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Trump's Afghanistan Strategy; Trump's Charlottesville Response; Monument's Debate in the Country; Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired August 22, 2017 - 12:00   ET


[12:00:00] MANU RAJU, CNN HOST: Campaign-style rally. But last night the venue, very different. A military base for a new military policy to win America's longest war. What's clear, relaxed rules for commanders. A direct challenge to an unruly ally. And democracy is not part of the mission. But still unsettled, if the president thinks you deserve the answer to this question, how many more Americans' sons and daughters will be sent to Afghanistan?


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.


RAJU: While fog hovering over the future for U.S. troop, the president still sounds an awful lot like the past.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check.

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT: This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over.

TRUMP: From now on, victory will have a clear definition.

OBAMA: As your commander in chief, I owe you a mission that is clearly defined.


RAJU: And where other Republicans see equivocation on neo-Nazis that compromise the president's moral authority and raise questions about his competency, his vice president sees pitch-perfect consistency.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I know this president. I know his heart. And -- and I heard him. I heard him on the day that the Charlottesville tragedy happened, when he denounced hate and violence in all of its forms, from wherever it comes. I heard him on that Monday and I heard him as well on Tuesday, like millions of Americans did, where he condemned the hate and the bigotry that was evidence there.


RAJU: Here to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace of the Associated "Press," "Bloomberg's" Toluse Olorunnipa, and Margaret Talev, and CNN's Nia-Malika Henderson.

This morning, big Republican praise for a hawkish plan. Foreign policy heavies and members of the leadership all have a similar message. President Trump made the right call and now has the right approach. The amens echoing across Republican corridors in Washington signify just how sharply President Trump broke from his own past. The president has long held the belief that the United States should bringing its troops home from Afghanistan, that the war was a waste of money and a hopeless endeavor. He acknowledged as much in a remarkable moment for a president who hates to admit he was wrong.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My original instinct was to pull out. And historically I like following my instincts. But all my life I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.


RAJU: Now, more on the president's mea culpa of sorts in a moment.

But first, just on the address, Julie. I mean there were -- this was meant to provide a new clearer strategy, a way forward. Something that people have been asking for. But it seems like there's still a lot of unanswered questions about what exactly this new strategy is.

JULIE PACE, "THE ASSOCIATED PRESS": There are huge unanswered questioned and it's really surprising actually for an American president to announce a plan that we know from senior officials is going to include increasing the number of troops that are going overseas and to not lay that out clearly. That's just generally something that has been part of a president's responsibility to the American people.

But beyond that, he talked about victory, committing to winning this war, and then gave some pretty broad parameters for what that would entail. And that has been kind of the problem that President Bush and President Obama had had, that the situation in Afghanistan is so complicated. You're dealing with a country that is quite poor, that has corruption, that is really rooted into its government, that has a Taliban that is resurgent now at this point. So how do you define the end game here? The challenge that Trump faced is that pulling out leaves a vacuum. It's really hard to see how that changes in the next couple years.

RAJU: Yes, and also the question is, how many more troops will be sent and whether or not more troops, the 4,000 number, if that is the actual number, will it actually make any difference to what we've seen, as you mentioned, a war that's been dragging on and with no clear signs of victory.

Vice President Mike Pence was on the morning shows this morning. Asked specifically about the troop level numbers. He suggested that they really have not made a decision on that quite yet.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The answer to that, I think, will be based on the conditions on the ground. I think it's yet to the seen. And we'll certainly be making that information available as the president receives recommendations.


RAJU: Toluse, do you expect that the administration is going to have to, at some point, detail how many troops are being sent? The -- to inform the public about what exactly is going on over there?

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, "BLOOMBERG": Well, they are not -- they don't really have a choice because this is something that's eventually going to go before Congress. Members of Congress are going to call hearings. They're going to want to know what the president's plan is and how much it's going to cost. They have the strings of the purse and they'll have the ability to ask questions and figure out what the end game is. The president said yesterday that this is not going to be a time-based approach, it's going to be a conditioned-based approach. And that means that members of Congress are going to know, what are the conditions that would allow us to have a drawdown in Afghanistan? What are the milestones that the president is hoping to reach in order to get to a point where this, America's longest war, can come to an end. And we didn't hear that last night.

[12:05:36] RAJU: Yes. And some members of the foreign policy establishment are praising that approach. Some -- a lot of Republicans are praising that approach. General Michael Hayden also saying that this was a good idea as well, suggesting that keeping this option open of troops is a good idea.

