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After Calling for Unity, Trump Changes Tune and Attacks Media. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired October 25, 2018 - 16:30   ET


JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The president feels he's being linked unfairly to these acts of potential violence which may explain why after delivering a somewhat measured nonpartisan condemnation of the crimes at first, the president pretty quickly began blaming the media for the tense environment, tweeting this morning, for instance, quote, a very big part of the anger we see today in our society by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the mainstream media that I referred to as fake news.

[16:30:15] It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream media must clean up its act fast.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny is live at the White House.

Jeff, obviously, to state the obvious, the only person responsible for the bombs is the bomber, whose identity and motive we do not know. But even some Republicans have called for president Trump to tone down the rhetoric. Is there any -- does he have any plans to do so.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Now, Jake, based on our conversations with a variety of people here, as well as others who have spoken to the president today, we do not expect -- they do not expect him to take any personal responsibility for this heated political rhetoric and this environment that we're in right now. But less certain is whether he's going to tone down the volume as he did at that rally last night in Wisconsin.

But a day after issuing a rare call for civility, he did a familiar thing, he dug in.


ZELENY (voice-over): As a nationwide manhunt intensifies with three more suspected pipe bomb packages discovered earlier today, the president's first act of business: blaming the media. At 7:18 a.m. tweeting: A very big part of the anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposefully false and inaccurate reporting of the mainstream media that I refer to as fake news. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description.

A far cry from teleprompter Trump who said this 12 hours earlier at a campaign rally.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony. We can do it. We can do it. We can do it.

ZELENY: Twelve days before the midterm elections, the president clearly mindful of the potential political peril, with pipe bombs being sent to some of his favorite political targets.

He even told supporters in Wisconsin he was on his best behavior.

TRUMP: By the way, do you see how nice I'm behaving tonight? Have you ever seen this? We're all behaving very well. And hopefully we can keep it that way, right? We're going to keep it that way.

ZELENY: Yet the president did not mention any of those intended target -- President Obama, Secretary Clinton, Vice President Biden or others, by name. Only describing them like this.

TRUMP: Current and former high ranking government officials.

ZELENY: CNN learned neither the president nor the White House reached out to Obama, Clinton or any of the targets of the potential assassination attempts.

The president did not address the matter today while delivering an election message about lowering drug prices.

TRUMP: We're fighting for lower drug prices which will now be automatic, it will be automatic and very substantial.

ZELENY: And so far declining to call the bombs an act of domestic terrorism as Republican and House Speaker Paul Ryan and others have done.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: That is an act of terrorism. There is no place for that in our democracy.

ZELENY: The president thinks his rhetoric has been unfairly linked to the bomb incidents, sources tell CNN, and has no plans of claiming any personal responsibility.

He believes he's treated with hostility and unfairly -- there's no talking him out of that, according to one confidant of the president.

The president also taking no steps to quiet conspiracy theories from some allies that Democrats are behind the pre-election plot

RUSH LIMBAUGH, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: Republicans just don't do this kind of thing. Not one of these bombs went off. And if a Democrat operative's purpose here is to make it look like, hey, you know, there are mobs everywhere, the mobs are not just Democrat mobs.


ZELENY: And those are some of the voices in the president's mind as he's weighing all of this.

Now, some Republicans I've talked to asked if the president is missing an opportunity for presidential leadership, just 12 days again before the midterm elections. If he talked about this more, could this be a moment for him at least politically speaking to try to get back some of those suburban voters who have soured on him?

But the president clearly taking at least so far at least a different path here going after something he relishes so much, fighting with the media. It's worked for him before, Jake. We'll see if it will now.

TAPPER: All right. Jeff Zeleny at the White House.

Let's talk about it with my experts, David Urban, you heard Jeff say there are Republicans who feel the president is squandering an opportunity for real leadership, for the kind of unity he talked about in the initial address before he started talking -- attacking the media and the like. Do you think he's missing an opportunity?

