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White House Defends Trump Attacks on NFL Players. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired September 25, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


TAPPER: I'll see you again in a few hours at that debate. I now turn you over to one Mr. Wolf Blitzer. He's in THE SITUATION ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:10] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Knee deep. The White House defends President Trump's attacks on NFL players who have silently protested racial injustice during the national anthem. The White House says the president is not against anyone but is for the anthem. Players, coaches and owners answered the president by kneeling or locking arms at the start of weekend games.

Declaration of war? The White House denies that President Trump has declared war on North Korea, calling absurd a claim by the North Koreans that the president declared war when he tweeted that it won't be around much longer. North Korea says that gives it the right to shoot down U.S. bombers.

Scorecard. As protesters rally against the latest GOP healthcare bill and Senate Republican leaders scramble for votes, we're awaiting a cost estimate scorecard by the Congressional Budget Office. Will be that the final blow to a bill that's in big trouble?

BLITZER: And mail trouble. Jared Kushner, the president's senior advisor and so-in-law, used a private email account to conduct White House business. His attorney says fewer than 100 emails were involved. Is Kushner now in more trouble?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: The breaking news, the White House strongly defending President Trump's tirade against NFL players who protest racial injustice during the national anthem, saying he's not against anyone but is for the anthem and the flag.

Players, coaches, and even owners answered the president by kneeling or linking arms or staying in the locker room during the weekend opening ceremonies. Some of those owners were big donors to the president's inauguration festivities.

Top NFL figures, including Trump allies, call the president's comments divisive. Meantime, the president ups the ante with Twitter attacks on the league and its players. Also breaking, North Korea accuses President Trump of declaring war by

tweeting that it won't be around much longer. The North says that gives it a right to shoot down U.S. bombers. The White House says it's absurd to suggest the president declared war. The U.S. military says it's ready for anything.

And amid sharp protesters by anxious health care patients, the GOP's latest bill to overhaul Obamacare is on the verge of collapse. Republican Senate leaders are up against the deadline. But there are already two defectors, and others are leaning against the legislation.

We're waiting for the Congressional Budget Office to release its cost estimate. I'll speak with Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and former NFL player Dante Stallworth. And our correspondents, specialists and guests, they're all standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with the president picking a serious fight with pro athletes. Let's go live to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, is the president out of bounds or worse?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: There are certainly some penalty flags being thrown across the field, Wolf. We can tell you right now the White House is not backing away from the president's comments, those controversial comments from over the weekend that seemed to be directed at African-American athletes. Both the president and top White House aides today insisted that the president's comments were not racist, but the president's record on race makes that very difficult for a lot of Americans to believe.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: USA! USA! USA!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: USA! USA! USA!

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: USA! USA! USA!

ACOSTA (voice-over): Critics threw the penalty flag immediately for unstatesmanlike conduct.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired"?

ACOSTA: But President Trump claims the firestorm he ignited when he slammed NFL players for kneeling during the national anthem was not motivated by race.

TRUMP: This has nothing to do with race. I never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.

ACOSTA: Yet this morning, the president found time to praise NASCAR fans, tweeting, "So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won't put up with disrespecting our country or our flag. They said it loud and clear."

Nothing to see here, insists the White House.

(on camera): Is he trying to wage something of a culture war?

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Not at all. The president is not talking about race. The president's talking about pride in our country. What you saw yesterday were players and fans of all races, joining together as Americans to honor our service members. That's what the president is talking about. That's what his focus is on.

ACOSTA: One GOP adviser to the White House told CNN the president was, in fact, waging a cultural war, trolling today's pro athletes as if they were Hillary Clinton.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is what it is.

ACOSTA: Among Mr. Trump's targets, NBA star Steph Curry: "Going to a White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Steph Curry is hesitating. Therefore, invitation is withdrawn."

[17:05:11] The president's comments provoked a reaction on the field and off. NBA star LeBron James tweeted, "You bum" to the president.

LEBRON JAMES, NBA STAR: He doesn't understand how many kids, no matter the race, look up to the president of the United States for guidance, for leadership, for words of encouragement.

