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Trent Lott Stepping Down as Majority Leader, Keeping Senate Seat

Aired December 20, 2002 - 12:03   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to bring in our Daryn Kagan at the CNN Center in Atlanta. She's got some other developments on this breaking story -- Daryn.
DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Absolutely, Wolf.

We've been working the phones and being able to get in touch with some other senators. Right now with me on the phone is Senator Sam Brownback from Kansas, joining us from Kansas.

Senator, good morning, or actually, good afternoon. Thanks for joining us.

SEN. SAM BROWNBACK (R), KANSAS: Happy to be able to join you. Merry Christmas.

KAGAN: And thank you so much.

It is not going to be a very merry Christmas for Trent Lott. What is your reaction to his announcement today that he will not seek the leadership position in the Senate?

BROWNBACK: Very positive. Trent's an honorable man and this is the right thing to do. He had really become such a lightning rod on the issue, and I think it's the right thing for him to take this step as he has today.

KAGAN: In terms of the next leader of the Republicans in the Senate, it does appear that Bill Frist has the momentum to gain that position. Will you support him and will he have your vote?

BROWNBACK: I'm trying to get a hold of Bill and he's been calling to me. I think it's likely that I will be supporting him. I think it's important, if we can, to rally around one person fast so we can get the agenda back on track. The agenda of growing the economy and the war on terrorism, that's critically important that we get that moving forward (INAUDIBLE) and now.

KAGAN: But you say it is likely he will have your support. What will it take to firm that up -- sir?

BROWNBACK: Well, I want to talk with him and see who else is interested. Plus I think we're going to have to make a very clear statement on issues of race relations, and if we can, pull together an overarching committee to move us (INAUDIBLE) the country together. I mean this has really brought forward a number of items that I think clearly we need to deal with as a nation and that we need to deal with as a party.

KAGAN: What about the concern that we've heard from some that there's a concern that Bill Frist is too tied to the White House and that he would just be the White House man in the Senate?

BROWNBACK: Well, I think -- I think that's a bit demeaning to Bill Frist. Bill's his own man. He's come to the Senate separately, all on his own, and he has worked very aggressively. I think it's an asset that he works closely with the White House. This is the first time in 50 years the Republican Party has had the House, the Senate and the presidency. And to get things done, we're going to have to work closely together.

KAGAN: And finally, on a point that you just made about going the next step, are you saying that it's not enough for Trent Lott to step aside as the leader in the Senate, that the Republican Party needs to do even more so it doesn't have the taint of being a racist party?

BROWNBACK: Well, I just -- I just think what has happened during this past couple of weeks that there's been a lot of issues brought forward and clearly the issues of race are still very much a difficulty and they divide us still in this country. I think we need to really step up the issue of what can we do, what do we need to do to come together as one nation. If we can have an overarching special committee to look at these issues, to bring them on forward, perhaps that can help pull us together as a nation.

KAGAN: And one other point that you're making, this is a historic time for the Republican Party having control of the White House and the Senate and the House. It would appear at this point early on the Republicans not making the best use of that opportunity.

BROWNBACK: Well you know these sort of things happen. They come up.

KAGAN: But it's never happened before. This is history-making moment for a Senate leader to step aside in a cloud of controversy. It's never happened like this.

BROWNBACK: Well -- and I think it's important that we move on past it quickly and reunite and move forward on an aggressive agenda for the good of the country.

KAGAN: Senator Sam Brownback. Senator, thank you for joining us from Kansas, appreciate your time during this moment of breaking news.

We're going to go ahead and toss it back to Wolf in Saudi Arabia -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Daryn.

The reaction from the White House is only beginning to unfold. Let's find out what they're saying so far.

Suzanne Malveaux, our White House correspondent, is standing by -- Suzanne.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, they're preparing for an official reaction. We're expecting to hear from Ari Fleischer within the hour, so expect that. Of course he's going to be pummeled with quite a few questions on this matter.

But I have to tell you that the White House was really in a very delicate situation, a balancing act, if you will. On the one hand, the White House very clear that it had to -- that it could not interfere with the Senate leadership race, that it was aware of the possible backlash to the president, but at the same time that it had to distance itself from Senator Lott.

And we saw that aides very concerned about a number of things. First of all that it would undermine the Republican agenda, but not only the Republican agenda, but also the White House domestic agenda as well. That it would also, if Lott stayed on as leader, perhaps even undo some of the progress, the outreach that they had made to African-Americans.

