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At Least 13 Dead, Dozens Injured in Barcelona Terror Attack; ISIS Claims Barcelona Attackers as Its 'Soldiers'; Two Top GOP Senators Question Trump's Competency, Moral Authority. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired August 17, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


TAPPER: ... for "THE LEAD." Jake Tapper signing off. Turning you over to Wolf Blitzer next door.

[17:00:11] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Terror on the street. A van plows into pedestrians in a busy Barcelona neighborhood in a horrifying attack directly in front of a hotel housing an American college basketball team. At least 13 people are dead. Scores more are injured. And now, there's word of another vehicle plowing into police at a checkpoint.

International manhunt. At least two people have been arrested following the Barcelona attack, and terror investigators are now searching for more amid reports the suspects may have been trying to reach a getaway car. Now ISIS is calling the attackers its soldiers. Are they part of a terror network plotting more strikes?

Getting history wrong. President Trump tweets a debunked story about an American general executing terrorists more than a century ago, a fake anecdote he also used on the campaign trail. But the president's facts aren't only wrong; his take away from the false legend is what one historian calls ridiculous.

And changing the subject. With President Trump increasingly isolated and under fire, he lashes out at Republican senators critical of him and tweets in defense of Confederate monuments. But the pressure on the president is growing by the hour. How will he respond to GOP lawmakers now openly questioning his competence and his moral authority?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. A horrific scene in the top tourist area of Barcelona, Spain. A van rams through crowds of people on the city's famous Las Ramblas pedestrian mall, killing at least 13 and injuring 100 others.

Spanish officials were quick to call it a terror attack. And a short time ago, ISIS called the perpetrators its soldiers. Two people have been arrested, and right now police are searching for more possible suspects.

And moments after the attack, a driver ran over two police officers at a nearby security checkpoint. It's not clear whether the incident is related to the carnage in Barcelona, but officials now say that vehicle, the vehicle that hit the police officers, is being searched for explosives.

President Trump was quick to call events in Barcelona terrorism, a label he was reluctant to use regarding the deadly car attack in Charlottesville by a white supremacist. The president is facing sharp criticism for his reaction to that violence, with a growing number of Republican senators rebuking him.

Bob Corker of Tennessee says Mr. Trump has not demonstrated, quote, "the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to be successful." And South Carolina's Tim Scott just called the president's equivocation of neo-Nazis and protestors opposed to them "indefensible," adding that President Trump's moral authority has been unquestionably compromised.

We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Ben Cardin. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

But let's begin with a deadly terror attack right in the heart of one of Europe's most popular tourist destinations. CNN's Tom Foreman is working this story for us.

Tom, a very, very grim scene in Barcelona.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf. Think about this. It's about 5 p.m. in the evening on one of the great boulevards of the world where literally thousands of people are relaxing, and the horror begins to unfold.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN (voice-over): Police and rescue squads rushing to the scene, searching for the terrorist. Dozens of people on the ground, victims of the ferocious attack and those trying to help them. This was the horrific picture just moments after witnesses say a white van suddenly turned and barreled down Las Ramblas, a popular pedestrian walkway in the Catalan capital, jammed with restaurants, shops, and tourists from all over the world. According to eyewitnesses, the van raced along at close to 50 miles an hour, clearly targeting people for a third of a mile.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

GRAPHIC: It's really awful. Children and everyone. Mothers and small children in Las Ramblas.

SUSAN MACLEAN, WITNESS (via phone): All of a sudden there was this tidal wave of people running towards us, and they were hysterical. It wasn't just a small number. It was a large number of people. Children were screaming. There was clearly a lot of distress.

FOREMAN: The panicked rush for safety had local police at one point referring to a mass trampling.

And it wasn't over yet. When the van finally crashed, other witnesses say two armed men jumped out. U.S. officials say local authorities believe the men were trying to reach a getaway vehicle, but instead ran into a restaurant.

