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Trump Talks Anti-Semitism, Vows to Bring Country Together; Aggressive New Border Policies Sees Laws Tighten on Asylum Seekers and Immigrants; Trump's Travel Ban Rewritten; The New EPA Administrator. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 21, 2017 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:06] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thanks for sharing your day with us. We're waiting to see Scott Pruitt. He's the director of the Environmental Protection Agency. We've been dipping in as the new members of the Trump cabinet say hello to their employees. We will take you there in just a moment to dip in to see Scott Pruitt's message today.

Also today, an important stop and message this morning for President Trump at the African-American history museum.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to bring this country together. Maybe bring some of the world together. But we're going to bring this country together. We have a divided country. It's been divided for many, many years. But we're going to bring it together. I hope every day of my presidency we will be honoring the determination and work towards a very worthy goal.


KING: Plus, the administration plans a new travel ban soon, and just today, new steps to ramp up deportations and other immigration enforcement.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have to have people come in that are going to love the country, not people that are going to harm the country. And I think a lot of people agree with me on that.


KING: And it's day one on the job for the president's new national security advisor.


LT. GEN. H.R. MCMASTER, NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: And I look forward to joining the national security team and doing everything I can to advance and protect the interests of the American people.


KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, "The Atlantic's" Molly Ball, CNN's Jeff Zeleny, NPR's Domenico Montanaro, and Mollie Hemingway of "The Federalist."

Again, we're standing by for Scott Pruitt to address the employees at the Environmental Protection Agency. We'll take you over there live when he starts to speak.

Meanwhile, today's other top stories, the Jewish Community Center Association says 48 centers in 26 states and one Canadian province received just shy of 60 bomb threats last month. You might recall, President Trump got testy last week when he was asked about an increase in anti-Semitism. But this morning, after a tour of the Smithsonian African-American History Museum, the president spoke out.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This too is a meaningful reminder of why we have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms. The anti-Semitic threats targeting our Jewish community and community centers are horrible and are painful, and a very sad reminder of the work that still must be done to root out hate and prejudice and evil.


KING: Strong words from the president there. But even after this statement, some of his critics, and maybe some of his critics will never be satisfied, saying, you know, too late. Why didn't you speak out sooner? Why didn't you do this last week? The Ann Frank Center putting out a statement saying the president's sudden acknowledgment is a band-aide on the cancer of anti-Semitism that has infected his own administration.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I don't think it's ever too late, I think, when a president speaks out about something. You know, it's a very, very good thing. I think it's hard to find out anything to quarrel with what he said this morning.

I think the next thing is though, what action will he do about this? Will he direct his Department of Justice to look into some of these, actually go after, you know, what obviously is a rise in hate crimes out there? So I think what comes next is more important than what he did this morning. But certainly a positive step, I think what he did this morning.

KING: Right. To that point, I'll just hold this up, Simon Wiesenthal Center putting out a statement saying they want Attorney General Jeff sessions to appoint a task force to look into this.

But he's a new president. And sometimes, you know, he's growing in the job, and the critics will never like anything he does. But I think he -- what we have seen is sometimes he's .still not comfortable with those presidential moments. So you see them after -- let's hope we don't have one -- but you see them after mass shootings, you see them after tragedy. Here, the other -- last week at the press conference he was asked a question about this and he seemed to take it personally as opposed to as president.

MOLLIE HEMINGWAY, "THE FEDERALIST": Right. It was actually one of the low points of that press conference last week. The question was offered in good faith, and he took it as an insult, and this is a much better response for him to give. It's also true, though, that crimes against Jewish people have been a problem going back for many years. The Department of Justice keeps statistics on hate crimes, and Jews are routinely the most targeted among victim groups. And so this is not just about the last month. This goes back for my years. And it hasn't gotten a lot of attention. And it's nice to see it getting a little attention now.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, NPR: He's very sensitive to the subtext of everything. You know, he always seems to think that if you're going to bring up something like this, then really beneath that what people are getting at is an attack on him and the way that he's campaigned, and the way that he's focused on other things. So, you know, he has had this difficultly transitioning from the campaign and the kind of rhetoric that is sellable on the campaign trail and -- as opposed to being president and trying to unify. You know, again, he's been very defensive in those kinds of moments.

