Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Says Both Sides To Blame Amid Charlottesville Backlash. Aired 4:305p ET

Aired August 15, 2017 - 16:30   ET


[16:30:00] JENNIFER PSAKI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR AND FORMER OBAMA WHITE HOUSE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: -- as the panel has touched on a b it already. This is a pattern we've seen over and over and over again. And if you want to know what Donald Trump thinks, don't ask his staff, ask him. He'll tell you exactly what he thinks. It doesn't matter if it's controversial, it doesn't matter if it's racist, if it's sexist. He will say it and that may be what he actually thinks. Now, what shouldn't be a surprise is this is exactly who he was when he ran for president.

This is exactly how he talked when he ran for president and this brought me back, as I've been reflecting as many of us have over the last couple of days, to that day after the election when we were in the White House. And many of us, there's a lot of photographic evidence of this, we're disgusted, we were sad, we were crying and we couldn't quite define why. And part of it was because the election brought into question our optimism about the country and how much progress had been made.

How could people -- millions of people in this country ignore what he had said about -- that were the racist comments, sexist comments and still vote for him. Were they all racist? No, they weren't. But they ignored it and it didn't matter. This is exactly who the country elected. And, you know, I think that people are getting what they chose.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR AT LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: And what's -- particularly the president I think is -- I mean, it wasn't crazy on November 9th or January 20th or maybe the State of the Union, I think will maybe he'll change. George Wallace -- George Wallace was a terrible racist and I think after he was elected governor of Alabama, later in his life, you know, having climbed the pole by feeling to the most days, views, and instincts and passions , he ended up governing and then sort of changing his stripes a little bit. It wasn't crazy to hope that Trump might do that during the transition and maybe at the very beginning of his presidency. I think it's getting a little crazy and hope for change at this point.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER ANCHOR: Yes. Nia-Malika Henderson, let me bring you in because Jen Psaki just reminded me of the fact that our family has friends who are not white and they are in fear and they have been since president Trump was elected. Now, I think a lot of people were scared after he was elected. A lot of progressives were scared and didn't know what it would mean. And then maybe a lot of people for them to fear has died down. But I'm reminded constantly by my wife that her close friend, who is not white is constantly in fear. And this is -- this is why.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I think that's right. I am reminded of a woman I talked to in North Carolina. I was covering Hillary Clinton (INAUDIBLE) black woman who's about 65, 70 years old. She was obviously Hillary Clinton supporter and she talked about Donald Trump. She talked about the kind of fear she had were Donald Trump to be elected. And this is a woman who grew up in Norht Carolina, segregated North Carolina.

And she kept saying to me, I just don't want to go back, right? And she felt like a Donald Trump presidency would mean that for her. And there I was trying to allay her fears and, you know, America is America. America, you know, has obviously a progress in terms of racial issues. But I wonder today what that woman is thinking, right?

And this is a president who certainly hasn't talked to that woman, certainly hasn't tried to allay the fierce of so many people from different backgrounds, African-Americans, gay people, even women, right? I mean, neo-Nazis have some really sexists and violent ideas about women as well. So, I mean, this moment, when you have the president there, essentially, reminds us that his first instinct in that press conference on Saturday was he was revealing who he was.

And I think if you look again at his history whether it's trafficking and birtherism where there was some of the things he did as a landlord and a real estate mogul in terms of segregation in denying housing to African-Americans. You know, I think Jen Psaki is on to something here. He is who we thought he was in many ways and he has a problematic views on race. And I think this is a country who is now grappling with what it means that we have a president who doesn't seem to think that his first instinct should be -- hat everyone's instinct officially is and that is to really denounce neo-Nazis and to say that he doesn't want that support.

I think today neo-Nazis found comfort in this president in a way they did on Saturday as well, on his statement yesterday might have been -- it certainly now looks like it was a forced statement and here he comes out today really letting us know how he feels about race. And he's talking about bringing us together and being sort of a uniting figure. I mean, it seems to be that that's going to be very difficult for this president and it's up to republicans to figure out what they want to do and what it means for their party.

TAPPER: I'm joined on the phone by CNN Commentator, Van Jones. And Van, I want you to take a listen to part of the president's remarks just now where he made it clear that his original instinct on Saturday was how he truly feels that the fault for the violence that was seen in Charlottesville on Saturday could not just be laid at the feet of the Nazis, clansmen, alt-right, white supremacist and various racists who march into this college town chanting racist and ant-sematic slogans but it was actually the fault of both sides, take a listen.


[16:35:27] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- blame -- yes, I think there is blame on both sides. You look at -- you look at both sides. I think there is blame on both sides and I have no doubt about it.


