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Interview With Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal; President Trump Doubles Down on Reaction to Charlottesville Violence; In Off-the-Rails News Conference, Trump Defends Racist Protester, Blames Violence on "Both Sides". Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 15, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Call it murder. The president rails against the suspect in the deadly car attack in Charlottesville, flatly declaring him a murderer well before he is put on trial. Was he willing to call the attack an act of terrorism?

And Bannon under the bus. When asked about the future of his embattled chief strategist, the president would only say, "We will see what happens." Will Steve Bannon be the next White House official to be forced out?

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: Breaking news tonight, President Trump letting loose with an angry ad-libbed defense of his widely criticized initial response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Mr. Trump taking reporters' questions at Trump Tower in New York City just a little while ago during an announcement about infrastructure. He reverted to his initial insistence that both sides, both sides are to blame, effectively erasing a scripted condemnation of racist groups yesterday.

The president insisting he didn't denounce the KKK or neo-Nazis at first because he was waiting for the facts. There was one stunning statement after another in this very wild Q&A session. Mr. Trump flatly calling the suspect in the Charlottesville car attack a murderer and hanging his embattled chief strategist Steve Bannon out to dry, saying, "We will see," when asked about Bannon's future over at the White House.

This hour, I will get reaction to all of this from Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, you were there. What an amazing news conference over at Trump Tower.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

And the president once again is finding himself increasingly isolated tonight after he again appeared to blame both sides for the violence in Charlottesville.

In a surreal strange, stunning impromptu press conference, he appeared to sympathize, even echo the complaints of white nationalists who were protesting down in Charlottesville over the weekend who were complaining that they do not agree with the removal of a statue dedicated to Robert E. Lee in that city in Virginia, the president making it very clear that not only does he blame the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists for the violence that led to the death of Heather Heyer in Charlottesville over the weekend.

He was blaming the counterprotesters who were on the scene as well to confront those neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Here's how it played out inside Trump Tower.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The statement I made on Saturday, the first statement, was a fine statement. But you don't make statements that direct unless you know the fact. It takes a little while to get the facts. You still don't know the facts.

Before I make a statement, I need the facts. So, I don't want to rush into a statement.

Unlike you and unlike the media, before I make a statement, I like to know the facts.

Frankly, people still don't know all of the facts.

It was very important -- excuse me, excuse me. It was very important to me to get the facts out, and correctly. There's still things that people don't know. What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right? Do they have any semblance of guilt?

Let me ask you this. What about the fact they came charging -- that they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do. You had a group on one side that was mad and you had a group on the other side that was also very violent. And nobody wants to say that.

But I will say it right now. You had a group -- you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit and they were very, very violent.

I have condemned neo-Nazis. I have condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists, by any stretch.

Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee. So, excuse me. And you take a look at some of the groups, and you see, and you know it if you were honest reporters, which in many cases you're not -- but many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

So, this week, it's Robert E. Lee. I notice that Stonewall Jackson is coming down. I wonder, is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after?

You know, you really do have to ask yourself, where does it stop?

But they were there to protest -- excuse me. You take a look, the night before, they were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

[18:05:13]

QUESTION: Race relations in America, do you think things have gotten worse or better since you have take taken office?

TRUMP: I think they've gotten better or the same -- look -- they have been frayed for a long time, and you can ask President Obama about that, because he'd make speeches about it.

You had a group on one side and a group on the other, and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch, but there is another side. There was a group on this side. You can call them the left -- you've just called them the left -- that came violently attacking the other group.

I think there is blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it, and you don't have any doubt about it either. And -- and -- and if you reported it accurately, you would say.

But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest, because you know, I don't know if you know, but they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit.

So, I only tell you this. There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to this country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ACOSTA: Now, the president was trying to have it both ways during this news conference, Wolf.

At one point, he said he likes to wait to see all the facts come in. He said he did not know that David Duke was at that protest on Saturday in Charlottesville, but at the same time, he said later on, almost in the same breath, that he was watching the events unfolding in Charlottesville -- quote -- "very closely." The other thing that he tried to say at one point, Wolf, is that not all of the protesters in that white supremacist, neo-Nazi crowd were bad people.

But, very obviously Wolf, anybody who witnessed what went down in Charlottesville, any of the authorities who were working on that investigation will very clearly say the white nationalists, the supremacists and the neo-Nazis were very much responsible for that violence and that unrest that unfolded.