ACOSTA: This isn't the first time the president has gone after athletes for kneeling in protest. He did it during the campaign, singling out quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

TRUMP: No. 1 is this politics, they're finding is a much rougher game than football, and more exciting. And honestly, we've taken a lot of people away from the NFL. And the other reason is Kaepernick. Kaepernick.

ACOSTA: It's also not the first time the president has been accused of dividing America over the subject of race. From Charlottesville...

(on camera): The protests...

TRUMP: ... and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides. You had people -- excuse me.

ACOSTA: No, sir. The Nazis -- excuse me. There are no fine people in the Nazis.

(voice-over): ... to questioning whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S.

TRUMP: They make these birthers into the worst it is. Why doesn't he show his birth certificate?

ACOSTA: With parts of the U.S. reeling from natural disasters and the U.S. staring down North Korea, the White House insists the president has his priorities in order.

SANDERS: It really doesn't take that long to type out 140 characters. And this president is very capable of doing more than one thing at a time and more than one thing in a day.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: As one Republican White House adviser put it to me, Wolf, the president is not waging a cultural war. He is winning a cultural war. So you can take it from the president's own team here today at the White House, Wolf, there are no regrets over the president's comments from this weekend -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. All right. Jim Acosta at the White House. Thank you.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans are feeling the heat on health care. Anxious protesters disrupted a hearing today while GOP lawmakers are running out of time if they hope to honor their vow to repeal Obamacare. Two Senate Republicans are already on record opposing the latest bill. Others are leaning against it.

Our congressional correspondent, Sunlen Serfaty, is back with us. Sunlen, what are the odds of this bill succeeding right now?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the odds are not looking good at this moment, Wolf. As it stands right now, this bill is just one vote shy of failing.

And really, speaking to the intensity of the moment up here on Capitol Hill today, some real dramatic moments unfolding both inside and outside the Senate Finance Committee hearing.

This is the first and only hearing that this bill will undergo this week. And as you see from these pictures, you see hundreds of protesters descending upon that hearing. Some had to be dragged away in their wheelchair, screaming in opposition to that bill.

Now, during that hearing, we heard from the Republican cosponsors of this bill, defending their latest and revised draft of this bill. Of course, some very specific changes made in this 11th hour intended to woo very specific senators. Senators like Senator Murkowski, Senator Collins, those that are leaning "no" but potentially could get to "yes". We know that this new revised bill has some very specific sweeteners for their states of Alaska, for their states of Maine.

Right as of now we have not heard from either senator whether it's enough to get them on board. They both indicated in the last days that it's very unlikely that they can get to "yes" on this bill but that's not an outright "no." At this hour in Capitol Hill, the Republican leadership, they are huddling, trying to anticipate the next steps, plan out the next step for what will happen with this bill. The big question of course, Wolf, is will Senate Majority Leader Mitch

McConnell bring this to a vote on the floor. Not do it unless they have the votes. Right now, there is no vote scheduled, which certainly speaks much volume where this bill is headed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sunlen. Thanks very much. Sunlen Serfaty, up on Capitol Hill.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York. Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.

REP. HAKEEM JEFFRIES (D), NEW YORK: Wolf, thanks for having me.

BLITZER: I want to get your reaction to all the health care news in just a minute. But let's talk about the controversy that's a huge controversy generated by the president over the weekend. He insists that his criticism of NFL players, NBA players, for example the NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem has nothing to do with race. What do you think?

JEFFRIES: Well, time and time again Donald Trump has proven to the nation that he's not a uniter. He's clearly a divider. And in the context of his remarks, he went down to the heart of Dixie in Alabama before an all-white or mostly white crowd, the good old boys, so to speak, and engaged in what many of us, I think, can fairly call race baiting.

You've got to imagine that this whole protest situation unfolded in the context of some very specific things that were happening to the African-American community.

[17:10:09] Now, we've come a long way here in America. We still have a long way to go on the question of race. Someone has sugarcoated the experience, but the facts are the facts. As a community we've been forced to endure -- slavery, rape, kidnap, Jim Crow segregation, mass incarceration, a lynching epidemic, and now of course, police brutality that continues to this very day.

