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CNN TONIGHT: Washington Post: Material On Foreign Nation's Nuclear Capabilities Seized At Trump's Mar-A-Lago Home; Bill Barr: DOJ Should Appeal Special Master Ruling; Oz Blasts Fetterman's "Radical" Positions, Ramps Up Attack On Rival's Health Issues. Aired 9-10p ET

Aired September 06, 2022 - 21:00   ET




ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: It has been a busy hour. There are a lot of news to cover.

I want to hand it over to Kasie Hunt and CNN TONIGHT.


KASIE HUNT, CNN HOST: Anderson, thank you so much.

I'm Kasie Hunt. And this is CNN TONIGHT.

A new season's begun. With summer unofficially over, pressure is building on both major political parties, with the midterms, now just nine weeks away.

In this homestretch of 63 days, President Biden is taking the opportunity, today, to tout his administration's summer victories, while assembling his cabinet, for the first time, since March. He has been coming out, in full force, against a GOP that is still dominated, by Donald Trump and Trumpism.

And we saw the ex-President fire back, this weekend.


JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.



TRUMP: He's an enemy of the state. You want to know the truth.



HUNT: That comes, as Trump is contending with a slew of investigations, picking up steam. How much will they impact his party, this November? That's a big question.

Season two of the January 6th hearings, meanwhile are upon us. The House Select Committee is preparing for its end-of-the-year sprint, expected to resume public hearings, sometime this month, while the Justice Department presses on with its criminal investigation, into the Capitol attack.

And now, there's the added suspense, in the classified documents probe, after the search of Mar-a-Lago.

The "Washington Post" is reporting tonight that among the highly sensitive government documents, found by the FBI, last month, was one describing a foreign government's nuclear defense capabilities. The "Washington Post's" sources didn't identify the foreign government, in question, or say where at Mar-a-Lago, the document was found.

Other materials seized allegedly detailed top secret U.S. operations that are so closely guarded, only the President, or someone on the cabinet level, or near the cabinet level, could even authorize others, to know they exist. Documents about such highly classified operations apparently require special clearances, on a need-to-know basis, not just a garden-variety, top secret clearance.

I'm joined now by former Deputy Assistant Attorney General, Elliot Williams; the former Chief of Staff to Trump's Homeland Security Secretary, Miles Taylor; and Senior Editor for the National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru.

Welcome to all of you.

Miles, you have been in some of these top positions in government. So, I want to start with you. I mean, how significant is it, in your view that a document, this sensitive, was stored at a country club?


When this broke open, we were first talking about would the Intelligence information stored there, put the lives in danger, of the people, who collected it.

HUNT: Right.

TAYLOR: Then, we were talking about could it put hundreds or thousands of lives in danger because it was important secrets?

When we're talking about nuclear secrets, this isn't hyperbole to say we're talking about potentially the protection of millions of lives. When I was read into subjects, related to this, it was at the personal approval of the Secretary of Defense. I had to go into a special facility. There was a whole range of additional permissions related to it. This is incredibly sensitive stuff. Now, let me give a quick example. Let's just hypothetically, say it was a Russia or China. That type of information, about their nuclear capabilities, is the type of information, over years, and sometimes decades, we design, our nuclear posture around.

If that information gets out and we go to war, it may mean America not being protected, the way it needs to. It may mean putting this country, and millions of people, like I said, a moment ago, in danger.

HUNT: Right.

TAYLOR: That's how serious this is.

HUNT: So what - let me just flip that analogy, on its head. What if it's an ally, and their nuclear program? And there's a lot of speculation that say it's the Israelis.

TAYLOR: Likewise. Then we're putting a close ally and their citizens potentially, in danger by exposing that information about their defenses.

Again, nuclear weapons aren't just munitions on a battlefield. We're talking about existential weapons that protect a country's existence. That type of information being out there, when there's only a dozen nuclear powers, in the world, is about as serious as it gets, in the federal government.

Republicans have been saying, "Well, this was just a housekeeping issue with the documents." That's like saying, the Queen of England just leaves the crown jewels lying around, in the bathroom of the basement. But the difference is that the crown jewels don't potentially put millions of lives in danger, when they're out of the vault.

HUNT: They're expensive, like nuclear weapons. But these are much different purpose.


HUNT: Elliot, we all - frankly, the conversation ahead, before we came on the air here was all about this story. I mean, Elliot?


HUNT: You're the lawyer here at the table. What did you take away from this?

WILLIAMS: Well, I would urge every American to take a look back at that affidavit, we talked so much about a week or two ago, and the sections of it that talk about 18 USC 793(e), right?

HUNT: OK. You're going to have to fill us in on that.

[21:05:00] WILLIAMS: No, I'm going to tell you exactly - no, no, but look for those numbers, and they talk about it throughout. It's the mishandling of information that could be used to the injury of the United States.


WILLIAMS: Now that's important because even if it's an ally, you are talking about national security information, the mere possession of which or mishandling, which could be a crime.

