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Trump Launches New Attacks on McConnell; Sources: Trump Campaign Aide e-mailed about Effort to Meet Vladimir Putin; White House Sets Rules for Military Transgender Ban; Rabbis Cancel Trump Call over Charlottesville Response. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired August 24, 2017 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Good morning, everyone, John Berman here.

If Wednesday's are for warm hugs, Thursdays are for thrashings. The news this morning, President Trump with fresh attacks on the very people that he needs most -- Republican leaders in Congress. Just moments ago, the president declared, quote, "The only problem I have with Mitch McConnell is after, after hearing repeal and replace for seven years, he failed! That should never have happened."

Now, two points -- important points here. His phrasing, the only problem with Mitch McConnell seems to deny reporting yesterday by CNN that one real problem the president has with Mitch McConnell was the apparent failure to protect him from congressional investigations into Russia. The other thing I will point out is like 30 minutes ago, before this latest statement, the president had problems with how Mitch McConnell is handling the debt ceiling. So, beware of the claim that the only problem he has is Obamacare.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins at the White House to discuss these many problems that the president seems to have with Republican leadership. Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, John. The other night when he was at his rally in Phoenix, the president said he does not do tweet storms. But I think that's the only way to describe what we are seeing this morning.

He went after Mitch McConnell specifically in that tweet just there. But he also went after Republican leadership on Capitol Hill as a whole. He tweeted earlier this morning, before this one, saying this about Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. Saying, I requested that Mitch M and Paul R tie the debt ceiling legislation into the popular Veterans Affairs bill, which just passed for easy approval. They didn't do it so now we have a big deal with Democrats holding them up, as usual on debt ceiling approval. Could have been so easy and now it's now a mess.

Well, it's very obvious, John, doing the debt ceiling is not an easy issue for the president. But we are really seeing how his frustration with Mitch McConnell and the Republicans on Capitol Hill as a whole is really escalating. We know that he and the Senate majority leader have not spoken since August 9th in was an angry, profane phone call. So, the White House and Mitch McConnell seemed both issued statements, saying that the president and Mitch McConnell are still unified and they're working on multiple issues together. But it's very clear that the president is still angry with Mitch McConnell.

That's not the only thing he's angry with. He's also lashing out about the coverage of his three speeches this week. We had his one where he outlined his Afghanistan policy on Monday night here on Arlington, Virginia right outside of Washington. Then he had his rally in Phoenix on Tuesday night. And then we saw him again yesterday in Reno, where he addressed the American legion.

And they were very different speeches. If you watch them all in a row, they are going to give you whiplash, because the president went from calling for patriotism and unity and love to bragging about how big his apartment is and going after the media. Let's look at those tweets. The president said, the fake news is now complaining about my different types of back to back speeches. Well, there was Afghanistan, somber, the big rally, enthusiastic, dynamic and fun and the American Legion, V.A., respectful and strong. Too bad the Democrats have no one who can change tones!

So, it's not just a change in tone, John, it was also a change in message. We saw him talking about these very different things and calling for the country to come together and then -- going after his critics in a very fierce manner and members of his own party.

Then we have one more tweet from the president this morning. And it was a photo of him eclipsing Barack Obama. He -- retweeted this photo. And as you can see on the screen, it shows him slightly moving into the position where Barack Obama is. So, it's safe to say that tweet storms are definitely Donald Trump's thing. John?

BERMAN: Yes, despite the fact that he denied ever doing it the other day. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you so much. And it could be a tweet storm with consequences when you're dealing with the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Joining me now, CNN political commentators, John Phillips and Bakari Sellers and from "The Daily Beast" politics reporter, Betsy Woodruff.

You know, Betsy, for the last, you know, 14 hours, the White House and Mitch McConnell's office have been putting out these statements. They've been really pushing it everything is OK, man are we getting along. But the president, this morning, doesn't seem to want to let bygones be bygones. He sends out these two missives, millions of people can read them, one criticizing Mitch McConnell for how he's handled the debt ceiling and now for Obamacare. What are we to make of it?

BETSY WOODRUFF, POLITICS REPORTER, "THE DAILY BEAST": What we should make of this is that September is going to be a potential nightmare for Republicans on Capitol Hill. The president's relationship with congressional leadership has never been as fraught and as messy as it is right now. And look, in September, Congress has to pass a debt ceiling, and I have to pass a

government funding bill and as the president has made abundantly clear on Twitter this morning, he isn't necessarily going to be a team player on this.

