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THE SITUATION ROOM
Thousands to Protest Trump's Phoenix Visit; Interview with Delaware Senator Chris Coons; NYT: McConnell Questions Whether Trump Can Salvage Presidency; Report: North Korea May Support Syrian Chemical Weapons Program. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired August 22, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:07] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Playing to his base. Battered by waves of condemnation for a shocking response to hate-group violence, President Trump is in Arizona tonight, where he'll play to his base at a big campaign rally. Will he fan the flames with more fiery rhetoric?
Temperatures rising. Thousands are turning out in the scorching heat to protest the president's visit. But Arizona's top Republicans are keeping their distance from the president. Does he have political retaliation in mind?
Navy cyber-hack? CNN has learned that the USS McCain suffered a steering failure before its deadly collision with an oil tanker. The chief of naval operations says there are no indications right now of a cyber-attack, but that the investigation will consider, quote, "all possibilities." How vulnerable are U.S. warships?
And selling danger. How far will North Korea go to raise money for its missile program? U.N. experts are looking into a report that shipments were intercepted from Kim Jong-un's regime, bound for the agency in charge of Syria's chemical weapons.
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking news, President Trump is in Arizona right now, about to visit a Border Patrol facility near the Mexican border. Tonight, he'll hold a big campaign rally in Phoenix, aimed at firing up his base amid dropping poll numbers and a White House in chaos.
And it's his first trip as president to Arizona, where he made immigration a key and controversial theme of his 2016 race. And it's his first public rally since he was widely condemned for his remarks on the white supremacist rampage in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Thousands of opposition protesters are expected to turn out tonight, and the Democratic mayor of Phoenix called on the president to delay his visit, saying he had, quote, "doused racial tensions with gasoline."
Top Arizona Republicans are staying away. The president has been feuding with GOP Senator Jeff Flake, and there's speculation he may use this visit -- may use the visit to endorse Flake's primary opponent. And the president has said he's considering a pardon for former sheriff Joe Arpaio, an early supporter, who's awaiting sentencing on federal contempt charges.
The president's campaign rally, the kind of event where he has often gone off the rails, comes just a day after he won praise for sticking to the script in his address to the nation on Afghanistan. Mainstream Republicans applauded, but there are sharp protests from the party's far right, and the president may decide to attack in that direction tonight.
I'll speak with Democratic Senator Chris Coons. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.
But let's begin with with the president's visit to Arizona, capped by tonight's campaign rally. Let's go live to Phoenix and CNN senior international correspondent Alexander Marquardt is standing by.
Alex, what did we expect tonight?
ALEXANDER MARQUARDT, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, good afternoon, Wolf.
People have been showing up by the thousands here at the Phoenix convention center where the president will be speaking in just a few hours. In the past few moments, we have heard chants of "build that wall." We have seen minor skirmishes, but the big question is which Trump shows up tonight? Is it the unscripted, freewheeling base Trump that the base loves, that these crowds love, or is it the more buttoned-up, on-message, on-Teleprompter Trump that we saw during the Afghanistan speech last night?
As you mentioned, some major announcements may be made, but right now, The White House is saying very little about what the president will be saying tonight.
MARQUARDT (voice-over): President Trump arriving in Arizona tonight for a campaign rally, facing angry crowds over his response to the violence in Charlottesville and an escalating feud with a fellow Republican, Senator Jeff Flake.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The American people are weary of war without victory.
MARQUARDT: Tonight's rally comes one day after Monday's more serious and somber prime-time address on Afghanistan, in which the president reversed course on his repeated calls to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.
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.
MARQUARDT: Trump has used past campaign events to rally his diminished base, feeding off the crowd, reveling in their support.
TRUMP: With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office, that I can tell you.
[17:05:05] MARQUARDT: Tonight's rally coming during a particularly tough time. A new poll showing the president's overall approval at 37 percent, and just 28 percent approved of his response to the deadly violence in Charlottesville.
TRUMP: Very fine people on both sides. Monday night, House Speaker Paul Ryan told a CNN town hall that President Trump, quote, "messed up."
REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I think he made comments that were much more morally ambiguous, much more confusing. And I do think he could have done better. I think he needed to do better.
MARQUARDT: Today Vice President Mike Pence coming to Trump's defense.
MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The president strictly denounced white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the KKK repeatedly, and he did it on -- he did it when he denounced hate and violence on Saturday. He did it in his address to the nation Monday, and he did it again in the press conference Tuesday.
