Return to Transcripts main page
THE SITUATION ROOM
Trump Outlines "Path Forward" in Afghanistan Tonight; Solar Eclipse Moves Across America. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired August 21, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[18:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Attempting to shift. Mr. Trump is about to address the nation as he faces some of the worst polling numbers of his presidency and serious questions about his competence and moral authority. Is he counting on tonight's speech to change the subject?
Dangerous crash. Ten U.S. sailors are missing after their war ship collides with a tanker in yet another Navy accident. Are top commanders doing enough to keep American forces safe at sea? And could this crash limit this nation's defenses against North Korea?
And sun block. A rare total solar eclipse passes across the nation leaving millions of Americans in awe and briefly in the dark. New reaction tonight to the sun's vanishing act.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.
BLITZER: Breaking tonight, the president who railed against the war in Afghanistan as a private citizen is about to outline his new strategy for America's longest military conflict. He'll deliver a prime time address to the nation about three hours from now.
Mr. Trump's National Security team has given him a range of options from full withdrawal to the deployment of up to 4,000 additional U.S. troops.
The commander-in-chief trying to move forward, but still embattled on multiple fronts. A just released poll shows most Americans, 56 percent, disapprove of his response to the white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville.
We're also following the search for 10 U.S. sailors missing after their war ship collided with a commercial tanker. It's the fourth accident this year for an American Navy ship in Asian waters. The U.S. Navy chief of operations now ordering a comprehensive review, including a rare one-day safety stand down across the entire fleet.
The newly damaged war ship, the USS McCain, is armed with an antimissile system that could help defend against the potential attack by North Korea. And the universe brings Americans together as millions experience the
first total solar eclipse to cross the United States from coast to coast in 99 years. Even president and Mrs. Trump, they joined in. They were watching from the White House balcony with special glasses to safely view the sun as it moved behind the moon.
We're covering all of that much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Richard Blumenthal, he's a Democrat on the Armed Services and Judiciary Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
First let's go to our CNN White House correspondent Athena Jones. She's at the Virginia military base where the president will deliver his address to the nation later tonight.
Athena, what's the latest?
ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Wolf. Well, in just a few hours we expect the president to lay out a plan to increase U.S. troops in Afghanistan and also to address how the U.S. can better work with other countries in the region like Pakistan.
The president's speech comes against a backdrop of weeks of West Wing chaos and the controversy over his response to the Charlottesville violence.
The president has a chance now to turn the page, focus on national security. The question is how effective will this new strategy in Afghanistan be in making gains there? And how effectively can the president sell this new strategy to the American people?
JONES (voice-over): President Trump back at the White House after his working vacation is set to lay out his administration's plans for the fight in Afghanistan.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's a very big decision for me. I took over a mess. And we're going to make it a lot less messy.
JONES: A 16-year conflict, the top general there warned in February, has reached a critical juncture.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARMED SERVICES CHAIRMAN: In your overall commander's assessment, are we winning or losing?
GEN. JOHN NICHOLSON, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES AFGHANISTAN: Mr. Chairman, I believe we're in a stalemate.
JONES: A conclusion Defense Secretary James Mattis echoed in June.
JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: We're not winning in Afghanistan right now.
JONES: The president addressing the nation in prime time after months-long deliberations wrapped up this weekend at Camp David during which he was presented with a range of strategies. From a full withdrawal to deploying up to 4,000 more soldiers, in addition to roughly 8,000 U.S. forces already there.
Those additional troops would allow Americans to train and assist Afghan forces, much as they are doing in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. A move to increase troop levels would be at odds with Trump's own statements on the campaign trail.
TRUMP: They're going to be there for the next 200 years. You know, at some point, what's going on? It's going to be a long time. We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place.
Wasted $6 trillion on wars in the Middle East. We could have rebuilt our country twice. That have produced only more terrorism, more death, more suffering.
JONES: And even before he was a candidate going back years, tweeting in 2012, "It is time to get out of Afghanistan."
[18:05:08] The decision on strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia coming as the president tries to steady his administration after weeks of infighting and tumult leading to the departure of several top aides, most recently chief strategist Steve Bannon, who opposed sending more U.S. troops to Afghanistan.
