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Sources: White House Rebuffed Attempts by DHS to Make Combating Domestic Terrorism a Higher Priority; Trump Visits Ohio and Texas. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired August 7, 2019 - 16:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The president says his rhetoric brings people together, but he's not talking about the people protesting in El Paso and Dayton.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump arriving in El Paso, Texas, as protesters there say his visit rings hollow, and his critics charge that his rhetoric has helped fuel the violence. What is he going to say when he arrives?

Plus, exclusive reporting today on how the White House snubbed its own administration officials who thought combating white supremacy should be a higher terrorism priority.

Plus, President Trump being accused of weaponizing hate by one of his potential 2020 Democratic opponents, who calls for tighter gun restrictions at the site of another rampage.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

And we begin with breaking news.

In just minutes, we expect President Trump to arrive in El Paso, Texas. He will make his second visit today to an American community devastated after two men committed horrific acts of carnage and violence, murdering 31 people in two mass shootings just 13 hours apart.

Earlier today, President Trump was in Dayton, Ohio, where he visited a hospital that treated multiple victims from that shooting where nine people were killed. Protesters greeted the president there in Dayton.

And more protesters are awaiting the president's arrival in El Paso, where the accused domestic terrorist there, who killed 22 people, echoed some of the language used by the president when talking about Latino immigrants, particularly the notion that migrants and refugees coming here constitute an invasion. Our team of reporters is spread out across the city of El Paso

covering the story from all angles.

We are going to start with CNN's Boris Sanchez.

And, Boris, the president is still in the air right now after visiting those victims in Dayton, but that is not stopping him from tweeting?


The president taking aim at some political rivals, apparently, as focused on them as he is on offering condolences to victims in Dayton and El Paso. As he was on Air Force One, the president tweeted at Joe Biden, who was giving a speech denouncing racism and white supremacy and asking the president to tone down his rhetoric.

Here is what he wrote about Joe Biden, President Trump writing -- quote -- "Watching sleepy Joe Biden making a speech, so boring. The lamestream media will die and the ratings and clicks with this guy."

The president then goes on to suggest that if Joe Biden is elected president in 2020, at least China will be happy. The president notably not tweeting about gun control legislation, something that leaders in Ohio suggested the president should pursue.


SANCHEZ (voice-over): President Trump today visiting the two cities ravaged by gun violence this week, first stop, Dayton, where he went directly to a hospital still treating some of the victims.

Welcoming him there, protesters lining the streets and demanding action on gun control, while, inside, Trump met with first-responders, law enforcement and victims.

Local leaders who briefly spoke with Trump on the tarmac later talked about pushing the president to act.

NAN WHALEY, MAYOR OF DAYTON, OHIO: I think he heard me. I don't know if he will take action.

Do I think that we're going to see another mass shooting tomorrow or Friday? Probably, because Washington will not move.

SANCHEZ: Before departing the White House, Trump endorsed an idea to prevent mass shootings he's wavered on before, universal background checks.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There is a great appetite -- and I mean a very strong appetite -- for background checks. I think both Republicans and Democrats are getting close to a bill on doing something with background checks.

SANCHEZ: One of the Republicans, Pennsylvania Senator Pat Toomey, who just reintroduced a bipartisan bill that includes background checks. He told Jake yesterday he has talked several times with Trump this week about it.

TAPPER: Did the president say that if your legislation passes the Senate that he will sign it?

SEN. PAT TOOMEY (R-PA): No, he didn't say that. And I didn't ask him that. And I think he's still asking questions about the substance and how we get there.

SANCHEZ: Similarly, in February, when the House passed a bill expanding background checks...

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): Commonsense background check legislation.

SANCHEZ: ... the White House vowed to veto it, and again last year after a massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, Trump expressing support for background checks.

TRUMP: Background checks are going to be very strong.

SANCHEZ: Only to change his mind after meeting with leaders of the National Rifle Association. This time around, sources tell CNN the White House has been in conversation with top NRA officials this week after Dayton and El Paso, though it is unclear if the president has spoken to them himself.


SANCHEZ: And, Jake, as the president was leaving the White House, he was again asked about his rhetoric. He says that he believes that his rhetoric actually unites people.

And he suggested that those who are criticizing him over using language that's very similar to that of white supremacists, he said they were just trying to score political points.

Interestingly, I have spoken to several people here in El Paso who do not believe the president will be effective in trying to console anyone here. They suggested he's coming here to perform a photo-op for political points, Jake.


TAPPER: Boris Sanchez in El Paso, thanks so much.

I want to go now to CNN's Nick Valencia, who is right next to the protests.

