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Trump Cals for Unity after Angry, Divisive Rally Speech; McConnell Dismisses Feud with Trump. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired August 23, 2017 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: Thank you so much for watching.

[17:00:03] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Back on script. After an off-the-rails rant in Phoenix in which he angrily attacked the news media, Democrats and members of his own party, President Trump was back on script today in Reno, calling for unity in a speech to veterans.

Divide and prompter. How did the president go overnight from an ad- libbed, divisive diatribe to a presidential-sounding speech read from a teleprompter?

Downright scary. Former director of national intelligence James Clapper calls the Phoenix rally "downright scary and disturbing," questions the president's fitness for office, and openly worries about his access to the nation's nuclear codes.

Plus, weird and ego driven. North Korea's regime accuses President Trump of spouting rubbish and posting weird and ego-driven thoughts on Twitter. But the president says he believes Kim Jong-un is, quote, "starting to respect us."

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news, just hours after an angry divisive rant at a Phoenix campaign rally, President Trump did a 180 today, calling for unity during a speech at the American Legion convention in Reno, Nevada. While he slammed the news media, Democrats and fellow Republicans last night, the president today declared, quote, "It's time to heal the wounds that divide us."

A Republican senator tells CNN his colleagues are rallying behind Majority Leader Mitch McConnell after some sharp attacks by President Trump. Sources say their last phone call broke down in a shouting match with the president cursing at McConnell. There may be efforts to patch up that rift. McConnell has just issued a statement saying both sides are working together.

But there's even more serious fallout from the off-the-rails Phoenix speech. More critics are now suggesting the president is unfit for office, including the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who served under 10 presidents and worries openly now about President Trump's access to the nuclear launch codes. And while President Trump says North Korea's Kim Jong-un is, quote, he

"starting to respect us," the Pyongyang regime accuses the president of weird and ego-driven Twitter posts. Is the president misreading America's most dangerous foe?

We're standing by to talk to former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta. And I'll speak with Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of the House Armed Services Committee.

Our correspondent, specialists and guests, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

President Trump seems to have calmed down after last night's very angry diatribe. Today he stayed on script in an address to veterans.

Let's begin our coverage this hour with our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, we saw a different President Trump today.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, it could be the calm before the next storm. The president continued his rendition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Trump today, giving a more constrained speech, compared to the long rant he delivered in Arizona last night.

Today, the president called on the nation to heal its divisions, but in many cases, there are divisions he has created. The erratic behavior is becoming a growing concern here in Washington to respected leaders from both parties.


ACOSTA (voice-over): Speaking to military veterans in Reno, it was a more presidential Trump.

TRUMP: We have no division too deep for us to heal, and there is no enemy too strong for us to overcome.

ACOSTA: But the restrained performance was a far cry from the president who went on a verbal rampage in Phoenix, ranting and raving about the removal of Confederate statues.

TRUMP: They're trying to take away our culture. They're trying to take away our history, and our weak leaders, they do it overnight.

ACOSTA: And threatening a government shutdown if Congress doesn't pay for a wall on the border, the same wall he once vowed Mexico would fund.

TRUMP: Believe me, if we have to close down our government, we're building that wall.

ACOSTA: The most mind-boggling moment came when the president tried to whitewash his comments on Charlottesville.

TRUMP: Here's what I said on Saturday. "We're closely following the terrible events unfolding in Charlottesville." This is me speaking. "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence."

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump blatantly omitted the fact that he blamed the violence on many sides.

TRUMP: We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides. On many sides.

ACOSTA: And neglected to mention that he said some of the white supremacist demonstrators were very fine people.

ACOSTA (on camera): The protestors were...

[17:05:03] TRUMP: Excuse me, you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

ACOSTA: No, sir, the Nazis, there are no fine people in the Nazis.

(voice-over): In Phoenix, the president was playing to the cheers from his base.

TRUMP: So I think we'll end up probably terminating NAFTA at some point.

ACOSTA: From a suggestion that he might pardon controversial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio...

TRUMP: You know what? I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine, OK?

ACOSTA: ... to his not-so-subtle bashing of Arizona Senator John McCain, who's battling brain cancer.

TRUMP: One vote away. I will not mention any names.

ACOSTA: The president is still venting his frustrations with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, fuming over his defeat on health care, tweeting, "If Republican Senate doesn't get rid of the filibuster rule and go to a simple majority, which the Dems would do, they are just wasting time."


