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McConnell Praises Trump Minutes After Trump Criticizing Him; Debt Ceiling Deadline Looms Over Lawmakers Recess; Poll Voters See Trump as Divider, Not Uniter; Trump Campaign Aide E-mailed About Effort to Meet Putin. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 24, 2017 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: -- seemed to relish in an image on social media, passing this on to his millions of followers, the best eclipse ever, with a picture of him obstructing President Obama.

You know, I'm no expert on metaphors but one literal interpretation of that might be that President Trump is suggesting he's some sort of dark inanimate object obscuring a source of light.

A new poll suggests the majority of Americans might think so. This new poll shows just 31 percent of voters say the President is uniting the country. Sixty-two percent say he is dividing us.

CNN's Suzanne Malveaux at the White House where things just got very busy in a hurry. Suzanne?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: They certainly did, John, and we saw this flurry of tweets from the President.

I mean, first, he's meeting behind closed doors with his Director of the Office of Management and Budget to discuss and prepare for this huge debate that's going to take place with Senate Republicans over raising the debt ceiling. He's already tweeted out this morning, blaming in part the Republican leadership as well as the Democrats.

I want to read you this tweet that just came out saying, I requested that Mitch M -- Mitch McConnell -- Paul R -- you know, Paul Ryan -- tie the debt ceiling legislation into the popular V.A. Bill which just passed for easy approval. They didn't do it, and so now we have a big deal with Dems -- Democrats -- holding them up as usual on debt ceiling approval. Could have been so easy, now a mess.

This comes, as you know, John, at a time when Mitch McConnell and the President having a contentious phone call over various things, frustrations the President had. A profane-laced conversation, we are told. Trying to patch it up, if you will.

They say that they are going to be speaking when they come back to session. Senate comes back to session in about a week or so. That they'll sit down face-to-face, but this certainly doesn't help. Kind of a Cold War, if you will, between the President and the Republican leadership now.

Also, the President tweeting his frustration about the media and how people have portrayed and contrasted the two speeches that he made recently, very different tones.

The President tweeting, with several grammatical errors here, that the fake news is now complaining about my different types of back-to-back speeches. Well, there was Afghanistan, somber; the big rally, enthusiastic, dynamic, and fun; and the American Legion, Virginia, respectful and strong). Too bad the Dems have no one who can change tones.

So that is what the President is putting out this morning, John. We are also expecting as well that -- the "Wall Street Journal" reporting he is preparing on rolling out the military ban on transgendered individuals. That is something that members of Congress and, of course, the military community is going to be dealing with in the days to come, John.

BERMAN: All right. Suzanne Malveaux at the White House. As we said, it got very busy in a hurry there.

Joining me now to discuss, CNN Political Analyst Michael Bender and Nathan Gonzales and Caitlin Huey-Burns, national political reporter for RealClearPolitics.

Guys, this new series of statements from the President seem to go on three baskets. Number one, this bizarre eclipse metaphor where he showed himself, you know, covering up President Obama. Number two, this new attack on the Republican leaders of Congress. And then number three, explaining how he can have these different contradictory messages and how it's actually a good thing to be as contradictory as he is.

Let's start first with Congress, Caitlin, because it's possibly that has the greatest implication going forward. He's talking about the debt ceiling, which is a little bit arcane for most people to understand. But the bottom line here is, the country could default on its debts, and the way he's choosing to deal with it is to attack Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan.

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Right, exactly. And we know from covering debt ceilings in the past, the effort to raise them hinges upon agreements within the Republican Party. Remember, it's been the Republican Party that has diverged in terms of what they want to do on the debt ceiling.

The President, by tweeting this publicly, is kind of, you know, giving the leverage to Democrats in a lot of ways. And so I think, you know, Republicans already had a difficult time.

Put aside the broader agenda like tax reform, healthcare, other things, they have to focus on raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget to fund the government. On both of those key issues, basic tasks of governing, the President has come in and kind of thrown a grenade in the plan.

BERMAN: The internal Republican divisions are what could hold this up, and he just made them, perhaps --

HUEY-BURNS: Exactly.

