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NRA's Chief Executive Reportedly Reached Out to President Trump after President Voiced Support for Background Check Bill; President Trump Criticizes Democrats after Trips to El Paso and Dayton in Wake of Mass Shootings; President Trump Mentions Possibly Commuting Sentence of Rod Blagojevich; Dayton Mayor on Trump's Visit, Twitter Attacks. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired August 8, 2019 - 08:00   ET


[08:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: It is Thursday, August 8th. It's 8:00 in the east, 6:00 a.m. here in El Paso, Texas. John Berman here. Alisyn is off. Erica Hill joins me from Washington this morning.

So as we said before, he came, he saw, he complained. President Trump, he is back in Washington this morning after a day that was this strange cocktail of political combat and consoling. Here in El Paso and in Dayton, that are cities trying to heal, there's confusion about what happened during the president's visit. The president did visit hospitals where he spoke with emergency workers and families of the victims. But before, during, and after, he was all over the place with attacks on political opponents, and some that seemed just made up.

And to get a sense of where the El Paso community is this morning, and perhaps where the president's head is this morning, on his way back to Washington, instead of thinking about El Paso, talking about El Paso, thinking about Dayton, talking about Dayton, what the president was talking about on the plane back from the trip to these two cities was commuting the sentence of former Illinois governor and "Apprentice" candidate Rod Blagojevich -- not connected in any way or form, America, to the mass shootings in America.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: As you said, earlier, John, you can walk and chew gum at the same time, but sometimes it's better to just focus on one activity.

There is also, as you pointed out, exclusive new CNN reporting this morning about a potential missed red flag in El Paso. Lawyers for the family of the shooting suspect say his mother called police weeks before the massacre. She placed that call because she was concerned about her son owning an AK-style weapon. She was told by an officer her son had a right to own the gun. Police did not seek any additional information. The suspect's mother did not leave her name.

Meantime, "The Washington Post" is reporting this morning the NRA's chief executive reached out to President Trump after the president voiced support for a background check bill, warning Mr. Trump the measure would not be popular with his loyal supporters. Josh Dawsey is a CNN political analyst and White House reporter for "The Washington Post." He co-wrote that article about the NRA and is with us now. Josh, good morning.

So he said that it would not only not be popular among the president's supporters, but he also, based on your reporting, this is Wayne LaPierre, argued against the bill's merits according to officials. How much sway -- is it your sense, how much sway does Wayne LaPierre have right now with President Trump?

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's the $64,000 question, so to speak. The president has been polling a number of senators, lawmakers, allies this week about what he should be doing, and including Wayne LaPierre. The NRA has been in the White House here all week talking to Mick Mulvaney. He called the president on Tuesday, Wayne LaPierre did. But the president is also a little skeptical of the NRA's continuing power. He knows that a lot of folks in the NRA are his supporters, are his political base, he doesn't want to alienate them. But this is not a president who is not as regimented on gun control maybe as some other Republicans, and I think everyone is fighting for his ear right now.

There has been previous times when the president said he would embrace more aggressive gun control efforts, and then it faded. He did not lead the sustained push to do it. After the Parkland shooting, remember the famous meeting where he said he wasn't scared of the NRA, he would take on the NRA, but that did not go anywhere. So this time you have a lot of folks who are competing as the president's polling and trying to figure out what he should do.

HILL: Polling and trying to figure out what he should do, and as you write here in your piece, also talking to aides regularly about which measures would have political support, which is important, as we know, to an extent, because you want to know that you can get people behind whatever measure it is you're reporting, noting, though, if they didn't gain backing, he wasn't inclined to lead the charge. It does feel there's something different, though, when we talk about a similar situation with this president, because he seems to place so much more emphasis on how this will read politically, whether he has the support. He wants it almost to be 100 percent or he's not in.

DAWSEY: This president doesn't want to go out and take charge on something where it doesn't go well, where it's not seen as a success. You remember the health care bill in 2017 when the president went out and tried to sell it and it didn't go well. There were lots of recriminations and finger pointing. He certainly didn't take the blame. He blamed others for it. So this is a president. It would have to be a surefire slam dunk for him to get on board.

Now, whether he can convince Republicans to do it, I talked to Joe Manchin, yesterday, the West Virginian senator, and he said the only chance this has of passing is the president saying he's for it. It's the only way Republicans will go out on a limb and work with Democrats on legislation without being fearful of what supporters back home say. So basically, if you talk to Democrats or Republicans in Washington, whatever happens on guns largely has to be led by the president, because the Republicans aren't going to get on board with something he's not on board for. HILL: In terms of the president being onboard and also leading here,

I found it interesting in your piece, you say "The president has discussed with aides the idea of a Rose Garden bill signing ceremony for gun control legislation, a notion that seems premature to many in the West Wing."

