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Southern Border Wall to Get Built; Trump Calls Oversight Ridiculous; Virginia's Attorney Generals Admittance; Three Virginia Officials Embroiled in Scandal; Warren Answering Questions Over Race. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired February 6, 2019 - 12:00   ET



[12:00:18] JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to INSIDE POLITICS. I'm John King. Thank you for sharing this busy news day with us.

Elizabeth Warren faces an early 2020 campaign crisis. She listed her race as an American Indian when she registered to practice law in Texas more than 30 years ago.

Plus, new CNN reporting and new CNN poll numbers this hour on Joe Biden in 2020. These things rarely end as they begin, but the early numbers may prove hard for the former vice president to ignore.

And the State of the Union is still divided. The president's big speech did include a few bipartisan olive branches, but his tone on immigration, investigations and the direction of the Democrats is driving the morning-after debate.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We are alarmed by the new calls to adopt socialism in our country.

America was founded on liberty and independence and not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free and we will stay free.

Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.


KING: And we begin the hour right there, with the president's State of the Union, bipartisan wishes overshadowed by partisan thumps. And on the biggest pressing question, no guarantees the government won't shut down again in just ten days.

The big annual stage is a chance for the president to offer us a road map, but look and listen for some clear direction on how to resolve the border wall dispute and avoid another government shutdown.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Now is the time for Congress to show the world that America is committed to ending illegal immigration.

In the past, most of the people in this room voted for a wall, but the proper wall never got built. I will get it built.

Simply put, walls work and walls save lives.

So let's work together, compromise and reach a deal that will truly make America safe.


KING: Now, if you're an optimist, you did hear the president right there say the word "compromise," but nowhere in the 82-minute speech did the president hint where or how he would budge off his wall demand. The top Democrat in the Senate today sounding sour on the odds of a deal to stave off a shutdown. And, listen here, the vice president warning, more stalemate could well be on the horizon.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Can you guarantee there will not be another government shutdown?

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, I think our hope is that there's not, but I -- I can't make that guarantee, Jeff.


KING: CNN's Sunlen Serfaty live on Capitol Hill.

Sunlen, on the day after, the president offered what many don't see as a way out. Up there, the aides yesterday said, hopeful negotiations might find a path forward. They still feel that way?

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, the negotiators, John, are essentially trying in earnest to look the other way. They are trying to keep their heads down, keep hammering out a deal, keep trying to hammer out a deal, I should say, and essentially try not to let the president's rhetoric and his words derail them in any way. And the feeling up here on Capitol Hill between Democrats and Republicans notably is that the more that President Trump stays out of these negotiations, the better shot that they have at actually getting something.

And that is, in part, why we've seen something of a different posture coming from many aides and negotiators up here on Capitol Hill. You have, at the time, President Trump kind of splashing cold water on the work of the conference committee. You have the negotiators saying something of rosy language, saying that they are indeed making progress, that they're inching potentially towards a deal and basically giving us glimmers of hope that they could potentially broker a deal potentially as soon as the end of this week. And the conference committee this morning, they are, at this moment,

continuing to meet. They've been meeting for over two hours this morning. They had a classified briefing on the border wall. Of course, that is the thorniest issue.

And Senator Durbin emerging from that meeting just moments ago. The Democratic senator was asked if anything he heard in that briefing leads him to believe that they're any closer to agreement. In one word, John, he just said no. So stay tuned as this all continues.

KING: We'll see. And even if they do come up with a deal, then they've got to convince the president to sign it. But, Sunlen, appreciate the reporting, life from The Hill.

With me in studio to share their reporting and their insights, Julie Pace with "The Associated Press," CNN's Jeff Zeleny, Toluse Olorunnipa with "Bloomberg," and Julie Hirschfeld Davis with "The New York Times."

The big question in town this morning is, was there a hidden clue there as to how to get out of this. So I guess the bigger question is, was this a 2019 governing speech or a 2020 campaign marker?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It was a 2020 launch. He's seeing all these other Democrats do it, so that's exactly what he was doing in the House chamber.

