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After Backlash, Trump Condemns Hate Groups by Name; Trump "Seriously Considering" Sheriff Arpaio Pardon; Student Won't Be Expelled for Attending Supremacist Rally; North Korea Backs Down from Threat to Attack Guam. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 15, 2017 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. John Berman, here this morning.

New messages, new reaction and new fallout from the president's handling of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. He did condemn white supremacists and neo-Nazis by name. But three days after the fact it might have been too little too late. For some people, the president cares about dearly.

Two more CEOs, this time of Intel and Under Armour have jumped ship from the President's Manufacturing Council. This after the head of Merck did the same. The president is reacting a fairly notable way this morning, what might be read as outreach to the alt-right.

He retweeted a message from an individual has trapped at impure conspiracy theories and too is well-known in alt-right circles. The president also amused about pardoning a sheriff convicted of a crime, convicted of contempt of court. A man who just happens to share the president's one-time promotion of the myth, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.

A lot going on this morning, the president, in Trump Tower waking up there for the first time since the inauguration. That is where we find CNN's senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny. Good morning, Jeff.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. This is what the North Lawn of the White House looks like this morning here. Trump Tower, obviously, behind us, a lot of security here. Protesters were here last night. We are expecting protesters again here today. That is why President Trump has not spent much time in New York City since taking office. But he did want to spend at least a couple of days here during this working vacation. And so much work on the agenda today, particularly cleaning up still from the slow response to that Charlottesville attack.

And John, I can tell you. The White House is focused immensely on the CEOs Manufacturing Council, watching those three CEOs who have stepped aside. They simply cannot be part of that. The first was Ken Frazier, yesterday. We talked to you about this, the CEO of Merck.

Two more since yesterday, Kevin Plank the CEO of Under Armour, the sporting goods retailer as well as the CEO of Intel. And Brian Krzanich, the CEO of Intel, John, said this. "I hope this will change, and I remain willing to serve when it does." So, he is looking for the president and the White House to indeed say more about this divisive language and hate in America. That is one thing that the White House is focusing on, John.

But when we saw the president yesterday around the lunch hour talking about the hate, condemning the white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, the other groups. He used the word repugnant. But since then, when he's gone off teleprompter, the tweets that he's been sending out have not been quite in that same spirit or theme, John. So that is something that we'll be watching today. What version of approach the president is taking here.

He is scheduled to meet with his advisers, several of them here, gathering at Trump Tower. One not on the list is Steve Bannon, the White House chief strategist. He is still on thin ice. He is back in Washington. We'll see if he remains in the president's circle, but for now, a busy day here at Trump Tower, John.

BERMAN: Jeff Zeleny, on the North Lawn, the extreme North Lawn of the White House this morning. Thank you so much, Jeff.

ZELENY: Indeed.

BERMAN: All right. Tomorrow in Charlottesville, Virginia, a memorial service will be held for Heather Heyer. She is the woman who died in the car attack, the alleged car attack this weekend. Her service is scheduled as her father is praising her as being a woman who stood up for what she believed in. And the father also talked about the suspect, James Alex Fields. Listen.


MARK HEYER, FATHER OF CHARLOTTESVILLE VICTIM HEATHER HEYER: I don't hold any ill will toward this young fellow that did this. He's stupid, OK. He's only 20 years old. He doesn't have sense enough to make a lifelong decision about nothing.

You know, I forgive him flat out. I forgive him.


BERMAN: Grace and charity from a grieving father right there.

Joining me now from Charlottesville, CNN's Kaylee Hartung. You know, Kaylee, that city still in the midst of working through this.

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Charlottesville is, indeed, working through this, John. We are learning more about the troubled past of James Alex Fields, Jr. It appears that he was so violent as a young teenager towards his own mother that she called the cops for her own safety. A police dispatched logs obtained by our affiliate WLWT, say that from 2010-2013, police responded to that home nine times. Twice, there was alleged violent activity and once in 2011, a police report says that a 14-year-old boy was arrested at that home, though his name was redacted from those documents.

Now, at 20 years old, he is charged with the murder of Heather Heyer. And the state and federal investigators search for a motive in that deadly attack.

[10:05:00] One victim has his own opinion.


