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Democrats Want FBI to Investigate Spa Owner's Ties to Trump; Biden Preparing to Announce Presidential Run?; Trump Blasts Late Senator John McCain; Aides Defend Trump's Mental Fitness and Deny Racism Charges. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired March 18, 2019 - 15:00   ET



BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: And now President Trump's online onslaught has forced two of his top aides to defend him on the most basic level of human decency, having to go out there and make the rounds and ensuring everyone that this president is not a bigot.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: He has denounced bigotry many times. And I wouldn't be working here if I believed otherwise.

MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: You have seen the president stand up for religious liberties, individual liberties. The president is not a white supremacist. I'm not sure how many times we have to say that.


BALDWIN: Let's go to the White House and to CNN's Abby Phillip .

And I mean, you almost here, Mick Mulvaney having to laugh through the incredulity that is having to reaffirm that this president isn't a white supremacist. Just -- and this isn't even in the first time he's had to do that.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, Brooke, if only this were something that were actually funny, but it really isn't. It's about something that's incredibly serious.

And that moment was really extraordinary. I don't think we have ever heard a top White House aide having to insist that the president is not a white supremacist. But he did that, and in some ways, without really being asked to, because he was actually asked about why the president wouldn't say more about the ideology that was behind this attack in New Zealand, the same ideology that apparently and allegedly was behind those rallies in Charlottesville early in President Trump's presidency.

The question was, why won't President Trump deliver a speech about religious tolerance towards Muslims, about the anti -- the white supremacist ideology behind these sort of -- these sorts of attacks? And the White House really won't answer that. And they won't answer why President Trump hasn't talked about this on his Twitter feed, even as he has offered his condolences to the people of New Zealand.

I think, in moments like this, people want the president to stand up for this sort of uniting -- to being this uniting figure that many U.S. presidents are. Even though this attack did not happen on American soil, it's something that has some resonance here, because there have been moments, particularly in this president's presidency, where these ideologies have cropped up.

They have become an issue. That attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh is another example of this. So, Brooke, the White House is having some trouble explaining this. Even when President Trump himself was asked whether he thinks white nationalism is a rising threat in the United States, he says he doesn't. He thinks this is simply a small group of people.

Even if that were the case, that even if it is a small group of people, if that ideology is growing, I think a lot of people want the president to stand up and say something about it.

Interestingly, Brooke, yesterday, as the president went to church for the first time in quite some time, he heard a sermon from the pastor, a couple of...


BALDWIN: About hate.

PHILLIP: Dozens of feet away from where I'm standing right now. And he said, basically, we should call this out when it appears, that we should never shirk on our opportunity to call it heat. So that's the message the president heard yesterday.

This morning, however, President Trump blamed the media for blaming him for the New Zealand attack. And so this really has come back full circle to where we always end up, which is attacks on the media, but not really addressing the substance of the issue here, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Blaming the media for blaming.

OK, Abby Phillip at the White House, Abby, thank you very much.

Let's focus in on this one tweet. This is one of the tweets that the president send out about the late Senator John McCain -- quote -- "Spreading the fake and totally discredited dossier is unfortunately a very dark stain against John McCain. Ken Starr, former independent counsel, he had far worse stains than this, including the thumbs down on repeal and replace after years of campaigning to repeal and replace."

And then you also see in a second tweet that the president claimed Senator McCain was last in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy.

So with me now, CNN contributor Frank Bruni, who is an opinion columnist for "The New York Times."

And, as always, a pleasure to have you on.

But I want to start with this, because on the Trump tweets, first just a fact-check, right? I know. But here's the fact-check. This president incorrectly claimed that McCain leaked the dossier. He did not. He incorrectly claimed that he came in last in his class at Annapolis. He did not.

But let's start on Meghan McCain, obviously still grieving very deeply the loss of her father. And so here she is today forced to defend her father's legacy again because of Trump on Twitter and on TV. Watch this.


