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Ex-Russian Ambassador Downplays Trump Campaign Contacts. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 23, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: -- Mr. Trump used a campaign rally in Phoenix to launch multi-pronged attacks targeting the news media, fellow Republicans and others who made him feel wronged. New reaction tonight to a tirade fueled by personal grudges.

Threatening a shutdown. Mr. Trump is drawing a new line in the sand over his border wall, demanding Congress approve funding, or face the possibility of a paralyzing standoff. We'll break down his brash threats and wild claims.

And back up, you creep. Hillary Clinton reveals what she was really thinking when Mr. Trump loomed close behind her during a debate. The former Democratic nominee opening up about that moment, saying it left her skin crawl.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

BLITZER: Breaking news this hour, President Trump flips the switch again, urging unity in a scripted speech to the American Legion just hours after his angry and divisive rant at a campaign rally in Phoenix.

As Mr. Trump bounces from unplugged fury to teleprompter aided restraint, urgent questions are being raised about his fitness for office. The former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, says he's worried about the president's access to nuclear codes, calling it, quote, "pretty damn scary."

There were many stunning moments during the president's 77-minute tirade. Among other things, he defended his response to the white supremacists violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, by acting as though he never said some of his most offensive lines including his claim that, quote, "many sides" were to blame.

Also breaking, new statements tonight from both the Senate majority leader and the White House insisting Mitch McConnell and the president are working together under shared goals. But sources tell CNN the two men haven't spoken in nearly two weeks since they screamed at each other during a phone conversation.

We are told the president was furious about the Russia investigation as well as Russia sanctions forced on him by Congress. Then Hillary Clinton is expressing new regret about her election

defeat in her upcoming book. She wonders what would have happened if she would have told then candidate Donald Trump to, quote, "back up, you creep," when he hovered near her on the debate stage in St. Louis. She says the incident made her skin crawl.

This hour, I'll talk about all that and more with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Then our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

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

Jim, a more moderate tone from the president in Nevada today, but it can't erase what we heard from him in Arizona last night.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. And it could well be just a calm before the next storm as the president gave a more restrained speech today compared to that long rambling rant he delivered in Arizona last night.

Today the president called on the nation to heal its divisions but in many cases these are divisions he's created himself. This erratic behavior is becoming such a concern in Washington that many people are wondering if he has the command of the nuclear arsenal.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Speaking to military veterans in Reno, it was a more presidential Trump.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have no division too deep for us to heal and there is no enemy too strong for us to overcome.

ACOSTA: But the restrained performance was a far cry from the president who went on a global rampage in Phoenix. Ranting and raving about 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.

ACOSTA: And threatening a government shutdown if Congress doesn't pay for a wall on the border. The same wall he once vowed Mexico would fund.

TRUMP: Believe me, we have to close down our government, we're building that wall.

ACOSTA: The most mind boggling moment came when the president tried to whitewash his comments on Charlottesville.

TRUMP: Here's what I said on Saturday. "We're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia." This is me speaking. "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence."

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump blatantly omitted the fact that he blamed violence on many sides.

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

ACOSTA: And neglected to mention that he said some of the white supremacists demonstrators were very fine people.

TRUMP: You had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

ACOSTA (on camera): Now, sir, the Nazis, there are no fine people in the Nazis.

(Voice-over): In Phoenix the president was playing to the cheers from his base.

[18:05:03] TRUMP: So I think we'll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point.

ACOSTA: From his suggestion that he might pardon controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

TRUMP: You know what, I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine, OK?

(CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

ACOSTA: To his not-so-subtle bashing of Arizona Senator John McCain who is battling brain cancer.

TRUMP: One vote away, I will not mention any names.

ACOSTA: The president still venting his frustrations with Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell fuming over his defeat on health care tweeting, "IF Republican Senate doesn't get rid of the filibuster rule and go to a simple majority which the Dems would do they are just wasting time."

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Mr. McCain --

ACOSTA: But the president keeps forgetting his health care bill failed to secure that simple majority in the Senate. The last two days are leaving GOP lawmakers scratching their heads and warning against the idea of a government shutdown.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: I don't think a government shutdown is necessary and I don't think most people want to see a government shutdown.

ACOSTA: But a more critical conversation is underway in Washington whether the president should have access to the nation's nuclear arsenal.

