Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Unscripted at Rally; Trump Critical of Flake; Trump's Afghanistan Plan; Secretary Tillerson Press Conference. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired August 22, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: One president, two very different speeches. Less than 24 hours after delivering a disciplined, on-script address on Afghanistan, President Trump is en route to a campaign- style rally in Arizona where we typically see the president ad lib and make jokes and provoke chants among his supporters.

So why Arizona and why now? The state's two senators, both Republicans, have been vocal critics of President Trump, especially Jeff Flake. And the animosity seems to run deep on both sides, as President Trump praises Flake's primary challenger, calling Flake weak on immigration and crime.

And on top of all of this, we still don't know if the president plans to pardon controversial former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, although Arpaio tells CNN he has not been invited to this rally.

Now, before the rally, the president plans to tour the border in Yuma. And that's where we find CNN's Boris Sanchez. He joins us live.

So, Boris, we know that the mayor of Phoenix asked President Trump to stay away from his city and there are major protests planned there tonight. What more are you hearing?


Yes, as you said, we are hearing that several different progressive and anti-bigot groups are going to be protesting the president here in Phoenix at the Phoenix Convention Center. They will be waiting for him outside. This is in response to the president's remarks on the violence in Charlottesville one week ago today at Trump Tower.

The mayor of Phoenix, as you said, Greg Stanton, asked the president to push this event back. Obviously, the president deciding to move forward. We have also heard from the chief of police in Phoenix who says that her officers are ready for anything.

As you said, this is a campaign-style rally and we've seen a lot of fireworks from the president when he's among his most ardent supporters. So following that very by-the-book, by-the-teleprompter speech in Afghanistan -- or rather about Afghanistan yesterday, all eyes are going to be on what the president says tonight if he makes reference again to the events in Charlottesville.

Recall that last night he said all Americans should unite and that patriots stare down bigotry. So, again, not only fireworks potentially inside the Phoenix Convention Center, but also outside with those protesters. We will be watching and waiting, Pam.

BROWN: All right, Boris Sanchez, thank you for setting the scene for us there in Arizona.

And let's talk more about this with Brian Walsh. He is the former communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Also with me, Constantin Queraid, conservative political consultant who is a long-time critic of Senator Jeff Flake.

Gentlemen, thank you both for coming on.

I want to start with you, Brian. What do you expect tonight?

BRIAN WALSH, FORMER COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR, NATIONAL REPUBLICAN SENATORIAL COMMITTEE: Well, I hope we have more of what we saw last night. Last night the president gave an excellent speech. He showed real leadership. He laid out a vision. And he also talked about unity, which I thought was really important coming on the heels of Charlottesville. I hope we have more of that tonight.

What I hope we don't have, and I think it would be a step backwards, if it devolves into this sort of raucous, off the cuff political rally in which he criticizes the same Republicans whose support he's going to need this fall for a number of key issues. So I hope what we see tonight is more of what we saw last night.

BROWN: And on that point, Constantin, there are some potential landmines that the president could wade into if he does go off the cuff, off teleprompter, as we've seen in the past. What could those be? What are you hoping to see tonight and what are you hoping not to see?

CONSTANTIN QUERAID, ARIZONA-BASED CONSERVATIVE CONSULTANT: Well, it will be interesting. He's going to have, you know, thousands upon thousands of people that are all amped up to see him and he feeds off of that energy. So I'm sure he will be on message for the most part in terms of the things he spoke about last night and just the general direction he wants to take the country. But I think it's also fair to expect that he'll hit certain applause lines that he likes to deliver and they like to hear him stay. So he'll still take a lot of shots at D.C. and the people who inhabit the swamp and some of those who reside right here in Arizona. And to a certain degree, that is also what the crowd came to see.

BROWN: I want to ask you, Containtin, about Senator Jeff Flake, because the president has been openly critical of him on Twitter, even backing his opponent there in Arizona. What do you expect tonight in terms of how that might play out, what the president might say? Should Jeff Flake be worried?

QUERAID: In fairness, can we respond and say Flake started it and was backing the president's opponent last November. And so that is something that has obviously stayed with the president. I think they had sort of an uneasy truce there in D.C. They each kind

of needed each other. And then Flake wrote the book where he kind of took the president on, you know, by name, very directly and kind of ratcheted things up to this next almost necessary level. So I suspect the two of them are going to settle that in the elections next year.

