Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

Trump Slams GOP's McCain, Flake Without Naming Names; Sources: Trump And McConnell Haven't Spoken In Weeks. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 23, 2017 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:13] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm John Berman.

So do you feel better this morning? President Trump certainly does. That seemed to be the goal of the 77-minute deluge of division, a speech overnight that left few targets unattacked and included a complete and literal revision of history. Just 10 days after the hate filled violence in Charlottesville that left Heather Heyer dead, this is how the President chose to bring the country together. Or not.

So he feels better, maybe. His base feels better. But did the protesters who filled the streets feel better? Does the mother of Heather Heyer feel better? Does the majority of Americans who did not vote for Donald Trump, by the way, did they feel better?

One person who clearly did not, a man who worked 50 years to keep the country safe, he seems terrified. More on that in just a moment.

Also on the subject of feelings, Hillary Clinton, in her own words, words you have not heard before, about how she feels about the election and one particularly electrifying moment. The one on your screen right now.

It is a very busy morning with news coming in all over the place. Let's begin with CNN's Boris Sanchez live for us this morning in Phoenix. Boris?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, good morning, John. Yes, we saw a bit of a bizarre speech from the President last night. He called for Americans to come together and unite, and then spent about 77 minutes attacking some of his favorite targets, including the media, Democrats, and some Republicans.

He also spent quite a bit of time trying to clarify his response to the violence in Charlottesville about two weeks ago. The President, though, did leave out some important information.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence. That's me speaking on Saturday.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): President Trump attempting to revise history, selectively recounting his past statements about the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia and purposely omitting his off-the-cuff responses that sparked the uproar.

TRUMP: We condemn, in the strongest possible terms, this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.

You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): The President blaming the media for the backlash.

TRUMP: I hit them with neo-Nazi. I hit them with everything. I got the White supremacists, the neo-Nazi, I got them all in there. Let's say. Yes, KKK. We have KKK. I got them all. So they're having a hard time.

So what did they say? Right? It should have been sooner. He's a racist.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): And accusing the press of giving a platform to hate groups, a charge the President reiterated on Twitter after the campaign rally.

TRUMP: They're bad people, and I really think they don't like our country.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): President Trump also fomenting division by attacking the removal of Confederate statues.

TRUMP: They're trying to take away our culture. They're trying to take away our history. And our weak leaders, they do it overnight.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Mr. Trump also threatens to shut down the government over funding his border wall, but he made no mention of his promise to make Mexico pay for it.

TRUMP: We have to close down our government. We're building that wall.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): The President throwing more red meat to his base.

TRUMP: I think we'll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point. OK?

(APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: Probably.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Before, once again, attacking Arizona's two Republican senators, Jeff Flake and John McCain, who is battling brain cancer, without saying their names.

TRUMP: One vote away. I will not mention any names. Very presidential, isn't it? Very presidential. And nobody wants me to talk about your other senator who's weak on borders, weak on crime.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): President Trump also firing up the crowd, teasing a potential pardon of controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

TRUMP: So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job? I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine, OK?

(APPLAUSE)

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Despite his Press Secretary telling reporters the President wouldn't discuss the issue.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No Trump! No KKK!

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Outside the rally, thousands gathered to protest the President. But inside, Mr. Trump was in denial.

TRUMP: All week, they're talking about the massive crowds that are going to be outside. Where are they?

You know, they show up in the helmets and in the black masks. And they've got clubs and they've got everything. Antifa!

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Police using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the crowds after his rally.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[09:05:04] SANCHEZ: One Republican senator the President did call out by name is Mitch McConnell. He said, we have to talk to Mitch.

The interesting thing about that, John, is that sources are telling CNN the President and the Senate majority leader haven't spoken for weeks, and their last couple of exchanges have been vulgar and tough on both of them.

Aside from that, the "New York Times" is reporting that Mitch McConnell is now privately questioning Donald Trump's fitness for office, John.

BERMAN: All right. Boris Sanchez for us in Phoenix. You know, we're going to have much more on that coming up with the man who broke that story. Boris, thank you very much.

All right. One person who found the speech startling, a man who has served every president going back to John F. Kennedy, the former Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I found this downright scary and disturbing. I really question his ability to -- his fitness to be in this office. And I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for it. Maybe he is looking for a way out.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: All right. You're going to hear much more from that pretty stunning interview from James Clapper in a little bit. In the meantime, joining me here in New York, CNN political commentators, Charles Blow and Alice Stewart. Alex Burns, a CNN political analyst and national political reporter for the "New York Times."

