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Trump: Removing Confederate Statues Rips Apart U.S. Culture; Trump Criticizes GOP Senators amid Charlottesville Fallout; Bannon calls White Nationalists "Collection of Clowns". Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 17, 2017 - 10:00   ET



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

The breaking news this morning President Trump removing any doubt or ambiguity about what he thinks about Confederate monuments. Moments ago, he called them beautiful, a lamented their loss to our culture. What culture is that? We will discuss.

This was his statement, "Sad to see the history and culture of our great country ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson -- who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!"

The president has also increased the rhetoric against two Republicans, Republicans who have been critical of his response to the white supremacist and neo-Nazi marches in Charlottesville, Jeff Flake and Lindsey Graham. This is what the president wrote, thanks to their criticisms and remarks of Charlottesville, the president called Jeff Flake toxic and weak, while saying Lindsey Graham lied about his comments on white supremacists in the counter protest, never said there was a moral equivalency between the two.

Here now, CNN's Jeff Zeleny in Bridgewater, New Jersey where the president, Jeff, has jumped squarely this morning into identity politics.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, John. The president has jumped squarely into identity politics. And this is not by accident. This is a repeat of a play from the Trump play book that actually has worked fairly well for him. I am thinking back to several points during the campaign where he is using a controversy here, which of course, there is a big controversy this week.

And he is trying to, you know, shift the focus a little bit, turn it away from his words to white identity politics. And there are many in this country, of course, who agree that removing the statues from cities across the country is a bridge too far. But to me, by the president going after this and sort of shifting the conversation here, he is trying to normalize, in some respects what he said earlier this week, but to, you know, make this point that the left is being hysterical about this.

But John, a different moment in this, a bit of context, the business leaders that abandoned him yesterday in ways we have not seen at any other point in his presidential campaign or his time in the White House is significant and it's stinging. If the president wants to get his tax reform across, other things in his agenda, he needs the support of business leaders. The support of business leaders means the stock market has a higher confidence, et cetera.

So, the president and others around him are trying to shift the conversation this morning, but again, going back to the tweets against Senator Graham and Jeff Flake. Those are two pretty frequent and common targets for him. No one cares if the president is picking on a Republican politician. But this conversation about monuments is a shift and it's a return to a page out of the Trump playbook. John?

BERMAN: All right, Jeff Zeleny for us in New Jersey.

Here to discuss, Alice Stewart, CNN political commentator, Republican strategist, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Sun- Times" and Michael Nutter, a CNN political contributor and former mayor of Philadelphia.

And I just want to note here, the president's statements this morning. They go further than what he said out loud when asked about this on Tuesday. He was asked after he talked about the impact of removing Confederate monuments. He was asked if he's supportive removing them and he said, you know what -- it's up to the cities, the states involved. Now, he says removing them would be wrong and is lamenting their loss.

You know, Mayor Nutter, to you. When you hear the president talk about the culture of our country that will be changed by removing Confederate monuments of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. What is your reaction?


I mean, it's pretty clear that Donald Trump is just a vacuous vessel and whoever fills him with whatever they want to, he will then spew that forward out of his mouth. He clearly has no real personal knowledge and understanding of American history or world history for that matter. Interestingly enough, these decisions are actually being made on the ground by city leaders. I don't know everyone's voter registration. So, I mean, it's just easy for him to take a target.

It would really be great if he could stop trying to, you know, engage in these kinds of controversies and actually get back to the work of being president of the United States of America. He might want to, you know, kind of brush up on what it means to be a president of the United States of America and get out of this nonsense.

[10:05:00] BERMAN: All the United States of America. We do note there are people who may have different feelings about the role of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson played, you know, particularly, African- American.

NUTTER: Some very different feelings. Yes.

BERMAN: Indeed. But I'm not - you know, Alice Stewart, you live in Little Rock. I mean, you live in Arkansas or you spend a lot of time there. And I don't want to pretend like this is simple. For a lot of people it's not. However, you know, for the president of the United States, all the United States, to weigh in now as squarely as he had to talk about the beauty and the culture here. Culture is a buzz word for a lot of people. He's talking about the Confederate culture, Alice Stewart. Is he talking, you know, about that specifically and is this not the identity politics, the very type of politics that he decried, that he charges Democrats for playing?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: Well, look, I spent half my life in Little Rock, Arkansas. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia. So I understand the history behind some of these monuments that people are offended by.