PENCE: There was no more equivalency drawn by the president.
MARQUARDT: That fallout has the tendency to get worse if the president follow through on pardoning the deeply-controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to stop racially profiling Latinos. Arpaio tells CNN he was not invited to tonight's rally, but he was a staunch Trump surrogate on the campaign trail.
SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO, CONVICTED OF CRIMINAL CONTEMPT: I'll see you again with Donald Trump, because once he becomes president, I know he's never going to forget Arizona. He'll be back, and I hope to see him as president.
MARQUARDT: Trump also threatening to deepen the divisions in the GOP, engaging in a war of words with Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a staunch critic. Just last week, Trump called him "Flame Jeff Flake, who is weak on borders, crime and a non-factor in Senate. He's toxic."
(on camera): How about the president calling you a non-factor in the Senate and toxic?
SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Don't -- don't worry about it at all. Go ahead and doing my job.
MARQUARDT: Now, in that same tweet that Trump wrote about Flake, he did appear to endorse a primary challenger, writing, "Great to see that Dr. Kelli Ward is running against Flake." Ward is a former state senator. We have confirmed that she will be here tonight in the crowd, not in a VIP section, so it's unclear whether she will get a full-throated endorsement from Trump.
As for Sheriff Arpaio, we learned just moments ago that there will no announcement of a pardon for him. The press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, saying that no discussion of that today at any point, and no action will be taken on that front at any time -- Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, Alexander Marquardt, reporting for us from Phoenix. Stand by.
At least a half a dozen -- half a dozen demonstrations are scheduled to coincide with the president's visit to Phoenix. Thousands of people are expected to turn out in searing heat.
Let's go to our national correspondent Miguel Marquez. He's on the scene for -- in Phoenix for us, as well. So what are we likely to see?
MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is hard to tell, but I can tell you, Phoenix officials are preparing for the absolute worst. They're treating this as though it's a high-level situation like the Super Bowl or the World Series or anything else here at the convention center.
I want to give you a sense of what's happening out here at the convention center now. All of these are Trump supporters who, the earliest ones have been lining up since 7 p.m. last night, about 18 hours ago. Keep in mind, it's about five hours before the president actually shows up here and addresses this crowd.
It goes all the way around the building, and there are several thousand people in line. What we have seen so far is people coming by and taunting the crowd, essentially yelling at them, lots of "F"- bombs, and the crowd shouting back. And that actually just keeps them sort of motivated down here.
We do know that there are thousands, perhaps over 10,000 people who are planning to come out and protest in various forms. It is likely but not certain that they will end up centering their protests down here at the Phoenix Convention Center. Immigration groups, Jewish groups, anti-Trump groups, certainly, anti-fascist groups of all different -- all different stripes, all different people coming out. They will start, in the next couple of hours, to gather in different parts of the city. Some of them will be here. It is likely that all of them will converge on this -- on this location later in the evening.
And Phoenix police having the difficult job of trying to allow people their First Amendment rights while keeping everyone safe. And I should say that there are some groups, as well, at least reportedly on the conservative side of the right, who are saying, come down here, protect your rights, bring your guns. This is an open carry state. All of those huge concerns for the police here -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It's going to be a huge crowd on both sides. We'll watch them together with you, Miguel. Thank you very much. Miguel Marquez is on the scene for us.
Joining us, Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a member of both the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: I quickly want to get your reaction. Just moments ago the "New York Times" posted a new story on its website on the relationship between President Trump and the Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. Headline, "Trump and McConnell Locked in a Cold War, Threatening the GOP Agenda."
[17:10:14] The lead sentence: "The relationship between President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks, and Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises."
It goes on to say, "Angry phone calls, private bad-mouthing have devolved into open conflict, with the president threatening to oppose Republican senators who cross him and Mr. McConnell mobilizing to their defense."
What's your reaction? You're a Democratic Senator...
BLITZER: ... but Mitch McConnell is the majority leader in the Senate.
COONS: That's right. President Trump has fired off angry tweets at Majority Leader McConnell after his failure to reveal the Affordable Care Act. President Trump has attacked Senator McCain; earlier today, Senator Flake and a number of other Republican senators.
And it may not be clear to the president that, with such a slim Republican majority in the Senate, if he's going to have any hope of getting his agenda around tax reform or repealing the Affordable Care Act through the Senate, he needs the close partnership of Majority Leader McConnell. So it's striking if he continues to have a deteriorating relationship and he continues to attack Republican senators, both publicly and privately.