Also with us, Scott Jennings. He is in Louisville. He is a Republican strategist. He worked inside the Bush White House and not incidentally, for a little bit later, for Mitch McConnell at one point.

All right, guys. I'm going to talk about James Clapper in just a minute, but, first, Alice, to the speech as a whole. Who was this speech for?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This was for himself and for the base. You asked at the top of the show, who feels better? Do you feel better? Does Heather Heyer's mother feel better? Who feels better?

Donald Trump feels really good right now. He is energized, and his base is on fire. And that's what this is about. This is his comfort zone, talking to his base.

And specifically in Arizona, as we saw on the backdrop last night, promise made, promise kept. Talk more about border security and reinforcing, as he's done throughout the campaign, issues that are important with regard to beefing our security along the border.

He also gave them red meat, attacking the media, attacking Democrats, and attacking certain Republicans that he doesn't like. The problem I see is that, Monday, the Afghan speech was solid. It was a great speech about uniting the country from within.

And he should have stopped while he was ahead because this was two steps back. This brought about more controversy over Charlottesville, and I don't think he did more to clarify what he wanted to talk about. I think he just opened up a wound that we should try to get past.

BERMAN: Well, yes, I think he's proving there are two President Trumps. There's not the teleprompter Trump and the unscripted Trump. There's just one President Trump who will say certain things when he's reading but clearly feels a different way when he's allowed to speak those feelings.

Charles Blow, to Alice's point, look, America is in an important moment right now. Nerves are obviously raw after Charlottesville. How does this speech, how do the words he chose to use last night, how does that affect things?

CHARLES BLOW, OP-ED COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, I mean, what I saw last night was a person who I don't believe wants to be President of the United States.

I mean, he wants to be president of a certain segment of the country, but not of the entire country because the person who wants to be the president of the entire country behaves a lot differently.

You do reach out to people who do not necessarily support you and maybe might even don't -- don't even like you. But because you know that you are the president of everyone, you try to figure out ways that you build bridges to those people.

You say, you know, I know you may not like me, you may not have supported me, you may not have voted for me, but I'm in the job now and I have to do things that bring all of us together and see if we can find some way to work towards something that makes the country better.

This was not about, in any way, making America better. It was not, in any way, about making America united. It was not, in any way, about healing any parts of America.

This was -- this was a person who's looking at a group of people, almost like the businessman that he was. Like, these are kind of customers.

I have this enormous group of people -- even though it's only 35 percent of America, that's millions and millions of people -- that I've never reached before. And now, I can continuously feed them things that will make them love me.

And once this is all over -- which may be sooner or later, who knows? Once this is all over, I still have this enormous bunch of people who are energized, who will never leave me. I think he is looking at that rather than looking at us.

BERMAN: You know, Alex Burns, I took economics once in college, so I choose to believe on the notion of rational actors, that people make decisions for what they perceive to be rational reasons.

So if Charles' reasoning is right here, that the President chose to address just those people, chose, in a way, division over unity, what's the rational explanation for that choice?

[09:10:01] ALEX BURNS, POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: Look, I think that we need to sort of step back from the way people would, traditionally, in politics, make rational choices in these situations and think about Donald Trump as sort of unique individual actor in this situation.

This is someone who views every choice through binary terms of winning and losing, strength and weakness, right? And he has always, from the start of the campaign and earlier than that, made decisions based on never wanting to appear to give ground, never wanting to appear to have made a mistake or acknowledge both.

That's what you heard last night. It's what you heard last week in that press conference in Manhattan, where he tore open the -- all the issues around Charlottesville.

Again, I think it's what Republicans have come to expect. Even when they sort of privately go to him and say, you need to tone this down, he doesn't want tone it down. He doesn't want to tone it down because it will be perceived as a retreat.

BERMAN: Clearly. I mean, clearly he has proven that again and again, once again last night.

You know, Scott Jennings, to you. I think that the White House knew that this speech would get the response that it got. I just don't believe that White House advisors were surprised that the President chose to go down this road. Or when he brought up Joe Arpaio, they were surprised because, you know, Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he wasn't going to bring it up.

It just seems to me that they expected it would go this way, and they probably expected the response like we heard from James Clapper, the former Director of National Intelligence, who questioned the president's fitness.

There are people that I see responding this morning, supporters of the President who say, you know, we won because we made these people, the establishment, in some cases, and the media everywhere else, you know, set their hair on fire over this speech.

How does the discussion about the President's fitness, from people like James Clapper, help their cause?