And, Wolf, getting back to the president's explanation, well, he likes to wait for the facts to come in, keep in mind this is the same president who said that Barack Obama was not born in this country and that Barack Obama wiretapped him here at Trump Tower without any proof at all.

So, for the president to come out here and say he likes to wait for the facts to come in, Wolf, the record reflects that he does not always do that. And you could probably make the case that he does not very often wait for the facts to come in, that he tends to go off and make his opinions clear, as he did here in Trump Tower.

Wolf, this was the president, I think, unguarded, unvarnished, unplugged. These were the real views of the president of the United States today. What we saw at the White House yesterday where he came out with that very scripted statement, that was not really the president of the United States deep down inside.

Donald Trump made his true colors very clear here inside of Trump Tower. And it felt like, Wolf, when you're watching it here in person, you're not just seeing a press conference go off the rails or jump the tracks. You are watching a presidency go off the rails and jump the tracks.

It was just that strange, surreal, stunning and baffling to watch, Wolf.

BLITZER: It was as if he had forgotten what he read from that teleprompter yesterday. He reverted back to his initial comments Saturday, but he doubled and tripled down on those initial comments. Was this planned, Jim, Jim Acosta? Was he supposed to have this kind of exchange with reporters in the lobby at Trump Tower?

ACOSTA: No, not at all.

And, as a matter of fact, Wolf, before the president came down, some of his aides came over to the reporters and gathered us together to say, listen, the president is going to come down with the treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, with the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, and so on, and he was going to make some statements.

And then he was going to go back inside the elevator. And then the transportation secretary, the treasury secretary would come up to the cameras and answer questions. So, they were trying to make it very clear to all of us -- I think it was wishful thinking on their part, Wolf -- that we would not ask any questions. But, of course, as soon as the president wrapped up his remarks on

infrastructure, we started asking these questions. And as I have seen on many occasions covering this president, not only as president of the United States, but as a candidate, he almost never can resist a question that is aimed in his direction, and especially when it's a question that he finds to be challenging.

[18:10:00]

And when the questions started coming in, the real Donald Trump came out. And this is something who I think, Wolf, that we're going to look back 10 years and observe this moment that we saw unfold here today at Trump Tower as really kind of a turning point in this presidency.

It is very difficult to imagine many Republicans in Washington rallying to the president's side after he almost gave the neo-Nazis and the white supremacists a pass for what unfolded in Charlottesville over the weekend.

I think it's one of those moments, Wolf, that, as it sinks in, the worse it gets. It was that kind of a disaster that we saw here at Trump Tower today, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, I have covered a lot of presidents over these years here in Washington. I don't remember a president of the United States having an exchange like this, simply going off the rails.

He certainly does not like to admit he made a mistake. He certainly does not apologize. But this was certainly something I haven't seen. I don't remember a time when a president has done something like this, especially when you're dealing with neo-Nazis, KKK supporters, white supremacists.

This was an extraordinary moment, I must say.

All right, Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

I want to get some more reaction now from the former president and CEO of the NAACP, our CNN contributor, Cornell William Brooks.

You must have been pretty shocked listening to the president.

CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Shocked, disturbed, unsettled.

This president, in the 200-plus days he's been in office, 200 days ago, 200-plus days ago, he took an oath of office. He has yet to assume the moral gravitas of the office. So, today's denunciation, do-over, today's apology, if you will, for the alt-right is inexcusable.

There are millions of Americans across the country who have an uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomach because they are morally nauseous. Note this. The president puts on the same moral plane the alt-right, neo-Nazis, Klansmen, white nationalists and counterprotesters. The neo-Nazis stand in a violent legacy and lineage, going back to

World War II, in which there were at least 15 million people killed, six million Jews, untold numbers of Gypsies, people who were gay. The Klansmen stand in a lineage and a legacy that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.

And this is not years ago. This is up until the current date. Since the Oklahoma bombing, we have had 74 people who have lost their lives to white nationalism. This is very dangerous. The president appears to want to have his hate cake and eat it, too.

He says one thing one day, something else the next day. But in either instance, he seems to want to appease his base while signaling to the rest of the country that he's disavowing them. It's unconscionable. It's disgusting.

And as a former president of the NAACP, I have to tell you this. Being on the back end of a death threat, having your colleagues evacuate our headquarters as a consequence of bomb threats, seeing my colleagues at the ADL have to abandon their headquarters as a consequence of bomb threats, seeing a young woman lose her life as a consequence of white nationalism, and to have our president apologize for that and suggest we have the alt-right, we have the alt-left, these are morally equal entities on the same moral plane, it's disgusting.