But it was also remarkable to hear the president last night suggest that he -- or say that he thought differently on the campaign trail and coming to this position now because of what he's learned as president. He's -- some of his surrogates, including Nikki Haley, were asked about that this morning. This is how they explained -- she explained the president's change in approach.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: Well, I think that really shows the signs of a president. You know, one thing is to be a candidate and talk about what you think. The other thing is to be a president and talk about what you know. And the facts were put on the table. And he asked all the right questions. And you're going to see a very different approach. Our enemies are no longer going to know what our timeline is. Our enemies are going to -- no longer going to know where we are and how many troops and all of those things.


RAJU: But, Margaret, the -- some of President Trump's allies in the past are not so happy. Breitbart reporting this last night, saying, Trump reverses course. Will send more troops to Afghanistan. They call him a flip-flopper. And also Laura Ingraham, one of President Trump's defenders --


RAJU: Someone who had been considered for a position in the administration at one point said -- tweeted last night, who's going to pay for it? What is our measure of success? We didn't win with 100,000 troops. How will we win with 4,000 more? I thought we were going to drain the swamp in Washington, not clear the desert in Afghanistan.

TALEV: Yes, if you set aside the military and the policy implications for a minute and just look at the politics, this is going to be one of the first major tests of the Trump presidency in the post-Bannon era. And it's only been a couple day. Let's just remind everyone. But, you know, I think we'll see this play out in terms of the approach to Afghanistan, in terms of tax reform, which is to come soon.

But on Afghanistan, this is -- was kind of one of the central premise of the Trump campaign is to focus more on the United States, to stop trying to solve everybody else's problems, that Afghanistan was kind of a losing fight to be in. And although we can look at last night's speech in terms of all the questions it left unanswered, I think this is one of those inside the bubble, outside the bubble things. Inside the bubble, I think President Trump felt he was finally provided clarity after a summer of intense divisions internally at the White House. I mean it's been weeks, maybe even months, since he essentially told Mattis, look, this is going to be your call on how many in that sort of 3,000 to 4,000 range to deploy. Mattis waiting to get some clarity, sign off for the president on his overall policy before making those decisions.

But internally, just tremendous back and forth about what the president was willing to accept. Whether -- I mean this is months ago that the generals wanted to send a few thousand more from a tactical perspective, really not even a strategic perspective, and we're just now getting to that point.

RAJU: And there was a fierce debate within the administration. James Mattis, the secretary of defense, actually a couple months ago, on June 6th, suggested something that essentially was a lot different than what the president suggested last night when the president said, there is some elements of the Taliban where they could potentially reach a deal with, a political settlement with. Now, Mattis addressed this a couple months ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We're up against an enemy that knows that they cannot win at the ballot box. And you think -- we have to sometimes remind ourselves of that reality. That's why they use bombs, because ballots would ensure they never had a role to play. And based upon that foundation, that they cannot win the support, the affection, the respect of the Afghan people.


RAJU: And, Nia, it seems like it just -- it's uncertain what the end game is here for the White House.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: That's right. And, you know, you had Nikki Haley there talk about this is a very different strategy. It's not really that different. A lot of the things they've talked about here, including whether or not the Taliban ends up coming to the table and there's some sort of compromise. That, too, something that has been considered and talked about.

So, you know, I think we will see how much Bannon, Breitbart, Bannon- bart, whatever you want to call it, how much he actually speaks for the base and whether or not Donald Trump actually has the power to change the base's mind on this, because we've seen that in any number of instances where he says something and the base essentially echoes what he says. Even if he tweets something that's not true, sometimes you see in polls some of his supporters actually believe that falsehood.

[12:10:24] So I think we're really going to see sort of how powerful that Bannon wing is, and whether or not that affects what the president says. But also if he sticks to this, right? I mean we've seen this president flip-flop, sort of go along on things and then go back and criticize them later on. So we'll see if he does that.

PACE: And this is going to be a challenge for Trump because we know that he follows his coverage very closely.


PACE: And any time that you're deepening in U.S. commitment to a war, your coverage isn't going to be great.


PACE: Americans generally are war wary at this point. Does President Trump have it in him right now to have day after day out of Breitbart, for example, negative coverage of this decision and to stick with it because he believes ultimately it's the best decision for the country. I don't think we've actually had to see him in that kind of situation yet.