[17:05:10] JOHN BOFILL, WITNESS (via phone): The police were saying that, that go away, there's like an armed man. Run away, because you cannot be here.

FOREMAN: ISIS issued a statement claiming the perpetrators are soldiers of the Islamic State but has not explicitly claimed responsibility for the attack.

Amid the confusion, shock and suffering, a few witnesses reported hearing shots. And as police led some to safety, others were told they had to stay put and await evacuation, even as the investigation, the manhunt, and the agony roared around them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: Police now say there never was a standoff at that restaurant where people ran in. We don't know for sure if there ever were gunshots, although people say they heard them. And we don't know what happened at that police barricade.

So Wolf, as we go deep into the night there in Spain, there are many, many, many questions still unanswered. All we know is, once again, terrorists have struck in the most dreadful way.

BLITZER: Terrible. Terrible indeed.

All right. Thanks very much, Tom Foreman, for that.

Let's bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto. He's also working the story for us.

Jim, you have some new reporting on ISIS's presence in Barcelona?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This is coming from Fernando Reinares. He's the head of the Global Terrorism Center in Spain; formerly with the interior ministry there, going back more than a decade.

He says that there have been previous arrests of ISIS operatives in Barcelona, one earlier this year that was widely reported in April. But also in 2015, some 13 ISIS operatives arrested in Spain, several of them in Barcelona, disrupting a plot targeting Barcelona, markets, like the one we saw attacked today, but also police stations with explosives.

So today's -- if it turns out to be, indeed, an ISIS directed or inspired plot -- would be the first successful ISIS attack in Spain, but not the first attempt at it, a presence there that is deep, that authorities have been aware of and that they've been trying, and with some success until today, trying to put a lid on. BLITZER: You know, we're getting more information even as we speak

right now, Jim. We're now told that one person was killed in an explosion in a house in Catalonia in an incident that police -- in an incident connected to the Barcelona van attack. This according to to the Catalan interior ministry. This was an explosion that actually occurred last night, we're told, Jim. The victim is Spanish, apparently was not on police radar.

But once again, one person was killed in an explosion in a house in Catalonia last night. And police suspect this was, in fact, connected to the van assault that killed all of those people today. There seems to be a bigger plot here.

SCIUTTO: No question. Well, first of all, the scale of the attack itself, one having multiple attackers, multiple vehicles, and just the success at getting onto that busy thoroughfare indicated,, certainly, some planning. And typically with these attacks, there's a network, if indeed this explode last night is connected to this leads you to believe that police were aware of something going on here. It's possible that those arrests yesterday might have accelerated plans. We don't know.

Of course, you had another incident that followed this attack, where someone rammed a police checkpoint here. And often you will see this happen after attacks, as well, as they begin to seek out how far that network extends.

I'll tell you this, Wolf. I spoke to a security source who went to Barcelona a number of weeks ago and profiled the militant community there. And while the numbers are not the same that we have seen in France or in Belgium, still, a very tight community, a very insular one, a very difficult to penetrate one with Pakistani nationals, Moroccans, et cetera, with ties to international terrorist groups. It's a -- it's a strong presence there and clearly a powerful presence, as well.

BLITZER: We're also getting word from one Catalan police official who says one of those arrested is Moroccan. The other is a Spaniard. We don't know how many more suspects, potentially, are out there, do we?

SCIUTTO: No, we don't. And this is, again, you saw this with Paris. You saw this with the Brussels attack, that oftentimes, they only discover the expanse of the network after a number of operations and arrests following that attack. And -- and in almost case, that network turns out to be much bigger than just the actual perpetrators of the attack, as we saw today.

BLITZER: Certainly did. All right, Jim Sciutto. I know you're working your sources. We'll get back to you.

I want to continue our coverage of the breaking news with Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Wolf, it's good to be with you. Thank you.

BLITZER: All right. So compared to other European countries like France or Britain or Belgium, Spain hasn't been a frequent target of foreign terrorism, at least in recent years. Is that threat shifting?