BERMAN: -- greater by saying what he said. All right. Issue number two, Michael, is this defense of his speeches over the last few days. He gave that speech on Afghanistan, then he gave that, you know, stem winder rally thing in Phoenix. And then, yesterday, before the American Legion, he was more respectful.

Again, he was bragging on Twitter, on social media, that this just shows how he can change tones. But the issue here, Michael, is it's not just that these are different messages. It's that they're directly contradictory. On the one hand, he is saying unite the country; on the other hand, he is being divisive.

MICHAEL BENDER, REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Yes, I think that's correct. He definitely issues some competing messages in different times when he speaks, but he's also a corrector.

[09:05:04] He is one of his party's most gifted communicators right now. And his ability to go out there and give a stem winder, as you called it, or a more somber speech, what that does at sort of the base political level is allow people to hear what they want to hear. His supporters -- it upsets his supporters, it rallies his base. And all these speeches yesterday and in the last few days were given for very specific reasons.

BERMAN: You know, it's a great point, Nathan. It gives people what they want to hear. Does it give Republicans in Congress?

Again, the key constituency here to get what he wants passed, the legislation passed and perhaps the key constituency to protect him on the Russia investigation, which we'll talk about in just a second, by giving the more somber speeches, that doughnut, if you will, around that aggressive speech, does it give Republicans in Congress a chance, something to point at and say, hey, you know, he is being the stable president we need.

NATHAN GONZALES, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, INSIDE ELECTIONS: Yes, I think -- it's helpful to me to come back and realize that the President doesn't think about what's good for the Republican Party. I mean, I would argue that Donald Trump isn't really Republican at all.

I mean, he became the President through the Republican Party, but he does not wake up in the morning and think, what is best for the Republican Party? And I think that comes through in his tweets.

And I also think the President is used to getting what he wants through either intimidation or embarrassing people, and that's just not how it works with congressional leaders or with senators.

And so, you know, he can -- it's fine if he doesn't want to put the Republican Party first. I think some of his supporters don't really care about the Republican Party either. But he needs the Republican Party to pass his agenda.

And that's where, you know, there -- everything's getting sideways because he is not going about it in the right way. They might agree on the ends but they are very different -- very -- a difference of agreement on the means to get there.

BERMAN: Let me just put up one poll number which sort of illustrates what Americans think. What message Americans are hearing from the President right now, the issue of the impact on White supremacist. The impact of the President's statement on White supremacist over the last week.

They -- Quinnipiac asked a question whether it encouraged White supremacists, discouraged them, or had no impact at all. Discourage was just three percent, which, I think, is basically zero percent within the margin of error depending on how you look, Caitlin says. The Americans have weighed in on what message they are getting.

I want to change subjects right now because one subject which seems to be a central sticking point with Republicans in Congress for the President is Russia. We just learned moments ago, CNN confirmed, that the President did have a conversation with Senator Tom Tillis over the legislation that Tillis is presenting to protect the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller, to give Congress sort of a say and judges a say in this.

It turns out the President did call him, and asked Tom Tillis, hey, what are you doing here? Why are you doing this? We know that the President fought with Mitch McConnell over the Russia investigations. Russia seems to loom over everything.

HUEY-BURNS: Sure. And this is at the center of the President's frustrations with everything, particularly within his own party. What is interesting here is, you know, we talk a lot about what can Republicans do to hold this president accountable? What can they do to distance themselves from him, or when will we see this break?

The Russian investigation is one way that the Republicans in Congress are kind of holding their ground against Trump because they are in charge of Congress. They're in charge of all of the committees looking into this. And they have been largely supportive of the Special -- the Special Counsel, Robert Mueller.

So that, combined with the Russian sanctions that President had to sign, the -- this is a way for Republicans to hold their own against Donald Trump. And he's certainly frustrated with that.

But it's also important to know that he hasn't figured out -- Trump hasn't figured it out how to have any leverage with these Republican senators that he needs. He hasn't been able to figure out what encourages them, and that's been apparent in all of these negotiations on multiple issues.

BERMAN: You know, Michael Bender, you cover the White House. You're a White House correspondent. Who's driving this ship right now, aside from the fact that we know the President of the United States, you know, is his own person as we said and really is the driving force here?