MARCUS MARTIN, STRUCK BY CAR WHILE SAVING FIANCEE: I feel multiple times that people saying he's 20 years old. It was an accident. He knew exactly what he was doing. His intention was clear. He wanted -- he wanted pain. He wanted hurt. He wanted blood. That's what he was after. You come down to Charlottesville. Anybody that was out there, we were there at our own risk, was at own risk. But we were out there for standing for things that we believed in. We weren't out there to protest hate or anything. The only thing we were doing was standing up for things we believed in. That's all.


HARTUNG: Marcus Martin was counter protesting alongside Heather Heyer when she was killed on Saturday. The sight of that crash still closed as mourners bring flowers and candles to the sight of that attack. A memorial service has been planned for Heyer tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. in the middle of downtown Charlottesville at the Paramount Theater. John?

BERMAN: Kaylee, notable that behind you right now. I don't know if you can see it, a confederate battle flag being shown right there, obviously, people in town still involved in protests one way or another. Kaylee Hartung, thank you so much for being with us.

Joining me now, CNN political commentators, Angela Rye and Kevin Madden, and CNN's senior political analyst Ron Brownstein.

You know, Ron, on the basis of your merit right there being senior, I'm going to go to you first. The president spoke the words that he spoke, yesterday, condemning by name white supremacists and neo-Nazis. But since then, on social media, he has retweeted a man who was trapped at impure dangerous conspiracy theories and he's talked openly about pardoning Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Arizona, a man who again is in the birther conspiracies as the president did for a long, long time. What message do you think the president has sent since his statement yesterday?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, until yesterday, he had followed exactly the same template he did with the day of the Duke controversy back in March, 2016. But now he's added this new twist of further undercutting his words. I mean, the template was set when he was interviewed by Jake Tapper, the Sunday before the largest concentration of southern primaries in the Republican contest last year, when he sent a clear initial message by what he didn't say, when he did not denounce David Duke. And then he only kind of after a broad, bipartisan backlash across mainstream opinion in both parties, did he kind of pro forma denounce Duke. He did exactly the same thing here.

I think there was no question that they were sending a message by what they didn't say initially and then inevitably under pressure, he mouthed the words that everybody was demanding he did. The new twist, was this time, as you suggest, he undercut it very dramatically with a series of tweets, including ones attacking the fake news, showing a train running over CNN, talking about pardoning Sheriff Arpaio and retweeting a kind of an alt-right conspiracy theorist about violence in Chicago, implying that that was at least as great a problem as what happened in Charlottesville. So there is no doubt, there is a kind of dual level messaging going on here from the president.

BERMAN: We should note. You mentioned a tweet about a train hitting a reporter from CNN. The White House says the president accidentally tweeted that image. And he has removed the tweet of the train hitting a reporter.

Angela, there has been reaction, sort of a different type of reaction than we have seen in the past. And this time is from a group of the president really does care dearly about. His corporate CEOs, he loves to surround himself with the business community, his Manufacturing Council, his various business meetings. And over the last 24 hours, the CEO of Merck, Kenneth Frazier has quit the Manufacturing Council. And now, Kevin Plank from Under Armour and the head of Intel as well. You know, what statement do you think these businesses are sending, Angela?

ANGELA RYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think, they are sending a semi-strong statement. I say semi-strong statement because these CEOs were well aware of whose council they were serving on when they decided to agree to sit on this council. I think the bigger challenge I have right now, frankly, John, is Donald Trump chose to attack the black CEO of Merck yesterday, talking about him going to hike up drug prices, again, right after the wake of what happened in Charlottesville.

And of course, this is Donald Trump's choice. The reason why it took so long for Donald Trump to condemn what happened in Charlottesville is because it's hard to condemn what you have spent your entire career supporting and benefiting from. You spent your campaign benefiting from and upon. So, there's a very harsh reality that I think this country now has to face. Donald Trump, if he's not a white supremacist, certainly benefits from white supremacy. And until we are OK with that and understand the full definition, the scope, breadth and depth of the violence of this movement, we are going to be stuck right here having these same kind of fight that you saw on air yesterday.

And so, it's great that these CEOs have decided to step back. I would like to see more of the CEOs if not all of them stepdown completely, but again, too little too late, just like his remarks yesterday.

[10:10:07] BERMAN: You know, Jeff Zeleny reporting which is very interesting that the White House actively pressuring some of these companies or CEOs to stay on right now. So, that's happening behind the scenes. And also, Angela, I do want to note, you know, the only one of the CEOs to quit over the last three days that the president has gone after is Ken Frazier, who was the one who is African- American. We will let you interpret that as you will.