MEGHAN MCCAIN, DAUGHTER OF JOHN MCCAIN: Listen, he spends his weekend obsessing over great men because he knows it and I know it and all of you know it. He will never be a great man.

And so my father was his Kryptonite in life. He's his Kryptonite in death. On a personal level, I agree with you. All of us have love and families. And when my father was alive, up until adulthood, we would spend our time together cooking, hiking, fishing, really celebrating life.

And I think it's because he almost died. And I just thought, your life is spent on your weekends not with your family, not with your friends, but obsessing, obsessing over great men you could never live up to. That tells you everything you need to know about his pathetic life, right?


I genuinely feel bad for his family.


BALDWIN: Does this president know no bounds?

FRANK BRUNI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: This president has gotten knew any bounds since he took office, actually since he stepped out on the campaign trail.

I mean, weren't we all taught -- if we're talking about matters of etiquette, you don't speak ill of the dead, right?

BALDWIN: Of course not.

BRUNI: That's in general, but also there's far more good to say about Senator John McCain than bad.

And the president's obsession with him is just -- it's mind-boggling. It makes him look small. It does a disservice to the memory of a heroic American man who gave very much to this country and it's also very psychologically revealing, as always. He goes after John McCain as last in his class at Annapolis. What did we recently learn, but that the president's henchmen were going around telling his alma maters, don't you dare ever release my grades or my transcripts.


BRUNI: He goes after people and accuses them of things that he's actually worried about inside himself. This is another great example of that.

BALDWIN: What about it -- so Senator -- Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, he's in a tough spot, tough I guess depending on how you -- who you ask, because he was great friends with the late senator. And yet he also wants to be close to the power center of Washington, which is President Trump.

And so Senator Graham tweeted over the weekend: "As to Senator John McCain and his devotion to his country, he stepped forward to risk his life for his country, served honorably under difficult circumstances, and was one of the most consequential senators in the history of the body. Nothing about his service will ever be changed or diminished."

Was that enough?

BRUNI: No, it's not enough. I mean, it's a lovely sentiment. It's all true.

But what that tweet didn't say and what Senator Graham is not sending public is, shame on you, President Trump, for going after a dead man like this.

But Lindsey Graham has proven to be one of the saddest characters in Washington. He used to be at John McCain's side all the time. He looked up to John McCain, appropriately. That was a deep friendship and a great political alliance.

As soon as John McCain was no longer somewhat -- no longer a power broker, no longer of service to him, he switched his allegiances to Donald Trump. Now he's worried about getting reelected in South Carolina in 2020. He has said over and over again nothing matters more to me than being relevant.

And he has chosen relevance through having Donald Trump's ear, over saying and doing the right thing like sticking up for his dead friend.

BALDWIN: How about this whole Conway vs. Conway? I mean, first of all, wouldn't love to know what the conversation is like over Cheerios in the morning?


BRUNI: I want a nanny cam at that...


BALDWIN: That is fascinating, in and of itself.

But here you have George Conway, the husband of Kellyanne Conway, who's the counselor to the president, and he tweeted, which he has since penned and has been retweeted thousands of times, that -- George Conway tweeted that the president's condition has worsened, to which Kellyanne Conway says this:


CONWAY: No, I don't share those concerns. And I was getting -- I have four kids, and I was getting out of the house this morning before I got here, and talked to the president about substance.

So I may not be up to speed on all of them.


BALDWIN: So, again, incredible public dynamic. It's not -- what is fascinating here is that this is not George Conway criticizing the president's policies. This is George Conway taking on the president's mental health and questioning whether the man is fit to be president.

BRUNI: No, I mean, nail on the head. This is very, very personal.

And, mind you, it's coming -- what gives this such power and fascination is, this is not coming from the left. This is coming from someone who has been a good conservative his whole life and is married to another conservative, and that marriage seem to be ideologically harmonious until now.

BALDWIN: Until...

BRUNI: Right.

