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Obama Says "What I Call Terror Attacks Doesn't Matter"; Obama Slams Radical Islam Critics. Aired 1-1:30p ET
Aired June 14, 2016 - 13:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.
We're following breaking news. The president of the United States firing back against critics of his strategy of -- on fighting ISIS. Those critics led by the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump. The president fighting back. The accusations that he's refusing to describe the terrorism that's coming against the United States, including in Orlando the other day as Islamic terrorism, radical Islamic terrorism. And the president passionately, very movingly responded to those critics. Watch this.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle have made in the fight against ISIL is to criticize this administration and me for not using the phrase, radical Islam. That's the key they tell us. We can't beat ISIL unless we call them radical Islamists.
What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is none of the above. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction.
Since before I was president, I've been clear about how extremist groups have perverted Islam to justify terrorists. As president, I have repeatedly called on our Muslim friends and allies at home and around the world to work with us to reject this twisted interpretation of one of the world's great religions.
There's not been a moment in my seven and a half years as president where we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn't use the label radical Islam.
Not once has an advisor of mine said, man, if we really use that phrase, we're going to turn this whole thing around. Not once. So, if someone seriously thinks that we don't know who we're fighting, if there's anyone out there who thinks we're confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we've taken off the battlefield.
If the implication is that those of us up here and the thousands of people around the country and around the world who are working to defeat ISIL aren't taking the fight seriously, that would come as a surprise to those who have spent the last seven and a half years dismantling Al Qaeda and (INAUDIBLE), for example, including the men and women in uniform who put their lives at risk. And the special forces that I ordered to get Bin Laden and are now on the ground in Iraq and in Syria.
They know full well who the enemy is. So do the intelligence and law enforcement officers who spent countless hours disrupting plots and protecting all Americans, including politicians who tweet and appear on cable news shows. They know who the nature of the enemy is.
So, there's no magic to the phrase radical Islam. It's a political talking point. It's not a strategy.
[13:05:08] And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness and everything to do with actually defeating extremism.
Groups like ISIL and Al Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America or between Islam and the west. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions.
They want us to validate them by implying that they speak for those billion plus people, that they speak for Islam. That's their propaganda. That's how they recruit.
And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists' work for them.
Now, up until this point, the argument about labels has mostly been just partisan rhetoric. And sadly, we've all become accustomed to that kind of partisanship, even when it involves the fight against these extremist groups. And that kind of yapping has not prevented folks across government from doing their job jobs, from sacrificing and working really hard to protect the American people.
But we are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be. We're starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we're fighting, where this can lead us.
BLITZER: Very strong words from the president of the United States.
Jake Tapper is still with us, our Chief Washington Correspondent, the anchor of "THE LEAD."
When he says, Jake, politicians who tweet and appear on cable news shows, basically suggesting they don't know what they're talking about but going further saying what they are suggesting is really dangerous to the United States, to U.S. national security, everyone knows who he's referring to.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, and let me just say, very clearly, President Obama thinks that Donald Trump, in his rhetoric and his tone -- this not my opinion. This is the president's opinion. He thinks that Donald Trump is chasing people who might be wavering into the hands of extremism. He thinks that.
He thinks very strongly that the rhetoric from Donald Trump, especially what we heard in New Hampshire just yesterday, the -- in the national security speech that Donald Trump gave. That that is bad for the United States, bad for national security because it alienates Muslims and might even chase some into the hands of extremists.
Let me also make one observation which is obviously President Obama is very eager to get into this political debate. He's very eager to defend himself but also to do what we can to stop Donald Trump from becoming president. He feels very strongly that that would be bad for the country.
I can't help but observe that if he thought Hillary Clinton was doing a good job or an effective job making the case against Trump, maybe he wouldn't go to the east room and make it himself.
So, in a way, while this is completely a condemnation of Trump and everything Trump stands for, I wouldn't say that President Obama, entering the presidential race this way, exactly expresses a huge vote of confidence in the way that Hillary Clinton is rebutting Trump and making the same exact points that the president just made.
BLITZER: Yes, he's trying to back her up. He really wants Donald Trump to be defeated in the presidential election. And he thinks he -- whatever he could do to help Hillary Clinton win, become the next president, would be good for his legacy.
He also makes the point that he has ordered thousands of terrorists to be wiped off the battlefield over the past seven and a half plus years right now. And his aides have said to me, if you take a look at the drone strikes and how many terrorists the U.S. has killed and during the Obama administration, it's more than were killed during the Bush administration.
TAPPER: Not to mention the innocent civilians killed by the drone strikes that President Obama has ordered.
Look, there's no question that President Obama has sent U.S. service members around the world, into Africa, into Afghanistan, into Iraq, into Syria now, and other places that we don't even know about, to kill radical Islamic terrorists. There's no question about that.
