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Trump Comments on African Nations; Durbin Confirms Statement; GOP Leadership Silent on Trump's Comment; Haitian-American Congresswoman Demands Apology; Trump Touts Kim Jong-un Relationship. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired January 12, 2018 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:11] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us.

Moments ago at the White House, following a script, President Trump paying tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The unscripted President Trump, though, is giving us a bright light look at his character, and it's ugly. Today, what appears to be a brazen lie, a tweet denying that during a White House meeting on immigration he used vulgar, offensive language to describe African nations.


SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), MINORITY WHIP: He said these (INAUDIBLE) things and he said them repeatedly. And then he went on and he started to describe the immigration from Africa that was being protected in this bipartisan nature. That's when he used these vile and vulgar comments, calling the nations they come from shitholes. The exact word used by the president. Not more (ph). Not just once, but repeatedly.


KING: Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois there. He was in the room yesterday when, according to several sources present, President Trump spoke disparagingly of Hattians and later asked why some lawmakers wanted to let in new immigrants from, quote, excuse me, shithole countries in Africa. The White House did not deny the remarks when the story broke yesterday. Now, amid global outrage, the president says, yes, he used tough language, but he's trying to suggest not the term shithole. Excuse me again.

This one's easy. There were several Republican senators in the room. Come forward, gentlemen. What exactly did the president say. Senator Durbin, just there, put his credibility on the line. If the president didn't say these horrible things, don't you think those Republicans would be all over television calling it fake news?

The political fallout is huge here at home and around the world. African nations, for example, are aghast. A United Nations office calls the president a racist. A Republican congresswoman of Haitian decent demands a presidential apology.

We'll get to all that because it's important, as is the impact on the already complicated immigration policy debate.

But first, what this episode is most of all, another disturbing snapshot of how Donald Trump thinks, how he views the world and how he views people. Why do we want people from Haiti here? This is how the president scornfully responded, according to several people in the room, when briefed on a new immigration proposal. The conversation then turned to African nations and the president asked, why would America want, quote, all these people from shithole countries? Instead, he suggested more Norwegians should be invited in.

With us to share their reporting and their insights, CNN's Sara Murray, Perry Bacon of FiveThirtyEight, Olivier Knox of "Yahoo! News," and "Politico" Rachael Bade.

I want to note to you, the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, is doing a live interview right now back home in Wisconsin. We expect him to be asked about this controversy. We're going to bring you that as soon as it happens. So forgive me, anyone at the table, if I interrupt.

Help me here. Help me here. I'm influenced here somewhat by my own upbringing in Boston at a time of forced bussing where people used the term shithole a lot and we knew what they meant by it. We knew what they meant by it.

Is there any other conclusion, when you're having a conversation -- we could have a conversation about marriage based immigration. We could have a conversation about quotas. That's all fair in a democracy. But when you disparage nations, call African nations shitholes, again, excuse me, and then say we should have more Norwegians. Is there any secret to what the president's doing here?

PERRY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: I don't think there is. I mean you get -- the Norway yes, Haitian, no, Africans, no, tells you a lot. You now think about everything he says. When he says chain migration, does he mean policy or does he mean I want fewer Latinos in the country? It is hard to look at his comments -- we've had like since 2011, you know, he was the lead -- this was not new that he makes racially (INAUDIBLE) racist comments. We've had a long history of this. But now we're in the White House and he's talking about a really important policy debate and he can't hide those comments tells you a lot about the man who's running the country right now.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, I think, you know, the -- the issue was, it was certainly something that was appalling to a lot of people when the president did it when he was a candidate, when people felt like he was race baiting essentially to appeal to his base to try to get the numbers he needed and then he said he was going to be president for all people when he was elected and when he won the presidency.

Now he's in the White House and he's making policy that impacts not only all Americans, but it impacts a lot of people coming from other nations. And we're used to our leaders viewing the United States as a country that is made of immigrants. A county where your, you know, possibility is not going to be determined by your place of birth. In fact, we welcome you here to give you that opportunity. Now that's not to say that there shouldn't be limits, that there shouldn't be different ways you look at the immigration system. But the way that this president puts it in those very staunchly racial terms, I think you can't -- you can't fault people for call it racist comments because we've seen the president talk like this before as a candidate and since he's been at the White House.

KING: And it's who he is.

I just want to bring you this as it happens here. Susan Collins, senator from Maine, Republican, moderate Republican, tweeting this. These comments are highly inappropriate and out of bounds and could hurt efforts for bipartisan immigration agreement. The president should not denigrate other countries.

[12:05:12] That's the political fallout. And, again, it's important.

