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Interview with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL); Anonymous Senior Admin Officials Says Appointees Are Thwarting Trump's More Misguided Impulses. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 05, 2018 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: anonymously critical. In a stunning "New York Times" opinion piece, an unnamed senior administration official admits to being part of the internal resistance to the president, describing him as amoral, impulsive, petty, and ineffective.

Mr. Trump is firing back tonight.

Unprecedented op-ed. Why is someone inside the Trump administration coming forward now to declare that the president must be stopped? And why did "The New York Times" agree to publish the article anonymously? The explosive book by Bob Woodward may have helped pave the way.

Fact vs. fiction. Tonight, the president is speaking out about the Woodward book, dismissing it as fiction. But CNN has learned that he's privately trying to hunt down the legendary journalist's sources and likely punish them.

And Kavanaugh under fire. All of this comes as Mr. Trump's Supreme Court nominee is facing contentious questioning by Democratic senators, Democrats pressing him about his views on executive power and whether the president could pardon himself or if the president could be subpoenaed.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following major breaking news.

A senior Trump administration official admits to being part of a battle inside the White House to frustrate the president's agenda and his worst impulses until he leaves office.

"The New York Times" publishing the unprecedented op-ed anonymously. The author delivering a blistering assessment of the president that echoes themes in the new Bob Woodward book, portraying Mr. Trump as amoral, impulsive, misguided, and detrimental to the United States of America.

Tonight, Mr. Trump is lashing out at "The New York Times" and claiming that Bob Woodward's book is all fiction, timed to interfere with the confirmation hearings of his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.

This hour, I will talk to Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. He's a key member of the Judiciary Committee questioning Kavanaugh. And our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, first the Woodward book bombshell and now this extraordinary op- ed.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Wolf. It's an extraordinary back-to-back blistering assessment of this president by someone inside his own White House.

And they make the same point. They believe the president is not -- must be protected from doing his own impulses of what he would do to the country. Now, Wolf, we already know the president has been enraged and on something of a witch-hunt over who was talking to Bob Woodward.

Now he wonders who's writing about him in "The New York Times."


ZELENY (voice-over): New signs tonight of a war within President Trump's White House. An anonymous op-ed in "The New York Times" written by a senior Trump official offers a blistering look at how people inside the government are trying to protect the nation from the president.

"We believe our first duty is to this country and the president continues to act in a manner that is detrimental to the health of our republic," the person writes. "That is why many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions, while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office."

An extraordinary claim, and tonight the president is blasting the newspaper.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If the failing "New York Times" has an anonymous editorial -- can you believe it? Anonymous. Meaning gutless, a gutless editorial. We're doing a great job.

ZELENY: Yet it rocked the White House, amplifying and echoing the same overarching theme of a bombshell new book by Bob Woodward.

TRUMP: The book means nothing. It's a work of fiction.

ZELENY: President Trump tonight trying to downplay and discredit Bob Woodward's new book, which offers a devastating portrait of deep dysfunction inside his White House.

In the Oval Office, the president settling on one word again and again to describe the explosive book. TRUMP: Fiction. Fiction. Fiction. Fiction. Fiction. Fiction.

It's fiction. It's more fiction.

ZELENY: But behind the scenes, CNN has learned he's enraged and on a mission to find out who cooperated with Woodward for his book, "Fear: Trump in the White House."

It's his own West Wing witch-hunt, with one official telling CNN, "He wants to know who talked to Woodward."

But now there's another mystery sure to outrage the president, the official who wrote this anonymously in "The Times." "The dilemma, which he does not fully grasp, is that many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations."

The official, who insists they want Trump to succeed, also writes: "The root of the problem is the president's amorality. Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision-making."

The legendary "Washington Post" journalist of Watergate fame defending his book in five simple words: "I stand by my reporting."


In the president's first public comments about the book, he denied ever ordering or even considering the assassination of the Syrian leader, as Woodward reported.

TRUMP: That was never even contemplated, nor would it be contemplated.

ZELENY: Trump made clear he's trying to discredit Woodward, who he assailed on Twitter as a Dem operative.

TRUMP: If you look back at Woodward's past, he had the same problem with other presidents. He likes to get publicity, sell some books.

ZELENY: But the president once called Woodward great in 2013 after he wrote a book critical of the Obama administration. Then, he came to Woodward's defense, tweeting: "Only the Obama White House can get away with attacking Bob Woodward."

And "The Post" released a recording of a call between Woodward and the president last month, saying this:

TRUMP: I think you have always been fair, but we will see what happens.

ZELENY: Inside the tense West Wing today, the president made clear he was keeping track of which current and former officials issued denials.

TRUMP: General Mattis has come out very, very strongly. He was insulted by the remarks that were attributed to him. ZELENY: In the book, Woodward writes Mattis said that the president

had the understanding of a fifth or sixth grader during a discussion about North Korea. Mattis denied that account.

TRUMP: General John Kelly, the same exact thing. He saw it. He was insulted by what they said. He couldn't believe what they said.

ZELENY: And Kelly is portrayed describing the president as unhinged and an idiot. He, too, denied it.

Yet there was notable silence from other former officials, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, and staff secretary Rob Porter, all of whom were depicted in the book trying to protect the nation from the president.

TRUMP: And "The New York Times" is failing.

ZELENY: While the president also rails against it, he also cares deeply what's inside his old hometown newspaper. In Friday's edition, it will be this blistering assessment of his presidency from someone who works from him.

"From the White House to executive branch departments and agencies, senior officials will privately admit their daily disbelief at the commander in chief's comments and actions. Most are working to insulate their operations from his whims."


ZELENY: Now, Wolf, tonight, the White House is clearly trying to digest all of this and frankly trying to see who it may have been who actually wrote this blistering assessment.

They're wondering if it was someone here in the building, someone in a nearby agency, someone at the top of another agency without the government, only described by "The Times" as a senior administration official.

But, Wolf, we are getting also a statement from White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders late today. She says this.