Now, in that affidavit, the Justice Department lays out that they found probable cause to believe that this crime was committed that, somebody whether it was the president or someone connected to him had committed this crime of mishandling this kind of defense-specific information.

So, in addition to the fact that there's a national security issue here, there's also potential criminal issue, in merely having this stuff around, and transmitting it to other people, mishandling it, tampering with it in some way. It's incredibly dangerous for everybody, yes.

RAMESH PONNURU, SENIOR EDITOR, NATIONAL REVIEW: So, I think there are two important points to make here.

First, it wouldn't harm us to wait a day or two, and see some other reporting on this. What parts of this story are corroborated? What parts are corrected? What parts are amplified?

And then the second is, we are, of course, going to be talking about the potential legal ramifications of this, and that part of the U.S. Code that I am not going to try to repeat. But there's also--

HUNT: That's what Elliot's for. Don't worry.

PONNURU: But there's also a political judgment that voters need to make about Donald Trump, who is, of course, potentially a candidate for president again. Was this a responsible treatment of U.S. information? Or was it a reckless one? And I think that the bar for deciding that--

HUNT: I mean it seems relatively obvious.

PONNURU: Exactly. I think the bar for deciding that is a lot lower.

HUNT: Now, whether people care? That's another question.

PONNURU: But we often skip over that question, because we're going for the legal one.

HUNT: Right.

PONNURU: And we also have to think about, as tired as everybody is, of debating this question?

WILLIAMS: Yes. PONNURU: The question what it says about fitness for office?

WILLIAMS: I want to say one more thing, though. It's, look, the "Washington Post" is not the authority, on criminal justice, in the United States. I want to be clear.

However, a federal judge has found probable cause that it's more likely than not that this crime was committed somewhere on those grounds. And this reporting seems to confirm that information. Now, at a certain point, it walks like a duck, or talks like a duck, and I think it ought to alarm everybody, who reads it.

HUNT: Yes. Let me follow up on one thing you said, Ramesh, which is, obviously, we're going to let this reporting play out. I mean, we should underscore this is not CNN reporting. We are talking, right now, about a "Washington Post" story. They're the only ones that have this information, right now.

They had previously reported about, quote-unquote, "Nuclear documents," right? I think there were a lot of people, who assumed that they were U.S. nuclear documents, documents about our nuclear programs.

Do you see a significant difference between if the President had that kind of a document versus one about a foreign country?

PONNURU: I think that there are some - there might be different security interests involved, in either case, but they're serious security interests, and they're U.S. security interests--

HUNT: No matter what, OK.

PONNURU: --regardless, I think.

HUNT: Fair enough. What do you think?

TAYLOR: There's no difference. There's honestly, to me, there's no difference, if it was about U.S. nuclear weapons, or a foreign country. Because when you get into a nuclear war?


TAYLOR: And I've been in those game-theory situations, where you talk through tit-for-tat--

HUNT: We got to talk about that over a drink.

TAYLOR: Well, and unfortunately, it's because Trump--

HUNT: And I'm dying to know more than you can probably say on TV.

TAYLOR: --Trump forced us into that position. Because he was so bellicose, with his rhetoric, at the beginning, about North Korea, we had to have those conversations, at DHS. We had to have the conversation that was what happens if we get into a nuclear war, what do we do? And if it's about another country, or our capabilities, regardless, once you're in the war, it really matters. If you have that marginal advantage of a piece of information, about your adversaries? That getting out there is a big problem.

And look, we're talking about this stuff on air right now. I mean, this is--

HUNT: Right.

TAYLOR: --this is the horror of people, like us, from the national security community, is that if Trump hadn't taken this to Mar-a-Lago, we wouldn't be sitting here, even having this discussion, potentially putting that information at risk.

HUNT: We'd have no idea.

TAYLOR: Look, when he was voted out of office, the idea was he would leave, and not be able to put his finger, on the red button, anymore. By bringing this information to Mar-a-Lago, he's basically pushing that red button.

HUNT: Or certainly affecting it.

Elliot, let me bring this back to you. One of the other things we've been talking about today, of course, is that the judge, the Trump- appointed judge, down in Florida, granted this request, for a Special Master.

The former Attorney General Bill Barr came out and said, basically, that the government should appeal that decision. It was a wrong decision. But appealing it would have the effect of tying it up further in delaying the investigation.

If you're the DOJ, and you're trying to prosecute this case, what do you see as the best plan?

WILLIAMS: I mean, there's a couple of problems there. Number one, well, here's the thing. An appeal ties it up, and slows it down, months, not weeks. Number two, the bigger question is that you could actually get a bad decision, on appeal.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where I was once a law clerk, is one of the most conservative courts in the country. Six of the 11 judges are Trump-appointed judges. They could get a decision that really hurts the Justice Department. And if they win there, it could go to the Supreme Court, and they'd get even worse decision that could have national implications.

So maybe they just roll their dice and hold on, wait. Maybe they have access to the documents in a couple of weeks anyway, without an appeal. It's just not always a good idea, to appeal, when you lose. Even though it sort of seems counterintuitive, where you lost, why wouldn't you try to get it overturned?