All this as the president struggles in the polls in the wake of his controversial remarks about racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
TRUMP: You also have people that were very fine people on both sides.
JONES: A new survey by NBC-Marist showing his approval numbers sinking below 40 percent in three states that helped sweep him into office in November. With nearly two-thirds of voters in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin saying they are embarrassed by the president.
JONES: And, Wolf, I want to share with you a few more numbers from that new "Washington Post"-ABC News poll out tonight. 56 percent of Americans polled disapprove of President Trump's response to the violence we saw in Charlottesville. 28 percent approve. And when it comes to the president's overall approval rating, that number stands at 37 percent approval, 58 percent disapproval. So that is the backdrop for the president going into this very important speech tonight -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Not very encouraging numbers for the president right there.
All right, Athena, thank you very much.
Now to another urgent concern for the U.S. military. Right now an American war ship has been involved in a shocking accident that's left 10 U.S. sailors missing. Let's bring in our senior diplomatic correspondent Michelle Kosinski.
Michelle, this is, what, the latest in a series of crashes at sea? How has the Navy responded?
MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right. This is the fourth accident involving a Navy ship in this year alone, this second serious one in just two months. I mean, at this moment, 10 American sailors, as you said, are missing because these things are supposed to happen extremely rarely. Today the Navy launched a major inquiry into how and why accidents keep happening.
KOSINSKI (voice-over): The USS John McCain now in port in Singapore with a gaping hole in its side after another accident for the Navy's Seventh Fleet. The guided missile destroyer collided with a slow- moving oil tanker three times its size as both were sailing east in the busy (INAUDIBLE) Strait early this morning Singapore time. Ten U.S. sailors who were aboard unaccounted for, five more hurt.
MATTIS: My thoughts and prayers are with the sailors and the families of the USS John McCain. We obviously have an investigation underway, and that will determine what happens.
KOSINSKI: President Trump also weighing in, first with a short comment.
TRUMP: That's too bad.
KOSINSKI: And later by tweet, offering thoughts and prayers.
The destroyer playing an important role in the region. The Aegis antimissile systems with this one on board to counter the threat posed by North Korea. It' also equipped with multiple state-of-the-art radar systems, communications equipment. How did the faster Navy ship not avoid the crash?
ADM. JOHN RICHARDSON, CHIEF OF NAVAL OPERATIONS: Like you, I was devastated and heartbroken to hear about the collision.
KOSINSKI: The chief of Naval Operations today ordering a broader inquiry into the recent accident and an operational pause of at least one day on every U.S. Navy ship to be done over the next few weeks, a chance to review all safety and training procedures.
RAY MABUS, FORMER NAVY SECRETARY: When you've got a pattern here, you have to find out if there is something systemic going on, if there is something in training, if there is something in the way that watchers are being stood, the way that these ships are being operated because it's getting too many to just be a coincidence.
KOSINSKI: It was just in June the McCain sister vessel, the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off Japan. Seven sailors died. Three officers have been removed from their duties as a result. Before that, in May a collision between a large fishing boat and the Navy war ship USS Lake Champlain near South Korea.
January, another guided missile cruiser (INAUDIBLE) ran aground trying to anchor in Tokyo Bay. All in Asia, where multiple U.S. ships are present to face the North Korean threat and work with allies.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: What that's telling our adversaries is that there are some problems with the U.S. There are potentially training issues for U.S. sailors. There are potentially operational issues. There are potentially logistical issues. Really, it speaks to the idea that the ability that we have to defend against any and all threats is much more limited than the American taxpayer has paid for.
KOSINSKI: One of these accidents is surprising. Four of them and all the voices out there seem to be saying the same thing, how is this possible?
[18:10:01] In fact, tonight CNN talked to a top Naval analyst and former commander who said, maybe it has to do with an over reliance on all of this great technology that could lead to some complacency in how they do some basic tasks and safety procedures.
That's all under investigation, but, Wolf, as to how this affects the U.S. mission in Asia, the Navy tonight is offering reassurance saying there are other ships that patrol constantly and a broad range of forces available.
