Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Police Brace for More Violence Authorized to Enact Curfew; Protesters Shoot down White Nationalist Rally Organizer; Lawmakers Criticize White House Response; Trump Blasted for Failure to Condemn White Supremacists; Trump Faces Harsh Backlash Over his Response; Charlottesville Bracing For More Violence; Witness Describes Violent Clashes, Seeing Former KKK Leader; Trump Under Fire For Response To Virginia Violence; DOJ Opens Civil Rights Investigation Into Deadly Crash. Aired 2-3p ET

Aired August 13, 2017 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN HOST: I will see you next week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is CNN breaking news.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: This is "CNN Newsroom." Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Fredricka Whitfield is off.

We're following breaking news, domestic terrorism in Charlottesville. The fallout and the victims. We've just learned the identity of the woman killed in that horrific car assault.

She's 32-year-old Heather Heyer, a paralegal from Virginia. The U.S. Department of Justice here in Washington is opening a full scale investigation into that deadly assault the violent clashes that have left more than 30 people injured.

Today, Virginia's governor is defending the police response.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GOV. TERRY MCAULIFFE (D), VIRGINIA: I want to thank the men and women, local, state and federal, our law enforcement personnel who put their lives on the line yesterday to protect us.

(APPLAUSE)

Not one single shot was fired. With all of these people's weapons, no property damage. They kept us safe.

Police are bracing for more positive violence, though, after clashes broke out before a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, on Saturday and then the unthinkable happened. A car plowed into a large crowd of protestors. The man suspected to be the driver is now charged with murder.

20-year-old James Alex Fields Jr. will be arraigned in court tomorrow. The man's mother saying her son drove from Ohio to take part in that rally, that she thought had something to do with President Trump. The president is now coming under lots of scrutiny for what he said and for what he did not say. Charlottesville mayor is blaming the president for helping to foster what he called the culture of hate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR MICHAEL SIGNER, CHARLOTTESVILLE: Well, look at campaign he ran. I mean, look at the intentional courting both on the one hand of all of these white supremacist and white nationalists groups like that, anti-Semitic groups. And then look on the other hand, the repeated failure to step up, condemn, denounce, silence, put to bed all of those different efforts.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We have a team of correspondents covering all the late- breaking developments on the ground in Charlottesville. With the president of Bedminster, New Jersey, let's bring in CNN's Rosa Flores first.

Rosa, you're learning more about the victim. You're there for a memorial for Heather Heyer. What are you learning about this young woman?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we are learning more about her. We know that she's from 17 miles up the road from Ruckersville, Virginia. 32 years old, she worked in a legal law firm here in Charlottesville. She was a paralegal. She worked in the bankruptcy department. In other words, she helped people begin a new financial future.

But I want to let you take a look behind me, because this is the street where that car plowed into a crowd of protestors yesterday taking the life of Heather Heyer and also injuring 19 others.

We know that those 19 other individuals have been treated in area hospitals and last we heard from those hospitals are conditions varied from critical to good.

Now, earlier today, we were at a church service where the governor here, Terry McAuliffe said a few words. He did not mince words about the individuals involved, he called them white supremacists and asked that they leave this city and that they leave this state.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MCAULIFFE: It is about politics and that the political rhetoric in this country today has breed bigotry and hatred.

(APPLAUSE)

And we need to call it out for what it is, to the white supremacists and the neo-Nazis who came to our beautiful state yesterday, there is no place for you here in Charlottesville. There is no place for you in Virginia. And there is no place for you in the United States of America. (CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

We deplore your hatred, your bigotry and shame on you. You pretend you're patriots. You are not patriots.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

FLORES: As we take another live look here at the scene, you see a photograph of Heather Heyer and a message there that says, "No place for hate." And, Wolf, just really quickly to share a quick story with you. There's been people coming here all day long. A lot of them crying with tears in their eyes, but there was one woman who had a sign that said "Free Hugs" and on her arm it said, in the case of an emergency, and it had her family's phone number. A lot of people coming here with some fear but they're definitely coming to show their support and solidarity for the people who were counter protesting here.

BLITZER: Heartbreaking development. Rosa Flores, we'll get back to you. Thank you so much.

I want to go to CNN correspondent Brian Todd, he's also in Charlottesville for us right now.

Brian, any sign that those white supremacist groups that caused so much trouble yesterday, are they planning more of the same? What are you hearing?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they are here right behind me, just down the block here. I'm hearing some noises down here indicating some yelling and there's a police presence down here.