She said: "The individual behind this piece has chosen to deceive rather than support the duly elected president of the United States. He is not putting country first, but put himself and his ego ahead of the will of the American people. This coward should do the right thing and resign."

But notable, Wolf, Sarah Sanders did not say the paper made this up. That, of course, is one of their claims always, that it's fake news. That is not one of their assessments. We should also point out, Wolf, that we do not necessarily know if it is a he. "The New York Times" mentioned on social media earlier, used the word he, but then a spokeswoman for the newspaper said that that was not necessarily accurate. Someone did not know the identity who wrote that.

So we do not know tonight, Wolf, if it's a he or a she, but we know their feelings about the president and his impulses -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting. A lot of people are speculating. We might know sooner rather than later who this individual is.

Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thank you very much.

Let's bring in our CNN political director, David Chalian.

David, this is truly another bombshell, first the Woodward book and now this.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: And I know, Wolf, that sometimes it is hard for us inside the newsroom to deal with each day's developments and sort of calibrate them. It must be hard for the viewers at home.

But that double whammy of the Woodward book and then this unprecedented takedown of a presidency from inside is simply astonishing, and no doubt sending a chill down the spine of many Americans tonight. We have not seen anything like this.

So as you're assessing each sort of daily development, let me assure you, this is a big one. And don't just trust me when I say that. Look at the president's reaction himself, Wolf.

When the president in the White House today went and stared right into the camera, not only could you see his visible anger, but you see the unraveling, you see a president who sort of is losing it right before the American people in many ways, thrashing out, that he is so unable to get control of his own narrative here, as commander in chief.

BLITZER: Yes, he was really, really seething. You could see that when he began to defend himself in the aftermath of this article being posted.

David Chalian, thank you very much.

I want to bring in our senior media correspondent, Brian Stelter.

Brian, I understand you just had a chance to speak with a source at "The New York Times." What are you picking up?

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Jim Dao is the op-ed page editor at "The New York Times." He just told me about how this op-ed came together, this extraordinary document from a senior official in the government.


Dao says that, just a few days ago, this senior official contacted him through an intermediary, through a go-between, and expressed interest in writing this op-ed.

Dao says his response was the same thing he said to anybody who wants to write an op-ed. Go ahead and write it, submit it, we will see what it says. An understated response from "The New York Times," obviously given the gravity of this situation.

Now, Dao obviously will not talk about who this senior official was, whether it's a man or a woman, where in the government they work. We all know there's a lot of people within the administration that could be called senior, and Dao would not go into details about whether this person works in the West Wing or works in an agency, et cetera.

But he did say "The Times" had taken a number of special precautions to protect the person's identity. He also said only a very small number of people within "The New York Times" know the person's identity.

Wolf, the detail that stands out most to me is the detail about the Cabinet. This op-ed writer said there was talk within the Cabinet about trying to invoke the 25th Amendment, but that the Cabinet officials decided not to, because they didn't want to provoke a constitutional crisis.

That suggests to me that this person had some visibility into Cabinet- level discussions, at least early on in the administration. So, as all of this fallout continues, just keep in mind, of all of the places this senior official could have gone, with of all the outlets they could have chosen to try to blow the proverbial whistle, they chose the newspaper that Trump loves and hates the most.

They chose the so-called failing "New York Times," that, of course, is not failing at all. I'm sure when the president sees this in print, he will be even angrier than he has by reading it online.

BLITZER: Brian Stelter, good reporting. Thank you very much.

Joining us now, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. He's a member of the Judiciary Committee, the committee who has been questioning the president's Supreme Court nominee all day.

And thank you so much, Senator, for coming over.


BLITZER: I know it's an incredibly busy day, but these are extraordinary developments.

And you're shaking your head. The Woodward book yesterday and now this op-ed anonymously written in "The New York Times." This person writes that there's confirmation that there's people within the Trump administration, within the president's Cabinet who were actually considering going to the 25th Amendment to the Constitution to try to remove this president, because they fear he was a threat to U.S. national security.

GRAHAM: I have 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.

Bob Woodward is a good journalist. There's no doubt in my mind that whatever he wrote in that book, he had sources for. But at the end of the day, he's going to be judged by results. President Trump, in my world, where I live, in South Carolina, most people are very pleased with what the president's doing.

BLITZER: Because this individual who wrote this article in "The New York Times" clearly is -- "The New York Times," you believe "The New York Times" would not have published it if they had not confirmed it was a senior Trump administration official.


GRAHAM: I'm sure there could be one of a bunch of people. All I can say is I have never heard this before. I'm going to judge the president by the results.

And I like what he's doing with judges, what he's doing with the military, what he did with taxes. And that will matter in my world. In my world, when "The New York Times" speak, most of us don't listen. Nothing against the paper, but it's sort of seen as the voice of the left.

BLITZER: Because the author of this article...

GRAHAM: Because it is.

BLITZER: ... says the successes -- and you refer to successes of the Trump presidency.


BLITZER: And according to this senior administration official -- have come despite, not because of the president's leadership style.


BLITZER: And this also author says, this president represents a danger to the U.S. And I know you're interested in foreign policy.

"In public and in private," the author writes, "President Trump shows a preference for autocrats and dictators, such as President Vladimir Putin of Russia and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, and displays little genuine appreciation for the ties that bind us to allied, like nations."

GRAHAM: Well, all I can say is, I don't agree with...

BLITZER: Now, remember, that isn't "The New York Times" saying that. This is a senior administration official, a political appointee, someone who has come in, maybe he works in national security, maybe he works someplace, who's blasting the president, saying he's a threat to U.S. national security.

GRAHAM: Right.

I think this president has done more to rebuild a broken military than anybody since Ronald Reagan. I think this president has taken it to our enemies much better than the last president. I think withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement was a good decision.

I think cutting taxes is benefiting the average American. What they will say, in the White House, palace intrigue is one thing, results are another. All I can say is that there will be an election in 2020. And I don't know who this person is, but I got a call from the president at 8:00 this morning.

He sounded really fine to me. Talked to John Kelly at 7:30 this morning. I have conducted business all day, believing that John Kelly is going nowhere.