[12:05:03] It was clear by immigration, obviously, but this socialism language and other things. He was, a, I think, trying to get Republicans back on his side into the idea of he is their standard bearer. It is his party.

So the speech was a lot of different things, but it was centrally, to my ear at least, and to a lot of people I talked to after the speech, the opening bell for his re-election campaign.

JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "ASSOCIATED PRESS": I think Jeff's right on one important point there, that a lot of what Trump was trying to do was actually shore up some of his support among Republicans.

ZELENY: Right.

PACE: You know, he has the support of Republican voters rite large, but there has been some signs of weakening among his support among Republicans on Capitol Hill, in part because the shutdown went so poorly for them. And what I think was interesting about his rhetoric around immigration, the border wall and the possibility of a future shutdown is that, well, he was very clear he wants to build this wall. He sees that as a central promise. He didn't mention his pledge to use an emergency declaration if Congress doesn't give him a deal and he didn't use the wall as an ultimatum. He said he would build it, but there was no bright line on what he would or would not sign.

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "THE NEW YORK TIMES": I thought what he did not say about immigration and the wall was as interesting as what he did because, as Sunlen said, I think this conference committee really is hoping that the president will stay quiet, will stay on the sidelines, will let them broker this deal if there's a deal to be brokered. And the fact that he didn't try to put some more meat on the bones of what that compromise would look like and he didn't make an ultimatum and he did use the word "compromise," at least leaves them the space to potentially reach that deal. But there's still the overriding question, which he didn't do one thing to answer last night about whether he will ultimately be able to accept that deal when they present it to him, if they're even able to get there inside the room.

KING: Yes, will he back down? Which is why you hear the negotiators -- normally in Washington the deadline is a week from Friday. Normally in Washington that means they would go till a week from Friday. Probably until the sun was trying to set. That's normally the way they work. Maybe if they have a late flight, they try to get done early afternoon.

But there's some talk of trying to get it done this Friday. The reason for that being, in part, give the president some time to think it over, to see what happens, to avoid another crisis at the end.

Listen to the top two Democrats today saying, we hope, Mr. President, you'll, a, give us a chance to finish this, and then, b, maybe, listen, sign it.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D), HOUSE SPEAKER: Left to their own devices, I think they can have an agreement by -- on (ph) time by Friday.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), MINORITY LEADER: You heard his speech. You said, uh-oh. But if the president stays out of it, I am confident that the Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate, can come up with the agreement.

KASIE HUNT, NBC CORRESPONDENT: How confident are you that the president can stay out of it?

SCHUMER: I don't know. I mean, he's -- he's -- he can't help himself.


KING: I mean normally that would be a ridiculous question, actually. He's the president. He ran on this issue. He has every right to be a part of it. But even Republicans would tell you -- they don't disagree with all the policy of Pelosi and Schumer, but even the Republicans would tell you, the problem with the president is he's so inconsistent. When he gets involved, he sends things off the rails.

TOLUSE OLORUNNIPA, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "BLOOMBERG NEWS": Yes, that's why we have a government shutdown in the first place for 35 days because there was a deal on the table that Democrats and Republicans supported, but the president decided at the last minute that he was not OK with that deal. So that's why these Democrats and Republicans, who were sort of hanging out behind closed doors trying to hash out a deal, they realize that they can get something that they can both take to their parties and they can get support for and avoid a government shutdown.

The big question is whether or not President Trump would sign on to that. And that is something that not only Democrats have no idea about, but even Republicans who talk to the president regularly do not know what his bottom line is, what he would ultimately decide if they come up with a deal. So that's a big challenge that Republicans are facing, not knowing the bottom line for the president and whether or not he would just either veto a bipartisan deal or just go ahead and sign an emergency declaration and do this without Congress.

