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Trump Cites Debunked Terror Story in Response to Barcelona; Trump Stirs Debate Over Confederate Symbols. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired August 18, 2017 - 06:30   ET



[06:31:12] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: The top three officers in the USS Fitzgerald are set to lose their leadership positions today at a naval hearing. The destroyer collided with a cargo ship in June off the coast of Japan. Seven sailors died after their sleeping quarters flooded. And a naval official says the crew made serious mistakes. But other sailors were commended from saving their comrades and preventing the Fitzgerald from sinking.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Wall Street is going to open in a few hours after worries that the White House may have triggered a selloff yesterday. The Dow falling 274 points. It's the biggest drop in three months. Traders fearing Mr. Trump's business friendly adviser Gary Cohn could resign and others might be less likely to work with the president in light of his comments on Charlottesville.

HARLOW: Many people hitting the road this weekend for an historic event happening Monday. For the first time in 99 years, a total solar eclipse will cross the country, from the Pacific to the Atlantic. For a large portion of the country, it will feel like someone turned off the sun, well, in the middle of the day. It's expected to last for nearly an hour and a half.

CUOMO: Are you going?

HARLOW: I'm going to be in Europe. I don't think I'll get to see it there. Do you?

CUOMO: You'll see the pictures.

HARLOW: Take a picture of the darkness for me. Thank you.

CUOMO: All right. President Trump once again disregarding facts. He retold this debunked story he once peddled during the 2016 campaign. The better question might be: why is he doing this? Is there a strategy at play, whether it's Charlottesville, the stories beyond his insistence on being right. We'll take it on and show it to you, next.


[06:36:46] HARLOW: President Trump this morning facing criticism over his response to the terror attacks in Barcelona. And the president first taking a measured tone offering support in his first tweets to the U.S. ally. Then, moments later, bringing up this debunked mythical war crimes story to stop what he calls radical Islamic terrorism.

Let's bring back our panel, Ron Brownstein, Molly Ball, and David Drucker.

Molly, to you, this is a story about General Pershing who he said -- shall we play it? He tweeted about it yesterday but said this to explain it more during the campaign.


DONALD TRUMP, THEN-PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: General Pershing is having -- was sent there to solve a really serious terror problem. They caught 50 radical Islamic terrorist. They took a pig and they took a second pig and they cut the big open and took the bullets and dumped the bullets into the pigs and swashed it around.

And then they took the bullets and they shot 49 of the 50 people. And the 50th person, they said take this bullet. He brought it back, that 50th person, and for 42 years, they didn't have a problem with radical Islamic terrorism.


HARLOW: OK. That story, he repeated it on Twitter in the tweet yesterday. The problem with this, Molly, it's not true.


HARLOW: I mean, it's not true at all. It's so not true that PolitiFacts gave it a pants on fire rating.

BALL: Yes, every time you play that clip, you've got to say over and over again, it's not true, it never happened. There's no evidence. It's -- he's just making it up.

CUOMO: And the fact that he wants it to be true is more disturbing than his grip on history, Molly, because just think about -- listen to the crowd, what they were cheering for as the death came up.

HARLOW: And he killed 49 --

CUOMO: It's one thing to be a demagogue when you're running for office and pandering to those types of blood loss situations when people are afraid. But as president, to repeat the same thing, what's the impact?

BALL: Well, there's a few things that come together here, right? As you say, it's the lying. It's the racism, and in also, there's -- in the Tuesday press conference, him saying, oh, I had to hear all the facts before I could make a judgment, that's somehow not the case when people he doesn't like are implicated in a traumatic incident.

So, you know, he is exactly who he's always been. The clip you played was during the campaign. So, anyone who covers the presidential campaign, as I did, knew that he said things that weren't true, that he bought into conspiracy theories and believed that they were a way to galvanize people around him by telling people what they wanted to believe, by giving people a scapegoat in people who weren't like them.

And that continues to be his play as president. It's so much more disturbing when he is the president and when it affects things that are happening here in America.

CUOMO: All right. And then that takes us into the latest iteration of this, Ron Brownstein, which is the guise, the ruse of what Charlottesville was about, which is keeping up the statue of Robert E. Lee, who, by the way, didn't have any connection to Charlottesville, Virginia.

[06:40:06] He wasn't born there. He didn't die there. He didn't fight a major battle there. There was no propaganda or information put out about why they wanted the statue to stay.

It was just a ruse for them to have the Unite the Right march. The president is pushing back hard on the statues. He's got Bannon e- mailing about this, saying they believe they can win on this issue. What is the play here?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, first, your point is absolutely right. I mean, the statue is the pretext for the rally. This was not, you know, neo-Nazis did not drive down to Charlottesville from the Midwest because of their appreciation of Southern culture.

