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INSIDE POLITICS

Senators Spar over Comments; Trump's Remarks Paralyze Washington; Trump's History of Racially-Tinged Remarks. Aired 12- 12:30p ET

Aired January 15, 2018 - 12:00   ET

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


[12:00:00] BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Release the audio.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Got it.

Brian Stelter, thank you.

STELTER: Thanks.

CABRERA: And thank you for joining us. "INSIDE POLITICS" with John King starts now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thank you, Ana.

And welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing this special day with us.

The government runs out of money in just four days. And, yes, you have seen this movie before. The obstacles to agreement are many. And not all of them are battles pitting Democrats against Republicans.

Plus, Hawaii reassigns that worker who accidentally sent out a ballistic missile alert and says it will now add new safeguards to that warning system.

And as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the son of the civil rights icon delivers a message to President Trump.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MARTIN LUTHER KING III, DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR's SON: You have a president who says things but has the power to execute and create racism. That's a dangerous power and a dangerous position! We got it find a way to work on this man's heart.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: We begin on this Martin Luther King Day with a conversation about race and about prejudice with a dispute over whom to believe and whose memory to trust. Today, conflicting accounts over what the president of the United States said. Sources telling CNN he disparaged Haitians and African nations. You might recall on Friday, Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat who was in the room with the president, told reporters, yes, the president used the word -- forgive me -- shitholes in the context of the African countries. And Senator Durbin says the president used it repeatedly. Two Republican senators, though, who were in the same meeting, Ton Cotton and David Perdue, first on Friday said they did not recall the president saying these comments specifically. Yesterday, on the Sunday shows, their stories changed.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC'S "THIS WEEK": Are you saying the president did not use the word that has been so widely reported?

SEN. DAVID PERDUE (R), GEORGIA: I'm telling you he did not use that word, George, and I'm telling you it's a gross misrepresentation. How many times do you want me to say that?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: I didn't hear that word either. I certainly didn't hear what Senator Durbin has said repeatedly. I didn't hear it, and I was sitting no farther away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: The president, this won't surprise you, seizing now on the new memories of Senators Cotton and Purdue.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Did you see what various senators in the room said about my comments? They weren't made.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: Now, if you don't care about the truth or the president's character, that's smart politics, create confusion, make it just another disagreement between the d's and the r's here in Washington. Here's the problem for the president. CNN's reporting includes accounts from Trump friends who say the president himself talked to them about using the vulgar term. Plus, the Republican at the center of the Oval Office outburst won't go along with the rewrite effort. Senator Lindsey Graham today saying, quote, my memory hasn't evolved. I know what was said and I know what I said.

Now, Graham, I'm told, is wary of a war of words with the president and so he's refusing, when he's asked to detail on the record exactly what was said. But he's also referring to help the White House effort to make all this go away.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Those of us in my business need to up their game. It's pretty embarrassing when you have to take your children out of the room just to report the news. So the only thing I can do is control me. I can't make anybody change but me.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: With us to share their reporting and their insights, "Bloomberg's" Margaret Talev, CNN's Manu Raju, John McCormack from "The Weekly Standard," and "Times'" Molly Ball.

What to make of this? There's no question whether the president -- there are those who say the president didn't say s-hole, he said s- house. There's no question the president used disparaging language about Hattians and about African countries in the context of, why don't we let more white people from places like Norway immigrate into the United States. Why would we want these people to come here? There's no question about the context and the tone. What do we make of this effort by two Republican senators now and the White House seizing on that to say, well, he didn't say it?

MOLLY BALL, "TIME": Well, --

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It's confusing. I mean --

BALL: To me the evolution is interesting in how the White House seems to have perceived the fallout. That their initial response was to embrace it in some way, right? To claim that this was a good thing because it represented how people really feel.

And then when they saw how it was playing, when the president saw how it was playing, the strategy became the opposite, to argue that this was not what was said. And they still haven't really addressed the substance of the sentiment, right, and where -- what the president means or who he believes ought to -- and on what basis, come into the country.