KING: Right. And, Molly -- we have two Mollys at the table. Mollie Hemingway makes an important point that this is not new. There is -- a lot of people are saying there's been an increase of late. Whether you attribute that to the political climate in the country or just coincidence, we don't know the answer.

MOLLY BALL, "THE ATLANTIC": That's right. And the vast majority of hate crimes committed in this country, as Molly said going back many years, has been against Jews. And, you know, there has been a feeling in the anti-Semitic community, I guess, among people like David Duke, who are open anti-Semites, that Trump has been wink and nodding to them throughout the campaign by the way that he has had trouble disavowing people like David Duke.

[12:05:20] And the feeling from Trump is, why do I have to disavow these people? They can like me or not. That doesn't make me one of them. And so he's had a really hard time with the idea that what is required is for him to tell them to back off, him to excommunicate them from his movement so that they don't feel like fellow travelers. It's just not been something that he thinks he has to do.

KING: Especially now that he's president. During the campaign he felt that, why do I have to do this? I'm not associated with these people. Why do I have to push them away? I never pulled them in. But when you're president, the burden is different.

Let's go back to the moment last week, because it was interesting. He was asked a question by a reporter from a Jewish publication who prefaced the question by saying other people in my community might disagree, but I don't see you as an anti-Semite or I don't see things coming out of your administration played out this way.


QUESTION: However, what we are concerned about and what we haven't really heard being address is an uptick in anti-Semitism and how the government is planning to take care of it.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He said he was going to ask a very simple, easy question. And it's not. It's not. Not a simple question. Not a fair question. OK, sit down. I understand the rest of your question.

So here's the story, folks. Number one, I am the least anti-Semitic person that you have ever seen in your entire life. Number two, racism, the least racist person. In fact we did very well relative to other people running as a Republican.


TRUMP: Quiet, quiet, quiet.


KING: To the point you made earlier, testy, a bit angry at that reporter there. This is a difference between being the New York City street brawler, who is Donald Trump, and who, to great success politically, that has helped him in being a president. He took that question personally. It wasn't about him, but he took it that way.

HEMINGWAY: Although the reporter later said he took no offense at the way the question was taken.

KING: Right.

HEMINGWAY: In his community he says there's a lot of support for Donald Trump and it is -- we push these narratives about Donald Trump having a problem with Jewish people that aren't necessarily based in fact and that there are -- you know, he has a daughter who's Jewish.

KING: Right.

HEMINGWAY: He has an ambassador nominee to Israel who's considered a very strong supporter of Israel. So these -- you know, there are other things that need to be part of this thing that we talk about, as we talk about (INAUDIBLE).

KING: Absolutely. I think it's got nothing to do with even the subject matter. If you ask Donald Trump a question about, do you like puppies, you know, it's just sometimes you ask Donald Trump a question, he just takes it -- I don't mean to be flippant about it because it's a serious question -- but he takes questions that people are looking for a presidential statement to help unite the country or say something as the president, and he's always thinking in the back of his mind, you know, to your point, you're trying to somehow say I'm responsible for this. ZELENY: I think it is part of a growing in the job as president. That

is something that we see all presidents do. And there are some of his advisors -- I asked him after that -- they aren't totally sure that he heard exactly everything that was being asked there. It is a big room in the East Room. It's -- you know, who knows? But I think going forward you can't just go to the African-American History Museum and say this one time. I think his actions, again, will be sort of judged on this and other things he says. My guess is that this will not be enough. My guess is that he will have to be doing something else on this and directing his, you know, the vast resources of his government now to do something.

KING: You mentioned his daughter. She's a convert to Judaism. And she tweeted out last night, "America's a nation built on the principle of religious tolerance. We must protect our houses of worship and religious centers. #jcc," for Jewish community centers.

She was responding -- if you're following the media reports of late -- again, this is not new -- it does seem to be a spate of it recently. Here's just three of the places that we know have had these bomb threats called in. And we should be clear, none of these have come to any fruition. They're hoax calls, but they're still scary when they come. It's in New Jersey, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We've also seen some Jewish cemeteries vandalized in recent days as well.

To you point, if the problem persists, there's pressure on a president, and any president will tell you sometimes they don't feel like they should be but they are compelled, because of the job, to step in and talk about things.