LT. GEN. JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I worry about frankly, you know, the access to nuclear codes. In a fit of peak he decides to do something about Kim Jong-un, there is actually very little to stop him.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now the White House appears to be trying to heal some of the damage from the president's behavior. Aides here are now confirming just the last several minutes there will be meetings between the president and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell in the coming days on the legislative agenda for the fall.

Wolf, in this statement released by the White House in the last several minutes it said both the president and McConnell are, quote, "united on these issues." Sure doesn't seem like they have been united in the last several days -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Thanks very much, Jim Acosta, at the White House.

The president's very tense relationship with the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has certainly been a huge issue. And tonight, as you just heard, they are trying to play down that feud as we learn more about the rift and how Russia figures into all of this.

Our senior political reporter Manu Raju has been digging into this.

And Manu, despite this effort to try to paper over this battle that's been going on, you've learned some fascinating material about how tense it really is.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It has been incredibly tense. In fact, they haven't spoken, Wolf, since August 9th, very tense phone call. At that time President Trump was actually angry about the Russia probe, not necessarily about the failure to get health care through the Senate. Actually concerned that there are two investigations that are happening on Capitol Hill.

I believe the Senate majority leader should be doing much more to protect him on that issue as well as congressional approval of a Russia sanctions bill, approving overwhelmingly, of course being actually -- the president essentially forced to sign that bill against his own will. He let McConnell know he was not happy.

I'm told he dropped curse words. He swore at the majority leader. They have not spoken since. And that really came after McConnell actually had said that the president may have had, quote, "excessive expectations." He said that publicly, excessive expectations, about what he could accomplish here on Capitol Hill. Really mild criticism directed to the president, but the president did not take that very well.

BLITZER: How are Senate Republicans, Senate Republicans, reacting to this feud?

RAJU: They're not happy with the president. They are overwhelmingly siding with Mitch McConnell. I talked to one Republican today. He said in fact it had actually a unifying effect within the Republican conference. They're getting behind him. One thing that the members don't like, in addition to the tweets, the

distractions, the constant controversies, they do not like attacks against their own members, going after them on Twitter, saying things at rallies like the president did last night, alluding to Jeff Flake, then going after him on Twitter last night. They do not like that. They want the president to back off.

They're saying it's going to get harder to get their legislative agenda done if he launches their attacks. And as one Republican told me today, one way to actually help is the president actually learned about these senators, their states, their backgrounds, perhaps that could get legislation through, not attacking them publicly and on Twitter.

BLITZER: Yes. I know there is deep irritation because I've heard it myself from you, in the speech in Phoenix, Arizona, he went after Senator John McCain, never expressed hope he would recover completely from the brain cancer. The radiation treatment he's going through right now, we did not hear that. We heard criticism.

RAJU: That's right. And that was surprising to a lot of folks. Not so surprising given the attacks that they have gone -- the wage back and forth over the months. But clearly that would have gone over a lot better had he alluded to the fact that John McCain is enduring therapy for brain cancer.

BLITZER: And he was praying for his complete recovery. That would have been an important statement to make in his home state of Arizona, especially.

All right. Thanks very much, Manu Raju, reporting for us.

Let's get a little bit more on the state of the Trump presidency. Leon Panetta is joining us. He's the former Defense secretary, the former CIA director in the Obama administration. Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

And I want to begin, I want you to listen precisely to what the former director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, said, responding, reacting to the president's speech in Phoenix last night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[18:10:08] CLAPPER: I really question his ability to -- his fitness to be in this office. And I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for -- maybe he is looking for a way out. Having some understanding of the levers that a president can exercise, I worry about, frankly, you know, the access to the nuclear codes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. Mr. Secretary, you've held the highest national security job, CIA director, secretary of Defense. Do you share those fears?

LEON PANETTA, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: Well, you know, I have a lot of respect for Jim Clapper. He's a good man. And he's very dedicated to this country. And I think all of us to some extent understand his concerns. But based on my own experience dealing with that whole issue of the president having his finger on the nuclear button, the reality is that there are an awful lot of procedures and checks that are involved in that process that are built into the procedure before it even gets to the president.

Secondly, I also think that the National Security Council, people like John Kelly, Jim Mattis, General McMaster, are individuals that would certainly provide some check on a president who might want to make a reckless decision.

I guess the last point I would make is that in the end, this president, like every president, has to look at what is history going to say about his presidency. And if he were to do something stupid, there is no question that history would probably identify this as the worst presidency in our history.

I don't think Donald Trump wants to go down in history with that as his label.

