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Trump Delivers Speech on Afghanistan Policy with Few Details. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired August 22, 2017 - 07:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN: The president also did not give benchmarks for how to measure success.

[07:00:07] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN: The president kicking off his prime-time address, however, by attempting to clean up his controversial response to Charlottesville, calling all Americans to come together. He was talking about the military, and the home that they deserve to return to, but it was obviously about that and more.

This as the president heads back on the campaign trail with a big rally in Phoenix tonight. Will he hold true to his message of unity?

Let's discuss with our panel: CNN political analyst David Gregory; CNN Politics reporter and editor at large for CNN, Chris Cillizza; and CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward.

Great panel for this discussion. Let's start with you. Clarissa, we just had Nikki Haley on, the ambassador to the U.S. now, one-time governor of South Carolina. Had a couple of important things to say.

One, this is so much different than what has been decided in the past; and Afghanistan and Pakistan aren't on the travel ban, because we know enough about the people who are traveling from those countries wanting to come into the U.S. What do you make of those two notions?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think let's start with the first notion. I think President Trump had a really piece of fancy footwork that he had to do here. He had to basically justify why he was doubling down on a war that he has continuously disparaged, and how it was going to be different in his handling than it was under President Obama, whose handling of Afghanistan he has consistently disparaged.

And I don't think, while he was sort of successful in the first part of that endeavor, in terms of elucidating to an American audience why this is important, ISIS, al Qaeda, safe havens, Pakistan, a nuclear power. There are a lot of reasons that we need to have a foothold here and that we can't allow it to become a sort of vacuum.

I would say he was less successful on the second front. But speaking to Nikki Haley's point, why or how is this substantially different from President Obama's approach. I didn't hear a lot of details, I didn't really hear any detail about the specifics of how it would be different. President Obama also talked about Pakistan. You've got to play a more

positive role here, a more responsible role. No more harboring of terrorists. You can talk like that 'til the cows come home, but how do you actually make Pakistan play a more responsible role. Probably not by dangling the threat of India as President Trump did. You can talk about wanting to, you know, improve the Afghan national army, about wanting Afghanistan to take the lead here, about them having to take responsibility.

This is the type of rhetoric that we have been hearing for more than a decade. The reality is it's much tougher to put it into practice, and we didn't really get any insight into how President Trump intends to do that.

CAMEROTA: Before we get to David Gregory and Chris, because you reported so often in Afghanistan, is the premise correct? Is the premise right that, if the U.S. ends this war and leaves, that it would instantly become a haven for terrorists?

WARD: Let's be clear. The U.S. has a lot of bad options here. You are damned if you do, and you are damned if you don't. And I do think that there is a legitimate argument to be made that a complete and abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan could have, you know, tremendous implications for the security of the U.S. going forward.

At the same time, there has to be a clear and coherent pathway to something better, to something more sustainable. And the only thing I think we heard kind of wedged into the speech there that was a sort of nod to what that might be was when he talked about the possibility of a reconciliation with the Taliban at some point in the future.

Ultimately, the Taliban does have a lot of support in Afghanistan. That's hard for some of us to get our head around, but it's a reality.

CUOMO: It's a reality, because as you know and you've taught me over the years, they provide a lot of the necessary services that the government cannot; and that really just drives a lot of the goodwill for them on the ground. So let's set up this second proposition, which is the consistency of the policy. If Afghanistan is so important, if Pakistan is so fundamental to the harboring of terrorists and a need for change, why aren't they part of the travel ban? Here's what Nikki Haley said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: You know, I think the travel ban was based on certain threats, and more importantly, it was based on the fact that if we didn't have enough information.

The goal was always, and the goal continues to be for the president to keep Americans safe, and any country where we don't have enough background, we don't have the background checks, we can't ensure that Americans are going to be safe, that's how those countries were picked. If there are other countries, and we have enough information, they weren't put on the travel ban.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: David Gregory, we're talking about the two countries that were fundamental in the reckoning of 9/11. You have Afghanistan, which was the warehouse, and the laboratory for bin Laden, and you have Pakistan, which is where he was hiding, despite everything that Pakistan authorities told us. What do you make of Nikki Haley's answer?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, I think it points to some of what's missing in the travel ban policy, which is coherent policy and a realistic assessment of the threat. This was always designed by the Obama administration to deal with certain loopholes for potential terrorists who could exploit some weaknesses, particularly in Great Britain, if they had dual passports, and get into the United States.

[07:05:18] So I think it just speaks to that piece. I'd like to make a broader point about Afghanistan, as well. I think what we have to realize is that President Trump is now hewn to the national security establishment. Ever since 9/11, the basic proposition has been that we cannot allow another safe haven to develop in Afghanistan or elsewhere, because we saw what happened on 9/11.