But, you know, what happens tonight, I don't actually expect the president to do anything as far as Flake's race tonight. He has not settled on any sort of a primary opponent for Flake yet. I think when the president does decide to support somebody, he's going to do so in his usual, unmistakable fashion.

[14:05:04] BROWN: Right. And he seemed to loosely support his opponent on Twitter, but, as you said, he hasn't formally done so.

Brian, you say the White House should be zeroed in on ten states.

WALSH: Correct. There are ten Senate Democrats facing reelection next year in states that Donald Trump won, including several by double digits. States like Montana, where John Tester is, Claire McCaskill in Missouri, Joe Donnelly in Indiana.

I think what a lot of Republicans want to see is the president start to use the political capital he has in those states in targeting those Democrats who are blocking his agenda. His issue isn't with Republicans. And it's been frustrating, you know, to see too much energy against folks like Flake and Heller who are good conservatives. I think we'd like to see the president really hone in on the Democrats who are blocking his agenda.

BROWN: And, Constantin, we were just talking about Jeff Flake and his opponent, Kelli Wade. She has been rolling out some political ads. Let's watch.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Senator Flake, why are you still attacking the president? Just to sell copies of your new book? You're not a conservative, Senator Flake, and you're not getting anything done. Arizona deserves far better.


BROWN: So our team here couldn't help but notice that picture of Flake and Obama you just saw. That was taken from an event where Obama signed a bill honoring Judge Roll (ph), who was killed in the 2011 Tucson shooting. Your reaction to that?

QUERAID: Well, obviously, she's going to go after Flake, and that's her opponent. He has a number of things, I suppose, she could be targeting him for. But I don't think the president has settled on anybody yet. I do think there's interest in the White House to replace Flake with somebody. But their search goes on.

I think Brain's right, that their time is best spent in states where they can actually pick up seats. But the unique nature of Arizona, I suppose, to the Heller seat in Nevada, is here you have a senator who has taken Trump on by name and who appears intent on running for reelection sort of as anti-Trump, and that is something that obviously the president's going to take personally and his political team is going to take seriously.

BROWN: Right. And we'll have to wait and see what he says about that and other issues tonight during his rally there in Arizona.

Constantine Queraid and Brian Walsh, thank you very much.

WALSH: Thanks for having us.

QUERAID: Great to be here. Thanks.

BROWN: And any minute now, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be speaking from the State Department, just hours after President Trump addressed the nation to reverse his stance on Afghanistan and recommit to the war there. Last night the president spoke in very broad strokes, saying he didn't want to give specifics to the enemy.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: My origin instinct was to pull out. And, historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I've heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.

We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.


BROWN: So, what we do know is that Trump plans to increase troop numbers. He did not give specifics, but we hear from congressional sources that it will be about 4,000 more. He also spoke of targeting terror networks, going after ISIS, and reducing the influence of the Taliban. Trump also called on Pakistan to step up, calling them a safe haven for terror.

I'm going to now bring in Ronald Newman, an American diplomat who served as the United States ambassador to Afghanistan.

You were openly critical of Obama's timeline to withdraw combat troops, projecting that it was a path to failure. So, what did you make of what you heard from President Trump last night?

RONALD NEUMANN, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN: There were parts of that that I liked a great deal. And there were parts of it that I still want to understand. But the main decisions -- first of all, I like the fact that he laid out the case for being in Afghanistan. The point that we have a great risk if we pull out quickly. And that's a point that I think even those who oppose the strategy have to deal with before they jump on, we should go out or we should not. They have to deal with the risks that he laid out. I liked the fact that he did not have a timeline. That was a disaster

with the Obama administration. And, frankly, Obama had about five different timelines. He kept shifting it. That undercut the policy.

I like the fact that it concentrates on building the Afghan security forces, although we have to hear a lot more about how that will be done. So, I -- as a strategy, yes, it's a good one. Now we have to see execution.

BROWN: I want to ask you, because something that he did not discuss in the speech or didn't focus on were some of the countries that may be hurting the U.S. cause in Afghanistan, namely Russia and Iran. I mean, Russia has been called out by top military commanders for arming the Taliban. What do you make of that?

[14:10:09] NEUMANN: Well, the Russians -- the Russians deny that they're arming, but they are quite up front with their Taliban contacts. I was in a conference in Afghanistan last month with some Russians, and they were quite up front about that. They say this is a function of the Islamic State being there. But it is also a function of Russian distrust of our commitment and the sense that things may fall apart and they have to protect themselves. And I think that is also part of what is driven Iran to begin working with the Taliban.

