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Trump Aides Defend Trump; Trump Goes on Tweet Binge; 2020 Campaign Heats Up; New Zealand Vows Gun Reforms; Sen. Ben Cardin (D) Maryland is Interviewed About Trump's Comments on White Nationalism. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired March 18, 2019 - 13:00   ET


[13:00:10] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brianna Keilar, live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now. After a 24-hour tweet binge, two of the people closest to President Trump inside the West Wing have to defend his mental fitness and assure the public he is not a white supremacist.

Plus, after the president again personally attacked the late John McCain, Senator Lindsey Graham gives a tepid defense of his best friend.

Also, the president's only break from his Twitter rampage, when he went to church. And we're now learning the message that he heard from the reverend.

And Beto O'Rourke makes a cash splash and new reporting shows Joe Biden is preparing to one-up him.

Up first, President Trump unleashed. The president is back on Twitter today, accusing the news media of blaming him for the horrific terror attack in New Zealand. This follows a weekend twitter tirade where he sounded off on a litany of grievances but tweeted nothing about the deadly mosque attacks that left 50 people dead.

In fact, he defended a Fox News host and supporter who was off the air because of an Islamophobic comment. The president tweeting, bring back Judge Jeanine Pirro. The radical left Democrats working closely with their beloved partner, the fake news media, is using every trick in the book to silence a majority of our country.

Now, the president also took aim at the late Senator John McCain, who died of brain cancer last year, for passing on the so-called Steele dossier to authorities. He blasted General Motors and a local united auto workers union leader. And he complained about being parodied on a "Saturday Night Live" rerun. He tweeted, it's truly incredible that shows like "Saturday Night Live," not funny/no talent, can spend all of their time knocking the same person, parenthesis me, over and over without so much of a mention of the other side. Should Federal Election Commission and/or FCC look into this?

By the way, the weekend episode, as I mentioned, was from December, from before Christmas. The president's failure to condemn the anti-Muslim hate behind the New

Zealand attacks was -- has White House officials on the defensive. Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney offering this pushback on Fox News.


MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: The president is not a white supremacist. I'm not sure how many times we have to say that.


KEILAR: Now, the husband of top White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway also repeated his concerns about the president's mental state. George Conway tweeting, quote, his condition is getting worse.

Kellyanne Conway disagreeing with her husband's assessment.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, WHITE HOUSE COUNSELOR: 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.


KEILAR: Chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us now.

So, Jim, what does it say that the top aides are defending the president's mental fitness and denying that he's a white supremacist? These are pretty extraordinary defenses to be out there with.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Brianna. I mean I don't -- I don't know what's more surreal, what the president has been tweeting about over the weekend or the lengths that senior White House officials have to go to, to defend those tweets and to defend what the president has been saying. And that's what we've seen over the last 48 hours. We saw the chief of staff, the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, on the Sunday talk shows defending the president. At one point, as you said, saying that the president is not a white supremacist. I mean any other administration, you just wouldn't hear that kind of thing being said by a chief of staff.

But earlier this morning, things got even more surreal. You saw the White House counselor, Kellyanne Conway, talking to reporters after she appeared on one of the other networks. And, you know, she was essentially fielding questions about the president's tweets from over the weekend. Dozens of tweets addressing all sorts of grievances, from, as you said, "Saturday Night Live" to his old nemesis, the late Senator John McCain. At one point, Kellyanne Conway talked about how she honors Senator McCain's service to the U.S. Obviously that is something that the president has not really done and has exactly done the opposite of that.

And so, you know, this is something that we heard all morning long. Perhaps the most surreal of all of the moments this morning, Brianna, was when Kellyanne Conway, as you just played there a few moments ago, addressed some of these tweets coming from her husband, George Conway, who's a prominent attorney here in D.C., almost joined the administration but decided not to, when he was tweeting about what he believes to be the president's personality disorders. I don't believe George Conway is a psychologist, but he's sharing his opinion that the president's behavior, I guess, points to some kind of instability he feels that we see here on a daily basis on the -- you know, on the White House North Lawn, inside the White House and the Oval Office and so on when the president talks about various things and addresses his various grievances.

And you heard Kellyanne Conway talking to reporters saying she doesn't share those concerns and that she was trying to spend the morning getting her -- her kids off to school. But definitely, Brianna, I mean it is just another day at the office for us over here at the White House in terms of trying to address these sorts of questions and seeing the -- you know, senior officials like Kellyanne Conway and Mick Mulvaney have to go to these lengths to defend the president's behavior, it is quite something.