BLITZER: It's amazing that he's -- that this relationship between the Republican president and the Republican leader in the Senate has deteriorated to this point. And the Republican majority is, what, 52- 48. It's a narrow majority in the U.S. Senate. You guys have to do something critically important by the end of September: raise the nation's debt ceiling. Otherwise, the full faith and credit of the U.S. government and the treasury will be in jeopardy.
COONS: That's right. A default on America's credit would be a terrible thing for the markets, for America's role in the world. We've come close in previous Congresses. Folks have played a dangerous game of chicken. It's my hope that, by the end of this month, we will have both raised the debt ceiling and approved the appropriations needed for this coming year that will avoid a government shutdown.
BLITZER: By the end of September, you mean?
COONS: By the end of September. But with Republicans controlling both the House and Senate and the White House, it's striking to me that there's this much discord between executive and legislative branch.
BLITZER: What did you think of the president's opening remarks last night in his nationally televised address in Ft. Myers, the military base outside of Washington, when he tried to ease some of the criticism, at least indirectly, from his earlier comments about the violence, the outrage that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia?
COONS: What you're referring to, Wolf, is one of his first sentences was, "When we open our hearts to patriotism, there's no room for bigotry or hatred." I thought that was a positive, constructive thing for the president to say.
And I think it bears repeating as many times as he chooses to repeat it, that as a nation, we need to come together, particularly when we're confronting big issues of national security like our path forward Afghanistan.
BLITZER: But you don't believe the president is a racist or a bigot, do you?
COONS: I don't.
BLITZER: You're willing to give him another -- another chance? You were obviously very upset with his remarks last Tuesday.
COONS: Yes. The president has, on a number of occasions, said things that come right up against the edge of the line of tolerating a false equivalence when he said that there were some very fine people marching in Charlottesville.
My public response was there are no very fine people carrying swastikas or shouting Klan rally slogans. The president has, on a number of occasions, in the course of his campaign for the presidency and as president, failed to be the clear and moral leader on racial issues that we need, and so I was encouraged that he made such a clear and strong statement at the beginning part of his national address on Afghanistan.
BLITZER: Yes, he's getting some good remark -- good marks for the beginning part of that statement. But here's the question. Tonight he's got a big campaign rally, so in effect a reelection campaign, even though he doesn't have to get reelected for another three and a half years. It's going to be a huge crowd, as we just saw in Phoenix.
Do you think a week after what we saw in Charlottesville, it's appropriate for the president to be out on the campaign trail? Or should he, as some of his critics have suggested, simply give a major speech and address to the nation on race relations, white supremacy, anti-Semitism...
BLITZER: ... the issues that came up in Charlottesville?
COONS: Yes. The idea that was floated earlier today that he somehow might pardon Joe Arpaio, the very controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, where Phoenix is, suggests just the sort of issues that are going to be raised by his rally in Phoenix tonight.
These rallies have been events where the president has often gone off- script and where sometimes the crowd has drawn him to go off-focus. Last night his address was very tightly focused, very scripted, and he got broadly positive remarks. This isn't the time for him to be firing up his base and continue to campaign for a reelection that's more than three years away.
BLITZER: On this issue of whether he should issue a pardon to Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff in Maricopa County in Arizona, I want you to listen to the former head of the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Vanita Gupta, who wrote this: "If President Trump uses his power to pardon a discredited law enforcement official who persistently engaged in illegal racial profiling of the Latino community, it will not be a dog whistle to the so-called alt right and white supremacists, but a bull horn. No amount of tweets or forced remarks read from a teleprompter could undo the damage."
Do you agree?
COONS: I do agree with Ms. Gupta. She was a talented senior leader in the Justice Department, head of the Civil Rights Division. And the idea that the president would use his pardon power to set aside a judge's contempt order for racial profiling of former Sheriff Joe Arpaio. That would be an outrageous step, particularly at this time, particularly in this context, and I really prayerfully hope the president will step back from any decision to pardon Joe Arpaio.
BLITZER: Well, you just heard Sarah Huckabee Sanders just issued a statement aboard Air Force One that there will no announcement, no decision as of tonight tonight. So we'll see what the president does. But legally, he certainly has the power. If he wants to pardon Sheriff Arpaio, he can.
COONS: That's right. He has the power to pardon many, many people. Most likely, he doesn't have the power to pardon himself. But many others. And this is exactly the sort of case where he shouldn't use that power.