[21:10:00] But maybe stay the course, and they might still be on top, in the investigation, because look at informations coming out by day--

HUNT: That's true.

WILLIAMS: --that seems to bolster their case.

HUNT: Yes.

PONNURU: And Barr--

HUNT: No, very interesting points.

PONNURU: And Barr, although he said that there should be an appeal, was saying that even if it wasn't appealed, it would be, I think, he said it would be just a rain delay.

WILLIAMS: Rain delay. In the game, he said it would slow them down a couple innings. He used the baseball analogy.

HUNT: Quite a--

WILLIAMS: So, it's actually not a bad one.

HUNT: Quite a high stakes game.

All right, Miles, Elliot, thank you guys, both, for being here, to get us started, tonight.

Ramesh, you're sticking around with us.

Coming up next, here, you are going to hear from a former acting Chief of Staff to Trump, in the White House. Why Mick Mulvaney thinks that Trump had all those documents? When CNN TONIGHT returns.



HUNT: Tonight's "Washington Post" reporting highlights the key national security questions, about just what was in the 11,000 pages of government records that were found at Donald Trump's Beach Club. Those are answers even people, who served at the highest levels of Trump's White House are looking for.

About an hour before the "Washington Post" story broke, I spoke with former Trump White House Acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney.


HUNT: Sir, thanks so much for being here.

I want to start by simply asking you, is there any legitimate reason the former President could have for refusing to turn over classified documents? MICK MULVANEY, FORMER TRUMP WHITE HOUSE ACTING CHIEF OF STAFF: Probably not. He could make the argument that he should share in them, and he might get access to them eventually. But I don't think there's any legitimate argument.

If the FBI comes into your house, and says, "Those are classified documents, you got to send them back," he's got to send them back. So, I think that's the big issue, he's dealing with, here, Kasie. You and I have talked about this briefly before.

I think he had a fairly valid defense, or at least a potential defense that maybe the documents sort of all just got thrown in a box, as he was leaving the White House, in sort of the chaos, after the January 6th riots, and so forth. And that might explain why they were there in the first place.

But that falls apart after the FBI asks for them back a couple of times, you say you've given them back, and you haven't, then they find them in your desk, if that's in fact, what happened?

So, again, that chaos, inadvertent defense sort of holds water, until you get further down into the process, like we are now. I think the President's going to have a difficult time, explaining why some of those documents, all those documents that the classified documents were still in his possession, after the FBI had asked for their return.

HUNT: Right, years since he left office, months since the FBI started asking after them.

And, we're hearing now from former administrative - administration officials, your colleagues, like Bill Barr, the former Attorney General. He said this, about the judge's decision, to appoint a Special Master, here. Watch.


BILL BARR, FORMER ATTORNEY GENERAL UNDER PRESIDENT TRUMP: The opinion, I think, was wrong. And I think the government should appeal it. It's deeply flawed in a number of ways.

The government has very strong evidence of what it really needs, to determine whether charges are appropriate, which is government docs - documents were taken, classified information was taken, and not handled appropriately. And they are looking into, and there's some evidence to suggest that they were deceived. And - and none of that really relates to the content of documents.


HUNT: He called the decision to appoint a Special Master, "Deeply flawed." Do you agree?

MULVANEY: I don't know enough. Bill obviously knows more about this process than I do. I've never been involved with the appointment of a Special Master, in a criminal prosecution. Most people probably haven't. But the fact that Bill Barr calls it? That certainly gets my attention.

I think the one thing he said that we can probably all agree on, is the fact that if the government doesn't like the decision, if the decision is really that flagrantly wrong, as Bill has suggested that it is - excuse me, Secretary Barr - Attorney General Barr has suggested that it is, other legal scholars have suggested that it is? Then, it should be fairly easy, for the government, to overturn that on appeal. My guess is that's going to be what happens next.

So again, as a conservative, I want the system to work. I want the institutions to work. And if this was an incorrect decision, by a district court judge, the appropriate and proper next step, for the FBI, and the DOJ, to take, is to appeal this, to the Court of Appeals, which I think is the Fifth Circuit in Atlanta.

HUNT: Fair enough. So, there's another former official, another former colleague, Mike Pompeo, former Secretary of State. He recently, in an interview, said, quote, "Anybody who takes classified information outside of the places it is supposed to be, should give that information back."

Now, you've basically said, in our conversation, here that you agree with that. Why do you think there haven't been more 2020 Republican possible presidential contenders coming out, being willing to say that?

MULVANEY: Well, a lot of them are probably running for office, in some way or the other. That's a difficult position to put them in.

You might think that some of them admit that they don't know enough about the circumstances. They haven't practiced criminal law, for example. But my guess is politics probably has more to do with it than anything else.

President Trump is still very powerful in the Republican Party. You saw I think that 10 people voted to impeach him, and only one is coming back to Congress. So, there's politics certainly a play.

