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Trump Heads to Arizona for Border Town Tour, Campaign Rally; Thousands Expected to Protest Trump Phoenix Rally; Interview with Representative Mark Sanford; NYT: McConnell Questions Whether Trump Can Salvage Presidency; Trump Administration Halts Coal Mining Health Study. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 22, 2017 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:03] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Just hours after his scripted speech about war and unity, will he go back off the rails tonight?

The heat is on. Supporters and opponents of Mr. Trump, they're on the streets of Phoenix right now. They are weighing in on his presidency, his policies and his response to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

We're following the frustration out west as the president ignores an appeal to stay away and feuds with top Republicans.

Still simmering. Charlottesville residents demand answers during an explosive city council meeting. Emotions raw after the racist rally and the president's reaction. Even the House speaker here in Washington now declaring that President Trump messed up.

And changing his view. The president abandons promises to get out of Afghanistan, admitting he's going with the advice of his generals and against his instincts. New reaction tonight as Mr. Trump's policy is attacked by the far-right.

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: We are following breaking news. President Trump returning to campaign mode in Arizona one week after his widely condemned remarks about white supremacists and the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Mr. Trump leaves soon for a rally in Phoenix from Arizona's southern border where he's been meeting with the Marines and Border Protection officials. People are on the streets of Phoenix right now. They are awaiting the president. Thousands are expected to protest his visit, giving President Trump a fresh taste of the Charlottesville backlash. The state's top Republicans will be conspicuously absent tonight amid concerns about what he may say and the state of his presidency.

Also tonight, "The New York Times" report that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell is privately expressing uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration following one crisis after another this summer. Right now Republicans are divided over the president's address to the nation overnight, outlining his new Afghanistan policy. Many mainstream GOP leaders are backing his decision to abandon his past calls to withdraw U.S. forces from America's longest military conflict, but the far-right is fuming, accusing him of supporting unlimited war.

One of his harshest critics, Breitbart News, the right-wing Web site where Mr. Trump's fired chief strategist Steve Bannon is now back at the helm.

This hour I'll talk about those stories and more with Republican Congressman Mark Sanford, and our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior national correspondent Alexander Marquardt. He's in Phoenix at the site of the president's big rally later tonight.

Alex, so what can we expect?

ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the big question is which Trump will show up. Is it the free-wheeling unscripted Trump that these people here, his base loves, or is it the more scripted, on-message, on-teleprompter Trump that we saw last night in the speech on Afghanistan?

The White House is saying very little about what -- the president will actually say, but in the wake of those violent events in Charlottesville, the press secretary saying just a short time ago that we can expect to see more condemnation of hate in all forms.


MARQUARDT (voice-over): President Trump arriving in Arizona tonight for a campaign rally facing angry crowds over his response to the violence in Charlottesville and an escalating feud with a fellow Republican, Senator Jeff Flake.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The American people are weary of war without victory.

MARQUARDT: Tonight's rally comes one day after Monday's more serious and somber primetime address on Afghanistan in which the president reversed course on his repeated calls to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

TRUMP: 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. In other words, when you're president of the United States.

MARQUARDT: Trump has used past campaign events to rally his diminished base, feeding off the crowd, reveling in their support. TRUMP: With the exception of the late great Abraham Lincoln, I can be

more presidential than any president that's ever held this office. That I can tell you.

MARQUARDT: Tonight's rally coming during a particularly tough time. A new poll showing the president's overall approval at 37 percent. And just 28 percent approved of his response to the deadly violence in Charlottesville.

TRUMP: Very fine people on both sides.

MARQUARDT: Monday night House Speaker Paul Ryan told a CNN town hall that Trump, quote, "messed up."

[18:05:01] REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I think he made comments that were much more morally ambiguous, much more confusing. And I do think he could have done better. I think he needed to do better.

MARQUARDT: Today Vice President Mike pence coming to Trump's defense.

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. There was no moral equivalency drawn by the president.

MARQUARDT: That fallout has the potential to get worse if the president follows through on pardoning the deeply controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to stop racially profiling Latinos.

