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Angry Crowds Pack GOP Town Halls across U.S.; WH Withdraws Protections for Transgender Students; Mexico Slams Trump's New Immigration Directives; Tillerson, Kelly to Set Meet with Mexican Officials. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired February 23, 2017 - 10:00   ET



RYAN YOUNG, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: -- about an hour from now, you can see everyone's already starting to line up in here, to sit down and have that conversation. Look, across the country, people are definitely making their voices heard, wanting to make sure that their lawmakers know that they have some opinions. And in fact, the 7-year- old boy has really struck a chord with a lot of people when he voiced his opinion during a town hall.


TOBY SMITH, 7-YEAR-OLD BOY ARKANSAS: Donald Trump makes Mexicans not important to people who are in Arkansas who like Mexicans, like me, my grandma and all my people. And he's deleting all the parks in PBS Kids just to make a wall. He shouldn't do that.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Tell me, how old are you?

SMITH: I'm almost 8. But I'm 7.

COTTON: We want Mexico to be a healthy strong partner. We want to help them deal with the problems they've got with drug cartels and crime and grow their economy.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He just wants to watch PBS!


YOUNG: So you heard that little boy talking about the fact that he didn't want his PBS programming to go away. I can also say that the man who's sitting right there in that blue hat right there just walked over to tell us he's here to talk education. He's worried about the direction of education in this country. We've had so many people walk over and just say they are excited about the opportunity to have their voices be heard. We're right on the edge of Main Street. This is something that already, with an hour to go, is already starting to fill up inside the courthouse. This is a courtroom. And the pews are filling up pretty quickly. Poppy?

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Ryan Young, thank you so much. Let us know what happens inside of there. Meantime, the White House pretty late last night is reversing an Obama administration federal guideline on transgender bathroom use.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Protect transgender! Save our students!

HARLOW: The guidelines from the Obama administration let transgender students use whichever bathroom correlated with their gender identity. Well, President Trump, now saying that states and local officials and parents should be making that decision, not the federal government. This is a case that is headed to the Supreme Court.


HARLOW: Let's go to Athena Jones. She's at the White House with more. Athena, not only a big headline here on this reversal of guidance or taking away guidance, right? They didn't write new guidance. But also the division within the president's own cabinet on this one.

ATHENA JONES, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Poppy, that's right. Sources tell CNN the Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was not originally on board with this new guidance. You're right. It's a new letter that basically rescinds another "Dear Colleague" letter issued by the Obama administration last May without ruling on whether they believe the law applies here.

So here's the deal. We're told from some sources that the Education secretary brought her concerns about this issue to the attorney general Jeff Sessions. She was concerned that this new guidance runs counter to promises to protect all students. She was summoned to the White House for a meeting with Sessions, who you'll remember was an early endorser and early supporter of then candidate Trump. She had a meeting with Sessions and with the president and was told to get on board. But she did push for additional language to make it clearer that all students will be protected.

So, let's look at what the White House put out. They said, "As President Trump has clearly stated, he believes policy regarding transgender bathrooms should be decided at the state level. The joint decision made today by the Department of Justice and the Department of Education returning power to the states paves the way for an open and inclusive process to take place at the local level with input from parents, students, teachers, and administrators."

And again, the new "Dear Colleague" letter put out by the Trump administration doesn't make any statement on whether they believe Title IX, which prevents sex discrimination also applies to transgender students. Here is the statement that Education secretary DeVos put out - part of it. She said, "We have a responsibility to protect every student in America and ensure they have the freedom to learn and thrive in a safe and trusted environment. This is not merely a federal mandate, but a moral obligation no individual, school, district or state can abdicate."

So, this is a big victory for people who believe that the federal government overstepped their bounds but it comes down to a debate over whether this is a states' rights issue or a civil rights issue. Of course, many on the other side see this as a civil rights issue that should not be left up to states. Poppy?

HARLOW: And of course the High Court is going to decide that in this Virginia case --

JONES: Absolutely. Next month.

HARLOW: -- coming to them - are these transgender issues part of Title IX or not. Before I let you go, new polling out this morning, what does it tell us?