So these things are all very interconnected to the extent that we project real strength, the ability to stay involved. I think we have a much stronger hand to speak with the Russians about pulling back from what they're doing.

BROWN: I want to ask you, Leon Panetta spoke after the president gave his speech and he said one of the things that concerned him was the president talking about winning this war. Of course it's the longest running war in U.S. history. And he said this is not a war to be won in the traditional sense. That shouldn't be the focus. What is your take on that?

NEUMANN: Pam, that's a really good question. The trouble is, it doesn't fit very well into a sound bite, which is what you mostly need. Americans tend to think of winning a la World War II, a surrender. When you fight non-state movements, you don't have that moment unless you absolutely kill everybody because they regenerate. And so we do need a serious discussion in this country about what does winning mean. Because if you can only call it winning in a way that is not possible with non-state actors, then you've permanently defined yourself as a failure. And that doesn't make any sense.

I think in the case of Afghanistan, winning means reducing the risk of any strikes to the United States and basically having an Afghan state and military that probably, with some monetary help from us, can basically handle the security situation. That, I think, would meet our strategic objectives, and by meeting our strategic objectives could be defined as winning.

BROWN: All right, Ron Neumann, thank you very much for sharing your perspective.

NEUMANN: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You want to know why we are yelling, why we are cussing? This is what happens when for decades the people that have sat in this -- those chair have ignored the people that have been out here.


BROWN: Tempers flare inside a Charlottesville city council meeting, the first since the violence and the president's remarks. See what happened, and I'll speak with the vice mayor, one of the only ones that stayed behind out of the council members.

Plus, a race against the clock. A death row inmate set to be executed tonight, despite new DNA evidence. Why the state is refusing to listen.

And the wife of the Treasury secretary flaunts luxury goods on Instagram, then mocks one of her critics in a bizarre rant. I'll speak with the mother who Louise Linton (ph) went after. Don't miss this.


[14:15:00] REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: Did a -- I think fairly thorough job in terms of describing the new military approach, and I think the important point in that is a conditions-based approach as opposed to a time-based approach that had specified troop ceiling levels and timetables. And I think the president's been quite clear that what will be different this time is he has empowered our military commanders on the ground to make more timely decisions, to conduct battlefield operations, based upon the conditions on the ground with the battle plans that Secretary of Defense Mattis will be approving. That is going to change the dynamic on the ground considerably.

These are some of the same tactics that have been employed in the very successful campaign to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq. And so I think we're taking a lot of lessons learned from our success there and will translate those to Afghanistan.

This is going to take some time for our military to go through a new set of training with some of the Afghan forces. The fighting will still be borne by the Afghan forces, by their military and their security forces. But we believe that we can turn the tide of what has been a losing battle over the last year and a half or so, and at least stabilize the situation and hopefully start seeing some battlefield victories on the part of the Afghan forces who have fought very bravely, but they've been fighting, I think, with less than full capabilities that we can give them.

I think similarly, on the diplomatic front, we too are going to adopt a conditions-based diplomacy. We're going to condition our efforts along with the progress we see being made by the Afghan government, who must continue the reform efforts that we've been working on for some time. In particular, a much more rigorous efforts around the anti-corruption.

Now, part of the corruption challenge in some respects has been the methods and ways in which we have been delivering some of our aid. And we've not been as accountable, I think, to ourselves in terms of ensuring that our aid programs, development programs are delivering the results that they were intended to deliver.

Some of that has been challenged by the security environment. It's very difficult for many of our aid workers to operate in Afghanistan. So as the security environment improves, we expect to adopt a different approach as to how we deliver on the development and assistance that supports the Afghan government in their reforms as well.

I think the president was clear, this entire effort is intended to put pressure on the Taliban to have the Taliban understand, you will not win a battlefield victory. We may not win one, but neither will you. And so at some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.

Now, this is a regional approach. And part of why this effort took as long as it did is we chose not to just focus on Afghanistan. But we undertook a fairly comprehensive review of our relationships in Pakistan and our relationship with India. And we see this approach as requiring an integration of all three of those strategies and use Pakistan, India to also bring pressure to bear on the situation in Afghanistan.