A satellite truck is kind of blocking us. But there is some yelling down here. They were to hold a press conference here at this hour and there was some counter protesters lined up to maybe counter some of that. So we hear some yelling down the street. It doesn't appear to be anything too serious right now.

We'll update you on that when we get more information.

Also, Wolf, this hour, what we've got is a little bit more information on the suspect whose alleged actions ratcheted the situation up to what the mayor of Charlottesville calls an active domestic terrorism.

James Alex Fields, 20 years old from Maumee, Ohio.

One of our affiliates in Northern Kentucky, this is where James Alex Fields went to high school. One of our affiliates there spoke to one of his high school teachers, a man named Derek Weimer who told that affiliate a little bit about James Alex Fields. Take a listen.

DEREK WEIMER, HIGH SCHOOL TEACHER OF JAMES ALEX FIELDS (via telephone): He had some very radical views on race. He was very infatuated with the Nazis, with Adolf Hitler. He also had a huge military history especially with like German military history in World War II, but he was pretty infatuated with that stuff. You know, his freshman year, he had an issue with that that was raised and from there on, we knew that he had these issues. I developed a good report with him and I used that report to constantly trying to steer him away from those beliefs.

It's just kind of examples. Why that thinking is wrong, why their beliefs were evil. Things like that.

TODD: Just behind me, just to kind of update you guys on what's happening here. This looks like some counter protestors following what may be someone who was involved in the news conference here with the white supremacist side.

They're escorting someone now into the police station right behind me. You can see all of this happening. It may be for that person's safety.

Look, you can see. This is an illustration of the tension here. Look at all the riot police that are just escorting what I thought to be just one person into the police station here just a moment ago and there were people yelling at that person.

We're going to try to get some more information about that as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: Until now during the course of today has there been any more violence? What else have you seen, Brian?

TODD: Really nothing, Wolf. It was very calm here in Charlottesville this morning and last night after the protests. We did get word that the organizer of the so-called unite the right rally was going to hold a news conference behind me and kind of down the block here in this hour.

It appears we did hear some yelling down the block here. We knew there's some counter protestors might show up. This is probably a residual of that.

Again, it doesn't appear to be too serious right now. Some people yelling but we expected this.

Once we -- unhook from here we're going to go find out exactly what happened.

Blitzer: You'll let us know. We'll stay in close touch with you. Brian Todd on the scene for us in Charlottesville.

I want to bring in right now the Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring. Attorney General, thanks so much for joining us.

MARK HERRING, VIRGINIA ATTORNEY GENERAL (via telephone): Well, thanks for having me.

BLITZER: What can you tell us, first of all, about James Alex Fields Jr., the man charged with second-degree murder for plowing that vehicle into that crowd of pedestrians? HERRING: Well, it was just tragic to see that happen, and to claim the life of a young woman with so much potential, and really weaponize a car, and a vehicle, and turn it into a weapon for killing and destruction.

He's from out of state like a lot of these folks who descended on Charlottesville. These folks came in with their neo-Nazi white supremacist, just descended on this city which is a great city.

It's a city that I know very well. I went to school here. My daughter graduated a couple years ago from UVA. This is a diverse community.

It is a community committed to equality and to see the hatred and the bigotry that these white supremacists brought to Charlottesville and to our commonwealth is heartbreaking.

They need to go back wherever they're from and take their hate and bigotry with them. Because those are not Virginia values, those are not American values.

BLITZER: University of Virginia, certainly a world-class university in Charlottesville. A great city indeed.

As far as you know, attorney general, was this individual, James Alex Fields Jr., acting alone?

HERRING: Well, certainly the investigation is ongoing, and we will know more as it continues. But what we do know is that people came from all over with, you know, really aiming for violence.

They came heavily armed, with assault-style weapons, and to see a calm, beautiful city like Charlottesville turned into what happened yesterday, it's not going to define us.

I was out walking around talking to folks in Charlottesville today. Visited a couple of churches with the governor, and what I saw and what I heard was resilience and strength and unity.

The people of Charlottesville and we in Virginia are not going to let these neo-Nazis, these white supremacists define who we are.

We are a commonwealth that is welcoming, we are a commonwealth who's inclusive and we are stronger and will be stronger for having what we've gone through and what we are continuing to go through.

BLITZER: Attorney general, the anti-defamation league tweeted photo of this 20-year-old man, this Fields, bearing an insignia of a white nationalist group called Vanguard America.