RAJU: And if the president really did not say this, then presumably you would come out with a forceful denial right away, try to kill the story and say this is not what happened. Clearly that did not -- they waited several days for this to linger. They -- sources in the room have confirmed exactly what happened. The White House clearly did not push back initially because it seemed that that was exactly what he said.

[12:05:00] To me the curious thing is, why continue to fight this? This is not a fight that they're going to win. Why not initially maybe apologize, say you said the wrong thing, move on, move on to the next subject so we can get off this topic and focus on the other big issues that they had to deal with, namely what to do about DACA, what to do about immigration, how to keep the government open. But, instead, they are on now day what, day four of this fight and now it's a he said/she said fight. And it's unclear about whether or not this is going to be beneficial to the White House in the end.

KING: And to that point, we'll get to the -- what this tells us about the president and all of that and the global outrage in a moment. But in this idea that Senators Cotton and Purdue decide to come forward, forgive me, if you're in a meeting, people sitting around in a conversation about as close as this one, and somebody, according to Senator Durbin, and Senator Graham told this to colleagues immediately after the meeting, that he used the word s-holes, that he used it repeatedly, you would think you would remember that coming from the president of the United States in close quarters.

On Friday you say, I don't recall. On Sunday, your memory is crystal clear. Convenient?

JOHN MCCORMACK, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": I mean I think originally it seemed like they were going to quibble about again whether it was s- holes or s-houses. And, again, that doesn't really matter. They could have said trash holes and it still would have expressed the same insulting sentiment. But basically I mean David Perdue certainly told a blatant lie, appeared to, when he said it was a gross misrepresentation or a gross mischaracterization. That's obviously a very close representation of what he said.

MARGARET TALEV, "BLOOMBERG NEWS": So what you have now is the following. You have further divisions, or rift, or confusion inside the Republican Party about how closely to stand by the president when he does something that shakes the faith of the party and when to keep your distance. And this is really going to be pivotal heading into those midterms because it's one strategy in the primaries and another strategy in the general election. And because after a while you get dangerously close to a tipping point. There's -- there are foreign policy incidents. There are domestic policy incidents. There are rhetorical insults. There are all these issues and they resonate differently with individual Republicans.

But when you have the House speaker trying to figure out the calculous of, should he say something at all or when should he say it, when's it too early, when's it too late, none of that's what any of these guys want at this time and place in 2018 in the pivotal midterm year.

KING: Right.

TALEV: And you also have foreign policy implications and that had to play some part of the strategy, not on the president's instincts, perhaps, but on his top advisers when you see U.S. ambassadors to other countries very -- you know, in a decision point about whether to stay on the job. Ambassadors from other countries criticizing the U.S.

And all of these agreements that are in the balance involving borders, roads that lead from one country to the next, intelligence sharing, terrorism approaches, all of that mixed up in the swirl of this.

KING: Right. And you had the two senators out there. You also had the president's cabinet secretary, the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielsen, in the room at the time as well. Here she is on the Sunday shows again. She's trying not to make the president mad, but she won't go as far as the senators.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHRIS WALLACE, "FOX NEWS SUNDAY": To say I don't recall seems implausible. If the president of the United States used the words blank-hole talking about countries in the Oval Office, or didn't say it, I would know.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN: I understand the question. It was an impassioned conversation. I don't recall that specific phrase being used. That's all I can say about that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That's all I can say about that. Mr. Wallace is exactly correct it seems, it's beyond implausible. It's beyond implausible if that kind of language was used.

Senator Durbin, by the way, we should make clear, standing by -- he's the one -- he's the only one who has publicly, on the record, detailed the meeting and used those words. Others have talked about it on (ph) background. Senator Graham has talked about it by inference. Senator Graham has issued statements saying he supports Senator Durbin. It's pretty clear where Senator Graham is on what was said, but he hasn't said it directly.

Senator Durbin says I stand by every word I said and I think my colleagues now have restored memory. He said that to "The Chicago Sun Times." They were there. They heard the same words I did.