[08:05:02] I would imagine that it's premature for one main reason being that who knows what that legislation would be. But the fact that the president is focused on the ceremony and wanting to be in the Rose Garden and wanting to be the one to sign that legislation, that says a lot.

DAWSEY: Well, the president loves the Rose Garden and the pageantry of the job. Remember he had the Rose Garden press conference in 2017 with all the Republicans lawmakers for the health care bill before the Senate had even done anything. He sees a role in many ways as kind of a ceremonial, sitting on a podium and signing executive orders. He loves executive order. And when this is president when people have pitched him on things in the past, they've talked about how it would play on television and what this ceremony would look like as a way to get him to pay attention to really support something. So for this president that wasn't surprising to many in the White House even if it seemed a bit premature.

HILL: Josh Dawsey, great reporting as always, nice to talk to you. Thank you.

DAWSEY: Thank you.

HILL: John?

BERMAN: All right, thanks so much, Erica. Joining me now is Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for "The New York Times" and a CNN political analyst. And Maggie, I know it's a risky proposition, but I want to read you a "New York Times" headline from the article you wrote this morning, one of them. It says "Trump uses a day of healing to deepen the nation's divisions." That was really on display the last 24 hours, a dizzying array of complaints and grievances from the president while he was visiting with first responders in these two cities. What's your assessment?

MAGGIE HABERMAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: John, I think this is only surprising if people haven't been paying attention for not just the last two-and-a-half years but the last four years. The president's campaign prior to winning office, we have seen repeatedly where there is a national crisis, he gives a speech off of a teleprompter and then he undercuts his own words either before it or after it. He gave an address on Monday where he did talk about white supremacy, and he did disavow bigotry and racism, but his campaign is continuing to air Facebook ads talking about an invasion, and they have talked about a, quote-unquote, illegal invasion repeatedly.

El Paso has been a center of a lot of the border crossing turmoil, and so it is not a surprise that he has struggled in this moment. And also, look, he doesn't do well fundamentally on these major moments that require empathy and somebody looking as if they are rallying the nation and rallying people to support one another. And you saw it throughout the day. He felt as if he was being personally attacked and no one was defending him, and so he took to Twitter.

BERMAN: And again, and there was an absence of leadership on the days of the shooting themselves, and there's been this strange brew of leadership in the days since. I'm just going to put up on the screen the names of the people that he talked about yesterday, the former vice president Joe Biden, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, Senator Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, Senator Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro, Joaquin Castro, Beto O'Rourke, Shep Smith, Brian Williams, Tim Ryan. That's quite a list. None of them were the victims in the hospital who were shot in this mass shooting. Does the White House think this visit went well, Maggie? Do you have any sense if they're waking up this morning happy about this?

HABERMAN: No, they don't. Most people, they would, I suspect, not say that publicly, will privately admit that yesterday was something of a debacle, that these were not the headlines that they wanted to see. They wanted him to go in and behave differently. The goal was to have him go in and get out with making as little news as possible. He actually has done that in the past. He did it after Pittsburgh where there was also controversy after the synagogue shooting there. He was much more able to stay calm. Yesterday he couldn't stop watching television news where Democratic candidates were attacking him. And this is part of process.

To your point that there was no sort of visible presence of the federal government in a meaningful way as the shootings were taking place and the day after the president was at his club at Bedminster, he crashed a wedding that was taking place there. This is the kind of thing that any president would have been criticized for, Barack Obama, George W. Bush. But this president reacts very poorly to criticism, and he lashed out.

BERMAN: Just to be clear, the people who did meet with him, there was a positive response. Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton made that clear yesterday. But --

HABERMAN: In Dayton. But John --

BERMAN: Not so much in El Paso. In El Paso, it's a good point, the victims didn't want to meet with him.

HABERMAN: According to the "Washington Post" last night, and they paired up with somebody on the ground in El Paso who knows the community really well, he said that eight victims at the hospital did not want to meet with the president. So it is true, to be clear, the mayor of Dayton appreciated that he was trying to make a gesture and be a leader. But on the other hand they did put out these campaign style videos of him meeting people at the hospital. This is inevitably going to come up for criticism.

BERMAN: A couple more points I want to hit up if I can and I have time, Maggie. Number one, Jake Tapper's reporting that the White House rebuffed efforts from Homeland Security to put a greater emphasis on domestic terror and white supremacy. Some of the reasons that were given to Jake is that you don't want to bring up these things with the president. He doesn't like to hear about it. Does that comport with what you know and have heard in reporting about the president and his willingness to talk about white supremacy, not now this week, but in the years before?

