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Trump Rips GOP Senators Amid Charlottesville Fallout; Bannon Slams Far-Rights, Dems, and White House Staffers; NYT: Trump Lawyer Forwards E-mail With Secessionist Rhetoric; Trump: Removing Statues Rips Apart U.S. Culture; Source: Trump Ended Councils After Learning CEOs' Plan. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired August 17, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:12] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. John Berman here.

This morning, the White House has become Trump island, an island that is shrinking. And moments ago, instead of trying to get more people to join him on this island, the President is casting them off. It would be like Tom Hanks not just losing Wilson but popping him.

President Trump just attacked two Republican senators who have been critical of his response to the Charlottesville violence. He, more or less, endorsed the primary opponent of Senator Jeff Flake, which, honestly, almost never happens. And he went after South Carolina's Lindsey Graham as well.

Publicity seeking Lindsey Graham falsely stated that I said there is more equivalency between the KKK, neo-Nazis, and White supremacists, and people like Ms. Heyer. Such a disgusting lie. He just can't forget this election trouncing. The people of South Carolina will remember.

Well, what a lot of people remember, though, is what the President said out loud two days ago.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think there's blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it.

You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people.


BERMAN: All right. So since that moment, the President has suffered rebukes from his own party, serious distancing from his own generals, and anonymous anxiety from his own advisers, hence the island. So one person still precariously present on that island, his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who once described his Breitbart Web site as a platform for the so-called alt-right.

In a new bizarre twist, Bannon called a reporter overnight and lashed out at some of his fellow White House insiders. So how will this go over with the boss? More on that in just a moment. First, to CNN's Jeff Zeleny in Bridgewater, New Jersey where the President has woken up with quite a bit to say. Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. He has quite a bit to say after an unusual silence yesterday. Of course, in the wake of that very loud press conference on Tuesday at Trump Tower.

But the President is tweeting up a storm a few moments ago. Just as you were reading the introduction there, the President is tweeting again. He's talking about a meeting he's having later today with Linda McMahon, the head of the Small Business Association. He tweets, jobs numbers are looking great.

A lot of Republicans, a lot people in his administration, John, quite frankly wish he would only talk about the economy, only talk about jobs. We've heard very little of that in recent days.

But you talked about that island. That is something that is so different about this moment, indeed. The President -- the businessman President isolated from business executives. He is the Commander-in- Chief now at odds with the commanders-in-chief of the five branches of the service, and the Republican -- the leader of the Republican Party at odds with his fellow Republicans.

That is where this day begins of this working vacation as he nears the end of it here. The White House is trying to keep the President busy. They're trying to get back on track, back on the agenda. It's why they have added a meeting tomorrow in Camp David. The President going to fly to Camp David for the day to talk about his Afghanistan strategy, I'm told.

He's also scheduling a campaign rally next week in Phoenix. Of course, Phoenix, Arizona, also very interesting because, in one of those tweets, as you mentioned this morning, he endorsed essentially the Republican primary opponent of Senator Jeff Flake, one of those moderate Arizona Republicans who did vote for the health care bill but has been pretty outright in his criticisms of this President.

So that's where things stand at this hour, John. But when you take stock of everything that has happened in the month of August, there's one place that his advisors worry that it hurts his agenda, the agenda for tax reform. The agenda for what he hopes to do in September here that has been eroded and weakened, in fact, by this.

But the White House, today, trying to turn the page. We'll see if that happens in the hours to come as we keep an eye on those tweets, but we're not expecting to see the President at any public events here today, John.

BERMAN: No. Although it does turn out that Twitter is quite public. Jeff Zeleny for us near the President's resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.

ZELENY: Very public.

BERMAN: Thanks so much, Jeff. Great to see you this morning.

So the only thing that could make this whole situation even more chaotic, a potentially rogue interview from a key White House official attacking his colleagues and contradicting the President. So guess what? That happened.

Steve Bannon had a lot to say overnight. CNN's Kaitlan Collins live in Washington with that. Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, John, this was a very startling interview. And so many people were trying to read it -- because Steve Bannon, the President's chief strategist, doesn't often give interviews -- that it crashed the site servers multiple times yesterday.

People were reading this interview, and they were stunned at the candid answers coming from Steve Bannon, many of them undercutting the President or going after his colleagues there in the West Wing.