[17:10:14] CARDIN: Well, I think it's definitely -- there's vulnerability throughout Europe, vulnerability in the United States. I think what we are seeing here in Spain, we just don't have enough information yet, but it looks like it was a coordinated effort, not one isolated incident. And that should be a major concern as to what type of intelligence information we have about planning of activities in Spain and other countries of Europe.

BLITZER: As you know, as ISIS has been losing ground on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria this year, many experts were deeply concerned that the jihadists would quietly move back into Europe and elsewhere and plan attacks for this summer. Are we beginning to see that fear come to fruition?

CARDIN: Well, first, we've got to determine whether this was coordinated through ISIS operatives or whether this was self- radicalization. We don't know that, whether this was a planned attack in Barcelona or whether it was just self-radicalization of people in the country.

In any event, it's something that we need to protect against and clearly, we see a spreading of this type of activity. So it has to be a high priority for us to counter these types of activities. It's tragic. Our prayers go out for the victims, and we are in solidarity with Spain and fighting this type of terrorism.

BLITZER: President Trump quickly reacted to the attack in Barcelona with this tweet, and I'll read it to you, Senator: "The United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, and we'll do whatever is necessary to help. Be tough and strong. We love you."

As you know, he was sort of reluctant to apply the terrorism label to the car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was allegedly carried out by a white supremacist who's now under arrest. Why do you think there's a difference?

CARDIN: Wolf, you cannot explain what the president has done in the last couple days here in the United States with white supremacists and neo-Nazis participating in Virginia, and he says there's multiple sides to the tragedy. There was not. We needed moral clarity from the president. He needed to be strong in condemning the neo-Nazis and white supremacists. He was not, and it was an opportunity to to bring our country together; and the president just failed.

BLITZER: And just a little while after that initial tweet on the Barcelona terror attack, the president tweeted again in reaction to today's attack. He said this: "Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more radical Islamic terror for 35 years."

Presumably, Senator, the president was resurrecting what is clearly known as a debunked anecdote that he used to tell out on the campaign trail last year, describing an incident where General Pershing used bullets, supposedly dipped in pig's blood, to kill Muslim terrorists during the aftermath of the Philippine-American War. Multiple fact checkers, historians have argued that such an incident never happened. I wonder if I could just get your reaction.

CARDIN: Well, fake news is fake news, and it doesn't make a difference how many times you tell it; it's a lie. And the president should absolutely -- this is outrageous that he would have continued to repeat this, which is clearly wrong.

BLITZER: Ben Rhodes, the former national security advisor to President Obama, had this to say about the president's tweet: "Trump is using made-up events to support atrocities against Muslims. He is doing grave damage to U.S. standing, literally and seriously."

As you know, the United States, Senator, relies on a coalition of nations, many of them majority Muslim, by the way, to carry out the fight against ISIS. Do tweets like this endanger that international effort?

CARDIN: Absolutely. America's strength is in our ideals, our values. Our values of supporting diversity, of recognizing the value of all people, of good governess, anticorruption, fighting against human rights violations.

And when the president makes these comments, he divides us. He loses our moral standing, where we need the support of countries around the world -- Muslim countries, all countries -- to fight these extremists. And America's compromised when the president of the United States makes those types of comments. It certainly puts us at greater risk. There's no question about it.

BLITZER: We're getting more breaking news, Senator, including word now that the two suspects who have been arrested, one Spaniard, one Moroccan. Neither was the driver of the van that plowed into that -- that street where all those pedestrians had gathered, killing so many people.

We're going to follow the breaking news. Senator, I want you to stand by. We have much more on the Barcelona terror attack right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:19:38] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news that's coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Spanish authorities are now releasing new details about today's deadly terror attack in Barcelona. I want to quickly go back to our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto.

Jim, you're getting new information. What are you learning?

