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Trump Cancels Denmark Visit After Greenland Sale Rejected; Trump Tells NRA Background Checks are Off the Table. Trump's Approval Rating Drops; U.S. Officials Say a U.S. Drone was Shot Down Over Yemen; President Trump Calls for Russia to Rejoin G7; Trump Moves to Expand Detentions of Migrant Families. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 21, 2019 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:45] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: A very good Wednesday morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto in Washington. Poppy Harlow is off today. And we begin this morning with a stunning cancellation.

President Trump scrapping his upcoming visit to NATO-ally Denmark after its prime minister calls his interest in buying Greenland, that's right, buying part of Denmark, absurd. A sudden change of heart, a shock to one of the U.S.' most loyal allies, the Danish royal family calling it, quote, "a complete surprise." Another official describing it as unfathomable.

Plus, another day passes since the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, and President Trump runs away from his pledge for stricter background check legislation. Sources telling CNN that the president called the head of the NRA to tell him that universal background checks are now off the table.

And a new CNN poll out this morning shows a six-month low for the president's job approval rating. Also slipping, Americans' confidence in where the economy is heading.

Going to break down all the new polling numbers, but first let's get to Anna Stewart. She is in the Danish capital of Copenhagen.

Anna, President Trump has said buying Greenland, and again, you're hearing me correctly there, buying Greenland is not a priority for him but he has canceled a trip to Denmark over Denmark's refusal. I'm curious how officials are responding there. Is it surprise? Is it anger?

ANNA STEWART, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I mean, it's been quite a turnaround as you say. And this tweet came out overnight. So here in Copenhagen, everyone woke up this morning, and I think the general feeling was incredulity, shock, surprise, and actually quite a lot of offense has been caused here. Lots of people we're speaking to -- in the local press, say that people feel that they've been offended, that the government has been offended, that the queen has been offended because this visit from the U.S. president due in two weeks' time, or less then, was invited by Her Majesty the Queen, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark. You know, this is a very official state visit.

Now looking at all the reaction today you can see why the U.S. ambassador to Denmark has tweeted just in the last few hours, "At POTUS values and respects Denmark and looks forward to a visit in the future to discuss the many important issues on our strong bilateral relationship. Great friends of allies like America and Denmark should be able to discuss all issues openly and candidly," and it says hashtag partnershipsmatter. She's trying there of course to soften the blow but it is a big one.

And local journalists I spoke to say it's quite strongly how this has actually united Danes of across the political spectrum, all the political divide. There is a general feeling of offense here, one party leader or a spokesperson for them said, two people's parties said, "For no reason Trump it seems that autonomous, because it is an autonomous part of the country, is for sale, then insultingly cancels visits that everybody was preparing for. Are parts of the U.S. for sale? Alaska? Please show more respect."

Jim, we expect the prime minister to speak any moment now. Tricky position for her. She needs to maintain this important relationship with the United States, but listen to the sentiment of the people here in Denmark.

SCIUTTO: And it's a good point there. Greenland is an autonomous part of the country who presumably would have a choice in whether or not it's sold to a foreign power.

Anna Stewart, good to have you there on the ground in Denmark.

Here at home President Trump has once again retreated on universal background checks for gun purchases. This after a phone call with the head of the NRA as well as pressure from GOP lawmakers. A source tells CNN that the president told the NRA's Wayne LaPierre that background checks, something the NRA and LaPierre oppose, are now off the table.

Let's get to CNN's Joe Johns at the White House with more.

And Joe, listen, we've seen this movie before after Parkland, the president derided Republican lawmakers for being afraid of the NRA, then he himself backed off background checks. Now he's done it again.

JOE JOHNS, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Totally right out of the playbook when you think about it. Yes, it's a total pattern with this president. When there is a tragedy, he gets behind the idea of new gun control measures.

[09:05:03] But when the smoke clears and the political realities set in, the president backs off, and so is the case with this current situation, a source telling both myself and CNN's Kaitlan Collins that after a long conversation with the NRA's head Wayne LaPierre, the president told LaPierre that universal background checks are off the table. So that's a considerable departure from what the president was saying publicly not very long ago.

And we're also told that the president was told by Wayne LaPierre that there were a lot of members of the National Rifle Association that essentially helped get the president of the United States elected the last time around. Of course, as we know this election is coming up in November, not too long from now. Just over a year.

Jim, back to you.

SCIUTTO: And that's very much the president's focus, though, of course, polls show that the vast majority of Americans in general in favor of background checks.

Joe Johns at the White House, thanks very much.

The president may be shifting his thinking on gun control legislation as we reported. What about the public? A new CNN poll out this morning gives us a closer look at that, as well as a number of other issues related to how the president is performing including a drop in his approval rating.