And, Wolf, it was that that prompted Colin Kaepernick and others to kneel down so that others might have the courage to stand up. That is a uniquely American thing to do. And shame on Donald Trump for criticizing these athletes.

BLITZER: How would you compare the president's reaction to the NFL protests with his reaction to the white supremacist violence that we all saw unfold in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month?

JEFFRIES: Well, his reaction to Charlottesville, which was clearly inadequate, unacceptable, inappropriate, and for many people throughout America, led them to conclude that the president of the United States chose to pull the sheets off and reveal himself in terms of his tendency to be a racial arsonist, fan the flames of hatred, and of course, in that context, suggested that there was violence on all sides when we understand it was neo Nazis, it was the KKK who were responsible for the loss of life of one courageous American, and the damage that was done to so many others. And so it's in this atmosphere that we find it troubling, with all

that's happening in the world and in the country, that Donald Trump would choose to go after a few black athletes in the NBA and the NFL.

BLITZER: I just want to point out, the NFL is it a little bit more than 70 percent African-American players. The NBA, about 80 percent African-American players.

But when you said just a second ago, Congressman, "pull the sheets off." I suspect I know what you're referring to. But I want to give you a chance to elaborate.

JEFFRIES: Well, let me simply just say that time and time again, he's refused to distance himself from individuals like David Duke, an avowed white supremacist, as well as others, for reasons that many of us can't figure out.

Why in the world would anyone equivocate, particularly the leader of the free world, as it relates to individuals like the KKK and neo- Nazis? That's deeply troubling.

But we know that Donald Trump has a history of fanning the flames of racial hatred, using stereotypes to advance his own personal and political agenda.

For five years he perpetrated the racist lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States of America. And then rolled that lie into the White House, which is why we're all being subjected to what we're dealing with right now.

That's not to say that all of his supporters are racist. That is not the case. But his behavior is deeply troubling to Americans of all race, races and religious backgrounds, who believe in the values of tolerance, decency and diversity.

BLITZER: Are you suggesting he's a racist?

JEFFRIES: No, he's a racial arsonist. He uses race to advance his own ends. That's troubling. I'm not going to stand here and call him a racist or not. But I will speak to the facts which have been part of his journey.

Going all the way back to the time that the Donald Trump and the Trump Organization was sued by the Nixon Justice Department for engaging in housing discrimination against black and Puerto Rican applicants in the 1970s.

And then, of course, the situation with individuals who were wrongfully accused, wrongfully convicted, and wrongfully in prison, black and Latino young man for a crime they didn't commit, and it was Donald Trump who led the lynch mob trying to persecute these individuals.

Americans are smart enough to put the facts together for themselves. He's offering the American people a very raw deal: chaos, crisis and confusion. Here on Capitol Hill, Democrats, we're planning to offer the American people a much better deal focused on better jobs, better wages, and a better future for people of every single race.

BLITZER: In your mind, Congressman, what's the difference between a racist and what you call a racial arsonist?

JEFFRIES: Well, he's somebody that clearly has chosen to use elements of racial hatred and anxiety and stereotypes to advance himself, as he sees it, with some in his base. That should be problematic.

[17:15:03] I can't speak to his heart. I've never met him. I've never talked with him. I've never sat with him. I can only speak to the things that he has done prior to his arrival at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and subsequent to him being sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America. And what I'm suggesting is that that should trouble everyone, particularly the desire to provide aid and comfort to individuals like the neo-Nazis and the KKK members who were responsible for the tragedy in Charlottesville.

BLITZER: I want to get to the issue of Puerto Rico, which is really important right now. Millions of Americans are suffering there. But very quickly, are you suggesting he's just using these racial issues for political purposes. He doesn't really believe what he's suggesting, but he finds it useful? Is that what I'm hearing?

JEFFRIES: It certainly seems to me that he finds it useful. And we've had comments from people coming out of the White House about him not engaging in a cultural war but apparently winning a cultural war. He was able to ride his behavior, which was outlandish in so many different ways beyond the question of race, into the White House. And so I think it's reasonable to conclude that he seems to believe that this is working for him.