RAJU: Yes, and we know now that this is the president's war. He may not have been for it. He may have suggested they withdraw the troops. But it's clear the president owns this and --

HENDERSON: And even though he is, I think, still trying to get some separation by not announcing how -- the troop levels, I mean he's trying to play coy here and be like, oh, we don't really want to telegraph. But he isn't really, I think, owning it fully by announcing we're putting these troops on the ground, whether it's 4,000 or 3,000.

TALEV: But the troop range that has always been conceived is modest.


TALEV: Not to say that if that is you or your child going off to serve it's -- your life is still on the line very much.


TALEV: But this was always viewed as a modest and a tactical effort to try to hold gains and preserve the space, the ability for the Afghan government to stand up. There are no quick fixes. This was never intended as a quick fix and --

RAJU: Yes, the question is how long will this U.S. engagement be given that this is the country's longest war?

A lot more to discuss ahead.

An update on the U.S. destroyer collision in the Pacific that left ten sailors missing. The Navy confirms divers have discovered some remains inside the compartments aboard the USS McCain. Investigators are working to identify those remains. Ships, divers and plans continue to search the area. It's still uncertain how many sailors remain missing. The collision between the guided missile destroyer and oil tanker happened Monday just east of Singapore. A military official tells CNN the USS McCain lost steering before the collision, though it's unclear why the crew wasn't able to use the backup system onboard. That investigation continues.

Now, up next, the president speaks out again about Charlottesville, while chaos breaks out in the city's council meeting. We'll show you what happened, next.


[12:17:04] RAJU: Moments ago, President Trump boarded Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews. He's headed to Arizona, where he'll first visit the border patrol in Yuma, then later tonight hold a rally in Phoenix. We will bring that speech to you live.

Protestors erupt in Charlottesville again, this time during a heated city council meeting. Watch what happened Monday as council members met for the first time since last week's violent clashes between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators.


CROWD: Blood is on your hands! Blood is on your hands! Blood is on your hands!

(END VIDEO CLIP) RAJU: Protesters slammed city council members for the response to last week's violence. At least three people were arrested. And just another reminder that tensions are still very, very high.

Something that was not lost on President Trump, who opened his address on Afghanistan last night with a call for unity.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The soldier understands what we as a nation too often forget, that a wound inflicted upon a single member of our community is a wound inflicted upon us all. When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together.

When we open our hearts to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice, no place for bigotry, and no tolerance for hate.


RAJU: And this morning, Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley defended the president.


NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNIED NATIONS: I think he clarified the importance of unity. He clarified the fact that there is no room for bigotry in our country.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The president specifically denounced white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK repeatedly. And he did it on -- he did it when he denounced hate and violence on Saturday. He did it in his address to the nation Monday. And he did it again in the press conference Tuesday.


PENCE: There was -- there was no moral equivalency drawn by the president.


RAJU: So Vice President Pence sees consistencies in the president's remarks.

HENDERSON: Yes, I mean -- I mean if there had been consistency, if there had been clarity, Nikki Haley wouldn't have had to have that question asked of her and make that response. Mike Pence wouldn't have had to do that. I mean there hadn't been consistency. There hadn't been clarity. What there has been over these last days is a lot of outrage from Republican and Republican lawmakers.

Newt Gingrich, for instance, who has been Donald Trump's wing man for months and months and months came out and said that he was on an island on this and should have been clearer. Corker, the same thing. So, you know, I mean they're sort of doing cleanup duty. But it's

necessary. But because, as Paul Ryan said last night in our town hall, Donald Trump messed up on this.

RAJU: Yes, and perfect segue. We didn't -- we did not plan this.

[12:20:01] HENDERSON: Thank you. We didn't even plan this.

RAJU: Paul Ryan did address this last night. We have not heard from him speaking about this. He had issued some statements, but that did not actually call out the president by name. The first time he addressed this was last night talking to Jake Tapper.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: It was not only immorally ambiguous, it was equivocating.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: The people who applauded his remarks on Tuesday were David Duke and (INAUDBILE) Spencer (ph).

RYAN: Yes, that's right. That's why I said those remarks -- he messed up on Tuesday. He was right on Monday and he was right just about an hour ago. I think we -- he was wrong on --

TAPPER: When he was reading from the podium?

RYAN: Yes.


RAJU: Do we think that this is going to be enough for Republicans, the fact that the president did make this remark last night but did not actually say the word "Charlottesville." It seems to be enough for Paul Ryan. Do we think this is going to calm the concerns within the party?

OLORUNNIPA: Well, I think Republicans want to move on as quickly as possible from this.