BLITZER: The other point General Clapper made was -- he raised questions about President Trump's fitness to be in the office. Do you have concerns about that?

PANETTA: Well, you know, we obviously have been riding a roller coaster these last few weeks. And for me, I think it comes down to this. I think the president faces a really fundamental choice as to where we're going to go. Not only for the rest of his administration, but just in these next few months in dealing with the Congress.

If he decides he's going to continue to isolate himself from the American people with his comments and the things that he says, if he's going to continue to criticize the Republican leaders and leaders in the Congress, if he's going to continue to bully and try to intimidate those that might speak against him, if he's going to continue to speak to a very narrow base of support that is shrinking in this country, then I think the bottom line is he's not going to get very much done, if anything, in these next few months.

If, on the other hand, he decides he's going to change and he's going to try to reach out and truly try to unify this country, try to build relationships with the leadership on both the Republican and Democratic side, try to build a coalition that can get some of this legislation through the Congress, you know, there is a chance that he might be able to enjoy some successes.

He's got to make that decision, what path he's going to take. One, I think, would lead to a failed presidency. The other might give him a chance of enjoying some success as president of the United States.

BLITZER: The other intriguing thing that James Clapper said, he said that maybe the president is, quote, "looking for a way out." Looking for a way out.

Mr. Secretary, what do you make of that? PANETTA: Well, you know, there -- there is a sense that you're not

quite sure whether Donald Trump is really enjoying being president of the United States. And you're not quite sure what Donald Trump is going to show up in the Oval Office. One day he is dividing the American people, being very critical about things that are happening, you know, asserting comments that really are divisive and really are an appeal to the worst in the American people.

And then today he comes back, he gives a speech to the American Legion that I think, you know, obviously hit some very responsible issues with regards to veterans and with regards to the role of our men and women in uniform.

[18:15:15] And, you know, he put himself on the right track. He's got to decide which one of these roles is he going to take as president. If he's a responsible president and wants to do the best for the country, I think all of us as Americans want a presidency that is successful. It's in our interest.

But if not, if he's going to take this divisive role, then you have to raise the question, is the president of the United States -- does he really want that as his legacy, as president of the United States, or would it be better for him to move on?

I think that's a decision that this president is going to have to make. What direction does he want to take this country?

BLITZER: The last time we spoke on this program, Mr. Secretary, that would be August 11th, you said you fear a miscalculation by President Trump could lead the U.S. into war with North Korea. How do you feel now?

PANETTA: Well, you know, what I see happening is that the president makes comments like fire and fury, and his National Security Team basically then tries to fill in and begin to move him back from the precipice. And to their credit, and I give a lot of credit to Jim Mattis and to General McMaster and to John Kelly and to Secretary Tillerson, I think he's in a much better place with regards to how we're dealing with North Korea.

So he's got a good National Security team. And very frankly, if he continues to listen to them, then I think we can avoid any kind of miscalculation in the future.

BLITZER: It was very stark at least to me and to others that the president in the speech last night, he went after his enemies, and we've mentioned all of those. But he did offer, in contrast, some praise for Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Kim Jong-un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us. I respect that fact very much. And maybe, probably not, but maybe something positive can come about.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: What was your reaction to that?

PANETTA: Well, I think it was more a prayer than a reality because we just -- we really don't know what Kim Jong-un is up to. I mean, the hope is that because he knows the consequence -- and by he, I mean Kim Jong-un knows the consequence that if he does something careless and provokes the United States, that it would mark the end of his regime.

And I think that the president understands that the only hope we have in dealing with this challenge in North Korea is to try to find some way to be able to negotiate a resolution of this matter. I think that hope was largely behind the words he used last night.

BLITZER: The president, as I mentioned earlier, he didn't find time in that 77-minute speech last night to wish Senator John McCain well in his battle with brain cancer, even though he was speaking in Senator McCain's home state of Arizona. Nor did he mention, by the way, the U.S. sailors lost on the USS John S. McCain, the battleship. What does that say to you?

PANETTA: You know, I would blame it on poor staff work, except that my impression was that he was giving that speech pretty much off the cuff, trying to speak to this political rally that he was addressing. And he was trying to focus on applause lines as opposed to doing what he should be doing as president of the United States, which is to recognize that we lost some very brave sailors as a result of that tragedy.

And that people like John McCain who have served this country bravely and courageously should get a wish that hopefully he will be able to turn to duty in the United States Senate.