I don't think it's possible for there to be some sort of beautiful political outcome in Afghanistan. President Bush didn't think so at the end of his term, General Petraeus, our commander of forces whom I interviewed in Afghanistan, when he took over, said he hoped for an Afghanistan good enough.

The truth is, I think the Taliban, as awful as it is, is going to be part of the future of the government. But I think we're coming to the realization that, just as previous administrations may have learned the damage of getting out of Iraq without any residual force left a certain amount of room for ISIS to develop.

Here there's going to be a commitment to staying put in Afghanistan long enough and strong enough to at least hold it together, and not allow it to degenerate further into a terrorist state as it once did.

CAMEROTA: So Chris Cillizza, it's interesting to read the back story in terms of how President Trump came around to this way of thinking when we had been so adamant, that it was time to immediately get out of Afghanistan; there had been a tremendous loss of blood and treasure.

But now his generals convinced him of that, so you know, I think we have a little bit of sound related to this. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: My original 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. In other words, when you're president of the United States.

So I studied Afghanistan in great detail and, from every conceivable angle, after many meetings, over many months we held our final meeting last Friday at Camp David with my cabinet and generals to complete our strategy.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Chris, it's interesting on so many levels. You get to see their window into who influences the president. People often say it's the last person in the room. Bannon out. Bannon didn't want to stay in Afghanistan. The generals, the McMasters and Mattises of the world, were able to convince him.

CILLIZZA: Yes. First of all, historically, I like to follow my gut or my instinct is the most Trumpian statement of all time, and very, very true. Truer words have never been spoken.

Yes, look, I think you had two colliding things here. You had Donald Trump's instinct, as he acknowledged, which was -- and tweeted about many times, which was to get out of Afghanistan. Nothing to be gained there for the United States and his adherence and loyalty to, as he regularly puts it, my generals.

He had made clear in the campaign, and then as president, he thought Barack Obama didn't listen enough to the generals, was making decisions that he shouldn't have been making, he should have been deferring more to his generals. So you have those two things clashing. This is, I think, sort of a refreshing thing for a president to say.

Donald Trump does a lot of odd things that I think are bad politically. I actually think that clip that you played was Donald Trump unorthodoxy in an appealing way. Essentially saying, "Look, yes, I have said many times before that I think we need to get out of Afghanistan, that it's useless for us to be there. It's a waste of time, money and human lives, but I'm president now. And I spent a lot more time studying it now, and I've reached a different conclusion."

Now, he didn't really outline a lot of what that conclusion was, but I think showing your work in that way is something that the American public can appreciate. I think politicians do themselves a disservice when they try to paint abrupt reversals as consistency. So actually, that piece of what he was doing in sort of showing us, being transparent about, yes, I changed my mind; and here is why was actually useful, rhetorically speaking.

CUOMO: All right. But Clarissa, there is one point that part of the service of the media is to point stuff out like this to the public. This is a clever notion when you heard this speech last night. We're no longer about duration. We're about results.

WARD: Yes.

CUOMO: We heard that at the beginning of this 16-year campaign. We're going to go in there. We're going to make this stable, and then we'll leave. It failed, so much so that it had to become about duration. Now we're back to where we started.

[07:10:09] WARD: Right.

CUOMO: People need to understand, that can only mean that we're there longer. If it's results-oriented, it can't be short. It's got to be long.

WARD: It's got to be long and also if you're going to say this is going to be a conditions-based exit, when we finally do exit, I think you need to talk about what the conditions are, what's the standard. What is an acceptable level of security? What is an acceptable level of competence of the Afghan army? At what stage is it politically and, from a security point of view, viable for the U.S. to actually exit Afghanistan.

CUOMO: We're nowhere near it right now. Fair point?

WARD: We're definitely nowhere near it. We're further away from it than where we were a few years ago. Let's be clear. In terms of who has the momentum on the battlefield right now, it's the Taliban.

And that's why, when we talk about potential reconciliation or power sharing or decentralized form of government in Afghanistan, we can't even really talk about that right now, because the Taliban doesn't have an incentive to come to the negotiating table.

If there was one thing that it was important for President Trump to show the Taliban, it was OK, you know what? The U.S. is going to be here. We're going to be here for a while. It's incumbent upon you to come to the negotiating table, because we're not going anywhere.

But for the American people, that means more American servicemen and women are going to potentially die, and that's a huge responsibility.

CAMEROTA: So David, very quickly to tonight.

GREGORY: But the reality is...

CAMEROTA: Quickly?