Arpaio tells CNN he was not invited to tonight's rally, but he was a staunch Trump surrogate on the campaign trail.

SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO, MARICOPA COUNTY, ARIZONA: I'll see you again with Donald Trump because once he becomes president. I know he's never going to forget Arizona. He'll be back and I hope to see him as president.

MARQUARDT: Trump also threatening to deepen the divisions in the GOP, engaging in a war of words with Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a staunch critic. Just last week Trump called him "Flake Jeff Flake, who is weak on borders, crime and a nonfactor in Senate. He's toxic."

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: How about the president calling you a nonfactor in the Senate and toxic?

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I don't worry about it at all. I'm going ahead and doing my job.


MARQUARDT: Now in that same tweet that Trump wrote about Flake, he did appear to endorse a challenger in that reelection next year, writing, "Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake." Ward is a former state senator. She will be in the crowd tonight.

As for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, we're told by the White House that no action will be taken on that possible pardon today. Press Secretary Sanders saying in a statement just a short time ago, no action will be taken any time today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Alexander Marquardt reporting for us. He's in Phoenix.

Meanwhile multiple protests are planned in Phoenix for tonight as the president's visit deeply angers his opponents and even some members of his own Republican Party.

Our national correspondent Miguel Marquez following the demonstrations for us.

Miguel, what's the situation where you are right now?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's getting a bit fraught at this point. We have about 10 or 12 different protesters who have come down here to basically be present as the Trump people start to go into the convention center here.

I want to show you a little bit of how these things are happening. If you go up high, these are two people having a heated argument. You have police in there in plain clothes who are trying to do two things. Let them have their First Amendment rights and yell and scream as much as they like, and keep them from getting to anything more in terms of physical violence. It is a very difficult thing for them to do clearly.

There are several groups, anti-Trump groups certainly, but Jewish groups, pro-immigration groups that are gathering at different points in the city. It is likely in the next several hours they will start to come here. Let me show you the individuals who have sort of come down here so far.

These are -- maybe there are now 15 to 20 people who have come down here. They say that they are self-organized and they just want to have a presence here. It did cause some sort of moments with the police down here and with pro-Trump supporters, anti-Trump people, them exchanging very, very heated words.

I can tell you the crowds have also started to go into the convention center now, so that will help keep things at a somewhat less of a fever pitch. The first person in line had been here since 7:00 p.m. last night, almost coming up on 24 hours at this point.

The president isn't expected to be here for several more hours. And for police, they are treating this like a major event. Whether it's the Super Bowl or the World Series, it's all hands on deck. All police agencies are involved here, even the National Guard just in case things get out of hand.

As you know, the mayor here in Phoenix has asked that Donald -- that President Trump not show up here, put off this rally for some time, but he did not do that. And people, I can tell you, Trump supporters have come in from all over the country as well. I met people from Texas, from Florida, from California. They are rallying behind the president -- Wolf.

BLITZER: How many people can fit into that convention center? Looks like thousands are getting ready to begin to enter.

MARQUEZ: There are thousands. Give a look at the line. There are thousands who have been lining up. There will probably be between 15,000 and 20,000 in there by the time it's done. Protesters hope to have up to 10,000, perhaps more protesters, out of the several different protests that they have planned. But it is not clear how this is going to go -- Wolf.

[18:10:02] BLITZER: We're going to stay in very close touch with you. Miguel Marquez on the scene for us in Phoenix. Stand by over there.

In the meantime, let's talk a little bit more about the president's trip with Republican Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.


BLITZER: This is your first interview since President Trump's response to the white supremacists, the protests, the car attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, last week. What did you make of how the president handled the situation?

SANFORD: Well, I think it's been, you know, well stated, and probably overstated at this point. A lot of people were disappointed in his response, that there wasn't immediate condemnation of some of the groups that were, I think, way, way, way out of bounds and any kind of equivalency I think was, again, equally out of bounds.

BLITZER: What would you have wanted the president to say immediately? And all of us recall what happened in Charleston, in your home state when there was a white supremacist who went on a rampage.

SANFORD: Well, what the governor at that time did and what I think a whole host of local leaders did was to immediately condemn what had happened unequivocally, pure and simple say there is no justification. There can no be righting of the ship. What happened was tragic and wrong period, end of story.