Pakistan, in particular, can play an important role here, certainly in delivering the Taliban to the negotiating table. Pakistan has suffered acts of terrorism, their citizens have suffered acts of terrorism as, I think, as dramatic as any we've seen anywhere. And we stand ready to help Pakistan address terrorist organizations inside of their country. But they must -- they must adopt a different approach themselves.

Pakistan and the U.S. historically had very good relationships, but over the last few years there's been a real erosion in the confidence between our two governments. There's been an erosion in trust because we have witnessed terrorist organizations being given safe haven inside of Pakistan to plan and carry out attacks against U.S. servicemen, U.S. officials, disrupting peace efforts inside of Afghanistan. Pakistan must adopt a different approach. And we are ready to work with them to help them protect themselves against these terrorist organizations but certainly to begin to end their attacks that are disrupting our efforts at peace.

We are going to be conditioning our support for Pakistan and our relationship with them on them delivering results in this area. We want to work with Pakistan in a positive way, but they must change their approach.

India's emerging as a very important regional strategic partner with the United States and has played an important role supporting the Afghan government, and in particular supporting their economy. India's provided developmental assistance. They've provided economic assistance. They are hosting an important economic conference in India this next week. All of that is important to stabilizing Afghanistan as a nation. Get their economy functioning, stabilize the country so that they can provide more opportunities to their citizens.

[14:20:12] These are all elements of what will lead to stability and ultimately a peace agreement. But the effort is, again, a regional effort. Put pressure on the parties to understand that this fighting is going to take everyone nowhere. And it's time to begin a process. It may very well be a lengthy process of reconciliation and a peace accord, and Afghanistan, as the president said, can choose its form of government that best suits the needs of its people as long as it rejects terrorism, never provides a territory in Afghanistan to provide safe haven for terrorists, and accommodates all of the groups represented inside of Afghanistan, ethnic groups and others.

How they want to organize themselves is up to them. But we have to recognize that their culture is a tribal culture and their history accommodates the nature of those relationships. There's no reason their form of government cannot accommodate that as well. So we want to facilitate a reconciliation peace process, and we want to facilitate them coming to some conclusion around how they want to govern themselves.

That's really the essence of the strategy. And before taking your questions, I do want to make one comment on North Korea.

I think it is worth noting that we have had no missile launches or provocative acts on the part of North Korea since the unanimous adoption of the U.N. Security Council resolution. And I want to take note of that. I want to acknowledge it.

I am pleased to see that the regime in Pyongyang has certainly demonstrated some level of restraint that we've not seen in the past. We hope that this is the beginning of this signal that we've been looking for that they are ready to restrain their level of tensions. They're ready to restrain their provocative acts. And that perhaps we are seeing our pathway to sometime in the near future having some dialogue. We need to see more on their part. But I want to acknowledge the steps they've taken thus far. I think it's important to take note of that.

So, with that, I'm happy to take your questions.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'll call out on some of the reporters here and keep your questions (INAUDIBLE) time today (INAUDIBLE), we'll start with you.

QUESTION: Thanks. I'll be really brief.

It seems like to me, at least, that with the no nation building concept that the president laid out last night and what you just said, that the main difference, other than the timetable part of the military stuff, the main difference between this new approach and the old one is that you're eliminating two-thirds of what used to be known as the clear, hold, and build strategy. In other words, we clear -- or you clear, you hold, and we won't build, you will. So, if that's correct, what happens to the anti-corruption efforts

that you mentioned, the good governance, the counter-narcotics, the education programs? What happens to those? And more specifically, what would that -- what's that going to mean for, particularly Afghan women and girls, who have been assured for the last 16 years by two separate administrations that they wouldn't be abandoned?

TILLERSON: Well, I don't want to suggest that there's that dramatic a difference in terms of our expectations for Afghan government performance. And as you point out, there's been enormous strides achieved in Afghanistan, both in terms of the numbers of millions of children that are now in schools, being educated, the role of women in the Afghan economy has been dramatically changed. I don't expect any of that to be rolled back. I think that has been part of the Afghan government structure. It's become part of what the Afghan people themselves, I think, expect.

If you go back many years ago, prior to all of this disruption, that was Afghanistan. That was the nature of Afghanistan 30, 40, 50 years ago. So I think it is part of their culture already. We want to support that.

In terms of the clear and hold, that is still the approach is that areas will be cleared and Afghan security forces can hold those areas, thereby enabling some growth in the Afghan economy. Part of what Afghanistan struggles under is they do not have control over but a portion of their economy. So, as the forces are able to either hold areas and stabilize them, certainly not give up further ground, and they're still losing ground today, as you well know. So this is going to take a little while.