And, Nick, you have been in the ground in El Paso for nearly seven weeks covering the border situation and now covering this tragedy. How are the people of El Paso doing?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: They're hurt. They're angry. They're sad.

They don't want us to lose sight, Jake, that this was what they call a blatantly racist attack, an attack on people simply because of their ethnicity, the color of their skin, their last name, who their family members are.

They don't want us to lose sight of that. And they also say President Trump and the rhetoric that he has used against the Latino community in this country for the last two years from the office of the president, it has contributed to this.

And it contributed, they say, to what happened here over the weekend. It was earlier that I spoke to four lifelong El Pasoans, people who have called this home since the day they were born. I asked them directly, do they want President Trump to visit here today? This is what they told me.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think that this community is hurting. I don't think he's done anything to help that.



VALENCIA: Superintendent?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know how he's going to help.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not the right time.


VALENCIA: They say, while President Trump, did not create hate or racism, that he has used it to divide this country and he bears some responsibility for what happened here over the weekend.

I want to be clear, Jake. None of the El Pasoans who I spoke to over the course of the last several weeks, as well as today, were excited about the president coming here.

We did read a report earlier from a family member of one of those victims, who said that they want President Trump to come here just to be able to look in his eyes and to see if he's genuine or not -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Nick Valencia in El Paso, thank you so much.

I want to talk with our experts here. And I want to start with the president just now tweeting, saying -- quote -- "Just left Dayton, Ohio. It was a warm and wonderful visit. Then I saw failed presidential candidate zero percent Sherrod Brown" -- he never actually ran for president -- "and Mayor Whaley of Dayton totally misrepresenting what took place inside of the hospital. Their news conference after I left for El Paso was a fraud. It bore no resemblance to what took place with those incredible people that I was so lucky to meet and spend time with. They were all amazing" -- unquote.

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham had earlier today accused Senator Brown and Mayor Whaley of not acknowledging that the victims were happy to have the president visit, even though actually Senator Brown said the president was well-received at the hospital.

Take a listen.


SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D-OH): He was comforting and he did the right things and Melania did the right things. And it is his job in part to comfort people. I'm glad he did it in that -- in those hospital rooms.

And the people at the hospital were terrific. And people showed -- when the president of the United States came, they showed respect for the office. And a number of them said to me, they're not great admirers of him, privately, but they clearly showed respect for the office, because the president of the United States is in town.


TAPPER: Do you have any idea what the president is talking about?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I didn't see the press conference, although, based on the transcript that I saw, I can take a guess on a couple of things, is that Brown said that privately some people were not happy with the president, and they said that to him.


TAPPER: Oh, privately people had said that, yes, OK.

HABERMAN: Correct.

I'm just quoting him.



HABERMAN: And that Brown also said that, I think in another portion of the press conference, talked about the president's rhetoric as racist and divisive.

And I suspect that is what the president is reacting to. I think that that doesn't really matter. It doesn't sound as if Brown misrepresented anything, which is what the White House is accusing them of.

And Dan Scavino, the White House social media director, released a tweet saying that the president was greeted like a "rock star" -- quote, unquote -- by the people at the hospitals.

It's just not about the president. There was a total absence of leadership at the federal level publicly this weekend after these shootings, and it was really striking.

And it was really striking, especially in comparison to how we have generally seen presidents behave at moments of a national crisis, which this was. And to turn this yet again into something about Donald Trump, as opposed to the victims he was there to see, is in keeping with the theme, but it's going to upset a number of people.

TAPPER: OK, so, apparently, Sherrod Brown, Senator Brown, did say that some people privately had expressed misgivings about the president being there and had criticized the president's rhetoric.

HABERMAN: I'm just guessing that that's what that's about.

TAPPER: Right. I mean, that's the only thing that makes any sense.


TAPPER: But Sherrod Brown also did say that the president was comforting, he did the right things. Melania did the right things. I'm glad he did it.

So it wasn't like some assault on the president. And here you have the president, on his way from one grief-stricken town to another, attacking Sherrod Brown in a tweet.


And he's also attacking Joe Biden in tweets way with the former vice president giving a pretty critical speech of the president and the president's rhetoric earlier today just about an hour or so ago.


So this is what we have seen constantly, time and time again, with how the president behaves on Twitter, on social media and what he does in public.

My colleague described it kind of very aptly earlier this week when it said it was teleprompter Trump vs. Twitter Trump. You're seeing that dichotomy throughout the day,.

You had very critical comments towards -- overnight towards Beto O'Rourke, who has been this -- channeling so much of the grief in his hometown of El Paso, where the president is supposed to land stolen shortly, and attacking Beto O'Rourke for the criticisms that he's had.

But yet, as far as we have seen, and again, a lot of the press that traveling with him is not getting a lot of access to him, but so this is a kind of secondhand here. But he is in public seeming to do the things that a president should do.