And I think if the president had done that in Charlottesville, he would have been applauded for that. There was initially a lag and then there was sort of, well, there were bad folks on both sides. That isn't the time nor the place to go into those kind of subtleties.

I think it was, again, a time to be unequivocal in simply condemning what had happened and condemning racism in any form or fashion.

BLITZER: The president said there were very fine people on both sides. That's the statement that really irritated, angered so many people out there because on the one side there were white supremacists, KKK, neo-Nazis. On the other side there were protesters who opposed those white supremacists.

When you heard those words, very fine people on both sides, Congressman, what was your reaction?

SANFORD: Well, as I just stated, a bit of shock and a bit of disappointment. You know, I attended business school in Charlottesville, Virginia. I have two boys -- one who is there currently, and one who graduated just a couple of years ago from Charlottesville. I put out a Facebook comment and said this is not the Charlottesville I know. And we need to overcome evil with good which I think was the beauty of what happened in the tragedy that occurred here in Charleston, South Carolina, in the wake of the tragic shooting at the local church.

BLITZER: What would you like to see the president say, if anything, about this tonight?

SANFORD: Well, I think he has, you know, backed up and made the vice president stated, a number of different points of condemnation. The problem is it was late. And the problem, again, there was that equivalency component that I think troubled a lot of folks. If he wants to, again, come out with further condemnation, I think it would be a good thing.

I don't know that this is where it's going to fit in given I suspect much of the conversation, in fact, will be about border wall and what happens next on immigration.

BLITZER: A lot of people are wondering why the president decided to hold this campaign rally tonight, this huge campaign rally in Phoenix so quickly after what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Here's the question, Congressman. Does this send the right message about trying to bring the country together?

SANFORD: You know, you can parse these things to, I mean, a fairly crazy level. And so I -- no. In other words, my first reaction would be no, give it a little bit more of a pause. But in fairness, you know, there's been a long-standing promise he made with regard to immigration policy, in particular securing the border. I think that a lot of Republicans, a lot of conservatives would like to see a more secure border.

There was a funding built into the mini bus appropriations bill that was passed in the Congress that would have another 73 miles worth of border wall protection in it. And so, you know, at some point we've got to get onto that conversation. You know, the timing might be a little bit off from my end, but in fairness, there is an important transition in moving forward on a number of issues that I think are going to be very, very important this fall, whether that's on the deficit, whether that's on what comes next and how we fund government prior to the end of the fiscal year, which is September 30th, or indeed what happens next on the border.

BLITZER: But is it appropriate 3 1/2 years before the next presidential election for the president to be out on the campaign trail attending these kinds of huge reelection campaign rallies as he's about to do tonight? A lot of people are wondering why.

SANFORD: The one place I'm not going to try and get is inside Donald Trump's head. And so, in fairness, he's going to do what he's going to do. You know, as a legislator, I've got to simply react to what comes next from a legislative standpoint and it's going to be an awfully busy season come, you know, a couple -- couple of days from now as we get back into session.

[18:15:12] BLITZER: Right after Labor Day you guys got a lot of work to do in September including raising the nation's debt ceiling to make sure the nation's full faith and credit is not undermined.

"The New York Times" has just reported, Congressman, that the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was privately horrified by the president's handling of Charlottesville and the relationship has disintegrated so far that the two haven't spoken in weeks. How damaging is this to the Trump presidency?

SANFORD: I don't know. Wolf, you're asking me to go off on, you know, a private horror, private speculation, private comment. I mean, I don't know what was said. I don't know what wasn't said. I don't want to get into, again, Donald Trump's mind. I don't want to get inside Mitch McConnell's mind.

You know, until they are public about what each is saying about the other, you know, I'll wait and see and see how that plays out. Again, it's conjecture at this point to say what McConnell is really thinking given this report that came from "The New York Times."

BLITZER: But, Congressman, if the relationship between the Republican president of the United States and the Republican leader in the Senate, the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, has so deteriorated that they're not even speaking to each other right now, and that Mitch McConnell is privately, according to "The New York Times," expressed uncertainty that the president will be able to salvage his administration.