ACOSTA: But the president keeps forgetting his health care bill failed to secure that simple majority in the Senate.

The last two days are leaving GOP lawmakers scratching their heads and warning against the idea of a government shutdown.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I don't think a government shutdown is necessary, and I don't think most people want to see a government shutdown. ACOSTA: But a more critical conversation is underway in Washington:

whether the president should have access to the nation's nuclear arsenal.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I worry about, frankly, you know, the access to the nuclear codes. If he, in a fit of pique, he decides to do something about Kim Jong-un, there's actually very little to -- to stop him.


ACOSTA: Now, the White House appears to be trying to heal some of the damage from the president's behavior. There is talk here of setting up a meeting between the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The stakes are very high, Wolf, as a government shutdown and a vote on the debt ceiling are looming for next month -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Critically important issues. Jim Acosta, thank you.

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, just put out a statement, by the way, trying to play down any rift with the president. Let's bring in our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju.

Manu, your sources have told you they haven't spoken in quite some time.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, actually since August 9. Remember what happened on that day. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell went out, gave a speech, made some mild criticisms of President Trump, suggesting that he had, quote, "excessive expectations coming into office and set artificial deadlines. That's really not the way to legislate."

Afterwards President Trump made a phone call to Mitch McConnell and really laid into him. I'm told by sources with direct knowledge of the call, Wolf, that the one issue that really irked the president was Russia. He believe that the majority leader has not done enough to protect him on the Russia probes.

In addition to that, the Russia sanctions bill that overwhelmingly passed Congress and the president only reluctantly signed into law, he was furious about that, did not like the way it played out and made Mitch McConnell aware of that, even dropped some curse words, I am told.

Then afterwards they have not spoken face to face or on the phone since that August 9 encounter.

BLITZER: When you say overwhelmingly passed the Senate, it was 98-2. That is overwhelming passing the Senate, that Russian sanctions bill.

But let's talk a little bit about the whole Russia probe. What does the president want Mitch McConnell to do? To tell the Senate Intelligence Committee Republican chairman, tell the Senate Judiciary Committee's Republican chairman, stop it? RAJU: You know, we're not clear about exactly what he said. If

you're just venting frustration as it is, because he does not like the way that this is playing out, but what we do know is that there are two investigations happening in the Senate. The Senate Judiciary Committee wants to talk to his eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. That, potentially, is hitting pretty close to home for the president.

BLITZER: The Republican senators, at least so far, they seem to be rallying around the Senate majority leader, right?

RAJU: Yes. That's right. You saw that actually when Trump suggested that perhaps McConnell will not be leader after this Congress. That is not what Republicans are saying who I have talked to. They're saying that they support him, that they actually -- it's having a unifying effect behind McConnell, and one Republican I talked to today said that -- who was actually a pretty close ally with the president, said that these are just distractions.

These attacks against McConnell, against Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican senator who's up for reelection next year, they are just furious and fed up with this. They're saying that it's time for him to focus his energy on getting the agenda through. Doing this will actually lead to, quote, "distractions" in the words of this one member as they try to get this very ambitious agenda done. And even basic functioning, like keeping the government open. I can tell you this, Wolf, Mitch McConnell does not like talk of a shutdown, so we'll see if the president backs off that talk.

BLITZER: He really went after Jeff Flake last night. Didn't mention him by name, but on a tweet this mornin, he said, "Not a fan of Jeff Flake. Weak on crime and border." So he didn't mince any words this morning

He went after John McCain as well. All right. Thanks very much, Manu Raju, for that report.

Joining us now, Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California. He's a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Good to be with you, Wolf.

[17:10:02] BLITZER: All right. So we all saw one version of President Trump last night in Phoenix. We saw another version today. How do you reconcile that?

GARAMENDI: There's no way to reconcile it, except in Trump's own words. During the campaign, he tore into his opponents who were using Teleprompters, saying that those were not what they believed. And if you want to know what a person believes, listen to them when they're not using a Teleprompter. That's basically what Trump believes, and we saw two different displays. One, Trump using a Teleprompter, very nice words, very conciliatory words, almost certainly written by somebody other than Trump. And then the night before, we saw the real Trump, a man that is

totally, totally out of control and engaged in rhetoric that slams the press which, by the way, happens to be the very first thing that a dictator will do to secure his position is to delegitimize the press. And Trump has been at that for his entire campaign, in fact, his entire presidency. We've got to be very concerned about that.