With Steve Bannon gone now, with Reince Priebus gone now, is this a General John Kelly operation or is this happening, all of these, the statements this morning, in spite of General Kelly?

BENDER: I know you asked me not to give the obvious answer, that the President is driving the ship, but that is -- that's the only answer here. You know, we've just seen this with Trump for too long to put too much weight into any particular policy statement, any sort of particular promise, any specific promise, or any personnel.

I mean, you know, you mentioned Bannon being jettisoned last week. You know, that was in a week where he doubled down on his defense of confederate symbols, right? I mean, he launched his first trade action against China. I mean, these are -- he started renegotiations on NAFTA. This is -- that is the nationalist agenda, and he fired the guy most aligned with that.

[09:10:04] You know, General Kelly is trying to bring a change of tone within the West Wing. Talking to staff over there, White House aides, he's been largely successful in bringing more command of control into the West Wing, but this is the President. I mean, you know --

BERMAN: Right.

BENDER: General Kelly was chief of staff when the President gave that impromptu Tuesday news conference.

GONZALES: Right.

BENDER: So when it comes down to it, it's on Donald Trump. It's on the President here.

BERMAN: Sure. You know, General Kelly is, in fact, the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday Chief of Staff. Not just the Monday, Wednesday Chief of Staff.

All right, guys. Thank you very, very much.

We do have news this morning on the Russian investigation. An e-mail effort from a man who is now a top official inside the White House that shows -- seem to show, at the very least, an effort to connect the Trump campaign with Russian President Vladimir Putin last summer.

The man behind that e-mail is Rick Dearborn, the President's now deputy chief of staff. CNN's Jessica Schneider, live in Washington with CNN's exclusive reporting.

Jessica, what's going on here?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Really, John, this e-mail detailed plans to potentially arrange a meeting with the Russian President, and it was uncovered by congressional investigators as part of a batch of about 20,000 documents turned over by the Trump campaign.

So the e-mail is from then campaign aide and now deputy chief of staff, Rick Dearborn. And in it, he explains that an individual was seeking to connect top campaign officials with Russian President Putin. Now, the individual who attempted to arrange this get together is being identified only as being from W.V. One source says that's a reference to West Virginia.

Now, in the e-mail, Dearborn did appear skeptical of the request to set up that meeting with Putin, and it's unclear if Dearborn ever acted on the request. But what is notable about this e-mail is it was sent in June 2016, around the same time of that Trump Tower meeting involving Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Russians who had promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

Now, it's unclear if this latest e-mail had any connection to that meeting, but intelligence experts are saying that this fits a pattern of Russians trying to gather human intelligence from the campaign and another attempt by them to gain an entry point into the campaign.

Now, Rick Dearborn who wrote the e-mail and is now the President's deputy chief of staff, he didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. The White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, says she wouldn't comment on potentially leaked documents.

But, you know, John, it's yet another point of question for congressional investigators in their Russia probe, the question being, did the campaign do anything with this latest request that we're seeing for the Trump campaign officials to actually meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin? John.

BERMAN: All right. Jessica Schneider for us in Washington. Thank you so much.

We do have some more breaking news. The President just launched a fresh attack against a security official who questioned his fitness for leadership. We'll get to that.

Plus, a fresh attack this morning on the leaders of Congress. But, Mitch M, as the President calls him, how much longer will he stay quiet on this?

Plus, a notorious White supremacist turns himself in facing felony charges after the Charlottesville protest. That city is on edge. We will speak to the Vice Mayor shortly.

And breaking this morning, you still have to go to work today because you did not win power ball. Statically speaking, I know that to be true. However, one person did, just not in the place everyone thought it was.

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[09:17:33]

BERMAN: OK. President Trump just a few minutes ago issued new attacks, some new criticism of the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and then very shortly after that, he may not have known -- the majority leader praised the administration.

It came during a breakfast speech, though, he did not answer questions that were hurled to him after the speech. Joining me now, two men who worked very closely with the majority leader, both served as Senator Mitch McConnell's chief of staff at one point. Hunter Baits is now a co-chair of the Public Law and Policy Practice at Aiken Gump, and Brian McGuire is now a policy director at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck LLP.

