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Words Matter for President Trump; Markets Closed for Presidents Day; The Search Continues for New National Security Advisor. Aired 8:30-9a ET

Aired February 20, 2017 - 08:30   ET



[08:31:22] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: All right, the president says a lot of extreme things, and he probably says just about all of them on purpose. Does it work for him, as he probably suspects -- work for him with you, with critics, maybe even the media? Let's get The Bottom Line from CNN senior political commentator and former adviser to President Obama, David Axelrod.

Words matter. To me, it always rings hollow whenever I hear that expression. Yes, it matters. But it matters who's saying them, how they're saying them --

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: It matters when the president's saying them.

CUOMO: -- and to whom they're saying them.

That's right, but I believe, as you know, Ax, that he says all these things because he thinks they get him where he wants to be politically. Is he right?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think they resonate with his base for sure. The question is how large that base is and whether he's shrinking it to its irreducible core, even as he thrills his supporters with his words. I think what he did over the weekend was to try to reset the focus off of some of the stumbles of the early weeks of his administration.

But words do matter, particularly when you're President of the United States. You have the Cabinet traveling around the world like a roving fire-fighting crew, trying to extinguish blazes that he set with his words and some of his actions. That's not good. You have a National Security Council that's in disarray. That's not good. And you have a president who's quoting conspiratorialists he hears on late night TV as if it's fact and creating international incidents as a result. That is not good.

So there are real concerns about what he's saying out there. It may help him politically with his base; it's not going to expand his base. But, more importantly, he's not just a candidate now, Chris; he's president of the United States, and the words have enormous impact all over the world. And the world is looking at us with great anxiety right now.

BALDWIN: But do you think, David -- we had Ron Brownstein on earlier and he had this whole notion that the splintering on the Trump base, and he says it has already begun. And when you look at the timeline and you look at the things that he has said and done, and maybe some of it is to distract from here, and maybe he's doing this over the weekend or is to distract from the Russia investigations -- do you agree that there is a sense of perhaps a split, that maybe not all the Trump base is all rah-rah Trump?

AXELROD: Well, there's no doubt about it. There are a lot of people who voted for Trump, about half his base, I would say, that were extraordinarily committed to him, enthused by him. And there are those who supported him on a partisan basis or because they had issues with his opponent. That second group is not something he should take for granted.

And one thing I would point out, a lot of people voted for Trump because they saw Washington as a place that needed to be kicked in the butt. That they wanted a president who would restore a sense of order and make it work. Right now, that is not the sense that is being conveyed.

BALDWIN: It's like are they getting what they paid for?

AXELROD: What's being conveyed is chaos.

I think, look, on the one hand, the Supreme Court nomination, some of these executive orders, will be pleasing to conservatives, even if they're not Trump-oriented conservatives. But this sense of constant turmoil is not something that's going to make a lot of those voters who voted for him comfortable. So I think it is a risk to him in the long term if he continues -- if he continues down this path.

CUOMO: You know, there's a lot of talk about where the Russian investigations will lead.

[08:35:01] Do you think that the five committees that are looking at it -- that sounds impressive. But -- or it's proof that this is going to be kept contained, because it's all done by those Senate-inherent committees and House-inherent committees right now. You do have the Oversight looking at it, but Chaffetz is looking for leaks and leakers; he's not looking at the truth of these matters asserted.

Do you think that the Russia situation has any legs, or you think it's going to go away?

AXELROD: No, I don't think it's going to go away because there are investigative agencies that are looking at it. And you have all kinds of offshoots that keep cropping up. We have a story today about three people close to the president, including your friend Michael Cohen, out there on sort of a freelance mission to negotiate --

CUOMO: Yes, but we don't know if it's true, Ax.

AXELROD: -- peace in the Ukraine on Russia's terms. CUOMO: I mean, there's a report --

AXELROD: We don't -- We don't know.

CUOMO: -- but we don't know if it's true.

AXELROD: But those are -- those are things that are going to be chased down.

But here's the issue on the committees. There's been a battle within the Congress, as you know, some members wanting a select committee to investigate this in the open and in public, and the leaders trying to contain the most explosive potential elements of it to the intelligence committees, which are mostly classified and done in private.

So one of the questions is how much of this will be done in the open and how much it will be done in private? I think it's to the benefit of the administration for this to be as open as possible, because so long as there are questions that exist, every action that this president takes vis-a-vis Russia, vis-a-vis Ukraine, vis-a-vis Europe, are going to be seen through the prism of a story that is unresolved. So it would be best for him to have this done in the open unless there are things here that he fears exposing.

BALDWIN: Moving from Russia, David, onto the media. You know, the president attacks, attacks, attacks. But one of the most egregious things he's tweeted is the fake news media. This is a tweet -- failing New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS, CNN, is not my enemy. It's the enemy of the American people.

When you first saw that, what did you think?