The president was actually in a pretty good mood about Kavanaugh, and we will see. You know, I don't know who this person is, but what I see coming out of the White House, I like.

I don't know how they get to where they get, but they're getting to the right places, in my view.

BLITZER: You know, when I read this article in "The New York Times," it was pretty stunning, knowing it's not a "New York Times" editorial. This was not written by a writer for "The New York"...

GRAHAM: Yes, yes.

BLITZER: This is a senior administration official.

I knew you were coming on the show, and immediately, in my mind, I remembered what you said about Donald Trump in 2016. You remember. And I'm paraphrasing, but I think you used the word he's a kook, he's unfit for office.

GRAHAM: A bunch of things.

BLITZER: He's crazy.


BLITZER: You really went after him at the time.


BLITZER: What has changed?

GRAHAM: Well, he won. I lost. So I owe it to him to try to help him where I can, say no when I must.

The people of South Carolina expect me to do that. All I can say is that people listen to me about as much as we're going to listen to "The New York Times." I said a lot of things. Nobody cared. And at the end of the day, he won in states we hadn't won in 30 years. I like what he's doing as president. I don't like all of the things he says and does.

But this is palace intrigue that will matter more on cable TV than anywhere else. In the world in which I live in, in South Carolina, this is going to matter zero.

BLITZER: Here's what the president of the United States just tweeted only a few minutes ago. And you can see it right there. We put it up on the screen in all caps.

"Treason?" Question. "Treason?"

He's obviously furious right now at this author of this article in "The New York Times." He's clearly enraged about who leaked stuff to Bob Woodward, a man you and I know and...

GRAHAM: Yes. He's a good journalist.

BLITZER: Clearly, he spoke with you at one point.

GRAHAM: Yes, you did.

BLITZER: You passed on a request to the president for him to sit down with Bob Woodward.

GRAHAM: Can I -- and I will tell you about that.

So, I talked to Bob, so I'm sure he will quote me accurately. The bottom line, I talked to Bob about Obama and almost every other president since I have been here. The bottom line is, I told the president playing golf that Woodward was writing a book about him, like he does every president. I'm sure he'd like to talk to you. You ought to think about it.

He said, that's interesting. And it literally took a minute, and we moved on to whether or not I was going to give him the putt. So here's what I think. The book by Bob Woodward is not going to determine the outcome of the 2020 election. It's something for people to consider.

The anonymous editorial would piss me off, if somebody in my office wrote it about me. Put yourself in the president's shoes. Wouldn't you be upset?

BLITZER: He's very upset.

GRAHAM: Well, I don't blame him.

BLITZER: He used the word treason just now. And all of a sudden, I remember, John Brennan, the former CIA director, spoke about treasonous.


BLITZER: Is it appropriate for the president to be suggesting treason, which is a crime...

GRAHAM: Right.

BLITZER: ... potentially the death penalty, for the president of the United States to raise the issue of treason, referring either to the author of this article who works for him, maybe inside his own Cabinet, or for other sources who cooperated with Bob Woodward for this book?

GRAHAM: It's not a -- this is not treason under the Constitution. This is not a treasonous act against the nation. It's a disloyal and cowardly act against the president.

So I wouldn't say treason, but if I were him, I would really be upset that somebody wrote this. Come to him and -- you know, at the end of the day, the president has every right to be upset. And this will matter nothing in 2020.

He's either going to win or lose based on what he does for average people, not based on articles or books, I think.

BLITZER: I know you're obviously very interested in national security.


BLITZER: In the Bob Woodward book, he reports that the defense secretary, General James Mattis, retired, described the president as having the understanding on critical national security issues of a -- quote -- "fifth or a sixth grader."

"The Washington Post" reporting today that there have now been talks about who could eventually replace James Mattis, talks that may be accelerated by the Woodward book.

You saw James Mattis putting out a statement denying it. Your name, by the way, has come up as a possible replacement for James Mattis. Are you interested?

GRAHAM: Well, one, that's the first I have heard of this. And the answer is no. And General Mattis, I think, is committed to staying At least I hope he is. If he leaves, that would be a loss for this White House, be a loss for the country.

I have never -- I have never heard General Mattis talk that way. So Bob Woodward is a good journalist. But I can say, I have never heard a disrespectful word come out of General Mattis' mouth about the president.

BLITZER: If the president asked you to serve as the secretary of defense, would you?



GRAHAM: Because I like being a senator from South Carolina. I can do a bunch of things as a senator from South Carolina.

BLITZER: But you could do a lot as secretary of defense too.

GRAHAM: Yes. You know, he asked me to be ambassador to Pakistan. And I said, thank

you very much, no thank you. That's the only time we have ever talked about a particular job. I like what I'm doing. I want to help him where I can.


And, you know, what would happen if he withdrew from Afghanistan tomorrow and did not listen to his generals? What would happen if he left Syria and did not listen to his generals?

I would be his biggest critic. I like what the president is doing militarily. He seems to listen to people who have made it their life's work to defend the nation. And so long as he will do that, it's his ultimate decision. I'm going to be with this guy, because I think he really is making us safer.

BLITZER: Would you serve as attorney general of the United States?

GRAHAM: No. I maybe I'd do both. I could have both jobs.

No, Wolf. No. It's not because I don't like the president. It's because I like being a senator. A Cabinet official has never intrigued me at all.

BLITZER: But what about the way the president of the United States humiliates, berates...

GRAHAM: Yes. I hate that. I hate that. I hate that.

BLITZER: ... talks so awful about the sitting attorney general of the United States?

GRAHAM: I -- yes.

BLITZER: You know, some of these quotes from the president, whether he says it publicly or tweets about it...


BLITZER: ... are simply -- you know...


BLITZER: ... Jeff Sessions.

GRAHAM: Yes, whatever you think about Jeff, he's a good man. If you don't want him to be your attorney general, you have a right to replace him.

But you're going to have to replace him with somebody who can get confirmed. Nobody's going to get...

BLITZER: How do you explain that he berates his own attorney general repeatedly, almost day after day after day? It's awful.