TAPPER: Van Jones, obviously, we know that some of the counter- protesters and I'm going to botch how it is pronounced, Antifa, that are anti-fascists. Some of them do come armed and ready to fight with clansmen, Nazis, et cetera. And the blame for the violence, reporters who were there say sometimes was the fault of the counter-protesters, not the protesters. But you say now is not the time to talk about that?

VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, what I say is that the woman who was killed, the woman who died was run over by someone who went there for the purpose of expressing the most vile anti-jewish, anti-black sentiment. That group was marching with torches. They -- I have talked now to, you know, dozens of people who were on the ground there. We have still not fully reported on the level of violence and intimidation against peaceful protesters.

You know, we showed over and over again these kind of flashpoints. But he main thing that was happening was that the peaceful demonstrators there were surrounded and being intimidated by armed, vicious people with -- who were clubbing people and beating people. The police were standing back. And ultimately that resulted in this car being, you know, ISIS tag is being used in our country. My problem now is I think, you know, the verdict on this presidency I think is now in.

This is -- you know, we're kind of out of point when -- you know, he is the father of a Jewish daughter, he is a father of a Jewish daughter. If he won't defend his own daughter from the kind of vile attacks and things that were said, then I think the rest of us have very little hope now, if there is any hope at all. And so, I think the verdict is now in on the presidency now six months in. Any hope I think is fading very quickly. I think now we have to ask about the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and the rest of us.

What will our response be? Will the Republican Party continue to look the other way and hope for a tax cut or is there now a -- is it time for them to think about who can primary this guy? Is it time for a resolution to be passed through congress condemning this, you know, this act, this atrocious act and also calling out the president. We can no longer sit here watching this sort of terrible video game hoping it's going to work out better. We are going to have to stand together.

Let me say one more thing about this. It is incredibly terrifying for people of color. There are people of color right now who are crying. There are Jewish people right now who are afraid because this cut deep when the president won't unequivocally stand with you for more than 12 hours against Nazis. When the president won't stand with you for more than 12 solid hours against clansmen who showed up with guns, who were prepared to kill people, you feel vulnerable.

You don't know if your children are safe. You don't know what to do. You don't know where to turn. This is not, you know, some sound bite gang. People need an assurance from the president that a terrorist movement that is gaining ground in our country is going to be met with the full force of the law. Antifa are people who go and they try to push back on these guys. Sometimes they go too far. I think that that is a significant issue.

But it is not the case that they are going around building an armed movement to go and kill people. Listen, if you can't separate as a leader, a massive threat from a minor threat. If you can't tell the difference between a servant and an earthworm, you have no business leading. And that's the problem we have now. We have a terrorist movement in this country aimed at black people and the Jewish people and the president who is the father of a Jewish daughter will not stand with us and that's terrifying.

TAPPER: There are moments -- thank you, Van Jones. There are moments of moral clarity in the country. Saturday was one of them. It was very clear that a group of people who think that Jews and African- Americans and immigrants and in some cases women are inferior came to a progressive college town to intimidate people in that college town. Anybody who has seen the footage from that night, from Friday night knows that that's just a fact that people were there to say Jews, blacks, immigrants, women, you are not welcome.

[16:40:34] You are not Americans. They were there to intimidate, they were there to spew racial hatred. The moment of moral clarity came on Saturday when the president was called upon to condemn that hatred and was not able to single it out. He was then prevailed upon, begged by Republican officials, Marco Rubio, Warren Hatch, Ted Cruz, Cory Gardner of Colorado, and over and over, Republican senators, Republican governors, friends of the president's begging him to fix the error to call out the hatred that is unfortunately part of this country, the clan, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, calling out.

Finally, on Monday, he did so. Today, he revealed he didn't mean it. That he thought both sides were responsible. The people who came to this progressive college town to spew hatred and those who were protesting, those who were spewing hatred. There are Republicans, Sara Murray, who have said to me, I don't know how President Trump gets past this weekend and that was before this press conference.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Oh, that's interesting because those Republicans probably also voted for President Trump when he was then-candidate Trump after he had said things bout Mexican judges and after he had made the comments about Mexicans in his announcement speech and after he had called for a Muslim ban. So, pardon me if I take that with a very large grain of salt when I say that there have been moments like this before where they say, we don't know how Trump is going to move beyond this, and then he reins it in.