SCIUTTO: That's right, Wolf. Multiple developments just in the last few minutes. The first is that the two arrests that police have made since this

horrible attack, they're saying that they were related to the attack, but crucially, neither was the driver of that van. So, police facing a situation here where the driver behind all those deaths there with this vehicular attack still not in police custody. That is one development.

Another development. Police now saying that last night, prior to this attack, there was a police operation in which one person, a suspect, was killed in an explosion. And police are saying that that person, that explosion, was related to today's attack. So, police were on to something here, a network, people tied to this attack today in Barcelona before it happened. Again, an explosion last night, a suspect killed, somehow tied, though police not detailing, to the attack that took place today.

Now in addition to that, a third development. You'll remember that in the hours after this attack, there was another incident where a car rammed police at a police checkpoint. The policeman injured, not killed. That person killed, that suspect killed in that altercation, but police not saying yet whether they know there was a connection between that incident and this attack.

So again as always with these terrorist attacks in the hours that follow, rapid developments; police doing their best to find the entire network behind this attack, and they haven't done that yet. They've found some. They haven't done it yet. And crucially, the driver still on the loose.

BLITZER: Yes, the manhunt continues. All right. Thanks very much. Jim Sciutto, I want you to stand by. We're going to continue to monitor all these late-breaking developments.

But there's other news that's breaking right now, including some sharp new criticism by Republican senators of President Trump's handling of the deadly and racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Senator Bob Corker now says the president has not demonstrated the stability or the competence to be successful. And Senator Tim Scott just said the president's moral authority has been unquestionably compromised by his equivocation of white supremacists and protesters opposed to them.

We're back with Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We're going to talk about all of that, Senator, in just a moment.

But first, I want to get more from our White House correspondent, Sara Murray, who's with us. Sara, the divide between the president and an increasing -- an increasing number of Republicans, top Republicans, is growing.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's right, Wolf. The president is really on a political island after he made those comments, essentially equivocating [SIC] neo-Nazis with the people who were protesting against them. So today, President Trump is responding by lashing out at members of his own party.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: President Trump, already isolated after his controversial comments about Charlottesville, is driving the wedge even further. Today Trump cheered on a challenger to Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a Trump critic, tweeting, "Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake, Jeff Flake, who is weak on borders, crime, and a nonfactor in Senate. He's toxic."

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Can you see me?

MURRAY: And he took aim at South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, saying, "Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is moral equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists and people like Ms. Heyer. Such a disgusting lie. He just can't forget his election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember."

But Trump has suggested there's little difference between white supremacists and liberal protesters.

TRUMP: I think there's blame on both sides, you look at -- you look at both sides, I think there's blame on both sides. And I have no doubt about it.

MURRAY: Today, hidden from view, but active on Twitter, Trump fanned the flames of debate over the civil war and white identity politics.

Turning the argument away from his own comments, the president is embracing statues commemorating the confederacy: "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can't change history. But you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson -- who's next? Washington? Jefferson? So foolish. The beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns, and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced."

The president's apparent embrace of Confederate history and culture comes less than 24 hours after his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, told a reporter for "The American Prospect," "The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got them. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats."

Bannon, the former editor of the right-wing website Breitbart, also downplayed his role in elevating the far right, saying, "Ethno- nationalism, it's losers. It's a fringe element." And adding, "These guys are a collection of clowns."

The majority of Americans, 55 percent, said they disapproved of the president's response to Charlottesville, according to a new CBS News poll. But among Republicans, the reaction was flipped. Sixty-seven percent said they approved of the president's response. Just 22 percent said they disapproved. [17:25:19] In one of the sharpest criticisms of Trump yet, GOP Senator

Bob Corker said energizing the base isn't an excuse for fueling polarization and called for radical changes in the White House.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: The president has not yet -- has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now after questioning the president's competence, Senator Corker went on to say the president doesn't seem to understand the character of this nation. Pretty shocking criticism from someone who was, at one point, under consideration to be President Trump's VP, Wolf.