Do you know if he was he affiliated with that group or any of these other white supremacist groups?

HERRING: Like I said, we're beginning to learn more as the investigation unfolds, but undoubtedly, these are dangerous white supremacists, anti-Semitic hate groups. It is alarming. It should be alarming to all Americans to see these groups beginning to become more brazen, emboldened, and gaining strength and it is incumbent upon all of us, our community leaders, our elected officials all the way right up to the top to condemn this type of hate and this type of bigotry, and this kind of anti-Semitic -- white supremacist has no place in Virginia or in America and it is incumbent on all of us to call it out and denounce it for exactly what it is.

BLITZER: As you know, the Department of Justice here in Washington has launched a full-scale civil rights investigation into this attack among other actions, but you say this was really an act of terrorism.

Well, should a formal terror investigation be launched by the federal government?

HERRING: Well, certainly local and state law enforcement are going to investigate this fully. I welcome the justice department's efforts to further investigate it, and we really need to, as Americans, need to know just how serious a threat these white supremacists groups are to our society, and be strong and be united, and coming up strongly against it.

We've got some of the best law enforcement in the nation here in Virginia and we are committed to fully investigating and getting all the facts.

BLITZER: Have the --

HERRING: And bringing those responsible to justice.

BLITZER: Yes. Of course. Attorney general, have the investigators, as far as you know, learned if this was all pre-meditated, this atrocious car attack against these individuals that resulted in the death of this young woman as well as the injuries to some 19 others including several of them who remain in critical condition in hospital?

HERRING: Well, I think we all saw the video and some of the eyewitness accounts. I heard some say that they have seen the observing the area for some time.

There'll be a lot of investigation and uncovering of a lot of facts that will tell us more about what might have been going through the mind of this individual.

But what we do know is that the suspect committed a heinous act of violence. Weaponized his car, and killed a young woman. Maimed and injured countless others, and we all need to speak out strongly against it, and come together with strength and common purpose.

That's what I saw and heard this morning as I was walking around talking to folks in Charlottesville, visiting the churches. They are convinced that they would be stronger for this. It would have been easy for folks to have woken up in anger, in resentment, but instead, there is resolve to come together and be stronger, and recognize that it's about love and caring for one another and that's what I saw this morning and what continues to see in Charlottesville.

BLITZER: One final question, attorney general, before I let you go. We've seen cars, vehicles, being used as weapons in London, elsewhere in Europe, certainly in the Middle East and Israel. These are terrorists who use vehicles to go after individuals and just kill as many as possible.

Did you ever think this would happen in Virginia?

HERRING: You know, I didn't. To think that these cowardly fascist and anti-Semitic and hate groups would take a page from terrorists to weaponize their vehicle, to strike fear in people's lives, I just think, again, that underscores the need for all of us to come together in unity, against these groups.

They are about hate. They are about bigotry. That is not who we are as a people. We in Virginia, we in America are about equality inclusiveness and we need to be together and united on this, and stand up for the values that we all share.

BLITZER: Mark Herring is Virginia's attorney general. Attorney general, thanks very much for joining us. Good luck to you, good luck to all the folks in Virginia.

This is a really horrific story we're following.

Thanks very much for joining us.

HERRING: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, the White House facing a very strong criticism from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who say the president simply did not go far enough in condemning the actions of the neo-Nazi groups, the white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia.

This afternoon, the White House is pushing back. We'll get the latest response and a lot more. We're following all the late breaking developments. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The president has been slammed with growing backlash for his failure to specifically call out white supremacist after that atrocious attack in Charlottesville, Virginia.

President Trump said that many sides are responsible for the fatal rally, but many republicans are saying that's not enough.

Here's Senator Cory Gardner on the "State of the Union" earlier today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CORY GARDNER (R), COLORADO: This is not a time for vagaries. This isn't the time for innuendo or to allow room to be read between the lines. This is a time to lay blame. To lay blame on bigotry and to lay blame on white supremacist, on white nationalism and on hatred. That needs to be said.

This president has done an incredible job of naming terrorism around the globe as evil, a radical Islamic terrorism, whether it's in Europe or the Middle East. He has said and called it out time and time again and this president needs to do exactly that today.

He called this white supremacism, this white nationalism with evil and let the country hear it, let the word hear it. It's something that needs to come from the oval office and this White House needs to do it today.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's go to our white house correspondent Athena Jones. She's joining us now from Bridgewater, New Jersey. She's covering the president, not very far away right now. He's continuing what he calls his working vacation.