[13:10:16] There are some serious criticisms being made right now about how the war against ISIS is being fought, and whether or not there is an actual strategy, and what the end game looks like, or whether president Obama is just buying time with various missions so that it's a tactical war right now but with no overall strategy. But that said, it cannot be debated that president Obama is responsible for the deaths of thousands of radical Islamic terrorists.
BLITZER: And this speech that he just delivered -- and it surprised us. We knew he was going to deliver remarks on the Orlando terror attack. We didn't know he was going to in depth and directly respond to the criticism he's getting from Donald Trump and others. You have to take a look at where the U.S. -- if this Orlando terror attack is going to be a turning point in the overall struggle, the effort to destroy ISIS.
TAPPER: Yes. And let me make one other point about the point that Donald Trump and others, including Rudy Giuliani this morning, talking to Chris Cuomo on "NEW DAY." About this argument about whether or not the president uses the term, radical Islamic terrorists.
I think that the concern that these critics have, Trump, Giuliani, others is that by not labeling it, you are, perhaps, suggesting that you don't fully understand the nature of the threat. That this is, in fact, not just a few miscreants here and there. But there is a poisonous theology, a perversion of Islam, that is spreading throughout the world and is responsible for the deaths of people in Paris, and Belgium, in Orlando, in San Bernardino, and to not recognize that, that is the problem. It's not the words so much.
Now, that said, President Obama made the point very forcefully, we know who the enemy is. We know what's going on. But it's really not just about semantics. Both the critics of the president and President Obama, I think, understand that.
BLITZER: Yes. When the -- and when the president said politicians who tweet, we know who he is referring to. And I anticipate we will get a tweet from Donald Trump reacting to what we just heard from the president.
TAPPER: You will never go broke if you bet on Donald Trump sending a tweet.
BLITZER: All right, Jake. We'll see you at 4:00 p.m. Eastern --
BLITZER: -- on "THE LEAD." Jake Tapper helping us appreciate the enormity of what we just heard from the president of the United States. Thank you.
Let's bring in our Chief National Security Correspondent Jim Sciutto. He's covering the fallout from the Orlando terror attack in Orlando. He's on the scene for us. Jim, what was the main thought that emerged from your perspective from what we just heard from the president?
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, let's set aside the politics of the phrase, radical Islam, for a moment. But to this broader point of this view of the religion itself being in conflict with the west. This is a view that has enormous support in the Muslim world today and that was something the president was trying to address there. It is a real problem. And to Jake's point earlier. There is a portion of the world, and I've -- of the Muslim world. And I've interviewed many people there, people on the street, but also Jihadis and people considering it, people arrested for it, people who have joined the cause. They look at this conflict as a fact.
Now, many of them are lost for good. No matter what the president or Donald Trump might say, they're already lost. But there are others who are in the middle, to Jake's point. And these are the ones that the president, these are the ones that law enforcement, that counterterrorism experts, frankly, that the military is concerned about that could go either way. And that need to hear a different message from America so that they don't enter that camp. That is really the target group.
And this idea of Muslim, Islam in the west, being a conflict, that's not some ethereal idea. To them, they believe it. They're susceptible to it. And, sadly, a certain percentage of those will choose to act on that thought with violence as we saw here in Orlando just two days ago. That is the real conflict.
And that is why, when you hear the president, but not just the president, not just politicians, military commanders. They say that a key part of this battle is not on the battlefield. That's essential but a key part of the battle is for minds, hearts and minds. That phrase we heard so often throughout the Iraq War and still, to this day, in the Iraq in Afghanistan, that battle is still underway every day.
And that's why words do matter in that battle. And when you speak to folks, the angry young men as some have described them in the Middle East, they're very susceptible to that message. And that's where the real battle is going to be playing out.
BLITZER: Stand by, Jim. Barbara Starr is over at the Pentagon, our Pentagon Correspondent. Barbara, you make the point that the president was there in the East Room at the White House delivering the speech, surrounded by some significant advisors, including military commanders, Barbara.
[13:15:09] BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, indeed. General Joe Dunford, the four star Marine chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was at the president's side. Now this, by all accounts, was supposed to be basically a routine meeting, an update of the Orlando situation. That's why General Dunford was there at the president's, obviously. Something that General Dunford would routinely participate in.
But, as you said, Wolf, it took a turn. The president's remarks took on an enormity, as you said, and became very political. Very unusual to have a four star there during such a political statement. The Pentagon, by tradition and especially this year, has been doing everything it can to stay out of politics. You know these -- General Dunford, other top officials constantly getting asked by reporters like me, what do you think about what Trump said? They won't answer anything about what Trump said and yet you have the chairman standing there because the president has taken a turn in his remarks.
I think what the president was -- in an enormous statement to make is that the U.S. military is in fact one of the most diverse organizations in the United States. Everyone is welcome. All of the people in the U.S. military fight on behalf of all Americans and everyone in the United States to defend their freedoms. The president making a case that the military is a pluralistic organization in itself, in a pluralistic country. Problems, yes, working to diversify it more, yes, but it is a pluralistic fighting force today working against ISIS.