How extraordinary -- you've been around for a while, so have I. This is pretty extraordinary, isn't it?

SANFORD: It is. So to that point, which is a different point, I would say it's a real problem because, again, I've been in executive capacity. Your hands, at the end of the day, are going to be driven by what the legislature does or does not do. And you better find a way to work with them because at the end of the day they can, again, stymie your efforts or they can actually move them forward. And so it's a real problem from the standpoint of him advancing his legislative agenda. What's, again, allegedly going on between the president and Mitch McConnell.

BLITZER: It's a real problem for so many Republicans, especially in the Senate. They're going to have to pick. Do they stand with the majority leader Mitch McConnell? Do they stand with the president? These two men apparently not even talking to each other.

I guess the bottom line question, and I have to take a quick break, but you can give me a quick answer, Congressman. Are you proud of where the Republican Party is right now?

SANFORD: Am I proud of it? Oh, Wolf, you've got a lot of strange questions tonight. What I'd say is I think that it is an awfully tense time in politics right now. On the one hand you have a lot of the Trump supporters out there who legitimately are frustrated with their belief that nothing is getting done in Washington that improves their lives. On the other hand, you have people who are saying, wait a minute, some of the institutions that made this country great are being challenged in the process and you're going to have a real tug of war over the weeks, months and even years ahead between those two points.

BLITZER: Congressman, I want you to stand by. There is more we need to discuss. We are following what's going on right now in the streets of Phoenix, Arizona. The president getting ready to arrive there shortly. We'll have much more right after this.


[18:23:11] BLITZER: We're back with the Republican Congressman Mark Sanford.

Congressman, as President Trump prepares to hold this huge campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona, later tonight, triggering lots of protests, the president and the House Speaker Paul Ryan, they want to push tax reform.

What are the chances of that moving through the House and getting passed any time soon?

SANFORD: I think they're better than people realize because given what didn't happen on the health care front, if you talk to folks within the Republican base, they're absolutely desperate for some kind of win moving forward. And I think the tax reform would represent just that win. And it doesn't carry with it the emotional weight that, you know, frankly the health care debate did.

It's a different conversation, you know. Let's talk about your cousin, nephew or child with cancer versus what's on your W-2. So I think it's a debate that will move forward. It's got to move forward from a political standpoint and I believe from a policy standpoint in terms of making this country more competitive.

BLITZER: There is another immediate issue that is going to be on your agenda before the end of September. The Congress has to vote in favor of raising the nation's debt ceiling, otherwise there could be financial disaster. The full faith and credit of the U.S. coming into play.

Will you support passing legislation to simply raise -- a clean bill to raise the nation's debt ceiling without attaching anything to it?

SANFORD: I won't. You know, we've got to look at the fundamentals of how we ended up with a $20 trillion national debt. Oddly enough $5 trillion national debt in essence is attributable to the wars in the Middle East over the last 16 years. That's a different conversation. But we've got to look at what are those fundamentals that are driving us to a higher and higher debt level and we've got to do something to put the brakes on it.

And so the idea of clean without addressing the core issue of how you're building up that debt to me doesn't make sense and I don't think it makes sense to a number of conservatives as well.

[18:25:09] BLITZER: Will the conservative Freedom Caucus as it's called in the House of Representatives go along with raising the nation's debt ceiling?

SANFORD: I can't speak for the group, but my suspicion, based on the members that I know, would say no, they would want something for that vote.

BLITZER: What do they want?

SANFORD: And something that again would go -- something that addresses the core issue of how do you slow down spending in Washington so that we don't end up with, frankly, a much bigger financial crisis as a result of not slowing down what is clearly an unsustainable path in debt buildup.

BLITZER: So what -- so, Congressman, what do you want in order to get a yea vote from you?

SANFORD: Well, again, I think that there will be a whole host of different policy alternatives that come to us. You know, some people would say, you know what I want is a balanced budget amendment. Other people would say I want two-year budgeting. I mean, there are going to be a number of different proposals that are all built around this larger theme, how do you slow up spending so that we're on a sustainable path.

