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President Trump Defends Decision to Pose with Bible at Church; Trump Blames Democratic Governors, Says He Could Solve the Protest Problem Fast; Mark Esper: I Do Not Support Using Active Duty Forces to Quell Protests. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired June 3, 2020 - 11:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Hello to our viewers in the United States and around the world, I'm John King in Washington, thank you for sharing your day with us. President Trump today insisting contrary to the facts that most religious leaders supported his Bible-waving visit to a church near the White House. A walk that came only after peaceful protesters were cleared away by federal authorities.

The president also continuing to talk tough today about the protests across America, including the possibility of using military force to calm things.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You notice that all of these places that have problems are not run by Republicans. They're run by liberal Democrats. So there is something into that philosophy, and yet they're also the ones keeping everybody locked up in their apartments and their homes for too long a period of time. So it's very interesting how that changes.

But no, the National Guard, we could solve that problem in New York, and in fact, if they don't get their act straightened out, I will solve it. I'll solve it fast.


KING: But the Trump administration Defense Secretary striking a very different tone today, Secretary Mark Esper calling the death of George Floyd a horrible crime. And saying that he did not know protesters were forcibly removed from Lafayette Park before he joined the president on that walk across the street to St. John's Church. And while the president has talked about invoking the Insurrection Act and deploying troops if cities cannot restore calm, the Defense Secretary today making clear, he does not support such a dramatic move.


MARK ESPER, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE, UNITED STATES: The option to use active duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now. I do not support invoking the Insurrection Act.


KING: Last night across America, you see some of the images here, not problem-free, but by and large, the protests were peaceful. Thousands and thousands marching for peace, demanding justice. Only a few standoffs between police and those protesters last night. You see some of it there. Some big events coming up in the hours ahead.

George Floyd's family is visiting the site of his death next hour. They want the three other Minneapolis police officers who stood by and did nothing as Floyd gasped for breath to face charges. Later today, we'll also hear from the former President Barack Obama. He'll make his first on-camera comments since Mr. Floyd's death. That as part of a police reform town hall sponsored by the Obama Foundation.

And we are seeing protests for justice spreading outside the United States. This right here, a scene in London today. There have been similar protests in Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin as well. And this from Rome, Pope Francis condemning the killing of George Floyd and saying, quote, "I have witnessed with great concern the disturbing social unrest in your nation in these past days, following the tragic death of Mr. George Floyd. We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form", the pope says.

"And yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life." That's the pope earlier today. Esper also telling reporters that he did not know he'd be participating in a political photo-op outside of St. John's Church. Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr. Barbara, that was a remarkable event in which the Defense Secretary was clearly trying to create some distance from what happened, but also being careful not to offend the boss.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, he caveated it just enough, saying that he did not support at this time the use of active duty troops, invoking the Insurrection Act. Just as you pointed out, the president was talking about the fact that he would solve it and solve it fast, "very quickly".

Let me say it is worth noting, there are multiple active duty military units on standby in the Washington area if that decision were to be made, including an infantry battalion from Fort Bragg, and one can only wonder what they think they're going do with an infantry battalion on the streets of Washington D.C. in any circumstances. I think we have a little bit more now of sound from the Secretary of Defense.


ESPER: I did know that we were going to the church. I was not aware of a photo-op was happening. Of course, the president drags a large press pool along with him. And look, I do everything I can to try to stay apolitical and try to stay out of situations that may appear political. And sometimes I'm successful at doing that, and sometimes I'm not as successful.


STARR: OK, so he says he didn't know. The Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs were with the president and did not know where exactly they were going. They knew the church, they didn't know there would be a photo-op. But today, what Secretary Esper did not do -- what General Milley has yet to do, is offer any regrets or apologies to the protesters that were on the streets that were violently cleared out.


And perhaps, you know, even more importantly, to the clergy at St. John's church and other faith leaders in this country, who have spoken out against having this kind of violent activity take place at a house of worship. And I am emphasizing this because Secretary Esper put out a message last night about the mission and goal of U.S. forces, and he said one of the things was to protect houses of worship, John.

KING: Right, we'll watch this one play out. Barbara Starr, appreciate the quick reporting for us there from the Pentagon perspective. Meanwhile, President Trump today, trying to clean up many things, including trying to explain his trip last week to the White House bunker. John Harwood joins us now with that. John, the president saying he went down for an inspection, didn't quite explain why his wife and son went with him for that inspection.