AXELROD: Well, I thought that it was dangerous for a number of reasons. One is that he is equating attacks -- or not attacks, but equating news that isn't flattering to him with the people. If you write something or report something that he doesn't like, this is an affront to the American people. And of course that is a dangerous comment.

I don't want to chase this rabbit too far down the hole in a sense. You can see viewers saying, well, the media is feeling spurned --

BALDWIN: Picked on.

AXELROD: -- or singed by this. Yes. So, and they're indulging themselves. So you don't want to fall into that trap.

But it is a dangerous thing when the president tries to impeach the entire media other than Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and Alex Jones and some of the people on the fringes. I don't think, by the way, that the American people -- there may be jaundice about the institution of the media. I think the vast majority of Americans do not believe that the media is the enemy of the people. And I think he actually overplayed his hand there. If he complained about biased coverage, he would probably find an audience. You know, suggesting the media is the enemy of the people is a bridge too far for most Americans. So he made a mistake there, in my view.

CUOMO: You know, Ax is a Chicago guy.

BALDWIN: Yes, I know.

CUOMO: Even though we're up here in New York. He loves the Bears. Mike Singletary, famous linebacker from the Bears, had a great line once. He got tagged on a play and he was on the ground. He popped up and he looked at the guy who hit him and said, I love this, this is my kind of party. That's how I feel about this, Ax. He's going to throw punches, but he has activated the media in a way to do fact analysis that I think will benefit everybody.

So while Trump is doing what he's doing, the Democrats are trying to figure out what to do. The DNC, the big Democratic National Committee, they're going to have their big vote for who winds up being the party leader. You got Dana Bash and I are going to moderate Wednesday night 10:00. You're going to get to see the main candidates. This is a big deal for them. How big a deal is it and why?

AXELROD: Well, it's a big deal for two reasons. One is that there are organizational issues that the Democratic Party has to face, as has been pointed out many times. There's been a huge loss of not just congressional seats, but legislative seats and governors' offices over the last eight years. And those need to be recovered and it needs to start with a grassroots organizing effort.

The second reason it's important is that whoever is chosen as leader of the Democratic Party in the absence of a president is going to be here a lot on television with people like you, speaking for the party. And the ability to articulate an appealing message to the American people is going to be very important to the success of the party moving forward.

[08:40:05] So there is real consequence to who is chosen. I know the party committees have been weakened. A lot of people denigrate the value of the parties. But it's still a platform, and that platform is important.

BALDWIN: David Axelrod -- I just love hearing him talk. I just -- you know, he's one of those people you just listen to.

CUOMO: I'm of two minds.

BALDWIN: I mean, not this guy but this guy.

AXELROD: Right back at you, guys.


CUOMO: I'm of two minds, I'm of two minds. Ax, always a pleasure. Thank you, my friend.

BALDWIN: Thank you.

AXELROD: You never have two minds, my friend.

CUOMO: He meant to say I have no mind.

BALDWIN: Zero, nothing.


BALDWIN: President Trump, he is trying to narrow down his list of candidates for National Security Adviser. Who will he choose? Coming up, a look at the names being floated for this extremely important position.

CUOMO: Seems just as interesting, who will choose him?


BALDWIN: Markets are closed today for Presidents Day but stocks have seen a steady rise in the first month of Trump's presidency. The S&P 500 is up 3.9 percent since President Trump took office.

[08:45:00] That is the third largest rally ever for a president's first month.

The biggest ever brand mash-up is no more. Kraft Heinz withdrew its $143 billion takeover bid for consumer product giant Unilever. The company announced its offer Friday but Unilever immediately turned down the $50 per share bid, saying the price undervalued the company. The merger would have been the largest in the food and beverage industry, trumping the $125 billion deal between beer makers Anheuser- Busch, Inbev and SABMiller in 2016.


CUOMO: Thank you very much. Time now for the Five Things You Need to Know for your NEW DAY.

President Trump didn't own that what he said was wrong, but did explain his "last night in Sweden" gaffe by tweeting it was something he saw on TV. Sweden unsure that that counts as an official White House response.

On this Presidents Day, anti-Trump protesters will hold Not My President rallies across the U.S. The protests are expected to draw thousands of people in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Defense Secretary Mattis arriving in Baghdad, saying the U.S. -- just as Iraqi forces, with coalition support, launch an offensive to drive ISIS out of Mosul. He says the U.S. has no plans to seize Iraqi oil, an idea, yes, once floated by President Trump.

In Northern California, a new storm will test the stressed Oroville Dam. Up to five inches of rain is expected through the middle of the week. That's prompting flood and evacuation warnings.

Oscar rivals scoring big wins at the annual Writers Guild Awards. "Moonlight" and "Arrival" taking home Original and Adapted Screenplay honors. Both among the most nominated films at Sunday's Academy Awards, raising the stakes.

For more on the Five Things to Know, go to for the latest. Brooke.

BALDWIN: All right, I'll take it.