I think the concern right now, Wolf, is that this president seems to want to -- if there is a place to go, he wants to go back to that constituency that is his base that's narrowing.

[18:20:18] To kind of reinforce his sense that somehow he's succeeding in what he's doing. And I think to some extent that's a little dangerous. I would rather him go to the American Legion. I would rather him go to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. I would rather him go to places like the NAACP. I would rather he go to the Chamber of Commerce, to businessmen, and talk about the future of this country.

That's where presidents should go, not kind of reliving the last campaign. That campaign is over. He's now president of the United States. And what he should be doing is focusing on getting something done for this country.

BLITZER: I want you to stand by, Mr. Secretary. There is more we need to discuss. We've got to take a quick break. We'll resume this conversation right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:25:55] BLITZER: We're back with former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. We're following the breaking news on President Trump and his on-message speech to the American Legion today after more off-the- rails remarks last night.

We are also learning more about the president's feud with the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Mr. Secretary, CNN has learned that the president hasn't spoken with the Senate majority leader in, what, two weeks following a very angry phone conversation they had in which President Trump got all worked up over the Russia investigation, the Russia sanctions, legislation. Why do you think this topic of Russia aggravates the president so much?

PANETTA: Well, I don't think there is any question that this whole Russian investigation is causing him an awful lot of consternation, to the point that he, you know, has struck out, going after the FBI director, going after the attorney general, now going after Mitch McConnell, the leader of the Senate, blaming almost everybody for the fact that he's in the middle of this investigation.

You know, the reality was -- is that if, in fact, there's nothing here, then there shouldn't be anything that should concern the president. He ought to allow Bob Mueller to conduct his investigation, allow the committees to conduct their investigation, and basically focus on running the country. But obviously that's not the case.

I think part of the problem here, Wolf, is that this is a president who really does not have experience with regards to governing. He ran a business in New York. He ran it by basically bullying other people, criticizing them, attacking them, and using all the tactics that developers often use. And he did the same thing in the campaign. That's the way he does business.

But you can't govern that way. That's not the way you build relationships that have to support you in terms of being able to get legislation through the Congress. So if he's going to continue to attack the leadership, for whatever reason, if he's going to continue to blame others, then what he's doing is undermining any ability to get any major legislation through the Congress.

BLITZER: Because you make a fair point. How much can the president accomplish without Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader's support? He needs that support.

PANETTA: That's the bottom line. I mean, the problem is this president has exhausted executive orders. He threw out an awful lot of executive orders, and many of those who've been stopped by the courts. Many of those who've had very small consequence in terms of the life styles of people in this country.

So if he's going to achieve major legislative achievements such as tax reform, such as health care, such as funding for infrastructure, such as the budget, trying to get a budget done so that we don't shut down the government. If he's going to do that, he can't just tweet criticisms of the very people he's going to need to be able to get that legislation accomplished. That's a reality. And, so, you're now facing a situation where when the president does that, he further isolates himself from the leadership in the Congress. And I think both Republicans and Democrats are going to have to figure

out, as a co-equal branch of the government, whether they're going to have to take full responsibility for being able to deal with some of these issues, similar to what they did with Russian sanctions.

Are they going to have to basically act on their own in order to be able to get some things done? We'll have to see.

BLITZER: The president actually threatened a government shutdown over the funding of his proposed border wall with Mexico. He wants billions of dollars to be appropriated by the House and the Senate to build that wall. He didn't even mention Mexico would pay for it. He used to say Mexico would pay for it. Clearly, Mexico is not paying for that wall.

How unusual is a threat like that, where one party controls the White House, the Senate and the House?

PANETTA: You know, the president uses those lines. And what he does, whether he's talking about fire and fury, or whether he's talking about the issue of shutting the government down, or whether he's trying to attack somebody for no reason, when he speaks carelessly that way, I think what's happened is that it loses any impact. And I -- I understand that, you know, when presidents talk, words mean something.

But I think we've reached a point where when this president talks, particularly when he talks carelessly and recklessly about something like a government shutdown, that people frankly ignore what this president is saying. He's isolating himself.

And, so, the Congress is much more aware of the fact, having been through a shutdown, what the political consequences of that are, and what the economic consequences of that are going to be.

And it's one of those moments where I think John Kelly has to lower his head and basically find a moment where you can -- he can sit down and say, "Mr. President, you cannot talk about a shutdown, because that would be very damaging to the economy and to the country. That's the kind of thing you shouldn't play games with."