Athena, what is the latest, what has been the reaction, the official reaction, from the president, if any, today?

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf.

We have not heard from the president today. I was just checking his Twitter feed to see if he's tweeted just in the last few minutes and he has not. So no word on exactly what he's up to.

But we did hear from his daughter Ivanka Trump on Twitter earlier this morning. She is, of course, a senior adviser to the president. Here is what she tweeted earlier today. She said, "There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacism and neo-Nazis. We must all come together as Americans and be one country united, #charlottesville.

This morning, we also heard from a White House official who put out a statement that went further than what we heard directly from the president yesterday.

Let me read that statement as well. The White House official said, the president said very strongly in his statement yesterday that he condemns all forms of violence, bigotry and hatred. Of course, that includes white supremacist, KKK, neo-Nazi and all extremist groups. He called for national unity and bringing all Americans together.

I just want to note one more thing we heard this morning on "State of the Union" from the White House's homeland security adviser Tom Bossert, he after being pressed repeatedly by Jake Tapper said that -- he said, "I condemn white supremacist and racist and white Nazi groups and all the other groups that espouse this kind of hatred.

What's interesting here, Wolf, is that these words that we're now hearing Tom Bossert, from an unnamed White House official and the president's daughter, all go much further than what the president said yesterday and that is what has drawn all of this condemnation from not just democrats but also from republicans like Senator Cory Gardner and it is a growing list of republicans, allies of the president, who want to see him do more.

What's also interesting here, Wolf, is that the president had a chance to respond directly, to go a little further. The press who were there for that press, that brief appearance before the media yesterday, tried to ask him questions as he was leaving the room. Shouting, specifically, whether he wants the support of white nationalists?

The president clearly heard those questions and chose to ignore them. For the remainder of the day, I and my colleagues press White House officials for more on why the president made the statement in the way that he did.

I asked several people where he stands on white nationalism, and it took until today to get some sort of answer.

So I think that there are going to be a lot of people who still aren't satisfied and won't be satisfied, until they hear the president himself condemn these white nationalists and white supremacists who staged these demonstrations yesterday.

BLITZER: He could easily do that. There's a pool of reporters including you. There's camera crews over there in New Jersey. He could go out and make a statement, or at a minimum, he could simply retweet Ivanka Trump's tweet.

He hasn't done that either. Here's something that's perplexing. The statement that the White House put out simple, as you point out, an "unnamed" White House official.

Do we know who that official is? Why is that official unnamed? Why doesn't somebody come forward and specifically say this is a statement from the press secretary or a statement from the chief of staff? Why is this an unnamed official making such an important statement?

JONES: That's the question we're all asking here as well, Wolf. No answer so far. It seems to me that, or it seems to many of us, that if the White House is trying to perhaps clean this up a bit, seeing the reaction that the president's remarks got yesterday, that they would go further and at least attach someone's name to it, because it has more force that way.

This is really what it all comes down to. This is why there's so much criticism of President Trump himself. Because it's a bully pulpit for a reason. A lot of folks would say and they argue that the president isn't showing leadership. He talks about wanting to unite the country, to bring people together and yet won't name, won't specifically talk about the facts on the ground that led to the violence we saw unfolding on the streets of Charlottesville yesterday.

So it is curious to have this White House official not wanting to put their name to this statement.

BLITZER: Very curious, indeed. But if the president does want to make a statement, of course, all the major TV networks, all the cable networks, we will be there we'll have live coverage of any statement that the president is ready to make, if he decides in the coming hours to go before the cameras.

There's so many people, including many republicans, are strongly urging him to do it. The fact he hasn't done it yet, raising a lot more questions.

Athena, we'll get back to you as soon as you get word if the president will make a statement. We'll get right back to you as well. Thanks very, very much.

Coming up, we're going to speak to someone on the ground of Charlottesville, Virginia, who is at the rally and saw a former Ku Klux Klan leader speak out what he witnessed and his thoughts on what happened.

We'll take a quick break. Our special coverage continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:30:33]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: We're following all the late, breaking moments out of Charlottesville, Virginia where the Justice Department here in Washington now looking into yesterday's deadly clashes between white supremacists and protestors, one woman was killed after a car rammed into a large crowd. All told, the violence left more than 30 other people injured.