DAVID URBAN, FORMER TRUMP CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST: I think big moments like this in history, real opportunity to kind of -- the president said the right thing initially. I think he it continue or that similar vein.

The media -- not necessarily this show -- has rushed to lay blame at his footsteps pretty early and loudly and I think everybody needs to step back and just wait and see, let's wait and see what happens. There is a big investigation about trials of certain senators and let's wait and see what the jury says.

TAPPER: It's true.

URBAN: Let's wait until the investigation comes out here, if there is somebody that did this, that is linked to some crazy person, we should talk about it.

[16:35:06] Look, I didn't blame -- when Bernie Sanders crazy shooter went and shot up the RNC baseball team, I didn't come here and blame Bernie Sanders.

TAPPER: No, no, obviously, the only person responsible is the shooter and we don't know the suspect, we don't know the motive, we don't know anything about it, we will find out and when we do --

URBAN: Yes, but your initial question, yes, it's a great opportunity.

TAPPER: He's passing up an opportunity is what I'm saying.

URBAN: Should stand up and say, we need to kind of turn down the rhetoric a bit.

TAPPER: And, Doug, take a listen to one thing that President Trump yesterday that really caught my ear.


TRUMP: Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective.

(END VIDEO CLIP) TAPPER: Stop treating political opponents as being morally defective. Now take a listen to this.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She went to your wedding.

TRUMP: She did, she did. In a certain way, evil.

She is a crooked one. There's no question. Crooked Hillary Clinton.

It is being perpetrated by some very evil people. Some of them are Democrats, I must say.

It's a disgraceful situation brought about by people that are evil.


TAPPER: First part there, going after Hillary Clinton, calling her evil. The second part a reference to people who oppose Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the Supreme Court. He's also called reporters, journalists in general evil.

That certainly sounds like him treating his opponents as morally defective.

DOUG HEYE, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Yes, first quote you played was more of a Nikki Haley than Donald Trump, the rhetoric we could use in Washington now all of us. One thing Donald Trump said in this context of yesterday, particularly galling, is in 2016 he said well, maybe Hillary Clinton shouldn't have Secret Service protection for a few days and let's see what happens.

Trump supporters will say he's joking, but we have all counseled politicians and said what you say is not necessarily what people hear, not just with words, but with tone and how they present that. That's why this rhetoric on all sides needs to be dialed back. There are too many angry voices in Washington and throughout the country right now. We need calm voices.

TAPPER: Angela?

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think the challenge I have and I love my Doug Heye, the challenge I have with this is "all sides" rhetoric is exactly the problem. It is not coming from all sides.

TAPPER: What is not coming from all sides?

RYE: This type of rhetoric is not coming from all sides. I don't think you can find -- I will challenge you to find a clip where there are Democrats with a platform like Donald Trump's who are -- Donald Trump who is speaking like that. You will not find one.

My own mentor who I adore deeply passionate, her comments were framed as if she said something she did not say -- I'm talking about Congresswoman Maxine Waters who received one of these packages. She was labeled on Rush Limbaugh's show and all these other conservative networks as saying attract Trump administration officials and that's not what she said.

I think what we have to tone down is how we frame conversations, and I think the president has a lot of ownership -- it started with his campaign. He was talking about bailing people out of jail for punching protesters in the face. He's yet to even own that rhetoric.

So he's gone on, he's calling one -- a good friend of mine corrupt. He has no basis for that, online, talking about Andrew Gillum.

TAPPER: Andrew Gillum, running for governor of Florida.

RYE: I mean, he just continues to perpetuate the very rhetoric he read from a prompter saying is out of line.

TAPPER: Jen Psaki, I want to ask you about the fact that President Trump according to our reporting has yet to reach out to former President Obama, former President Clinton, not to mention all the other individuals. He has yet to even mention CNN being on the receiving end of one of these packages.