I would benefit of - I'm not running for office anymore. Mike Pompeo might be. So, it's very interesting for him to take that position. I think he's right, by the way. It's a commonsense sort of positions.

Might President have sort of some defenses available to him? Maybe. But the beginning of the conversation is, if you have classified documents, you're not supposed to take them with you. You're not supposed to take them to your house, even if you're the former President of the United States. And if the FBI asks for them back, you got to give them back. That's the starting point, for any conversation, moving forward.

HUNT: Yes. I agree with you that it was interesting that he said that considering his ambitions. He said in the same interview that he willingly admits he's got a team in Iowa, and they're not exactly there by accident. So, I guess, we'll see.

[21:20:00] But on the document front, we have seen Trump use documents, whether it's at press conferences, signing events, you name it, he's used them as props. We see his aides, carrying boxes around.

What do you make of the suggestion that he just wanted to have this stuff around?

MULVANEY: It's really very interesting. He - keep in mind. There's a lot more protection available to the President. There's institutional protections, to the President, when he is in the West Wing, when he's in the Oval Office. And that same institutional level of protection doesn't probably apply at Mar-a-Lago.

I'm not too concerned about the President taking stuff that he was trying to sell. In fact, I don't think that would ever happen. I'm not concerned about these things being the nuclear codes. I know that got a little bit of press early on. I think that's honestly a joke. Nobody really believes these are the nuclear codes.

What's the one thing that Donald Trump might take with him or might keep even after he's asked to give them back? It's stuff, for example, that might make him look good, stuff that might clear his name, under that Crossfire Hurricane 2016 investigation, into his presidential campaign.

If he thought it was good for his brand, good for his image, if it exonerated him, from what he considers to be, and what I consider to be the 2016 Russia hoax? That explains why he might have kept it. It's not stuff that he's going to sell. It's not stuff that benefits other countries. It's stuff that may clear his name, or in his mind clears his reputation.

HUNT: So you think he might have taken Crossfire Hurricane documents, to try to clear himself, in some sort of future political run?

MULVANEY: Not just political face - if you're him - and keep in mind, this is important, for people to understand. He doesn't like the FBI.

And a lot of Republicans, myself included, remember that the FBI gave false information. It's hard to say that they lied, because you don't know their mental state. But they did unequivocally give false information to another court, the FISA court, back in 2015, 2016, where they wanted to spy on the Trump campaign.

If that's the history, then the level of sort of trust is absolutely zero. And if the President had documents that cleared his name, and the FBI said "We'd like them back," and he gives them back, is he ever going to see them again? Are they going to disappear? I think that may be one of the cases, one of the points, they try and make here, as they go forward.

Does it justify this from a legal standpoint? No. Does it may be explain the facts of the circumstance? Possible.

HUNT: Have you talked to people, in Trump's orbit, who have raised this as a possibility? MULVANEY: No, I haven't. I'm going basically just on my knowledge of the President, my understanding of how he works. Again, he would never do this for money, he would never do this to hurt the United States. He might do it to help himself.

HUNT: Do you think he might have done similar things with documents related to January 6th, or would there not have been enough of that in the White House, for that to be a possibility?

MULVANEY: Yes, that's a really good question. That's where I thought this started. That's why I was surprised, when I saw the affidavit that January 6th wasn't more specifically mentioned.

Maybe it was, when they talk about obstruction of justice, or so forth. I continue to think that if this is really just about documents, and unless they're really, really, really critical documents, to the step of going into the President's home, was probably certainly unprecedented, and certainly sets a really bad precedent.

But I was expecting them to either think they were going to find something about January 6th, or actually find something about January 6th. If this is really about the documents, from the beginning, I will continue to be surprised by them.

HUNT: Very, very interesting. Can I ask you on the political ramifications of this? I mean, you mentioned, the search of his home, and sort of the historical and political implications of that.

We spent some time talking in our last conversation about the chances that more Republicans would be willing to mount a bid against him, in a potential 2024 Republican primary. I mean, do you think that this search, and the political fallout, from it, has made it harder, for Republicans, to run against him, or easier?

MULVANEY: It's actually probably make it harder. The pendulum swings very quickly in American politics, these days. The January 6th had that pendulum sort of moving against President Trump, and we started to hear more, more talk, about other people possibly challenging him, in 2024, should he decide to run.

I think this raid has actually helped him. It's garnered some sympathy. A lot of his potential challengers, Ron DeSantis, have attacked the FBI raid. I think Tim Scott has similarly, as well. Even some Democrats, I think, Tulsi Gabbard came out and said something negative about the FBI raid. So, it has built sympathy for Donald Trump.

Can the pendulum move back again the other way? Certainly, it can. We're a long ways away from anybody having to make a decision.

I think the one thing we have learned, Kasie, in just the last couple of weeks, is that this pressure or this anticipation that Trump might announce, right away, is sort of come off a little bit. I think most the conventional wisdom, right now, is he probably waits till after the midterm, to make any sort of announcement at all. HUNT: Well, and speaking of the midterms, I mean, if he were to announce, and Republicans were to have a worse-than-expected year, he could take some blame for that.

