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Trump Blames Earpiece for KKK Answer Stumble; Polls; Trump, Clinton Expand Leads; Obama Awards Medal of Honor to Edward Byers. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired February 29, 2016 - 11:00   ET


[11:00:00] CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: AT THIS HOUR with Berman and Bolduan starts now.

KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm Kate Bolduan.


A lot going on this hour, with less than 24 hours to go until the biggest day in the campaign, Super Tuesday. We're waiting to hear from Donald Trump. A big rally in Virginia coming up. Will he address his refusal to disavow former KKK grand wizard, David Duke, right here on CNN as he did before and after.

Also any minute now, a break from politics were something that really should bring us all together.

BOLDUAN: Absolutely. President Obama presents the nation's highest award for valor in combat, the Medal of Honor. The man is believed to be the first living member of SEAL Team Six to receive the honor. It story is amazing. It involves a secret mission to rescue an American doctor being held hostage by the Taliban. We'll bring that to you as soon as it begins.

Until then, campaign controversy and a lot of it. Donald Trump, just this morning, took to the air waves to blame his earpiece during the interview with Jake Tapper for his failure to condemn the notorious hate group and its former leader.

Moments ago, Marco Rubio says he isn't buying it.


SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R-FL), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: He blamed it on a bad earpiece that he couldn't hear the question. I don't care how bad the earpiece is, Ku Klux Klan comes through pretty clearly.


BOLDUAN: The backdrop of all of this, a brand new CNN/ORC poll showing nationally Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are on their way to locking in the presidential nomination. Donald Trump is dominating the Republican field with 49 percent. More Republicans choosing Trump than all his challengers combined. And Hillary Clinton tops Bernie Sanders, 55 to 38. BERMAN: All of this on Super Tuesday eve. More delegates at stake

tomorrow than any single day in the entire nominating process.

We want to bring in CNN's political director, David Chalian.

David, this poll raised a lot of eyebrows this morning. Essentially, what it shows is that the idea that there's a ceiling for Donald Trump, that is not so, the idea that consolidation will get in the way of him winning the nomination, that doesn't appear to be so either.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Just more things we thought were true about Donald Trump that we should toss out in the garbage. It just doesn't hold water. This flies in the face of people who thought when other folks would drop out that somehow as the race got more narrow that Donald Trump would somehow fall. No. He's clearly winning some of the support from folks that already dropped out of the race. If you add up all the competitors together, he's ahead of them. His dominance is huge. Take a look at two important factors that I look at inside the poll. One, take a look at the enthusiasm among his supporters. 78 percent of Donald Trump supporters are enthusiastic about voting. That's hugely important to a candidate. That's golden politics to have that kind of loyalty and commitment to the candidate you're supporting. That's something every candidate looks for. And look across the board at all the candidate qualities. He's winning them all. He wins trust to be commander-in-chief. He wins solving the country's problems. He wins honest and trustworthiness, and it's not by small margins.

BOLDUAN: You can see that all right there.

Take a look at the Democratic side for us. Hillary Clinton building on her lead nationally. This poll was conducted before South Carolina. How do you think South Carolina, in her huge win there, could impact the numbers going forward?

CHALIAN: You're looking at the difference there the difference between January and now. She is building up a sizable national lead here. That is a big deal. Well over that key 50 percent majority mark among Democrats. Sanders not moving up. That's critical to watch. She had a really big victory on Saturday night. That puts her on course to being nearly unstoppable. Listen, the big test for Bernie Sanders tomorrow is whether or not he can put enough wins on the board to show that this is still a viable race going forward.

There is one warning sign I want to point out. We've seen lower participation and turnout on the Democratic side, much lower than 2008, while Republican turnout is breaking records in each of the four early states. We asked in the poll what about voter enthusiasm overall. Take a look at this. The Republicans have a slight edge among voter enthusiasm. 58 percent of Republicans say they're extremely or very enthusiastic about voting for president compared to 52 percent of Democrats. This enthusiasm gap that's a deficit for the Democrats is going to be one of the key things that if Hillary Clinton does emerge here as the nominee as is likely, that she's going to have to solve right away. The Democrats will tell you having Donald Trump as the Republican nominee will help take care of that. Nonetheless, Donald Trump is clearly part of what is bringing the enthusiasm to the Republican side. So that's one big area that Hillary Clinton and the Democrats are going to have to work on in the days and weeks ahead.