The search for a new National Security Adviser continues. Coming up next, a look at who is on the Trump short list with a former military leader who knows these candidates very, very well.


[08:51:15] BALDWIN: And the search continues here. President Trump continues to look for his new National Security Adviser, interviewing four candidates just over this weekend to fill the vacancy after the firing of General Michael Flynn.

Who are the men the president is considering? Let's go through that with some insight from somebody who knows, CNN military analyst and Retired Lieutenant General Mark Hertling. General, good morning. Nice to see you.


BALDWIN: All right, let's throw up on the screen those still in contention. So we know, as of Friday night, Petraeus, McChrystal, they were out. We know the story with Flynn. Then Harward was out.

These are the four that we know of in contention. Why do you think, A, General, this is so tough? And B, who is the best guy for the job?

HERTLING: Well, I won't say who the best guy is for the job. I'll tell you three of the four I know very well, the three general officers. And they are all very disciplined, very principled, very smart people. That's what you need, Brooke. You also need, I think -- different from Mike Flynn who was primarily a staff officer most of his career, all three of these individuals have been commanders, which meant they've had staffs. And when you go into the National Security Council as the NSA, you're going to have staffs from all kinds of government agencies: CIA, DIA, the State Department, the Defense Department are all going to have representatives on that staff. So you're going to know -- you're going to need to know how to put a very diverse and eclectic group of individuals together. Some have said that the NSC is somewhat like a "Star Wars" bar scene in terms of the various cultures that are over there. And that's what this guy has to run.

BALDWIN: I just got a funny reminder of the movie there.

Let's go back though to Friday, and retired Vice Admiral Harward, and I think it's worth underscoring, you know, this is somebody who's former Navy SEAL, such an impressive resume. Though he said it was more of a family issue, but we've heard other reports from other sources here at CNN. I mean, is it because Steve Bannon, this political operative, has a

seat at that principal table? What's the sticking factor, you think, for that or any of these future men?

HERTLING: Well, that might be a part of it. I don't want to guess on that. I'm certainly sure that there are some definite personalities involved here.

But the thing you've got to realize, Brooke, as many in Washington know, the NSA -- that's a 4/7, 365 job. You got to be very smart, you got to put your ego aside. You've to work with some very -- with some people who have some huge egos at the same time, and you've got to be the interlocutor between a bunch of different folks in different agencies. You've got to be a coordinator, a synchronizer, an agenda developer. So it really takes some tough work.

And what you're talking about in a retired three star admiral like Harward, you know, he's got other things going on. And the question is do you want to come back to this? Two of the three general officers, H.R. McMaster and Bobby Caslen, are currently active serving officers. So this could be an assignment for them, which they may not get to say no to. Both of them are in the back end of their careers; they're both ready to retire, I think.

Bobby has been at the military academy as a superintendent for almost 4-1/2 years. He's a classmate and good friend of mine. H.R. McMaster has been in training and doctrine command for the last couple years as a three-star talking about the future of the army. Keith Kellogg is the only retired one of those three. And I knew him on the joint staff and he's been out since 2003.

So the person who takes over this job has got to be ready for a whole lot of hard work and government pay.

BALDWIN: That's interesting to note on the two that may not be able to say no.

Quickly on General Mattis, he is in Iraq face-to-face with these men and women, American men and women. This just after the Iraqi forces launched that offensive to drive ISIS out of Mosul.

[08:55:02] But I wanted to ask you about oil. Because here you have General Mattis, right, and he has said he is not there to seize oil, which is not what the president has said. What do you make of that differential between the Defense Secretary and the president?

HERTLING: Yes, well, first of all, I want to congratulate all my Iraqi brothers and sisters who were conducting this fight in a magnificent way. They have done things that many people didn't think they could do. And for our Secretary of Defense to land on the tarmac of Baghdad and have one of the first questions asked to him, or at least implied to him, was are you here to take the oil or arrange for that? That's shameful in and of itself. I'm sure he wants to deal with some other issues in terms of how to support the Iraqi security forces, and to get that question -- yes, to me, and this is my personal opinion, Brooke -- BALDWIN: Sure, sure.

HERTLING: -- that's just -- that's not one of the things you want to deal with when you're the Secretary of Defense. So I'm glad he put that aside, but it's unfortunate that he even had to address it.

BALDWIN: OK. General Hertling, always a pleasure. Thank you so much. And --

HERTLING: Thanks, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Thank you. CNN "NEWSROOM" with Poppy Harlow and John Berman begins after this break.

CUOMO: Thank you for being here this morning.

BALDWIN: Thank you, Chris Cuomo.

CUOMO: I said it first!


CUOMO: Have a great day. Happy Presidents --


POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. Happy Monday. I'm Poppy Harlow. John Berman has the week off.

This morning ,the president facing a big week ahead, promising a new executive order on immigration.

[09:00:06] This as he tries to explain exactly what he meant when he said this at a campaign-style rally in Florida. Listen.