And we have seen in some of the polling, the broadest polling, the generic ballot, the President's approval rating, that things do seem to be trending Democrats' direction, in a way that they weren't say, three months or four months ago. What do you think is driving that?

MULVANEY: A bunch of different things, I think it's a combination of things. And keep in mind, you're right, and you're exactly right to mention the generic or the general nature of that information.


House races, especially are still very, very local. So it's hard to say in a particular swing district, is Roe versus Wade a big issue, is the economy still the biggest issue, is Donald Trump an issue? It's hard to sort of dig down into those individual districts. But your point is well-made.

HUNT: Abortion?

MULVANEY: Yes, it's Roe versus Wade, yes, abortion.

HUNT: Roe versus Wade, yes, forgive me.

MULVANEY: Exactly. So, I think, what you're seeing is, a general trend, for the Democrats, here, in the last couple of weeks.

Keep in mind, the Republicans don't have to do very well, on that generic poll. If they're even, in the real world, that means they're probably a little bit ahead. At least traditionally, that has been the case.

So, I still think you're looking at a situation, where the Republicans are likely to take the House. But I think that the situation, in the Senate, may have changed over the last couple of weeks.

Again, pendulums move quickly, in this business. It could come back. But the election would maybe very difficult for Republicans to take the Senate.

HUNT: They do move indeed.

Mick Mulvaney, thanks very much for your time tonight. We really appreciate you being on the program.

MULVANEY: Thanks, Kasie.


HUNT: And we have new CNN reporting tonight, about what may be the biggest challenge, in the Republican Party's attempt, to take back the Senate. It's Campaign War Chest. Coming up next, how senators are trying to work around the shortfall, and a GOP family feud, between two key lawmakers.

We'll be right back.



HUNT: With just nine weeks to go, until Election Day, several Senate races, in key battleground states, are locked in a dead heat.

The top races, CNN is watching? Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where Democrats are trying to win back Senate seats. And Nevada, Georgia and Arizona, where Democrats are fighting to hold on to seats.

It's a surprising turn for Democrats, who just months ago feared a Red wave. It also comes, as the two men, responsible for electing Republicans, to the Senate, increasingly find themselves at odds. How inconvenient!

CNN's Manu Raju has new reporting, tonight, about how these growing tensions are alarming other Republican senators.

Manu, thanks so much for bringing us this new reporting. I know, you're just running around, on the Hill, as senators come back, for the first time, since the August recess. What did you learn?

MANU RAJU, CNN CHIEF CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They're concerned. I mean, look, this is a committee that is central to the efforts, to take back the majority. They help fundraising efforts--


RAJU: --the National Republican Senatorial Committee that Rick Scott runs. And they are not doing the job that they - that many Republicans thought they would, which is to be flushed with cash, at this point, in the campaign season, being able to prop up candidates, at critical moments, and bankroll a multi-million dollar ad campaign, all across the country.

You can see on your screen right there. The challenges that Republicans this committee is having, now on cash on hand, $23 million, compared to the $54 million that Democrats have.

Now, what I'm hearing behind-the-scenes, is that Republicans are actually trying to figure out a way around the National Republican Senatorial Committee. They're trying to directly fundraise, with some of these candidates themselves.

And Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, who has, for years, been so deeply invested, in how this committee operates, around the strategy, fundraising?

HUNT: Yes.

RAJU: Instead of taking matters in his own hand, raising money for his high-spending super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, directly urging senators, to give to his committee instead, because they can raise unlimited amount of money. And already, they're planning to prop up key candidates in races, that ordinarily it would be the National Republican Senatorial Committee's job to do.

HUNT: Right, yes. And I think, I mean, look, you've covered this for a long time, as have I. The idea that Mitch McConnell - I mean, he had basically figureheads installed at the NRSC, for many years, while he ran the thing, behind-the-scenes. I think this feud is pretty stunning, to those of us, who've watched it for a while.

And I think we can kind of give our viewers a little bit of a sense of this, because the phrase, "Candidate quality," is critical here. It's code for all of the mistakes that Mitch McConnell thinks Rick Scott has made, in the course of running this committee. And of course, this feud is exploding just weeks before the midterm election.

So, here's what McConnell had to say about his candidates, and then we'll show you how Rick Scott hit back, at the Republican leader. Watch.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): Candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome. Right now, we have a 50-50 Senate and a 50-50 country. But I think when all is said and done, this fall, we're likely to have an extremely close Senate, either our side up slightly, or their side up slightly.


HUNT: So what McConnell is talking in code about there, is candidates like Blake Masters, in Arizona, a Trump-backed candidate, who many Republicans, on the McConnell side, believe just isn't going to be able to win, a general election, and hasn't had the help from the committee that he should have.

Rick Scott, a little while after McConnell made those comments, put this Op-Ed out. He wrote, quote, "If you want to trash-talk our candidates to help the Democrats, pipe down."