It is unconscionable, and the president has to be called out for it.

BLITZER: It is really amazing that the reaction certainly from Democrats from across the country, but from so many Republicans has been one of deep, deep anger to what we just heard from the president of the United States.

The speaker of the House, Paul Ryan: "We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity."

You heard Will Hurd, the Republican congressman from Texas, in the last hour say he can't believe what he heard from the president of the United States. The reaction has been so powerful.

BROOKS: Let's be clear about this. This is not about D's and R's, donkeys and elephants. It's about our common and shared humanity.

We heard it said that the president revealed his true colors. This is not a matter of black or white. The colors that he revealed, if you ask me, was an ugly shade of bigotry. It's no more and no less than that. He had an opportunity today to double down on the denunciation of white nationalism, to double down on his denunciation on white supremacy. He declined to do that.

BLITZER: Can he fix it?

BROOKS: I don't see how you dug yourself out of this moral abyss, except through deed and policy. But that would presuppose that he's acting out of his heart. [18:15:05]

BLITZER: Cornell William Brooks, thanks very much for your reaction.

I want to hear from a leading Democrat right now.

Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut is joining us. He's member of both the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees.

Senator, you just heard the president of the United States equate, in effect, the white supremacists, the neo-Nazis, the KKK supporters with those who oppose those hate groups, saying there's blame to go around on both sides. What did that reveal to you about this president?

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: What it revealed to me, Wolf, is stunning abdication of moral leadership by the president of the United States.

He is the president of the United States, but he did not speak today for the real America. And my hope is that the real America, speechless as many of us may be, will now be more outspoken on both sides of the aisle, across the country, in our revulsion, the kind of rejection that we all must feel in this moral equivalence between hate and violence on the one hand and peaceful protests on the other.

And now is the time, not only for people of good will on both sides of the aisle to speak out against this atrocious abdication of leadership, but also for the Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute the crimes that were committed in Charlottesville, the civil rights conspiracy, the hate crimes, and, yes, the domestic terrorism.

And all of the tools and resources the Department of Justice should be focused and concentrated on this domestic terrorist movement that is such a threat to our nation. Under the Patriot Act, Section 805, those tools and powers and resources should be brought to bear.

BLITZER: You know, the president said both sides, repeatedly said both sides have to share the blame for what happened in Charlottesville.

But I want you to take a look at some of these white supremacists marchers at that torch rally Friday night. This is video from vice that airs on our sister network HBO. Watch this together with our viewers, senator.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALES AND FEMALES: You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us! You will not replace us.

Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Jews will not replace us! Blood and soil! Blood and soil! Blood and soil! Blood and soil!

Whose streets?

Our streets.

Whose streets?

Our streets.

Whose streets?

Our streets.

Whose streets?

Our streets.

Whose streets?

Our streets.

Whose streets?

Our streets.

White lives matter! White lives matter! White lives matter! White lives matter! White lives matter!

UNIDENTIFIED MALES AND FEMALES: Black lives matter! Black lives matter! Black lives matter!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I got maced, man.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You got maced? By who?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: By commies.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, Senator, so you saw the video. You heard the chanting. On one side, you had these white supremacist groups in this video clearly coming to Charlottesville to spread their message of hate. If you couldn't hear them, "You will not replace us," referring to African-Americans, "Jews will not replace us," obviously referring to Jews.

"Blood and soil," a slogan from the Nazi era. "Whose streets? Our streets," meaning white streets, white lives matter.

It was horrendous to see that. And then to hear the president of the United States say, you know, there's blame on both sides, in effect, of an equal footing. Your reaction?

BLUMENTHAL: Wolf, my dad came to this country in 1935 to escape Nazi Germany. He was 17 years old.

[18:20:02]

He had barely more than the shirt on his back. He spoke virtually no English, and he knew almost no one. And this great country, the greatest country in the history of the world, gave him a chance to succeed, to raise a family, and to believe in America.

Nobody loved this country more than my dad. And I have thought over the last few days how sad and ashamed he would be to see those images, and then to watch a president who condones, even approves, implicitly, of those torch-carrying, epithet-shouting, hate-filled people.

And I think we are at a critical juncture in our nation, when we need to express moral outrage at all who stand silent. Silence is not golden. Ambiguity is abhorrent. We all have a responsibility, and there has to be a denial of that moral equivalence that both sides are to blame.

In fact, one side was to blame.