MONTANARO: But, again, it's because of what the narrative was during the campaign and, you know, his -- whether it's his Twitter account or whoever's running his Twitter account retweeting, whether knowingly or unwittingly, you know, white supremacist groups or memes that were anti-Semitic. You know, I think that it is different that Donald Trump is not necessarily that person. You know, he's talked for a long time about the fact that he grew up in New York. He's got more socially tolerant or liberal views when it comes to things like gay rights, you know, people in the workplace, all that. Like, I think that is a different thing, but I think that as Jeff was saying, when you're president, you have to figure out how to take that high road and set out a narrative that the rest of the country can listen to and rally around, as opposed to it continuing to be a campaign.

KING: Right, the question is, when he gets there -- maybe people think he got there a little late -- but when he gets there, like he does this morning, do the critics step back and give him a chance or do they just jump into the fray? We'll see.

[12:10:06] Everybody sit tight.

Up next, tough new immigration enforcement guidelines as the president looks to keep a signature campaign promise.


The Trump administration today released new guidelines that taken together signal a much more robust enforcement of immigration laws. The new Department of Homeland Security memos call, for example, to hire more ICE and border patrol agents and officers. They call for an expansion in the number of people deported through expedited removals. Also pushes for a series of changes to the so-called catch and release policy again with an emphasis on deporting people more quickly.

Those steps come as the administration also prepares a new travel ban to replace the executive action that was blocked in federal court.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have to have a safe country. We have to let people come in that are going to love the country. This is about love. This building is about love. And we have to have people come in that are going to love the country. Not people that are going to harm the country. And I think a lot of people agree with me on that. So we'll have various things coming out over a period of time. And you'll see them as they come out. And we'll let you know exactly what they are.


[12:15:13] KING: Still waiting for the new travel ban. And the lawyers are working the language so they think this time it will stand up in court. We'll see when we get it.

But let's focus on what we got from the Department of Homeland Security today and what we think the meaning is. Certainly if you followed the campaign, again, the president's critics will come out and be horrified, but we cannot -- we should not be surprised by this. This is what the president ran on. He said he was going to do it. And this is -- this the Department of Homeland security said, nothing new, just enforcing more aggressively existing law.

BALL: Well, as with the travel ban, I think this is similar. There is a set of criticisms of the policy and then there's a set of criticisms of the execution. And the criticism of the travel ban was both, right? There were people who thought that it was bad policy, but there were a lot of people who thought there would be a way to do this in a way that fulfilled the president's campaign promises, but also was not quite so messy, disruptive, and possibly illegal, and that's why it got knocked down in court. So did they --

KING: I think his department of homeland security secretary feels that way.

BALL: Exactly. So to the extent that this administration can do -- can set out to achieve its goals deliberately, they are still going to be controversial. There is still going to be a lot of people whose hair is on fire about the things that he is setting out to achieve. But if the execution is smoother, I think he will get less blowback and he'll be more effective. He will be less likely to have a judge, for example, stop him from carrying things out.

KING: Silence.

HEMINGWAY: No, that's -- I think --

KING: Well --

HEMINGWAY: The execution of that executive order was where the problem was.

KING: Right.

HEMINGWAY: Anybody can disagree on immigration policy, what's a good idea, what's a bad idea. As we saw, it was actually pretty popular -- or certainly not as unpopular as some people with like you to believe.

KING: Right.

HEMINGWAY: But the execution was so arbitrary, so capricious, and that was where nobody was willing to fight on that ground. And so you will note that he said -- that Donald Trump said that they would see you in court, and instead we are just getting a complete pullback and a re- release. That's actually pretty smart and prudent and totally different than the rhetoric that we saw.

KING: Right, and he's starting to listen to -- listen to Secretary Kelly, at Homeland Security, who said at the Munich security conference over the weekend, I get -- we're going to have time. We're going to roll it out. We're going to do it (INAUDIBLE). And the way they did this today, these memos go out not only to federal law enforcement agencies, but to state and local people too, saying, if you come into contact with, you know, an undocumented and setting new standards for -- what sometimes they, the catch and release. You catch them, you document it, they let them go. In this case now, unless you can prove you've been here for two years, these new guidelines say they're going to move toward deportation.