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, I think the strategy behind that is there's always going to be a group of people in this country who oppose Donald Trump, no matter what he does. And they want to set those people off to try to prove their point, that they can never get a fair shake from the media. It's part of the overall strategy.

I think another thing that we have to remember about why he gave a campaign rally speech last night is, one of the deliverables for Donald Trump to his base is, I'm not going to let Washington change me.

Remember, his message was, we can't doing the presidency in Washington the same way that we've been doing it. However, we have slow process -- progress right now in Washington on legislative deliverables.

So he has to go tell his people that, a, Washington is the problem, and, b, I haven't changed. I'm still the same outsider that I was. It was a strong message to his base that, look, this place, the White House, Washington, D.C. isn't changing me. They've got no strings on me

BERMAN: Right.

JENNINGS: I'm Donald Trump. I'm still going to do what I want to do.

BERMAN: And, Alice, one of the things he suggested was shutting down the government if Congress doesn't issue funding for the border wall. Make shutting down the border wall basically something that funding the government is contingent upon. Smart?

STEWART: Given that his campaign rhetoric throughout the entire campaign was, we're going to build a wall and the crowds would follow- up and Mexico is going to pay for it. We're a far cry from that. Another problem with that, what he -- mentioning that last night, he

put a lot of the blame on Democrats in Washington when, unfortunately, he has a lot of trouble getting all the Republicans on board with some of his proposals.

So I think what we saw last night is a president who intends to keep his promise to get the wall built. Reinforcing the need -- we need to commit the resources to it, and restoring law and order across the border. But his big challenge is, how is he going to galvanize Washington and Republicans and Democrats together to get the necessary?

I think threatening to shut down the government is not a good way to get the conversation started with those in Washington. But clearly, this is something that he views is going to gin up the base. Those people will call their members of Congress and get their voices hears.

BERMAN: You know, Charles Blow, if you read 1984, there were whole departments in that book whose job it is to go back and rewrite history. To change newspapers, to change speeches that were given in the past to fit the narrative that the government wants at the time.

There was an element of that last night, when the President read what he claimed to be his initial response to the Charlottesville violence. And he left out the very words that created so much of the controversy, many sides.

BLOW: Right. I mean, I think -- you know, I keep trying to remind people, we can never become inured to this idea that this man is a pathological liar. This is a lie of omission, but there are -- even in that speech, there were outright lies.

They were -- they were not just the lies of omission. But the idea -- it never ceases to shock me that this is -- this is coming from the President of the United States. And I can't become numb to that. And I think that the impulse is to say, well, this is just part of what happens. It's no longer news because it happens all the time.

No, actually. It's big news. The President should not be doing that. The President should not be trying to rewrite history. Presidents should not be lying about things that are facts that we can check.

He should not be lying and know that he's lying. That is -- it's such a fundamental betrayal of trust and what it means to be a leader and what it means to be the President of the United States.

[09:15:00] And I just feel like we are some -- somehow, we're kind of like numb to it, you know. There have been so many lashes on the back that it's become thickened, and we don't feel it the same way but we should.

BERMAN: I got to say, guys, thank you so much. Stick around. One person who is not immune to it is Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader. That may be hugely consequential. Not talking with the president, apparently. A private feud all of a sudden goes very public thanks to someone sitting next to me. Plus, up for debate, this viral moment in one of the presidential debates. Hillary Clinton says it made her skin crawl when now President Trump stood right behind her. Now we are hearing about this for the first time in her own words, a new part of her book.

After taking aim at the Republican senators from Arizona, is Nevada next? The president steps into a new controversy in just hours.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:20:01]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: We were just one vote away from victory after seven years of everybody proclaiming repeal and replace, one vote away. And nobody wants me to talk about your other senator who's weak on borders, weak on crime, so I won't talk about him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: That worked exactly like he was hoping. President Trump ripping into Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake in front of a Phoenix crowd last night. The crowd loved it. The Republican establishment probably not so much.

This as CNN has learned new details about just how bad things are between President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Sources confirmed they have not spoken since the phone call turned into a shouting match two weeks ago about among other things, Russia.

The "New York Times" is now reporting that Majority Leader McConnell has said he does not know if the president can salvage his administration.

Back with me is Alex Burns, who first broke that story, and Scott Jennings, who not coincidentally worked for Mitch McConnell. Alex, first to you, Mitch McConnell feels the president will not be able to salvage his administration. What does that mean?

ALEX BURNS: Well, it means a lot of things, but none of them are encouraging for the president or his relationship with the Hill. The basic sentiment that McConnell is communicating to folks close to him.