But it is indecent. It's inconsistent with who we are as Americans. And those NFL players, all they were doing was standing up for uniquely American principles, like equal protection under the law, liberty and justice for all, and exercising what is a deeply American value embedded in the First Amendment, freedom of speech and expression. Why Donald Trump, the president, would attack those individuals is beyond me.

BLITZER: While the president sounds off on the NFL, as we all know, he hasn't really been tweeting about the crisis unfolding in Puerto Rico right now, where more than 3 million American citizens are still without power. They are in desperate need of assistance. How would you rate the federal response to the devastation in Puerto Rico caused by Hurricane Maria?

JEFFRIES: Well, the only question is whether the Trump White House and the federal government should get a "D" for disaster or an "F" for failure. It's been woefully inadequate.

It's not clear to me and to many others throughout this nation whether the president and the White House realize that the individuals who are suffering down in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are American citizens. They need our help, just like the people in Texas and Florida need our help. And I'm hopeful that, over the next few days, and certainly over the

next few weeks, we here in the United States Congress are going to move forward aggressively in a bipartisan fashion to make sure that those American citizens who have been devastated, in some instances by back-to-back hurricanes, can get the assistance that they need to rebuild their lives to recover.

BLITZER: The White House homeland security adviser went down to Puerto Rico. The head of FEMA has gone to Puerto Rico today. But do you think the president personally should do for Puerto Rico what he did in Florida, what he did in Texas, namely within a few days go down there and show his solidarity and show his support?

JEFFRIES: I think it's important for him to show his solidarity and support in many ways. And if he chooses to visit the people of Puerto Rico in the Virgin Islands, I think that would be an important symbolic step in the right direction.

But it has to be backed up by substance. We need to make sure that there's a strong FEMA presence on the ground. And that we can send the resources necessary to rebuild.

Wolf, as you know, I represent communities in Howard Beach and Coney Island and Canarsie that were devastated by Superstorm Sandy, and it's times like this where we need a comprehensive and compassionate response by the federal government. Hopefully, that's a response that we will subsequently see from the Trump administration. But so far, it's been woefully inadequate.

BLITZER: Will you and your fellow members of the House and Senate get the funding that the Puerto Rican people need?

JEFFRIES: I'm cautiously optimistic that we will. We saw a strongly bipartisan vote in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey and at the beginning of Hurricane Irma, which was about to hit Florida when we were voted -- voted on legislation on the House floor. And I'm hopefully -- hopefully, that bipartisan spirit, Wolf, will just continue as it relates to the folks in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

BLITZER: Congressman Hakeem Jeffries of New York, let's hope for the best for all those Americans on the island of Puerto Rico, more than 3 million, almost three and a half million, as you correctly point out, U.S. citizens, they are suffering right now. Thanks very much for joining us.

JEFFRIES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: More on the breaking news. President Trump attacks NFL players who protested during the national anthem and is met with a show of solidarity by the league. I'll speak with the former NFL player -- there he is -- Dante Stallworth. We'll discuss this and more. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:24:43] BLITZER: Our breaking news, the White House strongly defending President Trump's attacks on National Football League players who protest racial injustice during the national anthem, saying he's not against anyone but supports the anthem and the flag.

But players, coaches, even some of the owners responded to the president by kneeling or locking arms at the start of this weekend's games.

Joining us now, CNN contributor Dante Stallworth. He played ten seasons in the NFL.

Dante, thanks very much for joining us. Welcome to CNN. Let me get your reaction. The president says his criticism has absolutely nothing to do with race. What do you think?

DANTE STALLWORTH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, it's hard to judge what's in his heart and what's actually in his mind. And I think -- I think Congressman Jeffries alluded to it earlier, where you just look at his actions and look at what he said in response to Charlottesville. You look at what he's said in response to NFL players kneeling and the condemnation that comes down, more so on the NFL players than it does on Nazis and white supremacists marching in American streets in 2017, which is -- which is, you know, very disappointing.

But at the end of the day, Wolf, I look at these players. These players have worked diligently to bring forth new and improved ways for us to be able to get along with the police department. And not necessarily just get along in lip service and photo ops, but these guys have been going to police departments, speaking to police chiefs. They've been speaking to their state attorney generals. They've been going on ride-alongs.

Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, they've come to the Hill on a number of occasions. And I was actually blessed to visit with them one time, where we met with representatives on both sides of the aisle: Trey Gowdy, Jason Chaffetz, Corey Booker. We met with a number of members of Congress for three or four straight days.

And we were able to really get a sense and see what it is that we could do from our standpoint as professional athletes, current and former, to be able to help move -- move this needle forward to help.

We are extremely concerned with the health of our nation, and anyone that genuinely is knows that the criminal justice -- criminal justice they need reforming. And players have been on the ground, Wolf, doing this for a long time. And I don't think they want to allow the president and his rhetoric Friday night, and follow-ups and double downs, to deter them from that.

BLITZER: As you know, Dante, not all NFL players are in agreement as far as these protests are concerned. Take us a little bit behind the scenes. What kind of conversations are happening inside locker rooms across the league this week?

STALLWORTH: It's -- I think it's really interesting, because you have a lot of guys who consider each other as brothers. They text each other all the time. They're in the locker room. They joke on each other all the time. So, you know, it's kind of -- it's like a family, what families do.

And there -- I'm sure there have been some heated conversations. But at the end of the day, you know, guys can literally go on the football field and fight each other, then be back in the locker room the next minute, or an hour later and joke about it. So that shows you how close they are.

And I think the good thing that we saw throughout this whole week has been there has been a show of unity. There has been a show of unity against the president's remarks, not just on specific NFL players but the NFL as a whole.

The NFL has done a lot. And the players in the NFL have done a lot in the communities. And I think that most of the players really took that to heart as an attack on not just -- not just the NFL and the players that are deciding to peacefully protest, but also everything that the guys stand for, in your families. It's much deeper than what the president has touched on. And I think that the guys are now starting to understand this and speaking out more.

And I hope this galvanizes and inspires many more players to be open and to really help push forward whatever issue that it is that they want to do to help this country become a better place.

BLITZER: A lot of the NFL owners came out in support of the players this weekend. Are they really invested in the movement, do you believe? Or just worried about their bottom lines and now especially that the president is trying to incite a boycott against the NFL?

STALLWORTH: That's an interesting question, Wolf. When you have seven NFL owners who have donated each over a million dollars to Donald Trump and his campaign or his inauguration, that does throw up some red flags for a lot of those players that are on those teams.

But you saw down in London where the Jacksonville Jaguars owner, Mr. Khan, was down there with his players. The head coaches were interlocked with other players during -- during the pregame. And the Pittsburgh Steelers who didn't even come out.

Now, it is interesting, because a lot of -- a lot of these owners at the end of the day, they are businessmen, right? It's what they do. They are in the business of making money and putting out a good product on the football field. But the interesting part of it all is, when you put -- when you add the players into it, you know, the owners really do care about the players. And for them to care about the players, they also have to understand what it is that the players are trying to bring forth, what awareness or -- what issues are they trying to promote awareness for.

And I think that the more we have this discussion, and not in the -- not in the divisive way, but the more we have an open, genuine and honest discussion, it will be -- it will only help the owners to understand that situation much much, and not just the owners but the rest of this country who sees this, sees these protests as something that is a disrespect towards the military a disrespect towards the country, when it's not intended to be that way at all.

BLITZER: Do you think this protest among NFL players is going to spread significantly to some of the other sports, specifically the NBA? You did hear LeBron James speaking out today very forcefully.

STALLWORTH: Yes, I think LeBron is a leader and not just in sports world or cultural world, but just the world in general. I mean, he's -- he is a superman that is looked up to with his athletic ability. And he has also done a lot in the community: in Miami and his hometown of Akron, Ohio. So a lot of people, not just in the NBA but professional athletes across the league are looking to see what -- what is the reaction from guys like Steph Curry, what is the reaction from guys like LeBron James.

And those guys are extremely active already in the community, and I think this just -- this just inspires them and galvanizes them all to want to do more after the president's remarks Friday and then the subsequent remarks from this weekend and then today, as well.