And then the lies. The pathological lying that's going on is just beyond. That creates yet another problem of just what exactly are our friends and opponents to believe? What is the role of the president? What is he really going to do? There's no way to know, because the truth is constantly changing in his mind.

BLITZER: I want to get to that issue of lying, if you will, but when you suggest the words that the president is doing, what dictators try to do in stifling or criticizing or blasting the news media, just elaborate a second on that. I want you to be precise.

GARAMENDI: Well, I'll be very precise. If one were to look at Nazi Germany, that was the very early part of their tenure, was to delegitimize the press. They constantly attacked the press. They always were going, "they and us," "them and us," back and forth. And that's exactly what this president is doing. He is using a tactic that is not only in that particular country but around the world to delegitimize, to muzzle, or to, in many cases, just destroy the free press.

We count on the free press in this nation as a source, a counterbalance to Congress, to the presidency, to the power of government. And it is extremely important that it not be delegitimized and all the words that he's using, "fake press" and on and on, are all part of that. And last night we saw him do it to a fare thee well.

BLITZER: Well, just -- just to follow up, Congressman, because those are strong words. Are you suggesting the president wants to be a dictator?

GARAMENDI: He's certainly power hungry. There's no doubt about that. The words that he's used during this campaign -- "I will do this. I am the only person that can do this or that." Does he want to be a dictator? He certainly wants to push the Congress aside. He's already taken into the judicial system by going after federal judges, and it goes on and on.

This man is clearly not fit to be president. This man does not have the demeanor or the temperament to be president, but he is our president.

And so those of us in Congress are going to have to push back. And we're going to have to push back very strongly. We have legislation in place, not only impeachment legislation, but more to the point of the nuclear issues, depriving the president of the opportunity to use nuclear weapons as a first strike. They, of course, would remain as a deterrent, which has been their presumed purpose, from the very earliest days of the nuclear arsenal. BLITZER: When you say he's unfit to be president, elaborate on that.

What do you mean by that: mentally unfit, politically unfit? Talk a little bit about that.

GARAMENDI: Well, I don't like his politics, but that's not what I'm talking about. What I'm talking about is his temperament. He's always flying off the handle. We saw what happened at the now very famous press conference a week ago at the Trump Tower where he was totally out of control.

And last night at the rally, with one lie after another, with one demonizing the press in one word and then the next word, tearing into his political allies that he has to have for the passage of any legislation, McCain and other senators. I mean, this is not a -- this is not a person that is thinking rationally about what's important. He's just flying off the handle, and that is extremely dangerous.

Also, as I said a moment ago, the word of the president is absolutely essential, not just in domestic politics and with the Congress, but more importantly, with our allies and our opponents around the world. When the president says something, people have to rely on that as being not only factual but also that is a clear demonstration of the view.

[17:15:12] And so when he ripped into, what, "fire and fury" two weeks ago, what did that mean? Everybody thought it might mean nuclear war. Well, perhaps it did; we don't know. And that is what creates the uncertainty. What is the opponent, in this case Kim Jong-un, to think? Is he coming after me with nuclear weapons? If so, how do I respond? Do I respond first while I have the weapons?

So that's the kind of uncertainty that this president is creating in international affairs, in security issues, and just the chaos of Washington is every day getting worse.

BLITZER: Listen to how the former director of national intelligence, James Clapper, who served, by the way, under 10 American presidents, responded to President Trump's speech last night.


CLAPPER: I really question his ability to -- his fitness to be in this office. And I also am beginning to wonder about his motivation for it. Maybe he is looking for a way out. Having some understanding of the levers that a president can exercise, I worry about, frankly, you know, the access to the nuclear codes.


BLITZER: Access to nuclear codes. So if the former DNI, the director of national intelligence, Congressman, is concerned about the president's access to the nuclear codes, what does that tell you?

GARAMENDI: It tells me to be concerned. But I must tell you that my concern is somewhat relieved or alleviated by the fact that we have some extraordinary generals running the military. Mattis as secretary of defense and then on down through the leadership ranks. Men that are stable, men that have a lot of experience, women also in key positions who are thoughtful, who recognize the incredible destructive power as well as deterrent power of our nuclear forces. Will they obey a command? Probably so. But before they do that, I'm quite certain that they would push back very, very strongly and cause the president to rethink any decision that might be the start of a major conflagration.