Both of you graduates of McConnell University and full disclosure, both of you think that the idea of a feud between the president and the majority leader is overblown.

And, but, Brian, since you know the majority leader so well, what does he make of it, when the president of the United States seems to directly criticize his leadership in the Senate?

BRIAN MCGUIRE, SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL'S FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF: I think the first point to make is that Leader McConnell doesn't take anything like this personally. He's very focused now, as always, on legislative goals that he and the president shares, and so, I think that's entirely what his focus is on.

As for the supposed spat that they had, I think that having worked for Leader McConnell for more than a decade, I probably heard him yell once and it was deliberate. So, he does not raise his voice in those situations and the idea that they had a shouting match to me is just not credible.

BERMAN: Well, it may not have been shouting, but it seems to be pretty solid reporting that it wasn't a comfortable phone call two weeks ago, and it was during that call that the president was critical of Senator McConnell's handling not just of Obamacare but also of the Russia investigation and sanctions.

You know, Hunter, again, based on what you know of the leader, what do you think he makes of the president's leadership style?

HUNTER BATES, SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL'S FORMER CHIEF OF STAFF: Look, John, what I'm going to say today is not going to drive ratings or sell newspapers, but it happens to be true, and that is that I think this entire story that the GOP legislative agenda is being derailed is completely overblown.

And I think people don't really care about whether President Trump and Leader McConnell are vacationing in New Jersey, or hanging out at Mar- a-Lago. What really matters is that these two men agree on 95 percent of the Republican agenda.

So, I don't think the fact that tweets or tactics or timing, none of that changes the fact that at the core, these two men are trying to achieve the same objectives and I think the whole notion of this conflict threatening that agenda is overblown.

[09:20:09] BERMAN: Well, you know, but I'm not making it up when I do a dramatic reading right now of a statement the president just made to millions of people a short time ago. He says -- let me see.

Well, no, the president was -- can we put up the -- if Republican Senate doesn't get -- no. The president went after Mitch McConnell for how he handled the debt ceiling, right, he suggested that Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell didn't raise the debt limit as part of the VA.

And he says now Democrats will take over in it a shame he says. Could have been so easy. Now it's a mess. He says. Now, it's a mess. The president says. So, it's not me saying it's a mess. It's the president of the United States, Brian, suggesting that the way that Mitch McConnell has handled this is a mess.

MCGUIRE: Well, look, I appreciate that the president is anxious to get his agenda through, and so are Republicans in Congress. But the simple fact is if you attached the debt ceiling to the VA bill, both of them would have failed.

And so, I think the more constructive approach here would be to focus on the Republicans so you need to get this thing through and the Democrats and to talk about that.

BERMAN: See, but you just said in a very reasoned way something I'm sure Mitch McConnell would tell the president. Mr. President, you're flat-out wrong here. If we did what you said this legislation would go down. So, it gets to how the president understands the way things work inside Congress.

And Hunter, to that point, the president keeps on talking about the Senate changing the filibuster rules. He wants legislation to be able to pass with just 50 votes, no chance of a filibuster. This is something we talk to anyone in the Senate Republican leadership, any key Republican members of the House, they say this is a really bad idea.

BATES: Well, the fact of the matter is if you change the filibuster rule, if President Obama and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi had changed the filibuster rule for legislation that the country would look dramatically different because President Obama would have been able to do everything that he wanted to achieve and I think that would have been bad for the country.

So, I think the rule does play an important role. But to go back for just a minute about the debt ceiling tweet, again, I think the most important thing that we should see in that is that President Trump is saying that he wants the debt ceiling done.

He wants it done in a way that's clean and attached to legislation that can otherwise pass. That is almost exactly what Speaker Ryan and Leader McConnell have been saying. So again, we can get worked up about the fact that they have a different approach on tactics but at the core, on the policy issues, they're in 100 percent agreement.