I guess, and, again, the president's character is the biggest issue here. And I get some of the -- if you're looking down here at the 2018 midterms, and I will be guilty of this throughout the year, focusing on the short term, focusing on politics, focusing on the midterms. You could understand by Republicans are like, oh, we've got to help the president out of this mess here.

If you consider the subject matter, especially on the day we're having this conversation, you would think, especially senator's from Arkansas and Georgia, places with interesting chapters, shall we say, in the civil rights journey of this country, you might think twice about trying to rewrite the truth here, right?

BALL: Well, I mean, apparently not. But, I mean, to Manu's point, why doesn't the president just apologize? That's sort of a question that answers itself, right? He never apologizes. He never backs down. He never expresses regret.

And as Margaret was saying, this becomes a bigger deal than just what is he thinking because it has swept up the entire White House apparatus into this campaign to put out the fires by having to contact everybody else who was in the meeting, try to get them to defend the president and putting the Republicans in Congress in the situation they have so often been put in, in the last year, of having to choose a side and having to prove their loyalty and having a president who's obsessed with whether people are personally loyal to him and then -- and then the entire world ends up sort of a pawn in this game over a, quote/unquote, passing comment. It's --

[12:10:10] KING: A quote/unquote passing comment.

I just want to note, for those of you who may be Trump supporters who say I don't care about CNN's reporting. CNN can report whatever it wants about what the president may have told his friends. I don't trust you, because the president tells you not to trust us.

This is Erick Erickson, a conservative writer, not always a fan of the White House, but a conservative writer who wrote this over the weekend. It's weird that people in the room don't remember Trump using that word when Trump himself was calling friends to brag about it afterwards. I spoke to one of these friends. The president thought it would play well with the base.

And that gets to the point you made earlier, that the initial White House reaction -- and Manu made it as well -- if the president didn't say this or didn't say something very close to this, the White House would have pushed back immediately. They didn't. They let two or three days pass and then they decided, well, maybe this isn't breaking the way we thought it was.

BALL: Well, and to your point about -- this is about the president's character, it is also about the national character. It is about what kind of country we see ourselves as. Does the president see this nation, you know, as an all-welcoming nation of immigrants? We've had Steven Miller last year at one point argued that, you know, the Statue of Liberty and the inscription there is not a statement of American policy and should not be treated as such. So the whole, give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, that's not in the Constitution.

KING: Right.

BALL: And so there is a choice to be made, whether it's electorally or however else, about whether that is the America people believe in or whether it's a different standard and a different set of views.

RAJU: And, John, there are also -- there are other people in that meeting that we have not heard from yet. We have not heard from Bob Goodlatte, who's the House Judiciary Committee chairman. We have not heard from the House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who was down in Mar-a-Lago yesterday. And Lindsey Graham has brought those statements and said some things but he has not really fully detailed what happened. This is -- there's going to be more to come out, especially if the White House continues to push back the way it is in this uneven way and people are going to find out the truth eventually.

KING: It's an excellent point because consider the optics of last night. Kevin McCarthy at Mar-a-Lago to have dinner with the president. He's the number two in the House. He's trying to get the president to raise a lot of money in the midterm election year. Standing right there when this question came up. If the president hadn't said it, there was an opportunity for a senior Republican to step forward in front of the cameras and defend the president. He did not.

Up next, the president's history of defending himself as not a racist. But before we go to break, Martin Luther King Day being commemorated across the country. Here's the president's housing secretary, Ben Carson, speaking in MLK's hometown, Atlanta, Georgia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BEN CARSON, SECRETARY OF HOUSING AND URBAN DEVELOPMENT: Now, as when he walked these grounds, the time is always right to do what is right. The time is right to put aside thoughts of division and hatred. The time is right to honor love, forgiveness and brotherhood. (END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[12:17:09] KING: Welcome back.

