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U.S. Spokesman: ISIS in Raqqa "on Verge of Defeat"; Poll: Most Americans Think U.S. Headed in Wrong Direction; Trump to Ask Bannon to Back Off Some GOP Candidates; Trump Walks Back False Claim on Obama & Fallen Soldiers. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired October 17, 2017 - 11:30   ET

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


(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[11:33:40] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: What could be a defining moment in the fight against ISIS, moments ago, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria saying ISIS terrorists in Raqqa are on the verge of defeat. And U.S.-backed forces on the ground there are already claiming victory, saying Raqqa has been liberated, and major military operations there are over.

Joining me from Iraq's border with Syria, CNN's senior international correspondent, Arwa Damon, with much more.

Arwa, lay this out for us.

ARWA DAMON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Kate. The forces on the ground, the Syrian Democratic forces, are not quite yet claiming that Raqqa has been liberated. Although, yes, they have declared major combat operations over, saying they're focusing on going after small pockets of resistance, smaller groups of ISIS fighters. Also trying to make sure that there aren't any sleeper cells, either single individuals or small groups, hiding out in the rubble of that utterly devastated city.

They are saying that they expect to be able to fully announce Raqqa's liberation in the next, they're hoping, two to three days. The U.S. coalition spokesperson also said that, based on their rough estimates, they think that about 100 ISIS fighters may be left inside the city. But most certainly, it is in its final days. And this is a very significant moment. Remember, Raqqa was the first major city to fall to ISIS, the capital of its self-declared caliphate. And now ISIS can no longer at least make that claim. Significant losses territorially, but that does not necessarily mean the end, the defeat of the organization itself -- Kate?

[11:35:18] BOLDUAN: A question of what it all means going forward, a huge question for all of the leaders on the ground and here in the United States.

Great to see you, Arwa. Thank you so much.

We'll follow that and bring you updated statements when they come.

Also this we're following today. New polls are out showing most Americans believe the president of the United States is leading the country right now in the wrong direction. Not all bad news for the president, especially when you look at his own party right now. Details on that ahead.

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BOLDUAN: Fresh new CNN poll out, a new CNN poll showing President Trump's approval rating holding steady, but more Americans say he is leading the country in the wrong direction right now.

CNN's Political Director David Chalian has all of the numbers and insight behind the numbers.

David, take us behind the numbers. What stands out to you right now?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITIAL DIRECTOR: Let's start with the overall approval rating. This is our brand new CNN poll, conducted by SSRS. It shows Donald Trump with a 37 percent approval rating, 57 percent disapprove. As you said, that's been pretty steady. He's been between 37 and 40 percent for the last four months or so, Kate. Look at this. How does this stack up historically with his predecessors? He's down at the bottom. For October of the first year of the presidency, you see Donald Trump all the way down at the bottom. His next closest predecessor was Bill Clinton in October of his first year, at 47 percent. But he was 10 points higher than where Donald Trump is now. And, of course, with that Rose Garden appearance with Mitch McConnell yesterday, the Trump/GOP relationship in Congress is key. And we asked people who do you trust more, to handle the major issues of the day, President Trump or the Republicans in Congress? When you ask Americans overall, only 30 percent say President Trump, 47 percent of Americans in this poll trust Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, those guys there on the screen. But, Kate, when you ask Republicans, and this is everything, to understand what President Trump and Steve Bannon are doing, 63 percent of Republicans trust President Trump to handle the major issues, only 29 percent of Republicans trust their own leaders in Congress to do so.

[11:40:19] BOLDUAN: So informative as to where the conversation is, the targets are, and where tweets the go. That's for sure.

Great to see you, David. Thank you so much.

CHALIAN: Great to see you, too.

BOLDUAN: Joining me to discuss this and more, CNN politics reporter and editor-at-large, Chris Cillizza, CNN senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson, CNN political commentator and former communications director for Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, Alice Stewart, and chairman of the pro-Trump PAC -- too many "P"s -- Great America Alliance, Eric Beach.

Great to see you, Eric. I'm just going to simplify your intro from here on out.

ERIC BEACH, CHAIRMAN, GREAT AMERICA ALLICANCE PAK: Good.

BOLDUAN: Nia, first to you.

David Chalian was perfectly laying out, in the poll, the overall view of President Trump's relationship with Congress is, 32 percent approval. 54 percent disapprove. Same question among Republicans. 68 percent approve. Yes, 68 percent approve. What gives when all he says is he can't get anything done. Republicans seem to see this differently.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. I mean, they seem to think that it's going well. I mean, 68 percent, that's not a terrible approval rating. When you stack up the 68 percent against other approval ratings when it comes to Trump among Republicans, it's much higher. In the 80s, in most things, 80 percent approval rating among Republicans in terms of his handling of immigration in terms of whether or not Republicans think the country is going in the right direction, also in the 80s. So it is a little low. I mean, it's hard to know what people are sort of -- the quarter that disapprove, is it sort of disapproval nothing has been done, who do they blame that on, is it sort of disapproval that he's going after particular people, whether it's Mitch McConnell or Corker? Is it disapproval that, you know, that things just aren't going in the right direction in terms of all of the things they promise. So, it's hard to know. You would think, again, eight or nine months into his presidency this would be much higher. I think in some ways this approval rating and disapproval rating does speak to the fact that some Republicans are frustrated with the relationship. You would think it would be higher and probably would be if they had gotten anything done so far. That is, in some ways, why Trump is out there, yesterday, with Mitch McConnell to repair some of the that. And we'll see if that sticks.

