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CNN NEWSROOM

U.S. Says It's Absurd To Suggest It's Declared War On North Korea; Shinzo Abe Calls For Snap Election; Dallas Cowboys Kneel Before National Anthem; White House Defends Trump Attacks On NFL Players; Puerto Rico In Desperate Need of Help; Political Showdown in Alabama, GOP Establishment V. Conservative Firebrand. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired September 26, 2017 - 02:00   ET

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


JOHN VAUSE, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: -- of declaring war with just a single tweet.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RI YONG-HO, NORTH KOREAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): Last weekend, Trump claimed that our leadership wouldn't be around much longer and hence at last he declared a war on our country.

Given the fact that this comes from someone who is currently holding the seat of the United States presidency, this is clearly a declaration of war.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: And that came with a specific threat to shoot down US aircraft even if they're not in North Korean air space.

Well, for more on this, joining us, Democratic strategist Mathew Littman; CNN political commentator and Republican consultant John Thomas; and in San Francisco, Paul Carroll, Senior Advisor at N Square, an organization which seeks to reduce the risk from nuclear weapons.

And, Paul, I'd just like to start with you. The Korea war ended with an armistice, not a treaty, which means that essentially the US and North Korea remain at war.

Pyongyang often fervently threatens the United States, sort of embroil it in a sea of fire. This time, though, we've got the North Korean foreign minister including a specific threat to shoot down American planes.

Firstly, do the North Koreans have the ability to be able to back up that threat? And does that matter? Is the threat in and of itself enough to be concerned about?

PAUL CARROLL, SENIOR ADVISOR, N SQUARE: I think it's something less concerning than their statement a couple of days ago about the possibility of exploding a hydrogen bomb over the Pacific.

I think today's statement by Foreign Minister Ri is not particularly provocative, given what's happened over just the last 72 hours. I'm not saying it doesn't matter, but we've heard this kind of statement over the years about a declaration of war before. And as you said yourself, and your correspondent said, we are technically still in a state of war.

Now, North Korea itself is very much on a war footing every single day. Its entire population, its propaganda machine. The United States, not so much.

So, I wouldn't say that this is meaningless. I think the threat to fire at a B-1 or another American aircraft is just that. It's a rhetorical threat. I think it's highly unlikely they would do that because, frankly, I think they would fail and then they would look even weaker.

ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: John Thomas, to you, the entire existence of the North Korean leadership, the cohesiveness of its society is predicated on this notion that they are under threat, that they are likely to be attacked imminently.

When President Trump stands on the UN stage and says they'd be totally destroyed or tweets that they won't be around for much longer, isn't he just playing into their hands, reinforcing that very same narrative, which could have desperate consequences?

JOHN THOMAS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: On the one hand, I see the statement today as North Korea's propaganda machine reinforced to its people that they are the victims. But Trump's audience is different. It's not the people of North Korea. It's the world.

SESAY: It's not his audience we're worried about. It is the fact that Kim Jong-un -

VAUSE: His audience don't have nuclear weapons.

SESAY: Yes.

THOMAS: Well, yes, his audience does because he's talking to other countries that he's saying we need to band together to stop North Korea. So, that's his audience when he's talking at the UN. So, I think he is striking the right tone here.

And the idea that Trump with a tweet is making a declaration of war when North Korea is launching test missiles, they're actually like starting a war by their actions. So, I just think it's disingenuous.

VAUSE: OK.

MATHEW LITTMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It's hard to see how Trump is taking the right tone in this situation and not worsening the situation.

Since Trump has come into office, North Korea situation has got markedly worse. So, it's hard to say that Trump is handling it well. It's gotten worse and worse. VAUSE: OK. So, this is the stated US foreign policy right now. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders had to clear a few little issues on Monday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: We have not declared war on North Korea and frankly the suggestion of that is absurd.

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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: That just seems to be part of the normalization of the foreign policy, which is anything but normal right now.

For her to come - Sarah Sanders to come out and say, oh, by the way, we have not declared war on North Korea, relax everybody.

LITTMAN: Well, there are a couple of important things here. First of all, you have a leader who seems to be a little bit unhinged, doesn't care that millions of people in his own country don't have electricity, seems to want to show off his military all the time.

And then, you have Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, who also has many similar qualities, it seems, to Trump. They keep to trying to one up each other on Twitter or with these statements, which is ridiculous.

Second of all, the United States doesn't have the same alliances that it did just a couple years ago around the world. So, in terms of trying to build up those relationships, a lot of these countries don't want to side with the United States like they used to because Donald Trump has offended a lot of these countries.

SESAY: Paul Carroll, to you, as we talk about the new state of play and looking at the central characters involved, President Trump and Kim Jong-un, is there a diplomatic off-ramp here or is that well and truly done for, especially in light of these latest comments from the North Korean foreign minister.