BLITZER: All right. We're looking at some of the crowds. They're already showing up for this big rally that's about to occur in Phoenix, Arizona. Lots of supporters of the president, lots of protesters, as well. We'll have a -- we'll have special coverage. That's coming up.
[17:21:08] BLITZR: Live pictures right now of President Trump. He's in Arizona visiting a Border Patrol facility ahead of tonight's big campaign rally in Phoenix. You see people lining up to get inside. Many have been there for hours and hours.
Hammered by the angry reaction to his comments on racial violence, it's a chance for the president to play to his base, but multiple protests are also planned in Phoenix. We'll have extensive live coverage.
We're back in the meantime with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees.
I want to just clarify one thing. When we spoke about pardoning, potentially, the sheriff Arpaio in Arizona. I point out the president has the legal right to pardon people. You said yes, he can pardon a lot of people, including himself. And I just want you to explain what you meant.
COON: I actually specifically didn't say including himself.
BLITZER: No, no, no. I apologize. You said not including himself.
COONS: Not including himself.
BLITZER: I stand corrected. But why even bring that up?
COONS: It's been debated whether or not in the event that the investigations that are ongoing, led by Robert Mueller, led to some developments, whether or not the president would just proactively pardon everybody involved, including himself. There has previously been debate...
BLITZER: There is a legal and constitutional debate right now whether a president can, in fact, pardon himself.
COONS: That's correct. It would involve, essentially, being judge and jury of your own case.
BLITZER: And you believe the president does not have that power to pardon himself?
COONS: Correct. I don't think he has that power.
BLITZER: All right. I just want to be precise on that. And we got the correct -- your correct position out there.
Let's talk about something else that's going on now before your Judiciary Committee in the Senate. A man by the name of Glen Simpson whose firm funded that infamous dossier that came out during the campaign last year, alleging all sorts of ties between the president and Russians. Have you been briefed on the interview that he had, the Q and A? He appeared before your Senate Judiciary Committee investigators today, Glen Simpson. Do you know what was said and what you can share with us?
COONS: I can't share with you specifics about what was said. The Senate Judiciary Committee investigators have been very busy over the last few weeks as the Senate has been out of session. They've interviewed a number of individuals. They've reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents, and I expect us to have some open hearings when we come back into session in the first week and the second week of September, but I can't give you anything more than that Glen did appear and was interviewed by staff of the Judiciary Committee.
BLITZER: What can you tell us about that dossier?
COONS: I can't tell you anything more than that at this point.
BLITZER: At this point, it's all very, very sensitive. Let's talk a little bit about Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist of the White House, Reince Priebus, the former White House chief of staff. Are they being called to testify before the Judiciary Committee? Are they cooperating right now in this whole Russia investigation.
COONS: Well, there appears to be good bipartisan cooperation between the chairman, Senator Grassley, and the ranking member, Senator Feinstein. In terms of whether those two have been called yet by the full committee, I don't know that. It's my expectation they will be. That would be my hunch, given the scope and reach of our investigation into obstruction of justice and the concerns that have been raised, but I can't share with you specifically whether they've been called.
BLITZER: How's your Judiciary Committee investigation coming along?
COONS: I think it's made great progress in the last few weeks. Tens of thousands of pages of documents have been submitted to the committee. Investigators are sifting through them. There are members of the committee who are coming in for meetings and briefings, not all of the committee, and we won't have public hearings until we return to session in the first of September.
BLITZER: The USS John S. McCain, a destroyer, a warship, had another, a horrendous -- this is the fourth horrendous accident with other ship in recent months in the -- in Asia. The chief of naval operations, Admiral John Richardson, he tweeted this earlier today. "To clarify re: possibility of cyber-intrusion or sabotage, no indications right now, but review will consider all possibilities."
CNN has learned that the USS John S. McCain did have a -- did lose its steering power, and they don't know why. That's what they're investigating right now. But do you know anything, if it's possible there could have been a cyber-attack against this U.S. warship and three others that suffered significant damage over the past few months? COONS: Well, Wolf, I think it's responsible for the chief of naval
operations in the 7th Fleet to look at every possible option for what could have caused these four different ship collisions. I visited the USS John S. McCain with Senator John McCain in June, and I'm praying for the loss of those 10 sailors and for the loss of other sailors on the Fitzgerald.
