intrigue. I don't mean to bust the bubble here, but most people in South Carolina are not going to take the op-ed in the "New York Times" very seriously.


TAPPER: He said that most people in South Carolina are not going to take the op-ed in "The New York Times" very seriously.

POWERS: Fine. OK. It's not their job, right? It's the job of Congress who should be looking over this. When I say investigate, I mean investigate whether or not he is unfit, you know, and to find out whether these accusations are true.

TOOBIN: There is also the question of political fear, speaking of South Carolina. What about Mark Sanford? Mark Sanford criticized Donald Trump and he got beaten in a Republican primary, thanks to Donald Trump's intervention. That's what they are afraid of. That's why they're not criticizing him.

TAPPER: Mary Katharine, what do you make of Ron's suggestion that if Flake and Sasse, et cetera, feel this strongly, they could say I'm not going to vote for Brett Kavanaugh unless you, unless we have a commitment to pass this legislation to protect Bob Mueller, et cetera?

HAM: Well, Bob Mueller still has a job, right? So, it's unclear how much needs to be protected. And I just -- I just think it genuinely seems like, for instance, that Sasse has spoken up forcefully many times about the president, and the thing that we're not addressing also is that not only do people not care about the anonymous op-ed in the "New York Times" in South Carolina but I think Republican senators in a way that's really extraordinary becoming part of the opposition to Republican president actually makes those people less interested in our institutions and makes it feel like the theory that Donald Trump has is exactly correct.

TAPPER: The op-ed confirms their fears.

HAM: They are breaking norms and doing extraordinary things to fight this president in office who was duly elected actually reinforced his exact theory.

TAPPER: So, who wrote the op-ed? One Republican senator has an idea how President Trump can figure it out. Stay with us.


TAPPER: Whether or not you think it is irresponsible, many in the political and media worlds have been speculating publicly about who might have written the anonymous "New York Times" up op-ed.

On the left, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has her guess.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), MINORITY LEADER: It probably won't take long for us to find out who wrote it. Who has denied it already? The vice president -- that was my first thought.


TAPPER: On the right, former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo has been strongly suggesting that he thinks it's Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, tweeting this picture of her alongside her husband, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and saying this.


MICHAEL CAPUTO, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN AIDE: This person will probably leave the administration soon and take a bow for what she wrote. It is dangerous to try to fire her because of who she is related to.


TAPPER: We should, of course, note that both Pence and Chao have denied being the author of the op-ed. Privately, White House aides are on the hunt for the author, according to West Wing sources.

But, publicly, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted, quote: The media's wild obsession with the identity of the anonymous coward is recklessly tarnishing the reputation of thousands of great Americans who proudly serve our country and work for President Trump. Stop.

Let's bring in CNN's Alex Marquardt.