BLITZER: I want to get your reaction, Dante, to the president's claim that the NFL right now, in his words, is ruining football by trying to limit concussions, and the players aren't really allowed to hit each other as forcefully as they used to. Listen to what the president said Friday night.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You know today, if you hit too hard, right, they hit too hard, "Fifteen yards, throw him out of the game." They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. And two guys, just really beautiful tackle. Boom. "Fifteen yards." The referee gets on television. His wife is sitting at home. She's so proud of him.

They're ruining the game. Right? They're ruining the game. Hey, look, that's what they want to do. They want to hit. OK? They want to hit.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: What's your reaction when you hear that?

STALLWORTH: It's disturbing, especially in the light of all this new research that we've had now with CTE and other brain injuries that a lot of NFL players, and again not just NFL players, but a lot of professional sports that are experiencing these -- these brain traumas.

And I know the good thing with the NFL and the DOD, what they have done together is that they have worked on these issues dating back to at least 2010, 2011, because I was actually on one of the panels where we spoke at the DOD as current and former players. And they've shared information. They've shared research. So for the president to take those things lightly, this is not just an

issue with the NFL. This is also issue, a major issue with our military.

So the fact that people are saying that the NFL has been -- or the players are disrespecting the military, and then you have the president, essentially, taking light of the issue of CTE when our own service members are experiencing CTE, as well, I don't think that's a very prudent move by the president.

BLITZER: Dante Stallworth, welcome to CNN. Thanks very much for joining us.

STALLWORTH: Thank you for having me, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, much more reaction to the breaking news, the White House insisting President Trump isn't against anyone, despite his attacks on player protests during the national anthem.

Plus North Korea now says the U.S. has declared war, and now it's threatening to shoot down U.S. warplanes, even if they aren't flying over its territory.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:38:01] BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories, including this afternoon's White House refusal to back away from President Trump's criticism of athletes' protests during the national anthem. Even though the president said those players should be fired, the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, insists the president isn't against anyone but for respect of the country, the flag and the national anthem.

Let's bring in our specialists. And Gloria Borger, why is the president so invested in this specific fight at a time of so many other critical issues out there?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, the president takes everything personally. Every grievance is personal. And I think if you look back to the way this -- the way this weekend evolved, he was upset that Steph Curry said he wasn't going to go to the White House. Then he disinvited the Warriors. And then he's onstage in Alabama, and he knew full well that this would be well-received. And then he called these players SOBs who take a knee and said that they should be fired.

So what he did, I mean, you could see it all sort of play out. He took one thing and strung it into -- into another. And it's all about personal grievance. It's not about, you know -- I know what Sarah Huckabee Sanders said. We all respect the flag. And people can disagree about Kaepernick or not. Right?

But -- but for this president, this is personal. And he knows that the protests, in one way or another, is aimed at him. He sees it aimed at him, even though it's against the police, et cetera, et cetera. And so I think when you look at these things, you have to look at it

through the very personal lens that the president looks at it through. It's -- it's not about uniting the public. It's about dividing the public at his own expense, I think.

BLITZER: You know, Mark Preston, some have compared the president's rather angry reaction to the NFL protests with his tepid reaction to the white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. He said there, as a lot of us remember, there were some very fine people on both sides in those respective crowds. Why do you think that's the case? What do you think is under way right now?

[18:40:12] MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, a couple things. One is, I don't think Donald Trump is necessarily a racist. And I know people want to jump to those conclusions.

But I do think there is a difference with how he handled this crisis right here, that he saw, and what we saw back in August down in Charlottesville. What he was doing was playing to his base in August. And for anybody to say otherwise, they're just being disingenuous.

What he was doing Friday night is he was playing to his base in Alabama. For anyone to say otherwise, is being just disingenuous.

And Gloria's absolutely right. What we saw from Colin Kaepernick, what we saw from the NFL players, what we saw from Steph Curry, what we have seen from the baseball players, as well, the other night, is that they're standing up and they're actually taking a stand. Shouldn't we be applauding them for that? Shouldn't we be applauding people for actually being engaged politically in the process right now, instead of trying to squelch free speech?

And what we've seen over the last 72 hours from the president of the United States unfortunately, is that he's trying to squelch free speech.