It's fairly striking that there have been four collisions at sea in this year so far, but I think we have to first isolate the much more likely causes of failures of watch and supervision and sort of traditional use of naval observation. Cyber-attack is a possibility but a fairly remote possibility, and I haven't been briefed on anything that suggests that that was the cause here. I just think the navy is being responsible in looking at every possible source of that loss of steering power.
BLITZER: And admiral Richardson, the chief of naval operations, says there's no indication of that right now, of the cyber-attack, but they will investigate that to be sure, just to make sure. Thanks very much, Senator, for coming in.
COONS: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Senator Coons of Delaware.
Coming up, President Trump getting away from a chaotic White House. He'll play to his base tonight at a huge campaign rally in Phoenix. Will he revive the fiery rhetoric that helped put him in the White House?
And is North Korea raising money for its own missile programs by selling dangerous materials to the agency in charge of Syria's chemical weapons?
Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
BLITZER: President Trump has arrived in Arizona, where he's preparing to hold a huge campaign rally later tonight in Phoenix. Will -- the campaign rally will mark the president's first reelection rally since he waded into several days of controversy and condemnation for his response to the white supremacy fueled violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
[17:32:11] Let's discuss with our political correspondents, reporters, analysts. Let's talk a little bit about this new article, David Chalian, in the "New York Times" that just moved about the very, very poor relationship between the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, and the president, the lead sentence.
The relationship between President Trump and Senator Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, has disintegrated to the point that they have not spoken to each other in weeks, and Mr. McConnell has privately expressed uncertainty that Mr. Trump will be able to salvage his administration after a series of summer crises. Wow. It looks like it's pretty bad, but your reaction?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, this is a relationship that both men have an incentive to try to salvage here, because while the "New York Times" describes this as quite imperiled, that is problematic politically for both the president and for Mitch McConnell. Because as you know, Wolf, from looking at the polls, a lot of Republicans are more eager to blame the Republicans on the Hill for not getting stuff done than they are to blame President Trump, and President Trump is desperate for a legislative victory to tout, and needs all those 52 Republican senators on board, which they will not be if he is in open warfare with their leader.
BLITZER: You know, Mark Preston, it's extraordinary to see this fight going on right now behind the scenes between the Republican president of the United States and the Republican Senate majority leader.
I don't remember when we've seen this. Another sentence jumps out at me in this article, how angry the president is at Mitch McConnell, not only failing to get the Senate to pass repeal and reform, repeal and replace of Obamacare, but listen to this.
"Trump was even more animated about what he intimated was the Senate leader's refusal to protect him from investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to Republicans briefed on the conversation," referring to an August 9 conversation. May have been the last conversation they had.
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: This is problematic for a couple reasons. Let's look at the two parallel tracks. There's a political track; there's a legislative track. As David just said legislatively, they need each other in order to get anything. President Trump needs Mitch McConnell to get anything done. And that Supreme Court justice that he got on there, Justice Gorsuch, wouldn't have gotten on the court, which Donald Trump says is his biggest accomplishment to date, had it not been for Mitch McConnell. That's one.
There's the political side of things, as well. You have an opportunity for the United States Senate to grow an even bigger Republican majority going into 2018, but right now we're seeing Donald Trump really squander those opportunities, and in the next couple hours, we'll see what President Trump says about an incumbent senator, that being Jeff Flake.
[17:35:04] I would say this, though. A lot of people and certainly our viewers don't really know Mitch McConnell in an intimate way like we do, having spent a lot of time covering him. In a fist fight, behind an ally, I would take Mitch McConnell over Donald Trump. He fights to win.
BLITZER: Wow. It's an amazing article if you've read it. Nia, I'm sure you have.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It's an amazing article, and it's on purpose. Right? I mean, this is part of Mitch McConnell's strategy. This didn't happen by accident. It's not like, you know, somebody plied Mitch McConnell with bourbon and this is what you get.
This is about sending a signal to Donald Trump just as Congress is about to come back into session and deal with all of these major problems. And it basically says to Donald Trump, the way you have conducted yourself so far, the way you have talked about other Republicans, gone after them, sought to primary or back primary challenges to people like Jeff Flake, that can't happen anymore.
So you know, I think there's all sorts of sort of kind of thinking about what Republicans would do to challenge Trump, what they would say, how they would try to contain and change his behavior. I think this is part of that answer.
