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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Historic Pilgrimage; Baby Doe Identified; Trump Facing Heat; Donald Trump Remains Silent on Birther Issue; Questions Over Faith Still Plague Obama. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired September 18, 2015 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:07]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: He quipped, "We need this question." But is Donald Trump now regretting his nonresponse?

I'm John Berman. And this is THE LEAD.

The politics lead, Trump now bowing out of a major campaign event after taking heat for not challenging an audience member who called President Obama a Muslim. Now is the man who once pushed the birther movement trying to avoid the backlash?

The national lead, Baby Doe identified. Police put a name with the face of the little girl found inside a trash bag in Boston Harbor. Who would do such a thing?

And the world lead, Pope Francis preparing for a historic visit to the U.S., a first in his lifetime. Now three major cities try to make space as millions make the pilgrimage to witness history.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper today.

Our politics lead, yet again Donald Trump finds himself under fire, this time not for a slip of the tongue, but for holding his tongue. Trump failed to correct, failed to challenge, failed to even remotely question a supporter at a New Hampshire town hall who claimed we have a -- quote -- "Muslim problem" in the United States and that President Barack Obama is a Muslim and that he is not an American.

Trump's campaign claims he did not hear the question. Religious groups are calling on the Republican front-runner to apologize, but thus far mum's the word.

Let's get right to CNN's Sara Murray in Greenville, South Carolina -- Sara.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Donald Trump canceling a campaign appearance at the last minute today, as he's under fire for this exchange last night in New Hampshire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need this question, this first question.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But, anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question. When can we get rid of them?

TRUMP: We're going to be looking at a lot of different things.

And a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We're going to be looking at that and a lot of other things.

MURRAY: Trump didn't press the questioner to explain what he meant by "get rid of them" or push back on the false charge about the president, who is a Christian and American citizen.

Trump's campaign claiming he did not hear that part of the question, but refusing to say whether Trump believes President Obama is in fact an American. Trump's silence sparking a chorus of criticism today, Chris Christie saying he would have handled it differently.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If somebody at one of my town hall meetings said something like that, I would correct them and say, no, the president's a Christian and he was born in this country. I think those two things are self-evident. And I think you have an obligation as a leader to do that.

MURRAY: Senator Lindsey Graham calling it inappropriate.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You need to look the guy in the eye say, listen, I don't agree with you. I don't appreciate what you said. This is not the way I'm going to campaign.

MURRAY: But polls provide a hint to why Trump might be willing to let the issue linger; 54 percent of his supporters wrongly identify Obama as Muslim, according to a CNN/ORC poll. Among all Republicans, the number stands at 43 percent.

Today, amid the fallout, Trump scrapping an event in South Carolina just hours before he was slated to speak, saying in a statement that he has a significant business transaction to attend to, prompting this tweet from fellow GOP candidate Bobby Jindal: "Sorry to see Donald Trump cancel an event today with Senator DeMint and Governor Haley. Filing for bankruptcy again? Perhaps fifth time is the charm."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, there is a little grumbling on the ground here in South Carolina about Donald Trump not being at this event. A couple of folks do think that he did it to avoid tough questions, including what were sure to be questions from the press about whether he does believe President Obama is an American citizen. We will definitely have our fair share of presidential candidates

tonight, though. Ten are expected to appear at this event this evening -- back to you, John.

BERMAN: All right, Sara Murray for us in Greenville, South Carolina, thanks so much, Sara.

I want to talk more about this with CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash live in Los Angeles.

Dana, the headline Donald Trump doesn't speak is bizarre enough to begin with. And for a guy who likes to embrace controversy, even stoke it, his silence today about his silence yesterday is even more remarkable.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's deafening.

I have to say, even just as you were coming to me, I was just looking at my phone to check his Twitter feed, sure that at some point he was going to be the typical Donald Trump and take to Twitter and tweet out something sort of in your face or at least something, anything.

[16:05:10]

The fact that he hasn't done that on Twitter, the fact that he hasn't said anything through his spokesman. As Sara was talking about, the last that they said officially was last night when I spoke to his campaign manager, who said he didn't really hear the question and that his response was just the idea of looking into whether there are terror training camps in this country.

It is highly unusual. He is not somebody who is shy when it comes to controversy. And he's fought back on everything along the way over the past several months. So this is -- perhaps let's give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he actually does have a big business deal and he's in a boardroom somewhere trying to work it out. We will see. They say we're going to find out what it is next week.

BERMAN: Well, he's made many, many billions, as we well know.

Dana, you know, politicians are always confronted with, do they need to confront or apologize for things said or not said on the stump near them when they're at events? But with Donald Trump, it's not like this is happening in a vacuum. This issue, tangentially, is one that he was very much involved with, the birther movement, back in 2011 and 2012. He has connections to these ideas.