And it doesn't have to just be nuclear. A war on the Korean Peninsula is a devastating, devastating event. For our own troops, we've got 25,000 soldiers, airmen. We have their families are there. Certainly, they would be seriously impacted, and many would die. And Seoul, South Korea is in direct range of hundreds, if not thousands, artillery pieces and ballistic missiles from North Korea.

So we have to go lightly. We have to go very carefully here. Teddy Roosevelt said it. Carry a big stick -- and God, we have a big stick -- but speak softly and use that power wisely.

We were very, very close to a situation where we could move to a negotiation with North Korea. You think about the U.N. Security Council, 100 percent in support of serious sanctions for Russia and China.

BLITZER: Well...

GARAMENDI: And then the president blows it with his "fire and fury" statement.

BLITZER: Let me -- let me just press you on that, because he did speak a couple weeks ago of fire and fury, said the U.S. military was locked and loaded as far as North Korea is concerned. But last night in a speech, he expressed optimism in regards to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. Listen to this.


TRUMP: Kim Jong-un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us. I respect that fact very much. And maybe -- probably not -- but maybe something positive can come about.


BLITZER: All right. So he's gone from fire and fury to maybe something positive can come about. What's your reaction?

GARAMENDI: I like the last statement better than the first statement. The last statement is where we have to be.

There's no doubt that Kim Jong-un said if there was a war, he would lose it. He would lose that war. He would lose the reign that has -- that have been three generations in his family. It would be over. But we also know from our side it would be a devastating war. It would make the first Korean War look like a -- serious, but this one would be far more serious. So we understand that. And hopefully, what the president is alluding

to is that there is a path to negotiation. And I believe that there is. Without going into the details today, we need to sit down at the table with the five parties in the area -- China, Russia, the United States and possibly Japan, certainly South Korea -- to -- to see a serious discussion about how to resolve this war, which did not end.

[17:20:16] This war did not end in 1953. There's an armistice. And so we need to look at what can be a stable future, and I believe that there is one out there. But that's going to take negotiations.

We have a big stick. Kim Jong-un knows that. He knows that, if there's a war, it would be bloody on both sides, but ultimately, we would win it. At a huge, horrible cost, but we would win.

BLITZER: All right. Congressman, there's more we need to discuss. I've got to take a quick break. We'll resume all of our special coverage right after this.


[17:25:06] BLITZER: Our breaking news, President Trump did a complete turnabout today just hours after delivering an angry, divisive diatribe at a Phoenix campaign rally. The president stayed on script today, calling for unity during a speech in Reno to the American Legion convention.

We're back with Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California. He's a member of the House Armed Services Committee.

I want you, Congressman, to listen to another brief little excerpt from what the president said at his campaign rally in Phoenix last night.


TRUMP: In the proud tradition of America's great leaders, from George Washington -- please don't take his statue down, please. Please! From Lincoln to Teddy Roosevelt. I see they want to take Teddy Roosevelt's down, too. They're trying to figure out why. They don't know. They're trying to take away our culture. They're trying to take away our history.


BLITZER: So as you know, some of the president's critics have said that phrasing, using words like "our culture," "our history," seems to play to what they call white identity politics, especially keeping the Confederate monuments. Is that wise for the president to be doing that so soon after the violence we saw in Charlottesville?

GARAMENDI: Well, it raises a very fundamental question about the moral leadership of this man. He clearly displayed at the -- as a result of the Charlottesville incidents, a lack of moral clarity and moral leadership. He, even to this day, he does not seem to be clear in denouncing white nationalism or KKK or the neo-Nazis. That kind of moral clarity is absolutely essential, because the lack

of it or the very ability in the way he was -- he has addressed this issue leads those elements to believe that they may somehow be legitimate. And others who might be outside those groups say, "Well, after all, the president doesn't think they're so bad. Maybe I'll kind of feel that way, and I'll go ahead and join up."

That's not what we want. What we want is clarity. We've had it from presidents dating back to, actually, Ronald Reagan and before, with Lyndon Johnson and Kennedy, very clearly denouncing that kind of racial bigotry by those and other groups. That's what we need from the president.

The thing that disturbs me so very much about these rallies, and I'm thinking about the rally the president had when he returned from the meeting in Mexico with the president of Mexico. He went to, again, Arizona in a rally that was just full of "them. They are the problem. They are crossing the border. They are the bad people. They are the drugs. They are the criminals," and "we." So it was them and us.

That is a technique that's been used repeatedly throughout histories of cultures and around the world where the nation is divided, where bigotry and hatred take root. And from the very first day of this man's candidacy to this moment, he has maintained a very close walk to the edge.