BLITZER: Yes, John Kelly, the White House chief of staff.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

PANETTA: All right, good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Just ahead we'll have much more on the president's attempt to fire up his base in Phoenix. What did his supporters think when he started bragging about his education and his wealth?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: I always hear about the elite. You know, the elite. They're elite? I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news tonight, a very dramatic change of tone by President Trump, speaking on message and off of a teleprompter at the American Legion convention hours after delivering a startlingly divisive and very angry speech. Here's some of what he said at his campaign rally in Phoenix.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: Our movement is a movement built on love. It's love for fellow citizens. It's love for struggling Americans who've been left behind.

Truly dishonest people in the media and the fake media, they make up stories.

Respect for America demands respect for all of its people.

I'm really doing this to show you how damned dishonest these people are.

When one part of America hurts, we all hurt.

They tried to take away our history and our heritage. You see that.

When one American suffers an injustice, all of America suffers together. We're all together.

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 see. KKK, we have KKK. I got them all.

No matter where they come from, no matter what faith they practice, they form a single unbreakable team.

I didn't say, "I love you because you're black" or "I love you because you're white" or "I love you because you're from Japan," or you're from China, or you're from Kenya, or you're from Scotland or Sweden. I love all the people of our country.

We're a team. As a nation, we're a team.

These are sick people. You know the thing I don't understand? You would think, you would think they'd want to make our country great again. And I honestly believe they don't. I honestly believe it.

Thousands and thousands of brave Americans have paid the ultimate price for our freedom. Now it's up to us to preserve and protect their legacy.

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. So, I won't talk about him.

My administration is committed to the idea that all Americans have the right to live in safety, security and peace.

They used to send in thugs. They'd swing like people are tougher than them, so it wasn't always very good or them. But they'd send in thugs, and our people would protect themselves. And then you'd go home, and you'd watch this violence.

[18:40:05] We are Americans, and the future belongs to us. The future belongs to all of you.

I always hear about the elite. You know, the elite. They're elite? I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.

This is our moment. This is our chance. This is our opportunity to recapture our dynasty like never before.

I've had a great life. I've had great success. I've enjoyed my life. Most people think I'm crazy to have done this. And I think they're right.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Let's dig a little bit deeper with our correspondents, our specialists. And Kaitlan Collins, you're a White House reporter. You've covered him now for the duration. What did you think? Which is the real, the real? Because we heard very different Donald Trumps there.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think you know which one is the real one, and we all do. It's when he's not reading off of the teleprompter.

I mean, look at the difference one day makes or even a few -- a machine makes during one speech. When he was on the teleprompter, he was talking about unity, love, patriotism. And when he was off the teleprompter, he was attacking about the media, threatening to shut down the government and bragging about how big his apartment is.

Donald Trump often says that reporters don't like how much he tweets. That's actually the opposite of what's true, because every day you get to see a window into what the president is actually thinking, because he lets you know; and that's exactly what he does when he goes off script.

But we see the difference there between when he's on script and off script of what the White House is trying to do. Staffers are trying to reign him in and have him be careful and measured. When he goes off script, that's when he's his true Trump self.

BLITZER: Manu, how do you see it?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's interesting, because staffers try to reign him in, and then publicly he berates his staffers. He says, you know, "They're telling me not to say names," and then you know he's trying to -- he's just not listening to the advice that he's getting.

But what drives Republicans in this town nuts is the fact that he has the biggest megaphone in the world. He has the bully pulpit. The national media is paying attention to his every word, and he could push an aggressive agenda. He could sell what they want to to do on tax reform. He could talk more about health care. He could discuss things about what they have to do in the fall whether it's raising the debt ceiling, not a popular issue but something they have to do, or what they want to do on spending legislation.

Instead he devolves into these divisive fights. And when he talks about things they have to do in the fall, he threatens a government shutdown, which he's already getting rebuked for by his own party. Both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan do not want to go that route. That could come to a head in the fall.

BLITZER: Politically, that would be a disaster for the Republican leadership in the House and the Senate and getting ready for midterm elections next year.

BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey Toobin, the president tried to revise his response to the Charlottesville, Virginia, violence. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Here's what I said on Saturday. "We're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville, Virginia." This is me speaking. "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence." That's me speaking on Saturday.

