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CNN TONIGHT

Politics and Sports Mixed Creates Noise; President Trump Versus Sports Teams. Aired 10:30-11p ET

Aired September 25, 2017 - 22:30   ET

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


[22:35:55] DON LEMON, CNN HOST: Thank you, Jake. Thank you, Dana for that engaging debate. This is CNN Tonight. I'm Don Lemon.

So we're going to start by setting the record straight here. Taking a knee at an NFL game was never about the flag or the military. That's what the president wants you to believe. It gives his insulting sons of bitches comment cover, a comment that not only insults hardworking professional men but tries to drag their mother's down to his level as well.

Taking a knee is a constitutionally protected expression. It falls within league rules, period. If anyone actually believes this is about the flag, then you must believe Rosa Parks' protest was about a bus. Think about that. And while you're thinking about it, listen to Kaepernick one year ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COLIN KAEPERNICK, FORMER QUARTERBACK, SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: The media painted this as I'm anti-American, anti-men and women of the military. And that's not the case at all. You know, 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)

LEMON: Here is what this is about. It's about focusing attention on racial injustice, focusing attention on racial injustice. It's about challenging our country to extend the promise that -- of that flag to all citizens, including the citizens whose ancestors were slaves.

You may not agree with Colin Kaepernick or the scores of players who take a knee or took a knee this weekend. And that is OK, you don't have to agree with them. But that's not really the point here.

No American gets to tell another American how to express their love for this country. Now let's talk about patriotism. What is it? Is it draping one's self in the flag? Is it the pageantry and spectacle of a ball game, standing up for the national anthem? Or is it standing up for the founding principles of this country? Standing up for the very First Amendment of our Constitution, the very first one, which is freedom of expression. Standing up for our brothers and sisters, who may not look like us or

share our religious beliefs or are they of a different political persuasion? Is it prioritizing racism even when it may not directly affect you?

And justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affect one directly affect all indirectly. That was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

What he understood was that patriotism comes in many forms enshrined in the words of the Star-Spangled Banner or the "Land of the Free." Free meaning you may choose to stand. And the home of the brave. Someone else may be brave enough to put their livelihood on the line and choose to kneel.

Standing or kneeling. What does it matter? What matters is what's in your heart, and that is the American way.

Now let's talk to our panel now. CNN political analyst Mark Preston is here, CNN senior political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson, and senior political commentator David Axelrod. Thank you all for joining us.

It was a fascinating debate on healthcare, but let's talk about this story that has been really raging all weekend.

There's escalating tensions in North Korea, Nia, the hurricane aftermath in Puerto Rico, battle for healthcare as we just heard, tax reform. President Trump is on day three of attacking NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem. Why did he pick this particular fight?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER, CNN: You know, I think in many ways this is where the president is most comfortable, not only fighting but fighting the culture war, kind of framing himself as a defender.

And I think he typically I think is playing along with white identity politics and sort of white grievance politics, right. I think he is talking to white Americans who have some cultural anxiety about the sort of demographic changes that we see in this country.

[22:40:07] And this has been a feature of this president even going back to when he was right. And his entire identity was another sort of racial dog whistle around the president, President Obama's birth, right, the sort of racist 'birther' lie.

So I think this is something we will continue to see from this president. I mean, he talks about, for instance, you know, we're going to bring back the phrase Merry Christmas in this country. He's also, he's always talking about this sense of loss and I think white Americans particularly feel and that he's going to be the one to restore them, restore their esteem, restore their place, sort of restore their sense of where this country should be.

So I think that's where he is. He clearly feels like he's comfortable here. He feels like this is a political winner for him. His campaign sent out an ad, an e-mail, sort of plea on this for donations. So, you know, this is where the president is comfortable.

I think it has implications for the country at large, certainly, I mean, on a smaller level for this president politically and then also for the GOP that has struggled mightily with trying to rebrand themselves and trying to be a bigger tent party. I think it's going to be really hard with this president who is so comfortable playing racial politics and playing a racially divisive politics for gain.

LEMON: And yet and still, David, he says that this is not about race. Does he not understand that? Is he that ignorant of the situation or is this a tactic that he's doing on purpose? Is he purposely doing this?

DAVID AXELROD, SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR, CNN: Yes, I think he's purposely doing it and I think part of what he was doing was standing in front of an audience in the State of Alabama where he very likely is going to lose an election tomorrow night. The candidate he's supporting is going to lose to a candidate who is further to the right.

And so one thing that I think occurred to him was maybe if I throw this red meat out, I can stir something that will somehow re-down to my benefit here.