Think. He came down the golden elevator, and the first words out of his mouth were to go after Mexicans. Not just those in Mexico, but those in the United States, some of whom have been here for five, six, seven generations.

In one case, a gentleman I met yesterday, the governor of Nevada, his family, Mexican to be sure, have been in the United States for nine generations.

So this kind of divisiveness, which has been at the heart of the Trump campaign and his presidency, it's always there. And as a result of that, it tends to legitimize these hate organizations. We cannot have that from a president.

And if he can't be clear, if he cannot clearly state in his own heart and to the American public that this kind of racial bigotry is hateful and has no place in this nation, then he really must step aside. Because it is an extraordinary problem. Our history in this nation is not good on these matters. I'm in California.

BLITZER: When you say step aside, you want him to resign? Is that what you're saying?

GARAMENDI: If he cannot provide the moral leadership that is essential to keep this nation together as a whole so that every person from the world who is here today and wants to be here tomorrow has a place, a legitimate place and a legitimate role in our nation, then yes, he should not be our president. And he should step aside. And we should have a president that can, with clarity, with moral certainty, make it clear that we are a nation of the entire world. [17:30:17] We are all here, and all of us, wherever we may be from,

whatever our language, whatever our color, religion or sexual orientation, we have a place in America. And we all belong here. And there are no "them" and "us," which is a constant theme that he uses.

BLITZER: Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

GARAMENDI: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, President Trump's mixed messages and angry rant. One moment warm and fuzzy, the next.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I didn't say, "I love you because you're black" or "I love you because you're white" or "I love you because you're from Japan or you're from China or you're from Kenya or you're from Scotland or Sweden." I love all the people of our country.



[17:35:48] BLITZER: For 77 minutes last night, President Trump delivered a rambling, fiery and divisive speech to a crowd of supporters at a campaign rally in Phoenix, Arizona. At times the president stuck to the script. At other times not so much. Let's watch.


TRUMP: Our movement is a movement built on love: its love for fellow citizens, its love for struggling Americans who've been left behind.

Truly dishonest people in the media and the fake media, they make up stories.

Respect for America demands respect for all of its people. I'm really doing this to show you how damned dishonest these people are.

When one part of America hurts, we all hurt.

They are trying to take away our history and our heritage. You see that.

When one American suffers an injustice, all of America suffers together. We're all together.

I hit them with neo-Nazi. I hit him with everything. I got the white supremacists, the neo-Nazi, I got them all in there. Let's see, KKK, we have KKK. I got them all.

No matter where they come from, no matter what faith they practice, they form a single unbreakable team. I didn't say, "I love you because you're black" or "I love you because

you're white" or "I love you because you're from Japan or you're from China or you're from Kenya or you're from Scotland or Sweden." I love all the people of our country.

We're a team. As a nation, we're a team.

These are sick people. You know the thing I don't understand. You would think -- you would think they'd want to make our country great again, and I honestly believe they don't. I honestly believe it.

Thousands and thousands of brave Americans have paid the ultimate price for our freedom. Now it's up to us to preserve and protect their legacy.

One vote away. I will not mention any names. Very presidential, isn't it? Very presidential. And nobody wants me to talk about your other senator, who's weak on borders, weak on crime, so I won't talk about him.

My administration is committed to the idea that all Americans have the right to live in safety, security and peace.

They used to send in thugs. People are tougher than them, so it wasn't always very good for them, but they're sending thugs; and our people would protect themselves. And then you'd go home and you'd watch this violence.

We are Americans, and the future belongs to us. The future belongs to all of you.

I always hear about the elite. You know, the elite? They're elite. I went to better schools than they did. I was a better student than they were. I live in a bigger, more beautiful apartment, and I live in the White House, too, which is really great.

This is our moment. This is our chance. This is our opportunity to recapture our dynasty like never before.

I've had a great life. I've had great success. I've enjoyed my life. Most people think I'm crazy to have done this. And I think they're right.


BLITZER: All right, let's get some reaction from our political specialists.

David Chalian, I watched your immediate reaction to the speech, and we only ran a little bit of it. We saw the difference between reading from the teleprompter and just ad-libbing. But you said he sounded unhinged. I want you to explain.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, I think you just proved exactly what I was talking about in the way that you just presented the differences between them. That's not -- that's not a stable way of presenting a message. That is what I mean for unhinged.