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

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Does the president not understand why "on many sides" or "very fine people on both sides" is so controversial? Does he not appreciate that?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: No, but I think that -- I mean, I think he understands perfectly well what he's doing, which is using this to attack the news media. I mean, I don't think, you know, he -- I don't think he cares, particularly, that he's leaving out -- I think he is -- he knows he's leaving out those words.

But by making the point that -- of the words he did say, he's just using as an excuse to say that the news media was deceptive in how it reported what he said.

I don't think he cares that we correct him. I mean, we are going to continue to do our job as journalists. That's like whatever he says, we're going to continue to do it. But he has decided that he is going to run his presidency by attacking us, regardless of what we do.

And I think he feels -- and here's where I think there is unfortunately some method to the madness. I think he thinks it's very effective to attack the news media. That's why he does it in every speech. So -- and you know, he may be right.

BLITZER: Well, you know what? We're not happy about that. That's -- that's for sure, because it's a potentially very, very disruptive, and even dangerous kind of word that he's uttering. But when he does that, as he did last night, Jeffrey, and I assume you agree.

TOOBIN: It's terrible. I mean, you know, someone is going to do something awful to a journalist. I feel for our colleagues who are sitting there as people yell and boo and chant "CNN sucks."

I mean, this is a very near to a violent situation right now. And if something violent happens, he's going to say, oh, well, I never told anyone to commit violence. This is very clear incitement.

But he's doing it knowingly. He's doing it because his base loves it. If you -- I'm here in Arkansas. People like him in Arkansas. People like the fact that he attacks the news media.

I mean -- so, you know, this is how he's decided to run his presidency. I don't like it, but, you know what? That's what he's decided to do, and a lot of people do like it. And I hope it doesn't lead to violence.

BLITZER: Yes, I hope so, too.

David Swerdlick, the president also responded to the huge debate underway across the country right now over Confederate monuments. And he said this: They are trying to take away our culture. They are trying to take away our history.

And his critics have pointed out that seems to echo some of the language, some of the code words of white identity politics.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, so, Wolf, I really do think there can be a nuanced discussion about these Confederate monuments. I'm from North Carolina. I've had many of those discussions. That being said, President Trump is not the person to lead that discussion because he has such low credibility on issues of race and gender with so many people.

I also think the problem is the construction of that sentence you read. They are trying to take away our heritage. Who is the they're and who is the our? It's been a refrain of his for the last two years, this us versus them conversation. It is sort of a dog whistle to his hardest of hard core supporters.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: He didn't have to bring that up either, Wolf. He just decided to bring this up. And he decided to go into that rant about Charlottesville when a lot of Republicans thought they were turning the corner after that Monday night speech. Paul Ryan came out afterwards and said oh, that was great, he did a good job. Let's move on.

But he doesn't want to move on. He brings back those very divisive issues that changes the topic of discussion.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Because -- going back to unscripted versus scripted, we saw the true Trump and how he really feels about that, what happened in Charlottesville and about the monument. That's -- those statements he issued on Monday night and last week were scripted by White House staffers. So, we see what he really thinks about it when he goes off script, which is another reason it works for us. We know what he thinks.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, go ahead.

TOOBIN: I was going to say he is very carefully -- he's talking about the monuments issue because I think he has more support on that issue than perhaps we might acknowledge here. I mean, the issue -- he doesn't like talking about praising the neo-Nazis and praising the KKK because he has no support on that issue.

But talking about renaming and removing monuments, I think the country is a lot more evenly divided about that. And his base loves it. And a lot of people, I think, have mixed feelings about wholesale changes in how we remember our history.

And, so, I just think that is not just a pure base play, as we say in politics. He -- on the issue of monuments and statues, I think the public is more divided than perhaps we may acknowledge.

BLITZER: I want to play this clip. This is very different part of the story. This is Hillary Clinton, an excerpt from her new book that's coming out next month on how she felt during that second presidential debate. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: And getting rid of the Affordable Care Act. And I'm going to fix it.

This is not OK, I thought. It was the second presidential debate, and Donald Trump was looming behind me. Two days before, the world heard him brag about groping women. Now, we were on a small stage, and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.

It was one of those moments where you wish you could hit pause, and ask everyone watching, well, what would you do? Do you stay calm, keep smiling and carry on as if he weren't repeatedly invading your space, or do you turn, look him in the eye and say loudly and clearly, back up, you creep, get away from me? I know you love to intimidate women, but you can't intimidate me, so back up?

I chose option A. I kept my cool, aided by a lifetime of dealing with difficult men trying to throw me off.