BLITZER: Another sentence, Kaitlan, jumps out at me from this "New York Times" article. "Angry phone calls and private bad mouthing have devolved into open conflict with the president threatening to oppose Republican senators who cross him and Mr. McConnell mobilizing to their defense. So if these Republican senators, let's say, have to choose between the president of the United States or the Senate majority leader, they've got a tough choice.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think it's pretty obvious they're going to go with McConnell, though we saw that when at the press conference at Trump Tower during the president's working vacation. Trump was asked if he wants Mitch McConnell to step down, because he kept badgering him on twitter over and over again for not repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act, or for not doing enough to do so.
And right after that happened, a lot of Republican senators came out in favor of Mitch McConnell, saying he was a great person; he was a great leader; and he was doing the right thing. So I think we're seeing whose side they're going to choose.
BLITZER: You know, David Chalian -- go ahead.
CHALIAN: Wolf, just let's not forget the personal here also. Speaking of that Trump Tower press conference, it was his wife, Elaine Chao, who works in the president's cabinet, who was there as part of the picture standing next to him when he went off to start equating neo-Nazis and KKK members with members of the counter-protesters in Charlottesville. And there is Elaine Chao standing there having to endure that and then come back and take questions from reporters. And she's sort of put in the position where she says, "I stand by both my men."
I am sure that that did not sit well with Mitch McConnell, that his wife was put in that position.
COLLINS: Yes, David, that's exactly right. And during that press conference, Trump made those comments, essentially equating the KKK with those counter protestors -- the neo-Nazis, white supremacists with those counter-protesters. And we also reported recently that Mitch McConnell privately was very upset with those comments, as well, and that they did not sit well with him. So it's not just a healthcare thing and a legislative accomplishment thing. He doesn't agree with a lot of the things Trump says; it's becoming clear.
BLITZER: It could potentially play out tonight in Arizona. We're going to be watching this huge reelection rally that the president will be participating in later tonight.
But Republicans under Jeff Flake, Republicans, he's not going to be there. John McCain is undergoing radiation, another Republican senator. He won't be there. But Kelli Ward will be there. Kelli Ward is challenging Jeff Flake for the Republican senatorial nomination, and a super PAC, aligned with Senator McConnell, the Senate majority leader, has released this ad defending Jeff Flake. They really want Jeff Flake to be reelected. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Chemtrail Kelli has got her head in the clouds with crazy ideas. She bizarrely blamed John McCain for ISIS.
KELLI WARD (R), SENATORIAL CANDIDATE: John McCain is directly responsible for the rise of ISIS.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Embarrassing behavior, dangerous ideas. No wonder Republicans rejected her just one year ago. Chemtrail Kelli. Not conservative, just crazy ideas.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: The president has really gone after Jeff Flake, the incumbent senator. She's going to be there tonight. How do you see this playing out?
PRESTON: Well, a couple things. One is, as Nia was saying, nothing is done in this town without it being thought out, except at the White House where sometimes it's not thought out.
We saw this -- this ad, just released a few hours ago on the Internet. As you said, this is a super PAC that's aligned, in many ways it's controlled, by Mitch McConnell.
Again, it was a planned hit against Donald Trump, because Donald Trump said some very nice things about Kelli Ward, to the point where people actually thought that he was actually going to endorse Kelli Ward.
BLITZER: Do you think he will tonight?
PRESTON: I don't think so. Here's the reason why. There are a lot of other Republicans who have a better shot of knocking off Jeff Flake than Kelli Ward. As that ad shows right there, she has some questionable baggage that she would have to overcome, and she got creamed by John McCain last year.
BLITZER: In the article, "The New York Times," the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, has also said to privately have suggested that the president is entirely unwilling to learn the basics of government. [17:40:10] HENDERSON: Yes, yes. And I mean, that is tough stuff for,
you know, a sitting president, a sitting Republican president, for a Republican to be criticizing him in that way.
There's also an anecdote in there about Shelley Moore Capito, where it says that Donald Trump said, "You can ride on Air Force One if you vote my way in terms of health care," and she declined.
So there are all of these ways, I think, that article really shows the difficulties that Donald Trump is having with learning -- governing, learning how to relate to folks in the Senate who are in his own party. So we'll see what happens. It just gets curiouser and curiouser.
It also gets at the sort of -- the wings of the Republican Party, right? I mean, you have Breitbart going after Mitch McConnell. What is Donald Trump going to do at this point in terms of his relationship with Mitch McConnell?
BLITZER: David, go ahead.
CHALIAN: Yes, well, Shelley Moore Capito, as Nia is saying, actually ended up voting for him.