[02:05:13] CARROLL: I think the off-ramps are vanishingly thin. In fact, the statement that you played from Spokeswoman Sanders, the other thing she said that wasn't in that tape was that we are continuing with maximum economic and diplomatic pressure - period.

There was no statement about other things on offer, other kinds of off-ramps. It's been made very clear, we have lots of sticks. We have bombers. We have missiles. We have alliances. We have military hardware. What's on offer to the North Koreans if they change their behavior. Crickets are chirping. That's what's missing in this recipe, not only diplomatic off-ramps.

But the minute it became personal through President Trump's statement at the UN and he got the response he got from Kim Jong-un, I fear that we have forgotten that there 23 million North Korean human beings and there are millions of Japanese and South Korean human beings. It's not just about the two bullies on the playground.

VAUSE: South Korea's foreign minister warned that North Korea will carry out more provocations - in other words, more nuclear tests, more missile launches in the coming days and weeks.

Also added this, "It is imperative that we, Korea and the US together, manage the situation with astuteness and steadfastness in order to prevent the further escalation of tensions or any kind of accidental military clashes in the region, which can quickly spiral out of control."

John, many have made the point that the US president right now is doing precisely the opposite of what he should be doing. Right now, he is goading Kim Jong-un.

He should be basically staying silent, he should be leaving this to essentially a very experienced foreign policy team around him. He is making things worse.

THOMAS: Well, I think he is. Well, he's letting Rex Tillerson do his job. But at the same time, he's trying to project strength and letting this bully know that he can't bully us around.

I mean, part of the reason he finds himself in this heap of crap is because multiple presidents, not just President Obama, have let it escalate to this point. And now, Trump is going, look, I have to fight fire with fire. I can't let this guy walk all over the United States. It's not a pretty situation.

SESAY: Matt, to pick up on what John said that the president finds himself in a heap of crap - to use John's word - because of previous presidents, but the argument could be that it is this president's use of language, playing fast and loose with language that has put him in a box on his own making.

LITTMAN: Well, also, as I said before, the situation has gotten much worse since Donald Trump became president. Why is that? Part of the reason is that Donald Trump keeps escalating the situation.

So, now, we're in a situation where if Kim Jong-un doesn't act and he's looking weak to his own generals; if Donald Trump doesn't act, then maybe we look weak too. So, we're escalating the situation over and over again.

We have to take this down. We don't even have an ambassador to South Korea. There aren't the people at the State Department and in these roles that normally work behind the scenes because they've chosen not to put those people in place. That's part of the reason we're in the situation -

THOMAS: It's also because we've allowed Kim Jong's missile program to mature to the point where he can do these successful test launches.

LITTMAN: But it's interesting because we also have a situation where, in Iran, we may get rid of the Iran deal, which would allow Iran to build and we would get into the same situation there. So -

VAUSE: Sorry. I was just going to pull back here because, essentially, if you want to play a game of chicken, North Korea is probably the worst country you want to play that game with, right?

CARROLL: Absolutely. I mean, it's interesting. I agree with elements of what both John and Matt are saying.

The problem is each leader here is now aiming for the perfect. And the perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. The day is passed when we are going to have a North Korea that does not have some nuclear capability and missile technology to go with it.

The question is, are we willing to risk a regional and possibly a nuclear war to stop that. That's the question.

Or can we live with something less. Can we live with a managed North Korea in the state it is and then think about the medium to long-term?

The State Department spokeswoman talked about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. OK, great. Maybe that's a 2040 goal, but that's not an October 2017 goal. I think we have to get realistic about what's possible and avoid a war.

SESAY: Paul, great point. And I want to put it to John, that very point. Has this administration really accepted that?

I mean, I hear you say past administrations have failed, past administrations have failed to contain North Korea. But I think that is fundamentally to ignore the fact that there are no good options when it comes to North Korea and they haven't been good options for a very long time.

VAUSE: Let me just add. When Obama was president, it was like when is he going to stop blaming George W. Bush, when is Donald Trump going to stop blaming all those again before him.

THOMAS: I don't think President Trump is sitting around going, oh, it's all their fault on North Korea issue. In fact, I think he's dealing with it head on, unless you have a quote I'm unaware of (INAUDIBLE).

VAUSE: Plenty of it.

[02:10:02] THOMAS: But, no, I don't think - it's just a historical reference. I don't think - you said they're - I don't have any good options because they had screwed up. No, no, it's just a state of how things are. And, look, I think President Trump -

SESAY: He's also suggested they could have done something.

LITTMAN: There is no benefit to escalating the rhetoric. There was no question - it is a very tough problem.

Obama, when he met with Trump before and said, this is the biggest problem you are going to face, this is a big problem, but in reality, North Korea is probably going to have a nuclear weapon. And in reality, there may not be a lot that we could do about it.