He makes another statement, maybe he makes an apology, his adviser circle around him and say, you're not going to survive this unless you do X, Y, and Z and he behaved himself for a little while and he fights what appear to be his base or instinct and the party moves on because they have been waiting a long time to run this town and to move their agenda forward. And Donald Trump in their mind is still their best hope to do it. So, with all due respect to the Marco Rubios and to the Cory Gardners and to the Orrin Hatchs of the world, we have seen this show before. I saw it time and time again on the campaign trail. These people still voted for party first. And I don't -- maybe there will be a longer pause in this moment but it just feels very familiar, Jake.

TAPPER: David Chalian, let me -- let me bring you in. Obviously, in February, 2016, a year and a half ago, President Trump, then-candidate Trump refused to condemn David Duke and white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan. I asked him three times on this show. So there are people who are not particularly surprised by what happened Saturday and in fact, I don't know many people who -- when -- what happened -- Saturday happened and then we found out President Trump was going to make a statement thought to themselves, oh, this is going to go well.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Jake, I think that's probably a good point. I do think you're right. It's not surprising to watch this happen if indeed, you have watched Donald Trump over the course of his campaign for the presidency. What I think is surprising and shocking to many observers of his comments in these last several days now, today and Saturday is that he's doing it while wearing the cloak of the presidency now.

So -- it is a different context than a candidate for the office than to see someone who has now been elected to represent all of Americans, as president of the United States and is continuing with this kind of behavior. That I think is not the surprise that Donald Trump may act like this. You're right. That shouldn't be surprising to anyone. But it is still shocking to the system to watch the president of the United States incapable of offering a consistent set of words, day in and day out, to actually denounce the hatred and offer some hope of healing and bridging divides and bringing unity on the way forward. I think that is what sort of shocks the system.

TAPPER: Jen Psaki, we all remember the frowning faces of White House staffers during the Obama -- when President Trump came to visit. I -- particularly, I remember yours. It was -- I -- it was quite an angry face. And I've seen you give some angry faces before when I was White House correspondent but never -- nothing quite that angry before. Is this what you were worried about? Is this -- it this your worst nightmare here?

PSAKI: We didn't know it was but in many ways it was. And you know, that morning was - the feelings we had inside were not about Obama's legacy. We weren't thinking about that. We weren't thinking about Hillary Clinton and how bad we felt for her. We were questioning what we thought and knew about the country and we were questioning whether we had made as much progress as we thought we had made. And I remember having a meeting - Josh Earnest tonight did with our staff we were in Josh's office and I had staff who were, it sound cliche to say it but Muslim-American, Gay-American, African-American. We had an incredibly diverse staff in the Obama White House crying and fearful about what this meant for them. And you know, that - this sort - the incidents of the last couple of days have really brought me back to that moment because the feeling we were - the emotions we were feeling were visceral. They were about the country, they weren't necessarily about our jobs and whether our work would live on.

TAPPER: And Bill Kristol, as somebody who's worked in conservative circles and in Republican politics your whole life, and somebody who's Jewish, this is not fun for you either?

BILL KRISTOL, THE WEEKLY STANDARD EDITOR AT LARGE: No. And I actually think this is a problem for all Americans, it may be more so obviously for the groups that are targeted by the KKK or neo-Nazis or by White Nationalists and that will begrudge African-Americans being more worried than I am or whatever but it really is a problem for the country. And I think serious people have to think now which they sort of put off thinking about as the way I would put it, they would be hopeful, more wishful and hopeful than they should have been. But what do we do? I mean, Robert Mueller will do his investigation. We will see what he finds. He may not find impeachable offenses.

What do you do if you're a serious Republican member of Congress? I mean, Sara can say, well, they've just got (INAUDIBLE). Concretely, what should they do? I mean, unless you think they should (INAUDIBLE) impeach him now, they're still entitled to vote for conservative policies obviously. So do they do symbolic things, I think governors, mayors, other civic leaders really have a huge responsibility and I obviously cabinet secretaries and serious people in the administration. I mean, it's very important that we have nonbiased law enforcement in this country. And we don't have a dictator. The President can't tell the Civil Rights Division of Justice or even the law enforcement people of the FBI. He can't tell the State Police in Virginia or the local police in many cities and Charlottesville what to do and he shouldn't be able to them what to do.

And we have a traditional system and Congress has a role here, too, I think and civic leaders and everyone and making sure. If the President can't give moral clarity, others have to that. And if the President isn't leading in the right way, others have to try and step in and do it. We're not used to that. We've had presidents, while we had ideological differences we've all looked to in this moments of crisis, Clinton after Oklahoma City, George W. Bush after 9/11, President Obama, we don't have that luxury now. I hope it's a luxury. I mean, it's unfortunate to have a president who has to say (INAUDIBLE). I mean, it's sort of over in that respect. And now, people have to be serious about what's to be done. I think, especially now H.R. McMasters and Jim Mattis of the world, people running huge parts of the government, Jeff Sessions, very conservative, he's a huge Trump supporter and I hold him partly responsible for helping Trump win the nomination so I'm not exactly forgiving Jeff Sessions.