[11:05:28] BOLDUAN: Real quick, John brought up an important point. It's Super Tuesday eve. Do you leave out milk and cookies?


CHALIAN: Yes, I believe that's what happens on Super Tuesday.

We call it arid Super Tuesday. That's another thing.


BOLDUAN: Thank you, David. Great to see you.

He's like, why is Kate talking right now?

OK, let's continue the discussion. Let's bring in Alex Burns, national political reporter, "The New York Times"; Scottie Nell Hughes, chief political correspondent for USA Radio Network and a Trump supporter; Katie Packer, deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's presidential run, and she now heads an anti-Trump super PAC; and Bruce Haynes, a Republican consultant who has advised the Republican National Committee.

It is great to see you guys on this Super Tuesday eve.

Alex, you have done some amazing reporting out of the weekend, really explosive, about the implosion within the Republican Party in the face of this Trump rise. Explain what you're seeing.

ALEX BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, what we've seen for months and months is this conviction on the Republican side that the Donald Trump issue was largely going to solve itself. You had some people kind of trying to raise the alarm, Katie Packer among them, who were underfunded, did not get the buy leaders they would have needed to slow him down. Over the last week, a real sense that we've reached for the Republican establishment, a desperate point. Unless they can do something fast to get John Kasich or Cruz out of this race and rally behind Rubio, that Trump may become a run away train.

BERMAN: You can see it in the poll. Trump is at 49 percent. If any of them drop out, you figure Trump will get to 50.

Bruce, I want to bring you in. You're dress you up, wearing a suit and tie, which means you're part of the establishment. Do you get the sense that, based on what Alex was reporting, is there is a sense of panic, that the Trump phenomenon is upon you, and at this point, it's virtually unstoppable?

BRUCE HAYNES, REPUBLICAN CONSULTANT: I think there is, in the establishment of the Republican Party, a sense of panic. The problem is everyone is running for about eight different doors. There's no real set point of rallying around a strategy of those who feel like that Donald Trump -- and it's important to understand the reason for that panic is, what kind of justices would he put on the Supreme Court? How would he affect down the ballot, Senators, members of Congress who are running for reelection, these kinds of things that are the core of not just what's going to happen with the executive branch, but the other branches as well. There's no real set strategy. Each set of choices has a following onset of consequences that aren't really good for the party. It's a tough situation right now if you're a member of the Republican Party establishment.

BOLDUAN: Scottie, in the midst of all of this, what has happened overnight with regard to your man, Mr. Trump? First he did, then he didn't, then he did, then maybe he didn't disavow the KKK and David Duke. Now he is blaming all of it on the fact that he had a faulty or bad earpiece for the interview with CNN. Listen here.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE (voice-over): I'm sitting in a house in Florida with a very bad earpiece that they gave me, and you could hardly hear what he was saying. I heard various groups. I disavowed David Duke and I disavowed him the day before at a major news conference.


BOLDUAN: Blaming it on an earpiece. Where this has gone, are you OK with this?

SCOTTIE NELL HUGHES, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, USA RADIO NETWORK: I'm going to give him the benefit of the doubt. We've all had an issue this. I think what he did point out is he did disavow David Duke on Friday. We have yet to figure out why we're having this controversy right now? It looks like a hit job based on the popular numbers that you saw.


BOLDUAN: Because David Duke endorsed him, and then he had the answer to Jake Tapper and he blames it on an earpiece. But he heard all the other questions during the interview and continued to use the earpiece for all the other interviews.

HUGHES: But the fact is David did not endorse him. David did not endorse him on August or Friday, and he did not endorse him yesterday. That is a fact. Go look at his -- I don't want to drive traffic to his website. Trust me. I suffered through the first minute of his video saying I did not endorse Mr. Trump. Which makes me wonder, why is this controversy stirring up if it wasn't a slander campaign to try to paint Mr. Trump with the false idea of being racist? The good news is people are seeing through it. It's a campaign that is more about action, bigger than words. There's no more diverse of people out there speaking on behalf of a candidate than what you're seeing for Mr. Trump right now. I think it's going to fall on deaf ears. It's a hit job by those getting desperate.

[11:10:33] BERMAN: Katie, I think that loosely, though not naming you by name, I think you're included in the broader group of people right now trying to bring down Donald Trump. I doubt that Scottie's answer satisfies you. What do you make of it, and do you think you have enough time right now? The CNN poll that just came out, 49 percent. It's two days before Election Day. 49 percent for Donald Trump. Do you have him where you want him?