Kevin Madden, you know, we've heard from the business community, there's another group of people we have heard from overnight in a loud and unusual way. That was the late night comics who weighed in here. I want to play a little of Seth Meyers.


SETH MEYERS, HOST, "LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MEYERS": You can stand for a nation, or you can stand for a hateful movement. You can't do both. And if you don't make the right choice, I'm confident that the American voter will.


BERMAN: It was notable, Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, all said things that were not comedy at all. I mean, they made flat out, you know, sincere statements of what their beliefs were. And I'm asking you not just because you're funny but because you're so young.

The president's approval rating right now among young people is even worse than it is nationally. It's his worst age group, 18-34, 28 percent approval, 67 percent disapproval. What I heard with the late night comics were saying last night, I was wondering if that could make his difficulties with this group even worse.

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, sure. I mean, look, I think that group is already progressive and I think they showed and demonstrated by how they vote and how they act and how they have approached this White House that they have calcified opposition to the president and his agenda. And I think that's one of the things, the dangers of the late night impact on the collective opinion of the American people is that they are not -- not everybody is like you or I where we follow the news all day long and we, you know, we read "The New York Times" and "Wall Street Journal" and watch cable news. And oftentimes, people get news through an atomized version of the day's events on late night television. So, for somebody like Seth Meyers to come out and make a statement like that, it does have quite an impact on how people formulate their opinions about some of the public debates of the day.

BERMAN: Let's just hope most people are not like you and me, Kevin Madden, right there. That wouldn't be hopeful for the country. Ron Brownstein, weigh in on the poll numbers right now. Not just the youth, but these new Gallup numbers which show the president on historic low.

BROWNSTEIN: Right. He is at his lowest approval rating of his presidency in Gallup. And strikingly, his disapproval rating at 61 percent is higher than was ever reached, the last two one-term presidents, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush, never got up to 61 percent disapproval. In fact, if you look back at moments of national security crisis like we're in now on North Korea. Only Jimmy Carter and Iran in 1979 has been anywhere near as weak as the president has been. And I think there are two other elements that need to be, you know, kind of noted about where he is in the polls.

The first is that he is in this very weak position while conditions in the country are generally pretty good. There are not gas lines as Jimmy Carter faced. There is not a severe economic recession as Ronald Reagan faced at the beginning or Barack Obama faced at the beginning of his presidency. Times are pretty good. This is very much a personal judgment.

And the second point, I think, really goes to what you are just discussing with Kevin, which is the question of what Donald Trump means for the long-term image of the Republican Party, particularly with the younger generations. In effect, he has offered Republicans a trade. He has strengthened their support among blue collar, old or non-urban whites at the price of raising big questions about what their long term image will be with the millennial generation and younger which is more diverse, more secular, and as Kevin has noted, more progressive.

It's worth noting that in 2018, for the first time ever, millennials will exceed baby boomers as a share of eligible voters. They won't pass them among actual voters because they don't vote in as high of numbers. But that transition is coming and I think Republicans who are worried about what Trump's long-term impact would on the image of the party. The wolf is now kind of at the door after Charlottesville.

MADDEN: Can I add one thing to that, Ron?

One of the other things I would say too is if you look at the traditional lines between Republicans and independents. That has been shattered in the last few months. And as you go in to 2018 where many of these battleground congressional districts where they are in suburban areas, where independents do factor in pretty prominently, that's going to be a great challenge as we move forward next year.

BERMAN: Angela, quick last word.

RYE: Yes, just really quickly. Ron, you mentioned that you know, times are pretty good right now. And I just think that this is a great example of how very differently folks in this country see it, whether you are talking about the millennials that John just cited and this earlier poll or this overall disapproval - these numbers. I think that it is very clear that the country is not in such a positive state. Sure, you can talk about economic numbers, et cetera. But I think we cannot -- we would be very remiss, right, if we did not acknowledge the state of this American culture and how things feel. And I think that matters when people decide whether or not they approve of the president's rating.

[10:15:03] BERMAN: All right. My young millennial friends, Ron Brownstein, Kevin Madden, Angela Rye, thanks so much for being with us today. Appreciate it guys.

RYE: Thanks, John. BERMAN: All right. The federal government says that white supremacists will pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year. Why? We are going to speak to a former neo-Nazi.

Plus, controversy at the University of Nevada after saying it will not expel this student who marched in a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. We are going to ask a lawmaker from that state about the school's decision.

And North Korea, backing down. Stay with us.


BERMAN: He called white supremacists repugnant and said racism is evil.