I want to spend a little bit more time, though, on what I view as the more important question. He's the president of the United States. Children, a lot of Americans, take ques from people in leadership. What does it tell us when you tell a kid -- again, I'm shaped by my childhood -- but when you tell -- when a kid hears from the president of the United States that it's OK to disparage Haitians, call African nations -- I'm not going to say the word again, at least not yet, but you've heard it before -- and then say, but why don't we have more white people from Norway come in?

OLIVIER KNOX, "YAHOO! NEWS": I think you guys have touched on the real problem here, which is less the disparaging comments and more the policy behind it, because the idea that the White House, that this president does not want people from those countries. And if you go back and look at the history of American immigration, when the Irish came to these shores, they weren't leaving the land of milk and honey. When Italians came, the parts of Italy from which they came were under enormous economic duress.

So the history of this is that people from struggling countries, the eastern bloc (ph) countries, all these other countries, when the president says that by virtue of where you were born, you shouldn't be allowed here, that's the underlying problem. The vulgarity had enormous diplomatic consequences as well. And as you suggest, potential social ones too. But let's not lose track that he was -- he was disparaging people, not just countries.

KING: People largely based on what they look like. Not their -- not their economic -- where they're from and the color of their skin. Is there any other way to see it?

BACON: No other way to see it.


Just to go back really quickly, the Susan Collins tweet that you just read, I mean he talks about -- he called these country, quote, shitholes, but it looks like he might have stepped in one on Capitol Hill with these remarks. I mean we have seen people blast these comments from both sides of the

isle. Democrat Steny Hoyer, who's one of the top Democrats in the room right now negotiating the DACA deal, said these were point blank racist. And then we saw the Congressional Black Caucus leader come out and say, it's clear that President Trump's make America great again is actually make America white again.

But Republicans also, Susan Collins, we just talked about, Mia Love, you mentioned a little bit in your introduction, she is a Republican from Utah whose parents came from Haiti, one of the countries he was talking about. And, you know, Republicans, I think, on The Hill know that this hurts them and the White House. There's sort of been some spin put out a little bit that, oh, he's catering to the base. This is not a big deal. People in the Republican Party accept this.

But, on The Hill, I think Republicans see that this undercuts immigration negotiations, it puts their moderate swing state Republicans who are from Hispanic heavy districts in this terrible position of having to respond to this and blast the president in this awkward situation. And it totally distracts from everything they have to do next week, which is a totally different issue, I should say.

KING: Right, but it -- it destroys -- it destroys their brand or it hits -- impacts their brand. I shouldn't say destroy, but it hurts their brand. The president again is hurting the brand of the party of Lincoln. The party of Abraham Lincoln. (INAUDIBLE).

The president says this is not true, or at least he suggests it's not true. He tweets this this morning. The language used by me at the DACA meeting was tough, but this was not the language used. A reference there to the shithole comment. What was really tough was the outlandish proposals made and he wants to -- he wants to change the subject here. Never said anything derogatory about Haitians other than Haiti is obviously a very poor and troubled country. Never said take them out. Make up by Dems. I have a wonderful relationship with Haitians.

Here's my point, then why didn't the White House put the -- set -- try to set the record straight last night? Why didn't they say, the president didn't say this. The leaks you are getting are false. Here's what the president said. Why aren't any of the Republican senators who are in the room willing to come out. Gentlemen, you know how to reach us. Pick up the phone. We've got 50 --

BACON: They also have Twitter accounts too.

KING: Yes. We've got 51 minutes left here and then the rest of the day. You know, you know how to reach us. Pick up the phone and say, no, no, no, I was in the room, that's not what the president said.


BADE: You hear that.

BACON: That's exactly right. Lindsey Graham or Tom Cotton or Goodlatte wanted us to know that

Donald Trump didn't say that, they are pretty supportive of him most of the time. They defend -- Lindsey Graham defends him all the time right now. But in this moment, they're not defending him. We're now almost 24 hours since this comment was -- we've known of this comment. So his -- Trump's tweet was kind of carefully written and, you know, took 12 hour to get there to deny this. He was asked -- he was on camera for this event they just had. If he wanted to deny it forcefully, he surely would have taken the time to do so if he really thought he was misquoted.

Also, we can't ignore the totality of what he's done these last five years suggests this is a very likely thing he said. It's not like any of us were really shocked that the comment came out. It was more -- it was more the detail of it was horrible, but it wasn't necessarily that surprising.

KING: Right.

KNOX: And the White House statement didn't just not deny the vulgarity. They added a layer, which was, the president is focused on people -- on having immigrants who can contribute something to this country, which is again the underlying problem here is that it's a policy about people and not just derogatory comments about a country. So they didn't just deny it. They actually sort of reinforced the underlying perception that he's willing to bar people simply because of the place of their birth.