JOHN HARWOOD, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Exactly right, John. And you know, this is another example on top of what we just heard from Barbara on Mark Esper, of how this Monday event has turned into a colossal embarrassment for the White House.

Now, we know from our reporting that one of the motivations for the president using force through federal officials to clear out that space and walk across, carry the Bible, get photographs standing in front of the church, was that he was sensitive at the portrayal that he had gone down to the bunker for protection a few days earlier, and the idea that this suggested that he was cowering there.

Donald Trump Jr., the president's son suggested as much saying, tweeting as the president walked across, this is the guy they said was hiding in the bunker. Well, the president on "Fox News" radio this morning took pains to say no, I wasn't cowering in the bunker. I had another purpose as the commander-in-chief. Take a listen.


TRUMP: It was a false report. I wasn't down. I went down during the day, and I was there for a tiny little short period of time, and it was much more for an inspection. There was no problem during the day. The problems are during the night, not during the day. And I go down, I've gone down two or three times all for inspection.

And you go there, some day you may need it. But you go there, and I went down, I looked at it, it was during the day, it was not a problem. And I read about it like a big thing. There was never a problem. We never had a problem. (END AUDIO CLIP)

HARWOOD: It was obviously a big thing in the president's mind. The president was wounded by some of that coverage. But as you suggested, John, does not explain why Melania Trump and Barron Trump went down with him. As our reporting indicates they did. They surely had no role in the inspection of any underground White House bunker.

KING: John Harwood covering the White House for us, John, appreciate that perspective. Joining me now to discuss these remarkable events, CNN political analyst Seung Min Kim, Astead Herndon of "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" respectively along with our chief political correspondent Dana Bash. Astead, I want to start with you and I want you to listen to more of the president's tone.

The Defense Secretary trying to back up a little bit here, saying you know, I don't support the Insurrection Act. Any military, peaceful, even if it's the National Guard will respect constitutional rights. But listen to the president continuing to talk tough.


TRUMP: I think you have to get better than what they've been doing. I mean, obviously, that was a terrible thing, and I've spoken about it numerous times in various speeches.


KING: Has he spoken about it numerous times in various speeches, if the idea here is police violence against black men?

ASTEAD HERNDON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I mean, at moments he has, but the consistent --

KING: Yes --

HERNDON: Through line, through his rhetoric, through his life has been one of the opposite. He has been someone who has not only encouraged cops to use a kind of rough manner when arresting folks, but has also obviously intensified situations with words like, "when the looting starts, the shooting starts". So even in moments or statements when he has done things like condemn the death of George Floyd and call for an investigation, that has not been the through line through his rhetoric, and we should not pretend like it is.

But I think when we look at what the secretary is stating, that shows you the differences in what parts of this administration is thinking about. The secretary is thinking about governance, trying to make sure that they send a clear message to the states and local governments that are actually dealing with these protests, while we have a president that is chiefly concerned about politics.

He's sending a message to his supporters, trying to show toughness and whatever where -- and whatever he thinks that, that means. So it's a different viewpoint of how to handle crisis. One that does not put the him in the role of unifier or healer or a bridge builder in the way that we've typically seen presidents act in situations of national crisis.

KING: And Seung Min, just as during the coronavirus and past its big issues during the Trump presidency, even as we try to cover what is most important, the issue before us, in this case, the killing of Mr. Floyd and the social unrest after it, we have to fact-check the president constantly.

He says faith leaders loved his trip to St. John's Church. No. Some Christian conservative faith leaders were part of the president, but the bishops here in Washington, the archdiocese have said no, Mr. President, we found that to be inappropriate.


He says tear gas was not used on those protesters to clear Lafayette Square -- Lafayette Park before he walked across the street -- the pictures tell you, yes, it was. That's a continuing challenge during this presidency as he every day tries to rewrite the history of what actually happened yesterday.

SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Exactly, and I think one of the other moments, one of the key moments we're going to have to re- examine for those facts is what we were talking about with John earlier, that key moment on Friday when he was escorted by the Secret Service agents to the underground bunker of the White House because if you recall, first of all, you made very good points earlier, then why did, you know, his wife and son accompany him?