BLITZER: There's another development as we know. Yesterday, the president under pressure, because so many members were bolting in protest to what his reaction was to what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Manufacturing Council, the Strategy and Policy Forum. Now a third council also going away.

MURRAY: That's right. Business executives were fleeing President Trump yesterday. Today the White House put out a statement saying, essentially, "We were in the process of forming an infrastructure council. We are abandoning that effort now." They didn't give a reason, but Wolf, you can imagine it's probably difficult to get people to sign on publicly to anything like that involving President Trump at this moment.

BLITZER: Very important developments indeed. Very embarrassing for the White House, as well. Sara Murray reporting, thanks very much.

Let's get back to Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

Your chairman, you just heard your chairman, Bob Corker, say -- and I'll just repeat it once again. He said, "The president has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to be successful. I said President Trump has not demonstrated he understands the character of this nation."

He's a Republican. He's your chairman. How remarkable is a statement like that from a Republican leader in the Senate, as far as the Republican president of the United States?

CARDIN: Well, I think quite clearly, you know, I heard the White House say that Democrats are focused on race. We're not focused on race. We're focused on American values. And Republicans are focusing on American values.

So what Senator Corker said, I think, reflects the fact that there shouldn't be a partisan division when we talk about America's strength and our values. And what the president did in the last 48 hours was clearly a wrong; it was clearly a loss of the moral clarity. And I think Senator Corker understood that, and that's what he was referring to.

Senator Corker and I work very closely together, a Democrat and Republican, on foreign policy issues. Because we know we're stronger when we speak with a united voice. I think that's true also on these types of fundamental values.

BLITZER: In a statement, Senator Corker also said he hopes the president will engage in some self-reflection. His word, "self- reflection." Do you hold out hope that the president actually wants to change the way he does things?

CARDIN: You know, I can't speak for the president. I'm always surprised and disappointed by what he has done in regards to these issues in the last 48 hours.

I do know that the American people want Democrats and Republicans to join together and to speak out on behalf of America. And I think that's where Senator Corker has given us hope that we can find Democrats and Republicans who will join together and urge this White House to understand that the president must speak with moral clarity. And he did not do that in Virginia.

BLITZER: While he was tweeting this morning, the president also went after Republican senators Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham on Twitter. How isolated do you believe the president is right now?

CARDIN: Well, we could also add Mitch McConnell and his comments about Senator McConnell and Senator McCain. The list goes on and on and on. If you disagree with the president, particularly if you are a Republican, he's going to show his wrath.

He demonstrates the classic problems of a bully. He tries to act and is acting as a bully. And that should have no place in the White House, should have no place in our country. And it is, I think, extremely disappointing in the way that he conducts himself with people who disagree with him.

BLITZER: Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, thanks so much for joining us.

CARDIN: Wolf, it's good to be with you, thanks.

BLITZER: And to our viewers, we're going to continue to get updates on the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, today. ISIS now claiming responsibility. Are there more suspects on the loose right now?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:34:34] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following multiple breaking stories right now. ISIS claiming responsibility for today's terror attack in Spain. At least 13 people are dead. At least 100 others are injured after a van mowed down pedestrians in Barcelona. Police now say the driver of the van escaped. Also breaking, President Trump's continuing series of messages on social media, apparently met to shift the focus away from his off-the-rails news conference earlier in the week. We have lots to discuss with our specialists. Let's begin with Paul Cruickshank. Paul, ISIS has claimed that the

attackers were soldiers of the Islamic State. So, why go after this particular target in Spain heavily, heavily populated by tourists from around the world?

[17:35:00] PAUL CRUICKSHANK, EDITOR IN CHIEF, CTC SENTINEL: Well, Wolf, the first thing to say is they provided no proof that they were actually behind this or connected to this attack in any way. They put out false claims before notably after the Manila casino attack which ended up being nothing to do with ISIS. So, we'll have to see whether there is a nexus back to ISIS here. But if there is in some way, then this is a really international target. You think of Las Lambras, they're Americans, they're French, they're Germans, Dutch, people from countries involved in the anti-ISIS coalition in a bigger way that Spain is at the moment. So, this is an attack not just on Barcelona, not just on Spain, but on the entire international community. If it is indeed linked back to ISIS as ISIS claims.