KING: And, again, you made -- everyone, I think, has touched on the point that it's not the first time. This is a specific example and the language is just glaring and offensive and repulsive.

[12:10:05] But there's a "New York Times" report back -- published in December talking about the president getting angry about immigration. Haiti had sent 15,000 people. They all have AIDS, he grumbled, according to one person who attended the meeting, and another person who was briefed about it by a different person who was there. Forty thousand come from Nigeria, Mr. Trump added. Once they have been in the United States, they would never, quote, go back to their huts in Africa, recalled two official, who ask for anonymity.

So this is, I think -- well, they call that a pattern.

MURRAY: I mean we're talking about one of the original birthers here. We're talking about someone who helped elevate his fame by questioning whether Barack Obama was born in the United States long after anyone else was still talking about this publicly. Someone who, as a presidential candidate, had to hold a public event in which he finally had to swallow hard and say, fine, fine, I believe President Barack Obama was actually a legitimate president.

So I don't know --

KING: In about a half sentence.

MURRAY: Well, yes, in about a half sentence. BACON: Grudgingly.

MURRAY: So we -- like, when you're talking about the credibility, are you going to believe the president's half-hearted denial on Twitter or Dick Durbin on camera or other sources who are in that room who are telling us, this is what the president said. I mean there's a pretty clear credibility gap on that one. We know how this president has talked in the past. We know what he believes because he has told us.

KING: Right. And we're going to continue this conversation, including the political fallout around the world, the political fallout here in the United States.

We're waiting to hear from the speaker of the House. He's being interviewed this hour back home in Wisconsin. We know he's going to be asked about this.

Up next, two Americans, each sees what it wants in the president's words.



[12:15:40] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIAN KILMEADE, HOST, "FOX AND FRIENDS": Number one, the president made a mistake in making those comments.


KILMEADE: No question.

Not positive. Not going to move this story forward. I think he should walk it back at some point.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, he's not going to.


KING: Welcome back.

That from a place where the big debate most mornings is where the president is excellent or awesome. That tells you something. Just one example of the fallout from the president's Oval Office rants yesterday on immigration, including this on the issue of accepting new immigrants from Africa. One more time, I'm going to say this, why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here? Those are the words of the president of the United States.

A new outrage, but also a familiar divide. Is the president, as some say, a reckless race baiter?


SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), MINORITY WHIP: The president interrupted him several times with questions. And in the course of his comments, you know, said things which were hate-filled, vile, and racist.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR, "NEW DAY": So you think he has a pattern of racism?

REP. TIM RYAN (D), OHIO: There's -- I don't think there's any question about it. And I don't take any joy in saying it. It's sad that he's the president of the United States.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: This remark by the president of the United States smacks of blatant racism. The most odious and insidious racism masquerading poorly as immigration policy.


KING: Or, as the president, as he likes to see himself, the voice of blue collar America.


TUCKER CARLSON, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Today, as you doubtless (ph) heard during immigration talks, President Trump said something that almost every single person in America actually agrees with.

JESSE WATTERS, FOX NEWS HOST: This is how Trump relates to people.

Is it graceful? No. Is it polite or delicate? Absolutely not. Is it a little offensive? Of course it is. But, you know what, this doesn't move the needle at all. This is who Trump is. He doesn't care.


KING: It is striking in the middle of this, there are people, paid with your taxpayer dollars, who work for this president of the United States, who are saying that maybe he could have chose his words a little better. Maybe we don't like that this got out. But this will help with the base. Really?

KNOX: Again, they're focusing on the derogatory comment about the countries and not the underlying policy problem, which is turning away people because of where they were born. It's very, very notable, in all of those comments, that that's what they're doing. They're trying to -- they're trying to shift it over to, look, don't we all agree that Haiti's a troubled country, as opposed to, don't we all agree that no one from Haiti should be allowed in the United States.

KING: Right, that's an excellent point.

BACON: I think they misunderstand their base a little bit. President Trump won 46 percent of the vote in 2016. He's down to about 35 percent approval rating all ready. So he's already lost. This idea that his based is sort of pure and staying with him (INAUDIBLE), he loses a point a month basically. He's going closer to 20 than 50. So that's also a big problem right now.

Also, it's not clear, when I was (INAUDIBLE), Sara (INAUDIBLE) was, but I think voters were concerned about immigration. And some of them supported the wall. And some of them supported ideas that maybe everyone will support. They weren't necessarily asking for the president to made racist comments reckly (ph). That was not something I heard on the campaign trail often (ph).