[10:20:01] The president's words were meant to heal, fix and clarify his first statement two days earlier. But not everyone is satisfied.

With us now is Democratic Representative, Dina Titus of Nevada. Thank you so much for being with us, Representative. The president's words yesterday, were they the right words?

REP. DINA TITUS (D), NEVADA, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Well, they were the right words, but they came too late. I think his first response was his true response and he was trying to back that back because he got so much heat for it. It was something that was very stilted, very scripted and then after he gave it, he admitted that he was just trying to appease the press.

BERMAN: Well, the president says that he can't win here. Everyone was pressuring him to say something more. When he did, people said it was too late. Is that fair?

TITUS: Well, I don't think it's a question of he can't win here. With this president, we have set the bar so low, if he does anything half way decent, we give him a lot of credit for it.

BERMAN: It is interesting and that first statement is the one that he made and when he said, many sides -- there was violence from many sides that was unscripted or perhaps different than some of the other statements we heard.

Representative, I want to ask you about something that does concern your state because there was a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, who was involved with the protest at Charlottesville and was caught in some of the photos. The university says it will not expel him or will not remove him from any of the jobs he holds at the university because he has a first amendment right to assemble and for free speech. Do you support the decision by the university?

TITUS: You know I've taught in the university system here, UNLV, for 35 years. And I can say that that angry young man in that picture is not reflective of most of the student body on any of the campuses here. Our campus administration said that they have no legal rights to fire him from the job he has on campus or to expel him. But he is not coming back to a warm welcome. There's a rising movement here to just get rid of him. They don't think he belongs on a campus.

And the administration is caught in the middle. On the one hand, you want the campus to be a place of free speech. On the other hand, you want it also to be inclusive and allow everybody to feel safe and express their opinions on the other side, too. It's not a place for hate. And so, I don't think people here are very happy to see him return.

BERMAN: What do you think? Do you think he should be expelled?

TITUS: Well, I'm not going to second guess the administration. They have got the legal rules in front of them guiding their action. But I certainly would not want him in any of my classes.

BERMAN: So, another development overnight in Durham, North Carolina. There was a Confederate statue which was pulled down by protesters there. Obviously, the demonstrations in Charlottesville had to do with the statue of Robert E. Lee. This video you're seeing right now, you can see the statue pulled down in Durham. The governor there, Roy Cooper, said that racism and deadly violence in Charlottesville is unacceptable. But there's a better way to remove these monuments. Do you think this sort of behavior that we are seeing right now is helpful?

TITUS: Well, I don't condone violence in any kind of circumstance from either side. But I can understand their frustration. They want to see these monuments gone because they are reminders of terrible times and a bad part of our history. So, I understand their frustration, but I agree with the governor, there are methods to use, here in Nevada and across the country there were peaceful demonstrations and marches to say we stand against hatred and bias and the kind of actions that we saw in Charlottesville. That's the way to go, I believe.

BERMAN: You sit on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. I want to ask you about North Korea right now. Kim Jong-un says - essentially that he is backing off plans to launch missiles toward Guam. He's going to wait for new action from what he calls the foolish Yankees. But he blinked. He seemed to blink right here. Do you think that the White House deserves credit for how it has handled things over the last week up to and including some of the president's harsh statements?

TITUS: Well, his tough talk about fire and fury, I think did not help the situation. Here is another example of how the president is saying something different from what the general said and what the Secretary of State said who wanted to pursue some diplomacy. All the world is glad that the leader of North Korea stepped back from the brink. But now it's in our hands. You know, over the years they have blustered many times and stepped back. We'll see what the response we'll be conducting in a week or so with South Korea. It really is up to us now to see what will be the response.

BERMAN: All right. Democratic Representative, Dina Titus of Nevada, thank you so much for being with us. Do appreciate it.

TITUS: Thank you.

[10:25:00] BERMAN: All right. Kim Jong-un, unbelievable, North Korea backs down. Stay with us.


[10:25:00] BERMAN: All right. This morning, North Korea blinks. Leader Kim Jong-un appears to be backing down from the ongoing standoff. He says, he has finished reviewing a plan to fire missiles at Guam and will wait for the, quote, "foolish Yankees to act." This is after the Defense Secretary James Mattis declared that it is game on if North Korea fires at U.S. territory.

Joining us now, CNN correspondent, Anna Coren, live in South Korea and CNN Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. Anna, let's start with you. First, the actions are sort of the retreat of North Korea.