Also what I meant when I said that, Wolf, is he's unhinged from the presidency as we have all, as Americans, come to know the job. Which is to bind the country together, to set a course, be that north star, say, "I'm going this way," even if people have policy differences, and set that kind of leadership. He is removed from that. He's unhinged from the presidency in that way.

[17:40:12] When he said -- when you just heard him say, "Ah, so presidential" to not say the senators' names, McCain and Flake, who he was clearly calling out without saying their name in the speech, "so presidential." Donald Trump is so in a different universe than presidential right now, he doesn't get credit for being presidential in his mind, because he doesn't say the name of a senator that he's calling out and attacking of his own party, one of whom is a war hero and is battling brain cancer right now. You don't get points for being presidential, because you don't say their name when you're slighting them.

BLITZER: Mark Preston, what did you take away from this speech?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, I looked at my Twitter feed from the moment when the speech ended to see what my thoughts were to go back. There was a lot of different things that was going on at that time.

I wrote at the time, and it seems the same to me right now, that he was tone deaf, that there were so many problems facing the nation in this world, that instead of showing leadership, he was stoking these fires of division.

It wasn't a campaign speech last night. It wasn't a speech to talk about the Republican agenda. It was a speech to settle scores with people who Trump feel wronged him.

I do want to point out, though, that talking about alternative facts, how about an alternative universe? At the same time Donald Trump was making the speech last night, his wife retweeted a note from Chelsea Clinton that said, "Thank you, Chelsea Clinton. So important to support all of our children for being themselves."

Just for our viewers, earlier in the day, Chelsea Clinton had come to the defense of Donald Trump's son, Barron, because he had been criticized for the way that he dressed.

So at the time that Donald Trump was tearing down America, we saw that his wife was reaching out to who his nemesis was, the daughter of his nemesis. It was amazing. I think David Axelrod could take that speech and teach an entire class at his Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago just on what happened in those 77 minutes.

BLITZER: We're going to get to David Axelrod in a moment. Rebecca, you know, it was also clear that, you know, he was trying to defend his remarks following the Charlottesville tragedy, what occurred there, but he never mentioned that he had said there are very fine people on both sides. He said there -- you know, he condemned all the bad people, but he pointed out there are many sides. He never really explained that last night. He never referred to that, and that's why he's continuing to get hammered.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, and it's amazing we're still having this conversation, Wolf, days later from the president's first statement to a second statement, third, and now I don't even know what number statement we're on at this point. There have been so many.

The fact of the matter is that the president should have been clear the first time, and we wouldn't need to be still having this conversation, but Donald Trump cannot let things go. He cannot just let it lay. As Preston said, he needs to settle scores.

He feels that Republicans have wronged him by going after him after he made his remarks, saying that there were some fine people in these white supremacist gatherings. And called him out for being wrong.

And Donald Trump, this gets under his skin. So this wasn't about America. This wasn't about uniting the country. This was about Donald Trump. And message discipline really is just not a word that this White House or Donald Trump, in particular, even knows the meaning of.

BLITZER: David Axelrod, what was really extraordinary was following the speech, right here on CNN, in an interview, James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said the president's speech makes him worry about his access to the nuclear codes. That's pretty amazing.

You think of General Clapper. He served for 10 -- under 10 American presidents, all sorts of the most essential intelligence positions out there, and he's raising this question about the current president of the United States. When you heard that, what was your reaction?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it was stunning, because I overlapped briefly with Jim Clapper in government. I know him to be a sober, serious, committed public servant, someone who's not partisan in any way and someone who isn't given to throwing around incendiary words.

And for him to characterize the president in that way and to raise these concerns seemed to me really significant and probably reflected thinking of others in the intelligence and national security community.

And what's most disturbing, and he summed it up in his comments last night, is the worse things go for the president, the worse he seems to get. And we saw that during the campaign. We're seeing it now. The more he feels embattled, the more he lashes out and creates greater problems.

But I have one other concern, Wolf. And that is, as much as I respect General Clapper, the thing that he left hanging was what we should do about it. He said, "I don't think he's fit for office," and then -- but he had no real answer to that. And the inference was that somehow, there should be some effort to

remove him, or at least that's how some people would have heard it. And I think we have to be very, very careful when we have these discussions because we have a system, a constitutional system. And if people get a sense that there is some extraordinary measure that's going to be taken to affect what they would view as a bloodless coup -- remember, a third of the country supports this president -- that's a very dangerous road to go down.