BLITZER: Kaitlan Collins, you were there in Alabama Friday night at that Trump rally. And as you know, sources are now telling CNN that the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, isn't happy at all with the president's decision to pick this specific fight with the NFL.

Do you think we're going to see administration officials openly criticize the president, at least like some of them did after the Charlottesville controversy?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It's definitely possible, Wolf. As you noted, we saw Gary Cohn come out after Charlottesville and publicly criticize the president. And now we're hearing that chief of staff John Kelly, behind closed doors, is not pleased with this fight that has erupted over the weekend.

I was there on Friday night, and just minutes before the president made these very controversial remarks about these NFL players, he brought John Kelly on the stage to praise what a job he's done in the White House. As you know, he was brought in to replace Reince Priebus and put some order into this very chaotic West Wing. But it's becoming more clear by each day that there are two things he can't control, and that's what the president says when he's at his rallies and what the president tweets. And we've seen over a dozen tweets since Friday night about this from the president.

BLITZER: Gloria, as you know, the president is responding to the backlash on Twitter. I'll put it up on the screen, one of his tweets today. "The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our country, flag and national anthem. NFL must respect this."

But as you know, Gloria, racial injustice, that was central to Colin Kaepernick's reasoning for starting these kinds of protests in the first place. Does the president not realize that, or would he rather just avoid the racial politics that clearly surround a lot of this issue?

BORGER: Sure, he wants to -- he wants to avoid the racial politics. I mean, he tried to avoid it, and failed, with Charlottesville. Because what he wants to say is this is about the flag. And other people might say this is about race, and this is about the First Amendment. And this is about people's right to kneel. You can disagree with them. But it is his right to do that.

And I think, you know, the president clearly felt the backlash of this from the team owners, who have given him lots of money to his campaign in the past, including his friend Kraft. And he, you know, feels his sort of back up against the wall, so he had to come out and tweet this isn't about race.

But, in fact, it's hard to say that it is about anything else. Nobody wants to come out and say, "Oh, yes this is about race, and this is why I said this." But it's hard to see that it's about anything else.

I don't recall the president saying that it was a bad thing that Tom Brady didn't go to the White House, but then he disinvited Steph Curry and the entire team. So, you know, the question has to be raised about the way the president views things and the way he sees things and the lens through which he views things. And it's all about his own personal grievance.

BLITZER: You know, Mark, the president thanked NASCAR for its stance on the flag and the anthem. He tweeted this. I'll put it up on the screen. "So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won't put up with disrespecting our country or our flag. They said it loud and clear."

As you know, in contrast to the NFL, NASCAR is overwhelmingly white, both the drivers, the fan base. Was that a revealing tweet by the president?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it was a revealing tweet. And quite honestly, I hate to disappoint him, but it was a little bit early, because NASCAR put out a statement at around 1 p.m. Eastern Time today, where they not only said that the national anthem is a hallmark to their pregame festivities, however, they do agree that people have the right to protest peacefully. So I think Donald Trump might have got out in front of himself a little bit.

But, again, that's another example, Wolf, of President Trump trying to play to his base. And I'm not saying that all NASCAR people who enjoy the sport are backing Donald Trump, but clearly, he thinks that, and that's why we saw something along those lines.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: All right. Everybody stick around. I want to alert our viewers, I want everyone to know, that here is a special CNN debate tonight, "THE FIGHT OVER THE OBAMACARE."

Senator Amy Klobuchar will join Senator Bernie Sanders as they debate Senators Lindsey Graham and Bill Cassidy on healthcare. That's tonight, 9:00 p.m. Eastern. Only here on CNN. Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will co-moderate that debate.

Coming up, North Korea ratchets up the war of words with President Trump, threatening to shoot down U.S. military jets even if they aren't flying over North Korea territory.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:34] BLITZER: The White House is denying a North Korean claim that President Trump has declared war. But amid new threats, tensions are spiraling higher tonight with North Korea. Brian Todd has been looking into all of this for us.

What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, tonight, Kim Jong-un's regime is threatening to shoot down American bombers which might fly close to North Korea, even if those planes are outside North Korean airspace.