This is somewhat - if Jeff Sessions behaves as an honorable Attorney General and insists on the fair and equal enforcement of the law and does not let Donald Trump's prejudices influence the Department of Justice, he could be more conservative on immigration than I am, that's fine. But if he's serious about being a law enforcing Attorney General and if the FBI Director is serious and others are serious, I think we'll be a lot better off than if everyone just decides Trump is horrible and so the country is going to fall apart. TAPPER: Sara Sidner, your reaction to the speech and what you're thinking about in terms of where we journalist go forward in terms of what we need to cover?

SARA SIDNER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jake, all good questions. I do want to back up because this is certainly not about us. It is about those Americans who were sitting there and listening to this, those Americans who are of color, who are suddenly terrified. I just got a conversation going with someone who lost their son to a white supremacist who shot and killed him in his doorway and they are terrified, literally terrified listening to this saying he is emboldening them, he's emboldening those who hate and we are now eve morn afraid even after losing our son, even after being the target of hate. I want to go now to what the President said about the other side of this, the left. He definitely went after the left calling the leftists the far left part of the problem. Let me let you hear what he said and then we'll talk a little bit about that in just a bit.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: What about the alt-left that came charging at as you say the alt-right, do they have any semblance of guilt?


TRUMP: Let me just say this. What about the fact they came charging - that they came charging with clubs in their hands swinging clubs? Do they have any problems? I think they do. As far as I'm concerned, that was a horrible, horrible day. Wait a minute, I'm not finished. I'm not finished making this. That was a horrible day. I will tell you something. I watch this very closely, much more closely than you people watch it and you have - you had a group on one side that was bad and you have a group on the other side that was also very violent.


[16:50:33] SIDNER: OK, so here's the truth. The anti - there was a group of anti-fascists called the Black Block, which do tend to get violent. Their idea is, look, nonviolence hasn't worked and we are going to try to stop this but they wouldn't have been - they would have been anywhere near there had it not for the fact that White Supremacist, neo-Nazis were out scaring the (INAUDIBLE) out of most of the people in that town. And I want to end this, David Duke has just tweeted, so if you don't think that White Supremacist aren't getting the message from Donald Trump, you'd be wrong. He just said, thank you, President Trump, for honesty and courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville. Jake.

TAPPER: A message from a miscreant and a racist David Duke. Sara Sidner, thanks so much. Joining me on the phone is Senator Mark Warner. He represents the Commonwealth of Virginia. He is a Democrat. Senator, your reaction to President Trump's press conference?

SEN. MARK WARNER (D) VIRGINIA: I'm shocked, I'm disappointed. I tried to give the President the benefit of the doubt on Monday. I was disappointed to him more in two days to call out the violent actions of people who were racists, white supremacists, neo-Nazis, KKK members that (INAUDIBLE) in Charlottesville. I talk to lots of folks who are in Charlottesville, that city is (INAUDIBLE) for him to come out today, it just seems like he can't help himself and reopen this and then he (INAUDIBLE) and somehow moral equivalency of both sides when they - I don't know the exact (INAUDIBLE) but the overwhelming majority of people who came out to counter this alt-right group were people from the local community. They didn't want this group descending on their city. And for the President to in a sense, we opened this today, I guess at this point, I shouldn't be surprised anymore by the actions of this President that he continues to surprise. It frankly shocked me.

TAPPER: What do you think the rye action will be in Charlottesville, a town that is still in healing, they're obviously - one woman was killed, a 32-year-old paralegal, there were 19 that was seriously wounded, some of them I believe are still in the hospital, this is a town that is in psychological pain, people were fearful, remain fearful, the police chief just yesterday said that there continues to be assaults, what effect do you think the President's word will have?

WARNER: This is not - this is not leadership. This is not what mayors, presidents, governors do in moments of crisis. They call on us to a - in effect (INAUDIBLE) and unfortunately, this President seems to take it the opposite direction. Again, we saw on Saturday, I know I was receiving calls on Saturday as this act of domestic terrorism as this individual drove through innocent bystanders, not dissimilar from what we have seen (INAUDIBLE). I had Senators from both parties calling me saying, hey, we feel the pain that was happening in your state and we condemn it.

And for a moment, there was this pride of, hey, folks in positions of leadership across political parties are stepping up and standing up to this. The President missed that opportunity. And then, again, I got some criticism, tried to give him the benefit of the doubt for at least saying the word yesterday but he just couldn't - he couldn't move on. I think people in Charlottesville will be enormously disappointed but probably not surprised.