RAJU: That was a little--

HUNT: "Pipe down!"

RAJU: That was stunning in it that this does not happen. This is - this level of feuding, especially so close to an election, with two high-ranking officials, it is just simply unheard of.

Now, Rick Scott was in Mitch McConnell's office, for the first time, since writing that Op-Ed. He came out of the meeting. He claimed that it was not his intention, to go directly, after McConnell, in those remarks. He said it was actually unnamed Republican aides, who were quoted in on publications. This is what he was referring to.

Now, a source told us, who's close to Rick Scott, told us, tonight, "McConnell's comments hurt Republican candidates. Anyone who disagrees with that is either an idiot or on McConnell's payroll."

So clearly, people close to Rick Scott--

HUNT: Right.

RAJU: --believe that Mitch McConnell is an issue here. And Kasie, in talking to a number of Republican senators, they are really uneasy on this back-and-forth.

HUNT: Right.

RAJU: They say, it's time to get united. This kind of feuding simply is not what we need, at this point. And when I tried to ask McConnell, about all this, he walked in silence.

HUNT: I was going to say, I'm sure he had lots to say to you, about that. No, I mean, it's just, it's absolutely remarkable to me.

And this is one of the ways McConnell manages to keep people, so loyal to him, is that no matter what he cares about the Senate, he cares about the people in the Senate.


And it's clear, I think, to a lot of people, increasingly Republicans, in the Senate that Rick Scott cares about something else, namely his own presidential ambitions, right?

Manu, stick around. We're going to keep you, with us, for our panel, coming up next.

We're going to take a look at the state of play, right now, in the battle for control of Congress. The hottest races to watch, plus, new developments, in the Senate contest, perhaps getting the most attention, coming up next.



MEHMET OZ, (R) PENNSYLVANIA SENATE CANDIDATE: John Fetterman is either healthy, and he's dodging the debates because he does not want to answer for his radical left positions, or he's too sick to participate in the debate.


HUNT: Republican U.S. Senate candidate, Dr. Mehmet Oz, is keeping up his attacks, against John Fetterman, his Democratic opponent, in Pennsylvania. But Oz's remarks today were notably toned down, from the hostile attacks, his campaign launched, in recent weeks, at times, mocking Fetterman, for his stroke.

Here to discuss the state of play, for this critical battleground state, are Manu Raju and Ramesh Ponnuru. I also want to welcome Democratic Strategist, Maria Cardona, to our conversation. Thank you guys all for being here.


Manu, this is a notable shift, in tone, for us--

RAJU: Yes.

HUNT: --from the nasty statements, we saw, from his press people. But he's still, on this issue. And what's your take?

RAJU: Yes. I mean, look, the campaign has - the aides have gone much further than Oz has gone. But Oz has not necessarily shied away from it.

I do think this is an issue that Fetterman has to fully address, in the final weeks, here, in the campaign. If he does not agree to debate Oz, that could certainly be a liability here, heading into the homestretch, when people - voters may have legitimate questions, about his health.

I mean, Fetterman was off the campaign trail, for several weeks, in the aftermath of the stroke. He has just come back. He's only at a handful of events. There are legitimate questions that he has to answer. The challenge over the Oz campaign is not to go too far, because then it looks like you're trying to take political advantage, of someone's health.

HUNT: Right. Well, and they got a little bit of a hand, today, from the "Pittsburgh Post-Gazette," Maria, who wrote in an editorial, "If Mr. Fetterman is not well enough to debate his opponent, that raises serious concerns about his ability to serve as a United States senator."

Now obviously, the Fetterman campaign disputes that. But is it a problem for him to skip the debate?

MARIA CARDONA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: I don't think he will. I think that look, it just - we just passed Labor Day. This is literally the beginning of the, being in the middle, and the heart of the midterm elections. I think he will get there. He still has some lingering issues, as I understand it, from the stroke.

And I think the fact of the matter is, is that Oz's remarks, from before his attacks, which were gross, and cruel, and crude, backfired. They absolutely backfired on him. And they know that. And so, what I think they're seeing is that Fetterman is ahead.

There was a poll today that came out, where he is not ahead by double- digits, but he's still comfortably ahead, outside of the margin of error. In that poll, 68 percent of voters said that the fact that he had a stroke, wasn't an issue, for them.

And he's out and about. It's not like he's hiding in his house. He's talking to voters. He's at events. He's talking to the media. He had a day-long event, on Labor Day. So, his campaign absolutely says, he is up for it. He's going to do it, on his own terms, on his own time, because he's the one, who's ahead.

It's Oz that is desperate to debate him, because he's the one, who has to try to dig into some of that lead.

HUNT: Well, I think the real interesting thing to me, about how Oz is trying to change this conversation is that there are a lot of voters, who have health problems, in their own lives, right? They don't want their doctor to make fun of them. They understand that.

CARDONA: Exactly.

HUNT: But if Oz can put it on the territory, well-trodden territory in politics, of are you capable of serving or not? That's kind of a different question.