So, we have to - yes, it would be great if the regime changed in North Korea. That's not happening any time soon. We are going to have to find a way to live with this.

THOMAS: And you saw Trump allowing his generals to speak like Gen. Mattis, so I think he is trusting the right people here, but you also saw leak go out a couple weeks ago from Steve Bannon saying exactly what Mattis said, they've got us.

VAUSE: Well, the Japanese prime minister has called a snap election. One of the reasons for that is the threat coming from North Korea. This is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SHINZO ABE, PRIME MINISTER OF JAPAN (through translator): In a national crisis with a shrinking and ageing population as well as a tense situation with North Korea, I'd like to stand on the frontline and exercise strong leadership to deal with this national crisis.

Election, which is the basis of democracy, should not be swayed by North Korea's threat. Rather, I believe we need to call an election and get approval from the public for the counter-measure against the North Korea issues.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: OK. To CNN's Ben Wedeman in Tokyo. Ben, Mr. Abe says this is a national crisis, but it's a national crisis which has also been pretty good for his approval numbers.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, indeed, John. Just a few months ago, in fact, his approval ratings were in the Trumpian area, but thanks to Kim Jong-un and the North Korean nuclear crisis, he is now hovering around 50 percent and he sees that it's time to take advantage of that situation and call these early elections, which may be held around the 22nd of October.

And, of course, this crisis also allows him to perhaps get a little closer to his goal of amending the American-imposed constitution, which was introduced after World War II, a pacifist constitution.

And specifically, he would like to amend Article 9 which bars Japan from maintaining the ability to wage war.

So, even though, there are many Japanese who oppose their amendment, certainly given the circumstances, it would allow him to have the opportunity to transform what are now known as the self-defense forces, about 250,000 personnel who are strictly barred from any sort of foreign deployment, except as part of UN peacekeeping forces, into something more like a modern war machine that would be able to perhaps take part in any sort of military action in the event that there are hostilities with North Korea. John?

VAUSE: It would be a watershed moment. Now, Professor Wedeman in Tokyo, thank you.

SESAY: Thank you, Ben. Also thanks to Matt Littman and John Thomas. Always appreciate it.

VAUSE: And Paul Carroll as well.

SESAY: Oh, and Paul Carroll. Sorry, Paul.

VAUSE: In San Francisco.

SESAY: All right. Some breaking news to bring you now. Just coming into us here at CNN that a gunman has killed three Israelis and wounded a fourth at a crossing between an Israeli settlement and the West Bank settlement of Har Adar.

VAUSE: The Israeli police say the Palestinian attacks came through the back gate of the settlement. This is the scene there right now, 09:13 on a Tuesday morning.

That gate is open four times a day, 7:00 AM, to allow the Palestinian workers into the settlement. They are then allowed out again at around 2:00 PM, 4:00 PM and 5:00 PM.

According to officials, they say this Palestinian gunmen opened fire on security forces. There are reports that he did, in fact, have an Israeli work permit to be allowed into this settlement, which is a very affluent - one of Israel's most affluent communities there.

And so, there are reports that this fourth person is being worded is, in fact, in a critical condition and that the Palestinian attacker has been killed.

Again, early days now for this story. Still a lot of breaking details. As we get them, we will bring them to you.

And we'll take a short break. When we come back, the White House defending the president and his feud with NFL players. We'll tell you what his chief of staff is saying about these protests during the national anthem.

SESAY: Plus, the Dallas Cowboys are known as America's team, how they are responding and what they did during Monday night matchup with Arizona.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[02:16:46] VAUSE: Well, Donald Trump's feud with protesters from the NFL is heading into overtime. Dallas Cowboys took a knee before the national anthem during their Monday night game against the Arizona Cardinals. Both teams have locked arms when they played the anthem.

SESAY: On Monday, Mr. Trump tweeted, "Tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players who disrespect of our country. Stand for our anthem." And Vice President Mike Pence also got in on the issue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I stand with President Donald Trump and I will always stand for our national anthem.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: Back with us this hour, Democratic strategist Mathew Littman and Republican consultant John Thomas. Also from Austin, Texas, former college football player and US Army Green Beret Nate Boyer.

OK. So, we are hearing that many within the administration are far from happy that the president keeps this issue going on the front burner, that he's even involved in it in the first place.

Even so, the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly told CNN that he is appalled by a lack of respect shown to the flag. This is what he said.

"I believe, every American, when the national anthem is played, should cover their hearts and think about all the men and women who have been maimed and killed. Every American should stand up and think for those three lousy minutes."

So, Nate, with all due respect Gen. Kelly, you're a former Green Beret. You specifically worked with Colin Kaepernick, the guy who started this protest in the first place, about finding an appropriate way to protest.