BLITZER: No doubt about it. A very, very disturbing developments indeed.
Michelle Kosinski, thank you very much.
Let's dig deeper on this and more. Senator Richard Blumenthal is joining us. He's a Democrat on the Armed Services and Judiciary Committees.
Senator, thanks for joining us.
SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), ON THE ARMED SERVICES AND JUDICIARY COMMITTEES: Thank you very much, Wolf.
BLITZER: So what can you tell us about these missing and injured sailors aboard this destroyer?
BLUMENTHAL: We know nothing yet about the missing and injured in any authoritative way. There's been some speculation but clearly the two most recent incidents adding to the two before them less serious point to the need for an overall evaluation of the operational readiness of the Seventh Fleet.
Remember, about the Seventh Fleet, it not only guarantees trade in those critical areas around Asia, but also protects South Korea and Japan. To be down two critical destroyers is a major negative development. And it's not just a matter of the watch hours or the technology that may be used, but also the potential training that is employed, and the stress that the Seventh Fleet is under right now given all of the demands on it.
BLITZER: Was it more -- was it simply a coincidence, Senator, or is there a bigger problem at stake here?
BLUMENTHAL: There is a bigger problem at stake, and I think that what you've heard from our Naval leadership is a recognition that there is potentially a much bigger issue here, and that's why the stand down for a day has to be followed by an overall evaluation of operational readiness, including training as well as scheduling for deployment, the rotation of crews, and overall assessment of the capabilities.
And these two real tragedies, and we have to say -- we can't say it too often how much we admire the valor, the courage and strength of these sailors and their families. It has to be met by an evaluation of the procedures and the training.
BLITZER: Let's talk about the president's address to the nation tonight, Senator. In tweets over the years, as you well know, President Trump said that the war in Afghanistan was, in his words, a complete waste, complete waste, a direct quote, and that the U.S. should withdraw, spend whatever money the U.S. spends, and it's billions, hundreds of billions of dollars, over there in that part of the world. The U.S. should spend that money at home.
How do you think his announcement tonight, whatever that is, his new plan for Afghanistan, will line up with his many previous statements?
BLUMENTHAL: What concerns me most, to be very blunt, is his decision about the strategy that we're going to use going forward. There's no more sacred or solemn duty as commander-in-chief that the president has than ordering men and women into harm's way. And I say that as a dad as well as a publicity citizen and public official.
One of our sons was deployed years ago to Afghanistan as a Marine. And we all rely on the president for his judgment going forward. So it may be more complicated and challenging than he appreciated as a private citizen. He is getting some of the best advice from some of the best military commanders in the world. And what's needed is a coherent strategy.
More important than the numbers of troops, it should be guided, in fact, by a coherent strategy. And the president has an obligation to make clear and decisive judgment, and to adhere to those strategies. So tomorrow when he goes to Arizona, it has to be an adherence to that strategy that is clear and cohesive and comprehensive to the men and women under his command.
BLITZER: But, Senator, the U.S. has had a strategy in Afghanistan for 16 years now. This war has been going on for 16 years. The longest war in U.S. history. Has there not been a coherent strategy over these 16 years?
BLUMENTHAL: The strategy has been less than coherent and clear at many points. And right now a part of that strategy has to be more than just military force, it has to include diplomacy and international aide to reconstruct the economy, to make the Afghanistan government more capable and less corrupt, more stable and secure.
[18:15:13] And so, the president in hollowing out the State Department as has been part of his budget, may be doing damage to that strategy in undermining the intelligence community service. He may be also undercutting what our strategy is in Afghanistan. It really requires not only military force, but also diplomatic intelligence, economic force as well.
BLITZER: I'm going to move on. I want to get your thoughts on some other critically important issues. But for 16 years, the U.S. has had that strategy, a military strategy as well as a diplomatic and economic strategy. The U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars building up Afghanistan's infrastructure trying to develop that country so it could protect itself, live by itself.