An all too familiar refrain from the president of the United States to an uncomfortably familiar question. Mr. President, are you a racist?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No. No, I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: That answer, you heard it right there, unequivocal. The simple fact that the question had to be asked and asked again is astonishing.

Believe him or not, believe he's a racist or not, the back and forth over what happened and what's in the president's heart has resulted in paralysis here in Washington. Five days before the one-year mark as president and two weeks ahead of his first State of the Union Address, Washington is debating the president's character, not his accomplishments or his agenda.

And what -- that is the price of this. Again, we weren't in the room, but we have a pretty good sense of at least the tone and the context of what was said, even if there's a dispute over a specific word.

Molly, you wrote a great cover story in "Time" this week -- I just want to show the cover -- about this moment. Here we are. Again, this -- the president should be talking about tax cuts. The president should be talking about his second year agenda. We could be having a debate about the first year (INAUDIBLE). And you have the president and the presidency on fire.

BALL: That's right. And, you know, it's a recurring theme of this presidency and that's what we tried to get at in our one year of Trump, how are things going story. You know, if you analyze what has actually happened during this presidency, Republicans, at least, have a lot to be happy about, the passage of the tax bill, which also includes energy and health care provisions. We're not at nuclear war with North Korea, which is a low bar, but a bar that has been cleared nonetheless. And yet, you know, the constant of the Trump show, the constant -- and it's not a distraction, it is the main event --

KING: Right.

BALL: Of the president, you know, being -- he clearly can't be controlled. I think in the beginning there was a, you know, will he tame the Republican Party or will the Republican Party tame him? Nobody's tamed anybody. They've sometimes found ways to work together, but most of the time he's got people sort of walking on eggshells wondering what he's going to do next and how they will all have to clean up his mess.

KING: The clean up the mess part and how it will affect the Republican agenda and the Republican brand 2018 and beyond.

And, again, if you talk to the president's friend, people close to the president, people who have known him for years, they say, oh my God, no, he's not a racist. He's not a racist. He's a nice person. He has a big heart. But time and time again things he has said, his own words, race baiting, racially tinged, call it what you will. But let's just listen to a little bit of history here. This question keeps getting asked of the president. Here's his answers.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime, they're rapists.

Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.

He's a Mexican. We're building a wall between here and Mexico. The answer is, he is giving us very unfair rulings.

[12:20:01] Look at my African-American over here. Look at him. Are you the greatest?

You're living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs. What the hell do you have to lose?

You also had people that were very fine people on both sides.

We have a representative in Congress who they say was here a long time ago. They call her Pocahontas.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: And the question gets asked for a reason. His default too often, once is too often, his default frequently is divisive, racially tinged, prejudice sounding language. It's just a fact.

RAJU: Yes, no question about it. And it's -- it was pretty -- really remarkable in this most recent episode is the difference in the response from the leadership in Congress versus some of these other episodes. And when he proposed the Muslim ban, for instance, he saw a -- a pretty strong rejection from Mitch McConnell, from Paul Ryan. They pushed back pretty aggressively about that.

Over the summer, you heard some pushback over the way he handled Charlottesville. And when he talked about the Mexican-American judge not being able to rule fairly, he was criticized by Paul Ryan for saying the textbook definition of a racial comment. Those were Ryan's words.

This time, however, much different. McConnell has been silent since this remark has been reported. Paul Ryan did make those remarks. Some mild criticism on Friday, but really not even close to the criticism that he levied in the aftermath of a Mexican-American judge and it shows us, Molly was just saying, it just shows the constant bind that this party is in, trying to figure out how to work with someone who continues to create controversy day in and day out and hoping to figure out some way to get something done here in Washington.

KING: Yes, if you want to appeal to the middle of America, if you want to appeal to the Republican suburbanites, never mind Democrats and independents for a minute, if you want to appeal to the Republican suburbanites we've seen abandon the party this year in places including Alabama, about as red as you can get, you think you would be strong. If the president said these things, they are reprehensible, they are horrible, the president should apologize, like Mia Love, the congresswoman from Utah is saying.