HABERMAN: It does. Look, it has generally not been a focus, certainly, of his attention both I think internally and certainly externally during his campaign. And then the first year, second year of his presidency you have, however, seen the federal government, most notably FBI Director Christopher Wray, speak in public testimony about how there was a rise in threats related to white supremacy and domestic terrorism.

So there's this, once again, this split between what his government is doing and how the president want to handle it. I think some of that is speculation on why people believed that the president didn't want to talk about it. I think people either thought either this was not important to him or it would upset him because it somehow was criticizing his supporters or he saw it as delegitimizing his election in some way. Whatever the reason is, it has not been the focus within the White House in the way other issues and certainly foreign global terrorism has.

BERMAN: So Maggie, on the flight home from El Paso to Washington last night, the president spoke to reporters in Air Force One and told them he was considering commuting the sentence of former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. It's something you've been reporting on for a while, and I know that doesn't come as a surprise to you. I think there are two questions here. What on earth does Rod Blagojevich have to do with the victims of these two mass shootings? And number two, in general, why is the president dwelling on Rod Blagojevich?

HABERMAN: So, to your first question, as you know, John, the president likes to change the subject if he can when his news coverage was bad. His news coverage was something about he was fuming about all day yesterday, so I don't think it's a surprise he tried doing something to change a headline, and he came back and he mentioned this. It sounds like according to the pool report he raised it several times during the course of this conversation with reporters.

From my reporting this has been under discussion at the White House for a few days. According to my sources, Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, had been pushing a pardon for Blagojevich, and this was sort of walked back to commuting the sentence, which was seen as an easier split. It's also the thing the president talked about doing last year.

Look, I think there's a couple of reasons why this is on the president's mind. It is true that Rod Blagojevich's wife has been very vocal on FOX News about her husband. Remember he knows Blagojevich from "Celebrity Apprentice," and I don't think that's a nothing factor here. Jared Kushner has been one of the people pushing for it, and that adds to it. And also James Comey the former head of the FBI who the president sees as his main antagonist among federal law enforcement former and current, James Comey I think was the deputy attorney general or had some role at the Justice Department during the Blagojevich case, so he's now tied it in his mind to that. I think all of that has created his reasoning behind this.

BERMAN: And according to your reporting, also, Jared Kushner thinks somehow commuting the sentence will appeal to Democrats. Based on your years of political reporting, Maggie, is there any outcry among Democrats to commute the sentence of Rod Blagojevich?

HABERMAN: So Rod Blagojevich was recorded on an FBI tape talking about how he had a, quote-unquote, golden thing he could sell, and there were a couple of curses in there. It's sort of the epitome of the kind of pay to play that the president has claimed he was going to drain the swamp of. Democrats have not been clamoring for Blagojevich's return to public life. I don't know how many Republicans actually will be vocally behind this either.

BERMAN: Again, it says something maybe about Jared Kushner's political radar if he thinks it's a political --

HABERMAN: I don't think this is the first time --

BERMAN: Go ahead.

HABERMAN: I don't think this is the first time we've seen Jared Kushner's political antenna be somewhat at odds with reality.

BERMAN: And again, most importantly, Rod Blagojevich doesn't have anything to do with what happened here in El Paso or in Dayton. It doesn't do anything to help the victims here. Maggie Haberman, thanks for being with us this morning. I really appreciate it.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

BERMAN: So shortly visiting the grieving community of Dayton, Ohio, President Trump criticized the mayor of Dayton on Twitter, Nan Whaley, he also criticized the Ohio senator, Sherrod Brown. What is mayor Nan Whaley's response to the confusion?


NAN WHALEY, MAYOR OF DAYTON, OHIO: I'm really confused. He said he was treated very well.


BERMAN: We're going to speak to Mayor Whaley after the break.


[08:19:16] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: So after visiting the victims in a Dayton hospital with President Trump, Senator Sherrod Brown and Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley spoke to reporters noting the president was well-received.


SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D-OH): Well, he was comforting and he did the right things and Melania did the right things. MAYOR NAN WHALEY (D), DAYTON, OHIO: I think the victims and the first

responders were grateful that the president of the United States came to Dayton.


BERMAN: But the president for some reason was not happy with the remarks. He wrote that the pair totally misrepresented what took place.

A local reporter caught the mayor's reaction to the tweet on video.


WHALEY: I don't -- I mean, I'm really confused. We said he was treated like very well so -- I don't know what he's talking about misrepresenting, so -- oh, well, you know?