BLITZER: My parents similarly came to this country after the Holocaust. All four of my grandparents were murdered during the Holocaust.

And what I don't understand, and maybe you can explain this to me, is how the president of the United States has a daughter who is Jewish, a son-in-law who is Jewish, grandchildren who are Jewish, his son-in- law. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors at the same time.

I don't understand how he isn't moved by that to simply condemn this group shouting out, "Jews will not replace us." It's hard to believe that we're hearing this in this day and age.

BLUMENTHAL: No one can go inside Donald Trump's head, and I would not attempt to do so here, certainly.

But my feeling is that now is the time for Americans to unite in condemning this hatred and violence. No more dog whistles. No more implicit condoning. There is no more moral equivalence. The law should be enforced.

The Department of Justice can truly take the lead. Attorney General Sessions is right. It was a domestic terrorist attack. And the laws should be enforced. There should be surveillance, and the full weight of federal authority, the full panoply of federal powers should be brought to bear to make sure that these kinds of violent acts are put in our past, just as the torch-carrying and the hooded Ku Klux Klan of the past also was put in the rear-view mirror.

BLITZER: So, Senator, what happens now? How does the United States of America, how does our country deal with this critically, critically decisive moment?

BLUMENTHAL: I think that, first of all, when we come back, we ought to review the hate crime statutes and determine whether the penalties are sufficient.

Second, even before then, our Republican colleagues hopefully will speak out as forcefully as all of us have, and many have already. And I admire and support their independence and their courage, and the more of our faith leaders who can step forward, as many have already. But I think the time for leaning back is over. The time for moving forward is now. And the CEOs who have resigned

from the president's manufacturer council hopefully will provide a model for other business leaders. Everyone in this country who have positions of authority and leadership should step forward now. That moral condemnation is critically important.

Changes in our law to increase the penalties, enforcing of that law is absolutely critical, and the Department of Justice has a central role, and I'm going to push for that vigorous and strong, staunch enforcement.

BLITZER: Can the president redeem himself?

BLUMENTHAL: If he apologized, if he stepped forward, and if he took ownership of the facts here, perhaps, if he satisfied that there are more facts that he knows that will lead him to think differently.

I'm not going to prejudge whether the real Donald Trump spoke today, but he did not speak for the real America, and that's the important point.

BLITZER: Senator, I want to continue this important conversation. We are getting flooded with a lot more reaction at the same time.

Want to take a quick break. This is an important day in our country's history. We will resume our special coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:29:30]

BLITZER: We're back with Senator Richard Blumenthal.

We're following the breaking news, President Trump veering wildly off- message in an off-the-rails news conference. This give-and-take with reporters was truly extraordinary. He's returning to his initial argument that both sides are to blame for the weekend violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, undermining his own scripted condemnation of the racist groups yesterday.

You know, I want to play this clip for you, Senator. This is the president speaking about the way that all of this emerged. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Was George Washington a slave owner?

So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down -- excuse me. Are we going to take down

BLITZER: ... the way that all of this emerged. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[18:30:07] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Was George Washington a slave owner? So, will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down -- excuse me. Are we going to take down -- are we going to stake down statues to George Washington?

How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? you like him?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I do love Thomas Jefferson.

TRUMP: OK, good. Are we going to take down the statue? Because he was a major slave owner. Now, are we going to take down his statue? So, you know what? It's fine.

You're changing history. You're changing culture. And you had people -- and I'm not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally. But you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.

Now, in the other group also, you had some fine people, but you also had troublemakers, and you see them come with the black outfits and with the helmets and baseball bats. You've got -- you had a lot of bad -- you had a lot of bad people in the other group, too.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: ... treated unfairly, sir? I'm sorry, I just didn't understand what you were saying. You were saying the press has treated white nationalists unfairly? I don't understand what you were saying.

TRUMP: No. There were people in that rally -- and I looked the night before. If you look, they were people protesting, very quietly, the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee.

I'm sure in that group there were some bad ones. The following day it looked like they had some rough, bad people. Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, whatever you want to call them.

But you had a lot of people in that group that were there to innocently protest and very legally protest. Because I don't know if you know, they had a permit. The other group didn't have a permit.