If he was just going down for inspection, but you do recall the situation at the White House on Friday night. There were protests outside the White House, actually had gone on lockdown so staff couldn't leave, the press couldn't leave. And as our reporting shows, and CNN reporting and other outlets showed, that was really what was driving that remarkable moment at Lafayette Park, and at St. John's.

The president was very angry about that image of him kind of rushing underground while all these protests were raging right outside the presidential home and all across the country.

KING: And Dana, what was striking about Secretary Esper, and Barbara was trying to get at it, too, it's hard to sometimes translate here. He doesn't want to offend the boss, but during that briefing, he seemed very cool to the idea of increasing the military presence. He said he does not support the Insurrection Act. He seemed to be trying to dial things back and step away from the idea that the military is critical here to restoring calm at a time the president continues to say it could be critical.

DANA BASH, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: If we were political cartoonist, we would be drawing him on the highest of tightropes without a net during that press conference because he was desperately trying to stay in a place where he would not fall over into a pit of anger from his -- from his boss, the president of the United States. And yet, he has to stay up there in order to be the leader that he is supposed to be for members of the Armed Forces. The military of every stripe, every color, every creed. And that was

clearly -- he was clearly under pressure to say something. The fact that he came out at all in a Trump world was pretty extraordinary. He didn't do a lot of the things that, you know, probably a lot of people expected him to do, wanted him to do. There was a give-me-a-break moment when he said that he didn't know what he was going to do when he was pressed on that.

You've got to ask a question, you know, if you want to protect yourself, don't just follow. I mean, you are the --

KING: Yes --

BASH: Secretary of Defense. But the fact that he completely contradicted the president on the really important policy issue of the Insurrection Act means that he's cutting a lot of push-back because it is -- from his perspective, not appropriate. And yet he stood in the Rose Garden with the president. I mean, it is such a window into how hard it is to be a member of the Trump cabinet when you are not a 100 percent Kool-Aid drinker --

KING: Right --

BASH: Like the few others in the cabinet.

KING: Yes, and a reminder to the president, that's what he wants to do for him, and he doesn't much care about the traditional roles of whether it's General Milley or the Defense Secretary --

BASH: Or the position he puts in other people --

KING: The position he puts --

BASH: Other people in --

KING: Yes, that's the -- this is a remarkable moment. We will hear from President Obama on camera tonight. He issued a lengthy statement on medium in a long posting the other day, demanding police reforms, trying to rally people at this moment, insisting the protesters he hopes take their energy and turn it toward voting come November.

But we also heard, Astead from the former President George W. Bush who was very reluctant to speak out on current events. It's kind of a Bush family creed. You have the job, when you move along, just stay out of it. Former President George Bush saying "many doubt the justice of our country, and with good reason. Black people see the repeated violation of their rights without an urgent and adequate response from American institutions.

We know that lasting justice will only come by peaceful means. Looting is not liberation. Destruction is not progress. But we also know that lasting peace in our communities requires truly equal justice." On the rare times President Bush does issue statements, I always read it as, "this is what I wish the current president would say. He waits. He doesn't -- he doesn't get involved that often. But a key important moments like this, he's issuing a statement. Do

you read that the same way that this is what a president should say, Mr. Trump?

HERNDON: Yes, I do think that, that is what former President Bush is doing here, kind of message to this is an option that even though a Republican president can take in this time. I think that when you look at the scope of these statements -- so if you take what President Obama said on medium, what the Democratic nominee Biden said yesterday, what George W. Bush has said, they read in a similar fashion.

Obviously, there's little differences based on the Democrats willing to go a little further about the question of systemic racism. But it shows the kind of scope in what presidents have usually done in these crisis. They try to offer words of healing, they try to speak to the pain of the protesters, encourage peaceful demonstrations while distancing themselves from the -- from the more destructive elements of protest, and try to push it into the electoral system.


I think there are a couple of things to note here. One is that some of these protesters are -- or do not feel as if the electoral system is the means in which they want to express themselves. The reason why they are out in protest is because they do not feel like politicians have adequately heard them, that the system is not fair and representative. And so that kind of -- that kind of gaffe of trust is one that is important.