And if you ever did go down that road, you're opening a Pandora's Box that will never end. So I was a little nervous about General Clapper's comments, even as I took them as a very, very serious admonition.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. What about you, David?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. No, I think David Axelrod is completely right. There has been talk of impeachment, talk of the 25th Amendment. I think that's misguided. Those are beyond what I can imagine right now of what is need here.

I think we all -- and this is -- as you've heard many Republicans say, I think everybody would like the President to be successful because that is good for the country. And trying to have -- you hear from his own party every day, they're trying to influence him to get there.

What is very concerning is Donald Trump may either be incapable or totally uninterested in actually getting his presidency on a course that would be beneficial to him, his agenda, that would be about addition and not subtraction, really trying to broaden out to get majority support, and move the country forward.

To this point in time, Wolf, he seems totally either incapable or uninterested in doing that.


BLITZER: Because this is a very sensitive moment and you hear words like that from General Clapper, and it's going to encourage others to follow suit.

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I got to tell you, I agree with David squares here, you know, when it comes to removing him from office. That is extremely dangerous talk.

And it's -- we've seen members of Congress who are actually now talking about trying to impeach him or that he should get knocked out. The only way that's ever going to happen is that if the Republican and Democratic leaders and rank and file members come together, Wolf, on Capitol Hill, and for some reason they think he's unfit for office.

However, I do think that -- and I know we said this time and time again, but I'll say it again. There was a turning point in the last couple weeks for Donald Trump about his support for the American people. He did cross that red line when it came to race, and I do think he has a lot to make up for it to get his presidency back on track.

BLITZER: You know, he did say -- General Clapper, looking at the verbatim of his comments, he said, among other things, maybe he is looking for a way out. You heard him say that, referring to the President of the United States. Do you think the President is looking for a way out?

REBECCA BERG, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: You know, that's something we heard tossed around as well during the campaign, Wolf, interestingly. Some advisers, Republican strategists, would raise this idea that Donald Trump was trying to self-emulate, essentially, or was on some kind of political suicide mission and didn't actually want to win.

I think we saw that that was not the case, and he was just following his political instincts, many of which turned out to be correct in spite of the fact that he stirred a great deal of controversy in the process. So I wouldn't -- I think that that's a reasonable thing for people to assume, given that this presidency has no context in modern history, and we're all just trying to make sense of it.

But at the same time, there is context for this in terms of Donald Trump, in that this is always how he has acted as far as we have known him, from his candidacy to his presidency. And he follows his gut. That's what he does. And he doubles down.

BLITZER: Very quickly, you know, David Axelrod, among the other inflammatory comments, he said last night at the rally that the threat of a government shutdown, a federal government shutdown, that could happen unless there is money for the wall along the border with Mexico. And he's getting severely criticized for that because a government shutdown, that would be a horrible thing for so many millions of people.

AXELROD: Yes. But, you know, what we've learned is that he seems more interested in inflaming his base, pumping up his base. Remember the night before he made a decision his base didn't like, to send more troops to Afghanistan, so he's throwing some red meat out there.

I'm not sure that he thinks about these long-term impacts on the country. He thinks about the short-term political impacts on his base. And that's one of the problems we have, because you can't govern a country like that, from moment to moment.

CHALIAN: I saw that --

BLITZER: You know, David Chalian --


BLITZER: I was going to say that he spoke about the wall with Mexico. He spoke about the threat of a government shutdown unless the Congress had funding for the wall with Mexico.

We didn't hear him say to the crowd out there during that 77-minute speech who is going to pay for that wall? AXELROD: Right.

CHALIAN: Which was like the biggest applause line of the entire campaign --


CHALIAN: -- Mexico and the whole crowd would cheer. That was gone from his stump speech yesterday. And remember, this his stump speech now as a campaign event.

[17:50:03] I do want to just say, I read that moment about him threatening a shutdown. That was the classic art of the deal, going to sort of the extreme position. I think he was sort of beginning a negotiation there, much like the way he was on NAFTA. I think he goes to the extreme position and then he comes back.

BLITZER: What did you think?

PRESTON: Well, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are going to make sure that the government doesn't shut down. And as David said, I don't think he thinks long term. You know what he thinks? He thinks in the moment.

If there was a government shutdown, do you remember last time? Do you remember when we -- when the United States got downgraded? The fact of the matter is Donald Trump's words matter. We've been talking about that for the last seven months. He's the president now, and now we're seeing them matter.