BLITZER: But, Congressman, are you willing to risk a stock market crash that potentially could go along a recession if the full faith and credit of the U.S. government, the treasury, is questioned?

SANFORD: Well, again, people can draw a lot of scary pictures. And again, Treasury secretary's job, it seems, Republican or Democratic president, its job is to do so. Every president seems to want to clean debt ceiling whether Republican or Democrat. And, again, it's historically been conservative. Said wait a minute, we have got to stop and, again, put the brakes on what's happening here.

So I think that if we do nothing and we simply add debt ceiling increase upon debt ceiling increase upon debt ceiling increase, the one guarantee that we are headed toward is a financial crisis and a financial crash that would impact a whole lot more than the stock market. So I think that the scarier picture is doing nothing to slowing spending and seeing frankly the financial crisis that will come as a consequence.

BLITZER: But you know, Congressman, there is not much time. You only have until the end of September. That's the deadline. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, he guarantees that this legislation will pass raising the nation's debt ceiling. You sound much more concerned.

SANFORD: I am. And let's make no mistake, there is a big difference between a country's technical default, if you want to call it that, in saying we're in the process of reordering the way we spend money so that we can stay on a sustainable path so we can pay back your bond versus the inability to pay it back, which is where you end up here in the not-too-distant future.

If you look at, you know, the charts of where Greece was at the time of their crisis or a whole host of other countries, America is headed for that point if we do nothing. And so, we're going to have a real tug of war in the month of September about where we go next on spending and how we pay for this additional debt increase.

BLITZER: Congressman Mark Sanford, always good to have you on the program. Thanks so much for joining us.

SANFORD: Yes, sir. Pleasure.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we'll have more on the lead-up to the president's campaign rally. How far will he go to fire up his base and potentially rile up protesters gathering outside? We'll also talk about the private fears of the Senate's top Republican, Mitch McConnell. Reportedly questioning whether the president can salvage his presidency.


BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, President Trump, he's in Arizona tonight, preparing for a campaign rally that's drawing protesters to the streets, a huge crowd for him, as well.

[18:33:22] Also "The New York Times" now reporting new details about the very frosty relationship between the president and the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who is said to be privately questioning whether the president can salvage his presidency.

Let's dig deeper with our correspondents, our specialists, our analysts.

David Swerdlick, let me read the lead story. Quote, "The relationship between President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks. And Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises."

If he's lost, the president has lost the Senate majority -- the Republican leader in the Senate. He's got deep, deep problems, the president.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: He does, because McConnell, he needs him as much as anybody, if not more than anybody, to move his agenda in Congress.

Look, if you're Mitch McConnell, you've got to be asking yourself this. The one unequivocal win of President Trump's presidency so far is the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. And it was McConnell who handed that to him on a silver platter by taking that opportunity away from President Obama.

So, from Senator McConnell's perspective, the idea that President Trump is either going to bad mouth him in public or not push harder on health care or do any of the other things that he wants him to do, he's got to be just completely scratching his head.

BLITZER: You know, Bianna, very interesting. The article describes a very angry phone conversation, phone call between McConnell and the president. I'll read another line from the article. The president was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader's refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation.

[18:35:07] It looks like the president is so, so concerned about that Russia investigation that he's telling the Senate Republican leader, the majority leader, "You know what? You didn't protect me enough. You've got to stop some of those committees -- the Judiciary Committee, the Intelligence Committee -- from pursuing this investigation."

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Yes. It does seem to always come back to Russia with this president, Wolf. And from Mitch McConnell's standpoint, his hands were tied when it came to Russia.

This wasn't something he wanted to focus on. And to go back to what David was talking about, Mitch McConnell really wants to focus on pursuing his legislative achievements and what he wants to see going forward. He's not achieving anything with a Republican president right now.

In some ways, it may be easier to explain to constituents at home that you're not able to achieve health care or tax reform or infrastructure reform or anything that you wanted to do legislatively if you had a Democratic president.

But you have a Republican president in office right now. You're coming upon a crucial month when you've got a budget you've got to come together with and a debt ceiling, as you heard from Congressman Sanford. You're not seeing resolution from amongst the Republicans themselves if they're going to raise the debt limit.