BOLDUAN: Yes. Of course, we'll see if that sticks. Whatever sticks in Washington right now with this presidency.

Alice, let me ask this. As David was pointing out, one of the fascinating things, who do you trust to handle the issues, overall, folks trust Congress more, Republicans in Congress more. Among Republicans they trust Trump more. What message does that send to Congress on who should be leading the charge on key stuff and getting stuff done?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think they shared responsibility, all the way around, the president and Congress with regard to what's not getting done. The surprising thing with that typically people trust the person you voted for. Your local Congressman and local Senator.

BOLDUAN: Exactly.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: I hate Congress, but love my Congressman.

STEWART: Absolutely. I met him at the fish fry or Fourth of July parade. And you have a lot more confidence that they understand what you need. Those numbers are surprising. But I do think that, as we saw yesterday, we had the president coming

out there embracing Mitch McConnell, who they've had the war of words, but realizing he needs Mitch McConnell to get something done in Congress. But at the same time, showing his support for Steve Bannon, who has declared virtually a war on the GOP, because he needs Bannon and folks like Eric's group to get the base riled up and get the money in the coffers and get the base riled up to go against the establishment, which is what Trump wants to do.

BOLDUAN: I want to get to that in one second.

But, Chris, let me ask you this. You look at this, like, who do you trust to handle the issues more amongst Republicans Trump over Republicans in Congress more. I think someone who would disagree with that assessment would be John McCain. He delivered a brutal speech against the, let's call it, the Trump philosophy, not naming him by name. Here's a little bit of it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, (R), ARIZONA: To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain the last-best hope of earth, for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism, cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems, is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans assigned as sheep of history.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Chris, what does that -- what is what McCain says, what does it mean to the larger conversation?

[11:45:02] CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT- LARGE: I mean, I think, look at those two questions, approval of Congress and then who do you trust more, look at it among Republicans and what does it tell you? It tells you about two-thirds of Republicans are Trump Republicans, and with one-third of Republicans roughly, again, broad strokes, are not Trump Republicans. John McCain is in the not-Trump Republicans. Call it the Republican establishment, though, even that I'm not sure catches it all. But there is about a third of Republicans who are very weary of Trumpism, the rise of Steve Bannon and what that all represents, that populism, the skepticism about sort of globalism, the skepticism about trade agreements. So there's a huge divide within the Republican Party. But, and this is important for Donald Trump, it's not a 50/50 divide. Donald Trump has about 65 percent of Republicans in the Donald Trump Republican camp. McCain, Bob Corker, Ben Sass, Jeff Flake, they have about 33 percent. And, you know, in a one-on-one primary between Jeff Flake and Kelli Ward, for example, in Arizona, a third is not enough for Jeff Flake to win that primary. And Donald Trump still retains the sort of dominant hand as it relates to the politics within the Republican Party, even though the party is more divided against him than we would traditionally see, particularly at this point of a presidency. BOLDUAN: So on this kind of Bannon versus McConnell war, as Bannon

calls it, Eric, President Trump embraced them both yesterday. He said, when he was standing by Mitch McConnell, that he was going to ask Steve Bannon to back off on some of his relationship primary targets. If the president asks, will you back off as well?

BEACH: Well, I think the key word there was some of the primary targets. Chris mentioned somebody like Jeff Flake, right. Jeff Flake, you know, wrote a book against Donald Trump, full disclosure I work with Dr. Kelli ward who will be the next Senator from Arizona and there's a reason for that. There is a battle within the Republican Party, but it's really also a battle across the country. And that's why Donald Trump won the election. It is globalism versus America First policies. It is, you know, on key issues that we haven't discussed. And really because, you know, Congress is trying to set an agenda and really undercut the Trump coalition agenda, which does include illegal immigration, which does include, you know, getting better trade policies and does include U.S. Job creation. The problem is --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: I can't let you go without -- we have to stick to the list. Jeff Flake not backing off on. Got that one.

BEACH: Not at all.

BOLDUAN: Who else?

BEACH: No. I think if we have candidates that understand they want to go to D.C. and really focus on those core issues, again, not on the establishment agenda, but the Trump coalition, like Judge Roy Moore is, in Alabama -- I think it's ironic that the Senate Leadership Fund, you know, said that they were going to give money to Judge Moore and put in resources behind Judge Moore, and that's a case study for why don't they follow the grassroots. If the job of Washington, D.C., and Mitch McConnell, is to make sure that we get to the 60-vote threshold and pass real reforms, then let's follow the grassroot candidate for once as opposed to the establishment candidate inside of Washington, D.C. That's where the disconnect is. They don't understand why Donald Trump won and they don't understand the Donald Trump voter.