But it's to stabilize and then hopefully begin to regain control. And as ground is gained, it will be held by Afghan security forces. While allowing the Afghan government to continue what it has been very successfully doing under our assistance now for many years and not roll back any of those gains that have been made. That's -- I don't think that's the aspiration of the Afghan government or the Afghan people either.

So, what we're going to continue to help them institutionally. We may be taking different approaches and not putting so much of the U.S. taxpayer dollar on the ground, building schools and building infrastructures. We think there are plenty of others that we are going call upon for assistance as well.

[14:25:17] Rather, we're there to facilitate and ensure that there is a pathway for reconciliation and peace talks as this pressure begins to take hold. And we do -- we believe we already know, there are certain moderate elements of the Taliban who we think are going to be ready and want to help develop a way forward. How long that will take will be, again, based on conditions on the ground.


QUESTION: Thank you very much. Mr. Secretary, a question that embraces both the military side and the diplomatic side. On the military side, won't the new rules of engagement mean that in the short term at least our forces will be more at risk because they will be potentially doing night raids against the Taliban again, not just training but actually supporting in a more active role, because the Afghan troops are not all up to par here to push back against the Taliban advance?

And on the diplomatic side, why didn't the president mention Russia's re-arming of the Taliban, which General Nicholson has been talking about very openly? He seemed to be letting Russia off the hook in his speech. And do you have enough people, given the fact that there are not Trump-confirmed diplomatic appointees in many of these positions in the region?

TILLERSON: Well, on the military operation side of it, I would really defer to the Department of Defense to answer that one, other than I know the approach is going to be, as I said, similar to what we have had success elsewhere. As Secretary Mattis describes it, it's a by, with, and through approach. And I think that's part of why the need for a step-up in troop levels is so we can now, at the battalion level, organize and help the Afghan army fight in a different way with close ground advisement at the battalion level and the ability to call in support on a more timely basis as needed to ensure victory as opposed to either stalemate or defeat.

With respect to the comment about Russia, to the extent Russia is supplying arms to the Taliban, that is a violation, obviously, of international norms, and it's a violation of U.N. Security Council norms. We certainly would object to that and call Russia's attention to that. If anyone's going to supply arms, it needs to be through the Afghan government.

In terms of our footprint on the ground, we have very competent, capable, experienced people there now. Our Afghan ambassadors remaining on the job at this time. We have a Pakistan ambassador that's been nominated. We hope to have that person cleared through the process soon. And even in the transition in Afghanistan, as Ambassador Hale transitions out, we've nominated Ambassador Bass (ph), a very experienced diplomat. Been chief -- been running the embassy in Ankara, Turkey, a very complex place. He's very well equipped to step into this situation as well.

And we are looking at a couple of different people for the special representative to Afghanistan, Pakistan position. It's open currently. It's being filled with a very experienced individual today. So we're ready to get going with very competent people. We have, and I'm not at all concerned about the competency level or the experience of the people that we have working on this. I'm quite confident with them.

QUESTION: And India?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (INAUDBILE) next question. Martha Raddatz from NBC.

QUESITON: Secretary Tillerson, I know you don't want to talk about the military, but you were just using some military terms, and battalion level and that. I know and understand why the administration does not want to talk about tactical moves. But strategy, don't the American people deserve to know approximately how many more of their sons and daughters will be going back to Afghanistan in a war that's lasted nearly16 years?

TILLERSON: Well, I think -- and I -- you know, I don't want to speak for Secretary Mattis, but I think the intent is, there will be visibility to troop levels once the decision has been made. I think what the president has conveyed, and I agree wholeheartedly with him, is that we are not going to signal ahead what our plans are. We're not going to signal ahead an increase, a decrease, the timing of any of that. It will be driven by conditions on the ground. The only way we can defeat an enemy that is as nimble and as cagey tactically as this enemy is, we have to be as cagey and tactical as they are. And we've not been fighting that way.

QUESTION: Could that include strikes in Pakistan?

[14:29:49] TILLERSON: I'm not going to comment on what it could include. But the president's been clear that we are going to protect American troops and servicemen. We are going to attack terrorists wherever they live. And we have put people on notice that if you are harboring and providing safe haven to terrorists, be warned. Be forewarned. And we're going to engage with those who are providing safe haven and ask them to --