As I said the other day, "Jews will not replace us" was not a battle cry of the Confederacy. So, the president is trying to shift the issue from his essentially excusing this kind of extremist violence to a more complex one about the statues.

Look, but it follows what we have seen as a trend for several weeks. I would argue since the failure of the health care bill, which would have imposed such significant cost on blue collar and rural voters at the core of his constituency, we've seen the president turn sharply right on cultural and social issues, but endorsing a reduction, a 50 percent reduction of legal immigration, to banning transgender soldiers, to his remarks about Charlottesville. And that is both a near term and a long-term bet.

In the near term, clearly, he's hoping to, you know, reenergize the coalition of voters that elected him, who primarily are voters, uneasy to various degrees about cultural change, three quarters of Trump voters say discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against African-Americans. So, in the near term, the question is whether the constituencies exemplified by the business community who abandoned him, who are uncomfortable with his racial rhetoric move away from him even when they agree with him perhaps in economics.

But in the long term, Chris, there is no question that this is a very dangerous bet for the Republican Party, because whatever you think about the near term political equation, the fact is the millennial generation in 2018 is becoming the most -- the largest generation in the electorate, they are the most diverse generation in American history. And what's behind the post-millennials are even more diverse.

And by 2024, those two generations will be almost half of all the voters, and the president is branding the Republican Party as a party of racial backlash, precisely as they are emerging really as the dominant forces in the electorate.

HARLOW: Lest you think that this president has long been a supporter of keeping those statues and flags up, listen to what he said when a reporter asked him point-blank during the campaign.


REPORTER: You're the lone Republican presidential candidate who has yet to weigh in on whether or not you think the Confederate flag should be flying above the statehouse in South Carolina. Do you think it needs to go?

TRUMP: I think it probably does. And I think they should put it in the museum, let it go, respect whatever it is that you have to respect but it was a point in time and put it in a museum. But I would take it down, yes.


HARLOW: David Drucker?

DAVID DRUCKER, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, look, this was all a part of a play for the president to cover up his real problem coming out of Charlottesville, which is that he equated the white supremacists and anti-Semites that marched with the counterdemonstrators, some of whom may have acted violent but most of which were peaceful. And, obviously, Heather Heyer was not a violent counterprotester and she was murdered by a white supremacist.

But by going to the statues issue, it's a cultural play that distracts away from the real amount political problem, the one that really worried Republicans. I think the evidence there is the way the president has conflated the Confederacy with the Founders. I think that's a real problem here, because there can be a debate about whether or not you should have Confederate statues in a town square and localities can deal with that. But to say Robert E. Lee is the same as George Washington which is what the president has done which has gotten his base very excited that all of American history is under attack, does a disservice to American history, but it serves the president's narrow political purposes and that's dangerous.

CUOMO: Well, look, we should keep talking about this, Ron. We're going to take a break right now. To your point, Ron, we should pick up on the idea of what the president is doing to his party, because he's saying if you're a conservative, you must support what the Confederacy was about culturally and you must keep these statues. That's conservatively what he's doing. So, we're going to talk about that and this call from the American president for the cities to keep their statues up, that they're an important part of American culture.

We're going to have at least one distinguished university professor who is going to make the argument about why you might keep these and what the implications are from the party and to the party, next.


[06:48:43] CUOMO: President Trump is trying to move away from drawing a moral equivalence between both sides of the violence in Charlottesville and to the issue of Confederate statues and monuments. The president tweeting: Sad to see the history and culture of our great culture being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.

Remember, the president during the campaign said the Confederate flag should come down and be put away in a museum. So, he's changed. To play some politics, let's discuss the merits.

We have Michael Eric Dyson, author of "Tears We Cannot Stop: A Sermon to White America", and Al Brophy, law professor at the University of Alabama.

Professor Al Brophy, let's start with you. Keep the statues up because?

AL BROPHY, LAW PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA: I think they're reminders of the bad old days. It's important to remember that once in this country, the people who were in power were supporters of the Confederacy and wanted to keep alive the memory of the war fought to maintain slavery. And I think it's important to remember that history, and those statues are great ways of remembering that history and continuing to have a dialogue about that history.

CUOMO: Michael, counter point?


[06:50:03] In a neutral atmosphere, that makes sense. In a non- politically charged atmosphere, that would be great. But when those symbols are used to reinforce white supremacy which has material consequence, empirical consequence, people are dying, people are clashing, people are being hurt, it's endorsing, it's not teaching.