HENDERSON: That's right.
CHALIAN: She just didn't take a ride on Air Force One.
But Lisa Murkowski, the senator from Alaska, was mentioned in the story, too, how she felt when Donald Trump unleashed Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, on her to try to pressure her with some funding for Alaska to get her health care vote. That backfired. She felt boxed in, and she ended up voting against.
Remember, he needed only one more vote. That would have been a game changer. So Donald Trump is clearly still learning how to deal with Mitch McConnell's conference.
And I'll just note this, Wolf, after being in Racine, Wisconsin, last night for the town hall with Paul Ryan, just how different the worlds we're talking about with the House leadership and the Senate leadership.
Paul Ryan who, yes, criticized the president for his Charlottesville comment but basically said, "Well, he sounded better last night," and so let's forgive and move on, because he's in a better place now, he's ready to move on and keep this relationship intact.
Mitch McConnell, taking to the pages of the "New York Times," clearly taking a different approach where there is no sort of House Freedom Caucus of conservatives that Paul Ryan has to deal with. Mitch McConnell is a different animal in Washington, and Donald Trump is going to find it difficult if they are in this open warfare.
BLITZER: You see the president now. He is on the ground in Yuma, Arizona. He's going to be heading over to a Border Patrol facility before he heads to Phoenix for a big campaign rally later tonight. You see the president there. You see John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. He's there with the president, as well, the former secretary of homeland security.
You know, when you cover -- you cover this president right now, this feud that he's having, and it's underscored with this article in the "New York Times," we all knew there were problems between him and the Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.
But in the story, it gets back to the president was even more animated, more irritated about what he said was the Senate leader's -- this is in private -- refusal to protect him investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. That according to Republicans briefed on that, I think, last phone conversation in early August between the president and the Senate majority leader.
It sort of reminds me the president was deeply irritated at the then- FBI director James Comey for not necessarily coming to his defense on the Russia investigation early on. We know what happened to Comey. This is a serious moment right now.
COLLINS: That's exactly right. I mean, we've seen this as something that clearly irks the president, this whole Russian investigation. He says it's a hoax and this cloud that really is hanging over the White House. So it doesn't surprise me if that is one of the factors that goes into this. Because health care was not something that Donald Trump was that fervent about was happening.
He was the one who didn't do a lot of -- he never went on the road to support it or to, like, do anything to campaign on behalf of it. He kind of just expected Capitol Hill to do their thing, and he could sit back. So it wouldn't be surprising to me if there was some underlying motive for his anger towards Mitch McConnell like we saw with James Comey.
But hopefully he learned from when James Comey, he fired him and there was so much backfire over that, that he's just going to wait and let's see what Mitch McConnell does.
BLITZER: Yes, we're not lawyers, Mark, but this notion of trying to pressure the Senate majority leader into cutting back this Russia investigation, the Senate Judiciary Committee is investigating, the Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating. Is that appropriate?
PRESTON: It's an incredible situation we're in that we're even having to have this conversation right now, where you have a warring party with the president fighting with his own leaders, and you had these investigations ongoing. And Donald Trump keeps on looking into that; he should just go away.
Look, the bottom line is, as we're moving forward, as we talk about their relationship together, they need each other. But in the long run, if you were to say who needs who more, Donald Trump needs Mitch McConnell more, because legislation, bills and all that, come out of the Congress.
[17:45:00] All Donald Trump does is sign them into law, so.
Clearly, David Chalian, Russia's very much -- the Russia investigation very much atop the President's mind.
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Even though it is not dominating the headlines in the last couple of weeks the way that it had, certainly, in the aftermath of Comey's firing or in the aftermath of learning of the details of Donald Trump, Jr.'s meeting in Trump Tower, Wolf, it is clearly still all-consuming in the mind of the President.
And the fact that he would express on a phone call in August where it is not the dominant thing being talked about -- and we know how much this President watches cable news and the like -- that he would bring this up as something that is still irking him, that he can't move forward with this relationship because he thinks that McConnell didn't protect him enough, just shows you the mentality that Donald Trump has around this Russia investigation.
BLITZER: All right, everybody. Stand by. There is a lot more coming up. You see the President. He is in Yuma, Arizona right now. We're watching him.
We're also watching another major development. Kim Jong-un may have a new source of funding for his nuclear program -- chemical weapons sales through the Syrian strongman, Bashar al-Assad. And we're going to bring you the latest details, a very disturbing new report.