GREGORY: The reality is that Afghanistan has not exported terror the way that it did prior to 9/11. The Taliban has been, has had momentum for a long time, that's ebbed and flowed but as Clarissa says, it's mostly been in their favor.

But only a U.S. presence, I think, the military will argue guaranties an intelligence flow and can at least contain that somewhat, and I think that's the thing that, after 16 years, we have to get our heads around, that this is never going to be about, you know, great governance in Afghanistan. There's been so much corruption in successive administrations.

It's about the power of a U.S. president to at least keep the lid on looking like a semi-permanent presence there. That's what the president outlined last night. We have all this opacity around what the -- what the standards are for us ultimately to get out. I don't think they know yet. CAMEROTA: So David, very quickly on to tonight, all of this will be

very interesting to hear if tonight in Arizona, if the president at this campaign style rally, the one where he goes off prompter and sort of feeds off the crowd and vice versa, if if he still touches on all of these points or what his language will be. What are you expecting?

GREGORY: Well, I mean you know, I've become more cynical about this unfortunately, to see him in front of a Teleprompter is a different president and then to see him ad-libbing, so who's the real Donald Trump? When it comes to Afghanistan or when it comes to trying to repair the damage that he alone is responsible for after Charlottesville, is he going to whip it up because he's out at a campaign-style rally or not?

I mean, he needs to find a consistent voice of leadership, something he has not found even if he gave a speech that was, you know, more establishment policy on Afghanistan.

CAMEROTA: David, Chris, thank you, Clarissa, great to have you here in studio with us sharing your reporting. Thanks so much.

We do have some breaking news we want to get to right now. The Navy just updating the search for ten missing sailors after the USS John McCain collided with an oil tanker in the South Pacific. Listen to this.

ADMIRAL SCOTT SWIFT, COMMANDERS OF U.S. PACIFIC FLEET: Any damaged parts of the ship. The divers were able to locate some remains in those sealed compartments during their search today. Additionally, the Malaysian Navy has reported that they have located potential remains. They are working to confirm and identify those remains. As more information comes in, we will make it available.

While the search and rescue efforts continue, I sincerely thank our Singapore partners, our Malaysia partners and everyone who has responded with urgency, compassion, and tireless commitment. Four of the five sailors injured were medically evacuated by a Singapore navy helicopter to a hospital in Singapore for non-life-threatening injuries. The fifth injured sailor was transferred...

CAMEROTA: You hear the breaking news there, but it is a tragic update, and that is that they have identified the remains of some of those ten missing sailors.

CUOMO: And look, it's horrible news, but closure is important in these situations. And whether it's the Fitzgerald or the USS Cole or now the McCain, those compartments are tricky. A lot of them are submerged. They have to be pumped out. It's hard after a cataclysmic event like that to just track everybody. It takes time.

CAMEROTA: Well, the admiral also said that the actions of the sailors on board saved more lives. Navy investigators, of course, are looking into what caused the crash. This is the fourth crash involving a Navy ship this year.

[07:15:12] CUOMO: Three of those four involved private vessels. Why? Why that pattern? That's something they have to study, as well.

So we now have a new strategy in Afghanistan and, of course, there are a lot of questions. Why our experts say President Trump may be promising something he can't deliver. Next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TRUMP: This principled realism will guide our decisions moving forward. America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CUOMO: That's President Trump's way of saying we're going to be in Afghanistan for a long time. The president now says he wants to continue the fight against terror. He did not give a timetable. He said that this is going to be about benchmarks for success.

Let's discuss with CNN military analyst and retired U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren and CNN global affairs analyst and former Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken.

[07:20:03] So Mr. Warren, welcome to the team. It's good to have you here at CNN. What did you hear last night? Did you hear something new and different that the American people should be optimistic about?

COL. STEVE WARREN (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Thanks very much. It's great to be here.

What I heard was the president describe a strategy that looks and sounds to me an awful lot like the last strategy we've been using for the past several years. Maybe with some of the rougher edges filed off, some of the edges that perhaps the military, the generals didn't like, things like increased authorities to attack terrorists throughout Afghanistan, increased authority to flow troops in, lots of good words about no interference from Washington and honorable and enduring outcomes, these things. But I think at its base, the substance remains largely unchanged.

CUOMO: Tony, Nikki Haley says it is really different, because the decisions that were made this time by the president were decisive in a way and results oriented in a way that the Obama administration was not.

TONY BLINKEN, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: You have to distinguish between the form and the substance. On form, this was a good speech. It was well-written and well-delivered, and probably the product of something we haven't seen a lot of, which is a really deliberative process to get to the speech and then disciplined by the president in delivering it.