ZELENY: Without a doubt, some hard line things in here that I think we're -- we're going to have to see how these are executed. The local law enforcement agencies aren't equipped to sort of deal with all of this. I mean it's just -- it's one of the problems in the first place, right?

But I think one of the other things I'm watching for today as this rolls out are the dreamers. He's basically leaving DACA exactly the same for now. And that's been controversial among some of his supporters because they wanted to see a change in that. But he is saying, for now, that he is leaving that. But I think his comment this morning, we have to bring people here who love this country --

KING: Right.

MONTANARO: How do you test love, right?

ZELENY: How do you define that or test that?

KING: Right.

ZELENY: And a lot of these people -- you know, these refugees go through extreme vetting already, or certainly heavy, heavy vetting. So I think that that is something that's much more difficult than finding someone who loves this country.

KING: Right. And so this -- this issue among the many, but this issue always stokes emotions.

ZELENY: Right.

KING: And people get fired up.

I want you to listen here, Carlos Curbelo, Republican congressman from Florida, talking today on "New Day." Actually, a factual, rationale comment on immigration, which is often rare in our politics.


REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA: I think in recent years the truth has gotten lost in a lot of our debates. The fact is that the Obama administration deported more people than anyone in our history. The fact is that we have a much more secure situation at the border than we did ten years ago.

Now, do we need to keep going? Do we need to do better? Absolutely. Do we need to solve this immigration puzzle once and for all? The American people are tired, Chris, of this debate. It's literally been ten years since McCain-Kennedy. We need to act.


KING: Also, he went on to say -- now, McCain-Kennedy, a path to citizenship. There's no mood in the country for that right now, and the president clearly has said. But the president has given other answers. But when you listen to that, it's like might we, might we actually be able to have a -- no, you're shaking your head already. You know where I'm going.


KING: A conversation were people say, look, to the Democrats howling at President Trump now, Obama deported a lot of people. To -- when the president says they're flooding across, say, no, actually, you know, it's a problem. We need to deal with it. But the numbers are actually down in the last decade.


KING: Can we have a rationale conversation about this issue?

MONTANARO: No, I don't think so. I mean I think that what you heard him sort of build a case for is comprehensive immigration reform. And that got 68 votes in 2013. It's unlikely they're going to get back to that point. I mean maybe they do, but it would certainly be short of anything that's a path to citizenship. That is the underlying problem and issue when it comes to immigration. The difficulty of getting into the country for anything short of having special (INAUDIBLE) --

[12:20:09] KING: But can you do incremental immigration reform? Can we throw comprehensive out the window because it's never going to work here in Washington, again, especially after the Obamacare experience and after the --


KING: You know, after the last immigration attempt at this. And because you're going to have pressure from Republicans from farm districts saying we need a guest worker program. Republicans from high-tech areas saying we need to fix the high-tech visa program. Can this be done in pieces or, again, once you start this debate, do we go off the rails?

HEMINGWAY: A lot can be done just by enforcing current law or moving toward enforcing current law. There's a lot of room for compromise just using what's on the books right now, and that's what I think is interesting about today's memos coming from the department. A lot of people want change, and it doesn't require necessarily a huge legislative overhaul to just use the tools that are already there. The fact that previous administrations didn't use those tools, it has no -- I mean it plays a part, but it doesn't need to keep people from using it.

MONTANARO: The problem when you do things piecemeal is that you wind up only doing the stuff that's politically popular. So if you did Obamacare piecemeal, you would have only done preexisting conditions and kids staying on their parents' insurance till 26. That doesn't solve the other --

KING: Let me -- let me push back just a little bit, though. Let me push back a little bit. If you did guest worker and the high-tech visa thing, at least can you get people who disagree on the big stuff in the room where they actually -- you know what, I can trust this guy. You know what, I can respect this person. Maybe when we get to the tougher stuff we've at least built -- we started having conversations, so I at least respect you more.

ZELENY: We should try it because it hasn't been tried in this town for a long time. I mean for all the executive orders the president is signing, much harder to sign a bill into law. Much harder. So I think that, you know, he is one person who might be able to bring people together on this. I'm not saying it's going to happen, but I think there are a lot of conservatives, Republicans out there, we're talking about farm communities, farm areas who are going to feel this pinch and something needs to be done here. High-tech as well. So I'm not completely pessimistic about that.