BERG: And, by the way, David mentions a negotiation, that this is maybe Donald Trump's first offer in terms of raising the debt limit and a potential government shut down. Republican leaders don't want this to be a negotiation. They want this to be an easy cut and dry, let's get this done, move on to other things.

BLITZER: Yes, a critically important issue. Everybody, stand by for a moment. There is another important development that we're following.

President Trump says Kim Jong-un is beginning to, quote, respect the United States. But recent propaganda from the North Korean regime seems to suggest otherwise.

Brian Todd is working this part of the story for us. What is the latest, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the President and the Secretary of State are saying some very optimistic things about being able to work with Kim Jong-un. But we've got new information tonight that the volatile North Korean leader is moving full speed ahead with his missile program and is taunting Mr. Trump in the process.


TODD (voice-over): President Trump boasting that his rival in Pyongyang may be coming around.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Kim Jong-un, I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us. I respect that fact very much. Respect that fact.


TRUMP: And maybe, probably not, but maybe something positive can come about.

TODD (voice-over): The President's remarks come just after North Korea posted a new propaganda video showing Trump looking out over a graveyard and members of his cabinet in the cross hairs of North Korean soldiers. North Korea's news agency issued a statement accusing President Trump of spouting rubbish and posting, quote, weird articles of his ego-driven thoughts on Twitter.

Is the murderous, unpredictable, young dictator really respecting the President?

GORDON CHANG, AUTHOR, "NUCLEAR SHOWDOWN: NORTH KOREA TAKES ON THE WORLD": I don't know where the President got that. I don't think that any Kim leader has respected a foreigner, except perhaps with Mao Tse-tung in the early 1950s and Vladimir Putin. We've got to be wary. Kim Jong-un may be setting a trap.

TODD (voice-over): Another sign tonight Kim Jong-un isn't tamping down his aggression, new images from his propaganda arm of Kim looking at a design of what experts say is a previously unseen type of missile. A poster of it on the wall say it's Pukguksong-3.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN, CONSULTING SENIOR FELLOW FOR MISSILE DEFENCE, INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES: What they have unveiled is a three-stage missile, presumably solid propelled, and it's capable of reaching the entire United States or presumably so. We just don't know how large it is at this point.

TODD (voice-over): Experts say the North Koreans could be several years away from deploying this missile, but when he does have that capability, Kim will be even more dangerous.

Solid fuel missiles, experts say, are faster to deploy, can be driven to a launch point and fired, harder to spot or intercept before they're airborne. Another ominous picture from the North Koreans tonight, Kim examining a large copper-colored chamber. Analysts say this could be a new plastic casing for a rocket.

ELLEMAN: It's a filament-wound plastic composite material, which is much lighter than metal, which will enable the missile to fly further with the same amount of propellant.


TODD: Analysts say the location where Kim looked at that missile design could also be meant to send a signal. They say that place is a chemical weapons research and development facility. Kim Jong-un has ignored chemical weapons bans. Experts say he's got a

massive stockpile of those weapons. And he used a chemical nerve agent, of course, to kill his own half-brother.

The fact that he's highlighting that facility, analysts say, could be seen as a warning to America that chemical weapons could be used against U.S. forces if they strike North Korea -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very disturbing, Brian. In visiting that facility, Kim Jong-un even ordered, what, more munitions to be produced?

TODD: He did, Wolf. According to North Korea's media arm, when he went to look at that missile design, Kim ordered the production of more solid fuel rocket engines and more warhead tips.

And also today, his regime slammed those joint U.S.-South Korean military drills taking place, saying the U.S., quote, shouldn't forget that their opponent is armed with nuclear weapons.

It does not seem, Wolf, contrary to what President Trump said, like Mr. Kim is respecting the U.S. any more than he ever has.

BLITZER: Interesting. All right, Brian. Thank you very much.

Coming up, the breaking news, President Trump makes an appeal for unity just hours after his own divisive diatribe leads some critics to openly worry about his fitness for office.

[17:55:00] I'll speak with the former CIA director, the former Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta. He is standing by live. That's just ahead.


BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. No division too deep. President trump calls for healing only hours after a divisive rant that rubbed salt in the wounds from the violence in Charlottesville. Tonight, critics say his scary behavior may be putting national security at risk.

[17:59:00] Ax to grind. Mr. Trump used a campaign rally in Phoenix to launch multi-pronged attacks targeting the news media, fellow Republicans, and others who made him feel wronged. New reaction tonight to a tirade fueled by personal grudges.