NATE BOYER, US ARMY GREEN BERET AND FORMER COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYER: Yes. I mean, personally, I want everyone to stand too. I don't think they're lousy minutes, those 3 minutes. They're pretty special minutes to me.

And that's why we have at our sporting events, before they play the anthem, they ask everyone, would you please rise as sort of an invitation. And I would love it if everybody sought that pride in country that I feel in those moments.

But if they don't, they're suffering from something and they feel like those issues that need to be addressed and they don't feel inspired to stand, I understand. I support that right. That's a right -

VAUSE: No, if I could just drop down (ph) specifically, how did you come up with - just remind, because I know we've done this before, but it's been a while, just remind people specifically how you came to this idea of kneeling during the anthem as a way of protest.

BOYER: Colin Kaepernick and I came to it mutually just through conversations. He was sitting initially in protest and I sat down with him for a couple of hours consulting, kind of starting out, he was looking for a little bit of guidance and opinion and kind of my perspective.

And together, we came to this idea of him taking a knee because I thought it was more respectful and showed that he was willing to give a little bit and show some respect to not only at the anthem itself, but those who maybe died for what that flag and song represents.

SESAY: John, the Dallas Cowboys, your team -

THOMAS: My team.

SESAY: America's team locked arms, as we said right at the beginning, they took a knee, but not during the anthem itself.

[02:20:01] Since President Trump's comments really essentially about Kaepernick, who kicked this all off, and other players, we have seen players, we have seen coaches, we have seen owners of teams, we have seen veterans take a knee and say that they stand with players and anyone's right to peacefully protest. Did the president make a miscalculation here by taking on this fight?

THOMAS: I don't think he did at all. In fact, I think he's winning. I mean, first of all, the ratings are down after Sunday's game. We'll see what happened on Cowboys' night tonight, but ratings are down.

LITTMAN: The ratings are not down.

SESAY: CBS just said that they had the highest rating that they've had in years.

THOMAS: On Sunday night, the ratings flopped. We can argue -

VAUSE: And two major parts of the country are dealing with the aftermath of massive disasters.

THOMAS: OK. But, regardless, I think President Trump's point was not that Colin Kaepernick or other people can't disagree and their right to free speech is not protected and encourage them to speak, I think his point was just not during the national anthem.

For me, when I go to a Cowboys game, my favorite part of the game is the national anthem because, although I know in that stadium, there's a lot of people that disagree with me politically, for that one moment we come together because we live in a great country that provides opportunities for everyone.

It's just a nice moment of solitary to break that up with a form of protest speech doesn't seem appropriate. I think that was Trump's point. And I think not only Trump's base agrees with that, but I think Americans are going to agree with that.

VAUSE: Here's a reminder from last year from Kaepernick why he is, in fact, protesting.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN KAEPERNICK, FORMER NFL QUARTERBACK: Media painted this as I'm anti-American, anti-men and women of the military, and that's not the case at all.

No, I realize that men and women of the military go out and sacrifice their lives and put their selves in harm's way for my freedom of speech and my freedoms in this country and my freedom to take a seat or take a knee. So, I have the utmost respect for them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAUSE: Matt, do you think the president understands what this protest is about when he says it's not about race?

LITTMAN: Well, the president clearly wants to divide the country on race. That's what's going on here. And when he refers to the players, the way he refers to the players, and then the next day, a lot of the players are out there taking a knee, this has now become a protest against the president, not what Kaepernick intended it as.

And I'll tell you that when it first started with Kaepernick, I thought that's not the best way to get out your message during the national anthem. You should actually stand up for the national anthem. Otherwise, people don't know what the message is that you're trying to send.

However, now I think that because Donald Trump has brought this up to the place that it's in, it's become an issue of Donald Trump and the injustice that a lot of people feel exists in this country.

This is a peaceful form of protest. I don't think - I think Trump's whole goal is to divide the country, right? He's a divider, not a uniter. And that's what he's trying to do here. I don't think the country is going to support him - segments of the country, well.

SESAY: John, I think it's interesting. As a non-American, and one can tell by listening to me, that the president seems to be framing this conversation around Kaepernick as being one that - the protestors and those who follow in his footsteps as not being patriotic, about not loving this country, about it going against the essence of this country.

But what they're doing is part of the essence of this country, is it not? The First Amendment, to be able to protest, I mean, it seems a little incongruous to me.

THOMAS: Well, again, Trump is not saying he doesn't have the right to protest. He's saying don't do it there.

You'd have to think Kaepernick -

SESAY: But that's not how it goes. But he doesn't want -

THOMAS: Because of this country, Kaepernick has the ability to make millions of dollars a year, sit in this stadium -

SESAY: Nobody is giving those millions. He's working for those millions. This notion that people are handing these millions to him - THOMAS: But in that moment, it's to pay homage and respect to the nation that afforded you these opportunities to have those achievements and rather than making a political statement -

SESAY: Let me ask you this because this is not an original point of (INAUDIBLE) but it has been said over and over again.