That strategy clearly, at least the first 16 years, has failed. We'll see what the president announces later tonight. But let me get on to some other issues and you're a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Sources close to Steve Bannon, the former strategic advisor of the president, have told "Vanity Fair" magazine that Bannon wants Reince Priebus, the former chief of staff at the White House, to tell the Special Counsel Robert Mueller about Jared Kushner's role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey.
How do you think Bannon's firing will impact the ongoing investigation into possible collusion, obstruction of justice?
BLUMENTHAL: My hope is that it will lead to more disclosure and perhaps cooperation among some of the White House staff with the special counsel investigation. Most important is to protect the special counsel, as I have advocated, through legislation, that I have submitted bipartisan legislation to make sure that there is no firing of the special counsel without good cause and without judicial review.
The level of cooperation has to be increased from the White House. Interviews are ongoing and the kind of openness that we've seen may be lacking on the part of the White House staff so far.
BLITZER: You signed a letter today, Senator, asking the U.S. Justice Department whether a senior advisor to the president, Sebastian Gorka, hid his membership in a far-right anti-Semitic organization when he applied for U.S. citizenship. What makes you believe that might be the case?
BLUMENTHAL: Senators Durbin and Cardin and I first raised this issue back in March because Sebastian Gorka is a senior terrorism advisor to the president, position of highly significant trust and importance. And he has been unable, apparently, to gain security clearance. The reports have been that the reason is that he's under criminal investigation for lying in connection with his naturalization, his application for citizenship.
And the lie or deception apparently occurred in connection with his failure to disclose his association with a Hungarian fascist group and anti-Semitic group with past ties to Nazi organizations and that failure to disclose possibly deliberate deception in connection with his becoming a U.S. citizen is reportedly under investigation.
That's a very, very serious issue. It goes beyond Steve Bannon leaving because of disagreements of policy. It's a fundamental issue of trust.
BLITZER: Why do you believe the Justice Department hasn't given you and your Senate colleagues an adequate update on this extremely sensitive issue, at least not yet? You've been asking for months.
BLUMENTHAL: We've been demanding an adequate update for months and that is a very serious concern because it indicates a sensitivity to possible deception at the highest levels of the White House. And we are now again -- we did in March, we are again writing now because we think that the American public deserves and needs to know whether someone serving as a senior counterterrorism advisor to the president of the United States possibly unable to gain a security clearance is under criminal investigation for lying in connection with his citizenship process.
BLITZER: Very serious charge indeed.
Senator, stand by. There is more we're going to discuss. I've got to take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[18:24:28] BLITZER: We're back with Senator Richard Blumenthal. We are awaiting the president's primetime address to the nation. Tonight the president outlining his new plan for the war in Afghanistan, embracing the role of commander-in-chief as his presidency careens from crisis to crisis.
Senator, a new "Washington Post"-ABC News poll shows that while a majority of Americans disapprove of the president's response to Charlottesville, 56 percent, you see that, 62 percent of Republicans, 62 percent of Republicans, approve of the president's response to Charlottesville.
[18:25:01] You see 62 percent Republicans, much lower number for independents and tiny number for Democrats. What does that tell you?
BLUMENTHAL: What it tells me is that Republicans may have a different level of sympathy for the president. I am at a loss to explain how anyone could approve of drawing a moral equivalence between neo-Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members and the peaceful protesters who were in Charlottesville and the lack of moral leadership. But I think very, very importantly there ought to be overwhelming support for stronger law enforcement.
And I've advocated -- as a matter of fact, just within the past few days, in a letter to Attorney General Sessions, that he use the civil rights conspiracy statutes, Section 341 of the Federal Criminal Code, provides for stiff penalties against anyone who conspires or colludes or aids and abets any individuals who commit crimes that coerce or intimidate others in the exercise of civil rights and liberties as clearly happened in the death of that young woman.
Not only the man at the wheel, but also anybody who aided and abetted ought to be held culpable and accountable for assisting them. And that includes the white supremacists groups and others who should be under investigation. It's not only that individual who was directly allegedly responsible for that murder, but also anybody who colluded or conspired with him.
And these statutes have been used repeatedly in connection with KKK activities to uphold and vindicate civil rights and liberties against these kinds of conspiracies. And likewise, the domestic terrorist attack which clearly this was should be investigated as an ongoing potential threat to our nation.