Teaching is about the neutral observation of factors that can be considered when we're making an argument about American history. Endorsing suggests that this is a powerful ideal to which we aspire, and as a result of that, those symbols can be used to hurt and harm the very people who would neutrally observe it. So, while I understand what the professor is arguing here, in this highly charged moment, this is about America's values and what we're reinforcing to our children and the people who are our citizens.

CUOMO: Professor, is it not relevant when they were put up, the turn of the century, during Jim Crow, almost as an in-your-face reminder that the spirit of the Confederacy, which is a malignancy to the unity of this country, still lived at that time?

BROPHY: I think it's incredibly important when they were put up, and that's precisely the point. I agree with Professor Dyson's argument that we shouldn't just have the monuments by themselves. We need to do the hard work of interpreting them. I think the virtue of having monuments there is that people can then ask, well, why is it that somebody put a statue of General Lee up in Charlottesville in 1924?

And that allows us -- having the monuments up there allows us to have on going discussions. Obviously, they need to be contextualized.

CUOMO: But how do you context lies something that on its face is a celebration?

BROPHY: Sure, but having counter monuments is one example. In Talbot, Maryland, there's a statue of Frederick Douglass, who was from -- the great abolitionist who is from Talbot, alongside a monument put up in the early 20th century to Confederate soldiers. I think that's exactly the kind of dialogue we want.

Look, these statues are almost surely going to come down. There's nothing so powerless as an idea whose time has passed. They're going to come down, but I think there's a danger in taking them down.

CUOMO: Michael?

DYSON: Well, I think the danger in leaving them up is even greater. Again, in a neutral atmosphere where we're objective or as fair as possible, the professor's point is salient and cogent. But in the midst of culture where we continually battle over what those meanings are, Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn't get a birthday until the president of the United States of America, Ronald Reagan, in begrudgingly signing the legislation said, well, we'll see in 20-some- odd years whether he's a communist or not.

If we couldn't agree that Martin Luther King Jr. was worthy of celebration, of the ideals of this country, we know when we look at Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, what we're arguing here is, this is a manifestation of our ideals. These are the noble aspirations we have. So, there are a lot of kids who aren't going to ask, hey, why do we have a Robert E. Lee statue? They're going to say, you're darn right we've got that statue because that represents what we believe and slavery was a value that we still hold fast too.

Why don't we have statues of Huey P. Newton? Because, why, in this -- who was a Black Panther? Because this represents American sacred ground. The national memory is being not only tested, it's being reinforced.

Again, I agree with the professor when we don't have lives at stake. When lives are at stake, we have to talk about what those values mean, what those memorials mean and what we're celebrating in public space with public funds to reinforce the value of our civilization.

CUOMO: Professor, does it concern you who is taking the side of preservation right now? That you have white supremacists down there, you have the president who seems intent on playing identity politics. Remember, this is a man when he was campaigning who said the Confederate flag should come down, it's time had past and should be put in a museum. Now, all of a sudden, he sees these monuments as a beautiful piece of history that shouldn't be disturbed.

Do the motivations suggest that this is not as pure a principle as you're putting it out as?

BROPHY: I think it's very important who is advocating for keeping them. I see a difference between flags and monuments. I think Confederate flags obviously had to come down because they were -- you know, that's something you have to keep putting up.

The monuments are sort of there. I think we need to contextualize those monuments. I think counter monuments -- I think it's a great idea to have a monument to someone like Nat Turner, the slave rebel. So, context matters.

DYSON: Yes, but they're not -- but the point is, look, I agree with that. The reason we're not -- context does matter, but who is providing the context? Kids who are looking at this monument without the advice of an adult, and the adults might be on the side of Confederacy.

We need something deeper. We don't need participation trophies for the Civil War.

[06:55:02] We need to acknowledge what happened.

CUOMO: Gentlemen, there are two sides of this debate at least and you presented them well and with decency. And that is appreciated, especially in this climate.

Gentlemen, thank you.


HARLOW: The death toll rising in the Spain terror attacks. We're going to take you live to the scene in Barcelona as police try to track down the driver behind that attack, next.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I saw people flying over the vehicle.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My taxi driver stopped and he kept saying oh, my God, oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was just a really, really horrific scene. It was immediate carnage.

CUOMO: A second attack coming hours after the worst act of terror in Spain in over a decade.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The United States stands ready to assist the people of Spain and find and punish those responsible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think the president is misguided in his last statement.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you disagree with the president, he's going to show his wrath.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: The president has not yet been annual to demonstrate the stability and competence that he needs to demonstrate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president's emotional and mental health is going to become increasingly important focus of this story.