And look, the president is simply saying that if we start here, what's next? Are we going to go down to the Lincoln Memorial and tear that apart brick by brick and go to the Washington Monument and tear that apart piece by piece? Look, I personally don't see any moral equivalency whatsoever between these neo-Nazi, white supremacist bigot hate groups. And those that stood out in protest of that in Charlottesville. I think they are completely different stories.

But the president's point here is that, look, if we are going to start here, what is next? Are we going take away all of the heritage that many people have and many people in the south still look at it as part of our history, even though while it is offensive to others.

And look, yes, the president has made it clear throughout the presidential campaign and even today. But the Democrats are talking about race, identity politics as Hillary Clinton did, they lose. And when Republicans talk about economic populism, they win. So that is clearly what he is doing here. Even though there's a lot of controversy here on CNN and all over the media, he views that as his victory in the election and he sees that as a way to continue, in his mind, to succeed as president.

BERMAN: So, you know, Lynn Sweet, not only is he doing this, this morning. But this morning, he is also come out strongly against two important members of his own party, Jeff Flake, basically endorsing the primary opponent to Jeff Flake, Kelli Ward and sort of angry tweeting Lindsey Graham. You know, how smart is it to go after two Republican senators, senators who you need to get your agenda through? Senators whom you might need to have your back during the Russia investigation?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": It's not smart. But we know this. This has been discussed. The phenomenon that we are seeing here is that we have a president who is more than willing to attack his own even when it's not in his self-interest. This is the point we are in. He is happy to conflate issues, conflate the difference between Nazi Germany and the United States grappling with Civil War past and the aftermath.

But when you specifically go after Republican senators, especially in this context when you weren't as willing to go after neo-Nazis, white supremacists and anti-Semites, this just shows how self-defeating President Trump is for his own agenda and doesn't seem to realize it. So, Lindsey Graham, everyone knows, Jeff Zeleny mentioned that Flake and Graham are two frequent targets. But that doesn't mean that you can't figure out a way to work with them on an issue where you have common ground.

This idea of getting to 50 or 60 in the Senate, you simply have to count, why, why make it harder? But we know the answer is that, it's now getting clearer that President Trump is not -- is interested in advancing the agenda that he was elected to execute as he is on almost a daily basis of settling scores.

BERMAN: You know, Mayor Nutter, you know, I have heard over the last several minutes that maybe the president is trying to do here is change the focus or distract. I just don't quite get what he would be trying to change the focus or distract to, by shifting this discussion to Confederate monuments, by shifting this discussion to attacking Republicans who have been critical over his response to Charlottesville. Isn't he keeping the discussion squarely on? His response to the violence in Charlottesville in what some people see as, you know, the moral ambiguity of his defense?

NUTTER: Well, John, here is the issue. And you are a really smart person. So I understand the nature of your confusion. I mean, you are looking for logic where there is none. And that is always a challenge for those of us who, you know, try to figure things out. So, he loves controversy.

I want to go back to our last speaker. I mean, he just wanted to be president. He doesn't want to act like the president. And so, this is just a massive ego-trip for him. It's always about distraction.

[10:10:02] You know, he should be out on the board walk or something with kind of a three card game going on. I want to distract from the Russia investigation. I want to distract from North Korea. I want to distract form whatever the last distraction is and that's all this really is about.

I mean, he is not trying to govern. He attacks his own. He disregards his family members. I mean, it is stunning to me -- that we had that press conference at Trump Tower. That there was no recognition of what those folks were saying, which I can't say and won't say. They were chanting down the street with their little torches. And then this other guy, who CNN has shown, who said specific, nasty, negative, derogatory, insulting things about his son-in-law and daughter. If someone said something like that about my daughter, we would be fighting still today on Broad Street in Philadelphia. And he's had no response about that, whatsoever. - It's disgusting.