The use of this car as a means of domestic terrorism may well have been supported by these white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups and they should be under review and investigation as part of the Patriots Act which the Department of Justice has the tools and resources to do.
BLITZER: But very quickly, Senator, do you have any evidence that the driver of that vehicle that drove into that crowd in Charlottesville killing that young woman, Heather Heyer, that this was part of a broader conspiracy, a broader plot that he didn't simply act on his own?
BLUMENTHAL: There were certainly indications. There is evidence that he was in contact or communication with other groups. Maybe not specifically the individuals who were in Charlottesville, but potentially others, fringe groups, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, KKK members, that's the kind of evidence that needs to be fully explored and investigated. At this point, I'm not making allegations as to other individuals or potential co-conspirators, but it should be investigated.
BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks for joining us.
BLUMENTHAL: Thank you very much, Wolf.
BLITZER: Just ahead, what will President Trump tell the nation tonight about his war plan in Afghanistan? Our correspondents, our specialists, they're going to tell us what they're learning.
And new polling out this hour exposes a widening disapproval of the president's response to the violence in Charlottesville. Will the numbers have any influence on his strategy going forward?
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. A new poll showing a majority of Americans disapprove of President Trump's response to the deadly violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, amid demonstrations by neo-Nazis and white supremacists. [18:33:31] Let's dig deeper with our correspondents and our analysts,
specialists. Bianna, this new "Washington Post"/ABC New [SIC] poll -- ABC News poll shows 56 percent of Americans disapprove of how President Trump handled the protests, the violence in Charlottesville. But among Republicans, among Republicans, 62 percent approve. What does that tell you?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO! NEWS: Well, I think it once again reminds us of how polarized the country is right now. It could help explain why a number of politicians were not calling the president out by name. In fact, only a few did, when they spoke out about what happened in Charlottesville and obviously, condemning neo-Nazis and what took place there, but not necessarily calling the president out by the comments that he made.
But that number has declined overall. His support among Republicans, among his base, according to other polls, has declined. And I think going forward, especially into the crucial month of September, when you have a potential budget battle looming and the debt ceiling, as well, that may actually put us in severe debt problems and debt woes if it's not raised. Then you're going to have a president who's facing an uphill battle within his own party. And I think you could continue to see that number decline.
BLITZER: You know, Kaitlan, in this new poll, when asked, the respondents, if President Trump equated white supremacists with those out to protest against them, 42 percent said yes, 35 percent said no, 23 percent had no opinion. Are you surprised by those numbers?
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I'm actually not, especially the "no opinion" part, because I think there's been some confusion over this, where people who aren't glued to the television 24/7, especially with the president trying to make the argument that this is more about statues and monuments and whitewashing history than it is where he equated those groups -- the KKK, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists -- with those people who were counter-protesting that led to all of that violence in Charlottesville.
[18:35:21] And what I think we're going to see over the next few days is the White House really try to pivot away from this, starting tonight with his speech in primetime on Afghanistan policy. They're really trying to move forward and get over what was a terrible week for this presidency. He's uniquely unpopular, and now we're really seeing why.
BLITZER: Yes, and you know, Ron, and I know you look at all the polls including the new NBC/Marist poll...
RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes.
BLITZER: ... in those three states that the president won in the election. We're talking about Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. His job approval in those states -- Michigan 36 percent, Pennsylvania 35 percent, Wisconsin only 34 percent -- very low numbers.
And when they asked the question, "Does the president's conduct as president make you feel embarrassed?" Sixty-four percent of Michigan said yes.
BLITZER: Sixty-two percent of Pennsylvania said yes. Sixty-four percent in Wisconsin said they feel embarrassed by the president's conduct.
BROWNSTEIN: Yes, look, Wolf, I think the big message from these polls is to blow up the idea that there has been no erosion in the president's base. As you note, these were the three states that tipped the election. They were the only three states in the Blue Wall that President Trump dislodged from the Democrats, and they were the critical Electoral College votes.