BASH: Not just involved, John. You're absolutely right. He really helped stoke the birther movement.

You remember he was on "The View" back in 2011, you know, calling out the president saying he doesn't know whether he was born in the United States. And even after the president then produced his long-form birth certificate saying he was born in Hawaii, he said he wasn't really sure if it was authentic. The fact is, though, that was 2011. And this year, he hasn't been

talking about it much, at all. In fact, I just went and looked it up. He told Anderson Cooper just this summer that he's off that subject. He wants to talk about jobs and other things. But Sara alluded to this earlier. It's a fine line, because he is definitely trying to appeal to the sector of the Republican base that wants to hear this kind of thing from him.

But at the same time, he understands that, you know, that ship has sailed and he needs to look more presidential. Perhaps that's one reason why he's being very un-Trump-like and being quiet to sort of see how this thing goes. You don't really have an issue often where Trump is stumped. And this seems to be one of them.

BERMAN: Dana Bash live for us in Los Angeles. Dana, great to see you. Thanks so much.

Democratic presidential candidates, they were quick to pounce on all this. Hillary Clinton tweeted: "Donald Trump not denouncing false statements about POTUS and hateful rhetoric about Muslims is disturbing and just plain wrong. Cut it out."

Bernie Sanders called for the Republican front-runner to apologize. And Martin O'Malley joined in, saying, "Muslim is not a slur."

I want to get right to CNN national correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, traveling with the Clinton campaign in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Suzanne, Hillary Clinton, she had a lot to say about this, this afternoon.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: She certainly did, John.

This was an opportunity for her to hit Trump and hit him hard. I asked her very specifically about those statements that the Trump supporter made that the problem in the country was Muslims, that the president was in fact a Muslim and that also he was not an American and that he went forward and said that there were training camps trained to kill us.

And then his final question, of course, when he said when can we get rid of them, and then Trump's very initial response, simply saying, we need this question. So she reacted to Trump's response and then she also laid out what she potentially would have done.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I was appalled, and, as you may know, quickly put out a tweet expressing the great disappointment with that kind of rhetoric, and calling on him and anybody else who is seeking the highest office of the land to start behaving like a president, to show respect and to stand up for the truth.

He knew or he should have known that what that man was asking was not only way out of bounds; it was untrue. And he should have from the beginning repudiated that kind of rhetoric, that level of hatefulness in a questioner in an audience that he was appearing before.

So, I would, you know, call on him and call on all of the candidates to stop this descent into the kind of hateful, mean-spirited, divisive rhetoric that we have seen too much of in the last months.

MALVEAUX: And how would you have responded?

CLINTON: Well, I don't think that person would come to my event.

But if that person had been in my event, I would have called him out on it. And I would have said from the very beginning that has no place in a political discussion like the one we're trying to have here. And not only is it out of place and wrong. It is totally factually untrue, and to quit -- quit impugning the integrity of the president.

[16:10:05]

MALVEAUX: Do you think it's racist?

CLINTON: I think it's prejudiced. I think it's discriminatory.

I think it comes out of the same unfortunate reservoir of hateful rhetoric that we have seen too much of, where people are being, you know, set against one another. And that has no place in our politics. We have serious issues we have to deal with in the years ahead. We should be trying to bring the country together around solutions, not trying to divide up people and set them against each other.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MALVEAUX: Hillary Clinton was also asked whether or not she believed Trump should apologize and she said she certainly hoped that he does.

But there is no expectation that that is necessarily going to happen. All the previous controversies have not led to Trump apologies, so no one is holding their breath on the Democratic side -- John.

BERMAN: Yes, apologies and Donald Trump.

Suzanne Malveaux, thank you so very much.

So, she faced off with Donald Trump at the debate and received high marks for her performance, but now Carly Fiorina's performance in the business world is drawing fire, just like Donald Trump said it would.

That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:12] BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman in for Jake today. Continuing now with our "Politics Lead." The fallout for Donald Trump after the Republican frontrunner refused to correct or even challenge a questioner at a town hall event who said that President Obama is a Muslim and not an American.

Here with us CNN political commentator, Republican consultant, Margaret Hoover, and Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf.

Guys, thank you so much for being with us here, with me. Donald Trump, the question is, does this hurt him, Margaret? Because you know what, the stuff with Megyn Kelly, the stuff about Mexican immigrants, the stuff about the birther movement four years ago, none of that seems to have had an effect in his poll numbers so far. So, you know, why is this night different than any other?

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, the question is who supports Donald Trump? And of the people that already support Donald Trump does this bother them? Or does this reinforce what they already like about him? I mean, Donald Trump rose to prominence in a crowded field of 16 other candidates by saying we need to build a wall. We need to build a really big wall and keep all the Mexicans out. And then he also mentioned that Mexicans were drug dealers and rapists.