[17:50:50] BLITZER: New tonight, a confidential report may point to a disturbing source of funding for North Korea's nuclear arsenal. Brian Todd is joining us with details.
Brian, what are you learning?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, we've got new information on a treacherous alliance between Kim Jong-un's regime and the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
Now, Kim's got a reputation for selling weapons and weapons components to the highest bidder, and it seems tonight that Assad is a buyer of some of North Korea's most dangerous armaments.
TODD (voice-over): New indications tonight that Kim Jong-un's regime will stop at nothing to get cash for his weapons program and will do business with anyone. Even Syria's murderous dictator, Bashar al- Assad.
A diplomatic source tells CNN, U.N. Security Council experts are about to review a confidential report, which says two North Korean shipments to Syria were intercepted in recent months.
According to the U.N. report, which was seen by the Reuters news agency, the shipments were headed for the Syrian agency which handles Assad's chemical weapons program.
DR. JONATHAN SCHANZER, FORMER TERRORISM FINANCE ANALYST, U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY: This is a nightmare scenario. What we're looking at right now is the North Korean regime, one of the most dangerous regimes in the world, pedaling its most dangerous weapons to some of the other more dangerous regimes on the planet, including that of Bashar al-Assad, who has been using chemical weapons against his own people for the last several years.
TODD (voice-over): According to Reuters, the U.N. report does not say when or where the interceptions of the North Korean shipments occurred or what was in the crates headed for Syria's weapons arms.
What could have been in those shipments?
SCHANZER: It could have been missile parts. It could have been chemical agents themselves. Regardless, it's something that is likely going to aid Bashar al-Assad in his continued slaughter of the Syrian people.
TODD (voice-over): Experts say Kim has a massive stockpile of chemical weapons, and he apparently has little conscience about using them. Malaysian officials say the regime used an outlawed V.X. nerve agent to kill Kim's half-brother at the Kuala Lumpur airport this year. The North Koreans deny it.
This, also, wouldn't be the first time North Korea and Syria have formed a dangerous partnership. In 2007, the Israeli military bombed a nuclear reactor in Syria. U.S. intelligence officials later revealed that North Korea helped Syria build that reactor.
SUSAN RICE, FORMER UNITED STATES NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: That was not a transfer of weapons. That was a transfer of technology, which was also very concerning.
TODD (voice-over): Analysts say Kim's regime, feeling the pinch from new sanctions after its recent ballistic missile test, may resort to black market operations it's already engaged in to pay for its weapons program. The U.S. State Department has linked North Korea to a variety of criminal activity.
DEAN CHENG, SENIOR RESEARCH FELLOW, THE HERITAGE FOUNDATION: North Korean diplomats around the world have engaged in a variety of, frankly, illegal behavior under the protection of diplomatic cover. Everything from drug trade, including methamphetamines, to passing very high quality counterfeit $100 bills.
TODD: The North Korean and Syrian missions at the U.N. did not respond to our inquiries about the reports of the shipments to Syria's chemical weapons department.
Tonight, the U.S. government is taking new measures to put the squeeze on Kim Jong-un's finances with brand-new sanctions and money laundering penalties from the Treasury and Justice Departments against individuals and firms in Asia which do business with Kim. Wolf?
BLITZER: Having said that, at the same time, Brian, the Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, today, he seems to think that North Korea is backing down from confrontation with the United States.
TODD: That's right, Wolf. Tillerson made a point today of saying there have been no North Korean missile launches or other provocations since U.N. sanctions were imposed against the regime last month. He said there is some level of, quote, restraint there.
And Tillerson said he hopes that's a sign that sometime in the future there could be some dialogue, but there remain tensions on the peninsula, Wolf, with those joint U.S.-South Korean exercises. They always rile up the North Koreans.
BLITZER: Yes. These coming days will be very tense indeed. Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you very much.
Coming up, the breaking news. President Trump's incendiary rhetoric helped him win the White House, but it's also caused problems for him ever since. He's already running for re-election. What will he say at tonight's huge campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona?
[17:55:02] And Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly questioning whether President Trump can salvage his administration. I'll ask Republican Congressman Mark Sanford about that.
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Campaign crowds. The President is bonding with his base in Arizona as he tries to put a week of intense controversy behind him. Just hours after his scripted speech about war and unity, will he go back off the rails tonight?
[18:00:09] The heat is on. Supporters and opponents of Mr. Trump, well, they're on the streets of Phoenix right now. They're --