BERMAN: Joining me now is the mayor of Dayton, Ohio, Nan Whaley.

[08:20:00] Mayor, thank you so much for being with us.

Was there something that we didn't see that took place that maybe he was reacting to?

WHALEY: No, I really don't know why that reaction happened for him. Of course, we've been inundated with media since the tragic events in Dayton on Sunday. And we've been very opening about us wanting the state and federal government to do something around gun control. We shared that with the president.

He was well-received by victims and first responders, so, yes, I'm at a loss for why all this vitriol came immediately after he had a good visit at the hospital.

BERMAN: And I guess the more important question is what good does it do to the victims in the hospital? What good does it do to the citizens in Dayton, Ohio, to criticize you and senator brown for something that didn't take place?

WHALEY: Look, I think what's been really heartening through this tragedy is, one, the grit and resilience of our community, how people are coming together, the real love in our community. And we are seeing a lot of bipartisan support. The governor putting forth his 17 point plan around what he wants to do around common sense gun legislation in the statehouse. We've seen Congressman Turner, a Republican, about a 93 percent NRA rating, call for an assault weapons ban.

So, we've seen people come to the table. I think for -- I can't really speculate on why the president felt this way, but, you know, it's just unfortunate, you know, because for Daytonians, you know, what we're really hoping to see is some action and we're just hoping he's not an all-talk politician. BERMAN: What promises did he make you on gun safety because I know

you and Senator Brown brought up the issue with him?

WHALEY: Uh-huh.

No, he didn't make any promises. I mean, like I said in the press conference afterwards, I think he heard us. He didn't say, hey, I'm going to pass a red flag law or I'm going to ban assault weapons to -- or I'm going to -- the senator was really -- talked a lot about mental health and Medicaid. He didn't make any promises but I could tell me heard us. Now, it's up to him to see if he does anything, and for the people of Dayton, I think that's what we're hoping to see.

I mean, we're the 250th city in the country, 250th site since January 1st that has had a shooting, not shooting but a mass shooting of this nature. And, you know, we really wonder if Dayton can be enough for some action to really happen.

BERMAN: You have watched this president from afar for a long time. This was your first chance to get I think caught in the middle of the vortex that sometimes surround him, the back and forth. What's it been like for you?

WHALEY: Well, I mean it's been surreal this whole week, frankly. You know, we're -- my job as mayor is to, like, bring the community together for the community to grieve and the process of grieving is really important. And people do it in a different time and different places, and so, really trying to build that for people that have survived this incident or have lost loved ones.

Yes, I mean -- and presidential visits, you know, are tough because they're already tough, you know, because of all the press that comes in, all the discussion. But this president is hyper hyper-partisan and people have very strong feelings about him on both sides. So, you know, I was grateful he didn't go to the Oregon District yesterday because even though he wasn't there we saw the tensions rise between pro and anti-Trump folks.

Even though he wasn't there, just him being in the city really exasperated the situation. And some of my city commissioners had to do some double duty really de-escalating the conversations in the community. And as soon as he announced he was coming, we just felt the partisanship really overwhelm the community because everyone had an opinion on whether he should come or whether he shouldn't. And, you know, he's created -- he's created that with some of this vitriol that he moves in the Twitter sphere.

BERMAN: Mayor Whaley, let me ask you in closing, what's really important here are the people in your city. What can the country do for you now?

WHALEY: Thank you for asking. You know, I appreciate all the prayers and special wishes that we've gotten and the out pouring of support for mayors and just regular folks across the country.

But I think the best way the people in this country could really do something nice for Dayton is they could call their legislators and they could encourage their congressmen, encourage the Senate to take action, and let El Paso and Dayton be a place where we did something around gun control.

[08:25:21] That would be the best thing that the country could do for Dayton.

BERMAN: Mayor Nan Whaley, again, thank you for being with us this morning. Thank you for your efforts. I know the people of Dayton are grateful for everything you've done and I know the days and weeks ahead, they're going to be tough. There's still so much work left to do, so thank you very much.

WHALEY: Yes. Thank you.

BERMAN: Erica, we're going to go back to you in Washington.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: John, thank you.

A powerful statement there. The best thing you can do for your country, get in touch with your lawmakers on the Hill. We can tell you over 200 Democrats are calling for a special session of Congress to address the issue, to toughen the nation's gun laws. So, will Mitch McConnell listen to their plea? Will the NRA intervene?

Just ahead, we'll speak with a Democrat who is among those asking McConnell to take action. That's next.


HILL: Frustration is growing on Capitol Hill, and frankly around the country.