He's very comfortable criticizing members of his own party.

[10:05:02] In fact, over the last few days, we have seen him spend just as much, if not more time singling out Republicans for criticism as Democrats. That's going to make it tough for him to get not only his agenda through, not only to get support to build the wall, which he sees as a ride or die issue. But also just to do the simple work of governing. And this means that congressional Republicans are going to have some major headaches in the coming weeks.

BERMAN: So, John Phillips, what does he get out of this? What does he think he's getting out of this other than feeling good?

JOHN PHILLIPS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think he's needling the Senate majority leader into doing what he wants to do. I don't think the arguments that he has made this week are necessarily mutually exclusive.

John, you are a baseball fan along with me. You are a Red Sox fan and unfortunately, you're having a better season than we are - the Angels make the playoff. Watch out because Donnie Moore isn't around to screw it up this year.

But you know what happens when teams lose, fans that go to all the games and watch everything on television, and listen to it on the radio. They call it the post-game show and they rip the manager apart, they ripped the general manager apart, they ripped the players apart.

And what do they do the next day? They are right back at the stadium to watch their favorite team play because they're all cheering for the same team. Yes, Trump is needling them. Yes, Trump is frustrated over any number of subjects, particularly health care.

On that, he's right. Mitch McConnell should have had the - should have move a machine politician like Lisa Murkowski into voting for the health care bill. But he's airing the grievances, but they are still playing on the same team. And at the end of the day, I believe that they are going to be working forward and producing a tax plan, a health care plan, building the wall, all of the things that they have in common.

BERMAN: The problem though with that metaphor is that attendance can go down at these games. Support can be lost and the teams can still lose. So --

PHILLIPS: How many sell outs do you guys have in a row?

BERMAN: But it's one of the issues that can go on here.

Bakari Sellers, the Democrats looking on here, it seems to me, that the Democrats could be the big winners here because I don't know what incentive they have now to cooperate at all. They can just sit back and say look, if the Republicans want to tear themselves apart here, why should we get involved?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, Democrats aren't participating in building a wall. I mean, we know that for a fact. And the main reason is because the president lied to the American people. I think he said that Mexico was going to build it, close to a hundred thousand different times. And we know that not to be the case.

Democrats would participate if we were having this back and forth about ideas. What happened to the big infrastructure spending bill that was going to come out and put Americans to work? What happens to a bill not to replace Obamacare, but to work together to fix it? In comprehensive tax reform or something, the Democrats want to work with, not only Mitch McConnell, but Paul Ryan and the White House on. That is not what he's doing.

He's sending out these third grade tweets of himself eclipsing Barack Obama. He is chastising Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. And so, Democrats, ourselves, we have to continue to push what the message. It's very difficult when you don't control any branch of government, but you continuously have to sound the horn for the average American worker.

And I think that's what you see Nancy Pelosi doing. That's what you're starting to see Chuck Schumer doing. We just have to do it more. We have to do it better. We have to do it louder.

BERMAN: Betsy, there is the fundament issue when the president says, he's sending out a message of unity, which he did, I guess on Monday and Wednesday. What we saw on Tuesday and what we are seeing on Thursday is just not a message of unity. Factually speaking, it's just not. It's not unifying when you attack anyone, let alone members of your own party. It's not unifying when you put up the tweet, you know, of himself - as I said before the dark and an mat object obscuring the source of light. If you're taking the eclipse metaphor literally right there. You know, why does he - I suppose what is the overall message it sends with these alternating sematic days?

WOODRUFF: Look, the president has long felt that he is under siege in the White House, that the media and Democrats and establishment Republicans have been colluding to try to take him down. We know that he feels very much like he is under attack, like the only people on his side are his base. So when we see him tweeting memes like that, like that sort of goofy, image of eclipse saying Barack Obama.

That's indicative of how much he feels comfortable almost giving a bit of the middle finger to mainstream media figures and to moderate Republicans. He feels very comfortable flouting political norms. Because my understanding from numerous conversations is that he doesn't see anything to be gained from trying to conform - what we typically expect from our politicians. The result, of course, is that Trump on the teleprompter is dramatically different from him off the teleprompter. He says he's unifying. And then, can turn around the next morning and tweet that Mitch McConnell is doing a terrible job.

[10:10:00] The reality is there aren't a lot of people he trusts. There aren't a lot of people whose advice he takes. And that number seems to be shrinking every day. And as a result, we have this almost spastic roller coaster esque back and forth between teleprompter Donald and non-teleprompter Donald. And that is not something that's going to make life easier, whatsoever for congressional Republicans or for him as he tries to actually unify his own party, the highest from his most basic agenda items.