So, I only tell you this. There are two sides to a story. I thought what took place was a horrible moment for our country, a horrible moment. But there are two sides to the country.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: We showed our viewers the video of what was going on Friday night in Charlottesville, Senator. When you heard the white supremacists marching with the torches, shouting, "You will not replace us," referring to African-Americans, "Jews will not replace us." They repeatedly uttered the words, "Blood and soil," an old Nazi slogan. Then they said, "Whose streets? Our streets." Referring to white streets. That was the message that was being delivered Friday night as they were marching with those torches. I don't know if the president actually saw that video.

BLUMENTHAL: There is an old saying, Wolf, that a picture is worth a thousand words. There's no need for us to argue about what happened and what was said in those epithets that were uttered. Those pictures tell a powerful, undeniable story about hatred and violence.

Every one of us today can be a leader, whether we're in the faith community, or government, or business, or academia. Ordinary Americans who can express moral outrage watching those videos ought to lead to a national consensus that the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, white nationalists are a threat to our democracy. They are not in our past. We must condemn them. And also take action to stop the hatred and violence. Under laws that exist and laws that can be strengthened.

BLITZER: What do you say to Jewish Americans, African-American -- African-Americans who are watching what's going on right now, Senator, and are deeply worried? They're worried about their own safety.

BLUMENTHAL: Donald Trump does not represent or speak for the real America. These neo-Nazis and white supremacists and KKK and white nationalists are not the real America. And we can show in the coming days and weeks what the real America is. That's the challenge for every one of us. Every single person in this country can take a stand and must take a stand. There is no excuse for silence. The only thing that can enable evil to prevail is for good people to do nothing.

And what I would say to fellow Jews and Americans of color and everyone who may be victims of prejudice and everyone who may have been a target of those vile and vicious violent words and actions in Charlottesville is we can do better, and we must do better as a nation. We are better.

BLITZER: The president still has an opportunity to come out, apologize, and express some deeper, deeper, much more meaningful thoughts. We'll see if he does do that.

Senator Blumenthal, thanks so much for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLITZER: All right. Let's bring in some more of our specialists to assess what's going on.

All right. Gloria, the president can come out and apologize: "I don't want the Ku Klux Klan support, I don't want the support of these neo- Nazis. I don't want the support of the white supremacists." He could come out and say that, and he could say, "I made a mistake." Do you think he'll do that?

[18:35:16] GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: No. I mean, first of all, as we know, Donald Trump never admits that he did anything wrong. So, he would never admit he made a mistake. He's had plenty of opportunities to tell them he doesn't want their support.

But after his statement today, he got an "atta boy" from David Duke -- right? -- who tweeted, "Thank you, President Trump for your honesty and courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville." So, he gets an "atta boy" from David Duke, and what he did by -- by saying that these things are equivalent is that he sanitized a neo-Nazi rally as just another protest.

A neo-Nazi rally is not just another protest. It is something very different. And you saw the video that you have -- that you have been using. The president said, "I want to get all the facts. I got the facts." What are those facts he got that made him take back the statement that he delivered, obviously now under pressure, that he delivered the other day? What is it that he knows that we don't know?

Because we're able to look at those pictures the same way he was. And those were not, as he put it, innocent and legal protesters.

BLITZER: Here's another excerpt of what the president said a little while ago at Trump Tower. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: You had a group -- you had a group on the other side that came charging in without a permit, and they were very, very violent.

Go ahead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think that what you call the alt-left is the same as neo-Nazis?

TRUMP: Those people, all of those people -- excuse me. I've condemned neo-Nazis. I've condemned many different groups. But not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me. Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What...

TRUMP: Those people were also there because they wanted to protest the taking down of a statue, Robert E. Lee.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: David Swerdlick, I want your reaction.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: So a couple things about that, Wolf. First of all, you know, by pure happenstance, I happened to be on the air on Saturday when all this was breaking. The first point that me and my co-panelists made was that no one has a right to protest violently.

But once you make that point, which is an important but basic point, the president of the United States should look at the biggest and most important point, which is that these white nationalists and white supremacists are un-American, disgusting racists, and he should make that absolutely clear to the American people if he wants to lead all the American people.

If he had done that Saturday, Wolf, he might have bought himself a little more room to make some of these other points that he was trying to shoehorn in today, but the problem for the president is, is that he's showed no leadership on this. And the other problem is that he doesn't realize that, even though he's most comfortable being a pugilist, not a bridge builder, it's not working in this situation.