And I think that's the point we have to keep coming back to. I think when they come back in September, after Labor Day, they certainly have a very busy a plate. They have only 12 legislative days for both the House and the Senate around at the same time. But the fact that they agree on what the core objectives of that period should include, I think is the most important point. BERMAN: Brian, one of the things, bones of contention appears to be Russia. Broadly speaking and specifically the Russia investigation. We understand the president had a phone call with Mitch McConnell, that phone call dealt with the Russian sanctions, which the president doesn't improve of.

Also, the Russia investigation which the president doesn't approve of. And we know he talked to Senator Tom Tillis and doesn't like the idea that Congress wants to make it harder for him to fire the special council.

What do you think the Senate majority leader sees as his role in dealing with the Russian investigation?

MCGUIRE: I think Leader McConnell has consistently said that this is going to be handled by the Senate Intelligence Committee. That's the appropriate place for it to be handled and it is being handled there in a bipartisan way.

So I think he has confidence in the Senate's ability to do a thorough investigation and he'll wait patiently for the results of that investigation.

BERMAN: You know, and then, Hunter, just again, broadly speaking because so much needs to get done in September. Based on what you have seen, so far, what's the number one lesson that you hope the president has learned up until this point to get to things done with Congress, starting in a week?

BATES: Well, again, I think the point that I would keep coming back to here is that with Leader McConnell and who I've known for 30 years, with him it is never personal. It's about winning, advancing the cause.

And I think that what you're going to see when they come back after Labor Day is they're going to get the debt ceiling raised, keep the government funded and ultimately Republicans are going to unify around a goal that's been elusive for a generation, which is meaningful comprehensive tax reform.

I was with Leader McConnell and Secretary Mnuchin in Louisville, Kentucky on Monday in Leader McConnell's home town there with Secretary Mnuchin talking about tax reform, and the two of them are on the same page standing shoulder to shoulder. So, again, I think that the key here is these guys are aligned on policy and ultimately going to get to the same place over the goal line.

[09:25:03] BERMAN: Strictly business which were also words used by Michael Corleoni (ph) before things ended very badly for some other people inside the (inaudible). Brian and Hunter, I do appreciate your insight here. I think it's important to get this insight from inside McConnell world to get a sense of these stories that are going on right now. Appreciate it, guys.

All right. As we talk now, the clock is ticking on Congress. The debt ceiling deadline, it does loom this morning we are learning that October is when the Treasury Department says it will run out of money to pay the country's bills in full and on time. So, how will that influence the market the today, CNN chief business correspondent, Christine Romans.

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: It's called the x date. It's bad. It's when the government doesn't have enough money coming in to pay all the bills. It is a very bad day. Don't want this. This is you -- you want to swipe left, but it's not good.

This could be maybe early October to mid-October. Here's what happens if the U.S. can't raise the debt ceiling. It's at 19.8 trillion right now. There could be a possible U.S. credit down grade. Federal employees, contractors wouldn't get paid. World markets could tank here.

Basically, when that date happens, the U.S., about 25 percent of all the bills, the U.S. won't be able to pay. The treasury secretary will decide what gets the paid. Maybe give IOUs to senior citizens for their Social Security checks.

That would really get everybody's attention. It's not just the debt ceiling, John, the x date, September 30th is the end of the fiscal year. The government runs out of funding. Funding the government is a big problem here.

As you know the president has said he would like to tie border wall funding to overall government funding. So, you've got September 30th, early to mid-October, these two very important deadlines here.

But stock markets have been a little bit more euphoric in the last day or so. Here's why. There are rumblings in Washington that they are moving forward on tax reform. At some point, all of these players need to win and that win is going to have something to do with tax reform.

BERMAN: It's astounding that all investors wanted a tax cut. They will look beyond anything and everything if they feel like there are going to be a tax cut.

ROMANS: I think it could be a little bit volatile, though, from here on until the end of the year. With all of these funding deadlines coming, with fits and starts on tax reform. There are a lot of risks for markets that's up 20 percent over the past year.

BERMAN: Christine Romans, great to have you. Everyone on Tinder right now planning for their ex dates.

Charlottesville moves to cover up confederate statues as the city looks to move forward after the white nationalist rally. One civil rights leader says the focus should be on substance not symbols. Charlottesville's vice mayor joins me next.

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