So, I think when you look at what the presidents -- the former presidents have said, it gives a window into what this president, the narrow lens in which he views his base and who he's --

KING: Yes --

HERNDON: Speaking to. So, when he says the evangelicals or Christians are with him, he's only looking at a very narrow white evangelical lens. When you have previous presidents who are trying to look at kind of the country as a whole.

KING: Astead Herndon and Seung Min Kim, Dana Bash, appreciate your insights. As we go to a break, I want to show you some live pictures of protests right now outside of the United States Capitol right here in Washington D.C.



KING: Remarkable briefing this morning from the Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. Secretary Esper saying he does not support invoking the Insurrection Act right now. That would put active duty troops on the streets of America to bring calm during the protest. He also addressed racism in the death of George Floyd. Listen.


ESPER: The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman is a horrible crime. The officers on the scene that day should be held accountable for his murder. I do think it's important to speak up and to speak out, and to share what we view again as an institution the racism that exists in America.


KING: With me now, retired Major General Dana Pittard. He's also the author of "Hunting the Caliphate: America's War on ISIS and the Dawn of the Strike Cell". All right, general, thank you so much for your time today. It's just interesting to see just on the broad picture that the Defense Secretary is front and center at a moment of social unrest in the United States of America. Does just the picture there give you pause?

DANA PITTARD, RETIRED MAJOR GENERAL & AUTHOR: Good morning, John. Yes, a little bit. In fact, having the Secretary of Defense, you know, cross the street with the president over to the church the other day, and I know he's tried to walk that back somewhat. But there's a point in time before going across the street between him and General Milley, that they could have paused and not done that.

Now, we shouldn't allow the Secretary of Defense or military to be used as stunts or political props.

KING: The other former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, you're not alone, sir. The former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen who doesn't speak about politics very often, he thinks again, he's one of the people like former President Bush, you have the job, you step out of the way and you keep quiet, and you let the person who has that difficult job deal with the complexities of it.

Admiral Mullen writing this in "The Atlantic", "whatever Trump's goal in conducting his visit, he laid bare his disdain for the rights of peaceful protests in this country, gave succor to the leaders of other countries who take comfort in our domestic strife and risked further politicizing the men and women of our Armed Forces." General, you served and you served honorably.

Do you worry about that point that I drove by some on my way to the office today. There are military troops that have been brought here to Washington D.C. for the possibility of being deployed to restore calm. That's not what you train for. I know it can be done in extraordinary circumstances. But are you worried about this moment?

PITTARD: Of course, concerned to an extent. I mean, the National Guard is trained to do that. But to use active duty military units to stabilize the situation is normally not done. It is rarely done. And again, I spent 34 years of my life defending our country, specifically overseas. And to see that in our own country now, the American citizens --


PITTARD: American people are not the enemy.

KING: General Pittard, I want to thank you for your time, sir, I need to interrupt our conversation because there's some breaking news, but I want to bring you back in the days ahead because I appreciate, respect. Straight to Josh Campbell now in Minneapolis, there's major news about potential criminal investigations. Josh?

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, we've been following this investigation into the death of George Floyd here in Minneapolis. Two law enforcement sources are telling me that the Minnesota State Attorney General's Office has finished its initial review into that investigation and into the four police officers that were seen on tape, and in and around that incident.

And they have rendered a decision on additional charges. Now, the officials would not tell us right now what that decision is. They're not telling us that publicly. One of the officials said the state's Attorney General Keith Ellison will be making an announcement in the case early this afternoon where he's expected to lay out what their decision is.

But again, after this investigation, looking through all of the facts, we know that this case was originally handled by county prosecutors. The state's AG's office took that investigation over. That's a decision by the governor's office to handle this case. But again, the top line here we're hearing that a decision has been made regarding those four officers that after that initial review were told the investigation continues, but that announcement coming early this afternoon from the AG, John.

KING: And Josh, I know that this is a breaking story, so I'll be careful, just tell me how you can't if you don't have this information. But -- so there were four officers at the scene, officer Chauvin obviously has been charged. The three other officers, that's what Attorney General Ellison, when he was named special prosecutor said he would look at. Do we believe that this decision that has been made involved those four officers or do we -- is it -- could it potentially be bigger than that, do we know?

CAMPBELL: Yes, so we're told the decision will involve that investigation into the four officers. But again, the decision not now being publicly announced. We know based on that dramatic cellphone video footage that we saw officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd's neck, the medical examiner's office later ruling that a homicide.