BALL: But that's the real question and that's where the conflict is going to come because if you are talking about more H1B visas, if you were talking about expanding the guest worker program, you're talking about letting more foreigners into this country and Donald Trump's platform in his campaign and Jeff Sessions and Steve Miller and Steve Bannon, their whole idea is that you let fewer people into this country legally, and that is going to be a conflict between that brain trust and the business community, which says that it needs these workers, although some disagree with that. So the real conflict is going to come -- I think it's similar to the tariff issue. When you have old school, you know, what used to be the Republican Party before Donald Trump came along and what the Chamber of Commerce and the business community want versus the types of policies that Trump promoted in his campaign.

KING: Right, the America first policies. And this is a tough one here. One of the things I think that will work to the president's advantage is the respect that now secretary, former General Kelly, has over at Homeland Security among Democrats too, even though they disagree with the policy.

We talked at the top of the program, Scott Pruitt is the new EPA chief here, and he was very controversial in his confirmation hearings because Democrats call him a denier of climate change. We want you to listen. We like to dip in so you get to meet the new faces of the administration. This is Scott Pruitt, moments ago, speaking to employees at the Environmental Protection Agency about his agenda going forward.


SCOTT PRUITT, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: I seek to be a good listener. Those of you that have been here for quite some time, whether it's in the air area or water or whatever area that you may be in, I look forward to spending time with you. Not just to, you know, get to -- to address certain issues, but really spend time and dig down deep with respect to how we're going to do business in the future and get to know you personally and how I can be a resource to you as you do your work. And I think that the story of listening, you can't lead unless you listen. I seek to listen, learn, and lead with you to address these issues that we face as a nation.


KING: That's certainly a good way to get started as a leader, promising to listen. Rex Tillerson, in his introductory speech at the State Department sounded a very similar note there. But this is going to be one of the flash points in this town because Democrats, you -- they think he's going to ease regulations on the energy industry. They're worried about clean air and clean water. And most of all, Democrats say, he's a climate change denier. He said in his confirmation hearings, he did say there was definitely a human impact but (ph) people debate about the severity. So we'll see it going forward.

ZELENY: Without a question. But I think this is one of the series of cabinet secretaries we've seen sworn in, you know, who are basically at odds with a lot of the viewpoints of the -- of the people that they'll be working for. He has filed how many lawsuits, 14, 15, against the EPA. So I think this is something we'll have to see. But certainly starting off on a optimistic note, a high note, I think.

Whoever is sort of advising these secretaries, I think, they've done fairly well here. But a lot of people did not want him to be confirmed on the Democratic side, and we'll see how many leaks are coming out of that agency, if any, about what he does from here forward.

MONTANARO: I mean the thing is, if you're saying, I'm going to listen to you guys, it's sort of like a placeholder to just say, give me some time. You know, give me a few months or whatever it is. I don't have anything to tell you about the mission of how we were going to go forward with all of this. But, you know, I'm going to listen. Let's -- let's not have a totally, you know, antagonistic relationship right off the bat. But I think Jeff's right, there are probably going to be a number of leaks out of some of these agencies.

[12:25:11] And I don't think that was as strong a speech as Rex Tillerson gave at State. I mean I think Rex Tillerson had a major hurdle to climb. He brought it down with a lot of humor and, you know, understanding that professionalism is important and matters. The book is still out on how Scott Pruitt will interact with the EPA.

HEMINGWAY: I think we're understating the seriousness of a problem that's going on right now which is, you know, we have reports coming out of the EPA that employees are encrypting their communications so that they won't be able to be --

KING: Right.

HEMINGWAY: You know, you can't FOIA information from that. That's a threat to journalists. That's also a threat to their actual supervisors in the administration. And so, yes, this was, I guess, a bit of an olive branch. But, in fact, I think there should be much more alarm about the dangers inherent in people who aren't accountable to anyone, being able to set policy or engage in leak campaigns to subvert the people who are actually elected to lead the country.

KING: Right. Right. They did -- they did win. They did win. You win, you get to take over the agencies. So we'll see how this one plays out.

Up next, take two on the -- from the take two on the travel order to take two at the National Security Council. The president's new pick is an Army general known for challenging his bosses.