GRAHAM: He does it with everybody. He went after the pope. He goes after me. But here's what I would say. I have a working...

BLITZER: Is this a stable individual who does that to the sitting attorney general of the United States?

GRAHAM: I think most Americans believe that he was the answer better than Hillary Clinton.

BLITZER: Well, she got three million more votes.

GRAHAM: Yes, I know, but...

BLITZER: He won the Electoral College. He is the duly elected president of the United States.

GRAHAM: But don't you think everybody in the country understood who Donald Trump was? I don't like a lot of things he says about Jeff or other people, but most people factored that into the equation.

They believe that they had nothing to lose and that Donald Trump would change things for the better. And here's what I think's happened. I think he's delivering on his campaign promises.

He's going to win in 2020, unless something really dramatically changes. And I want to help him.

BLITZER: Well, you know, because a lot of the people surrounding him, apparently, are not very happy, if you believe the Bob Woodward book, if you believe this article in "The New York Times" by this senior administration official.

They're not very happy, but they stay put, they're doing their job, because they think they have a higher calling to the people of the United States and the national security of the United States. And they're willing to go along. They're afraid, if they leave, they don't know what he would do.

GRAHAM: Well, I talked to General Kelly this morning.

He says it's challenging working for President Trump. And it is. I mean, President Trump is a handful at times. But he understands the American people better than anybody else that ran for president. And he's doing things that I approve of for the military, that I approve of for the economy, that he's picking judges that I would have picked.

Whatever differences I have with the president, I like what he's doing. And the people working for him, I think, feel like they're doing the country a great service by being part of the Trump administration.

To those who believe that this man is a fool, that this man is crazy, that there's something wrong with Donald Trump, and it's just the people around him that keep us safe, you don't know what you're talking about.

BLITZER: Those were your words at one point in your life not that long -- a couple years ago. You were thinking he was crazy. GRAHAM: Yes. And I was -- he ran a campaign that I didn't -- I

didn't like at all.

I'm telling you, I lost. He won. And from the time he's been sworn in until now, he says a lot of things I don't like, but he's doing things I respect.

BLITZER: The president really dislikes Jeff Sessions.

GRAHAM: I think that's pretty obvious.

BLITZER: Maybe he hates Jeff Sessions. He hasn't fired him -- he could fire him if he wants to -- because he recused himself from involvement in the Russia probe.

GRAHAM: It's unfair to Jeff.


BLITZER: Did Jeff Sessions do the right thing?

GRAHAM: He had to. I have been a lawyer all my adult life.

You can't investigate the campaign of which you were a part. So he had to recuse himself, but there's a lot deeper stuff than just that.

All I would tell the president, if you want to replace Jeff Sessions after the election, there are people that could take this job that I think would get confirmed. But here's the bottom line. Nobody is going to replace Jeff Sessions unless they promise the nation to protect Mueller and let him do his job. That's the price of admission to be the next attorney general.

BLITZER: Well, the only reason he wants to fire him is because he recused himself from the Russia probe. He wants him to protect him, to do what maybe a Roy Cohn would do to protect him. But that's not the role of the attorney general of the United States.


GRAHAM: Right. It's not the president's lawyer, but there's a lot more going on than that.

And I think you will hear about some of it later.

BLITZER: What else is going on?

GRAHAM: I think performance.

BLITZER: What do you mean performance?

GRAHAM: Well, there's some decisions that the Department of Justice have made that the president feels like were not good decisions.

BLITZER: You mean the two Republican congressmen who have been charged? GRAHAM: No, I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about the zero

tolerance policy, a few other things like that.

BLITZER: Because, yesterday, the president went after Jeff Sessions because of those two Republican congressmen who have been accused now. And he said, what are you doing, Jeff Sessions? What are you doing?



BLITZER: It's going to be a close race. We need these Republican -- because they had an easy reelection, and look what you have done.

Was that appropriate for the president to weigh in on what a U.S. attorney has done in the Southern District of New York, appointed by the president, and what a U.S. attorney has done in Southern California, appointed by the president of the United States?

GRAHAM: No, I don't think that's appropriate to say that a Republican -- you know, what are you doing prosecuting a Republican?

The point is, political figures are not above the law. But I remember when Ted Stevens got indicted shortly before his election and wound up losing and eventually was cleared. All I can say is that there's been a longstanding policy when it comes to prosecuting public officials, don't try to interfere with the election.

I think that's what the president's main point -- but it's not appropriate to suggest that, you know, you can't be prosecuted because you're a Republican.

BLITZER: I'm just curious, what did you mean by performance issues, zero tolerance?

GRAHAM: I have found, quite frankly, that there have been times at the Department of Justice where I thought this whole family separation policy...

BLITZER: With the children being separated from their mothers?

GRAHAM: Yes. Yes. Think this thing through, you know? But...

BLITZER: But who do you -- who do you blame? I mean, it sounds like the president of the United States supported that policy, spoke about that policy.

GRAHAM: The president of the United States changed that policy.


GRAHAM: So I like Jeff Sessions.

My view is that this is deeper than just one thing, and it's not whether or not I like him. It's whether or not this president can work with him. It's pretty clear to me that this is a broken relationship.

You know, can it be repaired? I hope so. But after the election, if the president chooses to have an attorney general that he has more confidence in, I will support that choice, with the understanding they have to be highly qualified, confirmable, and will make sure that Mueller is not impeded.

BLITZER: You know, I'm going to play a clip. This is what you said a little bit more than a year ago about firing Jeff Sessions and what you said more recently. And then I will give you a chance to elaborate.

GRAHAM: Right.


GRAHAM: If Jeff Sessions is fired, there will be holy hell to pay.

Clearly, Attorney General Sessions doesn't have the confidence of the president. After the election, I think there will be some serious discussions about a new attorney general.


BLITZER: All right. Go ahead and respond.

GRAHAM: Yes, so he was thinking about firing Sessions because he recused himself. He had no choice.

I told you, Mr. President, this man -- you're not a lawyer. I am. There's no way Jeff Sessions could oversee the investigation.