Those people who liked that message might very well like a message that thinks Muslims are derogatory. So maybe this doesn't hit that base of support, but this absolutely does hit his credibility with mainstream Republicans, with Christian conservative Republicans, with the broader coalition that whoever the nominee is will need to pull together.

BERMAN: So, Hank, the poll numbers showed this, 29 percent of Americans in the most recent CNN/ORC poll they think that President Obama is a Muslim. 43 percent of Republicans think that President Obama is a Muslim. And 54 percent of Trump supporters think that President Obama is a Muslim. So in terms of nuts and bolts of getting votes or losing votes, maybe this doesn't hurt.

HANK SHEINKOPF, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: It does hurt Trump over the term. Why? Nobody minds being a racist. They mind being found out. The real question here is when -- the good news is he's the frontrunner and the bad news is he's a frontrunner because now people are going to focus on the things that he says and actually does, not what they think he does or what they think he might say. This is now subject to a lot of examination because his overall behavior is now subject to question. That's what happens when you're in the front of the pack.

BERMAN: You're a New Yorker. You know, one of the things that Donald Trump is not generally is silent. Right? So this happened last night. Everyone's talking about it again and there's nothing more than being talked about. Everyone is talking about this and yet he's eerily silent, cancelling an event tonight. What's going on?

SHEINKOPF : This is the kind of silence that he doesn't like because he doesn't want that image tarnished. This is a guy who said, Mexicans, they may be rapists but I have a lot of them work for me. That will only go so far. You're getting closer to Iowa and New Hampshire, conservative Republicans and mainstream Republicans are going to say, wait a second, we want to win the election, Donald Trump's not the way to get there because people will not exactly like us are going to be voting.

BERMAN: And Margaret, again, forgive me for the conspiracy theories here but we just heard, you know, two minutes of Hillary Clinton lashing out at Donald Trump for this statement. And I couldn't help but think there are probably a lot of Donald Trump supporters who were saying if Hillary Clinton yelling at Donald Trump for this that must be a good thing. That maybe he said something right.

HOOVER: Look, what he said is, again, it's only going to boost the supporters who like him already for what he stands for and it's going to alienate the people who already don't like him. So I don't think this helps or hurts him. It's probably status quo for Donald Trump. The piece about him canceling his event tonight is incredibly interesting to me.

BERMAN: Isn't it?

HOOVER: Because, I mean, this is a man, as you said, he likes the attention. But it's just sort of unlike him to not take the reigns and fight back and push. I sensed at the end of the debate, you know, first of all it was three hours so he was tired. But he couldn't carry his own weight. He was totally diminished in the policy conversations. The only time he could really insert himself is when they were ad hominem or personal attacks. But you got a sense that he had an awareness that he wasn't able to carry water against the other candidates.

SHEINKOPF : He is doing the job that normally party leaders do in any primary setting. The party leaders ultimately determine who the nominee is. Donald Trump is beginning to cut his own legs out from under him. The more people see of the negative Donald Trump the less likely they're going to see him as the guy that can beat Hillary Clinton and that's what will fuel the conservatives in that Republican primary come -- in Iowa and in New Hampshire coming up.

BERMAN: So let's about the person that -- you know, who arguably had the best debate, and that's Carly Fiorina. Like everyone is talking about Carly Fiorina. Well, one thing that happens when you do well when you emerge from the pack is people start to knock you down, right?

SHEINKOPF : Sure.

BERMAN: So Hewlett-Packard, her time as the CEO there it was an issue in the 2010 Senate race in California. And I have to say I have seen more people e-mail and tweet out some of the ads from that campaign over the last 24 hours than I've seen over the last five years.

SHEINKOPF : Well, look, is she going to survive that? Not likely. Is this an accident? There are no accidents in presidential politics overall. This is a determined effort to make sure she's not the nominee. By guess who? My hunch is the Democrats. They don't want another woman in the game.

HOOVER: Democrats? Are you kidding? She's got a field of 16 Republican contenders who also have that opposition research that Barbara Boxer put out. And that she is going to have to contend with.

[16:20:03] The question is, we know that Carly is a shrewd candidate. She was at the bottom of the pack and she has fought her way to the top, really a top tier Republican candidate. Has she learned lessons from how she communicated about her HP record that will transcend this round of the debate? And she's going to have to because, you know, she's not going to be the president, the vice president or any sort of part of any next Republican cabinet if she can't defend herself.

BERMAN: You know, so far it was Donald Trump talking about Carly Fiorina and her business record. But you're already starting to see some of the other candidates. Chris Christie, you know, flirting with the idea, I think, of talking about Carly Fiorina and her record. When she starts getting incoming from multiple sides it could be a different story.