And he's doing it knowing that it's going to get extra attention because he and Kellyanne Conway are married. So it's very deliberate. He knows what power it has, and it tells you how strongly he feels this.

And the best she can say is, I'm a working mom, right? I mean, she's not -- this does not seem to be a kind of fair fight at this point. It's hard to dismiss what George Conway is saying.

BALDWIN: Lastly, right turn on 2020. So, Mike Allen of Axios, I get his e-mails every morning and read them.

And so he was pointing out this morning, "Get ready for the most politically correct and politically incorrect election of our lifetime," right.

So, case in point, looking at Beto O'Rourke, over the weekend, he spent the weekend apologizing basically for comments to "Vanity Fair" of being born to run or apologizing for his white male privilege, or apologizing for the comments he made about his wife and raising his kids. So here he was. So he's apologizing. And then you have on the flip

side of that President Trump never apologizing, taunting. What do you think is the winning strategy?

BRUNI: Oh, I mean, the American voters will tell us.

I think, in 2020, the winning strategy is going to be being more sensitive to these sorts of things, being a little bit more politically correct. I hate that phrase. But you're right.

Donald Trump's brand is the opposite. So this 2020 election will be a referendum on many things, including what sort of conversation do we want to have? And do we want people to watch their words carefully, sometimes so carefully, that they feel tongue-tied, or is all fair? Is everything fair? Is it all -- is everything within the bounds of discussion?

And can you speak as loosely and crudely as you want and not worry about it? I think...

BALDWIN: When you say political correctness and mea culpa-ing?

BRUNI: I think, after a little bit more than two years of Donald Trump so far, and four, I think the crudeness is wearing on people in a big way.


BALDWIN: Yes, Frank Bruni, thank you for coming by.

BRUNI: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Thank you so much.

Just into CNN, a congressional committee has announced it will investigate the rise of white nationalism in this country, this, of course, in the wake of last week's devastating mosque attack in New Zealand, where a man killed 50 Muslim worshipers.

In its aftermath, President Trump said he doesn't think white supremacy is a growing problem worldwide.


QUESTION: Do you see today white nationalism as a rising threat around the world?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't really. I think it's a small group of people that have very, very serious problems. I guess if you look at what happened in New Zealand, perhaps that's the case. I don't know enough about it yet.

They're just learning about the person and the people involved. But it's certainly a terrible thing, terrible thing.


BALDWIN: All right, so the problem with that statement is that the facts are not on his side.

The FBI says hate crimes were up 17 percent in 2017, and the vast majority of those incidents, 90 percent were targeting minorities. And according to the ADL, the Anti-Defamation League, over the past decade in the U.S., right-wing extremists have accounted for 73 percent of extremist-related murders, compared to just 23 percent associated with Islamic extremists.

So, with me, now, the CEO and national director of the ADL, Jonathan Greenblatt.

So, Jonathan, thank you so much for coming in.

And I know we're throwing a lot of numbers that people, but at the end of the day, this extremism is on the rise and it is a national security concern.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT, CEO AND NATIONAL DIRECTOR, ANTI-DEFAMATION LEAGUE: I would actually go so far to say, Brooke, that it's not only a national concern.

White supremacy is a global terror threat.

BALDWIN: Talk to me about that.

GREENBLATT: There is a link between the white supremacists here in the U.S., those in Europe and what we have now seen in New Zealand, which keep in mind 50 people were killed, from a 3-year-old boy who went to worship with his parents to elderly worshipers.

I mean, the human loss, the human toll is terrible. And our hearts grieve with those families. And so, as we think about these statistics, we should remember the human lives at stake, because law enforcement, policy-makers, and even some politicians haven't taken the threat of white nationalism sufficiently seriously.

BALDWIN: So when the president says, no, no, it's just a small number of people?

GREENBLATT: Well, he's wrong on the facts. The data doesn't lie. We had nearly 1,200 instances of white supremacist propaganda incidents in the U.S. last year. That's the most we have ever seen.