We're hearing some very troubling details, Wolf, including about this house explosion, the night before the attack in the local area, which killed one person, injured another person. That brings up the possibility that this cell were planning some kind of bomb attack and then switched to plan B after some kind of mishap. We're waiting to hear more from Spanish authorities about that. But certainly, any time you hear about an explosion in a residence, that brings up the responsibility of explosives of some kind of bomb-making being involved. Worrying that there could be others still out there, they don't appear to have the perpetrator in custody at this point. And so, they're on red alert right now.

BLITZER: And we do know that police suspected that explosion the night before at that house was connected to the individuals who were involved in the car ramming, killing those pedestrians in Barcelona. I want you to stand by, I want to bring in Phil Mudd whose been looking closely at all of this. Phil, take us inside this investigation right now. What are officials in Spain looking for, how specific are they? What kind of help are they getting from the U.S.?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Wolf, this is a race right at the -- at the outset for the simple reason there are people involved in this conspiracy and they're still out on the streets. They know they're going down in a day or two or three days, and they may act. So, what you're doing initially is talking to the people in custody and asking simple questions. Question one, is there imminent threat, is there another operation launched. Question two, I want names and addresses, e-mail addresses, geographic addresses out of departments. I want to know who else was involved. Wolf, if they don't speak, they're still going to offer clues. If they got a driver's license, that's an address. If they got a fingerprint, I'm going to go to that address and say, are there fingerprints other than theirs at that apartment? That tells me there are conspirators out there.

One final point in terms of your comment on the American involvement and other intelligence agencies, very simple, that's data. As soon as you get a name, a phone number, an e-mail address, security services around the world are going to cooperate with the Spaniards and that's ask simple questions like, do we have indications that person travelled? Do we have indications they ever communicated with an ISIS member in Syria. Right now, Wolf, bottom line is the information explosion is happening.

BLITZER: Yes, a lot of Americans presumably were there in that area as well, visiting Barcelona, including six American University College basketball teams were in that area as well. Let's hope all of them are OK. One more thing, Phil, we're just getting word that the van driver in this terror attack fled the vehicle, police say they're still searching for him. There's no evidence he was armed. Quote, the driver abandoned the van and escaped from the area. The police chief in Barcelona said, he went out to say, witnesses did not see a weapon on the driver as he fled. So what does that say to you that the driver is now -- remains at large?

MUDD: Given me one clue here, Wolf, there's a simple calculus I look at in the initial stages of these investigations, and that is we've seen two things that are important, numbers of people. As soon as you see a lone Wolf, I start to ask questions about whether that person operated in a basement, an even simple questions about their mental capacity. A lot of lone wolves I see are not very mentally capable.

As you see a conspiracy of this size, the likelihood that this conspiracy, I think, reaches out of Spain has increased. And the fact that they even have a getaway plan is a clue. A lot of these people, if they're simple, are just focused on the operation and not thinking as much about how to get away. I think we're going to find more links in this case.

BLITZER: You know, Gloria, the President initially tweeted this, and I'll put it up on the screen. "United States condemns the terror attack in Barcelona, Spain, and we'll do whatever is necessary to help be tough and strong, we love you." That came within a few hours of the terror attack. Contrast that to his reaction to the attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he was very reluctant to brand it as an act of terror.

[17:40:04] GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: He was. I mean, in his first tweet after that, he said, we all must be united and condemn all that hate stands for, there's no place for this kind of violence in America. Let's come together as one. And we all know what occurred in the days after culminating in the press conference on Tuesday, where he made it, you know, if you want to call it terrorism, call it terrorism, call it murder, whatever. He still -- it was sort of suggested by somebody, is this domestic terrorism, and then he responded to it. Clearly, it's not as clear-cut for this President to call this terrorism as it was in Barcelona.