When President Trump during the campaign said make America great again, that notion this country wasn't great, nobody took umbrage with that. This segment of the population that now take umbrage what Colin Kaepernick has suggesting, which is that parts of this country are not great.

THOMAS: Yes. if he were doing it during the national anthem, I would have an issue with it. Doing on the campaign trail, I don't think is a problem. Colin Kaepernick has a Twitter account.

LeBron James has just 500,000 followers short of what Donald Trump has. They have these, they have other ways to get out these messages, just not during the national anthem.

LITTMAN: Donald Trump could not manage to figure out in Charlottesville, he thought everybody was equal, basically, right? That's what he said for Charlottesville. Well, there were fine people. I mean, that's the biggest softball you can get is Nazis are bad and Trump somehow swung (INAUDIBLE).

But in this case, of course, he's able to go after these people who are African Americans, which is really wise going after him because Trump's whole goal is to divide the country.

THOMAS: You're inferring into something he has never said.

[02:25:01] LITTMAN: That's what. I'm inferring it. But it is true in other ways that he's shown racism, which he's doing in this case.

In other words, why did Donald Trump send out a tweet during the campaign that said 80 percent of homicides against white people were committed by black people and the opposite is true. No one asked him. Why did he say that?

THOMAS: I can't - you'd have to ask me.

VAUSE: But, Nate, (INAUDIBLE) another point because up until, what, 2009, football teams weren't even on the field during the national anthem. It's only when, what, the military started paying the NFL a lot of money to essentially support the troops and improve its image that the anthem started taking on sort of a little bit more than it was before. Is that how you understand it?

BOYER: That's not completely true. I mean, that is true in that time line, but originally an interesting note about the national anthem, to start - the song is actually Star Spangled Banner.

And in 1917, it was - it was first played at 40 events during the World Series in the midst of World War I to honor the military. That's the reason we started doing it.

So, the essence of the anthem being played at sporting events is to honor the military originally. Now, over time, things have obviously changed. It didn't even become a national anthem till 1934.

But one of the reasons it became it was because of that tradition through sporting events and you can look this all up, there's a great article about it by (INAUDIBLE). And it's very interesting, but that's where that came from. So, that's been lost over the years, obviously, but the reason we play the Star Spangled Banner originally at sporting events is to honor the military.

VAUSE: Matt, finally to you, right now, the president has to deal with Puerto Rico, which is basically devastated, 3.5 million Americans are struggling for the lives, Texas with Harvey, Florida with Irma, he's staring down a nuclear confrontation with North Korea, how does he have time to tweet about the NFL?

LITTMAN: Well, he has time to tweet about the NFL and time to watch "Fox & Friends" and time to watch all the things that Donald Trump watches on TV.

I don't think that Donald Trump deals with all of these situations that you're mentioning. That's how he has time. Let's remember, healthcare is failing on Capitol Hill. Donald Trump hasn't pushed it. Tax reform isn't really going anywhere, infrastructure not going anywhere, the North Korea situation is getting worse, right, and then we have the hurricane situation in Puerto Rico where millions of people are without power.

And if you have that Donald Trump tweet from today, he is basically saying that they're bankrupted, it's their fault if you have that tweet that he said that a few hours ago.

VAUSE: And with that, we shall say thank you. Thank you, Matt and John and Nate as well. Thank you so much.

SESAY: And with that, we shall bid you adieu. You've been watching CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles. I'm Isha Sesay.

VAUSE: I'm John Vause. We get an early mark, but Rosemary Church picks it up in Atlanta after a short break. Bless you, Rosemary.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(HEADLINES)

[02:30:37] ROSEMARY CHURCH, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, and welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Rosemary Church. And this is CNN NEWSROOM.

The Dallas Cowboys are known as America's team, and they weighed in on the controversy that's gripping the nation right now by kneeling before the national anthem played at Monday night's NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals. Both teams locked arms in unity during the anthem. President Trump, of course, you recall reignited the issue last week

when he said players who don't stand for the anthem should be fired. He's tweeted about it more than a dozen times since then. Now, team members of the White House, including the vice president, are coming to President Trump's defense.

CNN's Jim Acosta reports.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

(CHANTING)

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Critics threw the penalty flag immediately for unstatesmanlike conduct.

DONALD TRUMP, 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.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: He's fired!

(CHEERING)

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: It has nothing to do with race. I have said nothing 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, President Trump 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 cultural war?

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

STEPH CURRY, NBA PLAYER: It is what it is. ACOSTA: Among Mr. Trump's targets, NBA star, Steph Curry. "Going to

the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Steph Curry is hesitating. Therefore, invitation is withdrawn."