BLITZER: But he's still always complaining about the fact that Jeff Sessions recused himself. He thinks that's the biggest mistake. And he does -- he can't get over that.

GRAHAM: Well, all I can say is that now it's 2018, and Mueller's investigation is very mature. I'm sure he's on path to issue a report, probably after the election.

I'm committed to him doing his job without political interference. But in the last year, things have transpired to the point now that it's not about recusal. It's deeper, in my view. And if the president wants to choose an attorney general he has a better working relationship, he has that...


BLITZER: I just want to be precise. Does he blame Jeff Sessions for that disastrous family separation policy, these little kids separated from their moms and dads? And about 500, apparently, are still separated from their parents.

GRAHAM: Here's what I would say, that this didn't come from the president. This came from the Department of Justice. And when I heard about it, it was pretty ill-conceived. Nobody thought this thing through. And the president, correctly, changed that policy.

We have got a broken immigration system. But that decision, I think, hurt all of us.

BLITZER: Because I remember John Kelly was on this program a year ago. I don't have the exact quote, but he spoke about the need to separate.

If people come in illegally, they have got children, you know what, this is going to be a get-tough policy, and we're going to separate these kids from their...

GRAHAM: So did...

BLITZER: That was more than a year ago that Kelly did it.

And then, earlier this year, the policy unfolded. The Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department, they all got on board.

GRAHAM: So Obama had talked about this. Jeh Johnson talked about it on his watch.

But you have got the Zabadas (ph) decision. I think that's the name of the decision -- that there's a time period that you can hold a minor. And the law is the law.

So you have to rely upon the Justice Department, if they change a policy, to make sure it doesn't run into existing law. What happened here? The policy change ran into longstanding legal principles that were pretty obvious, if you wanted to look.

BLITZER: Is it the role of the attorney general of the United States to cover up crimes committed by Republicans who supported the president?


BLITZER: But you saw the tweets from the president on that.

GRAHAM: Here's what I saw. I saw the president...

BLITZER: Because some people, some legal experts have already suggested, already suggested that that -- and I will read the tweet to you to remind you what the president said.

"Two long-running Obama-era investigations of two very popular Republican congressmen have brought to a well-publicized charge just ahead of the midterms by the Jeff Sessions Justice Department. Too easy wins, now in doubt because there is not enough time. Good job, Jeff."

[18:40:18] SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Ahead of the midterms is the key deal here. And I don't know what the laws of those states are about replacing somebody, but I think the beef of the president was that these were prosecutions bought -- brought very close to an election, and there's been a general view not to do that.

BLITZER: You know, we're talking about Chris Collins of New York, Duncan Hunter of California. The first and the second Republicans to -- members of Congress --

GRAHAM: I'm not saying they're above the law.

BLITZER: -- to support the president of the United States.

GRAHAM: Yes. I'm not saying the they're above the law. I'm just saying when you bring a prosecution within 90 days of an election --

BLITZER: Because some have already suggested, that tweet alone, potentially, is an impeachable offense.

GRAHAM: Well, we'll see.

BLITZER: Let me read to you something that a member of Congress said --

GRAHAM: I don't think so.

BLITZER: -- about impeachment years ago.

GRAHAM: Mm-hmm.

BLITZER: "You don't even have to be convicted of a crime to lose your job in this constitutional republic if this body determines that your conduct as a public official is clearly out of bounds in your role. Impeachment is not about punishment, impeachment is about cleansing the office."

GRAHAM: Mm-hmm. I agree with that. And no Democrat agreed with me. All of them --

BLITZER: Because those were your words --

GRAHAM: Yes, those were my words.

BLITZER: -- in 1999, when you were in favor of --

GRAHAM: Yes, totally, totally.

BLITZER: -- impeaching Bill Clinton, who was president of the United States.

GRAHAM: And I lost the case. And every Democrat --

BLITZER: He was impeached in the House.

GRAHAM: Yes, but --

BLITZER: He was not convicted in the Senate. GRAHAM: Right. So I made those statements on the floor of the Senate

as an impeachment manager. My Democratic colleagues felt like that impeachment was not an appropriate punishment for the crimes of Bill Clinton.

This is the one thing that would really break -- break me when it came to the Trump administration. If there's credible evidence that this president or his team, and he should have known about it, colluded with the Russians, to get a benefit from their attack on our democracy, that would be it.

BLITZER: But we don't know what Mueller, Robert Mueller has --

GRAHAM: No, but I've seen a --

BLITZER: You want him to finish the investigation, and you would prefer that the president of the United States stop going after him, calling it a witch hunt and all of that.

GRAHAM: He's not going to stop. They went after Ken Starr. But here's my promise --

BLITZER: Well, there was a difference, because I covered Ken Starr. Administration officials went after Ken Starr, but the president, Bill Clinton at the time, he stayed pretty much silent about Ken Starr.

GRAHAM: No, he did. I think he probably took a pass -- it worked for him.

And all I can say about Mueller, I don't know what he's going to find. I've seen no evidence of collusion, that this president and his team sat down with the Russians in an inappropriate way to actually collude with them. But Mueller will tell us.

All I can promise you and your audience, that when it comes to Mueller, I'm dead set on him finishing his job. When it comes to this president, I'm going to help him at every turn.

"The New York Times" op-ed piece will mean nothing over time. Bob Woodward's book is a great read, I'm sure. I haven't read it yet. There's drama around every event. But none of this will matter if the president can produce for the people of the country, and time will tell.

BLITZER: Well, let's say Mueller does bring what you would agree would be credible evidence of conspiracy with the Russians --


BLITZER: -- or obstruction of justice. Would you at that point consider it appropriate for the House of representatives to begin impeachment proceedings?

GRAHAM: If this president or any other president, as a candidate, colluded with a foreign power who compromised the other party, that would be a non-starter for me. I don't believe he did. He can't collude with his own government, so

why should he collude with the Russians?

He's a force of nature. He won the White House. He beat me. Everything I said before is in my rearview mirror. I owe it to the people of South Carolina to try to help this man, if I can, and I will.