I do think that even the base is not looking. When "Fox and Friends" is criticizing Donald Trump, you know he's went really far because that is a, as you noted, a show of cheerleader -- of cheerleading (INAUDIBLE).

KING: And there's some basic math at play here. Even if you think this helps you with your base, OK, a base of 30 percent?


KING: You can't govern and you can't -- there are all these Trump people out there saying he's going to win next time with the same way. I don't -- just the math. The math -- the math to me gets pretty interesting.

Go ahead.

BADE: And how many Republicans from The Hill do you see praising him? All the comments so far have been -- except one, I guess I should say --

KNOX: Yes.

BADE: Steve King of Iowa, a hardline immigration hawk, earlier this week he was criticizing the president saying that the open negotiation he held with the Democrats at the White House was showing that he was moving from a hardline on immigration to amnesty for illegals is how he -- he phrased it. And now he was saying, President Trump, hang in there amid this criticism. So I guess there was one Republican on The Hill, but most of them, no.

KING: Most of them don't want to go anywhere near this. You mentioned Mia Love earlier in the show, a rising star, a Haitian American, a congresswoman from Utah, Republican, conservative, spoke at Donald Trump's convention. Again of Haitian American decent. She says this. The president's comments are unkind, divisive, elitist and fly in the face of our nation's values. The president must apologize to both the American people and the nations he so wantonly maligned.

Stepping forward, stepping forward quickly, but I think she's going to have a long wait for a presidential apology.

MURRAY: No, I don't think we're going to get a presidential apology. I would be personally stunned, having covered him for as long as I have, if we get a presidential apology. And I think that he will privately be tickled by the fact that we're spending all day, every hour, every minute talking about his comments. He loves --

[12:20:11] KING: If he's -- if the president of the United States is ticked by the fact that there are people having conversations about, is he a racist or does he just race bait, I can't -- if he's tickled by that, then we have a -- even a bigger -- we have even a bigger problem than I thought.

MURRAY: How many times have we had (INAUDIBLE) over the last two and a half years about this man.

KING: Yes. And so, again, you talk about the political fallout. In a minute I want you to talk about is this -- does this somehow give Republicans more urgency in the DACA negotiations? Is it proof that this is just quicksand followed by quicksand followed by quicksand? But we're in an election year. Barbara Comstock, the conservative member of Congress, a consistent conservative member of Congress, who just across the river here in northern Virginia, she's running in a really tough, competitive district. The president says things like this. It hurts her chances of winning re-election. She says, I can't defend what the president reportedly said. We're all made in the image and likeness of God. Let's keep President Reagan's shining city on a hill vision before us.

Well said. But this is the problem he causes Republicans who are in tough races.

BADE: Certainly gives them a chance to push back on the president. And I think that's absolutely what they need to do right now. I mean he -- between his poll numbers and controversial things he says like this, I mean those members in swing states, they call them the majority makers in the House, if they lose them, they lose control of Washington. They've got to push back.

KNOX: About a year ago I talked to in some length a Republican who's involved in the 2018 campaign process who said, we need him at 53 or at 10 and everything in between is difficult.

I mean I could tell you where I think comments like this tend to drive the numbers, which direction they're going to drive the numbers. But it is difficult, as you point out, difficult. They need the base voters for sure. They can't get elected without them. But they can't do it with just the base. So what do they do in response to this?

I think it is interesting you said that it gives them a chance to push back against the president. I don't necessarily see this as generating an opportunity so much as a nightmare.

BADE: Fair enough.

KNOX: But --

BADE: But it's got to -- it's got to (INAUDIBLE).

KNOX: But that's not wrong. But that's not wrong. I think you get a lot of Republicans now who have signed up four square (ph) -- (INAUDIBLE) behind his agenda who now get to say, well, you know, tax cuts, yes. But, you know, race baiting comments, no.

KING: And so this all happened at a meeting where he was being shown a proposal, briefed on a proposal by the so-called gang of six. I'll call them a more moderate group, including some Democrats and the Republicans involved are more moderate. But what they gave the president was not terribly out of line with what the president said he was willing to accept in that big -- the rare event earlier in the week. We talked about this as an act of love. They came to a proposal and the president said, go away. Has he -- has he been listening to the backlash from the base? Is that were part of this is coming from?

BADE: Oh, absolutely. I think President Trump is hearing from two different camps right now. He's hearing from the hardline immigration hawks in his party, but also Republican establishment types who want to fix DACA and who want to find a solution to this.