[13:05:24] I will tell you, when I -- when I talked to White House officials privately, they will tell you, no, they don't believe the president is insane, they believe he's more crazy like a fox and that he sends out a lot of these tweets in an attempt to really dominate the news cycle, drive the narrative. And one thing that we saw over the weekend is there was a lot more discussion about General Motors, the way the president has responded to the terror attack in New Zealand, and not as much about the Russia investigation. And when you talk to White House officials, people who are close to the president privately, some of this is by design. He wants those tweets out there. He wants those distractions out there so we're spending our time talking about those sorts of things and not about the thing that really strikes fear in the hearts of people inside this administration, and that's the special counsel, Robert Mueller.


KEILAR: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you for that.

I want to get more insight now into this tweet storm by President Trump. We have Julie Hirschfeld Davis with us. She's a congressional correspondent for "The New York Times," and we have CNN political analyst -- she is a CNN political analyst, and we have our cheap -- chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

I am struggling to speak today.


KEILAR: I know. Here we are.

OK. So, I mean, what -- what a Twitter storm, Gloria. So when you look at all of the things that the president was talking about, because it almost sent -- felt like he was sending flak out to all these different targets. BORGER: Yes.

KEILAR: What did it tell you?

BORGER: Well, he -- it told me, number one, that he's probably watching a lot of TV and that maybe we'd be better off if the weather were warm and he could go play golf somewhere. And I think that he was so full of grievance on everything that it was -- you know, it was stunning. I mean our colleague, Manu Raju, tweet a list of things that the president had tweeted about just by 3:00 on Sunday, you know, Fox News weekend anchors, he attacked McCain twice, the Mueller report, GM, Google, Hillary, "Saturday Night Live," Christopher Steele and on and on. And it was if whatever was on a screen in front of him he had to talk about. And that's how he spent his day. One would think he might have tweeted about -- against white supremacy, for example, after New Zealand, but that wasn't -- that wasn't on the list.

KEILAR: What did you think?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I mean, I think the key word, and Gloria's right is, is grievance. I mean if you just read down the list of -- that list that Manu tweeted earlier --


DAVIS: You know, that's the common thread here.


DAVIS: These are things that he thinks, you know, "Saturday Night Live," it's about, you know, how they targeted him, even if it was months ago that it actually aired.

KEILAR: It was a -- it was like a Christmas episode, by the way.

DAVIS: But he didn't see it. So when he -- when the president sees it that's -- when --

KEILAR: He did. He tweeted criticisms when it aired the first time.

DAVIS: Right, but the point being, when he feels targeted, whenever that might be --


DAVIS: That's when he lashes out.

And I do think, you know, there is something to what Jim was saying earlier, that, you know, it's like a -- you know, he's like spraying a hose, you know, and it's focusing people's attention on everything else other than the Mueller investigation and Russia and the thing that, you know, of course he's tweeting about that as well, but I do think there's -- there's an element here of not just that he feels targeted, because I think that's the core -- the core common thread through all of these things, but also that he's trying to sort of throw things up against the wall and see what will stick. KEILAR: And some of it -- look, some of it does stick, obviously, to

that point, and to Jim's point, but at the same time when he tweets about all these things and then he doesn't tweet about white supremacy, you've got two of his top aides being asked questions about that, and that and his mental fitness --

BORGER: Right.

KEILAR: And that's not really -- because that's what George Conway was tweeting in response to was this Twitter tirade. That's not where the aides want to be. That's a big part of the conversation, too.

BORGER: I mean it's kind of stunning that you have to have the acting White House chief of staff, or whatever his title is, go on television and say, the president is not a white supremacist.

KEILAR: And I don't know how many times I have to say that, Mick Mulvaney said.

BORGER: Exactly. I don't know how many times I have to say that. And also Kellyanne Conway this morning, who, obviously, her husband was out there tweeting about, you know, the president's mental illness, alleged, had to sort of say, no, no, no, the president -- you know, the president's fine. He's not -- so it's just kind of stunning that it's come to this, that that is what we are -- that is what we're talking about right now.

KEILAR: Well, let's -- I want to talk to you about something that he threatened when it came to the "SNL" thing, because this is pretty serious.

BORGER: Oh, yes.

KEILAR: When he's threatening action by the FEC or the FCC, I mean these are not supposed to be like blunt objects for him to hit television programs with.