I spoke with one Democratic congressional aide this morning who said that they thought it was very wise that Lott stepped down. That he would be used, really, as a poster boy for bad behavior -- in this aide's words -- anywhere from the nomination of conservative judges to race relations or affirmative action.

And you could see this kind of dichotomy being played out in the last couple of weeks. We saw President Bush in Philadelphia last Thursday admonishing Lott publicly, saying that his words were offensive, that did not reflect the spirit of the nation. We also recently heard from Secretary Powell very similar remarks. But at the same time, Ari Fleischer this morning -- as recently as this morning saying that the president did not believe that he should resign, and at the same time, he was not taking sides. They were not getting involved with this.

But, Wolf, it became very clear that the White House silence perhaps spoke much louder than the words that we heard from the president, as well as his aides, that, congressional members as well, Republicans and Democrats alike, saw this as perhaps a signal, a sign that Lott was not the ideal leader for the Republican Party -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Suzanne Malveaux at the White House, thanks very much.

And as Suzanne mentioned, we're standing by for the White House press briefing. Ari Fleischer expected around 12:45 to emerge and to give the official White House reaction. CNN, of course, will have live coverage.

Our Jonathan Karl broke this story earlier today here on CNN. He's joining me now live with more on this very important development -- Jon.

JONATHAN KARL, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, really an incredible day here in the United States Senate. And now the question, obviously, that we know that Trent Lott is gone is who will replace him? And the momentum seems to be insurmountable in the direction of Senator Bill Frist.

Senator Frist has the support of the incoming No. 2 man in the United States Senate, Mitch McConnell. And I just spoke with Senator Lincoln Chafee, moderate Republican of Rhode Island, who was, if you remember, was the first senator to publicly come out and say that he thinks Trent Lott may need to go. Senator Chafee says he is supporting Bill Frist, absent a woman coming into the race. He had initially said that he'd like to see a woman as the Republican leader here. Absent that, he said he is for Senator Bill Frist.

So really the momentum is there. We're getting a lot of statements coming in from senators, senators like incoming Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota also in the Bill Frist camp. So certainly an unsettling day for the Republicans, they've lost their leader; but it looks like they are very quickly rallying around a new leader and that senator is -- that leader is Senator Bill Frist -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Jon, what about the future of Trent Lott? What is he going to do now, is he going to just be a simple senator, a committee chairman? Is he going to have any influence, any power or is he just going to ride it out?

KARL: It looks like he's just going to ride it out. We do know in that statement he said very clearly he is going to stay in the United States Senate, so he's not going to do what all the Republicans feared which is that he would leave the Senate and allow a Democrat to come in to replace him. That's not going to happen.

But there's been no talk in terms of the so-called soft landing, of giving him a committee chairmanship. As you can imagine, Wolf, that's a pretty tall order to ask a chairman of a committee to step aside and allow somebody else to take the gavel. And Bill Frist, if he becomes the leader, as it looks like he will become the leader, he is not a committee chairman so it's not like he can even trade places with Trent Lott. He doesn't really have anything to offer Trent Lott in that area, nor does he need to, because it looks very clear like he's got the support he needs.

BLITZER: Jonathan Karl doing some excellent reporting for CNN today as he does every day.

Jon, good work, thanks very much...

KARL: Thanks -- Wolf.

BLITZER: ... for that -- for that news.

Let's get -- let's get back to CNN's Daryn Kagan. She has some other developments on this breaking story -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Yes, Wolf, we're able to get more and more senators on the phone to get reaction. And right now we want to go to Colorado to talk with Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell with his reaction to today's news.

Senator, good afternoon or good morning to you in Colorado. SEN. BEN NIGHTHORSE CAMPBELL (R), COLORADO: Hi, Daryn, how are you?

KAGAN: I'm doing OK.

What is your reaction to Trent Lott's announcement that he will not seek the leadership position?

CAMPBELL: Well, I've known Trent for an awful lot of years, and I don't believe there's a prejudice bone in his body; but I think he did the right thing because the story was becoming the -- I mean literally the whole issue and it was beginning to overshadow the agenda of the Republican Party and the president, too.

KAGAN: What about your reaction as a Native American in terms of the Republican Party being able to be inclusive to minorities?

CAMPBELL: I think they've been trying very hard. And I know in the Native American community, I've talked to more and more people that are now picking and choosing the candidates they support instead of just being a rubber stamp for the Democratic Party.