TAPPER: Do you think that President Obama would have done something differently if it had been say, fox that had gotten the package in the mail and Republican presidents that had gotten other packages?

PSAKI: Yes, I think President George W. Bush would have done something different and President Clinton would have done something different and George H.W. Bush would have done something different.

I think what we're seeing here is there are moments that really test a president's leadership and whether they have the moral leadership, ironically given his statement, to lead the country. And Donald Trump has failed repeatedly. He failed when it came to Charlottesville. He has failed when it came to the hurricane, and this is another failure to bring the country together.

President Obama certainly would have handled it differently. There are times when you put partisanship aside and you try to bring the country together. It's not just a missed opportunity. It is a dangerous missed opportunity because this is just escalating and it will only probably get worse if he doesn't change his tone.

TAPPER: Do you think it is unfair for people in the media, Democrats, even some Republicans, Jeff Flake among them, to stay in the wake of this incident, President Trump and everybody, but definitely President Trump, needs to tone down the rhetoric?

URBAN: I watched -- I don't agree with governor Cuomo much, I watched his segment earlier this afternoon with Brooke Baldwin and was completely and utterly supportive of everything the guy said.

The governor said, look, this isn't about President Trump.

[16:40:01] This is about America. This isn't a red and blue issue. This is a red, white and blue issue. This is about how we dial it back overall.

And that's a question that's going to -- you know, it's not going to end here. It's not going to end with this president. It's going to end --

PSAKI: But, David, I think the issue is when you're sitting in the Oval Office, you have the biggest megaphone in the country, and you are sending a message on how everybody should behave.

URBAN: You know what, Jen, no matter what President Trump said, everyone would be on cable news saying he didn't go far enough, didn't say enough, didn't say -- listen, so let me ask you a question. When white powder was sent to the Trump children, I didn't hear anybody hue and cry on cable news saying, oh, my god, what is going on with the Trump kids, what are people attacking the Trump family? Where was it? Silence.

HEYE: There wasn't enough outrage there. Senator Collins had a ricin scare. We're seeing GOP --

URBAN: Where is the equal ties to outrage?

HEYE: There is too much anger out there?

But the president is the leader of the free world and the leader of the country. It has to start with him, especially given the rhetoric that he said, knock the crap out of them, Hillary Clinton shouldn't have Secret Service protection.

URBAN: I mean, you can't -- the "New York Times" published a fictional op-ed yesterday, talking about how does the Mueller probe end? One of the pieces was assassinate President Trump. It ran in "New York Times" yesterday. That's outrageous.

HEYE: Absolutely.

URBAN: That's outrageous.

TAPPER: I mean, I think this is one of the things that you hear from conservatives, they talk about --

URBAN: Dialing back across the board.

TAPPER: -- that everybody needs -- I know Democrats say there is no both sides on this. But this is an argument, why is there an op-ed in "The Times", I'm not holding you responsible for it.

RYE: No, of course not. But I'm happy to say something on this. I don't think that it is excusable on any platform to talk about the assassination of anyone and definitely the president of the United States. I hope you don't hear me saying that.

URBAN: No --

RYE: I was not aware of that op-ed, but I am saying that there is a unique responsibility that exists in the Oval Office. There is a unique responsibility that rests squarely in the lap of president Trump and what I think is abundantly frustrating to me and I would dare say many others is that he's held at a lower standard than me other leaders whether in Congress and Senate, you know, the print publication, CNN.

URBAN: So, again, I wish this president would do a lot more things that take away -- serve as a distraction to all the accomplishment's he's having, right? This is -- the president came out and said those things, called -- I called President Obama, called former President Clinton, I offered my full support. Let me talk to you about what's going on, what I did on drug pricing, let me tell you what I did for the American people.

TAPPER: Right.

URBAN: He would be able to focus more on the accomplishments and less on the distraction. I think this president does a great disservice to his own legacy, his record, what is going on in the administration.