DAVIS: Well, and this is what autocrats do in counties that done' have democracy, right, is use the government to stifle their opponents and stifle people that satirized them. I mean Putin has done that in Russia. And so that is the reason why, you know, you have to look at some of these things and say, yes, he's spouting off, he may not be serious, but the -- the underlying point that he's making is a pretty serious one. And I think that's one of the ways in which he's sort of trying to get a rise out of people. He knows that when he says things like that, people are going to say, oh, my goodness, he's trying to sort of take over the airwaves. What he's really doing is just reacting to an insult that he -- he's angry about.

[13:10:28] BORGER: But that's the way he treats the Justice Department too. I mean you remember why he was so upset with Jeff Sessions, because he recused himself from the Russia investigation and they didn't -- the Justice Department hasn't behaved and the FBI hasn't behaved the way he thinks they should. I mean he treats them as his personal attorneys when, in fact, they work for the people of the United States and not for Donald Trump directly. KEILAR: Indeed they do.

Gloria Borger, Julia Hirschfeld Davis, thank you guys so much.

Now, despite the president once again attacking the late Senator John McCain, McCain's best friend, Lindsey Graham, offers up a pretty tepid defense of the war hero.

Plus, Beto O'Rourke wows political watchers, breaking fundraising records in his first 24 hours. Is Joe Biden hatching a plan to one-up him?

And he's the Republican who was rebuked over his new racist remarks. Now Congressman Steve King sharing a meme that depicts a modern-day civil war.


[13:15:41] KEILAR: Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke is living up to the hype over his fundraising skills. His campaign says that he raised $6.1 million in the first 24 hours of his campaign. Now, by comparison, the Bernie Sanders campaign took in $5.9 million in its first day. Kamala Harris a distant third there with $1.5 million.

O'Rourke is raking in the money, but he's also trying to recover for some missteps. He apologized for a comment that his wife was raising their children, quote, sometimes with my help.


BETO O'ROURKE (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It has already made me a better candidate. Not only will I not say that again, but I'll be much more thoughtful going forward in the way that I talk about our marriage and also the way in which I acknowledge the truth of the criticism that I have enjoyed white privileged. Absolutely. Undeniable.


KEILAR: O'Rourke also apologized for teenage writings that he described as, quote, really hateful, really bad stuff.


O'ROURKE: I'm mortified to read it now, incredibly embarrassed. But I have to take ownership of my words and understanding the way that they make people feel when they read them now.


KEILAR: We have CNN's senior political analyst Mark Preston live from Jackson, Mississippi, with us now.

So, Mark, I do want to talk to you about this apology tour because it's significant. But, first, let's talk about this fundraising haul. $6.1 million. How significant is that?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's very significant. When you look at a field that's going to be likely 20 people or in the range of 20 people, you're going to need money to keep the car moving. Money for gasoline, to pay for staff, to pay for travel, to pay for television advertisements. So when you see the fundraising haul from Kamala Harris, which -- she did that early, too. She did that in January. And that was -- that was a good number for her as well. But, gosh, you look at Bernie Sanders and you look at what Beto O'Rourke has pulled in, that really does say something about their appeal right now to the real liberal base of the Democratic Party and the willingness of them to really, you know, part with money out of their own pocket in $25, you know, $50 checks.

KEILAR: And so he's got this cash flowing in, which is significant, but then he's apologizing for this, that and everything under the sun. You know, you can contrast that to -- President Trump's approach is apologize for nothing and it seems like Beto O'Rourke's is apologize for everything.

PRESTON: Yes, there's a -- there's a -- there's a whole lot of mea culpa going on right now from Beto O'Rourke in humbleness in many ways. I don't think this is going to hurt him. You know, look, I understand -- and perhaps I'm tone deaf myself, but when he said, you know, my wife is raising the children with my help a little bit, in many ways I think that he was -- he was acknowledging that the campaign has taken him off the trail, and as a member of Congress, he's not around a whole lot. So there's an incredible amount of pressure that's put on his wife to help raise the kids in a way that they want.

I'm not trying to explain for him right now, but I'm just putting it in context. And I think that his willingness to at least acknowledge that and say, listen, I shouldn't have done that, I shouldn't have done this and I apologize and I'm going to try to be better, in this day and age, I think people will hear that and they'll move on.

KEILAR: All right, we'll see. Mark Preston, thank you so much.

And make sure that you don't miss CNN's town hall tonight with Senator Elizabeth Warren, moderated by Jake Tapper, right here on CNN at 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

Politicians in New Zealand are promising swift action after the massacre at two mosques there. We have details on how the government is planning to enact new gun laws in just a matter of days.

Also, in the wake of those attacks, the president refuses to call out white nationalism. One Democrat now insisting there's Islamophobia on both sides of the aisle. We'll get reaction next.