KAGAN: But does the Republican Party need to do more than just pushing Trent Lott aside to have that feeling for inclusion and to show that it would not be perceived as a racist party?

CAMPBELL: No question about it, but I think under the leadership of Bill Frist it will. Because when Bill was a senatorial committee chairman, he made an effort to put together an outreach program for minorities which included Hispanic-Americans, black Americans and Native Americans, and I think he'll pursue that as the new incoming chairman.

KAGAN: You're getting a step ahead of me, because it does sound like indeed you will have -- you will be giving your support to Bill Frist as...

CAMPBELL: Yes, I'm going to do that because, for one thing, I think he's a very fine man, very capable man, but also (INAUDIBLE) need another fight at this stage. We need to get on with the business the country elected us to do, and I think the best thing we can do that is rally behind one candidate and move forward.

KAGAN: All right, Senator Campbell joining us from Colorado, appreciate your time.

We move along on the phones now and bring in Arlen Specter from Pennsylvania,...


KAGAN: ... a man who came out when a lot of people were not supporting Trent Lott and did give your support to your fellow senator.

Senator Specter, thanks for joining us today. SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Glad to do it.

KAGAN: Now what is your reaction to Senator Lott's decision today?

SPECTER: Well, it again shows what a high caliber guy Trent Lott is, willing to step down for the interest of party unity. I think now that there has been this loud wake-up call to the Republican Party, we ought to come forward with an agenda. We ought to be supporting hate crime legislation, we ought to be supporting the University of Michigan on this case that racial diversity is a serious governmental interest and we ought to stop talking about things the party is linked to and act like it. And if that comes out of all of this turmoil, it will be very positive.

KAGAN: But, Senator Specter, you were out there when a lot of people weren't supporting Trent Lott. Any regret about that support at this point?

SPECTER: Well absolutely not. I think that Trent Lott is not a racist and not a bigot. You had people like John Lewis -- Congressman Lewis, a very strong civil rights advocate, saying that his apology ought to be accepted. Illinois -- former Illinois Senator Paul Simon thought the apology ought to be accepted. We really never ended up giving Senator Lott a hearing, and I think we should have listened to him. But he's done the courageous thing and the self-sacrificing thing in stepping aside.

But we ought to learn something from it. We've been in real turmoil for the last two weeks. Pretty hard to have someone -- pretty hard to have Trent Lott replace Saddam Hussein on the front pages, but let's learn something from it and start to recognize the importance of civil rights.

KAGAN: So is that the lesson that's learned? What about the lesson within the Republican Party on how to handle a controversy like this?

SPECTER: Well, I don't think you can short cut a controversy, and a lot of it is media driven. We're entitled to have an opportunity to think the issue through if we'd been in Washington. If we hadn't been disbursed all over the country or all over the world, we could have gotten together and made a more prompt conclusion, but we're doing OK.

KAGAN: Real quickly, will you support Bill Frist as the next leader?

SPECTER: Well that's something I'm going to think about. Senator Santorum may be in the race. I'm not going to rush to judgment. I don't believe in rushing to judgment on anything, frankly. Senator Lott's body isn't even cold without deciding who's going to replace him.

KAGAN: So if Santorum is in, does that mean Bill Frist does not have your support or will it take more than that to get your support behind Bill Frist?

SPECTER: Well, I've already answered your question, I'm going to think about it.

KAGAN: All right, well we'll let you go then to go think about it.


KAGAN: All right. Appreciate it, Senator Arlen Specter joining us from Pennsylvania. Appreciate that so much.

And now back to Saudi Arabia and Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Daryn.

Jonathan Karl, our correspondent on Capitol Hill, is standing by with a special guest, someone who played a very important role in the chain of events that resulted in Senator Lott's decision today to step down -- Jon.

KARL: I liked that toss, Wolf, from Atlanta to Saudi Arabia to Washington.

I'm here with Senator Lincoln Chafee who, as you alluded to, was the first person to suggest that Trent Lott needed to go as majority leader.

Now, Senator Chafee, are you with Bill Frist?

SEN. LINCOLN CHAFEE (R), RHODE ISLAND: It looks like he's got the momentum right now and absent -- I've been saying earlier that I think one of our best positions as Republicans would be to have the first woman majority leader. We've got some good women in our party. Olympia Snowe's been in Congress a long time, Susan Collins is smart and tough, Kay Bailey Hutchison's a good senator from Texas and I think that would be great for our party. We'd make history with the first woman. But absent that, I'm supporting Bill Frist.