I think the comments undercut his negotiating hand big time. I think with that open negotiation session we saw this week, Republicans felt really jazzed after that. They thought it was a good display for him. You know, he's -- he got to argue why he wanted the wall, why he wanted changes to chain migrations and it made Republican sort of feel pretty good in like they had elevated their negotiating hand. Poof, that's totally gone now.

The other piece of this is that it makes a deal a million times harder because Democrats are not going to want to negotiate with someone who's calling countries like this, quote, shitholes. I mean this is not going to be great -- their base is going to go nuts if they associate with him.

KING: I was going to say, even if they wanted to negotiate or even if they thought we have to negotiate because it's an important policy perspective, even though he's repugnant. We have to negotiate. Will the base even -- we're going to continue to follow this story.

Again, we're still waiting to hear from Speaker Ryan on this issue. He's doing a live interview back home in Wisconsin. And, just a reminder, among all this chaos, we're talking about immigration, but immigration's just one part, just one week away from the government running out of money, which could force a shutdown. Is the president enjoying the ride, someone asked his treasury secretary just this morning.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Now, you see the president regularly. Is he happy with the job? Does he wish he hadn't run for president? Is he happy being president?

STEVE MNUCHIN, TREASURY SECRETARY: I think he loves being president.



[12:26:52] KING: Welcome back.

You might say President Trump managing to steal some of his own thunder in the last 24 hours. Besides those highly controversial comments we just talked about in a meeting about immigration, he also gave a candid news-making and at times quite bizarre interview to "The Wall Street Journal." One thing we learned, President Trump says he, quote, probably has a good relationship with North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un. But the president would not answer directly when "Journal" reporters asked if he had actually ever spoken to Kim.

Michael Bender was one of the reporters who interviewed the president for "The Journal." He joins our panel for this conversation.

I probably have a good relationship with Kim Jong-un, who I've called rocket man and short and fat and all those other things. And so, have you spoken to him, sir? What was the answer?

MICHAEL BENDER, "THE WALL STREET JOURNAL": Well, when we asked if he had spoken, and he would say, expect a couple times he didn't want to comment on that. We followed up with him. Immediately after with his staff immediately after that interview and again before we published it. Didn't want to add anything to it.

I think -- so, I'm not sure. We -- reporters, White House communications officials get in trouble trying to define what President Trump said or meant to say sometimes. We can get in trouble doing that sometimes.

I think the broader point here and the broader takeaway is without a doubt President Trump is signaling a new openness to diplomacy in North Korea. He's gone from, at one point, saying he wanted to totally annihilate this country, you know, and fire and fury kind of talk. And you mentioned the tweets he's had about Kim Jong-un. This is a much different direction. He seemed to have turned the page on some of that talk. And, at the very least, is signaling an interest in a peaceful solution here.

KING: Interesting piece.

I just want to tell our viewers what you're seeing on the right side of your screen there. The president's heading out to Walter Reed Medical Center, just outside of Washington, in Bethesda, Maryland, for an annual physical. That's the motorcade right there. We're going to talk more about the physical in a few minutes. But you see the president's motorcade heading out there.

And to that point -- well, let's stay on North Korea for a minute. Here's what he said. I probably have a very good relationships with Kim Jong-un of North Korea. I have relations with the people and think you people are surprised. And "The Journal," some people would see your tweets which are sometimes combative towards Kim Jong-un. Sure. You see that a lot with me and all of a sudden everybody's my best friend. I could give you 20 examples. You give me 30. I'm a very flexible person.

But, Olivier, the idea being, yes, insult people as part of the courting process is sort of -- I mean correct me if I'm wrong, please, but that's not -- you know, we -- that's just how we start talking and it starts as this but then I'm flexible and we can become buddies with -- I mean is there some magical opening here?

KNOX: He's -- well, he's good buddies now with Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, who told -- declared him unfit for the presidency on television, and then the president went after him. And, yes, there is this sort of a line.

Bob Corker, we know, liddle, l-i-d-d-l-e Bob Corker, in Trump's tweets, suddenly is a partner on issues like Iran. So, yes, he's basically right, he does have this insult and, as you say, part of the courtship process. He's nagging (ph) I think is the (INAUDIBLE) term.

I don't know. I think -- I think Michael's right, that in recent weeks we've seen -- I'm going to get viewer mail for this -- a more conventional approach to North Korea where the president is tightening the economic and diplomatic vice on Kim, Kim's regime. Today the White House hailed the fact that China sharply cut back its trade with Korea.

KING: We've got to get to Speaker Paul Ryan. I'm sorry. He's talking about the president.

[12:30:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a word I can't mention. It's about African countries. It's about immigration. Which is tied into your job because, well, you have a week from now there's another deadline on a government shutdown. Immigration's a big part of that. His comments