And here's what I think. Kavanaugh's a great choice, and he's going to be confirmed soon.

BLITZER: You think he's going to be confirmed with some Democrats onboard?

GRAHAM: Four or five.

BLITZER: And Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins, they're going to be onboard?

GRAHAM: I think so.

BLITZER: Republicans?

GRAHAM: Yes, I think so.

BLITZER: So you think this is a done deal?

GRAHAM: I think so. Because he's done so well. You could not have chosen a better person: highly qualified, 12 years on the bench. Just an epitome of what a conservative judge would look like.

So I'm well pleased with this choice, and I want to compliment the president. You've done really good with Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. You're doing good by the military. You're taking it to our enemies. You cut our taxes. You're deregulating the government. I'm going to help you where I can.

Some of the things you say, I wish you wouldn't say.

BLITZER: It clearly shows, elections matter. Neil Gorsuch, he's going to be on the Supreme Court for decades, maybe 30 years to come. Brett Kavanaugh, assuming he's going to be confirmed -- it looks like he's going to be confirmed.

GRAHAM: You got it.

BLITZER: He's going to be on there. Clearly, these elections have sequences.

GRAHAM: You've got it. Sotomayor and Kagan will be around for quite a while. I voted for both of them, because they're qualified.

But if you're worried about what kind of court we're going to have, then you need to turn out and vote in 2020.

BLITZER: And people need to turn out and vote in 2018, first. We've got elections coming up in a few weeks.

[18:35:00] GRAHAM: Midterms matter. But if you really want a new president or if you like the one we've got, you've got a chance to say how it comes out. Not a book, not a news article. This is the beauty of a democracy. You decide.

BLITZER: Senator Lindsey Graham --

GRAHAM: Thank you.

BLITZER: -- it's been very nice of you to spend so much time with us.

GRAHAM: Thank you.

BLITZER: Good to have you. We always want to welcome you back --

GRAHAM: I'll be back.

BLITZER: -- into this SITUATION ROOM. There's another one down the street, but we welcome you here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

GRAHAM: I'll be here.

BLITZER: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Thank you very much.

GRAHAM: Thank you very much.

BLITZER: All right, let's get some more on all of this, including the op-ed published anonymously in "The New York Times" by a senior administration official.

We're joined by Senator Dick Durbin. He's a member of the Democratic leadership. He serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Senator Durbin, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: How shocking is it to you that a senior member of the Trump administration would write this article and outline the extensive efforts this person says is happening inside the Trump administration right now to undermine President Trump?

DURBIN: Many of us are hoping that there are steady hands in the White House and throughout this administration that will stop this president, if he does something that is really not in the best interests of the United States.

I am surprised that there's a declaration, even by an anonymous source. It must be somewhat reliable if "The New York Times" is republic it. But it's an indication to me how serious this is.

They call themselves the steady state as opposed to the secret state. But it basically says that when it comes to this president, it's like the basic rule that parents follow. Don't leave sharp objects near small children. BLITZER: This person writes that the Trump cabinet, or at least some

members of the Trump cabinet, were so concerned by what this person describes as the president's instability that they considered invoking the 25th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to try to remove him from office. What's your reaction to that?

DURBIN: Well, it's almost tragicomic, except if you consider the possibilities here. We have a president who is commander in chief of the United States of America. He has the power to initiate a nuclear war. He's making foreign policy and military decisions every single day.

And when you read in Woodward's book, as I haven't read personally, but there have been references to it, or this article in "The New York Times," you basically have people who are snatching papers off of his desk for fear that he'll sign them. I mean, if that is the case, at the highest level of government in the United States of America, we're in a very perilous situation.

BLITZER: If the concerns are so great, does this anonymously-written article, from your perspective, Senator, go far enough to address these concerns?

DURBIN: Well, of course, it just alerts us to the reality in the White House. The president's instability, some of the erratic things he continues to do on a day-to-day basis are well-documented. The question is, how are the American people being protected under these circumstances?

I will tell you that among Democrats, even among some Republicans, in privacy, you know, we talk about some members of the administration we're counting on to make sure that there's a steady hand in place, a good mind, someone that will keep the president from doing some terrible things to this country.

BLITZER: It follows -- this article follows Bob Woodward's reporting that top White House staffers were so fearful of President Trump's impact on national security -- and you know this, you mentioned it -- that they would actually go into the Oval Office, steal documents from his desk, to prevent him from signing those orders. That is -- I haven't heard of anything like that. Have you ever heard anything like that?

DURBIN: Never. Never. And to think that it occurs under this administration is an indication of how dangerous this president can be.

And we don't have to rely on whispered secrets. We just read his tweets on a day-to-day basis. We know the workings of his mind. We know how he thinks. We know how he quickly reacts and overreacts. And I can imagine if you are in the White House, close to the president, and see him in action on a day-to-day basis, there's a genuine, real concern.

BLITZER: Take us behind the scenes. I know you speak with your Republican colleagues. Do you hear their fears, their concerns about all of this?

DURBIN: Sometimes. Seldom. They'll tell us that they're embarrassed by things the president has said and done. They think they're inconsistent with basic Republican principles.

But then after a moment, they quickly add, "But 85 percent of my Republicans back home would march over a cliff for this president." So they see the political reality, and the net result is the silence of the lambs. Very few senators speak out.

You just had one on the program, Lindsey Graham. I respect him very much. He's a good friend. But very few of them are willing to speak out candidly about what the president is saying and doing.

BLITZER: Well, with the Republicans who are speaking out are those that are not seeking re-election, by and large. Although a few of them, Lindsey Graham one of them, who's blunt on several of these issues.

All of this news comes, as you know, as the president is poised to get another Supreme Court justice confirmed. It looks like Brett Kavanaugh has got the votes. He only needs a simple majority. He needs 50 votes if it's a tie. Then, of course, the vice president will break that tie.

[18:40:09] What are your thoughts on how Brett Kavanaugh did in his testimony today?