Let's bring in CNN senior political writer and analyst Harry Enten.

Harry, there's a lot to get to here. Tell us the headline numbers.

HARRY ENTEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL WRITER AND ANALYST: Yes, I think, you know, number one you pointed out the president's overall approval rating at 40 percent in this poll. And if you go back over the last year, this is right around that low point. It's a little bit higher than it was during the shutdown, but it's the lowest since February. And that's where generally the president has been right between the mid-30s and mid-40s.

I should point out this drop is not statistically significant, although other polls are also showing a drop back to around 40 percent. And if you put it in historical context it's just noteworthy that the president over and over again seems to have approval ratings that's lower than nearly all other presidents at this point in their presidency. The only exception is Jimmy Carter in '79. Of course that's not exactly a great comparison for the president given that Carter, of course, lost the 1980 election.

SCIUTTO: Understood. OK, so tell us about on the issues. Where does Trump stand on the key issues that voters are focusing on as we head to 2020?

ENTEN: Yes, I mean, if you're looking at most of the issues the president is under water with them. All with the exception of the economy, where his approval rating is 50 percent. But take a look at, you know, gun policy which has been in the news, 36 percent. Race relations, obviously the president made those comments about the four women -- congresswomen of color and those perhaps the fact that gun policy and race relations have been in the news so much, that may be part of the reason why he's getting dragged down.

But even in the economy, which has generally been a strength for the president, if you look at how people think about the economy, do they think the economic conditions are good, it's at 65 percent now. That's pretty good but that's actually lower than it's been all this year.

SCIUTTO: Understood. OK, and then specifically on gun control, this is an issue very much in the news. The president as we reported just a short time ago after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, came out in favor it seemed of background checks, speaks to the NRA, turns himself around.

ENTEN: Yes, he turns himself around and I should point out in poll after poll that we've done, Americans say that they want stricter gun control laws. I will also point out, though, that this isn't nearly as high as it was after Parkland, but you're still seeing the vast majority of Americans, 60 percent right now, saying that they support tighter gun laws. One reason perhaps why the president, though, doesn't feel they need to act, is we asked a separate question, which essentially asked, do you think that if we did have stricter gun control laws, would it help to reduce debt, and it turns out that only 49 percent of Americans say yes on that, 48 percent say no, so that's a much closer margin than on whether Americans want stricter gun control laws.

SCIUTTO: Harry Enten, always good to have you to break down the numbers. Thanks very much.

ENTEN: Thank you, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Joining me now to discuss all of this, CNN political analyst Alex Burns, national political correspondent for the "New York Times," and CNN political analyst and Laura Barron-Lopez, she's national political reporter for Politico.

So, if I could begin with you, Laura, this seems to be part of a trend, the president's approval rating coming down, not just in the CNN poll, other polling, also the president trailing all the Democratic front runners, even in FOX News polling, something that upset the president when that came out. What's behind it in your view? What is coming together here to lead to that down tick?

LAURA BARRON-LOPEZ, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what Harry suggested, I mean, the fact that in the news we've been talking about gun control and the aftermath of the horrific shootings in El Paso and the Dayton, Ohio, and then on top of it also the president's repeated attacks on lawmakers of color and racist comments against them, and so those two things combined together. I thought what was interesting in the CNN poll was that among his disapproval on race relations with the American public, that that decline happens specifically with white people and specifically with women.

[09:10:00] And that suggests also a larger trend that we saw in 2018 which is that among white suburban women the president has not been doing well. And that doesn't bode well for Republicans heading into 2020 whether it's for the presidency or for down ballot races.

SCIUTTO: And we saw that in 2018, white suburban women really helped turn Congress back to blue.

Alex, you cover this administration, you cover the White House. You can see in the president's public comments, in his focus on issues, even on background checks, he's told Wayne LaPierre, listen, NRA helped get you elected in 2016. He of course makes a 2020 calculation here, but other issues as well, softening economic numbers, speaks of a payroll tax cut possibility.

What is the level of concern in the White House that these numbers are causing them worry?

ALEX BURNS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think there's considerable concern really across the Republican Party that the president is not speaking to the voters that he needs to win over in order to win a second term. He is very focused as he has always been on speaking to his base on the right wing of the Republican Party, not speaking to independent voters or even more moderate Republicans like the women who Laura was talking about.

I thought the one really revealing piece of the poll, Jim, was that it showed there was considerably more intensity in favor of background checks on the Democratic side and in favor of gun control on the Democratic side than opposition on the Republican side. 70 percent of Democrats strongly favor new gun restrictions, 38 percent of Republicans strongly oppose them.