We had 90-plus actual rallies or events that happened last year. That's almost a 20 percent rise as well. And, of course, 50 extremist-related murders last year, 49 of which were committed by people with extremist right-wing ideologies, the vast majority of whom were white supremacists.

BALDWIN: Why is this happening? Why is it on the rise and what are people doing about it?

GREENBLATT: I think there are multiple reasons why it's on the rise. Look, it's always been there, but first and foremost, in our charged political environment...

BALDWIN: It's exacerbated?

GREENBLATT: It's all exacerbated. The divisions, the tensions, the anxiety, that's all there.

Secondly, social media has created a sort of a connective tissue.

BALDWIN: Easy way to spread the hate.

GREENBLATT: Previously didn't happen. But one of the reasons why we had European white supremacists in Charlottesville, and then foreign white supremacists who lauded what happened in Pittsburgh is because, through not just Facebook and Twitter, but Gab and Discord and 4chan, all these other platforms, they're all literally exalting.

And the third reason they're doing so is because they find their language and their means literally on the tip of the tongue of our president. So when you -- when you say white supremacy may be a problem, and then you use the language of invaders, or open borders, or blame some conspiracy led by George Soros, those are right out of the white supremacist playbook.

BALDWIN: So what do you -- what can you do about it?

GREENBLATT: Well, I think, at the ADL, we think there are a few things that need to happen.

Number one, words matter. So we will continue to push the president and other elected officials on both sides of the aisle to call out white supremacy for the global terror threat that it is.

BALDWIN: But even if he had -- I was talking to someone on Friday -- even if he had, he said to me, it would have rung hollow, it wouldn't have mattered. It's like damned if you do, damned you don't.

GREENBLATT: I couldn't disagree more.

BALDWIN: Interesting.

GREENBLATT: Our president is not just the commander in chief. He's also the healer in chief. He represents the values of our country. And we need this president to really represent our values, diversity, inclusion, respect.

So there's a set of -- there's a role and a set of responsibilities the president have that go far beyond signing bills sitting at the Resolute Desk.

BALDWIN: I think, secondly, algorithms matter. And we really are pushing Silicon Valley to work together to take steps to combat this terror threat in the way that they have done with the radical Islamic terror threat, from YouTube, to Facebook, to Twitter.

They have a role to play to deal with this kind of hatred and turn it off, or at least turn down the dial.

BALDWIN: OK, Jonathan Greenblatt, thank you for coming by.

GREENBLATT: Thanks for having me.

BALDWIN: I appreciate it.


Still ahead here on CNN, Iowa Congressman Steve King, who has already been stripped of his committee assignments over his own offensive comments in the past, shares a meme over the weekend making light of a political civil war in America. What his office now says about this.

And grim new details on the lengths the Saudi government will go to silence its critics. We will talk to the reporter at "The New York Times" who uncovered details about a hit squad that is luring dissidents back to the kingdom, only to torture and sometimes kill them.

But, first, former Vice President Joe Biden has yet another slip of the tongue when it comes to his presidential ambitions. What we have learned about how he is preparing for a 2020 run behind the scenes.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.



BALDWIN: You are back watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

And in just 24 hours, presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke and his campaign raised a record-breaking $6.1 million, surpassing Senator Bernie Sanders and his haul during his first day of his campaign.

CNN also has new reporting today that former Vice President Joe Biden is gaming out the best way for him to announce his 2020 run. He plans to spotlight his success in the Obama administration more than his own record in the Senate.

But, on Saturday, we got our closest clue yet, when the former vice president slipped up and said this at a rally in Delaware:


JOSEPH BIDEN, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have the most progressive record of anybody running for the -- if -- anybody who would run.


BIDEN: I didn't mean...




BALDWIN: With me now, senior Washington correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

And he's like you. mean we. I mean, maybe me.