KING: And you learn, if you go through the speech, if you watched last night, or if you read the transcript of what animates the president, a couple of lines on infrastructure, three pages on immigration.

He did say let's -- to the Democrats, let's work together on things like HIV-AIDS. Let's work together on things like childhood cancer. Democrats were skeptical about the financial commitment to those issues, but he did have some olive branches to reach out in areas where there is bipartisan agreement. But then he also said, you want to get along, you want the economy to continue, essentially call off the investigative dogs.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: An economic miracle is taking place in the United States and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations.


KING: Well, the Democrats would say constitutional, congressional oversight.

PACE: Well, and he can say whatever he wants about that, but Democrats are moving forward with oversight starting today. And that's going to be his new reality.

I think what he's trying to do there is essentially do the same thing to these congressional investigations that he's tried to do to the Mueller investigation, which is to try to undermine his credibility, try to make it look like it's nothing but politically motivated so that no matter what comes out from this, he can hope that his supporters will just look at it as another Democratic witch hunt. But those investigations are going to go forward and are going to be a real central part of his presidency over the next two years.

DAVIS: I think the other thing he's trying to do there is set the table for his argument. He -- if he's listening to his advisers, which he sometimes does, sometimes does not, but he obviously realizes that with the Democrats in control of the House, the likelihood of any big, substantial legislative accomplishments between now and the time that he's going back to voters and asking for -- to be re-elect is pretty low and so he wants it out there as an idea that the reason that nothing got done, the reason that you're seeing, you know, less accomplishments then I promised you you would have is because they're busy investigating me. And he really wants to set up that opposition now so that the thought is in voters' minds when he has to go back and explain why there hasn't been more done in his first term.

[12:10:36] KING: It will be -- it's going to be fascinating to watch, a, the next week to ten days here in Washington as he negotiations -- negotiations continue and then see, will there be follow-up? The president has laid out some of these ideas to work together before. Has there been much follow-up? Most people think this is going to be more partisan, to (ph) the campaign marker. We shall see. It's a fascinating speech.

Up next for us, some breaking news in Virginia. If the governor and lieutenant governor's problems weren't enough, now the state's attorney general coming clean himself about a blackface incident in his past.


[12:15:08] KING: More dramatic, breaking news today in Virginia's capital, where the number two and number three state officials are now engulfed in political firestorms alongside the state's governor. The state's lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, changing his tone after being accused of sexual assault by a woman in 2004. He now says women deserve to be heard and says it's essential that survivors of sexual assault tell their story. He is, though, maintaining that his encounter with the woman 15 years ago was consensual and he says he has absolutely nothing to hide.

Meanwhile, as that plays out, the state's attorney general, Mark Herring, revealing that he, like the state's governor, appeared in blackface while in college. In a statement released just moments ago, Democrat Herring writes, in 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time. We dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup. This was a one-time occurrence and I accept full responsibility for my conduct. It was really a minimization of both people of color, and a minimization of a horrific history I knew well even then. He goes on to say he's deeply sorry for the pain he is now causing with this revelation.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is following these developments. He joins us live.

Ryan, as if that wasn't enough, what now?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Yes, John, this is unbelievable. We had first heard a rumor about this potential situation with blackface regarding the attorney general yesterday morning and have been chasing it for the last 24 hours. The attorney general just releasing a dramatic statement where he admits to being at a party dressed as a rapper in brown makeup. Now, we also know that the attorney general, in an attempt to try and stave off the criticism that may come to this, did meet with the legislative black caucus to inform them of this situation.

And, of course, this comes after the backdrop of two other scandals that are rocking Virginia's capital with the two other statewide elected officials, the lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, as you mentioned, is facing accusations of a sexual assault charge that goes back to 2004 and, of course, the governor, Ralph Northam, facing accusations or the release of a photo that appeared in his medical school yearbook, which shows someone in blackface and another person in a KKK outfit. The governor says he's not one of those people in the photo, but it did appear on his medical school yearbook.