What you see in these polls is a significant and broad-based decline for him from where he was on election day, which was less than a year ago. He won these states with 47 or 48 percent of the vote. As you noted, he's down to about 35 percent approval, and all of them -- and that decline has not only been among the white-collar white voters that we've talked about who have moved away from him; but in all three of these states, his approval rating today is at least 20 points below his vote share last November among those non-college whites. And in two of these states, in Michigan and Wisconsin, he's down to about 30 percent approval among white women without a college education. I think those are voters who are moved by health care.
One other point. In all three of these states, at least 20 percent of the people who voted for Trump said they are embarrassed by his conduct as president; and his approval rating among the Trump supporter -- his own voters has been declining, as well.
Marist ran something for me today. If you look just at Trump supporters, only 60 percent of the people who voted for him -- only 60 percent in these three states -- now say that they both approve of his job performance and they're proud of his performance as president. That is erosion by any definition.
BLITZER: Yes, I'm sure it is. It certainly is.
David Fahrenthold, I know you spent a lot of time and you've got your famous notebook looking at the president's Mar-a-Lago club. And in the aftermath of Charlottesville, a whole bunch of organizations, charities, they dropped out. They said they weren't going to hold regular events there. Tell us about the latest.
DAVID FAHRENTHOLD: It was really surprising to me. This is -- we made a list of charities that were going to have big-money galas at Mar-a-Lago. The president's club does a big business in these big charity events that can bring in more than $100,000 for him in just one night.
And a number of these places have stuck by him through the first few months of the presidency. Something about Charlottesville was different, though. After Charlottesville, one by one, they began to pull away, even in some cases meaning they'd have to scramble for another venue. They might lose their deposit. We've seen 15 charities, including 11 of these big-money galas back
out of Mar-a-Lago. That's a huge potential hit to the president's bottom line and a signal of real erosion among folks that sort of -- it seemed like it was OK to do business with the president a week ago. Now it seems like there's a stigma that these folks don't want to bring on themselves.
BLITZER: Very high-tech piece of equipment you've got over there.
BLITZER: Very, very impressive.
Bianna, how do you think the dropping out from these various charities, these organizations from these major events at Mar-a-Lago might, if at all, affect the president's behavior?
GOLODRYGA: Well, all indications are that he's very angered about it. As David said, it hurts his bottom line. It also hurts his ego. He was the business-friendly president. I mean, he had an enviable position in the sense when he ran his campaign, and even after he became president after inauguration, he was able to appeal to both sides, to the blue-collar workers who he promised to bring their jobs back for, and also to corporate America. He said we were going to impact deregulation. We were going to cut taxes and have tax reform. None of that has materialized.
And within the New York circles in particular, among some of the bigger corporations, none of them actually welcomed Donald Trump, the businessman, throughout the years into this elite sort of club. So for him to have become president, it was a big oneuppance for him, to be seen as having the most important job in the world, to be seen as the man, the commander in chief who was business-friendly.
And now to see these companies and these corporations be the moral compass of the country, and that's something that's traditionally the job of the president's, I think it angers him significantly.
[18:40:00] BLITZER: You know, he may be losing some business at Mar- a-Lago, Ron Brownstein. But if you take a look at some of his other properties, they're doing very, very well. "The Washington Post" reporting that Republican committees alone, they've spent nearly $1.3 million at Trump properties so far this year.
Here's the question. Does this raise any legal or ethical questions?
BROWNSTEIN: Certainly raises ethical questions. You know, I think that the issue from the beginning of the unusually extensive and, David, as you know, reported on this as well as anybody, just all the many tentacles of the Trump business empire and all of the many opportunities for not only the Republican National Committee, but foreign governments or others to try to curry favor by spending money, you know, that goes into their pocket. It has been and remains a significant kind of distraction.
I would say, though, I think to Bianna's point, though, I would kind of really want to underscore that. I think what you're seeing here with the charities is a continuation of a process of the president facing really an unusual, if not unprecedented, degree of isolation, where you have all of these business executives who largely agree with him on the economy, concluding that his views on race and culture have been so toxic they can't afford to be seen next to him. Charities making the same decision. The president, in effect, having to pull out of participating in the Kennedy Center honors.