[13:24:08] KEILAR: There's a manhunt underway as we speak after a gunman opened fire inside a tram in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Three people are dead, nine people are injured according to the city's mayor and police are looking for a 37-year-old Turkish man that you see here in this picture. Dutch investigators are considering a possible terror motive in the shootings. And officials are also raising the country's threat level to critical, and they've increased security at mosques and transit stations around the city.

New Zealand's prime minister is promising new and tighter gun laws and fast. She says her cabinet has agreed in principle that within ten days of Friday's attacks on two Christchurch mosques, her government will announce reforms aimed at making the country safer. There will also be a probe into what the government could or should have known about the suspect and whether the massacres could have been prevented. Fifty people died when a gunman opened fire in two mosques. More than 30 victims at this point are still in a Christchurch hospital. And that includes nine who are in intensive care.

[13:25:11] CNN's Martin Savidge has the latest.

So, Martin, where does this investigation stand right now?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, authorities have been very tight-lipped about where they're going next. Now, they've been quite open in saying that they believe, and actually will refer (ph) to the public here, there was only one gunman. That seems obvious.

The question here is, in any way did that gunman have some kind of logistics or financial support? We also know that joining not only what is the largest investigative team ever assembled here in New Zealand are now international members. That includes Australia. That makes sense because the gunman's from Australia. And, in fact, Australian authorities earlier today carried out search warrants at two homes that are believed to belong to family members of the gunman. There, again, possibly looking into whether any family members supported his efforts or whether they had any prior knowledge of the attack that he was planning and carried out.

The FBI is also involved. And that is the U.S. FBI. And that's interesting. Does it mean that there could be a dual nationality of any of the victims that hasn't been revealed yet? We don't know. There's no shortage of experience that the FBI has when it comes to investigating hate crimes and mass shootings back in the United States, sadly, so maybe it's just their expertise that's called upon, or could there also be a connection to hate groups or anywhere else in the United States? The authorities have not made that clear.

And then there is the investigation just overall to figure out if there were red flags missed. Did law enforcement somehow miss something? Did the public miss something? Is there some way the worst modern-day massacre in New Zealand history could have been avoided if somebody had seen something sooner. That's what the prime minister wants to know. That's what she's ordered. And then there were the changes in the laws when it comes to gun ownership. That is moving very quickly, within ten days, she believes. If you look and look through the lens of how things have happened in America, how long this conversation has continued in the aftermath of so many mass shootings, ten days. And, in fact, she promised that within hours after the first deaths. Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Martin Savidge, thank you so much, reporting from New Zealand.

The manifesto believed to be written by the New Zealand shooting suspect lays out anti-Muslimism and anti-immigrant views. And there's also talk in the paper about the inspiration gained from white nationalists. But when asked about it, President Trump said he doesn't see white nationalism as a major problem.


QUESTION: (INAUDIBLE) 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 a 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. A terrible thing.


KEILAR: We have Maryland Senator Ben Cardin joining us now from Baltimore.

When you hear that, senator, what do you think of what the president is saying, that he doesn't see white nationalism as a rising global threat?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: Brianna, first, it's good to be with you.

America's strength is in our values. We embrace diversity. There's no room for hate. And the president of the United States has the responsibility to articulate and promote those values.

President Trump, over and over again, has missed that opportunity. In fact, he's taken us in the wrong direction. This is not new for him to not acknowledge white supremacist. He has given oxygen to hate in America, and that is inexcusable for the president of the United States.

KEILAR: When you get briefings, obviously, in your role as a senator and on certain committees, you are seeking out information about foreign affairs. Is it your understanding that white nationalism is a rising global threat?

CARDIN: There's no question that it is. I'm the special representative for any Semitism, racism and intolerance in the OSCE, which is Europe and the United States. And we've seen a major increase in hate crimes against Jews, against African-Americans, against minority groups. So though it's not just against Muslims, it's against a rising tide, against those that see white supremacists as their mission. KEILAR: I want to get your reaction to something that Democratic

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib said on CNN. Here's what it -- here's what she said.


REP. RASHIDA TLAIB (D), MICHIGAN: The fact that now there's not only one but now three Muslim Americans serving in Congress, that our mere presence is going to be able to possibly break down any of these kind of racialized, you know, opinions, this kind of Islamophobia, that I do feel like is still very present on both sides of the aisle.


[13:29:58] KEILAR: So she's saying there that Islamophobia is also present on the Democrat's side and that it's responsible for attack on Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, who is the other Muslim woman in Congress.