[09:05:00] One that really got everyone's attention was about these events in Charlottesville this week. This reporter, Robert Kuttner, brought it up to Steve Bannon.

And he said, ethno-nationalism, it's losers, a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we've got to help crush it, you know, help crush it more. He said, these guys are a collection of clowns.

Now, as you know, Steve Bannon has said the Web site he ran, Breitbart, was a platform for the alt-right. Another stunning comment that Steve Bannon made in this interview was about Democrats.

He said that he hopes -- the longer they talk about identity politics, I got them. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.

Now then, also, we saw him really undercut the President on North Korea in this interview, John. He basically said that there is no military solution in North Korea, which completely goes against what Donald Trump has been tweeting these past few days, saying that he would respond to North Korea with fire and fury if they took the wrong step.

Now, this is a startling interview on many things, but this reporter said that the issue of whether or not this was off the record never came up. Now, Steve Bannon did not know this reporter. He called him out of the blue while he was on vacation, and he never said it was off of the record. Steve Bannon is a media savvy guy who ran a media operation for years, so it's pretty surprising that he would think he could say these things in an off the record comment.

Now, all of these comes as Steve Bannon has been under some heat in the White House. And just when it was looking like he was stabilizing his position, he just gave the President several more reasons to fire him. BERMAN: All right. Kaitlan Collins for us in Washington. Just one

more ingredient in this bizarre mix being cooked right now.

Here to discuss, Nathan Gonzales, CNN political analyst and editor and publisher at "Inside Elections"; Wesley Lowery, CNN contributor and national reporter for the "Washington Post"; and Caitlin Huey-Burns, national political reporter for RealClearPolitics.

And, guys, guess what? We have some breaking news. Senator Lindsey Graham has responded to this attack on him by the President of the United States. Again, Lindsey Graham was very critical of the President's response to the Charlottesville violence. This is what Lindsey Graham writes this morning.

Mr. President, like most, I seek to move our nation, my state, and our party forward toward the light, not back to the darkness. Your tweet honoring Ms. Heyer was very nice and appropriate. Well done.

However, because of the manner in which you have handled the Charlottesville tragedy, you are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate filled individuals and groups in our country. For the sake of our nation, as our President, please fix this. History is watching us all.

BERMAN: That's from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham this morning. So, Caitlin, let me ask you. Is this a fight that the President wants to be in right now with the people he is now fighting with, Republican senators?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: Right. Well, we know that they come back to Washington next month with a large to do list on the budget, the debt ceiling, and other items like tax reform.

Traditionally, you wouldn't want a president picking fights with his own party with so much at stake, but that has been the M.O. of this president throughout the past two years. He very much ran against senators like Lindsey Graham and members of the Republican Party.

I think what we're seeing here, we're seeing lots of senators trying to distance themselves from the President. And as you mentioned in the opening, they do, however, share an agenda. And Republicans in Congress very much want to get things done.

I think you're also seeing, though, Republicans in Congress wanting to fill a leadership void, I think, that they see missing from this president. So I don't think that Trump's attacks will deter them from that.

BERMAN: You know, it's interesting, Nathan, and you cover this, you know, very, very closely at "Inside Elections." It may not be great politics for some of these Republican senators or members of Congress to do this. You know, it's hard to know.

The President's approval rating is still like 79 percent among Republicans, so Lindsey Graham is doing this in spite of the polling, Nathan. Jeff Flake, doing it maybe in spite of the polling. His -- you know, his primary opponent endorsed by the President this morning. They feel it is important beyond politics here to take a stand.

NATHAN GONZALES, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, INSIDE ELECTIONS: Yes. Well, I find the relationship or the disagreement or fight between Trump and Senator Jeff Flake most fascinating because Senator Flake is up for re-election in this cycle.

And he already, even before -- last year, he was kind of jousting with the President in private meetings. Then, Senator Flake, he met with his -- with his new book, in which he takes on the President even more. This is just the latest chapter.

But Senator Flake is in a squeeze because, even though President Trump won Arizona in 2016, Senator Flake is in a real fight. Now, you have the President supporting his primary opponent.

To put -- for some context, Dr. Kelly Ward challenged Senator McCain last cycle, but she wasn't viewed as a credible enough candidate for these outside groups to really get involved.