But more than that, he's looking at a week in which he's going to suffer potentially two losses and we're talking both of them tonight. One is that special in Alabama and the other is healthcare. And nothing bothers Donald Trump more than the perception that he's a loser so he decided to change the conversation by doing what he does so often and with such ferocity and that is to kind of exploit the racial divisions in our country.

So, I think he knew exactly what he was doing and he got the effect that he wanted, which is that he's got the whole country talking about something other than the fact that he was going to have a very bad week.

LEMON: Mark, I wonder -- I wonder if he realized the reaction that was going to take place afterwards, the fallout, because at Monday night football tonight, the entire Dallas Cowboys team including the owner and Trump donor Jerry Jones locked arms, knelt down before the national anthem. Take a look and then we'll talk about it.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Players wanted to show unity, but they were very adamant about wanting to separate that message from the national anthem. Shawn.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right, Lisa, and as they take a knee collectively, boos can be heard from this sell-out crowd in Arizona.

(END VIDEO CLIP) LEMON: So, Mark, they didn't take a knee during the anthem, but the

franchise also tweeted out hash tag football is family. What does this mean for the White House's argument that this is an affront to the flag?

MARK PRESTON, POLITICAL ANALYST, CNN: Well, you said it at the top and that's absolutely right. What President Trump has done is he created a red herring. He's trying to divert attention into a narrative that will fit his belief or at least his story in order for him to defend himself.

But, in fact, we know what Colin Kaepernick was trying to do. We know what these football players and other athletes were trying to do over the weekend and of course we saw that tonight as well. They're trying to sew solidarity. They're trying to bring attention to an issue that certainly Colin Kaepernick when he started this didn't think there was enough attention when he brought to it.

And guess what. Colin Kaepernick was very successful in doing so. But what Donald Trump has done is that he is trying to make this about patriotism. He has tried to create as Nia was saying identity politics when it comes to, you know, this specific issue but also the culture wards.

And don, what I also, I do also think it's very, very important to note is that we haven't seen President Trump in the eight plus months in office create a whole lot of allies.

On Saturday, I remarked that when you make so many enemies, you'll have no moral allies left. The next day, Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, a very close friend of his came out and was critical of President Trump.

Tom Brady, the all-star quarterback, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, a friend of President Trump came out this morning on a Boston radio station and said he was disappointed in the president.

[22:45:04] So what we've seen for President Trump in the eight and a half months is not only with our foreign allies but also here at home he's alienating everyone.

LEMON: Man. There's so much in what you just said, especially friends of the president and him not really building -- he's not building bridges politically among Americans who may or may not vote for him next time, which he's supposed to do as president, but he's also not building bridges among his friends, his supporters.

And when you start to lose supporters in this political game, Nia- Malika -- Nia-Malika Henderson, it's kind of -- is that the beginning of the end? And I don't mean the beginning of the end of his presidency, but the beginning of the end of the strong support that this president has from some very wealthy people and from even the people he may be trying to reach with this, you know, with his racial politics that he's doing here?

HENDERSON: You know, I think, and I reached out to some conservatives about this and what their reaction was to what the president said, they are all for it. I'm sure if you listen to conservative radio today, they were very much in the president's corner. They think this is a political winner in many ways.

But, you know, in terms of most presidents, you think back the last few presidents, they come into office with the expressed goal of being a uniting figure, right, being a uniter, not a divider. You think of somebody like Bill Clinton, you know, wanting to be a repairer of the breach. He talked about that.

Obviously, George Bush the same thing. And Obama, hope and change and unity in all those ways. It might end up in the end that they won't necessarily unifying figures for the country, but they at least attempted that.

LEMON: Right.

HENDERSON: I think for this president we see that him actively actually trying to divide the country and really kind of get some political gain from that division.

LEMON: Yes. Hey, David, I want to ask you about this. It's important to get this out here now. Sources are telling CNN that the chief of staff John Kelly doesn't believe this is a fight President Trump should be taking on. The president then tweeted this. "General John Kelly totally agrees with my stance on NFL players and the fact that they should not be disrespecting our flag or great country."

Again, as I said at the top of the show this is not about disrespecting the flag or disrespecting the country. That's how the administration or at least the president is trying to frame it to change it here.

But John Kelly spoke briefly to CNN this evening and he says that he's, quote, "appalled by what he sees as a lack of respect by players." In this -- in this case both things can be true. He may not be happy the president took this on, but he also thinks that the players should stand.

AXELROD: No. That is exactly right. I'm sure both things are true. Look, John Kelly has been working very hard to sort of calm the waters over at the White House, and the one thing that he hasn't been able to get control of is the president himself and through either his comments or his Twitter account.

I'm sure that this is not a fight that he thinks is particularly productive right now.