BLITZER: His second tweet on what happened in Barcelona, Chris Cillizza, was very specific, he said this, study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more radical Islamic terror for 35 years. He was recycling something he often said during the campaign, a debunked anecdote. I want you to listen to actually what he said in February of last year.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 50 terrorists who did tremendous damage and killed many people. And he took the 50 terrorists and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pig's blood. You heard that, right? He fit -- he took 50 bullets and he dipped them in pig's blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people, and the 50th person, he said, you go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for 25 years, there wasn't a problem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: He was referring to -- when he alleged was General Pershing's behavior.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & EDITOR-AT-LARGE: OK. A couple of things, one, he says 25 years (INAUDIBLE) he says 35 years in this tweet. That's the least of the problems with this though. Historians, which, you know, I'm sure Donald Trump may not trust, but historians who FYI cover history and write about it, say that there's very little evidence that it happened the way it did. That is concerning, though frankly, if you don't know that Donald Trump has a casual relationship with the truth at this point, you haven't been paying attention. If this is what teaches you that, I should think the more concerning thing here is, Wolf, what he thinks this represents, that he thinks this is the right response.

Remember, this is someone back again during the campaign when asked about waterboarding, say waterboarding is the least of what I'm going to do to these people. I mean, you know, just blowing the whole torture debate out of the water. He is under the impression that this makes him tough and that it differentiates him from the people who have gone before him, most notably, Barack Obama. That this shows that he will be tough with these people. The reason that ISIS exists in his mind is because Barack Obama was not tough enough on terrorism. He will be. He views this as a way to make good on that. I'm quite skeptical that it will work, but that's what he's doing there.

BLITZER: You know, when the President tried to explain, Peter (INAUDIBLE) his initially tepid response to what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, he said he wanted to wait for all of the facts to come in because he was -- wanted to be very precise, he wanted to make sure he had all the facts. The day he recycles this gruesome legend that has been widely debunked, how do you explain that?

PETER: Right. That's how you know that his claim about Charlottesville was bogus because Donald Trump is rarely, if ever, measured and careful about the facts. That's just not who he is. And just to add to what Chris Cillizza says, not just that this is false, if it were true, it would have been a war crime. It would have been an atrocity to kill 49 POWs. So, you're boasting not only about something that didn't happen, but something, you know, if it did happen, would have been a mark of shame in American history. In -- let's remember, a Philippines war that was a war of American colonialism against Filipinos struggling for their independence. So, what message exactly does that send to the Muslim world?

First of all, that we believe in war crimes against Muslims, and secondly, that we believe in colonialism. That's a great message to send when you're fighting a war against ISIS.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask, Phil Mudd, what is the message this kind of anecdote, false anecdote, sends to America's allies in the Muslim world? There has to be a very close relationship in fighting ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terror organizations.

MUDD: Well, there's messages on two levels. There's a political message, I saw leaders from the Republican and Democratic side, the best leaders when the kitchen gets hot, they turn down the temperature. The President is making an amateur move. The kitchen's hot, he turns the temperature up. Regarding allies, let me make a practioner's comment. The President's comments are amateurish from a practioner's perspective.

[17:44:55] Simple reason, when you see a situation like this, your first question is what does the adversary want? In this case, the adversary is ISIS, they want to grab your attention. What did the President just tell them and tell our allies overseas? One terror incident and the President says in the midst of all the problems I've got, you grabbed my attention. You've got to tell the adversary, do whatever you want, we'll respond, but we got higher priorities and you are chump change. He just told them that they grabbed his attention. That's an amateur move.