You're the one with the scoop. So what are you hearing about Biden's game plan?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brooke, I think even more interestingly then what he was saying there was the words he said right before the applause. He said, "I have been criticized by the new left, but I have the most progressive record running."

So that is an indication that Joe Biden there is talking about some of his fellow potential Democratic presidential rivals on the new left, in his words. So he is getting ready to at once sort of defend his progressive records from the Obama administration, and also explained some of his previous record.

Of course, he's been in politics, in public service for so long. It's a blessing and a curse, all those votes.

But we are learning that the former vice president is essentially all in. He is likely to announce his candidacy in April. We're also told that he is going to try and seize command and control of this race. By that, I'm told that he's going to, essentially roll out a group of high-profile endorsements, some of whom are African-American leaders who he needs their support as he goes on into the South Carolina primary and other primaries.

He's also going to try and make this argument about defeating Donald Trump. There is a school of thought that I have been hearing which is really interesting, Brooke, talking to several advisers, that he is even discussing the idea of choosing a running mate earlier than usual to try and focus that conversation on the ultimate goal of the party. And that is to defeat the president.

But, of course, he has not exactly cleared the field. It's a very big field. So he has his work cut out for him.

BALDWIN: Let me let me move up by just for a second.


BALDWIN: Because, just in, Senator Bernie Sanders' campaign actually just did something quite unusual.

ZELENY: It's interesting.

BALDWIN: They mentioned an opponent. The campaign sent an e-mail to fund-raisers saying that Beto O'Rourke outraised them, but that they have more unique donors.

What do you think of that?

ZELENY: This is something that we're going to be seeing probably a lot more of.

Bernie Sanders almost never mentions other rivals by name. He did in this case because he's trying to raise money off of the back of Beto O'Rourke. He's trying to suggest that, look, Beto O'Rourke is raising all this money, but not necessarily through as many small-dollar donations.

So all of this is going for a reason. The clock is ticking toward the end of next week. The end of March is the deadline for the first- quarter fund-raising. That is going to be the first metric that we're all sort of judging these candidates by. So Bernie Sanders does not want to get beat by this new upstart, if you will.

So he is essentially pointing out, look, I'm pure. I'm raising all this money through small-dollar donations. They are essentially accusing Beto O'Rourke of not only using small-dollar donations, but by getting large contributions as well.

But the reality here is, Brooke, what we're seeing in Beto O'Rourke's fund-raisers reminds me much more of Barack Obama's fund-raising, what we can tell from it right now. It's a mix of small-dollar donations, people sending in $10, $15, $100, and people writing a check for $2,800. That's the maximum you can write.

It's this mix of establishment and grassroots support. Well, Bernie Sanders wants to point out that, hey, we don't want to get left in the dust here, so we're going to try and raise some money off of Beto O'Rourke.

But it's pretty unusual for them to mention each other by name like that, at least on Bernie Sanders' part.

BALDWIN: Still a lot of checks to get the $6.1 million in that first 24-hour mark.

Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much. Good to see you.

ZELENY: Thanks, Brooke.

BALDWIN: And let's just remind everyone, do not miss tonight. CNN will be hosting a presidential town hall with 2020 candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren this evening at 9:00 p.m. Eastern live from Jackson, Mississippi.

Despite running the country, the president has opinions, a lot of them on cable news. So this time, he is demanding that his favorite TV channel put a host back on the air after she made some pretty offensive remarks.

Also just in, Democrats are demanding a new FBI investigation into a Florida woman's ties to President Trump. The woman, she is the original founder of that massage parlor at the center of the human trafficking investigation involving NFL owner Robert Kraft. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)


BALDWIN: Just into CNN, four leading Democrats are now demanding an FBI investigation into ties between a Florida woman and President Trump.

The woman here, Cindy Yang, was the former owner of that spa that was busted for sex trafficking. We should note, she is not the current owner and is not facing any charges in the case.

But let's go to Manu Raju. He's our senior congressional correspondent.