But Ramesh, one of the reasons why Oz is struggling here is actually has nothing to do with, I mean, Fetterman is running, I think, by all accounts, a pretty strong campaign, in the swing state. Oz has struggled, and he's struggling in part with Republican voters.

PONNURU: That's right.

HUNT: Here's what he told Bret Baier, on Fox, a little bit earlier, tonight. Take a look.


BRET BAIER, FOX NEWS HOST: Are you a MAGA Republican?

OZ: I support what President Trump has argued while he was in the White House, that we can actually make America a great country if we put our country first, if we're tough on trade, if we do the kinds of things that were done during that administration.


HUNT: So that was not a "Yes."

PONNURU: But it also wasn't a no. And that's the line he's trying to walk.

I think that you've got some lingering bad feelings, because that was a very nasty Republican primary. It ended up being a much tighter primary than the one that the Democrats had. And I think that's being reflected, in his worse numbers, among Republicans than you'd expect.

He's actually doing fine with Independents in a lot of that polling, but he's not yet solidified the Republicans. If you are an optimist, with the Oz campaign, what you're going to say is, a lot of those Republican voters have reservations, but they are going to come home, in the end, to the Republican candidate, and thus the race is tighter than it looks, and it's already tightening.

HUNT: Yes. No, I mean, I think that's entirely possible. I mean, Manu, the other thing that happened today, at this news conference, is that Oz diverged, from Pat Toomey. Toomey, of course, voted to impeach Trump after January 6th. He said he would not have done the same thing. But he did say that he agreed with the 2020 election results. I mean, is he trying to have that both ways too?

RAJU: Yes. I mean, look, he's saying that he would not vote to impeach, if he voted, say that - his most powerful endorsement could come out, and start attacking him, Donald Trump--

HUNT: Right.

RAJU: --who just appeared at the rally with him, a couple of days ago. But yes, I mean?

PONNURU: And he wouldn't solidify that Republican voter support.

RAJU: Exactly. And that's been his problem all along, as Ramesh was saying, is getting Republicans in line. I think he is trying to walk that line, of course, because if he were to say, he's going to overturn the electoral results, it only would open him up, to just furious amount of attacks, from Democrats, which he also doesn't need, at this point.

CARDONA: Look, if he's struggling with Republican voters, what is he going to do when he's going to have to really close that gap, with women voters? He has an issue with abortion. He said some very extreme things, about abortion being a crime, about it being murder.


And that is not something that he's going to be able to walk away from. And certainly, the Fetterman campaign, and Democrats, are not going to let him walk away from that. That's going to be a huge issue, in this campaign, as it has been, across the country.

PONNURU: And he has to flip that back, and point out that Fetterman has said there should be absolutely no restrictions on abortion.

If the focus is all on the places, where Republicans are out of line with public opinion, and it's not at all where Democrats are out of line with public opinion then, of course, Republicans are going to do badly.

HUNT: Yes, no, I mean, and I think to your point about women voters, in Pennsylvania? I mean, I'm from outside Philadelphia. I mean, the Philadelphia suburbs are full of, congressional districts, and the kind of suburban women--

CARDONA: Absolutely.

HUNT: --that Republicans really lost, during the Trump years.


HUNT: They've been working hard to get back, and struggle with on abortion.

I mean, speaking of cultural issues, Manu, I'm interested in your kind of latest reporting, and take on same-sex marriage. Because there is this conversation going on, since we saw what happened with Dobbs, should this be codified into law? There's a search going on, for 10 Republicans, to try and figure out a way, to make same-sex marriage legal.

What is the latest on where that is? And how does that play into Democrats' thinking about the midterm election?

RAJU: Yes, that's a complicated decision, exactly when to have this vote, because the 10 votes are not there yet. They probably will get there. It appears that way. But they're meeting tomorrow, the sponsors of this legislation, to try to hash out their strategy.

There's some discussion about folding it into a bill, to keep the government open, past the end of the month. Not everybody favors that. Even the Republicans, who support this don't favor that. Even some of the Democrats, who favor this don't support that idea.

And if they put this on the floor of the Senate, this could put some endangered Republicans, in a tough spot. Ron Johnson being one of them. He indicated he could potentially support this. We'll see what he ultimately would do here. So, that's part of the calculation.

Anytime you get this close, to the election, of course, midterm politics play into it. And that's something that Chuck Schumer will have to weigh.

HUNT: It's really more than play into it, right? It starts to dictate everything.

RAJU: Try to dictate (ph), yes.

HUNT: Yes, no, for sure.

All right, Manu Raju, Ramesh Ponnuru, Maria Cardona, thank you all very much, for being here, with us, tonight.

Ahead, this year's U.S. Open will, of course, be remembered, as a celebration of Serena Williams' amazing, just incredible career. But time and, of course, tennis don't stand still. The rising young stars quickly making history, of their own, coming up next.