OLORUNNIPA: Clearly they have taken a hit over the last couple of weeks and they realize that it -- it was important for them to distance themselves from the president and make sure that they draw clear lines between what the president said and where their position was on the issue of the KKK and these neo-Nazis. And I think the president gave them a little bit of room last night with his statement, something that they can hold on to and say, this is something that we agree with, that we all need to come together for unity. But if you remember what you just showed with the Charlottesville, the city meeting, it's clear that this is something that has touched a nerve across the country.

HENDERSON: Yes. OLORUNNIPA: There is this debate going on about confederate monuments. This is going to be something that continues on through much of the summer, even as Congress has a number of other things they have to do between now and the end of September.

RAJU: Yes, that's right. And one reason -- it was interesting to see Ryan last night not try to go too far in going after the president. He would not call on him to apologize. But said that he messed up. Despite Jake Tapper pushing him on that issue. And perhaps this is one reason why. '

Take a look at these poll numbers from the -- from ABC News, "Washington Post" yesterday about the president's approval about how he handled the Charlottesville response. Among U.S. adults, just 28 percent approved of the way he handled it, 62 percent, however, of Republicans approved of the way he handled it. Do we think that the -- is this -- do we think Republicans and lawmakers here are seeing, hearing different things back home than what they may be hearing nationally?

PACE: Absolutely. And this is -- this has been the challenge for them consistently with Trump is that, you know, 62 percent of his own party thinks he did OK. That's still not great.


PACE: But it's a pretty loyal chunk of the party that's there. And Republicans look at their own electoral prospects and say, well, if I turn on the president on one issue or many issues, what happens to that group of voters, because I can't win without them either. And it's this constant battle that they're in between how far they can go in distancing him and maintaining the support of Trump's votes. And, increasingly, Trump's voters are kind of OK with turning their backs on the Republican Party as we know it.

RAJU: Right. And then we've seen that all along.

What's also interesting from that poll, talking about people who hold actually neo-Nazi views in this country, nine percent of the country believes that's acceptable. Eighty-three percent believe it's unacceptable.

HENDERSON: That's scary.

PACE: That's amazing.


RAJU: Some people were surprised it's that high. Some people are surprised that that's -- it's that low.

But one of the things, of course, the president said last week was that there was some very fine people who are marching alongside those trying to get rid of the Lee monument in Charlottesville. Today, Mike Pence was asked about the monuments, removing monuments. This is what he said. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Someone who believes in more monuments, not less monuments. What we ought to do is we ought to remember our history. But we also ought to celebrate the progress that we've made since that history.


RAJU: Margaret, do you think this is an issue that the White House wants to be talking about?

TALEV: No. And that's not a general election position, that's a primary position.

I think when you look at the surrogates that the White House has chosen to put out there today, Nikki Haley and Mike Pence, what Nia said earlier is important, this is a signaling to the Republican Party. And these are two people who, if President Trump were not running for re-election, I think we can all argue would most certainly be heavily eyeing their prospects. So -- it's a woman. It's a man. They --

HENDERSON: A woman of color.

TALEV: A woman of color represent different swaths of the country geographically in terms of the Republican Party, but they're both very much Republican Party names and faces. And this is an effort to rally the party together. To keep the establishment of the party as supportive of the president as possible while he continues to figure out how to message to the base in a way that's more politically acceptable.

RAJU: A constant balancing act from the White House and the members of the Republican Party. We've seen this since campaign season. We're going to continue to see it.

More ahead.

Up next, Trump back on the road for a rally tonight in Arizona. Usually an off-teleprompter ritual for the president. Will he stay on message?


[12:29:13] RAJU: Welcome back.

President Trump is back on the trail today and he'll visit the home of two of the most outspoken Senate critics from his own party, and that's in Arizona. His visit starts in Yuma, where Trump will tour a U.S. Customs and Border Protection facility. He'll also meet with U.S. Marines before heading to Phoenix for a nighttime rally that's expected to draw thousands of supporters and protesters. Besides how peaceful it will be, another looming question in the run-up to that event is whether the president will follow-up this tweet with an official endorsement of Senator Jeff Flake's challenger in the GOP primary. CNN asked Flake about that yesterday.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How about the president calling you a non-factor in the Senate and toxic?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Don't -- don't worry about it at all. Going ahead and doing my job.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Is it the president's place to endorse a primary challenger, particularly someone against someone from his own party?

[12:30:07] FLAKE: That's not my realm. That's somebody else's. So I just worry -- I'm running my own campaign.