This isn't like a situation where, OK, he's not a career politician; he doesn't know about health care; he doesn't know about taxation; he's got to be briefed. You shouldn't need to be briefed on the issue of racism and what it means to be an American. You should come to the office of the presidency knowing exactly where you stand on that.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, I want your reaction.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, how do we know it's not working? I mean, you know, we're the same people who sat around talking about how Donald Trump was going to lose the election. And I certainly include myself in that group. And, you know, this is -- this Donald Trump is not that different from the one who ran in the -- who ran for president

BORGER: Not at all.

TOOBIN: He was -- he was the one where all the people were yelling "Lock 'em up, lock her up" at her [SIC] rallies. I mean, this is the same Donald Trump that we've seen.

And I think what we're learning is we're learning a lot about our fellow Americans. I mean, I'm sitting here on West 58th Street. I mean, I don't know -- you know, I think I've proved that I don't know what people in the whole country are thinking. And maybe they think this is great. Maybe they think that it's terrific that the president of the United States is defending Nazis and KKK members. You know, I think we've just got to acknowledge that's a possibility.

BLITZER: I have a lot more confidence in our fellow Americans. There's a tiny, tiny group of individuals like that, but almost all Americans don't believe in the KKK or neo-Nazis. We went to war in World War II to fight the Nazis and to defeat the Nazis. David Axelrod, I know you want to weigh in, as well.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Well, yes. I agree with you, Wolf. You know, Jeffrey has some arch comments there for our fellow Americans, and I understand them, and he's absolutely right. A lot of us misread what was going on in the country. But I don't think that all of those voters who voted for Donald Trump were voting for this.

BORGER: Right.

AXELROD: They were voting to -- for change. They were voting their frustrations. They weren't voting for this. So, I don't -- I don't believe that. But on this point about his apologizing, we should point out -- I

think it's been lost in all of the furor here -- that in the midst of all this in the last few hours, he tweeted out or he retweeted from FOX his -- an intimation that he might Pardon Sheriff Arpaio of the Phoenix area, Maricopa County, who's been convicted for defying court orders relative to his abuse of citizens there, particularly minority citizens, who's really a symbol of hatred in this country.

So, the notion that the president is looking for an off-ramp here seems a little remote to me.

BLITZER: You know, and he also, Rebecca, he shared a tweet of a really ugly cartoon. I don't even know if we want to put it up on the screen, of a train crashing into an individual who had a sign that said "CNN." This, you know, only a couple days after we saw a car plow into a crowd. He later, you know, deleted that retweet, if you will. But that was really, really awful.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I think we're learning a lot today and over these past few days, Wolf, about how Donald Trump views his job description as president of the United States, because I think most presidents in this position would take this as an opportunity to lead the country, to show some moral leadership, to try to heal divisions in the country.

Donald Trump is taking almost the polar opposite approach. He is taking advantage of divisions. He is deepening divisions. He is trying to channel this anger that we see in the country and this hatred and use it for his own political gain, or to settle personal scores. And it's really incredible to see.

And I have to disagree with what Jeffrey said, that this is what people voted for and maybe what Americans would want, because you might expect these sorts of things from a candidate. But the job description for a candidate is much different than the job description for a president of the United States, and at some point you have to wonder what does Donald Trump view his job as as president, because Americans typically look to the president in times like this for leadership?

BLITZER: You know, and also -- hold on one second, because I think it's significant. He also, in the course of the Q&A with reporters, Gloria, he went after Senator John McCain for voting against the repeal and replace of the health care. Senator John McCain, someone who's fighting brain cancer right now. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Senator McCain, you mean the one who voted against Obamacare? Who is -- do you mean Senator McCain who voted against us getting good health care?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator McCain said that the alt-right is behind these attacks, and he linked that same group to those who perpetrated the attack in Charlottesville. TRUMP: Well, I don't know. I can't tell you. I'm sure Senator

McCain must know what he's talking about. But when you say the alt- right, define alt-right to me. You define it, go ahead. No, define it for me, come on, let's go, define it for me.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator McCain defined them as the same group...

TRUMP: OK. What about the alt-left that came charging -- excuse me. What about the alt-left that came charging at the, as you say, the alt-right. Do they have any semblance of guilt?

Let me ask you this. What about the fact they came charging, that they came charging with clubs in their hands, swinging clubs? Do they have any problem? I think they do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Yes, I was surprised that he decided to go right after Senator McCain.

BORGER: Look, you see his anger there. The anger is not only at the press, but the anger is that John McCain, who dared vote against him and his vote could have -- was, you know, the deciding vote.