And frankly not that close to him around Washington is that he once had hoped that he might have a constructive relationship with the president. He no longer believes that is a likely or even possible outcome, and that Republicans need to brace themselves for the possibility of even going it alone on the Hill in terms of governing.

BERMAN: So, there was this shouting match, a phone call, a couple of weeks ago that included the president's disappointment about health care, but Russia, a big sticking point seems to be the Russian investigation. Was the president displeased with Mitch McConnell on how he's handling it? BURNS: Sure. And it's the sense that Republicans ought to be having his back on every issue across the board including investigations into 2016 campaign and other investigations into his international and financial relationships.

He's given other Republicans an earful about that subject, but the language he used with McConnell was particularly tart and really left a lasting negative (inaudible).

BERMAN: All right. Scott Jennings, I'm going to ask you a very important question about Mitch McConnell in just a second.

But first, you know, breaking news just in, President Trump responding this morning to how he feels about the event last night in Phoenix. This was his official statement in 140 characters or less.

"Phoenix crowd last night was amazing, a packed house. I love the great state of Arizona. Not a fan of Jeff Flake." Words used out loud this morning, weak on crime and borders.

So, you know, last night, he kind of danced around using the name Jeff Flake, but clearly critical of him this morning. It goes after him directly. Scott Jennings, this seems to be the type of thing that the so-called establishment Republicans like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't like one bit.

JENNINGS: Yes, you know, what's strange about the issue with Jeff Flake, I know they have a personality conflict, but Jeff Flake votes with Donald Trump 93-something percent of the time.

He voted to repeal and replace Obamacare and so as it relates to getting the president's agenda enacted, Jeff Flake has been right there. They have a stylistic and a personality conflict, but on policy and votes, you know, they've been basically aligned since Donald Trump took office.

And so, we'll have to see how this affects Jeff Flake's voting patterns moving forward. I can't imagine it will be good.

BERMAN: So, Scott, you know Mitch McConnell personally. I mean, you worked for the man. You know, he is supposed to be this publicly soft-spoken backroom manipulator, but not someone who likes publicly getting into types of spats that he is in the middle of right now. So, how far does he have to be pushed before he lets this type of thing go public?

JENNINGS: Well, I think what's noteworthy about the reporting that Alex and others have done is that it really sort of violates one of the number one rules in McConnell world. Whether this is a campaign or in the U.S. Senate, there is no drama.

You don't want to have drama if you're around Mitch McConnell. He doesn't tolerate drama. He doesn't think it's productive. He doesn't think these kinds of conversations that get out of hand and are sort of emotional are productive. What he wants to do is get things done. What's crazy her is that these two guys have been aligned. Donald Trump was a big supporter of Mitch McConnell in his 2014 reelection campaign.

McConnell held open the Supreme Court seat which many people think delivered the presidency to Donald Trump. I happened to believe that and they worked together this year to get Gorsuch confirmed and to try to move other agenda items along.

So, these two guys have been allied on a number of things over the last several years. I think the concept that they would be breaking over a dramatic emotion filled phone call is just (inaudible) to the senator.

BERMAN: And but, you know, I think it's quite possible that -- I haven't heard any displeasure from Senator McConnell this morning that this notion is floating out there, and he has let this sort of be out there for several days.

And he made public comments about the president's speech. I do want to throw up one image that complicates this even more if that's possible. I think we have a picture of the secretary of transportation, Elaine Chao, side by side with President Trump.

[09:25:09] She also happens to be married to Mitch McConnell. Alex, how does this play into this complicated relationship?

BURNS: Look, I think that the tension between the president and the Senate in general is intensely personal in a lot of ways. I don't think it's an accident that Senator McConnell was so angry about the president's comments on Charlottesville.

Just in general but also particularly the day after he made some of his most provocative comments standing next to Elaine Chao. But look, for a lot of folks in the Senate, it doesn't necessarily require that their spouse be embarrassed by the president.

The kind of things that Donald Trump said about Jeff Flake last night and this morning, is just to use Scott's word, it's (inaudible) to folks who to go work with Jeff Flake every day and who see him as somebody who has not necessarily made all the political choices they would have liked him to make, but he's basically an earnest team player.

BERMAN: It's an interesting battle going forward, an interesting fight to pick if you are the president of the United States with the majority leader certainly on Russia if there's going to be an investigation, if the Senate is going to be ever more (inaudible). Alex Burns, Scott Jennings, thanks so much.

All right. Hillary Clinton uncensored. Newly released excerpts released just this morning from her book, "What Happened." In it, she called the now president a creep, and that's not all.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)