DURBIN: Well, I can tell you that he avoided some of the tougher questions. Senator Blumenthal and others who really confronted him with the fact that his nomination by this president at this moment in history places a special burden on him. What will he do, if he's on the Supreme Court, and this president's case comes before the Supreme Court?

Now, that's several jumps ahead, but it's not an unreasonable question in light of what we're facing, what happened with the guilty pleas and the finding of guilt in the case of his campaign manager and attorney. I mean, these are the realities.

So try as he might, Justice Kavanaugh or Judge Kavanaugh cannot avoid the fact that the shadow of this investigation and the shadow of the criminal investigation that's going full force is really over his nomination hearing.

BLITZER: But he has a good reason why he doesn't want to speculate about what he might do if the president were to pardon himself or if the president ignored a subpoena from Mueller, the special counsel.

Because he might have to consider that, if it went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, like the other justices, the eight justices who sit on the Supreme Court right now. They didn't want to talk about potential hypothetical cases that could reach that level. So he has a good excuse, right?

DURBIN: He does. He does. But those unanswered questions are haunting his nomination. There's a simple fact. It's not just the president said, "I'll have a litmus test of repealing Roe v. Wade and the Affordable Care Act and let people with pre-existing conditions suffer the consequences."

It is also the looming possibility that there'll be a case before the Supreme Court involving the criminal investigation of this president.

BLITZER: You know, you questioned Kavanaugh back in 2006 when he was nominated for his position as a judge on the D.C. Federal Appeals Court. And in 2007, you told NPR that you felt, quote, "perilously close" to being lied to by Kavanaugh when he said he wasn't involved in questions about detained combatants.

Today he told you that answer was 100 percent accurate. Do you feel that his testimony today was 100 percent accurate?

DURBIN: No, I don't. Quite honestly, he gave me an answer which doesn't square with the evidence. I cited three specific examples where he had been involved in the formation of policy when it came to the detention of combatants and suspects. Three specific examples that are public already. And yet, the fact that they contradict -- those examples contradict his express statement didn't change his position again today.

Unfortunately, we only have 10 percent of the documents from his public service and none from this period of time when he was serving in the White House. So, had we been given the documentation, I'm sure there would be a different conclusion.

BLITZER: Yes, what he points out and what the Republicans point out is that the White House, the Justice Department, they make those kinds of decisions on executive privilege, attorney/client privilege, on occasion, what can be released, what can't be released. So that debate is clearly going to continue.

Bottom line, though, he looks like he's got the votes, right?

DURBIN: It's hard to say. And as Lindsey Graham noted to you, with Jon Kyl returning to the Senate, we're dealing with 51-49, an advantage, clearly, for the Republicans with this nomination.

I don't know -- I haven't counted our own side of the aisle to see exactly how many Democrats will vote for or against Judge Kavanaugh. But clearly, the numbers are on their side, as we go into the final week before the vote.

BLITZER: Senator Durbin, thanks so much for joining us.

DURBIN: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we'll have more on "The New York Times" op-ed and what it says about the president, as a member of his own administration is exposing what this person describes as the resistance inside the White House to the commander in chief.

And it's a disturbing account that squares with the reporting by Bob Woodward about the urgent concerns within the White House about the president's state of mind. Where will all of this lead? Our analysts are standing by.


[18:48:46] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following breaking news on an unprecedented firsthand account from within the Trump administration of internal efforts to thwart the president by people he appointed to serve. A senior official writing anonymously in "The New York Times," citing the president's lack of morality as the root of many misguided actions that are detrimental to the nation.

Now, there's a lot to dissect with our legal and political experts.

And, Gloria Borger, the person, writes this, among other things. Many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations. I would know, I am one of them.

This is perhaps unprecedented.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, and it sounds a lot like what was in Bob Woodward's book. And you know, Woodward spoke about an administrative coup d'etat, and that's effectively what this is. I mean, this is stunning at so many levels.

Not only does the author talk about the president's amorality, and how this president is not really a conservative, and also praises somebody like John McCain in this, which I thought was kind of interesting, but also confirms the whispers that we were hearing early on this administration about members of the cabinet talking about invoking the 25th Amendment early on, to find a way to tell the American public, you know, this person should not be president.

[18:50:14] But decided not to proceed with it, because these people did not want to create a constitutional crisis.

So, as bad as a lot of the reporting was, in reading this person's view of this, it's shocking to me because I think it was actually worse than many of us even suspected or reported.

BLITZER: It's double whammy, the book and now this article.


BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, the author of this op-ed in "The New York Times" also writes this. Given the instability many witnessed, there were early whispers within the cabinet of invoking the 25th Amendment which would start a complex process for removing the president but no one wanted to precipitate a constitutional crisis, so we will do what we can to steer the administration in the right direction until one way or another it's over. As you know --


BLITZER: -- who don't know what the 25th amendment, there's the impeachment process, but there's also the 25th Amendment.

TOOBIN: Which has never been invoked. It is a provision basically designed for when the president gets too sick to serve in office where the cabinet begins a process that also eventually includes Congress that says this president can no longer serve. And it involves at least initially a vote of the cabinet.

I mean, it is certainly not something that a single cabinet member has suggested is remotely possible, but given, you know, the lunacy described in this piece and in the Woodward book and, you know, the incredible narcissism, ignorance, racism, just, you know, terrible behavior, it's not surprising that people have talked about it but, you know, look, this all is shocking but it's not surprising. The portrait that has emerged is one that has come out in these other books, that has come out in the journalists who cover the White House every day.

So, the idea that everybody's lying, you know, about, you know, what's going on here is really just preposterous.

BLITZER: David Swerdlick, watch this. I'll play the clip. This is how the president responded to the article in "The New York Times."


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Can you imagine it? We have somebody in what I call the failing "New York Times" that's talking about he's part of the resistance within the Trump administration. This is what we have to deal with and, you know, the dishonest media because you people deal with it as well as I do, but it's really a disgrace.

I will say this: nobody has done what this administration's done in terms of getting things passed and getting things through.

If the failing "New York Times" has an anonymous editorial, can you believe it, anonymous, meaning gutless. A gutless editorial.