If you understand the 2018 base selection environment where if you're constantly fighting with the president, some people stay home, meaning Republican voters. And if some people stay home, your losses are even bigger, that's the dilemma the president puts the speaker in and members of his party in on a weekly, if not sometimes an hourly basis.

MCCORMACK: Yes. Well, and you saw Paul Ryan saying that, you know, he likened this to how the Irish were treated, you know, back in the 1850s. So I think that obviously given the president's record on race, his comments specifically about a Mexican-American judge, saying that he couldn't rule fairly, those are blatantly racist comments. But if you want to give him the most extreme benefit of the doubt and say this was simply about poverty, it still does damage to the American ideas. This idea that, you know, anyone can come from anywhere and with given freedom can strive and do great things and become a great American citizen, a U.S. soldier, U.S. troop, in many different ways and serve. So I do think that that's the real problem here.

TALEV: But it's hard to find the total strategic threat in this because I think you see a lot of Republican members trying out different methods to see what's the best way to try to work with Trump. Lindsey Graham, for weeks now, we've seen working very closely with President Trump, playing golf with him, while a lot of people are saying, what's Lindsey Graham doing? What's going on? And then on this one he decides to sort of draw a line and says, OK, I'm not going to -- I'm not going to cover for him on this.

Whereas in some of these other cases -- and same with like Bob Corker. You saw him completely at odds with President Trump, but then he gets on Air Force One because he's trying to make sure that the Iran deal gets done. And so you see a lot of these Republican members trying to balance their own gut instincts to distance themselves or to push back in some of these events against their instinct that you're more likely to get the president to come around to your way of thinking if you praise him and are seen in public with him.

KING: Right. And if you're the president of the United States and you think this is horrible, that you're a good person, that you have a good heart, that you're not prejudice, that you're not racist, you would think that he would spend some time with himself and people he trusts and ask, you know, deal with this question, why do I have to keep saying this? (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that's true. And it's happening all the time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE).

TRUMP: So when I mention crime, all of a sudden I'm a racist?

Just so you know, I am the least racist person, the least racist person that you've ever seen. The least.

If you want to have strong borders so that people come into our country but they come in legally through a legal process, that doesn't make you a racist, it makes you smart.

No, I am the least racist person that you've ever met. And you can speak to Don King, who knows me very well. You can speak to so many different people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KING: If you have to keep answering the same question -- I get we live in a polarized environment. The president has his critics. But if you have to keep answering the same question, you're part of the problem. Your language is part of the problem. Your behavior is part of the problem.

[12:25:00] BALL: I just -- I just want to go back to the saga of Lindsey Graham here for a second because I find it so poignant. And I'm sure there are plenty of people who have no interest in feeling sorry for Lindsey Graham. But here's someone, a member of the gang of eight, has been working on immigration for a really long time, and really cares about this the issue. And they were so close.

KING: Right.

BALL: They had a deal. There was a bipartisan deal on DACA. Finally Republican buy-in tentatively on something that was really comprehensive immigration reform in miniature, right? It was legalization in exchange for border security, which is what Lindsey Graham's been trying to do for so long. And to have that snatched away at the last second by a president he has been so aggressively courting. He's been playing golf with this guy. He really thought he was making progress. He really thought he was getting somewhere with Donald Trump. And you could hear, I thought in that clip, it was so poignant, the resignation in Senator Graham's voice saying, well, at the end of the day, I can't change anybody but myself. And for all his efforts, he's just seeing this whole thing go up in smoke.

KING: And a deal that he thought met the test the president laid out on Tuesday. This is -- by the time they got around to Thursday, the president had moved, shall we say.

TALEV: Yes. KING: Before we go to break, a timely tribute here to Martin Luther King Jr. from the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, sharing this on Twitter. Reverend King, my fellow pastor, we miss you more than ever. You so powerfully upheld the dignity of every human person made in God's image and likeness. You would remind us today that no country is hole, no person unworthy of respect.

We'll be right back.