Conservatives in general still generally against gun control but it does suggest that there would be maneuvering room for the president to do something on guns that might speak to some of those voters in the middle and as we've seen consistently he just doesn't choose to use that maneuvering room.

SCIUTTO: No. I mean, it's clearly a base strategy alone.

Laura, I want to ask you about another issue because this is fascinating, you might even say exasperating. It read like an "Onion" headline today where the president cancels a trip, a state visit to a NATO ally, a very close ally because that country refused to sell them part of their country. I mean, this is the truth. Denmark won't sell Trump Greenland.

Is there anyone in the White House who is advising the president on something like this, that this is a bad idea, this doesn't make sense?

BARRON-LOPEZ: Well, we've seen time and time again where advisers may tell the president it probably wouldn't be best to tweet about this, it probably wouldn't be best to react in this way on sensitive matters with a strong U.S. ally, and still the president decides to hash this out in public and exact some punishment on an ally because of the fact that what he wanted was not addressed. And so we've seen the reaction also in Denmark, which has not been favorable towards the president. The E.U. -- an E.U. official even put out a statement in support of the Denmark prime minister's response to the president saying that Greenland was not for sale.

SCIUTTO: Yes. We should remind folks it's a NATO ally, Denmark. I spent a lot of time in Afghanistan. They put their forces in very dangerous places, very dangerous operations. They've lost 43 people there, 43 service members there. It's a close U.S. ally.

Alex, before we go, the president's comments on Jewish Americans and questioning their loyalty if they vote for Democrats, I'm going to play this sound again because it's caused quite a deal of uproar, and then I want to get your quick thoughts before we go.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Where has the Democratic Party gone? Where have they gone where they're defending these two people over the state of Israel? And I think any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat, I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or a great disloyalty.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Tell me about the impact of that comment, Alex?

BURNS: Look, I think if the president is trying to use votes using Israel as a wedge issue he's certainly not talking about it in a way that is likely to appeal to actual Jewish voters. Speaking about disloyalty, suggesting that Jews are ignorant of their own political cultures, political culture, this is deeply alienating for a lot of people and it's the language of somebody who is sort of trying to bully people into voting the way he wants them to or shame them into voting the way he wants them to, or frankly to appeal to a constituency that isn't Jews at all, right? That he's trying to use Israel and he used Jews as a way of dividing other people but not actually to speak to the constituency that he claims to be addressing. Overwhelmingly, Jews are a left of center, most vote Democratic, so he's talking about really millions of Americans there.

SCIUTTO: Divide strategy. We see it consistently.

Alex Burns, Laura Barron-Lopez, welcome to the show. Welcome to CNN. Great to have you both on today.

BARRON-LOPEZ: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Still to come this hour, overnight a U.S. drone shot down over Yemen. Why the Trump administration plans to call out Iran for this incident.

Plus, President Trump says that Russia should be allowed back in --

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:15:00] JIM SCIUTTO, ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Through Yemen while the Trump administration plans to call out Iran for this incident. Plus, President Trump says that Russia should be allowed back into the G-7 group of nations. We should make clear, that's music to Vladimir Putin's ears. Why is the president doing this? We're live in Moscow.

And a new change in immigration regulation could allow migrant families to be held in detention facilities -- there's one you've seen so many images of even longer. We're going to have a live report coming up.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

SCIUTTO: This story is developing right now. CNN has learned that a U.S. drone has been shot down over Yemen. And officials say they believe the missile that shot it down was provided to the local rebels there by Iran. But that rebel group claims the missiles is theirs. Remember, of course, Iran shot down a U.S. drone, a very expensive one just a few weeks ago. CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, she has been following the story. How significant will this be?

[09:20:00] BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, it's not good news any time a U.S. military asset is shot down. But you know, keep in mind, it is a drone so there's no pilot on board, not a risk to American military lives, if you will. This was an MQ-9 reaper drone, these are armed drones that the U.S. flies over Yemen to target al Qaeda in that country.

But now the Houthi rebels as you mentioned say they are the ones that shot down this drone. The U.S. very strongly says that Iran is the sole provider of weapons to the Houthi rebels. But earlier today, one of the Houthi's spokesman issued a statement saying, and let me read it to you, "the missile that targeted the MQ-9 drone was developed locally and will soon be unveiled at a press conference.

We have the ability to neutralize a large number of hostile aircraft from entering Yemeni airspace." So, the Houthis is putting their marker down that they are developing the weapons themselves to do this. But I think it's fair to say that most defense and intelligence experts believe that Houthis are still very much dependent on the Iranians for their weapons, and that is something you could expect to see the administration call them out on.