SHEINKOPF : Could be a different story. But Chris Christie's real job is to kill Donald Trump because he's convinced in the back of his mind some place that if Trump weren't there that would be his space.

HOOVER: You know, that's tempers.

SHEINKOPF : Well, you know --

BERMAN: There's so many of them.

SHEINKOPF : As far as -- I don't agree with that but as far as Carly Fiorina's problems are concerned those spots being tweeted are ultimately going to cut her legs out from under her. Why? California not being a great place for Republicans any way, they -- people need a way to get rid of her. Maybe the Republicans doing it I bet it's the Democrats, why, they want to make sure there's no women there and there -- on the Republican side so they continue to push the Republicans out to the right.

BERMAN: Hank Sheinkopf, Margaret Hoover, great to have you with us on this Friday. Have a great weekend.

HOOVER: Thanks.

BERMAN: This programming note. In case you missed the CNN Republican debate, which I find frankly hard to believe, you can watch a re-air of the debate tonight at 10:00 Eastern right here on CNN.

Coming up, the White House lashes out at Donald Trump and Republicans who are refusing to not deny these claims, these statements that the president is a Muslim and not an American. That is next.

Plus, baby doe finally identified by police after millions shared her picture on social media. Are investigators any closer to finding out how she died?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:27:18] BERMAN: Welcome back to THE LEAD. I'm John Berman in for Jake Tapper today. Continuing our "Politics Lead," President Obama is a Muslim, he is not an American. Falsehoods spouted anew this time at a Donald Trump rally. But it's only the first time that either claim has been made.

I want to bring in CNN's senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta.

And Jim, you know, it feels like five years ago. It feels like we've heard this again and seen this before.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: We have seen it before and they've seen this at the White House before. The White House fired right back at Donald Trump today, John, after Donald Trump failed to correct a supporter at a rally who said President Obama is a Muslim. For the president it is a false slur he has heard over and over and over.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): They are lies President Obama has heard before. They hounded his first bid for the White House. Now they're back just as he's approaching the end of his second term. This time it was a false smear about the president's religion at a Donald Trump rally.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one.

TRUMP: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You know he's not even an American.

TRUMP: We need this question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Birth certificate, man.

ACOSTA: Trump's failure to set the record straight was no shocker to White House aides who've heard the GOP frontrunner repeatedly deny the truth of the matter, that the president is a Christian who was born in Hawaii.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Is anybody really surprised that this happened at a Donald Trump rally?

ACOSTA: But the White House did note unlike Trump Mr. Obama's one- time rival John McCain made it clear seven years ago when false rumors first swirled in the heat of that campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I can't trust Obama. I have read about him and he's not -- he's not he's a -- he's an Arab. He is not --

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: No ma'am.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No?

MCCAIN: No ma'am, no ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with.

ACOSTA: Colin Powell did the same just days later. COLIN POWELL, FORMER U.S. STATE OF ATTORNEY: Well, the correct answer

is he's not a Muslim. He's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is, what if he is?

ACOSTA: Four years ago it was Trump who led the birther movement questioning the president's background.

TRUMP: Very simple. I have people looking into it.

ACOSTA: The president responded, posted his own birth certificate, dubbed Trump a carnival barker.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We do not have time for this kind of silliness.

ACOSTA: And then mocked him at the White House Correspondents Dinner days later.

OBAMA: For the first time I am releasing my official birth video.

ACOSTA: Despite the president's numerous speeches about his Christian faith.

OBAMA: It led me to embrace Jesus Christ as my lord and savior.

ACOSTA: 29 percent of Americans still believe the president is a Muslim. As do 43 percent of Republicans and more than half of Trump supporters.

The lies live on in social media. Every time the president tweets, the smears are tweeted right back at him. The White House insists it's up to Republicans to stop it.

EARNEST: This is a cynical strategy that too many Republican politicians have dabbled in because for some of them it's proved to be successful.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And White House officials all but rolled their eyes at the Trump campaign's claim that Donald Trump did not hear that supporter say that President Obama is a Muslim. John, they are just not buying that.

BERMAN: So, Jim, we have some breaking news out of the White House just a few minutes ago.

ACOSTA: That's right.

BERMAN: We heard that the president intends to nominate a new secretary of the army. And this is a nomination that makes history.

ACOSTA: That's right. Eric K. Fanning, he's going to be the first openly gay secretary of a U.S. military branch. He's going to be the secretary of the army. And the president released a statement just in the last several minutes saying he looks forward to working with Eric to keep our army the very best in the world.

John, this is a part of that cultural sea change that we've seen happening over at the Pentagon.