But Don, let me just say one other thing on a personal note. I'm the son of an immigrant, I've mentioned this before, a refugee who came here, fled a country where he was persecuted, his family was persecuted, came to America.

And when I went overseas and particularly Eastern Europe with the president I would stand there with my hand over my heart when the anthem was played and I had tears coming down my eyes because to me America was a place where people could find refuge, pray as they wanted, think as they want.

So, you know, it's too bad to demean what that anthem means and what the flag means and what the country means and drag the country into this kind of a battle for your own narrow or your perception of what is your own narrow political gain. And the president just hasn't been able to see himself as a trustee of the larger country. He sees himself rather as a politician who is looking for ways to constantly inflame his base.

LEMON: And if don't -- I mean, every time I hear the national anthem I've said this before, it makes you tear up. I mean, most Americans feel that way. You feel that you have a feeling about it.

Every day and growing up in Catholic school we did the national anthem and we did our Pledge of Allegiance every day and we prayed. I mean, I don't know what's more American than that. And that happens all over this country still to this day.

And if you choose not to stand for the national anthem or to take a knee, that's OK. People don't have to agree with you, but that's not part of being an American. As I said, it's the American way.

Thank you all. I appreciate it. I want to bring in now CNN's sports analyst Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, and Denise White, CEO of EAG Sports Management. So good to have both of you on this evening.

Christine, I want to start with you. The president tweeted about four different leagues over the weekend and this morning said the NFL, the issue of kneeling has different -- it has nothing to do with race.

[22:50:03] "It is about respect for our country, flag and national anthem. NFL must respect this. NASCAR, I'm 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.

NHL, pleased to inform that the champions Pittsburg Penguins and NHL will be joining me at the White House for ceremony. Great team. (AUDIO GAP) going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team.

Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn."

OK. So he's putting the NASCAR and the NHL and the NBA and the NFL all against each other. But he says this is not about race. And when you consider the demographics of those sports.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN, SPORTS ANALYST, CNN: Absolutely. You look at this, and of course Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee a year ago because of issues involving race and his great concerns about some of those issues. So that's how all this started. So let's of course keep that in mind.

But absolutely, when you're talking about the Pittsburgh Penguins going to the White House, that's great. Of course they can go. NHL has got to be what, 95 percent, 98 percent white, obviously that's hockey. Then you've got the conversation, of course, about all the other

things that have been going on in the NFL, and the NFL being what, 75 percent African-American. You cannot get away from that. And I guess maybe this is a message to his base from a sports perspective. It has been a losing proposition for Donald Trump since we first started talking about it on Friday night on your show, Don, when the news first broke.

Donald Trump has been wrong at every turn. He said a few hours ago on Twitter that there's been a tremendous backlash against the NFL because of the players taking a knee and the all protests including, of course, Jerry Jones tonight. And he's wrong.

CBS is reporting that its ratings are up, and that its pre-game show yesterday was the highest rated pre-game show CBS has had in seven years. So, I think it was a bad weekend for Donald Trump and it was a good weekend for those who believe in the First Amendment, and also in team work and in applauding diversity and being pleased that you can work together as a team, which is what we saw over and over again on the field yesterday and then again tonight.

LEMON: Yes, Denise, you represent many players who took a knee for the first time yesterday. First, tell me what change for them and do they feel like they accomplished what they set out to do?

DENISE WHITE, CEO, EAG SPORTS MANAGEMENT: You know, a lot changed for them after Friday. I talked to numerous athletes that we represent that decided to take a knee yesterday that hadn't previously taken a knee. And one of them what he expressed to me, it was so astounding to me on how he felt when he read President Trump's tweets. He said, and he's an African-American player.

He said to me, 'Denise, I felt like he was telling me, first of all, this was personal. Second of all he was telling me hey, you, boy, stop, sit down, be quiet, and I'll tell you when you can talk." And he felt it was not only a racist thing but something that was taking away his right of freedom of speech, which is what every American is afforded that lives here in this great land of ours.

The guys that I spoke to were just, they were more shocked than anything because they expect more from the president. Because don't we all? We all expect more from the man that's supposed to be leading this free country of ours, right?

And so they were more shocked than anything, but they couldn't sit still, they couldn't sit down and not do anything. I talk to one of the guys Benjamin Watson who plays for the Baltimore Ravens. And he said before they went out on the field, and they chose to take a kneel, although Benjamin actually stood, he said there was tears in the locker room. They were so conflicted on what to do and how to get this message out.