Some other video we saw pictured three of the officers also on top of George Floyd and one officer standing nearby. Now, all four of them have been caught up in this investigation based on their alleged involvement here. And that's something that the state's Attorney General's Office has been reviewing, trying to determine whether there is information, allegation of some type of criminal activity based on their actions there. We're expecting information on what that ruling is later this afternoon, John. KING: All right, Josh, stand by and continue your reporting as well.

Come back to us with any information. We may come back to you as part of the conversation. But I want to get now to your colleague, and our great correspondent Omar Jimenez also on the ground in Minneapolis. Now, Omar, so you hear Josh's reporting that a decision has been made. We don't have the details of that decision yet.

We will hear apparently from Attorney General Ellison a bit later today on what that decision is about the other officers at the scene, and whether they're revisiting any of the charges against officer Chauvin. We know George Floyd's family is supposed to come to the site of his brutal death today. We know this has been a demand not only of the family but of protesters there in Minneapolis, across America, and in fact, across the world.

OMAR JIMENEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. Well, for starters, George Floyd's family is set to be here within the hour to pay their respects and reflect, again, at the site where Floyd's final moments played out a little bit over a week ago at this point. And the fact that a decision has been made is already progress for a lot of the people here that, again, are waiting to see what exactly these decisions are going to be.

They want these officers, as I spoke to one of the family attorneys yesterday, they want these officers to potentially have the fear of jail time put in them as opposed to the fear of just being transferred to another department. So that's the sentiment that's out there right now. And then again, we have seen protests night in and night out since the day that this actually happened and unfolded, and this is what they have demanded.

Not just charges against these four officers, which again, we will see if the other three face them in this early afternoon announcement, as we are expecting, but convictions as well. So this would be a potential first step that we are keeping an eye on. And we had also heard from the family attorney Benjamin Crump that we would get an announcement on these charges before tomorrow's memorial, before in his words, Minneapolis have the chance to send off Floyd the right way.

So there are a lot of signals as to when this would come down, it really just came through over the course of the past few hours. Prior to this, the closest indication of when we could potentially see a decision made came from Attorney General Keith Ellison about a day and a half ago, who said that they were making progress and that they were close, and that something would be coming soon, and they would be putting forward, again, the proper decision is, is how he phrased it. But he wouldn't go -- it's hard to indicate which way one or another he would go, John.

KING: Omar Jimenez on the scene for us in Minneapolis. I want to bring in Elliot Williams; a former federal prosecutor, Jeff Toobin, our chief legal analyst is on the phone with us as well. Elliot, let me start with you, as a former prosecutor, we need to be very careful here, all the reporting is that a decision has been made, the Attorney General of the state of Minnesota Keith Ellison was named special prosecutor here.

This case would normally be handled by the Hennepin County attorney. Just -- you know the code of prosecutors. When you hear a decision has been made on a possible -- you know, on the incident involving the four officers and an announcement later today, what do you read into that?

ELLIOT WILLIAMS, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR (via telephone): I would be reluctant to read anything into it because we just don't know what they have. And I think the thing that's very challenging here, John, is that, you know, sometimes, you know, the public wants the law to be a certain way. Sort of wants an outcome, but sometimes the law just doesn't support that. And I think that's what, you know, we're finding out today. So you know, there could be charges for murder, manslaughter, assault, false statements, but we just don't know.

And I think part of it -- I mean, you know, and this is sort of an early up -- it all depends on the evidence they have. And you know, they're going to need, in order to bring and sustain charges, they're going to need obviously the statements of police officers or other evidence, and we just don't know what's available to them yet. So again, just like you said, John, I would be cautious, very cautious about trying to come to any conclusions just yet.

KING: And Jeffrey, you have law enforcement professionals, the Attorney General of the state Keith Ellison, there could not be a more political pressure on him at this moment, both from his community and from around the country, and indeed, around the world. Every case, every decision a prosecutor makes involves some politics. But this is a remarkable moment for Attorney General Ellison.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST (via telephone): Well, and the political pressure is well more than even in the usual high profile case, because here you have one of the demands of the protesters, people in the streets is for charges against the three additional officers. So he's not just dealing with, you know, the news media.