And this puts the military in a very interesting position because if Donald Trump gets elected, they will be fighting to protect whatever policies he tries to put into place as president of the United States. They may not be so pluralistic. It may be a very tough road ahead for the U.S. military as it exists today. That perhaps an undercurrent of the president's message, Wolf.
BLITZER: And you heard, Barbara, the president say the same U.S. special operations forces who killed bin Laden, they are now on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. What can you tell us about that just very briefly?
STARR: Well, you are going to have upwards of 300 U.S. special operations forces inside Syria. We were there just a couple of weeks ago meeting some of them. This is going to be the most dangerous work. In the weeks ahead, these special operations forces will get closer to the front lines. And some cases, not in all, there is a good deal of concern that they can maintain their safety, that they do not become involved in direct combat. But both in Syria and Iraq, it is U.S. special operations forces right now doing some of the most dangerous work, trying to track down ISIS terrorists. And I can tell you, as recently as yesterday, they are looking for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, around the clock.
BLITZER: Yes. And if they find him, they will kill him. That is clear.
All right, Barbara, thanks very much.
Up next, Hillary Clinton talking about Donald Trump and his response to the Orlando terror shootings.
Stay with us. Much more of our special coverage coming up right after this.
[13:22:45] BLITZER: Just moments ago, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, spoke about the attack in Orlando, Florida, and the reaction from her Republican opponent, Donald Trump. She made the remarks during a campaign stop in Pittsburgh. Here's some of what she just said.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) HILLARY CLINTON (D), PRESUMPTIVE PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE: Donald Trump wants to be our next commander in chief. I think we all know that that is a job that demands a calm, collected and dignified response to these kinds of events. Instead, yesterday morning, just one day after the massacre, he went on TV and suggested that President Obama is on the side of the terrorists. Now, just think about that for a second. Even in a time of divided politics, this is way beyond anything that should be said by someone running for president of the United States.
And I have to ask, will responsible Republican leaders stand up to their presumptive nominee or will they stand by his accusation about our president? Now, I am sure they'd rather avoid that question all together. But history will remember what we do in this moment. What Donald Trump is saying is shameful. It is disrespectful to the people who were killed and wounded and their families. And it is yet more evidence that he is temperamentally unfit and totally unqualified to be commander in chief.
[13:25:008] Of course, he is a leader of the birther movement, which spread the lie that President Obama wasn't born in the United States. I guess he had to be reminded Hawaii is part of the United States. This is a man who claimed a distinguished federal judge born and raised in Indiana can't do his job because of his, quote, "Mexican heritage." I guess he has to be reminded, Indiana is in the United States. So maybe we shouldn't be surprised.
But it was one thing when he was a reality TV personality, you know, raising his arms and yelling, "you're fired." It is another thing altogether when he is the Republican Party's presumptive nominee for president. Americans, we don't need conspiracy theories and pathological self-congratulations. We need leadership, common sense, and concrete plans because we are facing a brutal enemy.
In the Middle East, ISIS is attempting a genocide of religious and ethnic minorities. They're slaughtering Muslims who refuse to accept their medieval ways. They are beheading civilians, including executing LGBT people, murdering Americans and Europeans, enslaving, torturing, and raping women and girls. The barbarity we face from radical jihadists is profound. So I would like to have a worthy debate on the best way to keep our country safe. That's what Americans deserve.
Now, I read every word of Donald Trump's speech yesterday. And I sifted through all of the bizarre rants and the outright lies. And what I found, once you cut through the nonsense, is that his plan comes down to two things. First, he is fixated on the words "radical Islam." Now, I must say, I find this strange. Is Donald Trump suggesting that there are magic words that once uttered will stop terrorists from coming after us?
Now Trump, as usual, is obsessed with name calling. And, from my perspective, it matters what we do, not just what we say. In the end, it didn't matter what we called bin Laden. It mattered that we got bin Laden.
I have clearly said that we faced terrorist enemies who use a pervert version of Islam to justify slaughtering innocent people. We have to stop them and we will. So if Donald suggests I won't call this threat what it is, he hasn't been listening. But I will not demonize and declare war on an entire religion.
And now that we are past the semantic debate, Donald's going to have to come up with something better. He's got one other idea. He wants to ban all Muslims from entering our country and now he wants to go even further and suspend all immigration from large parts of the world.
Now, I've talked before about how this approach is un-American. It goes against everything we stand for as a country, founded on religious freedom. But it is also dangerous. First, we rely on partners in Muslim countries to fight terrorists. This would make it harder. Second, we need to build trust in Muslim communities here at home to counter radicalization. And this would make it harder.
[13:30:00] Third, Trump's words will be -- in fact, they already are, a recruiting tool for ISIS, to help them increase its ranks of people willing to do what we saw in Orlando.