And to be focusing on Russia and to be focusing on this president attacking members of his own party in the Senate is not something Mitch McConnell wants to be dealing with right now.

BLITZER: He certainly doesn't. You know, it's interesting, Kaitlan. You cover the White House for us.

"The New York Times" article also says that the Senate majority leader has privately described President Trump as unwilling to learn the basics of governing and is questioning the president's ability to lead the Republican Party in the 2018 midterm elections and beyond. So what does this say about the future of the Republican Party, at

least in the short term?

COLLINS: Well, it doesn't look good right now. But let's not forget this most recent feud between them that has become so public. It was most recently re-ignited after Mitch McConnell said that the president had excessive expectations when it came to getting health care passed. As we know, the president thinks that Mitch McConnell bungled that movement to try to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act.

But we really saw the president try to strong-arm several members of the House and of the Senate when it came to be their time into passing this bill. In that story, it says that the president told Senator Capito that he was not -- if he let her -- he would let her ride on Air Force One if she voted in favor of his bill. She declined it, because she said she hadn't seen the bill, but then that just shows what the president thinks he needs to do to get legislation passed.

But let's not forget how stunning this is, that the president of the Republican Party and the Senate majority leader of the Republican Party are publicly feuding like this. In that article, it says that they had a profane conversation while Trump was on the golf course; and we assume that's the last time they've spoken. But it's really stunning that their fight is this public.

BLITZER: Yes, and the president was tweeting against Mitch McConnell. Also Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona. It's playing out sort of tonight, as well. Flake, of course, won't be attending the president's big rally in Phoenix.

But Mitch McConnell supports Flake's reelection. The president clearly does not.

But listen to this ad that a Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC just put out against one of the challengers running against Jeff Flake.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chemtrail Kelli has got her head in the clouds with crazy ideas. She bizarrely blamed John McCain for ISIS.

KELLI WARD (R), ARIZONA CANDIDATE FOR THE SENATE: John McCain is directly responsible for the rise of ISIS.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Embarrassing behavior, dangerous ideas. No wonder Republicans rejected her just one year ago. Chemtrail Kelli. Not conservative, just crazy ideas.


BLITZER: She's going to be at that rally with the president later today, although it's unclear if the president is going to mention her, endorse her, anything along those lines. But it underscores a huge problem the Republican Party has right now.

SWERDLICK: It's a huge schism. But what you see here is that senators, including Senator McConnell, Senator Flake, they're not as scared as they might have been six months ago to take sides against the president.

Senator McConnell knows that he won his last reelection by 15 points over Alison Lundergan Grimes. He's not worried about his own seat, and he's not worried about his support among other senators.

Senator Flake never supported President Trump to begin with in his election. He was one of the senators most critical of President Trump during the 2016 campaign.

So, they look at the president's approval ratings, around 35 percent in most polls, including in some swing states, and they're saying, "Look, we can afford to take a stand with a different Republican."

BLITZER: Clearly -- yes, go ahead, Bianna.

GOLODRYGA: Well, I was going to say, the president may be in over his head when it comes to bashing senators of his own party. I mean, Lindsey Graham colorfully, in this "New York Times" article, is quoted as saying that they will invoke Article V, obviously referencing the NATO doctrine, one attack on a senator is an attack on all of the Republican senators.

And case in point, take a look at how they rallied around Jeff Sessions when the president was publicly lashing against him. The president toned down some of his rhetoric, apologized to Jeff Sessions. We may see the president be forced to do the same when it comes to these attacks that we're seeing now.

[18:40:13] BLITZER: But clearly, Phil Mudd, the president's reaction, some of the comments he made last Tuesday involving the Charlottesville violence that erupted, thanks to the white supremacist rally that was taking place. That's exacerbated, further exacerbated some of these tensions between the president and Republicans.

He's got a rally that he's going to have very soon out in Phoenix. He's going to try to rally his base. What is that going to do to the tensions that currently exist right now?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Let me give you one question, Wolf, and the answer to that question will answer your question. Will the president be Trump or will he be president?