[18:50:02] I did, however, grip the microphone extra hard --

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What did you think, David Swerdlick? She's pretty blunt. In seeing those two options she had. She could have said to him, back off you creep, get away from me. She didn't.

SWERDLICK: Yes. I don't know if I can explain it any better than Secretary Clinton did in that clip, right? I mean, she in that -- we all watched the debate. In that moment, he really was -- President Trump really was nearly breathing down her neck and she opted not to make that situation about her and carry on with the job at hand, which was debating, which as I understand it is a situation professional women find themselves in all the time, having to work for the good of whatever the professional situation is and disregarding or working around or bypassing a situation that otherwise they would confront.

RAJU: And the question, too, Wolf, she's -- why didn't she -- she said it was so troubling, why didn't she bring this up during the campaign? Maybe not during the debate, but after the debate. That also speaks to her flaws as a candidate, not really wanting to show her authentic and true side, instead trying to be very cautious --

BLITZER: Let's ask a woman's perspective.

COLLINS: Well, I think in this situation, not just because she is a woman but she's just a scripted person, because she's been such a public figure for so long, and like she says in there, she didn't think it would be the right thing to do to speak out, and like later after reflection she's realized that's what she should do. Going back to who's scripted and who's not, they're literally opposites in that situation and she's a very scripted person. And saying, hey, back up, you creep on a national debate stage might not have worked in her favor she thought.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, what do you think?

TOOBIN: Boy, you know, I don't know. I mean, it sure is a riveting piece of prose by Hillary Clinton. I don't know how Hillary Clinton gets out of bed in the morning, frankly. I mean, to have lost this election by such a close margin and, you know, having thought about all the things she might have done differently, would 50,000 votes have changed because she told Donald Trump to back off, I don't know. But I can sure see why she's troubled by it.

BLITZER: Yes. And we look forward to her book.

Much more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:51] BLITZER: Now, a CNN exclusive, an impromptu interview with a central figure in the Russia investigations, Moscow's former ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.

Our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance caught up with Kislyak in Russia and asked him about his contacts with members of the Trump campaign.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Ambassador, quick question, did you discuss lifting sanctions with any members of the Trump team when you were in the United States?

SERGEY KISLYAK, FORMER RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.S.: With your respect, I'm here to talk to Russian people.

CHANCE: I understand that.

KISLYAK: I said everything I wanted prior to this.

CHANCE: Did you discuss opening secret channels with the Kremlin with Jared Kushner, for instance?

KISLYAK: I've said many times that we do not discuss the substance of our discussions with our American interlocutors out of respect to our partners.

CHANCE: Fair enough, but when you met Donald Trump, the president, were surprised when he disclosed secret information to you about Syria?

KISLYAK: I'm not sure that I heard anything that would be secret. But it was a good meeting and we were discussing things that were important to your country and mine.

CHANCE: What about this allegation that you are a spy master, a spy recruiter? Did you recruit any members of the Trump administration?

KISLYAK: You should be ashamed because CNN is the company that keeps up pointing to this allegation. It's nonsense.

CHANCE: U.S. security officials, intelligence officials made that, of course.

KISLYAK: I heard that in statements by them, also by former head of the FBI who said that was a diplomat. I have no -- no reasons to doubt that he knew what he said. OK.

CHANCE: Just one last question. What is your prediction for the future of U.S.-Russian relations?

KISLYAK: I'm afraid it is going to be difficult. And it's not because of us. It is because of the U.S. political dynamics. The anti-Russian law isn't going to help Russian-American discussions.

CHANCE: Is it the sanctions?

KISLYAK: It's sanctions a little bit -- sanctions is an instrument. It is basically the statement of being anti-Russian. That's the most important thing. It is not going to be whisked away. It's going to stay and it's going to spoil ability of both countries to resume normalcy in our relations and normalcy in our relations is exactly what is missing.

CHANCE: Have you lost faith that Donald Trump is going to be able what he said during his campaign and make things better with Moscow?

KISLYAK: I'm not sure that I operate with definitions of faith, absence of faith. We work with the United States based on the policies that are there (ph). They are not new. We have seen so many different things about us. And we feel pretty comfortable for what we do for Russia. And by the way, I'm here to do exactly what is important for us.

CHANCE: Sergey Kislyak, thank you very much.

KISLYAK: Thank you. Bye-bye.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Thanks to Matthew Chance for that interview.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.