HUNT: We are one step closer to the finals in the U.S. Open. American Coco Gauff will not advance to the semifinals. She had a great run. But unfortunately, it ended, just a few moments ago, when she lost to France's Caroline Garcia.

We expect dramatic play at the Open. But, this year, we are also peering, into the future, to who the sport's next great players will be.

On the men's side, Frances Tiafoe will be playing in just his second major semifinal match, after beating Rafael Nadal. It's a fairy tale. He could become the first American man, to win a Grand Slam singles final, in nearly two decades.

Another big story in men's tennis is Nick Kyrgios, who's playing, right now. He beat the defending champion, to get to the semifinals.

Let's talk about it all, to CNN Sports Analyst, Christine Brennan.

Christine, thank you so much, for being here.

I mean, everyone has been or was just glued to Serena Williams, of course. I among them. But her retirement here has set the stage, to pass the torch, on the women's side. It's not so obvious on the men's side. None of the big three, over there, are talking about retiring.


HUNT: So, who do you see, as the next women's stars?

BRENNAN: Certainly Coco Gauff, even though she did have a tough night, today. She's only 18-years-old, Kasie. I mean?

HUNT: Just amazing.

BRENNAN: Yes, I mean, born in 2003, or 2004, actually, you know?

HUNT: That's when I went to college--

BRENNAN: Yes, right, right. And so, when they're born, in this century, you know, they're young.

HUNT: Yes.

BRENNAN: And she has been playing so well. And what does she say, when she talks about the inspiration? It's Serena and Venus.

HUNT: Yes.

BRENNAN: And you mentioned Tiafoe. What does he say about his inspiration to play tennis? It's Serena and Venus. Looking at someone, who looked like them, he felt that tennis would be a place, where he could have a home, as opposed to other sports.

And so, we are seeing this - I mean, there's some great players, around the world. Today's the greatest and most difficult day, in tennis, in terms of winning, until tomorrow.

HUNT: Right.

BRENNAN: And so, they're coming on from Estonia and everywhere. But I do think, the common denominator here is Serena Williams. The first week, she dominated. And the second week is about those that she inspired, which is pretty cool.

HUNT: Yes. I mean, that's just what an amazing legacy for her to have shown people, who come from backgrounds that you don't think, traditionally necessarily lend themselves, to playing tennis, at the highest, highest levels of the sport.

I mean, the story, the personal story, of Frances Tiafoe, is just astonishing. I mean, tell - remind us, like where he came from--


HUNT: --because it's just amazing.

BRENNAN: So, his parents came from Sierra Leone. And his dad worked on construction, of a junior tennis facility, right near here, in College Park, Maryland.

And after they built it, he was made the custodian, for the facility. And they gave him a room, in the building, where he and his two sons would sleep every night. And one of those sons, of course, is Frances. Their mom was working overnight as a nurse.

This is the American Dream. It is an incredible story. So, this little boy, is hanging out, at a tennis center, all day--

HUNT: Yes.

BRENNAN: --and is learning the sport, and falls in love with it. Sees Serena Williams, sees that someone, who has the same skin color, as he has, can actually be a champion, and is inspired, and then moves on, and starts to be obviously a great player.

And here he is, 24, finally coming into his own big match, tomorrow. But he truly, if anything can top the Williams sisters, nothing can, and certainly nothing can top Serena.

HUNT: Yes.

BRENNAN: But if anything would be close, it would be Tiafoe moving on, because that story touches the heart, I think, of every American.

HUNT: Well and he would be - I was sort of astonished to learn it's, I think, it's 19 years, the first American, to get this far, in the U.S. Open?

BRENNAN: Right. Andy Roddick was the last one, to win, on the men's side. Obviously, Serena has been a dominating. There's others as well.


But yes, U.S. Men's Tennis has had - well it had some big names. But certainly, the glory days of U.S. Men's Tennis, going back to John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, all the way back, those days are long gone.

Again, the competition, around the world, inspired many of them, inspired by those great names, from America or Australia. And now, of course, they're beating the American men. So, I think, again, there is a changing of a guard feeling. But it's also very exciting. I mean, I think if there's anything that we love, maybe almost as much as the old star, is the new-new thing. And here you go, you've got people all over that you can look at men's and women's tennis, and the equality in men's and women's tennis. They've been paying equal prize money, to the women, as well as the man, at the U.S. Open, since 1973. So--

HUNT: And we can thank Billie Jean King for that.

BRENNAN: We can absolutely thank Billie Jean King for that. U.S. Open Golf, we have Country Club Sport, Golf, Tennis, Golf has never paid the women equally. So that I think shows why we see such great female athletes, and people from around the world, trying to play the game.

HUNT: Yes, it's just phenomenal. And seeing Billie Jean King, out there, with Serena, this week, has also been amazing.

BRENNAN: Amazing.

HUNT: All right, Christine Brennan, thanks very much, for being with us, tonight.

BRENNAN: Thank you.

HUNT: We will be right back.


HUNT: Thanks so much for being with us, tonight. I will be back, tomorrow night.

"DON LEMON TONIGHT" starts right now.

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