We're doing a great job. The poll numbers are through the roof. Our poll numbers are great and guess what, nobody is going to come close to beating me in 2020.


BLITZER: The author of this article of "the New York Times" says the president, quote, does not fully grasp the effort by his own advisors to control him. He's clearly seething right now and you can see that in that reaction.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Couple of things, Wolf, first of all, yes, he's seething, but I think he seethes at everything. So, to me, this was just a ratification of everything he does. He responds to criticism as someone who can't absorb it, can't respond to it, with specifics. Just simply lashes out at the media, et cetera, et cetera. The other thing about this, Wolf, is that it's either that he doesn't

understand the degree to which people are trying to restrain him or he just doesn't want to acknowledge it. Throughout his career he's never backtracked, never apologized. He doesn't have a reverse gear. And so, I don't expect him to back off. If I can just make one more point about the writer of this article.

I just want to push back on something that the author said in this, which was toward the end, the author, he or she, said that the country has been brought low to the president's level, not true. Sixty-six million people voted not for President Donald Trump. Those people haven't been brought low by him. Those people at the beginning saw what this op-ed writer now apparently sees.

BLITZER: You know, the writer wanted his or her name not to be mentioned in "The New York Times" nearly almost unprecedented agreed with that to protect this writer because presumably if this individual's name was out there, he'd be -- he or she would be fired.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: That's right, Wolf. And so the president, of course, could use that to his advantage. We've seen how president Trump treats anonymous sources in the past. He says what they say is made up, that the source red wings themselves are made up.

Of course, we all know that is not true but his supporters hear what he says and that resonates with them.

[18:55:03] Of course, "The New York Times" has exceptionally high standards for anonymity in general and you can imagine the conversation that would have transpired in approving this story. You have to imagine, Wolf, that this is a very senior official, a very important official in terms of their opinion for "The New York Times" to have agreed to do this. And, certainly, from the perspective of the writer, for them to take this leap and to decide to come forward with their story, you can see by the president's reaction on Twitter just what a risk they are taking. They could certainly lose their jobs. The president is calling this treason and so this was a big risk for whoever wrote this.

TOOBIN: I mean, doesn't the president have a point though, that it's gutless? I mean, what's up with this person? I mean, why are they working there? I mean --

BORGER: Because as they say, they're trying to sort of walk back bad decisions and, you know, you ought to know there are real patriots who are working there.

You know, I can't -- I can criticize somebody for not putting their name on this. I'm not going to criticize "The New York Times" for publishing it because it's clear to me they know who this person is and this person is clearly someone of some significance, you know, within the administration. Yes, you put your name on it and then you resign, but I think --

TOOBIN: Why did this person go to work for Donald Trump in the first place? Who did he think he was, George Herbert Walker Bush? There's nothing surprising here.

BERG: First of all, we don't know necessarily that this wasn't someone already working in government. I mean, it could have been someone --

BLITZER: No, it was a political -- based on the article it was clearly a political --


SWERDLICK: They're trying to have their cake and eat it too. They're saying as you're saying, Gloria, that they're protecting democracy from the excesses of the president. But at the same time, they want in this op-ed to list all of the good things the president has done except that the president, if the good things are a tax cut and regulations being stripped away, Jeb Bush could have done that. Marco Rubio could have done that.

BORGER: I want to know where the Republicans are. You know, you read something like this and you just interviewed Lindsey Graham about this. Where are the Republicans responding to the criticisms in this saying, for example, we have -- what's our foreign policy?

We have a two track foreign policy. You've got what the president wants to do on Russia and you have what the rest of us want to do on Russia. Doesn't -- shouldn't Republicans be responding to that? And where are they? Where are they on this?

And are they waiting for a constitutional crisis to be created by Bob Mueller perhaps? And so, where is the tipping point here for the Republicans? I don't really know the answer to that.

TOOBIN: We certainly haven't reached it yet.

BORGER: Yes, exactly.

TOOBIN: Because the Republicans are completely subservient to Trump. They haven't held any oversight hearings. They haven't -- the only people who ever criticize them, we wear out poor old Jeff Flake and Bob Corker because they are leaving, they're not running for re- election. Anybody who is running for re-election is terrified of Trump.

You know, John Boehner said the other day, this isn't the Republican Party anymore, it's the Trump party. And he's right.

BLITZER: I will say, in fairness, Richard Burr, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has worked closely with the ranking Democrat Mark Warner. They are investigating a lot of this. They haven't stopped as the House Intelligence Committee has done.

TOOBIN: Take your point. One senator.

BORGER: Members of Congress are lagging indicators. You know, they're not leaders like they used to be anymore. So, if there is a blue wave, for example, in the House of Representatives and Trump loses, you know, 50 or 60 seats and if there seems to be some trouble in the Senate, then I think in their own self interest, in their own self interest, you might see Republicans peeling off. But they're not going to do it of their own accord right now precisely for the reason that you're talking about, Jeff, which is that they're afraid. They're afraid of Donald Trump because his popularity within the party is what, 80 percent?

TOOBIN: Isn't that admirable?

BORGER: Well, no. As I say, they're lagging indicators. They're not leaders. They're not leaders.

TOOBIN: John Kennedy wrote a book called "Profiles in Courage" about members of the Senate. And you know what? They were all a long time ago because you don't see much of it now.

BLITZER: Yes. And the writer of this article says there are a lot of officials in the administration who get hammered by the news media but they are really doing a lot to protect the American people from this president.

SWERDLICK: Right. I take that writer at their word that they sincerely are trying to rein in the president's worst excesses. If the way it's being portrayed is true, yes, it's a good thing there are some people there to restrain the president when he may make hasty and potentially destructive decisions. But to Jeffrey's point though, what -- who did these people think the president was when they first started working for him? He has been at least temperamentally the same as he ever was.

BORGER: This writer seems to be more conservative than the president. I mean, this writer --

SWERDLICK: The president isn't a conservative.

BORGER: The president is not a conservative.


BORGER: And it's clear to me this writer is.

BLITZER: We're going to continue our special coverage right now.