KARL: And what do you think about your role in this? I mean you really, in many ways, kind of started the cascade of events that happened in terms of Republicans moving away from Trent Lott and you were the first to say that he should step down.

CHAFEE: Yes, but I think what really happened was when Bill Frist stepped forward to say he was challenging the majority whip. I think that was really when things really started to change.

KARL: Was that a tough decision for you to do when you came out? I mean you know it's one thing for a -- for a senator to take on his leader, you know, it's a tough thing unless you know that leader is going down.

CHAFEE: Well, yes, I don't think any of us were really happy with the apologies, and that was -- that was the difficult part. The Friday press conference just didn't connect with the American people, and I think many of us felt that this is going to just be an ongoing controversy, it's not going away.

KARL: Now you are obviously one of the Republican moderates. You're, some would say, a Republican liberal, but you're on -- you're on that side of the party. Senator Frist is somebody who has a very conservative voting record. Democrats are already trying to say that he has essentially got a lot in common with Trent Lott. Are you comfortable with Bill Frist's politics?

CHAFEE: Well our caucus is very conservative. I mean those -- that's where the votes are and I don't think it necessarily reflects the Republican Party nationwide. In New England we have five Republican governors out of six states in New England all moderate Republicans, but in the Senate, very conservative caucus. And so that's who's going to lead us, and conservative, that's just where the votes are.

KARL: You've known Trent Lott for a long time, do you feel at all sorry for him in terms of what's happened?

CHAFEE: I understand the grief and the pain that he has -- is suffering through right now. His family -- he's got a terrific family and this isn't an easy time for him. I wish that during this holiday season this all hadn't happened.

KARL: And do you expect to speak with him or have you spoken with him since this -- last couple of days here?

CHAFEE: I'm sure we will at some point. I haven't in the last couple of days.

KARL: And finally, last question, does this weaken the Republican hand? I mean you're going into a new Congress, you have a president's agenda and all of a sudden you have this leadership struggle and a change in the leadership, is that going to hurt the party?

CHAFEE: Well, no, news is always breaking. This was supposed to be a quiet time, and lo and behold a huge controversy was ignited over a simple birthday party. So you never know, and on we go. I think the votes are going to probably line up with Senator Frist; and we'll go into the session, try and get our bills done and do some good things for the American people.

KARL: All right, Senator Lincoln Chafee, representing the great state of Rhode Island, thank you for joining us.

CHAFEE: My pleasure (ph).

KARL: Appreciate it.

All right, Wolf, back to you in Saudi Arabia.

BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jon. Once again, good work.

We're continuing to follow this breaking story, Senator Trent Lott's decision to step down as the Senate Republican leader. When we come back, we'll go to his hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi. Our Gary Tuchman is standing by with the reaction from the folks in Mississippi. Also, we're standing by for official White House reaction. The White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer expected to emerge this hour and to give us the president's thought on -- thoughts on this dramatic decision.


BLITZER: We're following an important breaking story back in the United States. The United States Republican leader in the Senate, Trent Lott has decided to step down as the majority leader following those controversial remarks he made many consider to have been racist.

Let's go to his hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi, where there is reaction beginning to come in from his fellow Pascagoula residents.

Our Gary Tuchman has been there over these past several days. He's standing by with the latest -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Pascagoula, Mississippi is where Trent Lott has lived for the last 50 of his 61 years. And right now we're standing in front of his Senate office here in Pascagoula where inside his workers are crestfallen. The office door is usually open for any constituent who wants to walk in, but they've actually locked the door right now because of what's happened today. Trent Lott has not been seen yesterday or today by the public. His whereabouts right now are being kept secret. It's believed that he actually may be in Washington, D.C., we don't know at this point for sure.

We went inside earlier to get the statement he released. They were so crestfallen inside they didn't even want to give us the statement. They said just copy it down. They finally did give us the statement and here's what it says from the man who has been the Senate Republican leader.

Quote -- "In the interest of pursuing the best possible agenda for the future of our country, I will not seek to remain as majority leader of the United States Senate for the 108th Congress effective January 6, 2003. To all those who offered me their friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful. I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate." And that is a very key statement, because if he decided not to stay in the U.S. Senate, which was thought he might do initially if he stepped down from the leadership post, the governor of Mississippi, who is a Democrat, would then be able to appoint somebody. And because he's a Democrat, it is extremely likely he would have appointed a Democrat.