Now, the problem with all of this, John is that all three men have yet to say that they're going anywhere, despite calls for resignation from the governor, a lot of heat put on the lieutenant governor, and now this new, emerging situation with the attorney general, basically the entire state capital is in a state of chaos.

But just to quickly pivot back to how the lieutenant governor is handling all of this. We know that over the past couple of days, behind closed doors, the lieutenant governor has been forcefully encouraging Democratic leaders here to stay by his side. In fact we know that he went into an expletive-latent rant, attacking his accusers, about this current situation. That could be part of the reason why you see him softening his tone right now with a new statement saying that we need to hear from the accusers and have this process play out.

The sum total of all this, John, is that there is a good chance that despite all three of these huge scandals, that nobody here leaves their current office and they all stay in power for the balance of their term.


KING: Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. OK, Ryan Nobles, new questions today. Remarkable. People dug in. Appreciate it, Ryan. Come back to us if there's any other developments.

It is stunning in the sense that you have had top Democrats -- I don't mean to leave the Republicans out to be disrespectful to the Republicans, but this is a Democratic problem at the moment. You have a Democratic governor, Democratic lieutenant governor, now Democratic attorney general, the top three officials constitutionally in the state, all dealing with these problems. The calls for the governor to resign still stand. Questions about the lieutenant governor are on the table. He's trying to clear those up. Now you have the attorney general, where people the other day were saying, well, if this is really a doozy and we have to lose the governor and the lieutenant governor, we have the attorney general. Number four would be the Republican house speaker of the state of Virginia. So the politics of that, this will be a conversation about politics and principle, but the politics of that will tell you the Democrats are going to dig in, right?

PACE: Well, it seems like they're doing it now for sure.

ZELENY: No question. And I think -- it does. And I think their silence is a little surprising in some respects because they, of course, were very loud, and vocal Democrats were, about the Kavanaugh situation, slightly quieter about the lieutenant governor here. So we'll see how their reaction to the attorney general's statement (ph).

But, you know, the only thing that quiets people more here usually in Washington politics is when they're worried about someone from the other side winning over here. So the is developing.

The reason it matters nationally, the reason this is an important thing, a, Virginia is a key state, but it also is a moment of, is one party going to be hypocritical or not here. So I think that's why we're watching this. And we still have not heard from a lot of leaders in the Democratic Party, including former President Barack Obama.

KING: And the standard laid out by the top Democrats in Virginia, echoed by a lot of the top Democrats in Washington, including Democrats running for president is, OK, you might be a good person, you may have been a good person in the last 25 years of your life, it's just inexcusable. It's inexcusable, it's insensitive, it's reprehensible. You cannot be in a position of leadership if you did this in your 20s, in the case of the governor. The attorney general says he was 19. How do they move that standard? They laid it out pretty clearly over the weekend?

[12:20:11] PACE: It's zero tolerance from Democrats. And the big reason that they feel like it has to be zero tolerance is because they want clean hands if they're going to be targeting President Trump on either issues of race or some kind of sexual misconduct. And so they feel like they have to be pretty pure on this issue. All the national Democrats are aligned.

But I mean to -- the point Ryan made there at the end, that is pretty unbelievable to think that all three of these men think that they are going to stay in their jobs. How -- even if they do that, how productive can they be in their jobs going forward? What would especially be the point of them staying in right now?

KING: Right. Right, And in a year where it's less relevant to our national audience. But in the state of Virginia, there are legislative elections in which the Democrats think they can flip a -- flip a chamber and they continue a path where Virginia a decade ago was a red state, it moved to a purple state. Now it's considered a pretty blue state, although it's still -- you mentioned, still in play.