It's just this two very different personalities and tones that we're seeing from the president throughout the day.

ADOLFO FRANCO, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: My gosh, the grotesque things that have been said about the president by the presidential candidates, Joe Biden included, Beto O'Rourke calling him a white nationalist, attributing all this violence to the president, in some cases, linking it to him personally. Somehow, it's OK. It seems that Democrats can take these potshots, including Senator Brown, who said initially he wasn't going to meet with the president.

And, frankly, that -- even that body language that you just ran in the clip here wasn't just this, well, the president was comforting and so forth. It was qualifications to it.

So I think there is a double standard here. The president, who I think has set the right tone -- and I disagree. I think the president's statement was quite eloquent.

TAPPER: On Monday.

FRANCO: On Monday, quite moving, and similar to what other presidents have said. And also visiting Dayton and El Paso is consistent with other presidents have done.

Had he not done that, I would have been curious to see what the media reaction would have been.

But, most importantly is, you have a situation where people can attack the president, and the expectation is that the president will not defend himself or be able to respond to their attacks.

I think the right tone has been set by Mayor Margo of El Paso, who has repeatedly, despite requests by the media to comment on this from a political standpoint, has said, this is about grieving and healing.

And I think the president of the United States has done his level best to do so.

TAPPER: So, one other thing, Jamal, I want to get your reaction to this.

One of the reasons we're hearing from people in El Paso who are -- have misgivings about President Trump coming -- and I agree with your notion. Like, if he didn't come, he would get hit for that too.


TAPPER: But one of the reasons is in February, when he went to El Paso, he was very critical and really raised the specter of this -- quote, unquote -- "invasion."

Take a listen to a brief snippet of that.


TRUMP: We are cutting loose dangerous criminals into our country, murders, murders, murders, killings, murders.


TAPPER: So that is something that is very much on the minds of citizens of El Paso, many of them are telling our reporters. JAMAL SIMMONS, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Yes, Jake, I am sitting here in

this conversation and I'm being tugged in my head in two different directions, right?

One part of me feels the solemnity of this moment and these families that are going through this incredibly grave experience. I can't even imagine what it must feel like for them.

But then you have this president who's doing these -- he acts like a just such a infant, like such a toddler, and like -- to quote Cory Booker a little bit, standing up against white supremacy should be the floor. It shouldn't be the ceiling. That's not our aspiration for the president.

That's -- we have sort of wrestled through these big questions about where America stands on who gets to participate in white supremacy like 40, 50 years ago. And now here we are again having to deal with this.

And just remember, this is the same White House and president, when they make these claims, that said that the inauguration was the largest inauguration ever, and we had pictures that showed us it wasn't true, when we had a press secretary who said she heard from many FBI agents about a policy, and then had to admit under oath that she just made that up when she was standing there.

So it's just hard to take anything that they say seriously.

TAPPER: All right, everyone, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

President Trump is due to land in El Paso, Texas, at any moment. El Paso, of course, is the site of where at least 22 people were killed in that racist mass shooting.

We still don't know where the president's going to go, what he's going to visit while he's there.

Plus, we have some breaking news about one instance of the White House resisting making domestic terror threats like white supremacists a higher priority -- that exclusive reporting coming next.

Stay with us.



[16:18:19] BETO O'ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: One of those moments that either destroys your faith in humanity, or restores your faith in humanity. El Paso chooses to restore our faith in humanity in one another and in this country.


TAPPER: That was 2020 presidential candidate Democrat Beto O'Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso. He just finished speaking at that protest in El Paso, Texas, just moments ago, talking about the strength of his community as we wait for President Trump to land in the city and presumably meet with survivors of the carnage from over the weekend.

We have more breaking news now. A CNN exclusive revealing an inside look at the Trump administration and its commitment to combating white supremacy and struggles about that. Multiple current and former senior Trump officials and others close to the administration tell me that for more than a year, White House officials rebuffed their colleagues at the Department of Homeland Security who were trying to include domestic terror threats such as those from white supremacists as a greater priority. One specifically spelled out in the national counterterrorism strategy that was issued last November.

A senior source telling me, quote, Homeland Security officials battled the White House for more than a year to get them to focus more on domestic terrorism. The White House wanted to focus only on the jihadist threat and while serious ignored the reality that racial supremacist violence was rising fast here at home. They had major ideology blinders on, unquote.

The national counterterrorism strategy which I said was issued last fall and a source involved in the discussions put it to me, quote, ultimately, the White House added one paragraph about domestic terrorism as a throw-away line. It makes no admission specifically of white supremacist.