(MUSIC)

ACOSTA: The comments provoked a reaction on the field and off. NBA Star Lebron James tweeted, "You bum," to the president.

LEBRON JAMES, NBA PLAYER: He doesn't understand how many kids look up to the president of the United States for guidance, for leadership, for words of encouragement.

(SINGING)

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: Number one is, this politics, they're finding is a much rougher game than football. And more exciting. And it's -- honestly, we've taken a lot of people away from the NFL. And the other reason is Kaepernick. Kaepernick.

(BOOING)

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

(CROSSTALK)

TRUMP: 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 --

(CROSSTALK)

ACOSTA: -- to questioning whether Barack Obama was born in the U.S.

TRUMP: They make these Birthers into the worst. 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.

ACOSTA: Jim Acosta, CNN, Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

CHURCH: Joining me now is CNN's sports analyst, Christine Brennan. She is also a sports columnist for "USA Today."

Christine, great to have you on the show.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, CNN SPORTS ANALYST: Rosemary, thanks for having me. Appreciate it.

CHURCH: So President Trump picked a fight with NFL players over the weekend, and things didn't quite turn out the way he had hoped. Did the president massively underestimate how much support these players would receive nationally and globally?

[02:35:02] BRENNAN: A great point. I think he did underestimate it. Or he has met his match, that a man who has controlled obviously Twitter and social media, and is able to get his way with all kinds of groups, as he's been so critical of people and attacked different groups of people over the last nine months as president, well, he's run into the big guys now. He's run into the football players, and a schoolyard bully should have learned that you don't go after the big guys.

And also these guys have Twitter accounts. And then you throw in the NBA players, Lebron James, massive following on Twitter. And microphones in front of them. And an ability to speak to a group of people, especially sports. Sports fans who might otherwise not be part of this conversation, bringing them into the conversation. You know, these teams are in blue states, but also in red states. And these players are cheered for by Trump voters and by Clinton voters and everyone in between. I don't know if Trump thought this through when he was saying his remarks on Friday night in Alabama. Maybe he didn't think it through. Maybe it was just playing to the crowd at that moment. But what he ended up doing, setting off the camaraderie and the team work we've seen, the locked arms and the kneeling, hundreds of football players doing that. But also the massive reply, a mega phone blaring out across the country from sports -- from athletes and sports stars in repudiation of the president of the United States. It's really something to behold and it may not be over, especially if he tweets more and go after some of these players. They're going to come right back at him, too.

CHURCH: They are certainly striking back. We're seeing that, and in different ways, too. The Dallas Cowboys took a slightly different approach, but showed unity nonetheless when they kneeled with their owner Jerry Jones, just before the national anthem played prior to their Monday Night Football game with the Arizona Cardinals. How surprised were you by that, given Jones was a big supporter of President Trump, wasn't he? Do you expect to see more of this style of protest?

BRENNAN: I tell you what, it was shocking. I actually was taking a little break from CNN and talking about this story all day, when I saw the news alert and I was with another sports journalist, and the thought, Jerry Jones, the owner, took a knee on Monday Night Football? And then looking at that video, it is really something. It speaks volumes. Those pictures, the video, are visuals, it's hard to get out of your mind. This man, this owner, a Trump supporter, an icon among the owners, obviously, the thought Trump has been trying to tell everyone that the owners are the good guys and the players are the bad guys, and Kaepernick, Colin Kaepernick is a bad guy. Even Jerry Jones was saying he didn't want any players on the Cowboys who would kneel. And they wouldn't be Cowboys anymore. Well, look who's kneeling.

CHURCH: What do you think changed his mind?

BRENNAN: I think it's business. I think this is the fact that they had a chance, obviously, 24 hours or more to see what was happening around the league, and knew that he had players who probably cared very much about this. And we know for a fact that players went to their owners. There were lots of conversations and meetings about how each team would handle this. When the Cowboys were the last with Arizona, the last two teams to have a chance to have a national anthem on this long weekend of football. And going to Monday night, the Cowboys had a chance to look at it, and clearly Jerry Jones talked to those Cowboys and players talked to him. It's a business decision. These are his players. He wants them to be united. He wants them to win football games and be happy. And he clearly saw the benefits of doing that. Otherwise, there's no way in the world Jerry Jones would have done that. So the fact that he did that. Again, Donald Trump, think of Donald Trump looking at that photo of Jerry Jones. That's just got to really gal Donald Trump to see his pal, Jerry Jones, doing that. But it speaks to the mood of the league, the mood of the players, and the owners understanding the magnitude of this issue for their players.

CHURCH: So, overall, Christine, looking at that, what impact does this presidential attack have on the whole issue of kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial injustice?