We really have not seen something like this, where a sitting president of the United States, in so many quarters of the society, is seen as simply too toxic to be associated with.
BLITZER: David, you spent a lot of time looking at this. How do you see it?
FAHRENTHOLD: I think that's right. Before Charlottesville, there was this idea that charities would say, "Listen, you know, it would be political if we pulled out of our relationship with Mar-a-Lago or some other Trump club. We've had a relationship with them a long time; we like them. We're not going to play politics and pull out."
After Charlottesville, something flipped, and it became where it was a political statement to stay in. It was a political statement to keep your affiliation with Trump. I think that's a -- that's a situation that, if it continues that way, Trump depends on big business, on charity business, on corporations renting out his ballrooms, on rich people paying a lot of money for his hotel rooms. If he becomes stigmatized and isolated the way that Ron is talking about away from the Washington, D.C., away from the swamp, away from people who are spending money at the Trump Hotel, in the hopes of influencing the president directly, away from that, his business could really suffer, if it drives away customers and sort of stigmatizes that business relationship.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. We have a lot more we're working on, including President Trump's campaign rally tomorrow night in Arizona. Will he pardon the controversial sheriff convicted of criminal contempt?
[18:47:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: The breaking news tonight, just over two hours, President Trump will address the nation outlining his new strategy for the war in Afghanistan. He's been weighing various options ranging from full withdrawal to adding thousands of additional U.S. military forces. You know, it's a tough situation.
Colonel Steve Warren is with us, retired U.S. Army, our newest CNN military analyst.
Welcome to CNN. Good to have you part of our team.
A few years ago, the president tweeted this, as a private citizen: We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let's get out.
What do you expect we are going to hear from him tonight?
COL. STEVE WARREN (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Well, I think we're going to hear something very different. Let's get out is something easy to say when you're in the civilian world, as the commander-in-chief now, he's got a lot more responsibilities. He has to figure out a way to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a terrorist safe haven, which we all know it was before 9/11.
BLITZER: But, you know, when he ran on the concept America first, David, do you think Trump voters knew he was potentially -- we don't know what he's going to say tonight -- increase U.S. troop deployment to Afghanistan? They wanted those troops out of there.
DAVID FAHRENTHOLD, THE WASHINGTON POST: Well, he said he wanted the troops out of there. They voted for him. Voters know it's a complicated situation. Trump's message on war in general was simple and that you can trust the generals and win these wars quickly. We were losing them only because the generals or the politicians were weak or indecisive.
So, he talked a lot about either getting out or winning quickly. Obviously the point of tonight's address is you can't do either one quickly. The option is less satisfying and lasts longer.
BLITZER: But, Colonel, this is a war that's been going on for 16 years. We keep hearing from all the presidents who have been involved, all the top defense secretaries, all the generals, little bit more time, a few more troops. If they send a few more troops now, is it really going to make much of a difference?
WARREN: A few more troops won't make a huge difference. That's what I'm worried about seeing, incremental change. What we really need to see is a more comprehensive approach. The problems in Afghanistan layer on top of each other.
I think we've been nibbling at each layer of this layer cake for years. What I hope the president will tell us is how he has worked out a way to bring the full force of the U.S. government against this problem, the diplomatic, the economic as well as the military.
BLITZER: I've been hearing that for years as well. Not just the military part of the economic assistance. The U.S. has spent hundreds of billions of dollars building up Afghanistan schools, bridges, infrastructure. I see a disaster unfolding right now.
WARREN: You know, we have really a dream team of strategic planners, in Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the national security adviser, General McMaster, and now the chief of staff, General Kelly. These are all senior level officials who have been working on this now both in uniform and as civilians.
[18:50:05] So, what we hope to see, what I hope to see from the president, hear from the president is that he has managed to piece this together.
BLITZER: You don't have a national security speech, Bianna, tonight. Tomorrow night, he goes to a campaign rally out in Arizona. That's going to be a very different kind of speech.