(CROSSTALK)

BEACH: They are going to understand that this year.

BOLDUAN: I don't understand how it's so -- Mitch McConnell remains the boogie man even when Donald Trump embraces him and calls him one of his best friends, says the relationship is outstanding, there's no problems there.

BEACH: Well, Kate --

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: No, I'm just - BEACH: Kate -

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: Welcome to Washington.

BEACH: -- Kate, I think that's a function -- very quickly, a function of the fact that Donald Trump understands that he needs Mitch McConnell to get tax reform done, right. I don't think anyone in the Trump coalition -- as Eric is talking about, I don't think anyone in the Trump coalition think Donald Trump is best friends with Mitch McConnell and supports everything Mitch McConnell wants. They view it as the fact that they need him now, and that's why Donald Trump is doing it. This is not a broad, sweeping endorsement of the establishment.

BOLDUAN: All right. Friends out of necessity.

(CROSSTALK)

BOLDUAN: I feel like that's all of us right now. We're friends out of necessity on any given day.

(LAUGHTER)

Eric, fight with me in the break. I have to go.

Everyone thank you so much.

BEACH: Thanks, Kate.

[11:49:17] BOLDUAN: I appreciate it.

All right. Coming up for us, President Trump moments ago, again, addressing how past presidents have communicated, made contact with families of fallen soldiers. It comes after he did falsely claim his predecessors did not reach out to families. Now is the president changing his tune and trying to clean up after that? That's next.

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BOLDUAN: President Trump is speaking out now today in the face of growing backlash after he claimed past presidents didn't make contact with families of fallen soldiers. Let's set it up. Yesterday, Trump said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn't make calls. A lot of them didn't make calls.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: Then this morning, President Trump walked those comments back, somewhat. Listen. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: As far as other representative, I don't know. You can ask General Kelly, did he get a call from Obama. You could ask other people. I don't know what Obama's policy was.

(voice-over): I really speak for myself. I'm not speaking for other people. I don't know what Bush or Obama did. You can find out easily what President Obama did. All you have to do is ask the military people. But I believe his policy was different than my policy. I can tell you, I called every one of them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BOLDUAN: This got somewhat lost in all of this back and forth. But how this started was a simple question at a press conference yesterday asking about the response to the death of four American soldiers and why he has not spoken out publicly about it yet. And then this all happened.

Let's discuss. CNN political commentator, Scott Jennings, is joining me now, the former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Scott, it's great to see you.

President Trump was not right in one regard. He seems to be trying to back track. I'm not clear as to what is actually going on. What do you think President Trump is saying?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I don't know. I don't think there is anything to be gained by trying to litigate what your predecessors did in this regard. My belief is the Obama White House contacted soldiers' families. My knowledge of President Bush's White House is they did as well. I have no reason to believe they did not. If those outreach methods were calls, letters and meetings, I'm sure there was a combination of all three. But the issue is why are we litigating this today. And it doesn't help advance the president's agenda. I think it was an unfortunate detour during the press conference to litigate this when you focus should have been on other things.

BOLDUAN: Right. Every president said this is the hardest thing a president must do, console families and speak to them or write a letter.

How did President Bush handle these moments?

JENNINGS: Well, President Bush met with families of the fallen. I know my Office of Political Affairs and the White House was frequently on the frontlines of calling these families and inviting them to meet with the president. He always did it in private. We never publicized it, and politicized it and make hay out of it. The president spent hundreds or thousands of hours with families of the fallen. Everybody got a letter. I'm not sure how many phone calls were made, but extreme measures were taken to contact as many families as possible so they could hear from the commander-in-chief. There have been a lot of officials who can speak to that, but I know this outreach was done.

BOLDUAN: Here's the one thing you are just getting at. I'm confused as to why this is an issue to compare and contrast against one's predecessor.

[11:55:02] JENNINGS: It shouldn't be an issue. We shouldn't politicize this.

And regarding the four soldiers who died recently, this is a matter of national security and he is going to contact the families in the way that best suits this particular situation, and that we will have more to say about it in the future. It's not a hard answer. And there's no political benefit to bringing up you predecessors. The reality is all of these situations are different. The four Green Berets were probably in a situation that he can't talk about much publicly, and a lot these situations don't allow the commander-in-chief to give public details. My political advice and P.R. advice is there is no reason to do this vis-a-vis your predecessors. Write these letters, make the calls you need to make, have the meetings you need to make. But there is no reason to do this publicly.

BOLDUAN: Scott, thanks for coming on. Great to see you.

JENNINGS: Thanks, Kate.

BOLDUAN: Any moment now, President Trump will be welcoming the prime minister of Greece to the White House. The same prime minister who, at one point, called President Trump evil. There is a history there, folks. Let's see how they interact today.

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