I want to bring in Tim Dodson from Charlottesville. He is the managing editor of the University of Virginia student newspaper "The Cavalier Daily." Tim, thanks very much for joining us. Tell us exactly what you saw yesterday.

TIM DODSON, MANAGING EDITOR, "THE CAVALIER DAILY": Yes. So yesterday we got to Emancipation Park, which is where the "Unite the Right" rally was planned. Before the rally could even start at 12:00 police had declared an unlawful assembly so they were not able to gather at the park.

Even before the rally was supposed to start, counter-protesters, demonstrators, there was a lot of chaos downtown. There were chemical irritants in the air. I was choking on it and other members of our reporting team.

So, it was a very tense and chaotic situation in downtown Charlottesville. Shortly after that unlawful assembly was declared, it seemed a lot of members of the alt-right were moving towards McIntyre Park so it's a little bit away from the downtown area, they are starting to gather over there.

So, we headed over there and shortly after we got there a few other leaders of the alt-right specifically Richard Spencer and David Duke were there and they addressed some of their supporters at McIntyre Park. There are quite a few dozen of them.

BLITZER: I want you to listen to David Duke addressing the crowd. Here's a little of what he said. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DAVID DUKE, FORMER KKK LEADER: We are determined to take our country back. We're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That's what we believed in. That's why we voted for Donald Trump because he said he's going to take our country back and that's what we've got to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. So, Tim, describe that moment for us.

DODSON: Well, I think standing there, surrounding them, standing on top of picnic tables surrounded by several other white nationalists. A very chaotic scene to say the least. During David Duke's speech, actually, there are several counterdemonstrators, who showed up at the park and starting to protest, and yell slogans, and so there was some sort of in-fighting happening.

There is a lot of verbal disagreements happening and that verbal tension became physical after most of the crowd cleared out. Didn't look like anything too serious in terms physical harm but quickly people moved out of McIntyre Park. So, it was, again, I would describe yesterday as chaotic in Charlottesville.

BLITZER: School isn't back in session yet. The University of Virginia, world-class university, but how would the atmosphere have been different if the students were actually there?

DODSON: I mean, there's still some students on grounds here for the summer. I think obviously, it's a scary situation for a lot of them who are here, but I can't predict what this would have been like had students been on grounds, had this happened during, while school was in session.

But, again, it's a very tense situation and you see a lot of student groups at UVA responding to this, denouncing it. Reacting in a variety of ways. I think this conversation will continue to go on moving forward.

Again, on Friday night we had a torch-lit march that went through our campus. There are counterdemonstrators and again another chaotic scene. I think a lot of students were pretty scared.

BLITZER: In the speeches, in the chanting, in the slogans you heard, the hate out there, was it mostly racist, anti-Semitic, white supremacist? Tell us about that.

DODSON: Yes. I mean -- at the march, they were -- there were a variety of things. One thing they said is, whose streets? Our streets. As if they were taking something back in Charlottesville. Remember, some of this is about the statue of Robert E. Lee over in Lee Park, now called Emancipation Park.

A lot of tension whether or not the city should remove the statues. City council voted earlier in the year in favor of removing the statue of Robert E. Lee but that is currently in pending litigation and that question not decided whether or not the city can remove the statues.

But that was one of the slogans I was hearing. Another one was I think like, we will not be defeated. Things like that.

[14:35:04] In terms of yesterday, David Duke, when he was speaking and Richard Spencer, both of them referencing local officials including Mayor Michael Signer. He's a Jewish man and they made anti-Semitic comments -- while David Duke and Richard Spencer were speaking directed at the mayor.

BLITZER: Interesting. All right. You know, pretty sad, I should say. Tim Dodson, the editor of the student newspaper at the University of Virginia. Tim, thanks very much. We'll stay in close touch with you as well.

I want to go back to CNN's Brian Todd on the scene for us in Charlottesville. Brian, you're in the middle of a protest that seems to be popping up right now. What can you tell us?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Wolf, it's kind of an impromptu protest like counter-protestors just showed up here to counter what Jason Kezler (ph), the white supremacist leader was going to say at a news conference that he wanted to hold over here.

He had set up a position over here, the microphone was set up. (Inaudible) over here. He did show up and people started to kind of shout at him and shout him down. He did start to speak for about, a few minutes, but our teams couldn't hear what he was saying.

People were shouting at him, playing musical instruments trying to drive him out. His message essentially wasn't heard by many people. We had teams here watching and listening what he had to say and nobody could really hear.