Now to most of the nation Trent Lott has been known as the Senate Republican leader, but here his supporters know him basically as royalty, a man who has brought so much to the state of Mississippi, who has put Mississippi on the political map. Because of that, they named a middle school after him a couple of blocks away from here, the Trent Lott Middle School. A few miles away from here, they named a Trent Lott International Airport, that's the Pascagoula Airport, and he brought a lot home for the people here.

Obviously there are some people here in Pascagoula, as in the rest of the nation, who don't like Trent Lott, but they are few and far between. Trent Lott was the boy who did good, graduated Pascagoula High School 1959. Tell me if you've known somebody like this in high school, you probably have known very few people like this, but he was, in his yearbook, the most popular, the homecoming king, the neatest, the most polite. He was the Student Council president, not a surprise there. He was the president of the Drama Club. He was in the Pascagoula Boys Quartet, obviously a predecessor to the Singing Senators. You've seen him over the years singing with three other senators. So he was very well known here throughout all of his life from when he moved here in sixth grade.

Now momentum's gone downhill completely for him over the last week. He came home from vacation in Key West, Florida to Pascagoula a week ago today. He held a news conference at a hotel here in town that he owns part of. During the news conference, tactically it may not have gone very well, but he looked very confident, he was smiling, he was in control.

But then two days later when he went to church, that was the day that Senator Nickles announced he would like to see elections for a new leader. We talked to Senator Lott about that at the church. He really didn't want to talk about it. He said you talk to Senator Nickles about that. He looked angry that we even brought it up.

Inside the church, he looked void once again. The pastor said over the microphone to the 450 congregates, Senator Lott, we love you. We accept your apology, and you have our prayers and support. And then the people inside the church applauded for 45 seconds. At that point, when the church ended, Senator Lott went out another entrance away from the press.

Next day, on Monday he did the interview with Black Entertainment Television. Now that seemed to be a tactical downfall for a number of reasons. We were with African-Americans who watched the speech. They didn't feel worse about Senator Lott afterwards, but they didn't believe what he said, especially when he said he was for affirmative action. Many said they were shocked to even hear something like that. But on the other side of the coin, his strongest supporters here, people who have supported him his entire political career, started to think that perhaps he was groveling a bit and that seemed to hurt him a lot and the momentum went downhill from there.

Right now, we haven't seen him inside. There's police around and be watching all day to see what people have to say, but many people are shocked and surprised as they drive by here, see us, ask us what's happened and we tell them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sad day, obviously, for all of his friends and family in Pascagoula, Mississippi.

Gary Tuchman, thanks for that report.

CNN's Daryn Kagan is standing by at the CNN center. She has more on this breaking story as well -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Yes, more reaction coming in from different senators from across the country. One of the most well-known senators right now, John McCain putting out this statement about Trent Lott's decision not to go for the leadership position in the Senate. He said -- quote -- "Senator Lott took the honorable course both for his country and for his party. It is now incumbent upon our party to heal the pain that was inflicted over the past few weeks. Our task is to make it unambiguously clear to the American people that we are an inclusive party in the spirit of our founder, Abraham Lincoln. National unity is essential as we confront many challenges both home and abroad." That statement -- that statement coming from Senator John McCain, Republican from Arizona.

We have another voice weighing in on this. Al Sharpton weighing in on the phone. I think Reverend Sharpton is joining us from New York.

Is that where you are today?


KAGAN: You're in Chicago. OK, I'm glad that we were able to track you down. What is your reaction to Trent Lott's decision to step aside?

SHARPTON: I think this is a tremendous victory for the civil rights movement. Many of us, the NAACP, we are a -- National Action Network had called for his removal immediately after the statement went public. And despite the fact that some accepted his apology with no penalty, we felt that this was about having someone govern that in effect said that segregationists should have run the country for 54 years.

I think that a lot of people will give credit to the wrong people. Mr. Bush and others responded to a week of pressure. It was a week before President Bush came out. It was a week before some Republicans came out. I think had it not been an issue created by those in civil rights leadership the climate would not have been set that have led to an unprecedented stepping aside by Trent Lott.

And I think that we can go back and forth over the politics of this. This was not, in my judgment, a political issue, it was a moral issue. And for those that still believe in the moral right of equality in this country, Christmas has come early this year.

KAGAN: All right. Thank you very much. That's the Reverend Al Sharpton weighing in from Chicago.


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