BRENNAN: It was basically over. Most people had forgotten about it. Colin Kaepernick had not been resigned this season. So the issue was waning and almost done, almost dead. And it is now been lifted up to be the number one issue in the United States right now. The most talked about thing. Not just sports but news. Here we are talking about it. But it is -- the front page of every newspaper, Web site. It is such a big deal. What is going on, on these sidelines, all because of Donald Trump. He triggered this, and the response has been something that is really interesting to behold, groups of people, black, white, coming together, linking arms, showing Donald Trump that he does not have the last say about this topic. And these players like Lebron James, they're taking over. They're making the statement for the country. And, yes, it's divisive. There are people who would like to see everyone stand for the anthem. But I think also the idea the First Amendment rights, all these things that Donald Trump wanted to squash, they've come to life because of his words on Friday night.

[02:40:47] CHURCH: Christine Brennan, great to get your perspective on this. Appreciate it.

BRENNAN: Rosemary, thank you so much.

CHURCH: Meantime, U.S. President Donald Trump is talking about the disaster in Puerto Rico. For the first time in days after all those tweets he sent out stirring up the national anthem controversy, again, he was back on Twitter Monday night talking about hurricane relief efforts while blasting the island over its debts.

He said, "Texas and Florida are doing great, but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure and massive debt, is in deep trouble. It's old electrical grid, which was in terrible shape, was devastated. Much of the island was destroyed with billions owed to Wall Street and the banks, which, sadly, must be dealt with. Food, water and medical are top priorities and doing well, #FEMA."

Well, millions in Puerto Rico are struggling in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. FEMA's administrator and the Homeland Security advisor are assessing the situation and will brief U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday.

As CNN's Leyla Santiago shows us, the need is even more critical in remote areas on the island.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

LEYLA SANTIAGO, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This woman doesn't even know who I am. But I'm the first person she's seen land here since Hurricane Maria battered the island. The floods, the debris, the lack of power, all making already hard-to-get to areas even tougher to reach. Even FEMA hasn't set foot in some parts of Puerto Rico.

We took a chopper from San Juan to remote areas, like this small town next to the Guajataca Dam on the northwest part of the island. The dam has been breached, and the government ordered 70,000 nearby residents to evacuate.

It is here where I was met with such emotion. The people starving for assistance.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE).

SANTIAGO (on camera): She says, if something happens to that dam, that's could be just as bad as the hurricane itself.

(voice-over): Communications are so poor, many are asking us to send messages to their families.

From the air, you can see why. More than three million U.S. citizens could remain in the dark for months.

(on camera): This is the problem. This is why Puerto Rico, 100 percent of the island, doesn't have power right now. Granted, the infrastructure was vulnerable before Hurricane Maria passed by. But you can see with these power lines down what the challenge is. They're completely collapsed.

(voice-over): Heading further inland, the death toll is among the highest here.

This is where we meet this 56-year-old woman. She's diabetic, just had surgery, and is unemployed. Now she doesn't have a home either.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE) SANTIAGO: This is what Maria did to her home. Water spewing from every corner.

By now, she thought help would have arrived. It hasn't.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

SANTIAGO (on camera): Was she's hopeful that someone will help her?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

SANTIAGO: To be able to rebuild this.

(voice-over): Flying south to even more revote village. The roads are blocked, forcing us to find another way to get to this home. Coffee grower and this man tell us the problem here is food. Most of what they have left has gone bad.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

SANTIAGO (voice-over): He says you work and work and work and it's for nothing, because he's lost everything.

SANTIAGO (voice-over): A common theme on an island of 3.4 million U.S. citizens. Now waiting and hoping that help is on the way.

(on camera): And we're happy to report that we were able to reach out to people in New Jersey to let them know about their family here in one of the towns we visited there, as we promised. We communicated their message, and their family in New Jersey said they had not slept in days waiting to hear of how they were doing.

As for the government, we asked them why they have not been able to get to those remote areas. They continue to say that the roads are a challenge. But they are also now calling on the U.S. Congress to develop an aid package that is flexible with money and time.

Leyla Santiago, CNN, San Juan, Puerto Rico.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[02:45:18] CHURCH: If you want to learn how you can help Hurricane Maria victims, log on to CNN.com/impact and you can donate to one of the charities we've vetted or volunteer your time.

We'll take a short break here. Still to come, one special election in the southern U.S. is viewed as a measure of Republican unity. A look at what is at stake in Tuesday's Senate primary in Alabama. We're back in just a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CHURCH: Welcome back, everyone. In U.S. politics, all eyes are on a special election in Alabama that underscore it is divide within the Republican Party. Luther Strange was appointed to the Senate seat Jeff Sessions left when he became attorney general. Now Strange is running in a primary with the Trump administration's backing. Vice President Pence campaigned for Strange on Monday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[02:50:03] MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm here to say I stand with Luther.

(CHEERING)

PENCE: I stand with President Donald Trump.