BERMAN: Right.

[09:09:58] GONZALES: But the President, his distaste for Senator Flake is so much that he is at least tweeting nice things about her. But then in the general election, if Senator Flake distances himself too much from President Trump, he risks losing some Republican voters in the general election, which could hurt him because he's probably going to face a credible Democratic opponent, maybe Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema or Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton.

BERMAN: And, look, we don't know. It may be beyond politics for a lot of these Republicans right now also. Don't forget, the President might need these Republicans, say, if the Russia investigation heats up.

But it's not all just about politics here. There are serious moral and cultural issues at play here, and more breaking news, guys. The President is jumping into those moral and cultural questions with both feet again.

Just now, one minute ago, he made this statement, the President of the United States: Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.

Wesley Lowery, he is clearly talking about the removal of what he calls the beautiful statues of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and, for instance, Stonewall Jackson in Baltimore. He is taking a side here now. Before, he said it was up to the cities and towns to decide. That statement right there from the President of the United States makes crystal clear he wants to see these Confederate statues stand. The impact of that?

WESLEY LOWERY, NATIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, I mean it's clear. I think that there has been -- and we've seen various Republicans and various people in politics come to this realization over the course of the last few days. There's been some equivocating previously that, oh, does Trump really mean these things he said or he's just unartful or lacking tact?

The statement you just read is pretty clear. The President of the United States believes there should be statues across this nation honoring people who fought and, in some cases died, to keep American citizens, some people who live here, in chains.

The President of the United States believes we should honor in public places people who think that Black and Brown Americans, in some cases, Jewish Americans, are sub-human. That's what the President just said.

And so I think that there has to be clarity here, clarity on this issue. I think that, for a long time, for years, for decades, there has been a conversation that we've had in political spaces where we like to both sides the story. Well, is this erasing history? Is this not -- no.

I mean, we don't -- in our nation, we don't have statues of terrorists all over the place. And in other context, we don't have a statue of the two men who shot up Columbine outside of the high school. Why? Because that would be deeply offensive and insane.

But we do have statues of Confederate generals, people who've committed treason, and who wanted to enslave and keep enslaved black Americans. And the President here is erasing any ambiguity about where he stands on that. He believes that we should honor those people in our public places, not in our books -- in our history books and our American museums, but rather these are folks who should have, quote, beautiful statues in public places on Earth.

BERMAN: Yes. Robert E. Lee returned escaped slaves. When Robert E. Lee was leading the armies in Pennsylvania before Gettysburg, when he came across escaped slaves there from the South, he made sure they were returned to their owners. Just a historical fact.

Back to the politics of this, though. This is something that we know Steve Bannon thinks is a terrific political argument right now. Why? Because of this conversation he had with "American Prospect" and also the "New York Times." If I can -- I'll just read the quote that he made sort of about these monuments and about this debate.

The Democrats, he said, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got them. I want them to talk about racism every day. The left is focused on race and identity and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.

You know, Caitlin, is this now an arena where the President feels the like he can win political points? I'm going to argue for Confederate monuments and score some points here.

HUEY-BURNS: Well, it's certainly a cynical view. But we did hear the President reflect some of that in that press conference the other day. There are lots of calls among Democrats, of course, for Steve Bannon to go. They have -- those calls started during the transition and through this presidency.

But it's to remember, what the President himself said during his press conference was that, I was doing fine even before Steve Bannon came along. And I think, to a large extent, that is true in terms of his thinking about his campaign, which is that these are a lot of the themes that he talked about during the campaign.

If Steve Bannon were to exit the White House, I don't anticipate any major changes in the President's worldview or behavior. And so I think the Democrats here, you know, don't want him to be a part of this administration, but they do also know that this would continue.

And there's also a view of -- and a concern about, if Steve Bannon were to exit the White House, what kind of impact he could have outside of it?

BERMAN: And it's also, you know, again, remember, Nikki Haley, you know, his ambassador to the United Nations, removed the Confederate battle flag from South Carolina after the massacre inside the church in South Carolina. This is something that matters a lot to a lot of people very close to the President, and he's now in this, really full force now.

[09:15:06] And, again, just to sort of wrap this around and connect it to the Russia investigation, the President's personal lawyer, John Dowd, who is representing him in this case, overnight forwarded e- mails which talks about, here's the title of it, "You could not be against General Lee and be for General Washington. There is literally no different between the two men."