When we saw the reaction to Charlottesville, we saw a president who stepped back and said, "I'm going to ad-lib, and I'm going to talk about what I'm interested in, what my base is interested in." And he stepped out in a way outside of what his advisors would have suggested, horrible mistake.

When he spoke last night about Afghanistan, I was rereading it right before the show. Whether you agree or disagree with what he said, a more presidential statement.

The question is, for a man who's so proud of his own image, who's so comfortable stepping out ad-libbing, when he steps off and speaks tonight, is he going to be president or is he going to be Trump? And that's going to be answered about whether he solves the problem of race in America or begins to solve it or whether he steps in it again as he did after Charlottesville.

BLITZER: Well, we know the president will point out that thousands of people are inside supporting him. He'll know that there are thousands outside protesting, and that's going to cause him to react, I am sure.

All right. Everybody stick around. The wife of the U.S. treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, is forced to publicly apologize after an online rant against a mother she dismissed as, quote, "adorably out of touch."


[18:46:31] BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Protesters, they're already on the streets of Phoenix ahead of the president's campaign rally later tonight. It comes less than 24 hours after the president outlined a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan.

Let's continue our analysis.

A very different subject as far as Afghanistan is concerned, Phil. "The Washington Post" reports very interesting anecdote about how the president was persuaded by his national security advisor, General H.R. McMaster to support continuing to have a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. He showed President Trump a picture like this one of some young women wearing mini-skirts in Kabul to make the point Western values could return to Afghanistan.

What do you make of that?

MUDD: Not going to happen. Not now, not 16 years ago when we moved in. I was there in the fall of 2001. Not ever.

If you want to understand what's happening in government, we're increasingly learning that you have to listen to cabinet officers. In this case, Secretary of State Tillerson who also in the past 24 hours spoke about Afghanistan, and discarded what the president said.

What did Tillerson say? He didn't say we're going to change Afghanistan. He said we're going to continue pressure on the government with the potential that there would be reconciliation, maybe even dialogue. Let me cut to the chase about what that means. If we ever, and I suspect we will, dialogue with the Taliban, there will never be a skirt in Kabul.

The message from the president is idealistic. The realistic message is there will never be a short skirt in Kabul.

BLITZER: What do you think -- what did you think, Bianna?

GOLODRYGA: Well, I'm curious to see if this president will now take responsibility and ownership of something, given that he's been in office for eight months now. He's laid blame on his predecessors for many things that he says he was dealt a bad hand for coming into office. This is now going to be his war that he's inheriting as well. These additional 4,000 troops, if that does prove to be the number. It did seem like he tried to cushion himself a bit yesterday by saying that he typically goes with his gut, but he's going with what the generals were telling him.

And thus you could see a point maybe in the future, hopefully this will not happen, but if there is some bad news that does come out of Afghanistan, if the troop surge does not go the president's way or the general's way, the president can kind of deflect back to this going with his gut.

It should have been what he was going to do, instead he listened to these generals.

BLITZER: For years he was saying, as you know, David, get out of Afghanistan. It's a waste. The U.S. wasn't winning with 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, not going to win with 10,000 or 15,000. Just get out, take the trillions of dollars, spend it, rebuild the United States, instead of rebuilding the infrastructure in Afghanistan.

SWERDLICK: That's what he used to say. He said if for years and as a lot of people pointed out, I think it is an important point to point out, the president did signal last night that he was willing to change based on the realities of what he learned once in office. But I don't want to give him too much credit for that because that has been the trend on a number of issues, Wolf.

He used to say that jobs numbers were fraudulent. Now he touts positive jobs numbers. He used to say get out of Afghanistan. Now he says, we're going to have to stay the course.

On any number of issues, the president has sort of shown that when he campaigned, he was sort of talking freelancing when he was talking, and now, he's actually having to govern with reality, and that he didn't play straight with his voters.

BLITZER: Very different story. I'm anxious to get your quick thought on this, Kaitlan.

The wife of the Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, Louise Linton, she has now apologized for posting a picture tagging her high-end designer clothing from Hermes, Valentino, Tom Ford.