TAPPER: I did hear people praise President Trump for his comments in what was the East Room yesterday when he initially came out and said those nice things.

URBAN: My point to the president is get rid of distractions, focus on the good things you're doing. It's much bigger deal.

PSAKI: It's not just the distractions. I did say something positive yesterday about what President Trump said it was the right tone. I think the issue is how he uses his power, he's very powerful whether you like him or not. He wields a percentage of the population, who follows him in his words and follows what he has to say.

So, it's not just saying one thing and moving on to drug pricing. It is encouraging his supporters to calm down, not to use violence, to treat the media with respect. He's not using that power in that way.

URBAN: You're assuming -- so John Hinckley if Jodie Foster said something to John Hinckley, would that have an impact? Whoever did this is an insane person. The president doesn't speak and someone goes out and wraps up pipe bombs.

RYE: Yes, he does actually.

HEYE: He's a leader and there's a moral call here. And the problem is, you know, we talk about low expectations, this is really easy to get right and say and do the right things and all we saw initially after the Mike Pence tweet was basically a retweet with plus one, we heard from Melania before we heard from the president.

This is a time for the president to lead. We will back him if he does it.

URBAN: Doug, again, I wish the president would say -- take this off the table, right? It eliminates the clutter, the distraction. The president comes out and says, listen, I talked to President Obama, I talked to these guys, it is the wrong thing to do. People, this is obviously insane --


TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about.

How long has it been since we've seen such a toxic political vibe erupt like this? Some perspective next from historians. Stay with us.


[16:45:00] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: First some breaking news in our "WORLD LEAD" now. The son of murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi moments ago arrived here in the United States. This comes as CIA Director Gina Haspel briefed President Trump today on the latest U.S. intelligence into Khashoggi's execution and as the Saudi government now admits his murder was in fact premeditated. Let's get right to CNN's Alex Marquardt.

And Alex, CIA Director Haspel just returned from Turkey where she met with investigators. Do we know whether she heard this alleged audio of Khashoggi being killed?

ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Right. This audio that is really at the nexus of this investigation that the Turks have said convinced them very early on that Khashoggi was indeed murdered by the Saudis. Jake, Haspel has just returned. The CIA and the Trump administration are not saying whether she heard that audio. They're simply saying that she went over there to assess the evidence that they do have. The Washington Post, however, has said that part of that assessment was listening to that audio that revealed the interrogation and the execution of Khashoggi.

So you know, it was early on in that investigation where the Turks did come out and say we are convinced that he was killed. We don't -- we didn't know at the time what they were basing that on. It was only a short time later that they revealed that it was because they had that audio and video they said from inside the embassy. Now Haspel has briefed the president. She was at the White House today. Secretary of State Pompeo was also over there. A little word on what was revealed in that briefing.

But also remember, Jake, the President has said that there would be severe consequences if it was revealed that the Saudis had been responsible for this. Now they are not just saying that they are responsible but that it was premeditated and so far the only reaction from the Trump administration has been to -- has been to take away the visas of 21 Saudis, 18 of whom are already detained. So it's not like it's at the top of their list to travel here to the state. So far, the Trump administration, the U.S. reaction has really just been a slap on the wrist, Jake.

[16:50:41] TAPPER: All right Alex Marquardt, thank you so much. With blame swirling about the divisiveness of the United States -- in the United States rather, some perspective. That's next.


TAPPER: Breaking news, authorities believe several of the packages went through a processing center in Opa-locka, Florida, a suburb outside of Miami according to two law enforcement officials. A U.S. Postal Service employee tells CNN this facility handles mail that is incoming and outgoing from South Florida, possibly giving authorities some clues as to who is behind these bombing attempts. As investigators try to piece together these clues, the White House is standing by the President's reaction to ten suspicious packages being sent to Democrats and Trump critics and CNN.