Let's -- so you have the governor, who acknowledges appearing in blackface mimicking Michael Jackson. Now you have the attorney general acknowledging, appearing in blackface, mimicking a rapper, going to a party. And then you have the lieutenant governor who is accused -- he changed his statement. He did lash out. He was quite emotional the other day, suggesting other political opponents were leaking this information, questioning why his accuser was coming forward again because he said she came forward during one of the campaigns, talked to "The Washington Post," they could not corroborate so there was no story.

Today's statement seems to try to take a step back to a calmer place, if that's the right word. While this allegation has been both surprising and hurtful, I also recognize that no one makes charges of this kind lightly and I take it and this situation very seriously. I would like to encourage the media, my supporters and others to treat both the woman who made this allegation and my family with respect. I wish her no harm or humiliation, nor do I seek to denigrate her or diminish her voice. But I cannot agree with the description of events that I know is not true.

That is a much more calmer place than the lieutenant governor was 72 hours or so ago.


DAVIS: Absolutely. And it's also at odds from what the report -- some of the reporting is about how he has responded to this privately and it -- and it speaks to what the reaction to that may have been and the fact that, you know, as Ryan said, that it appears, if you read that statement, that he thinks that it's possible that if he tip-toes back and sort of makes a more conciliatory statement, he might actually be able to hang on to his job.

The thing that is amazing here is that this is all unfolding in Virginia, which, of course, was the site of, you know, the marches in Charlottesville, which got President Trump into so much hot water in his first year in office when he made statements that were seen as insufficiently condemning white supremacy, neo-Nazis. And now you have a bunch of Democratic -- or a couple Democratic elected officials who are admitting to having appeared in blackface after the outrage that was expressed by President Trump's -- about President Trump's behavior, it's really hard for Democrats to go back and say that this is, you know, any better, you know, somehow different. They're, obviously, in lower positions.

But this is a state where the history of racism and these issues is just, you know, woven into the fabric and it's a very painful thing. And it's just stunning to believe that you have two officials that high up who would actually think that they're in a position to hang on to their jobs there.

KING: And in a position --

DAVIS: And under these circumstances.

KING: In a position to think that they could not, should not have done something to get out ahead of this.


KING: Just the arrogance of that. The arrogance of that, that you know it happened, you saw Charlottesville, you see the national debate, you see the national debate in your party, you see the state debate in your state, and you don't raise your hand and say, there's something I need to talk to you about. That, the part -- that, the part, is what makes the arrogance of it, makes it stunning.

Up next for us, days ahead of an anticipated 2020 announcement. Elizabeth Warren hoped her DNA debacle and apologies were in the past until this came along.


[12:28:25] KING: New wrinkles today on the controversy Senator Elizabeth Warren just can't seem to shake. The Massachusetts Democrat now facing new questions about why she claimed Native American heritage this time on an official state document.

CNN's MJ Lee is here with the details of this developing story that comes -- you see the document right there -- comes just as Elizabeth Warren is prepared to announce her campaign -- formally announce for president.

MJ, the senator has taken steps to try to put this in the past. It won't go away.

MJ LEE, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. This is a problem that is not going away for Elizabeth Warren. And, John, the reason that this "Washington Post" reporting is significant is because we now have a visual, Elizabeth Warren writing in her own words, in her own handwriting, describing her race as American Indian. So this is not just a checked box and this is -- appears to be an example of Warren herself explicitly describing her race as American Indian, regardless of how long ago this happened.

And I should note that a Warren aide was pointing out to CNN that this was not a part of her state bar application, but rather a form that she filled out after she was already admitted to the bar. An obviously important distinction, but I'm not sure, frankly, that this is going to be a distinction that people and voters necessarily understand or care about, particularly those who are already going to be looking at Elizabeth Warren in an unfavorable way for whatever reason.

I also wanted to read a statement that we got from Elizabeth Warren's spokesperson. It reads, Senator Warren has said she is not a citizen of any tribe and only tribes determine tribal citizenship. She is sorry that she was not more mindful of this earlier in her career.

[12:30:03] Now, John, how much are voters going to care about this? It's obviously very, very early on in this cycle.