Then the crowd started to converge on him and he apparently went down. Not clear whether he slipped or was pushed, but the police at that point interceded ostensibly for his own safety and escorted him around the building where I'm taking you now.

This is the city hall building in Charlottesville. The entrance to the police station here. They brought a couple vehicles to try to take someone out, but it's not clear if they ever took anyone out. He was escorted by several riot police office, dozens of them.

To an area just up there. We believe he is still -- sorry. We believe he's still in the building, but not sure about that. But clearly things got pretty dangerous for him. The police were worried about his safety. Got him out of here very quickly. He came here to give some kind of message. We may never know what that message was going to be -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Brian, let's stay very, very close in touch. Be careful there. Brian Todd on the scene in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Still ahead, President Trump under fire for a statement on the events in Charlottesville yesterday. Critics saying it simply did not go far enough. Did the president fail a key leadership test? Our panel standing by to weigh in. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:41:59]

BLITZER: President Trump is under serious scrutiny from all sides of the political spectrum for what he said about the Charlottesville violence and what he didn't say.

This morning the president came under fire for not calling the attacks domestic terrorism and not specifically criticizing the white nationalists, the far-right hate groups that took part in that violent rally.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR CORY GARDNER (R), COLORADO: I encouraged the president to do that. This president has done so when people have driven trucks through crowds in Europe. He's called it radical Islamic terrorism. He should use this opportunity today to say this is terrorism, domestic terrorism and white nationalism and it has to stop.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: An act of domestic terrorism and the groups you just mentioned are hate-filled groups. They're enemies of freedom. When it comes to President Trump I'm with Cory Gardner. He's missed an opportunity to be very explicit here.

These groups believe they have a friend in Donald Trump in the White House. I don't know why they believe that. They don't see me as a friend in the Senate, and I urge the president to dissuade these groups that he's their friend.

MAYOR MICHAEL SIGNER (D), CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA: This is not hard. Domestic terrorism and white supremacy. That is exactly what we saw on display this weekend and we just aren't seeing leadership in the White House.

GENERAL H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Well, the president has been very clear. We cannot tolerate this kind of bigotry, this kind of hatred, and what he did is he called on all Americans to take a firm stand against it. This is a great opportunity for us to ask ourselves, what are we teaching our children?

ANTHONY SCARAMUCCI, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think he needed to be much harsher as related to white supremacist and the nature of that. I applaud General McMaster for calling it out for what it is. It's actually terrorism and whether it's domestic or international terrorism, with the moral authority of the presidency you have to call that stuff out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, let's discuss all of this. Larry Sabato is joining us. He is the director for the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. David Swerdlick is a CNN political commentator, assistant editor of the "Washington Post" and Jane Newton Small, a contributor for "Time" magazine.

Larry, should the president come out even now, a day late, and publicly disavow these white supremacist groups?

LARRY SABATO, DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR POLITICS, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA: A day late a dollar short? Sure. But he missed his moment, Wolf. It was yesterday. Those moments don't come around very often. It was so easy. So obvious.

As you just saw all of those Republican senators say and loads of others besides like Margo Rubio, John McCain, Rob Portman. It was so easy. He couldn't even do the easy thing because he didn't want to do the easy thing. Those white supremacists and white nationalists are a part of his base and he knows it.

BLITZER: I'm surprised he hasn't even retweeted his daughter Ivanka's tweet, which specifically went after these white supremacist groups. Larry, you've studied this president for a long time now. Explain that. Why doesn't he do that?

SABATO: Why did he not say something more -- definitive or not retweet --

[14:45:03] BLITZER: Yes. Specifically condemn by name these white supremacists, neo-Nazi groups? Why doesn't he do that?

SABATO: Because it was a wink at a nod to them. They did support him. Now, no one knows what their real numbers are. I have to be honest. I was shocked at the large number I saw personally on Friday night going right by my home on the University of Virginia lawn.

A lot of them were there, but we don't know what the percentage it. But the way Trump looks at it, hard-core supporters and they say that. They say they were inspired by Trump. They say they were energized by Trump.

And so, he doesn't want to turn that off, at the same time, he doesn't want to alienate anybody else. So, he tried this ridiculous formulation about many, many groups were responsible. Many, many things were done poorly.

Spreading out the blame and this ridiculous moral equivalency. It doesn't work with the large majority who didn't vote for him, but these are subliminal messages he's constantly sending to that disreputable part of this base.