SCIUTTO: Yes, not clear how credible it is that they have their own weapons with missile program. Barbara Starr, thanks very much, good to have you at the Pentagon. It was just in June you remember that Iran shot down $110 million U.S. drone, I believe we have pictures of that, President Trump considered military action, called back that military action while the planes were in the air, the U.S. did not in the end retaliate for the shoot-down of that drone.

President Trump is backing Russian President Vladimir Putin once again on a key issue, this time expressing support for reinstating Russia into the G-7, formerly known as the G-8. He's also making false claims that President Obama ousted Russia because Putin outsmarted him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Because Putin outsmarted him, President Obama thought it wasn't a good thing to have Russia in, so he wanted Russia out. But I think it's much more appropriate to have Russia in.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SCIUTTO: Fact-checked there, that's false. Russia was kicked out of the G-8 at the time in 2014 because it had invaded and annexed Crimea, part of a sovereign European country, that's a fact. I want to bring in CNN's Frederik Pleitgen in Moscow, CNN national security reporter Kylie Atwood here in D.C. Kylie, a senior administration official told CNN that some White House

officials believe that this was a ploy by the French President Emmanuel Macron to embarrass President Trump by making him the public face of welcoming Russia back into the G-7, G-8. What are you learning?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, so what CNN has learned is that during a phone call yesterday with President Trump and President Macron to speak about the upcoming G-7, it's just this upcoming weekend in France, one of the things that they did discuss was inviting Putin to the G-7 next year.

Now, as you said, Jim, Russia was kicked out of the G-7 for illegally annexing Crimea, and it was the majority of the countries in the G-7 who made that decision. It wasn't just the U.S., it was also France and all of those countries who were supportive of the move.

So, of course, inviting Russia to the G-7 meeting next year would be a remarkable move, considering Russia has done nothing to pull back what it's done in Crimea. It would also send some sort of a bizarre signal that eventually just wait it out, and you'll be invited back to the table.

SCIUTTO: Yes --

ATWOOD: And so that's the worry of people who have been watching this space for a long time. It's also pretty remarkable that this senior administration official tells me that it was Macron who made the suggestion and President Trump who said it was a good idea. We also expect that President Trump is going to bring it up this weekend when he's meeting with world leaders in France.

SCIUTTO: Fred, you're on the ground in Moscow. Are Russians welcoming --

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes --

SCIUTTO: This news?

PLEITGEN: Well, they certainly are, Jim. It's quite interesting to see because once again, this -- the response to all this is absolutely, perfectly stage-managed here in Russia. On the one hand, you have official Russia, you have Russian politicians, the spokespeople for Russian ministries who are saying, look, we haven't received anything official about this yet, we have to check this out whether this is really something that the U.S. and France really mean.

And there are other politicians who are saying, look, the U.S. needs to lift some of those sanctions against Russia before Russia would be willing to come back into the G-7 which would then of course be the G- 8. But then, Jim, there is Kremlin-controlled media which of course is highly, very close to the power elite here in Russia.

And there are already in somewhat of a feeding frenzy over this. I was just watching the main political talk show here in Russia and they've already come up with graphics where the G-7 turns into the G-8 with a Russian flag as the eight, obviously in response to what President Trump said.

[09:25:00] They then played President Trump's sound bite that we also just played, saying that this was all the Obama administration's fault, but he thinks that Russia should be in, that obviously is something that did come to great applause there on Russian TV as well. They are trying to frame this in a way as though it seems that President Trump is somewhat trying to cater to Vladimir Putin, trying to get Vladimir Putin to actually come back to the G-7 or G-8 rather than the other way around.

So, it certainly shows Vladimir Putin in a very strong position. And I think one of the things that they said in that talk show is they said that President Trump probably feels bad for selling some arms to Ukraine and therefore wants to make up for it by bringing Russia back into this international format, Jim.

SCIUTTO: I mean, it looks like they're laughing a little bit at all this. Frederik Pleitgen on the ground in Moscow, Kylie Atwood --

PLEITGEN: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Thanks for the reporting, good to have you both on. As the latest polls shows Joe Biden continues to dominate the Democratic presidential field. Many of the 2020 presidential candidates are keeping the focus on that first voting state Iowa today, how can they win over votes in this key caucus state?

And we are moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street, Cristina Alesci following all the news for us. What does it look like Cristina?

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNN BUSINESS & POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: Well, stocks are higher this morning for two reasons, Jim, one, good earnings from retailers that show consumers are still spending and the market is pricing in another quarter percentage cut from the Fed that's going to keep the easy money going on Wall Street.

That's after President Trump sends contradictory signals about the U.S. economy, but investors looking ahead today to the Federal Reserve to get a sense of what it sees on what's ahead for the economy.

SCIUTTO: Cristina Alesci, thanks so much, we'll be right back.

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