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William Cohen on Trump's "disheartening" response to Charlottesville

President Trump's rhetoric in the days following last Saturday's violence in Charlottesville, Va., was "very discouraging" and "disheartening," former Clinton defense secretary and former Republican senator William Cohen told CBS News' "The Takeout" podcast.

"It's very discouraging to have the president fail to distinguish between those who are carrying torches" and other protesters, Cohen said of the president's reaction to mayhem spurred by white supremacists and neo-Nazis last weekend. "Years ago - the '20s, '40s, - they were wearing hoods and carrying the torches. They were burning black churches carrying those torches -- lynching, setting churches on fire with African-Americans trapped inside."

In his initial reaction to the chaos in Charlottesville, Mr. Trump did not specifically condemn the KKK, neo-Nazis or white supremacists who were largely perpetuating the violence that killed one and injured dozens of others. Two days later in a televised statement from the White House, the president adjusted his approach.

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"Racism is evil," he said. "And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans. We are a nation founded on the truth that all of us are created equal."

The next day, however, at a press conference at Trump Tower in New York City, the president said there was blame to go around on "both sides" in Charlottesville, and although he said it was a "horrible moment" in American history, stopped short of unequivocally putting the white nationalist groups on a different moral plane than other protesters.

"I'm not putting anybody on a moral plane. What I'm saying is this – you had a group on one side and you had a group on the other and they came at each other with clubs and it was vicious and it was horrible and it was a horrible thing to watch."

"It was disheartening to hear the president not distinguish between those who are holding up the flag of Hitler, who are calling for the displacement of Jews," Cohen, who served as a Republican senator from Maine from 1979-97, said. "To see the president fail to distinguish the level of hate that is being promoted by those who are carrying those flags and are arguing for an all-white society and all-white America."

Cohen, who also served as President Clinton's defense secretary from 1997-2001, joined CBS News Chief White House Correspondent Major Garrett and Political Director Steve Chaggaris during another jam-packed news week in Washington. Originally on the agenda: North Korea and the implications of President Trump's tough rhetoric.  

As critical as Cohen is of Mr. Trump's reaction to Charlottesville, Cohen does find that Mr. Trump is correct in his attitude that China must do more to stop North Korea.

"I think the president is correct that the Chinese have more to do. They can in fact squeeze the North Koreans to the point where they could almost break them," he said. "We could work out these disagreements if we sat down and said let's find a way to peacefully re-unite the peninsula."

Cohen does, however, have a problem with Mr. Trump's "fire and fury" rhetoric toward North Korea.

"You cannot out-trash talk Kim Jong Un. You just reduce yourself to his level," he said. "If the North Koreans think he's bluffing, they'll continue to up the ante. If the Chinese think he's bluffing, they will continue not to put enough pressure on. So if you say something, mean it. And if you say something like that, you'd better be prepared to carry it out. "

For more from Major and Steve's conversation with William Cohen, download this week's podcast on iTunesStitcherGoogle Play, or Spotify. Also, you can watch this week's episode on CBSN Friday and Saturday nights at 9pm ET/PT. New episodes are available via podcast every Friday morning.

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Produced by: Arden Farhi and Katiana Krawchenko