And Wes, you know, to you, this is -- I don't know if this has any significance for the Russia investigation, but it just goes to show what the thinking is among some in the administration or near the administration.

WESLEY LOWERY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, of course, and the thinking, from some, both in and near the administration is that of right wing conspiracy theory. I think going back to Steve Bannon's point in that interview. He talks about the political potency of this type of racialized politics.

That they know and the majority of the white country that if Democrats are talking about these ideas of race and oppression, standing up for black and brown and Americans, immigrants, they believe that's a politically potent message.

Why would they believe that? Well, one, because that was politically potent for them in 2016. This was one of the battle lines between the Trump campaign and the Clinton campaign was whether this question around Black Lives Matter, the question of how we talk about immigrants, crime.

But, beyond that, Donald Trump is a politician whose first major public campaign was premised on a five-year effort to discredit the first black president of the United States of America based on a racist right-wing conspiracy theorgy. And so, the idea that his attorney is forwarding chain e-mails is unsurprising and the idea that they would see this as politically potent is not only unsurprising and certainly I think to some extent cynical.

But I also think probably accurate. I mean, we have recent evidence of how racial politics work in United States of America. Donald Trump has found success playing this type of politics.

BERMAN: All right. Guys, just to update, the president has come out with another statement. He says, "You can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, who's next? Washington, Jefferson. So foolish." He says, "We can learn from Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson."

That may be so. I have not heard him talk about Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as fighting to maintain slavery up until this point. Guys, thanks so much for being with us. A lot going on this morning.

The president under attack so he goes on the attack ripping key members of his own party. How will Republicans respond?

And you're fired or they quit. Either way, the nation's top CEOs fleeing the president. What will the fallout be?

And plus, talk about timing, Jared and Ivanka back in town after taking a vacation and the president takes on a new crisis.



BERMAN: All right, the breaking news, just moments ago, the president of the United States endorsing the presence of confederate monuments around the country. This was his statement, "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments."

That from the president of the United States and it is that attitude which has led to one of the most surprising and significant splits from the president, corporate leaders, key executives fleeing the White House advisory councils.

Remember, business people are supposed to be his people. The president claims he dissolved those councils, but sources tell CNN the president only released his statement after learning that the remaining CEOs were already planning to leave.

Joining me now chief business correspondent and star of "EARLY START," Christine Romans, and Stephen Moore, CNN senior economic analyst and former Trump campaign advisor.

You know, Romans, first, to you, who dumped whom here? And why did the executives feel like they had enough?

CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN CHIEF BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Well, he dissolved two boards that didn't have anybody on them anymore basically. That's how this goes here. The back story is fascinating. Yesterday, there were these big meetings, conference calls with all of these titans of industry, who together decided that this was a risk to their brand.

Their employees didn't like their affiliation with the president after those Charlottesville comments and it was time for them to disband. And so, they learned at the White House that they would and then the president himself said he put out that statement.

You know, there's been rifts before on climate change, right, on a host of other things, immigration reform, for example. You already saw Bob Iger from Disney and Elon Musk from Tesla for other issues step away from advising this president.

Frankly, you know, Richard Trumka, from the AFL-CIO said the manufacturing council didn't feel like they were doing anything yet anyway. So, were you just there to be a blue-ribbon panel for the president for his ego or trying to do something? And so, they decided to get out.

BERMAN: Stephen Moore, you know, you feared this would happen. You predicted this would happen, you know, when these councils were formed. My question to you is who do you think is to blame here?

STEPHEN MOORE, CNN SENIOR ECONOMIC ANALYST: Well, before I answer that, John, I just have to address something in your previous segment because I feel so strongly about it. I heard this "Washington Post" reporter refer to Robert E. Lee as a terrorist.

I think that is so offensive. I've lived in Virginia for 30 years or so. Again, I'm from Chicago, but I kind of consider myself a southerner now. Basically, to say that half the country which fought for the south in the civil war was a gang of terrorists, I think is really truly rewriting history.

And it's not salvaging the wound. It's making these things I think worse. I mean, Robert E. Lee hated slavery. He abhorred slavery, but he fought for his section of the country. That's a totally different subject.