BERMAN: Alice. STEWART: John, if I could just weigh in with regard to his attack on Flake and Graham.

BERMAN: Please.

STEWART: Look, they have clearly been very critical of the president for some time on issues, certainly, with regard to health care and with regard to his response to Charlottesville. But this is who Donald Trump is. When someone attacks him, he attacks back. And he is clearly standing firm on his view with regard to Charlottesville.

In my personal opinion, he's on an island. A lot of Republicans have come out and said look, that kind of language is not acceptable. However, the problem moving forward, it's good he is standing his ground, he's protecting his base. But when he's attacking senators, he's not going to get his legislative agenda accomplished.

When you are losing health care votes by one vote, -- it goes to show you, you have to keep senators and members of Congress on your side. And you cannot attack them. That's the criticism. He may be energizing his base and keeping his base happy, but when you attack Republican senators, it makes it very difficult to get your agenda accomplished.

BERMAN: Go ahead, Lynn.

SWEET: -- To follow up on what everyone is saying, when you talk about governing, these alliances form and reform. So maybe Flake and Graham weren't with him on one thing, tomorrow they have common interest. And this is just the lack of interest in governing -- of understanding that yesterday's enemy could be tomorrow's friend on something you want to get done. That happens all the time in Washington. But, nothing that the president has been doing these last few days shows he's interested in getting laws past, not just signing executive orders, which don't have the weight of law.

BERMAN: Right.

All right, Lynn Sweet, Alice Stewart, Mayor Nutter, thanks so much for being with us.

Pretty stunning interview with the president's chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who went after several White House advisers.

Plus, a new chief of staff is in, but the president is still lashing out, reports that General John Kelly is frustrated and dismayed. Who could have seen this coming?

President Trump makes it clear he believes that Confederate statues are beautiful, the impact of that to all Americans. Stay with us.


[10:17:35] BERMAN: All right. As if the backlash and chaos over the president's remarkets on Charlottesville was not enough for him to be dealing with right now. There's also the road interview from his Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. Rogue war, who knows, maybe not. The former editor of the far-right news website, "Breitbart", is now calling white nationalists, clowns in a brand new interview with "The American Prospect." He also took shots at Democrats and most importantly, went after his own White House colleagues.

Joining me now, Kaitlan Collins, CNN White House reporter and Sarah Posner, reporter with "The Investigative Fund," who interviewed Steve Bannon last year. We want to get to that in just a moment. But first, Kaitlan, what's Steve Bannon saying now?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, this is a really startling interview, John. And we've heard from sources last night that Steve Bannon did not know that this interview was going to be on the record when he called this reporter out of the blue.

But let's take a look at some of the things he said. Of course, Charlottesville got brought up during this interview. And Steve Bannon made a pretty surprising comment. He said that the alt-right and these people were essentially a collection of clowns, saying, "Ethno- nationalism -- it's losers. It's a fringe element. I think the media plays it up too much, and we got to help crush it, you know, help crush it more."

"These guys are a collection of clowns."

And that's kind of surprising because as you know, John, Steve Bannon has said the website he ran for several years, "Breitbart" was a platform for the alt-right.

He made another comment about Democrats. Saying, he hopes that they continue to talk about identity politics in the wake of everything that happened in Charlottesville this weekend. You know that dominated the news lately. But Steve Bannon said, "The longer they talk about politics, I got them." Talking about Democrats, saying, "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."

He made one more surprising comment during that interview, John. Saying, essentially, undercutting what the president has said on North Korea. Steve Bannon said there is no feasible military solution and as you know, that completely goes against what the president has been saying for weeks now, tweeting that he would respond with fire and fury to North Korea if they took the wrong step here.

Now, this interview, Steve Bannon thought was off the record. He has said, he called this journalist out of the blue. He did not know him. But that's pretty surprising for such a media savvy guy. As you know, John, Steve Bannon's position in this administration has been under a microscope lately and he essentially just gave the president a few more reasons to let him go.