JONES: It shows numbers that are not good for the president. This is a new Quinnipiac Poll. It shows his approval rating at just 38 percent, disapproval at 55 percent. That's down four points from just a few weeks ago, early February. February 7th, his approval rating was at 42 percent, disapproval at 51. So, it shows that there's a lot of doubts right now about the job that President Trump is doing. Poppy?

[10:05:04] HARLOW: Interesting the divide in those polls, when you ask Republicans, it's so much more favorable, the president than Democrats. -

JONES: Absolutely.

HARLOW: It shows the division in the country. Athena, thank you very much. Let's talk about all of this with my panel. Joining me is Alice Stewart, CNN political commentator and former Ted Cruz communications director, David Lauter, Washington bureau chief for the "Los Angeles Times" and Bakari Sellers, CNN commentator and former Democratic South Carolina House member. Nice to have you all here.

Alice, let me begin with you. As someone who worked in communications for Senator Ted Cruz, who was so much more outspoken on issues like the transgender school bathroom issue during the campaign, who took a much more clear stance on social issues than the current president. How do you square what the White House has done here, pulling back on this federal guideline, and then what candidate Trump said about being a protector of LGBTQ individuals on the campaign trail? Let's listen.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As your president, I will do everything in my power to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of the hateful foreign ideology. Believe me.

And I have to say, as a Republican, it is so nice to hear you cheering for what I just said. Thank you.


HARLOW: So how do you square the two, Alice?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND FORMER TED CRUZ COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I can tell you, Poppy, social conservatives applaud the decision by the administration for several reasons. But more than anything, they feel that this helps parents protect their children. And look, since those comments that Donald Trump said early on in the campaign, he has made it quite clear, his view on this, is to make it a states' rights issue which is what this decision has become.

And look, Sean Spicer has followed that up, but not only does he believe it's a states' rights issue, we're talking about Title IX, which forbids sexual discrimination in school and its school activities. Transgender bathrooms, is nowhere near listed in Title IX, and Jeff Sessions reaffirmed that in his wording on this, that transgender bathrooms aren't included in Title IX. And that is the motivation behind this. Not to mention the fact that they want this to be decided at the state level and the administration plans to work with school officials to make sure that sexual discrimination does not happen in schools, however with regard to transgender bathrooms it's not a part of it.

HARLOW: So, I want you guys to look and listen to some of the folks that rallied outside the White House last night on this.


GAVING GRIMM, TRANSGENDER TEEN: That we will not be silenced. And that we will stand with and protect trans youth. No matter what happens, no one, not even the government, can defeat a community so full of life, color, diversity, and most importantly, love.


HARLOW: Bakari, to you, how would the administration be best advised to handle this and questions on it? Because -- their party to this lawsuit that's going from Virginia to the Supreme Court. So, some would say, look, they had to show their hand here, they had to - had to pull this back. At the same time, you've got a number of conservatives pointing to the fact that they might rather have the president and the administration focus on other issues like tax reform, like jobs, like repealing and replacing Obamacare, than these social issues.

BAKARI SELLERS (D), CNN COMMENTATOR AND FORMER SOUTH CAROLINA HOUSE MEMBER: Let me say first that this is not a states' rights issue. This is a civil rights issue. The American government -- has the duty to protect all citizens no matter their race, color, creed, or sexual orientation. Donald Trump on the campaign trail said that he would be a great friend to the LGBTQ community. And with friends like this, I guess who needs enemies?

The fact is that, as you said, attorney general Sessions could have started out talking about immigration reform or terrorism or criminal justice reform. There are so many things under the Department of Justice that he could have spoken out against. But attorney general Sessions is who we thought he was. And so, to pick on a vulnerable class like this.

And just to comment briefly on my good friend, Alice Stewart. Since Barack Obama put this guidance in place, can you name me one instance where there has been a case where a child was put in any type of danger because now they have the ability -- to go to the restroom that identifies with the gender that they choose? And I think that what we're seeing throughout this country now is this veil being taken off, and many kids are going to feel unsafe. And many kids are going to go through depression. And, you know, I feel deeply troubled by this move. But again, elections have consequences, and attorney general Sessions is exactly who we thought he was.