BERMAN: All right, guys. I really appreciate you being with me this morning to share in this morning. Appreciate it.

All right, a new twist in the Russia investigation, congressional investigators now say they found an e-mail from a top Trump aide that shows, at the very least, some kind of an effort to connect the Trump campaign with Russian President Vladimir Putin last summer.

CNN's Jessica Schneider live in Washington with her exclusive reporting on this. Jessica, what are you learning?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, this e-mail, detailed plans to potentially arrange a meeting with the Russian president. And the e-mail was uncovered by congressional investigators as part of a batch of 20,000 documents turned over by the Trump campaign.

Now, the e-mail is from then campaign aide Rick Dearborn. And in it, he explains that an individual was seeking to connect top Trump campaign officials with Russian President Putin. Now, the individual was trying to set this up - that person is being identified only as being from WV. Now, one source says that's a reference to West Virginia.

In this e-mail, Dearborn actually appeared skeptical of the request to set up a meeting with Putin. And it is unclear if Dearborn ever acted on the request. There's no evidence, any action was taken.

But what is notable is this e-mail was sent in June 2016, around the same time of that Trump Tower meeting involving Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and the Russians who had promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Now, it's unclear if this e- mail in question had any connection to that meeting. But Intelligence experts say that this fits a pattern of Russians trying to gather human intelligence from the campaign and it's yet another attempt by them to try to gain an entry point into the campaign.

Now, Rick Dearborn who wrote that e-mail is now the president's deputy chief of staff. He didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. When it comes to the White House, they say that they wouldn't comment on any potentially leaked documents.

But you know, John, this is yet another point of question for congressional investigators in the Russia probe. The question here being, did the campaign do anything with this request for Trump or Trump campaign aides actually meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Of course, that will be a big point of question for those investigators as they move forward. John?

BERMAN: All right, Jessica Schneider for us in Washington. Jessica thanks very much.

We have new rules being made on the military transgender ban. Details on how these new rules could give General Mattis power to remove those already serving.

Plus, the Republicans under pressure to deliver in September, can they do so as long as they are under attack from the president of the United States?

And a Coalition of Rabbis just nixing an annual tradition with the president, we will speak to one of them.


[10:17:10] BERMAN: New details this morning on the transgender military ban that President Trump has called for. "The Wall Street Journal" reports the Pentagon will soon receive guidance on how to implement this policy from the White House. Not known yet if this memo is finalized. But officials did give "The Wall Street Journal" several key points.

Among them, the military will stop admitting transgender people, stop admitting them. The military must consider current transgender troop's ability to deploy when determining whether to expel them. And the memo reportedly instructs the Pentagon to stop paying for transgender troop's medical treatments.

Here to discuss, retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Rick Francona, CNN military analyst and CNN contributor and University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck.

Steve, first on the law here, this raises a couple legal questions, potentially. Is it legal to prevent people from joining and perhaps more thorny for the administration right now. Is this legal treating transgender troops who were told they could come out publicly to treat them this way now?

STEVE VLADECK, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Yes, John. That's exactly right. There's already a law suit pending in the federal district court in Washington by five transgender service members who are arguing that the president lacks the ability to expel them simply because they are transgender. You know, given where the Supreme Court is with this discrimination, hard to think the president's got a leg to stand on here. You know, looks like the president really was reacting in a knee-jerk manner to concerns about gender reassignment surgery, and not the concerns about unit cohesion, military discipline, the kinds of factors that in the past, courts have looked to when allowing similar kinds of exclusions from the military.

BERMAN: As for the people currently serving, the transgender people currently serving, again, Colonel, folks who were told over the last year that they could serve openly. How has that affected moral in the troops? Because there hasn't been a lot of discussion about it, as far as I can tell.

LT. COL. RICK FRANCONA (RET), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: No, there's not. And I was surprised. There had been a fairly high level of acceptance among the troops with the transgender because the people that are transgender have proved themselves to be good service men. We see them contributing in a variety of job positions, you know, across the services. So, just like we had with the gay ban, everybody was wondering how that was going to happen. This seems to have taken its course. We have a policy in place. It seems to be working. So now we are just going to reverse course.

I think the concern is, as you say, what about the people that are honorably serving right now? Are we just going to expel them just because they are transgender? I think a lot of people are uncomfortable with that decision. So I think Secretary Mattis is going to have a lot of leeway on how he handles those currently serving and I hope he does.