BLITZER: Yes. And in his original statement, Jay, he said he condemns in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides. Those words, "on many sides" clearly seem to be suggesting moral equivalency, and that has generated so much anger.

JAY NEWTON SMALL, CONTRIBUTOR, "TIME" MAGAZINE: Absolutely, Wolf. And it's really striking to see Republicans of this party really strike out against him. Cory Gardner, Orrin Hatch, Ted Cruz, I mean, these are people who in recent months have really taken sort of, not to criticizing Trump but letting him have a honeymoon period.

You can clearly say the honeymoon is over, Republicans feel very, very comfortable and confident in criticizing their own president saying he's not something we want the party to see him doing and want him to change course.

BLITZER: His daughter is Jewish, Ivanka Trump. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner is Jewish. You think he'd have a responsibility to speak out against the racism and the anti-Semitism that clearly was prevalent?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right, Wolf. He had that personal motivation, but then he also has the responsibility as president of the United States. As Larry said, it should be easy for a president to first denounce the racist, disgusting, un-American views of white nationalists and white supremacists.

And then if he wants, then pivot to this idea of violence versus non- violent protests or this idea of free speech or an idea of whatever equivalent he wants on the two sides. When we conflated those in one short statement he made it seem like there was that moral equivalence between the two sides and that's why he's getting so much pushback and why so many people in his party are breaking from him on this.

BLITZER: And a lot of people remember, David, a year ago, plus, when it took him a while to condemn David Duke and white supremacists. We all remember that interview with Jake Tapper. He said I don't know anything about David Duke.

SWERDLICK: It took him a while. He looked pained to eventually disavow David Duke. There was the episode where he blamed Judge Gonzalo Curiel for being Mexican-American. The birtherism, that launched his political incarnation in the last several years.

The president now, if he wanted to pivot away from that he's struggling to do it. Because it's hard to turn that ship around once you unleash it.

SMALL: This is also a man who remember back in 1990s took out a full- page advertisement in the "New York Times" calling for the death penalty for the alleged Central Park rapist who turned out being innocent. He has a long history here of doing things that people perceived as racist.

BLITZER: So how does he fix this, Larry? You've studied politics and presidents a long time. You're an expert. How does he fix this at this point? He clearly needs to do something.

SABATO: Well, he could certainly come out with a new statement far better would be if he found a way to part company with Steve Bannon and some of the other people who have sympathies in the white nationalist direction, and have a history of it.

This would be a great time to do it. I think General Kelly wants to get rid of some of them. Maybe he can move into the vacuum and push them out. That would help. We now know, Wolf, Donald Trump all too well from the campaign, the first six months of his presidency. This guy's not going to change. He's just not going to change. He plays to his base constantly. It was enough get to him elected, barely, last November. I think he thinks it's enough to get him re- elected.

BLITZER: What do you think? Do you think this is all about politics? Is that what you think?

SWERDLICK: I think it's about a few things, Wolf. First of all, it's a failure of leadership. Right? The president has gotten to where he is in life by aggrandizing himself. That is something he is go at. He hasn't ever succeeded in building bridges and bringing people together for the greater good. You saw him yesterday.

[14:50:11] Just look at his body language from that clip when he was speaking in the press conference yesterday he struggles to do this. Where he doesn't struggle to criticize people.

SMALL: His entire candidacy has always been about us versus them. The us is always let us protect you from the evil immigrants, from the radical Islamic terrorists and us has always to some degree been the white Americans.

So, for him to now turn and say, well, those with Americans might be danger too. That they might be something to be feared. I think it's a hard pivot for him.

BLITZER: Larry, his remarks on the protest that he delivered yesterday, the president said, I'm quoting, "we must cherish our history." Cherish our history. Some including former Congressman Tom Perriello of Virginia thought this was a nod to Charlottesville attempt to remove the confederate statue of Robert E. Lee. Do you agree?

SABATO: I do. I think that was exactly what he hoped people would interpret from it or maybe the staff member who wrote it. I don't know. But that's the message, yes, and also the white nationalists want to keep talking about the statue of Robert E. Lee.

Believe me, Wolf, this was just the pretext for everything they did. They look for these opportunities so they can spend a few days in the hot lights, the wonderful warm lights of the national media and getting all of their messages of hate across, and, boy, did they succeed, unfortunately, here in Charlottesville.