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, YAHOO NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR: Yes, it's interesting. A lot of people focusing on the speech tonight. The president becoming more presidential again laying out his plans on Afghanistan. And some people pointed out the fact that this comes obviously after the exit of Steve Bannon, who was much opposed to sending troops into Afghanistan.
But I counter that because tomorrow, there's the ghost of Steve Bannon in the sense that he has his huge rally in Arizona, once again reaching out to his base. It's interesting that having the sort of alter egos works for celebrities like Beyonce. I'm curious to see how much longer President Trump can go from being presidential and focused on presidential and the next night go into campaign mode as a president as well. So, I don't think it really works in the presidential landscape, but he's been able to make it work thus far. We'll see.
BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. There's more coming up, including coast to coast excitement and awe as the solar eclipse moves across America.
[18:55:57] BLITZER: President Trump and the First Lady Melania Trump, they were among the millions of Americans who paused a bit today to take in the solar eclipse. The first couple and their son Barron, they watched from the Truman balcony overlooking the White House South Lawn.
Here in Washington, it was a partial eclipse with the moon blocking about 80 percent of the sun.
CNN's Kaylee Hartung is on the Isles of Palms in South Carolina where it was a total eclipse.
Kaylee, a lot of people turned out there to watch.
KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the mayor of this beach community tells me he believes there were more people on this seven mile long island than ever before. He estimates 35,000 to 40,000 people came to Isles of Palms today to be here to witness the totality of this solar eclipse. People in northwest Oregon were the first to witness the magic of this day at 10:15 Pacific Time when that eclipse began. For the next 94 minutes, that 70-mile wide path of totality swept across the United States and ended right here in South Carolina.
Adding to the drama of the day, on the South Carolina beaches, the weather, it was the most anticipated forecast anybody around here could remember. And the forecast wasn't looking good, but in the last five to 10 minutes leading up to 2:46 p.m. Eastern, the clouds that had been in the sky all day long began to part and we were able to witness the eclipse in all of its glory.
You felt the temperature drop, the winds picked up to a cool breeze and the humidity dissipated. Then we saw the sky go from blue to gray to black. And for two and a half minutes, a little bit more, people here shared in the experience of a once in a lifetime event, Wolf.
BLITZER: They're going to remember it for a long, long time.
Kaylee, thank you very much.
Later tonight, 9:30 p.m. Eastern, CNN presents an exclusive town hall meeting with the House Speaker Paul Ryan. CNN's Jake Tapper will moderate the events in Racine, Wisconsin, in Paul Ryan's home district.
Our national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux is on the scene for us.
Suzanne, this is the first time we'll be hearing from the speaker since President Trump's controversial remarks about the violence in Charlottesville.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And a lot of people want to hear what he has to say, Wolf. We're seeing several hundred protesters outside the venue here. You can hear them chanting, many of them educators, activists, health care workers who are bringing up their sign saying like the eclipse, Paul Ryan wants to keep us in the dark. There's a prop plane with a banner reading: Ryan stop racist Trump, to which people are shouting and cheering. But it is very peaceful protest.
And, of course, this comes at a time when we know that Wisconsin was one of the key states to push Trump over into the presidency. Now, Trump has a 34 percent approval rating, 64 percent of voters in the latest NBC Marist poll saying they are embarrassed by his actions, this coming after the Charlottesville riots.
Many Democrats as well as Republicans calling for a stronger stand for the president to take against white supremacy and pressure on Paul Ryan to do the same. He has tweeted that white supremacy is a scourge against bigotry, against hatred and terrorism, also putting out this statement, Wolf, in a preemptive strike, if you will, saying there are no sides. There are no other arguments. We will not tolerate this hateful ideology in our society.
So, we do expect that this is going to be on the minds of his constituents, his voters. They will be asking those tough questions this evening. And it comes as a backdrop of two weeks from now, Congress back in session and the big session whether or not he can exhibit some leadership in getting some things done, Wolf.
BLITZER: Critically important time. Suzanne Malveaux, thanks very much.
And our town hall special with the House Speaker Paul Ryan begins later tonight, 9:30 p.m. Eastern, right after our special coverage of President Trump's address to the nation outlining his new Afghanistan strategy. Stay with us for complete coverage.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.