KATIE PACKER, DEPUTY CAMPAIGN MANAGER, MITT ROMNEY PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: With all respect to the poll, it's a national poll, not a Super Tuesday poll. I think tomorrow will be important. I expect that Mr. Trump will do well in many of those states tomorrow. The reality is there hasn't been a sustained campaign against this guy. Most of the places where this poll took place, there hasn't been one ad exposing Donald Trump for his business failures or racist history. It's not just his refusal to disavow the KKK. There's a history there. It's hiding his business dealings. He hasn't released his tax turns so we can call him out on all kinds of problems that he has in terms of failed businesses, failed instances where he's put his name on things and working people have been left holding the bag. That has started. There are several organizations now just in the last several days that are beginning a sustained and aggressive campaign to expose Trump for what he is. I think we'll see it have some impact.

BERMAN: I guess one of questions is why does this bug you all, Donald Trump, and everything he's done over the last six days, where it didn't seem to bother the other candidates for months and months? It didn't bother Romney when he traveled here to New York to ask for Trump's endorsement. One of the problems voters may have is there is a disconnect here. If he was OK then, why is he not OK now?

PACKER: There's a huge difference, John, between having a businessman support your campaign and endorsing that person to be the leader of the free world. I think people are concerned because, one, they think he's dangerous, and this is somebody that will be sending our troops in harm's way, and somebody that's going to have access to the nuclear codes, and he's a dangerous, unpredictable guy. He's also not a conservative. He has taken positions that are out of line with conservative Republicans on everything, from government-run health care, which he supports, to the stimulus plan, which he supported, to the Second Amendment, which he has been on every side of, to abortion, to taxes. Virtually every issue that Republicans have held dear for several decades, he has been on the wrong side of. I think there's real concern he's not going to be the kind of conservative that should be our standard bearer, and he's going to lose big to Hillary because of the outrageous things he does that distance him from Hispanic and African American voters and women voter who is are turned off by him, which is why you tend to see a gender gap in general election polls.

BOLDUAN: Scottie, what argument do you make to that, what Katie's saying? If he makes it to the general, and it looks like it when you look at the polls, that he's turning off huge segments of the general election voting population? That there's no way he's really going to win against Hillary Clinton?

HUGHES: I completely disagree. You've never seen more diversity in endorsements. Unlike Marco Rubio --


BOLDUAN: But you are hearing that but there are those same concerns from high-ranking Republican lawmakers. That's some of Alex's reporting, is just about that, how Mitch McConnell is saying, privately, go ahead and run against him if he's going to hurt your candidacy to Senators.

HUGHES: They've done so well with Congress so far, considering $19 trillion of debt --


PACKER: We do hold majorities in both houses.


HUGHES: Yeah, but for what good has it done? Now you've got people like Jeff Sessions, who is one of the most conservative on immigration Senators we have, Governor Jan Brewer, Chris Christie. You have Sarah Palin and Pierce Morgan actually agreeing on a candidate on a few issues. We have a whole diversity of candidates with opinions that agree on Mr. Trump. And these are the most -- at this point, there are more evangelical conservative leaders behind Mr. Trump than any other candidate. It's the truth.

BERMAN: Scottie, hand on.

Alex, you want to jump in? This is based on a lot of your reporting.

BURNS: Sure. The idea that Trump changes the perception of him with a giant swath of the American public and thumps Hillary Clinton, his is among Republican leaders, perceived as a total fantasy. People say, well, people underestimated him in the primary too, and that's true, but if you look at the stuff that lost Mitt Romney Hispanic voters, it is nothing compared to the stuff Donald Trump has been saying. If you look at the margins that Republican traditionally have among women, the deficit among women, that's before the Democrats run the ads of Trump talking about women and in crude ways. The burden is really on Trump to persuade the rest of the American party that's reluctant to embrace him.

I think the point Scottie makes that I would agree with is the endorsements from Christie and Sessions go a long way in projecting this idea across the conservative base of the Republican Party that he's not a rogue agent, that he is making inroads, when that's not entirely the case.

[11:16:01] BOLDUAN: And to the point to the people you mentioned weigh in on this, Bruce, when you have Chris Christie and Jeff Sessions endorsing, that is -- we can all agree, a broad spectrum of the Republican party that is backing Donald Trump now. That's a positive for Donald Trump. What does that say?

HAYNES: Well, it's good for him and his campaign that he's getting these endorsements. I would quibble that's a stretch to say that's a broad spectrum of the Republican Party. BOLDUAN: Really?

HAYNES: Those are two endorsements. Let's look at Marco Rubio. He has more. A lot of the endorsements for Donald Trump, the way the establishment looks at this is they see this is a battle for taking the Republican to the past or to the future. The endorsements like those of Senator Sessions, he's deeply respected. He's another old white guy. You look at what Marco Rubio had on the stage the night of the primary in South Carolina --


BERMAN: Guys, I hate to interrupt right now. We want to go to the White House right now.

BOLDUAN: This is the only portion we're interrupting for.

BERMAN: President Obama just entered the East Room, awarding the Medal of Honor. A remarkable story. Let's listen.

UNIDENTIFIED CHAPLAIN: Heavenly Father, be with us today as we gather to see senior Chief Edward Buyers receive our country's highest military honor from the hands of the president. We offer you our thanks for the integrity, generosity of spirit, and valor that mark Senior Chief Byer's life in service to our country. We offer you our thanks for the rescue of Dr. Joseph, and we thank you for restoring both of safely to the embrace of those who love them. At the same time, our hearts go out to Petty Officer Nicholas Check and to his family and friends. May a grateful America always remember and honor his service and his sacrifice. Amen.


Please be seated.

Good morning, everyone. Welcome to the White House.

The ethos, the creed that guides every Navy SEAL says this, "I do not advertise the nature of my work nor seek recognition for my actions." Which is another way of saying that standing here today in front of the entire nation is not Senior Chief Ed Byers' idea of a good time.


Like so many of our Special Operators, Ed is defined by a deep sense of humility. He doesn't seek the spotlight. In fact, he shuns it. He's the consummate quiet professional. I imagine there are a lot of other places he'd rather be than in front of all these cameras.

Back for another hell week --


-- holding his breath under dark, frigid water, spending months being cold, wet, and sandy. I'm sure there are other things he'd rather be doing. But the Medal of Honor is our nation's highest military decoration,

and today's ceremony is truly unique, a rare opportunity for the American people to get a glimpse of a special breed of warrior that so often serves in the shadows.

We're a nation of more than 300 million Americans. Of these, less than 1 percent wear the uniform of our armed forces. Of these, just a small fraction serve in our Special Operations forces. Among those who train to become SEALs, only a select few emerge right to wear the Trident. Consider this, in the entire history of the Navy SEALs, just five have been awarded the Medal of Honor. Their names have become legend: Norris, Carey, Thornton, Murphy, Monsier, and now a sixth, Byers.

Among members of the Medal of Honor societies who are with us, we are especially honored by the presence of Tommy Norris and Mike Thornton.


[11:20:59] OBAMA: Given the nature of Ed's service, there's a lot that we cannot say today. Many of the operational details of his mission remain classified. Many of his teammates cannot be mentioned. And this is as it should be. Demands secrecy, and that secrecy saves lives.

There are, however, many distinguished guests that we can acknowledge, including members of Congress, leaders from across the military, including the Navy. In fact, this may be the largest gathering of Special Ops in the history of the White House. Among them we have from Special Operations Command, General Joe Moteil (ph) and Vice Admiral Shaun Pibis (ph). From Joint Special Operations Command, Rear Admiral Tim Semansky (ph), and from Naval Special Warfare Command, Rear Admiral Brian Lorsey (ph) and Force Master Chief Derek Walters. For America's Special Operators, this is little bit of a family reunion. It's wonderful to have them here.

We welcome Ed's wonderful family. His wife, Madison, who, like so many military spouses, has kept their family strong back home while Ed has been deployed, their daughter, Hannah, who is a competitive figure skater and looks the part. Ed likes to jump out of planes with a parachute, and when he's not sky diving, he's driving his 1976 Harley. When he's not out riding, he's staying in shape with Hannah who is apparently his workout partner. It's good when your trainer is a Navy SEAL.


We also welcome Ed's mom, Peggy, who I understand had one question when he told her about the ceremony. Do you think I can come?


That's so sweet.


Yes, mom, you're allowed to come when your son gets the Medal of Honor.


Ed's brothers and sisters are here as are about 50 cousins from all across the country, and dozens of friends, many who served alongside Ed, some who have traveled from around the world to be here today. That's the brotherhood, the depth of loyalty to service and to mission that binds these teams.

Looking back, it seems Ed Byers was destined to serve. His father served in the Navy during World War II and now rests in Arlington. As a boy growing up in Ohio, Ed would be in the woods in camouflage, in his words, "playing military." And I suspect the other kids did not stand a chance. A Boy Scout who loved adventure, Ed saw a movie about the Navy SEALs and fell in love with the idea of deploying by sea, air and land.

I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail, because he has a soul, a spirit, capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.

Even if he had never performed the actions for which he's been recognized here today, Ed Byers would be long remembered for his cam passion, his sacrifice, and his endurance. 11 overseas deployments, nine combat tours, recipient of the Purple Heart twice, a Bronze Star with Valor five times.

About three years ago, our nation called on that spirit once again. In Afghanistan, an American doctor, a husband and a father of four children, who was working to bring health care to the Afghan people, was driving down a rural road. Gunmen surrounded his car and took him hostage. They tied his hands and marched him into the mountains. The days went by. In a remote valley, in a small single-room building, surrounded by Taliban, he lost all hope. I was certain, he thought, I was about to die. His captors told him, the Americans are not coming for you.

[11:25:25] Well, they were wrong. Whenever Americans are taken hostage in the world, we move heaven and earth to bring them home safe. We send some thunder and some lightning, our Special Operator forces, folks like Ed Byers. They're carefully selected for their character, their integrity, and their judgment. They're highly trained with skills honed by years of experience. They willingly volunteer for missions of extraordinary risk like this one.

In this case, there was reason to believe that a Taliban commander was on his way to take custody of the hostages and move them into Pakistan. Time was of the essence. From a remote forward-operating base, Ed and his joint team geared up, boarded their helos and launched. Once on the ground, they moved under the cover of darkness on that cold December night through the mountains, down trails for hours. They found their target and moved in, quickly and quietly. Then when they were less than 100 feet from the building, a guard came out and the bullets started flying. Our SEALs rushed to the doorway, which was covered by a layer of blankets. Ed started ripping them down, exposing himself to enemy fire. A teammate pushed in and was hit. Fully aware of the danger, Ed went in next. An enemy guard aimed his rifle right at him, Ed fired. Someone moved across the floor, perhaps the hostage, perhaps another guard plunging for a weapon. The struggle was hand to hand. Ed straddled him, pinning him down. Ed adjusted his night vision goggles, things came into focus, and he was on top of a guard. The American hostage later described the scene: The darkroom suddenly filled with men and the sound of exploding gunfire, narrow beams of light shot in every direction. Voices called out his name. He answered, I'm right here. Hearing English, Ed leapt across the room and flew himself on the hostage, using his own body to shield him from the bullets. Another enemy fighter appeared and, with his body, Ed kept shielding the hostage. With his bare hands, Ed pinned wall and held him until his teammates took action. It was over almost as soon as it began. In just minutes, by going after the guards, Ed saved the lives of several teammates and that hostage. You're safe, the SEALs told the doctor. You are with American forces. And that hostage came home to be reunited with his wife and his children.

That success that came with a price. That first SEAL through the door, Ed's friend, Nick, was grievously wounded. Ed is a medic. On the helo out, he stayed with Nick, helping to perform CPR the entire flight, 40 minutes long. Today, we salute Chief Petty Officer, Nicholas Check. Back in Pennsylvania, they remembered him as the driven kid, the football player and wrestler who always wanted to be a SEAL. For his valor on this mission, he was awarded the Navy Cross. He is among the 70 members of the naval special warfare community, 55 of them SEALS who made the ultimate sacrifice since 9/11.

Enduring love of Nick's family and all those who admired him remind us of the immense sacrifices that our remarkable Gold Star Families have made and our obligation to stand with them always.

So today, we don't simply honor a single individual, we also pay tribute to a community across our entire military, Special Operators, aviators, engineers, technicians, analysts, countless enablers, and their devoted families. In these hard years since 9/11, our nation has called on this community like never before. Small in number, they have borne a heavy load. They continue to volunteer mission after mission, year after year. Few Americans ever see it. I am truly privileged and humbled that as commander-in-chief I do get to see it. I've given the orders sending you into harm's way.