Look, they have threatened to come back, Wolf. They said they'll come back again and again. I just want them to remember, there are 49 other states. If there's going to be pain, let's share it, 49 other states. We've had enough.

BLITZER: Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia, thanks very much. David Swerdlick, Jay Newton Small, appreciate it very much.

The Department of Justice here in Washington this hour opened a civil rights investigation into that deadly car assault yesterday during this weekend's protests in Charlottesville. Up next, we're going to speak to a former lawyer from that division and find out exactly what those charges could mean.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[14:55:20]

BLITZER: We're continuing to follow the late breaking developments in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the Department of Justice here in Washington is now open to formal civil rights investigation into that deadly car attack.

The 32-year-old Heather Heyer was killed when a car plowed into a crowd of protestors rallying against the white supremacist rally on Saturday. Dozens of other people were injured. Several of them remain in critical condition right now.

I want to bring in Laura Coates, a CNN legal analyst and former attorney in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. Laura, what does that mean, the civil rights investigation has now been launched?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: So now, they are trying to figure out whether or not any federal charges can be applied to this conduct. Whether or not there is a racially motivated bias, other bias, ideological one, and figuring out if there is a criminal statute that could actually hook into a federal statute to prosecute a person a federal legislative act.

So, they are trying to figure what does his social media look like? Manifestos perhaps, PR manifestos, perhaps? Friends you talked of intentions about the day? An element of premedication.

They are going to do a comprehensive look at who this person is, what the motive was, and if the motive is one that hooks to a criminal statute, they will attach it.

BLITZER: So what is the difference between the civil rights investigation and a formal terrorism investigation concluding this was allegedly an act of terror?

COATES: They've been very difficult trying to ascertain between hate crime and terrorism. People look at them as very synonymous terms, but legally speaking terrorist has to do with the act of trying to influence a civilian population or government through mass destruction, assassination, kidnapping and other acts.

You have to have an ideological slant behind it. A hate crime usually is tied to a bias other than ideology, race, religion, perceived gender identity or anything I just named. More of a bias as opposed to an ideological concern.

BLITZER: So the federal government is now investigating James Alex Fields Jr., 20-year-old, from Ohio, who drove to this rally, and he's now been charged with second-degree murder?

COATES: Yes, among other things --

BLITZER: By the state.

COATES: By the state. So, the state has its own probe they're going to be doing. They're going to attached to the homicide case essentially, and then the issue what the federal agents look at in terms a federal law violated. They can both have a simultaneous probe.

You saw this in Dylann Roof, for example, a case that happened a few years back. It happens in other cases as well. Right now, the state is focusing on the actual homicide. The feds will focus on more so whether there was a larger plot awry intending to do something more or attached to a motive or bias.

Now the man is opened to not only second-degree murder, total disregard for human life. Like shooting a gun into a crowd of people, not knowing if anyone will be impacted or affected and disregard, and you can have a bias attached to it. Was he trying to attack a certain type of person?

Was there a profile he was trying to harm? Then this area of transferred intend. Even if the person you intended to actually hurt was not who you ultimately hurt, you can still have those penalties attached as well.

BLITZER: Senator Ted Cruz called on the Justice Department to immediately investigate and prosecute today's grotesque act of domestic terrorism. Who would have priority, the federal government or the state, in going after this individual?

COATES: Well, if it's national security, as in terrorism comes in then you have the priority of the federal government in that respect. And still have a state investigation still happening, but the priority goes to, if it's domestic terrorism, a lot of people think it is, because it has that connection.

It does have mass destruction and an issue, not semantics, the trend over the past ten years or more has been to focus on the perpetrator of the crime and define terrorism. In reality, the codes don't require that. This actually could be that. So, the feds will have priority. We'll see how that plays out.

BLITZER: There is a death penalty in Virginia as well as the federal government that's at stake?

COATES: Absolutely. Hate crimes do have (inaudible) as well. You won't have a person going free if it wasn't called terrorism. People want the semantics to be part of the argument and for good reason.

BLITZER: Laura Coates, as usual, thanks very much.

COATES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Excellent explanation. Appreciate it very much.

COATES: Thank you.

BLITZER: We are going to have much more ahead here in the CNN NEWSROOM and it all starts right now.

Thanks very much for joining us. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. Fredricka Whitfield is off.

Charlottesville, Virginia, on edge once again right now as protesters shouted down a white supremacist leader just in the last hour trying to hold a press conference. Our Brian Todd is --