Joining me now is CNN Contributor and Presidential Historian Doug Brinkley. Doug, thanks for joining us. Obviously, there was the 2017 congressional shooting that targeted House and Senate Republicans. This was an attempted attack against two former Democratic presidents, other former Democratic administration officials. Has there ever been any attempted attack quite like this current one in American history, two U.S. presidents?

[16:55:40] DOUG BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No, Jake. It's it's completely unique. And Donald Trump's response has been quite tepid. You know, we -- if you recall, he would constantly, President Trump, talked about terrorism and used to browbeat Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton for not talking and using the word terrorism. This is domestic terrorism. This is like the Oklahoma City bombing when Timothy McVeigh you know, was arrested and committed to prison and death.

That's a very serious crime against our country going on right now but I think President Trump sees it as politically inconvenient. It's a little bit like the hurricane in Puerto Rico and he tries to push that aside because it kind of steps on his agenda. This is a -- there are moments when presidents have to seek unity, they have to get out their political box. He failed to do that right now out of fear for the Midterm Elections coming up.

TAPPER: The President has placed some of the blame on the media for the ugly climate. He said something last night at his rally in Wisconsin and he tweeted this morning "a very big part of the anger we see today in our society is caused by the purposely false and inaccurate reporting of the mainstream media that I refer to as fake news. It has gotten so bad and hateful that it is beyond description. Mainstream media must clean up its act fast."

Now, every president that I know of has fought with the Fourth Estate, some more than others obviously but has any U.S. president ever been this antagonistic with reporters?\

BRINKLEY: Nobody, not even Richard Nixon with this enemies list. Here yesterday was CNN under terror attack. People flooding out of the building, a live bomb in the building and he doesn't have the time to call somebody at CNN and talk to them, to see if they're OK the way say, Governor Cuomo did in New York. It's because he don't like CNN and he started seeing his way out of this. That all of these people that were -- had bombs were people he's been beating up in the public sphere is rhetorically on, he decided to go to the old playbook of make the fake news the problem and now on the alt-right it's starting to be fake bombs.

And this is a typical Trump strategy but it's disappointing. I think that Wisconsin rally should have been canceled or use as a way to have a serious talk with the American people and his supporters about taking the rhetoric down a notch. And he could have said I'm guilty at times too, I'm going to take it down a bit but we have a real crisis going on now. There are people working at Post Offices not knowing if packages or bombs and there's confusion going on most presidents at a time of a crisis like this would use the airwaves to bring clarity to the situation. He seems to want to muddy the waters and turn a terror attack into a political event.

TAPPER: This obviously is not the first period of political violence we've had in this country. More -- you know, recently, relatively recently assassinations in the 60s, and the 70s, bombings in the 70s. Put this in perspective for us. How bad is it right now?

BRINKLEY: Well, I think the extremism right now is on the right. In the 1960s the extremism was on the left with the Weather Underground and the like. But right now we're hearing the -- just the ratcheting up of a kind of neo-fascism a denouncing of the deep state, hatred of the federal government and Trump pours gasoline on to that because that's part of his base.

He doesn't seem to understand that his base has nowhere to go, Jake. That what he needs to do is claim the center ground and be a president for all the American people. But he's very fearful of the fact of the Democrats got control of Congress and or the Senate then impeachment woes might be coming his way, that it's going to be a lot of subpoenas. So he's seeing it as a life-and-death situation right now, the Midterms but he's not able to pivot and say I've got to be president first and leader of the GOP second right now. He has that reversed.

TAPPER: And one thing I keep thinking about, Professor, is what you told one of my producers. In 1993 Bill Clinton learns that the Iraqis were going to try to assassinate former President George HW Bush -- George HW Bush, he orders a Tomahawk missile strike against Saddam Hussein. He was an opponent, a Republican and it didn't matter. It was an attack on an American, an attack on the United States. Doug Brinkley, thank you so much. You can -- our coverage continues on CNN right now.