And -- and John McCain, you know, he's not been a fan of John McCain; nor is John McCain a fan of his. John McCain has disagreed with him on foreign policy, and he has made it very, very clear. So, he's been a thorn in the president's side. I don't think it matters a whit to the president that John McCain is having -- you know, is ill. I think this is the president taking that vote personally.

And, again, it's one of these things where it's all about Donald Trump. John McCain now voted against Donald Trump, so, it is all about John McCain now is an enemy of Donald Trump, and that's how he will be treated, no matter what.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, what was your reaction when you heard that exchange involving John McCain?

AXELROD: Well, what struck me was it was just a couple of weeks ago, at the beginning of that debate, that final week of debate on health care when the president tweeted out a tribute to the brave and courageous John McCain for returning to Washington to allow the debate to continue.

[18:45:01] So, apparently his opinion has eroded since that time because John McCain ultimately didn't vote the way he wanted to vote.

Listen, this press conference was in every way, shape and form a car wreck for the president. It showed a guy who is melting down. It showed a guy who is small minded, intemperate, and sending dog whistles to white supremacists and neo-Nazis, which is why they have thanked him for his comments.

I mean, he was bleaching their white robes and he was shining their shields with his remarks today. And he may say he condemned them, but that's not the way anybody in America read that.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: How did you read it, Jeffrey Toobin?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I thought -- I mean, he -- this was praise. I mean, this was praise for the demonstrators. This was praise for the people carrying those torches, that this was a moral -- a complete moral equivalence, that this was -- that there were some excesses on both sides, but there were a lot of good people who just wanted that statue removed.

We are going to learn a lot about the United States during the Trump presidency. I mean, I have taken a somewhat more cynical view here. I think this was far less of a disaster than everyone else is because I don't think anyone learned anything new about Donald Trump today. This is the same person who was bragging about sexually assaulting women, and then got elected president of the United States.

So, I mean, the idea that this is some new departure for him, and that this will be the straw that breaks the camel's back, I just don't see it.

BLITZER: But was it a departure from what he said only yesterday?

TOOBIN: Which was just a return to what he said on Saturday. I mean, you know, I think one of the things we've learned is not to believe any scripted comments Donald Trump makes. We need to just believe when he speaks off the cuff because they tend to be very different. It's like the tweet that David just read. That was probably prepared by some staff.

This was the real Donald Trump on John McCain today. I don't think anyone can doubt the loathing, the hatred for John McCain that we saw come out of his mouth today. That's the real Donald Trump. And this is the real Donald Trump on American Nazis and KKK, which is, you know, they're not so bad.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: And this is why staff, the staff tries, right? General Kelly is new on the job, but I guarantee you, he's not a happy man right now. They forced him to give that statement, as Jeffrey points out, read on a teleprompter. But Donald Trump doesn't, you know, doesn't take coaching really well.

And, so, he had to revert back to what he did and prove all the critics, particularly those in the Republican Party who came out and criticized him on the record, wrong. That's what he had to do. And that's what he did today.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, go ahead.

AXELROD: Yes. No, I was going to say to Jeffrey's point, you're absolutely right. This is the Donald Trump we saw throughout the 2016 campaign. He was offensive in many different ways. He did wink and nod toward the alt-right, toward the white supremacists, toward the neo-Nazis. And, in fact, they expressed support for him during that campaign. But there was this hope, it probably was a vain hope, that somehow

that the presidency, the office of the presidency, the responsibilities of the presidency would in some way transform this man, that he would somehow rise to the occasion. And I think what you saw today was a definitive answer. That's not going to happen. That's not going to happen.

BLITZER: Guys, hold on. One moment, David. I'm going to get to you shortly. We have to take another very, very quick break. Reaction is pouring in.

We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:53:30] BLITZER: We're back with our analysts. We're following the breaking news.

The president opening himself up to a lot more criticism tonight after an angry defense of his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, returning to his initial claim that both sides are to blame.

We just got a statement in from John Kasich, the Republican governor of Ohio. There is no moral equivalency to Nazi sympathizers. There could be no room in America, or the Republican Party for racism, anti- Semitism, hate or white nationalism, period.

A strong statement, Rebecca, from the Ohio governor.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And we're seeing statements like that from Republicans across the board, Wolf. We did over the weekend when the president, they felt, did not go far enough in his statement. Now, we're seeing this again.

You know, we talk a lot about the political polarization in this country right now and it's a real issue. But President Trump against all odds is uniting the parties, maybe not in the way he wanted, though, because he is uniting Republicans and Democrats who say he is not doing a good job of responding to this. We're seeing that across the board.