We're getting serious warnings tonight from former U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials that the President's increasingly tough talk toward Pyongyang might provoke a dangerous confrontation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, the war of words over North Korea has turned into words of war after Pyongyang's Foreign Minister said outside the U.N. today his country viewed recent threats by President Trump as acts of aggression.

RI YONG-HO, MINISTER OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS OF NORTH KOREA (through translator): The whole world should remember it was the United States who first declared war on our country.

TODD (voice-over): North Korea's ramped up rhetoric comes after American B-1B Lancer bombers and fighter jets flew right off of South Korea's east coast in international waters on Saturday, a move designed as a show of force and seen by Kim Jong-un's regime as a provocation.

RI (through translator): We will have every right to take all self- defensive counter measures, including the right to shoot down U.S. strategic bombers at any time, even when they are not yet inside the airspace border of our country.

TODD: If the North Koreans even attempted to act on that threat, what do you think would happen?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's an act of war. That's an aggressive act on the part of North Korea, to come after a United States asset.

I think they'd got after the exact target where it came from. If a fighter came after it, we take -- the U.S. would take the fighter out. If a missile came after it, they'd go after the missile location and destroy that missile location.

TODD (voice-over): U.S. officials moved quickly to say America isn't at war with Kim Jong-un, but the Pentagon said U.S. forces are always, quote, ready to fight tonight. The White House called the idea that President Trump has declared war absurd.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's never appropriate for a country to shoot down another country's aircraft when it's over international waters. Our goal is still the same. We continue to seek the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

TODD (voice-over): But North Korea's Foreign Minister suggested Mr. Trump want anything but peace, especially when he went after the Foreign Minister on Twitter saying, if he, quote, echoes the thoughts of Little Rocket Man, they won't be around much longer. That followed these insults at a rally Friday night.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Little Rocket Man, we can't have mad men out there shooting rockets all over the place.

TODD (voice-over): Tonight, former U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials are warning the President's increasingly tough talk on North Korea could be pushing the two countries toward a real and dangerous confrontation.

EVANS J.R. REVERE, SENIOR DIRECTOR, ALBRIGHT STONEBRIDGE GROUP: If the goal is to try to provoke the North Korean leader and North Korea into some sort of violent reaction, this is the way to do it, quite frankly.

TODD (voice-over): Experts warn Kim Jong-un is notoriously thin skinned, that because of a desire to save face, Kim might feel he has to respond, or he could misinterpret the President's talk.

REVERE: The North Koreans may convince themselves, based on some of the rhetoric that they're hearing, that the United States is preparing to strike them. And before that strike takes place, the North Koreans might opt to strike first.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: We reached out repeatedly to the White House to respond to this concern, that President Trump's increasingly tough rhetoric risks a real confrontation with Kim Jong-un. They did not respond to us -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, have the President's top national security advisers, including his Chief of Staff, retired General John Kelly, or national security adviser, General H.R. McMaster -- he's still on active duty -- and Defense Secretary James Mattis, also a retired general, have they advised him to dial back his rhetoric against North Korea?

TODD: Well, Wolf, there are conflicting reports about that. The "L.A. Times" has reported that some of his advisers, including H.R. McMaster, have warned President Trump. That they warned him not to personally attack Kim Jong-un during that speech at the U.N. last week, concerned that it could escalate tensions, and that the president ignored them.

Today, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said that's a false narrative and that the President's advisers were happy about his speech.

"The New York Times" reported today that the President's security team has decided not to rein in his more provocative statements. The bottom line is, Wolf, nobody's really able to rein him in, in any event.

BLITZER: Yes, the rhetoric and the escalation in that rhetoric continues. A very dangerous situation, indeed.

TODD: Right.

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Thank you very much.

[17:54:59] Coming up, more on the breaking news. The White House defends President Trump's attacks on NFL players who've silently protested racial injustice during the national anthem. The NFL answers the attacks with a show of solidarity by players, coaches, and even some of the owners.

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[17:59:55] BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Knee-jerk reaction. The White House is forced to play defense as the backlash to the President's attack on protesting players intensifies. His call for firing those who kneeled during the national anthem inspiring shows of solidarity of his remarks. Has the President launched a culture war?