[18:50:11] And when a commentator had some criticism of her, she wrote back: Have you given more to the economy than me and my husband? Either as an individual earner in taxes or in self sacrifice to your country? I'm pretty sure we paid more taxes toward our day trip than you did.

She went on to say this woman who criticized her was adorably out of touch.

A lot of people are buzzing about that.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, there's been so much criticism that she put her Instagram profile on private and has now apologized for her kind of nasty remarks to this woman. She posted this photo kind of bragging about her designer clothes and whatnot, and this woman decided to comment on it and said she didn't think that was appropriate for her to do that. But we've seen her apologized now.

She's not an elected figure, but she is a very public figure now that she's married to someone who is in the Trump administration. So, that's kind of how it's going to go.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. We'll stay on top of all of that. We'll stay on top of all of these developments.

There's more breaking right now as we await the president's Phoenix campaign rally. We monitor the protests that already are around it.


[18:55:56] BLITZER: There has been concern about health risk for people living near certain types of coal mining operations. Researchers were investigating the possible presence of toxic minerals in ground water. But now, the Trump administration has abruptly stopped that study.

CNN's Rene Marsh is working the story for us.

So, Rene, the president has been a very strong advocate of coal.

RENE MARSH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: He has been. He's promised to bring coal country back. Trump has eliminated environmental rules the industry calls burdensome and now, the administration shut down an independent study into whether certain coal mining techniques are directly correlated to increased rates of cancer and other diseases for people who live near these mining sites.


MARSH (voice-over): Donald Trump has branded himself as the pro-coal president.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: And for those miners, get ready because you are going to be working your asses off, all right?

MARSH: Scientists are warning the administration's latest move may hurt more than help his base in coal country. A letter from the Interior Department has directed the National Academies of Scientists, Engineering and Medicine to cease all activities on a study to determine whether people living near mountain top coal mining sites in Central Appalachia are more prone to certain diseases like cancer.

BILL PRICE, SIERRA CLUB WEST VIRGINIA: The evidence that we have seen so far in over two dozen articles and studies have shown higher cancer rates, higher rates of heart and cardiovascular disease.

MARSH: The agency said it put a hold on one million dollars in funding for this study because of its changing budget situation. The study focused on four states -- West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, where mountaintop coal mining is most prevalent.

Instead of drilling, explosive blasts blow up mountains to get at the layers of coal inside. The waste from the process is dumped into streams and valleys nearby.

PRICE: President Trump is showing he is looking out for the coal industry and the coal executives and not the people.

MARSH: Since taking office, Trump has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, issued an executive order reopening federal lands to new coal leases and rolled back environmental rules, including ones aimed at requiring the coal industry to monitor and report toxic mining waste and waterways.

ANDREW ROSENBERG, UNION OF CONCERNED SCIENTISTS: They stopped the requirements for companies to report. Now, they have halted a study that would investigate whether there were any public health impacts for communities that are in the vicinity of mountaintop removal mining. And that fits into an overall pattern in this administration of setting science aside.

MARSH: The National Mining Association, which represents coal miners, pointed to a July study that said there is no conclusive evidence connecting mountain top mining with health hazards and questioned whether studying the health impacts is even necessary, saying, quote, these mining practices today account for less than 1 percent of total U.S. coal production.


MARSH: Well, coal mining advocates say studying showing a link between things like cancer and mining don't take into account other lifestyle factors. It is worth noting that the Trump administration halted a study that was being done by independent, nongovernment institutions that Congress actually chartered to advise the government on scientific matters. The study started, Wolf, under the Obama administration and we should also point out, it was officials in West Virginia that actually asked for this study.

BLITZER: Rene Marsh, thanks very much for that report.

Finally tonight, I want to thank you and sadly good-bye to a beloved and valued member of our SITUATION ROOM team. There she is, Meghan Rafferty. She's been at CNN for 10 years. After that time, she's been my producer, traveling the country with me, making me and this network much better. And along the way, she's made all of us smarter as well.

Meghan is moving to New York, on to new adventures in her work and her life. She's getting married in just a few days. We wish her every happiness. Meghan will always be part of our SITUATION ROOM family.

Thanks for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.