[10:20:07] BERMAN: Or maybe not. Because Sarah Posner, the "Daily Mail" - the saying an exclusive right now that Steve Bannon in a conversation with them is talking about how wildly successful this interview was overnight. It drew fire away from POTUS, meaning the president of the United States and he successfully changed the media narrative with a single phone call from the focus on Charlottesville.

And this gets to your interview with him because you talked to him at a key moment when he was dealing with his influence over, you know, not just in some ways, you know, parts of the conservative movement, but also the White House. He has a very high view of how much he can affect things. Doesn't he, Sarah?

SARAH POSNER, INTERVIEWED STEVE BANNON LAST YEAR: He does. And when I interviewed him at the Republican National Convention, which was of course, before Trump hired him to be his campaign CEO, Bannon brags to me that "Breitbart" is the platform for the alt-right, not a platform, the platform. So he clearly knows the audience that he was trying to reach then and the audience he has been trying to reach during his time serving Trump in the campaign and as president. When he reached out to Bob Kuttner this week, it's clear to me from Kuttner's piece that Bannon is trying to muddy the waters here by saying that he's trying to form an alliance between trade warriors like himself on the right and on the left and trying to paper over the white supremacy, the white nationalism and all of the turmoil that happened in Charlottesville this weekend and the turmoil over Trump's response to it.

So, you know, you'll recall that Bannon is the kind of person who likes to create trouble and sew ethnic divisions. When Trump gave a speech during his campaign last October, that many people compared to the protocols of the elders of Zion. According to Joshua Green's book about Steve Bannon, Bannon told Trump it was all good, not to worry about the criticism that the speech was anti-Semitic because darkness is good. So all of what Steve Bannon is doing this week have to be taken within all of that context.

BERMAN: We got about 30 seconds left here, Sara. And again, you know, the president just moments ago came out against supporting the presence of Confederate monuments. Steve Bannon overnight in a separate phone call to "The New York Times," says he likes this discussion. He thinks this helps the president in 30 seconds or less, why?

POSNER: Because the white supremacists and white nationalists who support the president are excited by Trump's words. They were excited by Trump's words at Trump Tower this week. And I have no doubt that they will be excited by his use of the term history and culture to describe the Confederate monuments. To them, this is not about just history. To them, this is white culture that is being - in their minds, diminished. And Trump is backing them on that.

BERMAN: I will say in fairness probably to Steve Bannon and other people. I think that there are folks who are not white nationalists or neo-Nazis for whom this argument over Confederate statues may resonate if it goes beyond that, but I do understand your point.

Kaitlan Collins, Sarah Posner, thank you so much.

You know, rip them down and you rip apart U.S. culture. Again, the breaking news this morning, the president takes a new stance and evolved stance on Confederate statues.


[10:28:15] BERMAN: All right. The breaking news this morning, the Charlottesville violence and the president's response putting a renewed focus on Confederate monuments whether they should stay or go. The president, this morning, making even more clear where he stands. This is what he wrote.

"Sad to see the history and culture of our great country ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments. You can't change history, but you can learn from it. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson -- who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish! Also the beauty that is being taken out of our cities, towns and parks will be greatly missed and never able to be comparably replaced!"

Federal government is facing this issue head on. In Congress, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker plans to introduce bill that have Confederate statues removed from the U.S. Capitol Building.

Joining me now, Daina Ramey Berry, she is an associate professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Professor, thank you so much for being with us.

Let me get to the news this morning. The president now, basically coming out against the removal of Confederate statues. And he says it's sad to see the history and culture of the great country being ripped apart. What do those words mean to you?

PROF. DAINA RAMEY BERRY, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN: Well, for me, I think it is missed words because first of all, our history has not been ripped apart. A lot of our history has not been told. And so, to take down -- if you are saying our history is wrapped in a statue or a monument, we are missing the larger history - the larger context of American history.

We don't know about the - we don't know about the Native American folks that were here before European-Americans arrived. There's a history that has not even reached history textbooks yet. So I think, the place that we need to be focusing on is the text books and the books that people are writing, and not so much on statues and monuments made out of metal or bronze.

BERMAN: It's interesting. The president did say you can't change history, but you can learn from it, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. For the record, I never heard him talk about the role Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson played in the Civil War.