But on the substance, I very much agree with Steve. It is a little bit of old wine packaged in a new bottle and also, the president has promised something that he simply can't deliver, which is total victory. The fact is we have a strategy not to lose in Afghanistan but not a

strategy to win, by win meaning defeating the Taliban. That's not going to happen on the battlefield. At our peak, we had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. This takes us from 8,000 to maybe 12,000, 13,000. We don't know the specific number. That is not going to make the decisive difference.

Ultimately, we have to have some kind of political accommodation. It's awful hard to get to when the Taliban has the momentum, but that's the way out. That requires diplomacy as well as force. And unfortunately, the president has gutted the State Department at the very time we need to see that kind of diplomacy.

CUOMO: For some context for people, because the situation has gotten worse, where do you believe the Obama administration fell short?

BLINKEN: Look, this is a problem that has been going on now for, getting to year 17 of this -- of this conflict. I think we should be doing is setting very discreet, limited, understandable goals, one making sure that Afghanistan is not a haven for terror, a place from which we can be attacked and our partners can be attacked and, two, doing just what's necessary to at least keep the governments going in the big cities and the military going. That's about the limit of what I think we can accomplish.

If we're clear about those goals, it's modest and explain to the American people that it's going to take a lot of time and, look, we're kind of stuck. The president's right: if we pulled out precipitously, we would leave a vacuum. The place would collapse.

Unfortunately, the flipside of that coin, Chris, is that we're going to be there for a while. He should level with the American people about that.

CUOMO: Right, and the irony, of course, is that candidate and, certainly, citizen President Trump would have hated that speech last night. Steve Warren, he wants us out. He shared an opinion and then, a lot of American people have, is this called the graveyard empire for a reason.

You know, that government has been ineffective for a reason. The Taliban is needed by the people there for a reason, and you're not going to fix it unless you own it, and the American people have no appetite for that.

Another issue has come up about policy consistency. We had Nikki Haley on, ambassador to the U.N. now, obviously. And I asked her if Afghanistan is so treacherous, if Pakistan is so unstable, why aren't they on the travel ban? And her answer was, well, we know enough about the people who want to come to America from those two places that they didn't need to be on it. That seems to be a real eye popper for me. For you, Steve?

WARREN: It is interesting see how we've selected -- the government has selected certain nations for a travel ban and left others off; and you wonder whether or not our intelligence is that robust in Afghanistan and in Pakistan, for example, as opposed to some of these other countries.

So it's very interesting to see how we approach those things. In Afghanistan, you know, we heard the president talk briefly about leveraging Pakistan, using the diplomatic component of national power. What we didn't hear anything about is kind of the larger, in my view, presence of, for example, China, who share a border with Pakistan and shares a border with Afghanistan. And where was the mention of China, how are we going to use China to help create some calm in this region. I didn't hear it.

CUOMO: Tony, obviously, look, it didn't get done under the Obama administration, it didn't get done under the Bush administration. And again, you know, any time you look up Afghanistan for a book, you're going to hear the phrase "Graveyard of Empires" since the Soviet Union, and we can go back to what the U.S. did to undermine the Soviet Union when they were in Afghanistan. It hasn't worked out.

And even though the president of the United States now is that had a change of mind, if not of heart, about what to do there, the message to the American people should be the same. You can't get out of this place. If you get out it will almost certainly devolve to a state where it once again becomes a bazaar of the worst kinds of people who will be able to do whatever they want there. It will be like a huge Yemen. I mean, isn't that just the reality?

[07:25:44] BLINKEN: I think that's the reality, and that's the honesty that we need to have. The question is, can we come to a sustainable place? Is there a presence that advances our interests, does what's necessary, that we can actually sustain, both financially but also in terms of the human resources.

The hard truth is sending more forces in means we're going to lose more lives. We have to wrap our minds around that, as well.

Steve put his finger on something really important, which is you have to have a regional strategy here. And it's China, but it's also Russia. It's also Iran, as well as of course, Pakistan and India. If we're not working to get all of those players moving toward the same objective and, of course, they have different competing interests. It's going to be very hard to really get to a stable place.

CUOMO: There's no question about it. I'm telling you, I've never traveled anywhere with the U.S. military where they were more unsure of who to trust and where it's safe and where it isn't than Afghanistan. That hasn't changed from when I was there to this day.

Tony Blinken, thank you very much.

Steve Warren, value added. It is good to have you on the team.

WARREN: Thank you, sir. Pleasure to be here.

CUOMO: Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: How do President Trump's most passionate supporters feel about his changing stance on Afghanistan? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: North Korea? Go ahead, tell us what's funny.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kaboom! What are we waiting for? I like the way he's handling North Korea.

CAMEROTA: OK.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CAMEROTA: Afghanistan and North Korea, I ask them about both. More of our must-see voter panel ahead.

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