(CHEERING)

PENCE: And I will always stand for our national anthem.

(CHEERING)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CHURCH: Luther Strange faces former State Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore in the primary. Moore was thrown off the court twice, first for refusing to remove a 10 Commandments monument from a state building, and then for refusing to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court's rule legalizing same-sex marriage.

Let's talk more about this with Bill Britt, who joins me via skype. He's the editor-in-chief of the "Alabama Political Reporter" and host of the show "The Voice of Alabama Politics."

Bill, thanks for joining us. Good to talk with you.

BILL BRITT, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, ALABAMA POLITICAL REPORTER & HOST, THE VOICE OF ALABAMA POLITICS: Rosemary, thanks for having me on.

CHURCH: There has been talk about President Trump's NFL comments he made Friday in Alabama, but that visit was supposed to be about Luther Strange getting elected. Has that effort been overshadowed by the NFL controversy?

BRITT: Absolutely. That seems to be the hot topic. But really, President Trump's visit was never going to help Luther Strange that much. People in Alabama know Luther Strange, know Roy Moore. They love the president but they trust Roy Moore. Not so much with Luther Strange.

CHURCH: That's interesting. Let's look at Roy Moore, who seems a lot like Mr. Trump on some issues. He has a controversial past in Alabama but is still popular among many Republicans there. So why did Mr. Trump not back him?

BRITT: Well, I have to think that Mitch McConnell, you know, the majority leader, the Republican majority leader of the Senate, went to Mr. Trump and said I need you to back Mr. Strange, he's our guy, we're throwing $15 million his way, help us out a bit. Look, there's a lot of Alabamians in the Trump administration. I have to believe the president was given bad information because like Roy Moore or hate Roy Moore but in a Republican primary, Roy Moore is hard to beat. CHURCH: Your sense is Roy Moore has it in the bag?

BRITT: We looked at the polls done earlier, they were done by a reputable polling company in Alabama. They have Moore up by 10 points. Now, that's going to narrow some. Everything here is going to depend on turnout. I spoke with the secretary of state earlier today and he said they expect between 12, 15 percent turnout, which means some 200,000 to 300,000 people are going to elect the junior Senator from Alabama.

CHURCH: I did want to ask you about Luther Strange and his connection to the disgraced former governor, Robert Bentley, who resigned after a corruption and sex scandal. Do you think that link has anything to do with his popularity?

BRITT: It has everything to do with his popularity. If Luther Strange had not accepted the appointment from Governor Bentley, he would be the next Senator from Alabama, because he had it in the bag. But when he accepted that appointment, he said, when the reporters asked him, which we did as well, was there any type of quid pro quo with you and Governor Bentley, he denied it. Not necessarily anything there. But here's what he said, I never said there was an investigation into Robert Bentley. So when he was asked about the investigation into Bentley, he denied it in a sort of lawyerly way. Now, we had pictures of Luther Strange and Governor Bentley entering the grand jury that was investigating not only Bentley but others in his administration. So we knew that Luther wasn't exactly being honest with us about his answer. And the media jumped on that. People now feel there was some type of deal between the governor and Luther Strange. I'm not sure if there was. But the appearance is not good.

CHURCH: Right. And it's all about optics in politics, isn't it?

I did want to point out Mr. Trump's former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is pushing for Mr. Moore. So is Sarah Palin. But Mr. Trump and the Washington Republican establishment is pushing for Luther Strange. Do you see this as an example of a widening gap in the Republican Party?

[02:55:02] BRITT: Absolutely. Roy Moore, for 40 years, has been the far-right element of the Republican Party. Roy Moore is a fire brand. This is not something new for Roy Moore. The 10 Commandments, his opposition to anything that's not traditional or Biblical based, has been going on for years and years. And very popular here, very popular in very conservative spots around the country. But this is a showdown between the very red conservative populists and the establishment of the party, the Republican Party. Luther Strange is the embodiment of the country club liberal -- not liberal, but conservative. And Roy Moore is that fire brand, like Steve Bannon, like Mr. Trump, where he is going to speak his mind.

CHURCH: Very quickly, whoever wins the GOP runoff Tuesday will face Democrat Doug Jones. Do you think he's getting enough support from the Democratic Party? Do you see any chance for the Democrats to win? BRITT: Well, I think, in Alabama, a Democrat winning a state-wide

election right now is almost impossible. I would say it's a fantasy. Our Democratic friends say they think Jones has a shot. There's not any indication in polls that could ever happen. Jones is a good guy. Roy Moore will beat him like a rented mule, so will Luther Strange.

CHURCH: Bill Britt, thank you for talking with us. Appreciate it.

BRITT: Thank you, Rosemary.

CHURCH: You are watching CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Rosemary Church. I'll be right back with another hour of news. Stick around.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)