But I think the issue of the transgender transition period.

[10:20:02] That's always been a thorny issue and that's the problem I think we have to look at, as what he do in that transition period. I think Mr. Trump is trying to just eliminate that by not allowing any new transgender personnel to enlist.

BERMAN: One of the things that General Mattis will apparently have authority over if "The Wall Street Journal" has this right. Is the concept of deploy ability. The military itself will get to determine the impact of deploying certain folks. The military has that authority, already. They can either deploy people or not deploy people as they see is fit right now, Steve. And again, legally speaking, would the courts want to get involved with that type of decision?

VLADECK: No. I mean, I think that's why it's going to be really important to see exactly how Secretary Mattis implements this mandate by tweets that he received from the president. I think if it just comes down to which kinds of roles transgender service members are allowed to assume within the military. I think that's going to be a subject the courts are really going to want to stay out of.

I think it's going to be much more serious as a legal of the constitutional matter if when all said and done, the policies Secretary Mattis issues, does in fact lead to the exclusion of individuals from the military. Simply because they are transgender and, John, to the exclusion of people from even applying to join the military based on their transgender status. (INAUDIBLE) and animus driven policy, even if you accept the concerns about the costs of the medical treatments are legitimate.

BERMAN: You know, Colonel, General Mattis, the Defense secretary, we don't know exactly how he feels about this right now. He's been rather silent on this since the president made the announcement on Twitter that he did want to ban transgender service people from the military right now. It is General Mattis who's going to have to see this through.

FRANCONA: Yes, exactly. And I think from what I'm hearing, they are looking at kind of continuing the existing policy, except not allowing transgender to join in the future. I think what we are looking at is what we would like to get to, is a position where, if you want to join the military and you are transgender, have everything already done before you exceed into the military. Whether that you know, be through the ROTC program, the academies or just enlisting. Howeverm I think Mr. Trump is taking that option away. The existing policy is what we're living with (INAUDIBLE) before is that transition (INAUDIBLE) that have not made the transition to their declared gender.

BERMAN: And just to be clear there, depending if, you know, estimates of the 6,000 people in the military right now are transgender. Not everyone who is transgender wants any kind of medical procedure. So it only applies to a group or a subgroup of that.

All right, Colonel Francona, Steve Vladeck, thanks so much for being with us.

President Trump this morning, picking fights with members of his own party. On the outs with executives and now a new group taking public issue with the president.

Rabbis, why they are ending -- something that has become an annual tradition, a high holidays phone call with the president.


[10:27:33] BERMAN: Rabbis retaliate, new backlash this morning, the President Trump's Charlottesville response as a Coalition of Rabbis now says it will not hold an annual conference call with the president. These groups, they released a statement citing a lack of leadership after the Charlottesville protest. The annual conference call with the president usually held right around the Jewish High Holidays a couple of weeks from now.

Joining me now, one of the Rabbis who requested the call be canceled, Rabbi Elyse Wechterman. Rabbi, thank you so much for being with us. Explain your decision.


We see this as an issue of moral leadership. The - involved an anti- Semitism that we witnessed in Charlottesville is not unique. It was terrifying and frightening. But we have to remember that since President Trump's election, there has been a rash of this kind of activity, a community in Montana was viciously trolled and terrorized online by the same people who organized the march in Charlottesville. Cemeteries, Jewish cemeteries here in Philadelphia and elsewhere have been vandalized. And President Trump has not done anything to relay our concerns or speak against these dangerous and evil ideologies. We need to spend time pastoring our communities and caring for some real fear that exists.

BERMAN: Don't you think you are missing an opportunity though to get on the phone and tell him just this? WECHTERMAN: I think that we have tried that in the past and we will continue to work with the administration and send our messages in as many ways as we can. But this phone call was an opportunity to share greetings and in the past has really been an opportunity for the president to share some messages of hope and greeting with us. This feels like an inappropriate time to do that.

BERMAN: He claimed as recently as Tuesday night that he called out many of the groups which are so offensive to almost every American, the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists, the KKK. You know, he listed them one by one and says, you know, hit them, he hit them, he went after them. Is that what you heard in his response to Charlottesville?

WECHTERMAN: That is not what I heard. In his speech -- I think you are referring to his speech in Phoenix. What I heard was him both misguiding and doubling down on his expressions of concerns for things like both sides and all sides. And yes, he listed those names but he also neglected to mention that since his campaign -