A current senior Trump administration official told me that when it comes to combating the threat of domestic terrorism, Homeland Security is, quote, behind the curve because of lack of support from the White House.

[16:20:07] Recall back in March, President Trump was asked directly about the threat of white supremacy and white nationalism after 51 innocent Muslims were murdered in the deadly mosque attack in New Zealand.


REPORTER: Do you see today white nationalism as a rising threat around the world?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't really. I think it's a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.


TAPPER: Now why the White House pushed back so much against people at the Department of Homeland Security is a matter of some debate. A former senior administration official noted that except when he seems to be forced to do so, as happened Monday when the president condemned white supremacy, President Trump generally seems to be reluctant to do so. The senior source telling me overlaying the entire debate, the back

and forth between the White House and DHS was the belief among White House officials that criticizing white supremacists and domestic terrorism would be an issue potentially for the president. Quote, you know it will trigger the boss.

Just minutes ago, a senior administration official told me, quote: This administration's national strategy for counterterrorism was the first to ever include domestic terrorism. This issue continues to be a priority for the administration and the National Security Council has launched an interagency process focused on combating domestic terrorism in support of the president's counterterrorism strategy.

So, that's a lot going on there. But let's talk about this.

Maggie, what we have here is a lot of people who are familiar with this process or involved in this process saying we just couldn't get them to put it in the document. They just didn't want to. And one of the reasons was the concern that this would alarm and upset President Trump. Another theory was that, especially when it came to not President Trump but people underneath President Trump, they thought that the Obama White House was so sensitive and political correct about not mentioning Islamic terrorism that there was almost an over- correction to only talk about Islamic terrorism, that was another theory.

What's your reaction?

HABERMAN: I mean, among the many issues there is no one who is willing to say clearly why this is happening, right? So, all we're left with is theorizing. It is plain from his own language that the president has not treated domestic terrorism and white nationalists, white supremacists as a similar threat to, you know, other terror groups that he ran against in 2016. He spent most of 2016 talking about how people who would not say radical Islamic terrorism were cowards and he made this the centerpiece of his campaign.

It clearly hasn't been a priority. It has been a priority increasingly for law enforcement --


HABERMAN: -- federal law enforcement within the administration. You have seen this dichotomy between what the president says and again to your point what they're prioritizing within the White House and what the other arms of government are doing, but as to why, I mean, I'm loathe to speculate frankly. I think it would be nice if we had a briefing or a press conference or really almost anything where this question could be asked.

SIMMONS: Here is the thing, Jake.


SIMMONS: Is anybody here surprised the president resisted this or the White House resisted this? I would be more surprised if you had story that said Donald Trump had a meeting and when this came up, he said, you know what, those rats, they're infesting the country and I want you to go get those white supremacists, we're going to send the military and the border patrol and whatever we have to do to get them.

But that's not what he says when it comes to white supremacy and white nationalists. That's what he says when it comes to Mexicans and immigrants and people who are here seeking asylum. That's when he goes after humans who are just trying to get a better life, not the people trying to restrict Americans from having a better life.

TAPPER: And the FBI Director Christopher Wray just testified, he was appointed by President Trump, that domestic terrorism, the number of arrest is about the same as international terrorism and most of those are white supremacists.

FRANCO: Well, yes, but I think the president has been very clear, even before these incidents happened that he -- that all types of terrorism and I think it's oversimplification at this point to just say, to white supremacists or some political line that satisfies a segment of the society, he's talking about all terrorism. He made references to Antifa for example, trying to have that as a terrorism organization.

So the president I think, his statement was clear and I think the administration's position is the domestic terrorism of any kind should be absolutely not only eradicated but fought. I do think, though, the last 20 years we have been focused on jihadist and our concern where there is Democrats or Republicans, has always been the foreign threat. For example, before the terrible incidents, I didn't see lot of talk about domestic terrorism at the debate or for that matter the gun issue. It didn't even come up in one of the debates.

So, these incidents happen. They're hopefully a catalyst for good out of something terrible.

TAPPER: So, that is on us, not the Democratic candidates, I should say. We're the ones that ask the questions.

President Trump just landed in El Paso, Texas. We're going to have more from El Paso next.

Stay with us.


[16:29:42] TAPPER: And we're back with our national lead. President Trump just landed in El Paso, Texas, moments ago after stopping to visit first in Dayton, Ohio, in the aftermath of two mass shootings on those cities. I'm joined now by Ohio Governor Mike DeWine. He's a Republican who is with President Trump today during his visit.

Governor DeWine, thanks so much for joining us. So, what did you have to say to President Trump when you were with him earlier?

GOV. MIKE DEWINE (D), OHIO: Well, you know, this trip was really focused on the victims and my wife Fran and I went with the president and the first lady.