But what they all agreed on as a consensus group was you can't tell us that we can't speak. You can't tell us that -- you're not going take away our rights to free speech and to assemble. You can't take away our constitutional rights. So this really was -- and it's unfortunate that the narrative has

changed from when Colin Kaepernick first did this to yesterday when so many more athletes decided to take a knee -- but the narrative now is look, President Trump, we're not going to let you tell us that we can't speak.

LEMON: Yes.

WHITE: And that's really what it came down to. And it's unfortunate that it got to that point where athletes really feel like, their president is not on our side, like they're not Americans. Somehow because they've taken a stance, that somehow they don't get the same rights as every other American, which is ridiculous.

LEMON: Yes. Listen, and people have been speaking out. Michael Jordan who doesn't usually speak out, he, you know, he released a statement. LeBron James saying this today. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEBRON JAMES, BASKETBALL PLAYER: We haven't forgotten away how we come together and be as great as we can, be as a people. Because the people run this country, not one individual. And damn sure not him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[22:55:01] LEMON: So, listen -- and they're being very outspoken about this. What's interesting to me, I think, Christine, is what would be very telling is if anybody reached out to Colin Kaepernick. Anyone in the league, the commissioner, any of the team owners, anyone, that would be extraordinary if they did, but I doubt that they did.

BRENNAN: Well, we have no reporting on that at this point, but they sure should. I mean, if you think about it that Kaepernick was the problem, right? He was -- he was the focus of everyone's attention a year ago. Look what's happening on the field. All of this Kaepernicks, right? Hundreds of them doing what he did.

Just and because of what Trump with what he did on Friday, triggering it all. So, one would hope that Kaepernick will get another chance in the league now. If in fact it was that he was being black balled because of his activism and his peaceful activism and also of course giving a million dollars to charity, we can't forget that.

One would think that there should be a place in the NFL for him. And what a wonderful turn of events that could be following up on what Trump did.

But you know, you've got a picture, Don. Donald Trump looking at a photo, a video of Jerry Jones kneeling. How will Trump react to that? That is a slap. Whatever Jerry Jones message, whatever his idea was, it was before the anthem, it wasn't during the anthem, nonetheless, what a visual that is tonight and how that must be playing in the White House. Again, a repudiation, absolute repudiation of the president of the United States. LEMON: Thank you, Denise. Thank you, Christine.

(CROSSTALK)

WHITE: One I believe that this is...

LEMON: Go ahead.

WHITE: I'm sorry.

LEMON: Quickly, Denise, if you can.

WHITE: One thing I don't think anyone can disagree with is that this has definitely brought everyone together when it comes to the NFL, the owners, the coaches, the players. The NFL actually contacted one of our players today, because they're looking to bring in some of the players that kneeled tomorrow, they're bringing in seven of the owners. And they want to know how do we move forward with this?

Now that we've done this, now that we have been together as a unit and expressed our views on what President Trump has done, how do we move forward now, which I think it's a great start -- should have started a long time ago, but it's a great start for the players and the owners.

(CROSSTALK)

LEMON: Good start with Kaepernick. Yes.

WHITE: Yes.

LEMON: Thank you. Thank you, both.

BRENNAN: Thanks, Don.

LEMON: When we come back, a show of solidarity of tonight's game from the Dallas Cowboys who knelt before the national anthem. How is all of this playing out in the locker room? I'm going to speak to three former NFL players and get their takes.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

LEMON: The vice president standing up for the president in his scolding of the NFL saying tonight he doesn't think it's too much to ask players to stand for the national anthem. I want to know what my guests think now.

Joining me now is former NFL players Marvin Washington, Donte Stallworth who is also a CNN contributor, and Jack Brewer. Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming on. Man, man, where does this end, Donte?

I want to start with what happened tonight. First, Julius Thomas from the Miami Dolphins who had previously stood for the anthem knelt yesterday and said this to my colleague, Erin Burnett. Watch.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) JULIUS THOMAS, FOOTBALL PLAYER, MIAMI DOLPHINS: I was truly hurt. I

don't think a lot of people truly understand what it feels like to wake up in this country and not feel equal. To truly, truly feel that your voice won't be heard as much as somebody else's.

And to hear the president, the leader of our country call somebody a son of a bitch that I have a lot of respect for, to call a group of men that I have a lot of respect for and talk about them in that language, it was tough. It was very emotional for me.

And in that moment I knew I could no longer continue to stand by and not take a stance. And I decided that I had to take a stance that says regardless of what you're peacefully protesting for, you have a right and you deserve to be able to do that. And please, at some point can we address the fact that so many people in our country don't feel equal?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[23:00:06] LEMON: Donte, clearly what happened on Friday night changed the conversation for many players. That was the breaking point, correct?

DONTE STALLWORTH, CONTRIBUTOR, CNN: Yes, I believe so.