BLITZER: Paul Cruickshank, very quickly, does it fuel ISIS propaganda?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, these are very offensive words, Wolf, very inflammatory words. And, of course, it fuels ISIS propaganda, but it also puts Americans at risk overseas, around the world. And this kind of inflammatory statement only increases the motivation for extremists to launch attacks against Americans. And I can tell you the kind of terrorism officials here in the United States, the people putting themselves in harm's way are deeply disturbed by what has been said.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stick around, we have much more on the breaking news. The latest on today's terror attack, at least 13 people are dead and 100 are injured. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:45] BLITZER: We're monitoring developments in the wake of today's deadly terror attack in Spain. It's just one of the topics showing up on President Trump's social media feed in an effort to change the subject after his off-the-rails news conference, the President also is sending messages defending confederate monuments. CNN's Brian Todd is joining us now with the latest. The President, Brian, seems to be stoking a nationwide controversy right now.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, he is stoking a controversy that has taken off and accelerated since the Charlottesville violence. Tonight, we're dealing with fallout from the President's latest tweets on confederate monuments, as cities around the U.S. scramble to deal with protests, vandalism, and the removal of statues.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: In Durham, North Carolina, this week, a statue of a confederate soldier in place since 1924 is pulled down by protesters. In that same city today, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee on Duke University campus is vandalized. In Baltimore, Wednesday, four monuments to the Confederate-era are taken down in darkness, overnight, on orders from the mayor. She says, it's in the interest of public safety following this.

The street violence in Charlottesville, resulting in a young woman's death. Tonight, analysts say that event and President Trump's pronouncements out of it, have taken an uncomfortable American predicament to a new level.

DOUGLAS BLACKMON, SENIOR FELLOW, UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA MILLER CENTER: The debate over the Confederate monument has accelerated unimaginably.

TODD: Fuelled by President Trump's controversial handling of the aftermath in Charlottesville. Today, the President tweeting, "Sad to see history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments." What culture is he referring to? So far, the White House hasn't explained.

BLACKMON: I can't say for certain what President Trump is referring to when he says, culture, but I think we can probably infer that it is something that I heard as a boy growing up in a little town in the Mississippi delta, segregationists who were coming out and saying, no, we can't have black kids and white kids attending school together because it will destroy the culture of the south, it will destroy a way of life.

TODD: President Trump have seized on the events in Charlottesville to make a case that hits at white identity politics.

TRUMP: George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington lose his status? Are we going to take down -- excuse me. Are we going to take down -- are we going to take down statues to George Washington?

TODD: President Trump also tweeted today, "You can't change history but you can learn from it." Is there merit to that argument? Pulitzer Prize-winning author Douglas Blackmon says it's more complicated than that.

BLACKMON: They are not memorials to the confederacy, they are expressions of white southerners messages in 1910s, the 1920s, when they wanted to make it very clear to black Americans that they were never going to be able to vote, they were never going to have access to the courts, they were never going to be real citizens.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Blackmon predicts there will be more confrontations in America over confederate monuments and he says politicians in the south, may start to take legal action, banning the removal of those monuments. That's already happening in Alabama tonight. Birmingham's Mayor has ordered the covering of a confederate monument, but Alabama's Attorney General is now suing the city for violating an act that protects those monuments -- Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian, this controversy also has made its way to Washington, where we are, and the halls of Congress.

TODD: That's right, Wolf, there are actually 10 confederate statues inside the U.S. Capitol. Democratic Senator Cory Booker says he is going to introduce a bill to remove those statues. He calls the presence of them there painful.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, thanks very much. The breaking news coming up, a deadly terror attack in Barcelona, Spain. We're learning new information about two suspects now in custody. Are they ISIS soldiers as the terror group claims? Plus, Republican Senators criticizing President Trump's handling of the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Can his tweets change the subject?

[17:54:32] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Van terror attack, a vehicle turned into a deadly weapon once again plowing into crowds of innocent people, more than a dozen killed in a major international city with an American College basketball team, some players among the tourists nearby. Search for suspects. New arrests tonight and an argent manhunt, the van driver is still on the loose right now. ISIS claiming its soldiers are behind the carnage and the terror.