BLITZER: And no vote of confidence for his chief strategist Steve Bannon, David. Listen to this exchange.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Look, I like Mr. Bannon. He's a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late, you know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries.

Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that. I like him. He's a good man. He is not a racist.

[18:55:00] I can tell you that. He's a good person. He actually gets a very unfair in that regard.

But we'll see what happens with Mr. Bannon. But he's a good person and I think the press treats him, frankly, very unfairly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: It sounds like Steve Bannon is almost gone, David Swerdlick.

SWERDLICK: It's about a half of a throw under the bus, Wolf.

Look, what's the priority for the president there in those remarks clearly is to take away credit from Steve Bannon, for the role that he played in helping President Trump get elected. If I can just go back to Governor Kasich and to what Rebecca said just a second ago about Republicans. This situation should bother everybody.

But what should particularly bother Republicans is that what you see from the president today doesn't match up with the Republicanism of Calvin Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, the first President Bush. This is unrecognizable from that perspective. And this is who they chose as their leader.

TOOBIN: Wolf, everybody should read Joshua Green's terrific book, "Devil's Bargain", about Bannon's role during the 2016 campaign. And one of the themes of the book is how Bannon integrated the alt-right, the hardcore conservative movement, the people at that rally in Charlottesville into the Trump campaign.

And so the idea, again, that this expression by Donald Trump is some new and terrible and different thing is just not true. Bannon engineered an alliance with the alt-right that is at the core of Donald Trump's appeal. And he won the election.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, you served in the White House for President Obama. If he would have said publically at a news conference about you, he's a good guy. We'll see what happens to Mr. Axelrod, how would you have reacted?

AXELROD: I would have been packing.

But, you know, one thing we know about Donald Trump is a prelude of someone leaving generally is him calling them a good person. Reince Priebus was a good person. Sean Spicer was a good person.

I don't think he thinks being a good person is necessarily that good. But we really need a good person as president right now and, you know, a lot of people are questioning or maybe not questioning whether we have one. A good person, a good president would stand up in the face of hatred now and say, we as a country are going to stand as one against it and that's clearly not what he's doing.

BORGER: No, he's not doing and the question is, and, you know, Rebecca is talking about Republicans now sending tweets, et cetera, et cetera. Who is going to lead the Republican Party? We were talking about this in the last hour. Is Mike Pence going to come out and say something? Who now can lead the Republican Party in opposition to Donald Trump

that will actually have an impact here? And we don't -- you know, we don't have an answer to that question.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody standby for a moment. I want to quickly get an update on the actual situation unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia, right now, and the police investigation.

Our Brian Todd is on the scene for us.

Brian, what is the very latest?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, some real frustration on the part of city officials here in Charlottesville. We've been speaking to them all day. The frustration is because after all of that violence in the streets behind me on Saturday, they have made only a total of five arrests. Five people taken into custody and charged and that includes the chief suspect in the car strike, James Alex Fields with his second-degree murder charge. They arrested only four other people on things like disorderly conduct, assault and battery, carrying a concealed weapon.

They are very frustrated, they are looking for the public's help tonight and we have videotape of a horrific beating, in which they are also looking for the public's health, this young African-American man and some of his friends, this man named DeAndre Harris (ph), was just beaten almost senseless by a group of white supremacists in a parking garage not far from where I am.

I talk to a friend of DeAndre Harris (ph) today. He said he thought that DeAndre Harris was going to die. And they are still looking for some of the people who committed this act against DeAndre Harris.

I talked to a city official. She said we have seen this videotape. We want people to come forth with some other videotape, pictures, other things, the incidents like this.

They are looking for the public's help, Wolf. They are desperate for it, only five arrests. The chief of police, Al Thomas, said last night, he said we're still receiving additional reports of additional assaults. He's concerned that a lot of these people struck and melted into the crowd and they're concerned tonight as well, Wolf, that a lot of these people who committed the violence have taken off and are a long way away from Charlottesville. It's going to be hard to track some of them down.

BLITZER: But there is a lot of video, right, Brian? They got a lot of video evidence.

TODD: There is a lot of video. But again, I spoke to a city official just today who said, look, we need more. We need more people coming forward with pictures, with video, with their witness accounts. We need more complaints to be filed.

They really desperately need the public's help. They are incredibly frustrated, Wolf. Only five arrests. BLITZER: Brian Todd on the scene for us in Charlottesville. A very dramatic developments indeed.

That's it for me. To all of our viewers, thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.