HARLOW: Quickly, before I go to David, Alice, do you want to respond to that? Can you name an instance?

STEWART: Sure. In terms of the schools, no, I can't. I can honestly say I can't, but I certainly don't want to wait for something to happen before we take action. However, you do recall there have been numerous cases with regard to target and their transgender dressing rooms. And that's a concern. We don't need to have any more incidents happen before we take action.

[10:10:09] I think it's important to do this. More than anything, children, when they go to school, it's a safe zone. They're supposed to be safe and protected. And there are many parents who feel that this violated that safety. - And that's a big part of why this decision was made.

HARLOW: -- But just to be clear here, put a button on it, no incident in any school that you can point to this happening and endangering any child or student. David, to you, on another topic we have to get to, that is these raucous town halls, where all week. I mean, we've seen them for weeks now, especially in this past week across America. I want you to listen to what the co-founder of Indivisible, the movement that says, look, we are the liberal activists who are organizing this and telling people how to organize. Here is what they said on CNN just last night.


LEAH GREENBERG, FOUNDER OF INDIVISIBLE MOVEMENT: We've seen this playbook before. When the Tea Party first started popping up in 2009, Democrats said, oh they're Astroturf. They said, these are being -- they're being funded by the Koch brothers. We don't have to listen to them. We don't have to take their concerns seriously because they're not, you know, representative. And that did not work out well for them. So, if I was a member -- Republican member of Congress and I was seeing massive concern from my own constituents, I would recommend that they take that seriously.


HARLOW: Is she right, David?

DAVID LAUTER, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF "LOS ANGELES TIMES": Well, she may be, Poppy. I mean, you know, the Tea Party is the example that liberals would like to cite right now of how a mobilized and excited base of voters can really change the complexion of the House in particular. The opposite example is what happened a year after the Tea Party movement when Scott Walker won the governor ship in Wisconsin, pushed through a bunch of very conservative policies, there was a huge up swell of liberal opposition, union opposition to what Walker did. They had demonstrations. They had meetings. The State Capital was filled day after day with demonstrators. But in the end, they couldn't get the votes. They couldn't get enough voters to turn out to defeat Governor Walker. And as we know, he's still the governor and his policies have stood.

So, the question for Democrats is going to be, can they take this energy of this movement and convert it into actual votes that can win them seats in the 2018 House elections and in elections for state legislatures and governors. If they can do that, they're going to be well on their way. -

HARLOW: Right.

LAUTER: But there's a long way to get there.

HARLOW: A long road, and to what end? Can you turn the vocal voices, the loud voices into action? Let me get your guys' take on these polls, beginning with you Alice to it, a lot of the new Quinnipiac Polls coming out. Here's what stood out to us. First of all, when it comes to the trust that the American people have in the president versus the media, because we know he likes to take on the media. Overall, more, 52 percent trust the news over the president.

But Alice, look at these numbers in the partisan divide, it's totally flip-flopped, when you look at Republicans versus Democrats. Isn't that emblematic of a divided America, an America that the president just said at the African American museum of history and culture this week that he is going to unite?

STEWART: Sure. We do have a divided America. And I firmly believe that President Trump is committed to turning things around. But it's going to take some time to do just that. And I'm not too concerned about his approval ratings. Donald Trump didn't run for class president. He ran for President of the United States.

I'm much more focused on policies as opposed to popularity. He is following through on campaign promises, which is exactly why we're seeing these town halls pop up across the country very vocally because he and other Congressional Republicans campaigned on repealing and replacing Obamacare. They're doing exactly what they promised. And clearly, there's some backlash -- but once he succeeds with it, certainly, I see the approval numbers turn around.

HARLOW: I think, some might question, are they doing exactly what they promised by repealing and replacing Obamacare on day one. We're going to have to see at that place. But Bakari, take a look at these numbers, these are from the same Quinnipiac Poll about how the president is doing on the economy and it's a much rosier picture for this president. On the economy, 60 percent said that the economy is excellent or good, and then Republicans, you've got a much closer look there between Republicans and Democrats. