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Can Trump Salvage Travel ban; Both Parties Sinking in Partisan Swamp; Interview with Thomas Perez; Interview with Joe Piscopo; Essay Contest on White Privilege Sparks Controversy. Aired 9-10a ET

Aired February 11, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:10] MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Michael Smerconish coming to you from New York City. We welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

It's only day 22 of the Trump presidency, but there's been enough news to fill three months. The war over the travel ban continues after being blocked by a panel of judges. The White House is said to be rewriting the executive order. So much for see you in court.

And instead of abating, the partisan divide is ramping up with angry protests greeting every executive order, Cabinet hearings, even town hall meetings. But what exactly can Democrats do to harness that opposition? They've been behind closed doors in Baltimore debating whether their path forward should be progressive or more centrist.

And the president has been hate-watching "SNL" and tweeting negative reviews. Well, tonight's host is impersonator-in-chief Alec Baldwin, so the president is probably in for more unhappiness. Joe Piscapo who played President Ronald Reagan on "SNL" is here with some friendly advice for the unhappy viewer in Mar-a-Lago.

But first, the Trump administration has just concluded its third full week and a lot has happened. And patterns are emerging. One is that the president's day often begins with him tweeting. Some are informative, others are boastful, many impetuous.

I've looked at every one of his tweets during his first three weeks in office and here's what I've noticed. Almost every day knowing there will be political battles fought he launches an early morning preemptive strike. They come in the form of missiles that land on anyone or anything that stands in the way of his objectives. They stoke his base and they serve as diversionary fodder.

Take a look at a couple. The day after women marched around the globe in opposition to his presidency at 7:47 a.m. and all these times are Eastern, quote, "We just had an election. Why didn't these people vote?" Well, presumably they had voted and that's why he lost the popular vote.

Three days later he kicked off the day at 7:10 a.m., "I will be asking for a major investigation into voter fraud." And then on the day that he was scheduled to meet with the Mexican president to smooth over the border wall dispute came this misdirection bombshell 6:04 a.m. "Ungrateful traitor Chelsea Manning." After the "New York Times" reported that the president, the Mexican

president, was considering canceling the meeting, our president implied that, well, it was his idea. 8:55 a.m., "If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting."

And speaking of the "Times," on the Saturday that he was going to have phone calls with five world leaders, he made the newspaper his morning focus. The "New York Times" had published an editorial labeling his Muslim ban, quote, "cowardly and dangerous." 8:04 a.m. he tweeted this, "Failing 'New York times' wrong about me from the very beginning. Fake news."

After the news broke overnight that an American-led Yemeni raid ended in the death of a U.S. Navy SEAL came this, "Christians in the Middle East have been executed in large numbers, we cannot allow this horror to continue." Amidst protests over his travel ban, Senator Schumer became his foil. 7:20 a.m. as he mocked the tears of Senator Schumer.

Remember those Berkeley protesters who prevented a speech from an alt- right guest? Well, he warned them at 6:13 a.m., no federal funds. He's even taken on the Terminator. At 6:24 a.m., "Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger did a really bad job as governor of California and even worse on 'the Apprentice,' but at least he tried hard."

And of course he sought to delegitimize the judge who issued a restraining order halting his travel ban, quote, "The opinion of this so-called judge." That came at 8:12 a.m. but that night Homeland Security halted implementation of the ban. A couple of days later he was going after Nordstrom's.

And then to deflect being criticized by his own Supreme Court nominee, he tried to discredit the messenger. At 6:57 a.m., "Senator Richard Blumenthal, who never fought in Vietnam when he said for years he had, major lie, now misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him."

Just this morning at 7:12 a.m. came the latest, "Our legal system is broken, 77 percent of refugees are allowed since travel reprieve, hailed from seven suspect countries, so dangerous."

So what drives this? Is it a presidential form of ADD? Or is he crazy like a fox? I'm not sure. But I do know after reading "Art of the Deal" that everything at least in his mind is strategic.

[09:05:02] And therefore we need to look behind what often appears to be irrationality and ask the question each morning as to what he's trying to do, what narrative is he suggesting versus the substantive matters that are occurring at the same time. And, again, at the end of the day we need to assess the tweeting in the context of what followed.

These tweets are unique, unvarnished window into a president's thinking just so long as we don't allow them to become a shell game, a distraction from more consequential matters that warrant our attention. As these three weeks have proven, he's still going to have to endorse scrutiny on his actual policies. And speaking of Twitter, what do you think? Tweet me @smerconish, I

will read some, and that includes you, Mr. President.

Now President Trump has said repeatedly that the travel ban is an urgent matter of national security implying there's an imminent threat. Despite claims that he's not backing down, there've been reports that this weekend the administration is trying to rewrite the executive order. Is there any way the president can achieve his objectives in a way that passes constitutional muster?

Joining me now famed attorney and professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, Alan Dershowitz.

Professor, he's taking your advice.

Good morning.

SMERCONISH: For the last several days on CNN, you have been saying rewrite it. Explain.

ALAN DERSHOWITZ, PROFESSOR EMERITUS, HARVARD LAW SCHOOL: Well, he said there's an imminent threat. We know he's going to lose the stay application, so it will take months before he gets to the Supreme Court and achieves a partial victory, which I think he will achieve. And so it's only logical for him to either rescind the order and moot the Ninth Circuit opinion, or simply revise the order and institute a new one while taking a slow track up to the Supreme Court.

The last thing he wants is a 4-4 affirmence of the Ninth Circuit striking down his order. So he's smart to try to rewrite the order now, get rid of the application and the order to green card holders and legitimate visa holders, apply it only to people who have never been in the United States, have no contact with the United States, have no standing to raise this issue. And in that way he can accomplish both goals, protect the security of the country and not have a constitutional crisis on his hands.

SMERCONISH: Do you think that he expands or limits that list of seven nations? Does he put in a Christian nation so as to avoid an argument over the establishment clause?

DERSHOWITZ: That would be foolish. There is no Christian nation today that fits into that category. What would he do throw in Armenia or try to throw in Israel as a Jewish nation? It wouldn't work. In fact, he campaigned on the issue of combating Islamic terrorism, something that the Obama administration refused to mention. And he has the right to say that we're going to focus on those nations that export Islamic terrorism. Of course there are going to be Muslim nations.

And he also has the right to say we're going to give special preference to religious minorities who are the victims of Islamic oppression. They are Christians, they are Bahais, they are Kurds. They fall into a number of categories. And it's OK to mention religious groups if there's a secular purpose and the secular purpose is to rescue them from prosecution. So I think he gets the better of the constitutional argument if he can narrow the executive order and distinguish between people who are American persons, green card holders, others, and those who are really strangers to the country and have no standing and no right to come into the country. I think he can have a win-win.

SMERCONISH: Am I right in saying that he kind of backed himself into a corner? Because insofar as the order is predicated on an imminent threat, he can't then sit back and allow the litigation to play itself out for a time period that frankly would be longer than the ban he sought to impose.

DERSHOWITZ: And that was my point exactly. As soon as the Ninth Circuit ruled, I said he had a conundrum.


DERSHOWITZ: He had backed himself into the corner by saying that this was imminent. So I think he has no choice but to do this, but look, he's listening. And he's understanding now for the first time that we do operate within a system of checks and balances. Not only do the courts check, but now states have the ability to bring lawsuits and check the national government.

This drama is going to continue for months in the future because we have figured out a way of making sure that the president can't just operate without our system of checks and balances. So he's going to have to get used to living within our system of separation of powers with the judiciary is as important in our system of governance as the presidency is.

SMERCONISH: Well, he's listening. He's listening to Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz and could do a hell of a lot less.

Thank you, Professor. Appreciate your being here.

DERSHOWITZ: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Now vivid displays this week of the hostility level in America's partisan divide. Thursday angry crowds in Utah and Tennessee disrupted events hosted by two members of Congress Jason Chaffetz and Diane Black over threats to national parks, access to health care, and lack of attention to the president's possible conflicts of interest.

[09:10:14] Then on Friday newly confirmed secretary of Education Betsy DeVos tried to visit a Washington, D.C. public school and found her path blocked by more unhappy citizens.

With this kind of hyper partisanship and blockading, can anything get accomplished on either side of the aisle?

Joining me now, Charlie Cook, the editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report and the columnist for the "National Journal."

Charlie, do you see parallels between the Democratic opposition to President Trump and the Tea Party movement in 2010 against President Obama?

CHARLIE COOK, EDITOR AND PUBLISHER, THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT: Yes, we do. It's the party that's out of power that where you have the anger, the antagonism, where you have the feeling of alienation. That's where you get the passion in American politics. And one of the dangers for Republicans is exactly what happened with President Obama. You know, in 2008 you had all these people that were really enthusiastic for President Obama, two years later they don't show up for Joe or Jane generic Democrat. 2012 they show up, re-elect Obama. 2014 they don't show up for Joe and Jane generic Democrat.

What Republicans have to fear is that these people that came in and turbo charged Donald Trump in 2016, will they show up for another Republican in the midterm election who doesn't look, sound or act like Donald Trump?

SMERCONISH: I was surprised. In fact I want to roll some footage of what transpired in Utah. Then I'll make a comment to Charlie Cook. This is Jason Chaffetz at a town hall. Play it.




SMERCONISH: You know, not, Charlie, what you'd expect from one of the reddest of states in the country for a Republican conservative member of Congress to be greeted like that at a town hall.

COOK: There is an enormous amount -- it's interesting what's happened since the election. You have some people that have just completely withdrawn and won't watch news anymore. And then you have "New York Times" subscriptions skyrocketing.


COOK: And we're -- it's built this intensity among some people while other people are just sort of withdrawing from the process. But, you know, I've had family members that have never been particularly interested in politics that are just, you know, on the edge of their chairs. And this is -- it really -- it's unique, but it does remind me of when President Obama came in and the backlash against him.

SMERCONISH: I have been arguing to my Sirius XM Radio audience that they are more divided than we are. They being the politicians and certain of the media intelligencia, I'm not thinking of CNN. And then along comes a tweet from you this week of a graph. I want to put it up on the screen. It has to do with ticket splitting and it depresses me. What's going on, Charlie?

COOK: We are becoming more of a parliamentary government politics. People are either voting blue or they're voting red. Every single United States Senate race in 2016 went to the same side that that state voted for for president. No ticket splitting at all. So the people are voting -- you know, it used to be people proudly say, well, I vote the person, not the party.


COOK: Well, not anymore. That's just not where we are. They either vote or they don't vote and it's that energy level of who is turning out and who doesn't. And that's where, for example, Hillary Clinton just couldn't bring out the energy that President Obama did. And -- but now, you know, I'm sure Hillary Clinton is saying where the heck were all these people last year? But, you know, it's the way politics works.

SMERCONISH: Yes, it bums me out to think that so many are going in and throwing a big lever without taking the time to make individual decisions down ballot.

Hey, Charlie Cook, thank you so much for your expertise.

COOK: Thank you, Michael.

SMERCONISH: What do you think? Tweet me @smerconish. I will read some as the program unfolds.

Catherine, what do we got?

"Smerconish, President Trump has to tweet because cable and alphabet news networks distort the real news so he circumvents you fake news people." Really, B Piquette? Go fact check the tweets that I've just shown you and all the others he's put out. And then you tell me what's fake news.

Still ahead, Democratic leadership has been meeting in Baltimore this week as the party licks its wounds from electoral defeats at a local, state and national level. They will also soon elect a new chair. I'm about to speak to one candidate, former labor secretary Thomas Perez is here.

And since "SNL" first aired four decades ago it has lampooned every American president. But Donald Trump is the first one to so publicly express his displeasure. Now it's Trump impersonator Alec Baldwin who is hosting tonight.

[09:15:03] What can he and we expect? And how should the president react? I'll talk to another "SNL" legend who played Ronald Reagan for years, Joe Piscopo.


DARRELL HAMMOND, ACTOR: You've crossed the line. I've killed people for less.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Looks like you killed a squirrel to me and put it right on top of your head.

HAMMOND: Your hair looks exactly like mine.

TRUMP: Yes, except my hair's supposed to look like this. I'm a janitor.



SMERCONISH: Democratic Party is really in some tough shape, maybe the worst since Reconstruction. Consider the following, of course you know the GOP just won the White House. That's a map of the country Election Day 2016. But Republicans also control both the Senate and the House. Take a look at that margin, 52-48, 241-194.

Things don't look much better nationwide for the Democrats. Republicans control governors offices in those red 33 states.

[09:20:06] Democrats control just 16. And the balance of power in the state legislatures has the Republicans controlling 30 states, there they are in red, Democrats merely 12.

So what is the future of the Democratic Party in the Trump era? Its leaders are wrestling with that very question. This week they've been on annual retreat in Baltimore. And in the coming weeks they will also have to pick who takes over as DNC chair from interim head Donna Brazile. Several candidates have presented themselves including my next guest, Labor secretary under President Obama, Thomas Perez.

Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming back to the program.

THOMAS PEREZ, FORMER U.S. SECRETARY OF LABOR: Always good to be with you and your viewers.

SMERCONISH: Is the future of the Democratic Party progressive, or is it centrist?

PEREZ: Well, you know, I think it's less important to focus on labels and it's more important, Michael, to focus on, are we lifting people up or are we bringing them down? The Democratic Party has been the party that has lifted people up. The economic security issues have all been about making sure we have people who have good jobs that bring them a middle class wage, make sure we vindicate the basic principle that (INAUDIBLE) out of many one matters in this country.

And so that's what our focus needs to be on. I've been around the country in my travels for the DNC chair and what I've heard from people is let's make sure we get back to basics. Let's focus on making sure that we are building that pathway for the middle class for folks, we're lifting their wages and we are making sure that everybody has a seat at the table in the United States of America regardless of where you were born, regardless of who you worship and who you love and what your first language is.

SMERCONISH: All right. I get all that. And I also understand that you might not want to play the label game, but from a distance here's what I see looking into your party. You have attracted endorsements in your pursuit of the DNC chair from among others the former vice president of the United States, Joe Biden. In fact, put it up on the screen those endorsements that Secretary Perez has thus far garnered. Joe Biden, Terry McAuliffe, John Hickenlooper.

If I take a look at Congressman Keith Ellison and see whose support has he attracted thus far, I know I've got Elizabeth Warren on that list, I know that I've got Bernie Sanders, Chuck Schumer, John Lewis. It sure looks like it is a battle between centrism and progressivism within the DNC.

PEREZ: I wouldn't agree with that. I mean, we have supporters from the United Food and Commercial workers, we have support from the farm workers, we have support from progressives, from -- you know, the Congress, from state governments and so, you know, I think this is about the future of the party. And this is about making sure that we get back to basics, Michael.

What we have to do as a Democratic Party is change the culture of the DNC. And what do I mean by that? Number one, we can no longer define our mission as simply to elect a president. We must be defining our mission to ensure that we are working with all the states, to make sure that we're building strong parties so that we can elect candidates from the school board to the Senate.

Number two, we've got to change our culture so that we're working better with our partners in the progressive movement because labor unions are taking it on the chin from governors and from hostile courts. Planned Parenthood is taking it on the chin from this Congress and we've got to be there with our partners in the progressive movement.

And then finally, Michael, what we have to do is make sure we engage DNC members and the public at large because we have this incredible moment right now where January 20th was important, but frankly January 21st was even more important when we saw millions of people around this country followed by -- by so many people at airports who are out there saying, Donald Trump, you don't stand for us.

And we have to take this moment and turn it into a movement. We may not have the Congress. We may not have the Senate. And we may not have the presidency, but we have the people. And we've got to turn that power into results.

SMERCONISH: What do you say -- I'm characterizing the election just run as a rural rebellion. In fact, put that image back on the screen that shows the red and blue on Election Day in the presidential race. Because here's my question for the secretary, what do you say to that middle American blue-collar white guy whose education probably ended somewhere in high school? He's been a reliable vote for the Democratic Party, but this time he went for Donald Trump. Your message to him is what?

PEREZ: Sure. The Democratic Party has always been the party of economic security. Always making sure we're looking out for those kitchen table issues of your security, security for you and your family. And we do so by protecting Social Security, by protecting Medicare, by making sure that you have a good job that pays a middle class wage. If you want to grow this economy, put a Democrat in the White House. That's what the facts have shown. [09:25:06] And what we have to do, Michael, is a better job of

messaging those economic issues because we didn't do a good enough job in this past election. Our message got muddled without a doubt. We have been the party of economic security and we have been the party of the middle class. And we are still that party. And we have to make sure that we are relentless in rural and urban and suburban America about this message.

SMERCONISH: On the subject of wages, Andrew Puzder who is CEO of a fast food chain, big chains, has been put forth by President Trump to fill your shoes as the Labor secretary. He has opposed increases in the minimum wage. Should that be a deal breaker for someone who wants to be the secretary of Labor?

PEREZ: Well, I think he's unfit for the office. And here's why. And this is -- the Labor Department is about protecting workers. It's about lifting their wages. He's a plaintiff in the lawsuit that is seeking to strike down a very important rule we did that's helping millions of Americans get access to overtime. When you work overtime, you should be paid overtime. He knows a lot about the Department of Labor, but he knows a lot about it because his companies have been the subject of a lot of wage and hour enforcement action.

And, you know, that's not how you ought to be the Labor secretary. This is the person that we're going to put in charge of protecting workers, protecting low wage workers, people that he called in his own company the worst of the worst. And so we need a Labor secretary who's setting an example for workers, that I'm going to help you, I'm going to protect you. And I'm going to lift your wages.

And everything he has done has been exactly the opposite of that. We need someone with moral authority as well. And when you see the normalization of ethics lapses, with his own employment practices in his house, you know, that was disqualifying. And that should still be disqualifying.

We can't normalize the ethical breaches that have characterized so many of these nominees. And I hope the Senate votes him down, plainly and simply. I know a little bit about that Department of Labor, as you know. And we're supposed to be protecting people. This nominee does not have that track record. And that's why I think he's unfit for service.

SMERCONISH: Mr. Secretary, thanks for coming back to the program.

PEREZ: Pleasure to be with you.

SMERCONISH: So your tweets have been coming in fast and furious. @Smerconish, what else? Put it up there.

"My new go-to line inspired by Smerconish, go#factcheckyourself." Yes, I can say that, Stephanie, without even getting beeped, can I?

Up next -- we got another one? OK. "Smerconish, we Dems need a chair who supported Senator Sanders. DNC cheated because they were afraid of the powerful Clinton machine." Rob, that's the fight within the DNC, right? I mean -- and Elizabeth

Warren or a Bernie Sanders person ideologically speaking get elected or do you need to grow more toward the middle? Frankly, I'm in that latter category just analyzing as a political scientist.

Up next, tonight, the impersonator-in-chief Alec Baldwin hosts "Saturday Night Live." I can think of one viewer at Mar-a-Lago who is sure to tune in. And perhaps to be angry with what he sees. Does he need to learn how to take a joke? That's the question I want to ask "SNL" alumnus, the man who played Ronald Reagan, funny man Joe Piscopo is next.


ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: I was against the war. Ask anyone in the world named Sean Hannity. I told Sean Hannity. Call Sean Hannity. I'm going to do what I promised my whole campaign, and I am going to build that swamp. Listen, sweetheart, I'm about to be president, we're all going to die. Next question.




[09:33:07] BALDWIN: Bill Clinton had socks, Barack Obama had Beau, and I'll have Paul Ryan. The next thing I knew I was kissing Sean Hannity.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Tell me about your Twitter bio.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It says liberalism is a mental illness. Whoa, I just got re-tweeted.


BALDWIN: You know I love my daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared. They always keep me so calm and make sure I don't do anything too crazy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They don't work on Shabbat.

BALDWIN: Perfect, when the Jews are away the guys will play. Send in Steve Bannon.


SMERCONISH: Ever since Alec Baldwin began that portrayal of now President Trump on "Saturday Night Live" last fall real Donald J. Trump's Twitter page has been a torrent of criticism of the show. And yet clearly the president keeps watching. And tonight Alec Baldwin is hosting "SNL" which probably means a lot more Trump parody and more angry morning-after tweets.

"SNL" has been lampooning the occupants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue since Gerald Ford when it debuted in 1975. But it's never gotten such immediate feedback on how its satire is viewed by its target.

Joining me now one of "SNL's" presidential impersonators, he played Ronald Reagan among many other memorable characters, Joe Piscopo, currently a talk radio host on AM 970, "The Answer," here in New York City.

Rate Alec Baldwin as Donald Trump. How is he doing?

JOE PISCOPO, FORMER SNL CAST MEMBER: Spectacular. You cannot ever criticize Alec Baldwin for being funny and talented. Top of his game, Alec Baldwin is. And I think it's hysterical.

SMERCONISH: Has he crossed a line?


SMERCONISH: He hasn't crossed a line?

PISCOPO: I don't think so because you don't cut funny. Michael, you don't cut funny. And so when you're watching him doing it -- and I'm a Trump guy.

[09:35:04] I like -- I like the president. I think he's doing great. But when you go on and you write it -- listen, I'll just say this. I parodied Ronald Reagan. I satirized one of our great presidents in the gipper, man. And we laughed. And you know what they did? You know what the Reagans did? Invited me to the White House.


PISCOPO: It was --

SMERCONISH: How was he and how was she?

PISCOPO: Great question, Mr. Smerconish. Changed my life, man. He was so warm.


PISCOPO: When I went up to Ronald Reagan --

SMERCONISH: I'm going to show that in a second, by the way.

PISCOPO: And I shook Ronald Reagan's hand. And they was like, what do you say to the president? What do you say to Reagan? And I -- he was just a warm guy and there was like a fire behind him in one of those rooms in the White House and I -- what can I say, hey, nice fire, Mr. President.


PISCOPO: And he goes, well, we've got people to do that for us, Joe. Then -- then Michael, I turn away from the president and I go face-to- face with Nancy, and she says to me, she looks at me steely eyed goes, hello, Joe. Boom, I knew why I was there, man.

SMERCONISH: Yes, yes. The spouse is always the tell. Hey, this is -- let's watch your work. This is Joe Piscopo as Ronald Reagan.


PISCOPO: Yes, you'll receive all this, the economic recovery, the Ginsu knives, the magic cards and the land based missile system. Thousands sold in Europe already. The amazing TV president from --


SMERCONISH: You know, I got to say, you were ahead of your time because one of the criticisms, he's your guy, but how far away are we from that with this guy?

PISCOPO: I know.

SMERCONISH: He's like the Ron Popeil of the Oval Office.

PISCOPO: You know what the funny thing is, and it may have came from Mr. Sinatra because they were very close, and maybe Mr. Sinatra talked to Nancy then Nancy made the call for me to get down to the White House after -- and we were not easy on President Reagan. So it was very smart because, you know what, it changed my life. When I met Ronald Reagan, then I started to study him a little bit, then I got so inspired. Now I'm a conservative now. Look at how smart they were.

SMERCONISH: Joe, to your point that the Reagans invited you to the White House, isn't the response, the smart political response from the president to go beyond that show again?

PISCOPO: Yes. I think and with the greatest respect to the president of the United States, he should show up at Studio 8H, and just appear there.


PISCOPO: Tonight.


PISCOPO: And cross Alec Baldwin. It will be hysterical.

SMERCONISH: Why do you think Baldwin's portrayal gets under his skin so deeply? And here's my theory. My theory is he really craves the legitimacy that comes from "SNL," CNN and the "New York Times." And it pains him when he's lampooned by any of the above.

PISCOPO: I don't know. I don't know if it gets under his skin. I think it's just a natural reaction. He's just going -- you know, what Alec is busting his chops in a nice way. And I think Donald Trump is busting Alec right back. That's just the way it is.

SMERCONISH: But in a way that Sarah Palin actually went and appeared alongside Tina Fey.

PISCOPO: Yes. Yes. Exactly. Exactly.

SMERCONISH: That's what needs to happen here.

PISCOPO: Yes, and Melissa McCarthy, how brilliant was that?

SMERCONISH: Come on. Let's show it. And let's show Melissa McCarthy and then Joe Piscopo can weigh in on that. Roll it.


MELISSA MCCARTHY, ACTRESS: I would like to begin today by apologizing on behalf of you to me for how you have treated me these last two weeks. And that apology is not accepted.


SMERCONISH: It's a classic already, right? I mean, it's like you doing Sinatra.

PISCOPO: And I like Sean Spicer, man.


PISCOPO: He's been on my radio show. President Trump's been on my radio show. Immense respect. You got to laugh, man. You got to have a sense of humor. Everybody's just got to calm down, Michael. That's what I like about you, Michael. We've been friends for such a long time. But, you know, you understand both sides. Don't get crazy. Everybody just calm down. You can laugh. If it's funny, you can laugh.

SMERCONISH: All right.

PISCOPO: If President Reagan could do it, anybody could do it.

SMERCONISH: Final subject for you.

PISCOPO: Yes, sir.

SMERCONISH: Soon-to-be Governor Piscopo?

PISCOPO: Well --

SMERCONISH: And if so, under what label? What party?

PISCOPO: Well, I'm an independent now, former lifelong Democrat. You know, I was a blue dog. Remember those blue-dog Democrats?

SMERCONISH: Sure, what happened to them?

PISCOPO: Well, the only one left, the good -- former senator from Virginia.

SMERCONISH: But might you run?

PISCOPO: We're thinking seriously about it.

SMERCONISH: OK. Make some news here. Are you in or not? PISCOPO: No, I can't. I made promises. Put your seat belt on, but

I'm doing my due diligence because the people in New Jersey are ticked off and it's my home state that I have immense love for. You know how much I love the state, man. And we're all a great community in New Jersey.

SMERCONISH: But as an R, as a D or as an I?

PISCOPO: Well, not --

SMERCONISH: That's the issue.

PISCOPO: Not as a Democrat. That's already taken.

SMERCONISH: OK. That's out. We're down to two.

PISCOPO: Yes. So -- and so we'll see. But some of my best friends are Republicans.

SMERCONISH: That's all you're giving me.

PISCOPO: How about that?

SMERCONISH: Can you pronounce drum flaking?

PISCOPO: That's the word the governor stated down there. You know, we're looking at everything. It's -- we're very, very serious. And it's a -- I'm a political junkie, I love this whole world of politics because you know why? You can get in the game but you can help the people.

SMERCONISH: All right. Leave the bridge open. Leave the bridge open.

PISCOPO: Well, well.

SMERCONISH: Thank you.

PISCOPO: Drum flaking. Thanks, man.


[09:40:02] SMERCONISH: What do you think? Tweet me @smerconish. Here's another that's come in during the course of the program. Put it up. Remember I don't see them in advance.

"Smerconish, 'SNL' has light heartedly impersonated presidents over the years. The Trump skits are vindictive and ignorant, it's not funny." Well, I know it's not funny to him, but, Canuck, I think that was this individual's name, he should embrace it. You think that Sarah Palin liked it when Tina Fey did that impersonation? But what did she do? She embraced it. And then she was in on the joke and she was laughing along with everybody else. Joe Piscopo just gave great advice to the president, I think.

Up next, why did a student essay contest in Connecticut cause national controversy? And why did it inspire me to track down an old high school buddy 37 years after we graduated? I'll tell you when we come back.


SMERCONISH: So when does an essay contest for high schoolers in a small New England town make national news?

[09:45:03] When the topic is white privilege. Team Westport, the diversity committee in the predominantly white upper class Connecticut town, sponsors an annual contest. It's open to local students grades 9 through 12, and the top three essays get $1,000, $750 and $500 prizes which is a lot for a high school student even in a town where the median income is over $150,000.

Here's the question they were asked this year. "In a thousand words or less describe how you understand the term white privilege, to what extent do you think this privilege exists, what impact do you think it has had on your life, whatever your racial or ethnic identity and in our society more broadly."

Given the political climate it's not surprising some adults in Westport, which by the way voted 2-to-1 for Hillary Clinton bristled at the implication that race was a factor in their success. The organizers didn't back down. They explained it should only be what students think, not what older people think, people outside of the Westport think, what the press thinks or what political groups think.

The Diversity Committee was devised in 2003 to make the town more welcoming and this essay was designed to get people thinking.

Well, it got me thinking about white privilege. It's not something that I thought about while growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, in Doyles Town, PA, and being educated in the Central Bucks public schools.

In my elementary school class there was only one African-American student. As a matter of fact in grade one Daryl Chatman, and we were close friends, there we are, I'm in the striped shirt with hair in Mrs. Shannon's class. But we've drifted apart. And I wondered what he would say about white privilege. So I called him, many decades later, and I asked him. Here's what he told me.

"I would say there was a white privilege, and, yes, I was aware. Everything that happened in the lives of everyone else was because of opportunities being more available. But it didn't bother me or stop me from what I wanted to do. It was part of something I had to live through." And then he added, "My parents taught me well."

Well, they did indeed. If we'd had this essay contest when we were kids, Darryl probably would have won.

Joining me now, Harold Bailey, he authored the high school essay contest, "Prompt on White Privilege." He's a former IBM executive, chair of TEAM Westport since its founding in 2003. TEAM, by the way, stands for Together Effectively Achieving Multiculturalism. So this is international news. What's the biggest misperception?

HAROLD BAILEY, TEAM WEST CHAIR: Well, I think one of the biggest misperceptions to start with is that I'm the author of the --


BAILEY: Of the prompt, of the challenge. This is a contest that we've run for the last four years. And we've got a pretty rigorous process for coming up with what the prompt or the challenge is going to be each one of those years. We've actually got a committee of about five people that get together and they start in September, and they reach out to each part of the community, educators to the clergy to business people to get input on what we should talk about in a given year.

SMERCONISH: It was the election cycle, right? That caused this year to be this question, how come?

BAILEY: It did -- it did to some extent. I think because the discussions of implicit bias that were out there, but also because we've had conversations for the last two years on race. What do we tell our children about race? What's it like to be black, for instance, in our area? Discussions about what happened after the election and so on. And this was kind of a natural as the next thing that was going to be discussed. And every one of our conversations the issue of white privilege has been front and center as one of the major issues.

SMERCONISH: Here's what I most want to ask you, could a well-written essay that argues against the existence of white privilege, nevertheless, win the essay contest?

BAILEY: Absolutely. In fact, I would love to get some contrarian views.


BAILEY: We're all looking for those. So there's no right answer here. We're looking for a well-written essays period, for or against, in the middle, any way, that's why we said to what extent.

SMERCONISH: You achieved your purpose, at least with me, and I don't live in Westport. I mean, there we are in Mrs. Shannon's class, right?

BAILEY: Yes. Yes.

SMERCONISH: And I'm seated next to Darryl and he is the only student of color in my class. I graduated with a class 12 years later, 458, six students of color. We didn't think about it then. And by the way, he told me he didn't think about it then. But as he got older he thought a lot about it and he pointed out to me the impediments that it presented. I guess that was your purpose, right?

BAILEY: Absolutely. Absolutely. It was important for us to get -- and we want to get kids to think about what's going on now in the town. And to think about this kind of an issue while they're young and they're forming their opinions about the world. So part of it is to get them to research, part of it is to get them to think and then to put those ideas down.

SMERCONISH: I'm eager to read the winner. So does it get made public?

[09:50:02] BAILEY: It will be made public.


BAILEY: We're going to do that around April 3rd.

SMERCONISH: All right.

BAILEY: Could I just say one more thing, Michael?


BAILEY: Another misperception is this idea that there was outrage in the town. We've got tremendous support that's come back from the town. We've got the clergy association, educators in town, the head of the English Department at the high school. We've got social studies people, the superintendent of the schools, and we've gotten a lot of support.

SMERCONISH: I'm interested in meeting the winner and maybe he or she will come on the program or on my Sirius XM Radio program and talk about their essays. So thanks for being here.

BAILEY: We'll do that.

SMERCONISH: Really appreciate it.

BAILEY: Thank you.

SMERCONISH: Let's check out a tweet that came in. It may or may not apply to what we just discussed. What do you got? I better not get you into this. This is a whole Trump debate.

"Trump is a breath of fresh air. He speaks off the cuff. Nothing hidden. So what if he doesn't get it 100 percent?" Hey, Patriot, I'm just trying to point out that we're spending a lot of time on the shell game of those morning tweets and I wonder what's going on when we're all focused on the three-card Monty.

Back in a sec.


[09:55:11] SMERCONISH: Hey, did you miss anything from the program? Because you can watch us on demand or go to our show Web site at

Hit me with another tweet that came in. "Smerconish, it is so very critical that we have dialogue about white privilege. It is a step toward moving forward." Yes. Paula, it made me think this essay, for all the criticism, it made me think about issues that frankly I hadn't thought about when I was at that age.

Hit me with another one. "Smerconish, why do you hate Trump using Twitter? Is it more transparency good?" No, ABC, I don't hate him using Twitter. I like that he uses Twitter. I'm just trying to understand his motivation with those early morning tweets. And I think it's so set the news cycle.

One more, quickly. Hurry up. "Smerconish, Real Donald Trump use of Twitter is brilliant as you rightly say. It's diversionary. Better still it targets Americans directly." Michael, I want to have him tweeting. I want us to pay attention to everything, not just the tweets.

See you next week.