TAPPER: Not to put too fine of a point on it, Senator but what happened on Saturday was a domestic terrorism attack by white supremacists. That's what happened. He drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters. The individual who did that is in jail. And thankfully, the justice system, the full weight of it is being brought down upon him. It is hard to imagine if that domestic terrorists action had been committed by somebody who was, instead of a white supremacist terrorist, a Muslim terrorist, it is impossible to imagine President Trump saying that both sides are responsible for the violence, saying that the people that came out against these extremists are equally to blame.

[16:55:15] WARNER: You are 100 percent right. I mean, that's the hypocrisy of then candidate Trump who constantly challenged President Obama for not using the phrase Islamic terrorism. This President is unwilling to use that same standard to describe what happened, which was domestic terrorism created by a neo-Nazi on Saturday and he's not willing to use that same standard. That's not leadership and the ideas represented by these alt-right groups, there's nothing in them that reflects America's creed in terms of we're all equally created by the creator. And frankly this - it's an abomination to the values that we hold in Virginia and across the country.

TAPPER: Senator Mark Warner, thank you so much. I appreciate your time as always. There is a lot of strong reaction coming in from Lawmakers on both sides of the isle. Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii tweeting, "as a Jew, as an American, as a human, words cannot express my disgust and disappointment. This is not my President." This from Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, she's Republican, she wrote, "blaming both sides for Charlottesville, no. Back to relativism when dealing with KKK, Nazi sympathizers, White Supremacists, just no." Bill Kristol, I do wonder though how much we're going to hear condemnation from both sides. We did hear quite a bit of it over the weekend from the Rubios and Ted Cruzes of the world.

KRISTOL: Even Tom Cotton who've been much - tried to give President Trump (INAUDIBLE) it would have been a doubt than my dad for a while there but a very strong statement. When he's traveling the (INAUDIBLE) and we see what happens when you allow this kind prejudice to fester and to be justified by a leader, that can't be allowed to happen in the U.S. I think you will see very strong statements from across - I honestly I think from Republicans to Democrats alike, I think the tougher task that is to think about what to do when we have a President seven months into his term who has - who's Donald Trump.

TAPPER: What do you tell your friends, Jen Psaki, as the Democrat on the table. What do you tell your Democratic friends when they throw their hands up and say, what am I supposed to do?

PSAKI: Run for office, give to a candidate, get active about an initiative you care about. I mean, there are record numbers of people running, progressive candidates, moderate candidates around the country. That is a direct response to Donald Trump. A lot of them are people who worked in the Obama administration. There've been some interesting articles about that. So I would say people should get out there. Silence is not acceptable, especially in cases like this week and people need to not go on living their daily lives because this can't be normalized. So that's what I would tell people.

TAPPER: Sara Murray?

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know what, I do think I was there on election night and I was there the next day. And people were asking us, what do I tell you know, my daughters if - you know, I'm Jewish, do I have a place in this country? I'm African- American, I'm Hispanic, what does it mean to us?

TAPPER: They were coming up to reporters and asking you what it meant?

MURRAY: Yes. They were coming up to reporters and they were you know, people were crying, people were texting, friends were texting us. It wasn't just democrats who were hearing this. And I think that everyone kind of wanted a way to beat and hope that then candidate Trump rose to the office. And it's very clear, he's still in a campaign mind-set. And I don't think that that's changing. And I think that those people had real worries on election night and the day after about their place in this country. And I think that the comments that the President just made give them a good indication that their concerns were well-rooted.

TAPPER: Nia-Malika Henderson obviously, President Trump had a moment on Saturday, the consensus on Capitol Hill. Democrats and Republicans seem to be he whiffed it. He got another bite of the apple. A lot of people didn't think that do overs were even appropriate but he tried, delivered a good message and then completely undid it again today.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: He did. And he was full of passion. He was very present. I mean, if you compare sort of his demeanor today versus his demeanor yesterday, that was the real Donald Trump that we saw today and I think for a lot of people it was very frightening to see a President, an American President not be able to condemn neo-Nazis. I've got a mentee who is going off to the University of Virginia and I almost didn't know what to say to her, other than you belong in this country too.

TAPPER: There - before I turn the show over to Wolf Blitzer, sometimes I hear from viewers who say to me, thank you for being on air because I feel as though I'm going insane and you remind me that I'm not. And to anybody out there watching today, who is confused and thinks I thought that the Klan and Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists, I thought there was no debate about this kind of thing anymore among civilized people. There isn't a debate about it. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you over to Wolf Blitzer.