BERMAN: I can't let it slide. Robert E. Lee held slaves. He ordered the beating of slaves. He ordered the return of fugitive slaves and he fought for the dissolution of the union to maintain slavery. So, his person attitude towards slavery --

MOORE: No. It was not --

BERMAN: I mean --

MOORE: But it wasn't. The civil war was about the south having its own rights. I mean, look, this is --

BERMAN: Look --

MOORE: It wasn't -- it was the south feeling like it was overwhelmed. By the way, it was --

BERMAN: This is -- again, the civil war had the south won --

[09:25:08] MOORE: The history is important here.

BERMAN: I agree.

MOORE: It was a big part of it, but it wasn't only that. As Christine knows, it was a lot about economics, tariffs and things like that. The south felt that it was being overwhelmed by the north and Congress and it couldn't get its economic positions --

BERMAN: The fact now -- to marry this to the economic discussion, if you will -- I just want to say I fundamentally disagree with the historical point here, but to marry this --

MOORE: So John, are you saying that everyone who fought for the confederacy was a terrorist?

BERMAN: I did not use the word terrorist there.

MOORE: But that's what "The Washington Post" reporter said. He said it wort terrorists. I think that's -- yes.

BERMAN: All I'm saying, though, is that slavery played into this right now. You said that Robert E. Lee abhorred slavery and I think there is more context as necessary there. And I think corporate CEOs now when the president is becoming part of this discussion, they are so clearly uncomfortable with this, Stephen. This is the problem. This is a problem for them.

MOORE: It is.

BERMAN: They feel like they can't work with him on other fronts, correct?

MOORE: So, look, that's true. And I think that the problem for Donald Trump -- and I did warn against these business councils because a lot of these people were put on these business councils were people who were not for Donald Trump in the first place.

And I warned that as soon as there was any controversy that these -- that a lot of these CEOs would run for the high grass as they have done. I mean, look, CEOs don't have a lot of -- don't have spines of steel. They have to worry about their customers, employees and so on.

But the point I would make and that I made in my piece about this, John, is we've got a booming economy, a booming stock market. These company CEOs, they really benefited from Donald Trump's agenda of deregulation as Christine and I talked a lot about.

Hopefully there's a tax cut coming later this year. So, in terms of how Trump is dealing with their companies, they've got to be mighty happy with the condition of the American economy and the stock market today. BERMAN: And it may make it more glaring the fact that they chose to split from the president given the fact a lot have done quite well under the circumstances. Christine Romans, you want to jump in here and talk about the pressure?

ROMANS: I wonder what it means now for the president's agenda where he was going to use the business people for helping to get tax reform. There's a real fear tax reform is dead. Will there be tax cuts?

If the companies really were trying to advocate for tax cuts, wouldn't it be better to stay at the president's side. Maybe that's a sign, Stephen Moore, that tax cuts might not happen too.

MOORE: I hope not, Christine. I mean, look, I think this is a vital thing for President Trump to get done this fall. They struck out on Obamacare. I always said, you know, they've got to either get Obamacare repealed or get this tax cut delivered.

Because John, if they don't deliver this tax cut in the fall, Trump will essentially have had no major legislative victories in his first year in office. So, it is critical. I think you're right, Christine.

He would need a lot of these CEOs to be on his side. A lot of these CEOs, by the way, as you know, Christine, these companies, would greatly benefit from a business tax cut so we'll see.

By the way, workers will benefit too because when companies do better, workers do as well. So, we'll see whether this impairs that business agenda that Trump has for the fall.

BERMAN: All right. Christine Romans, the markets open in about a minute and a half, where are we headed?

ROMANS: Well, you could see a little bit of a pause, I would say, today. Yesterday, we watched the market move a little bit higher but not very convincingly. One of the things here is this isolation of the president, John.

When you talk to people on the street, they now see the isolation of the president as more reason for concern than his legislative agenda, which includes those tax cuts, won't get through.

Look, economy is strong, job creation is still strong. Earnings are still strong. They has a really a big run up here so closely watching to see if the (inaudible) markets just threads water today.

BERMAN: Christine Romans, Stephen Moore, great to have you on this morning. Thank you so much for the discussion.

All right, this morning, a defiant President Trump facing a backlash from business, military, and Republican leaders. So, what does he do? Launches new attacks on key members of his own party. How will they respond?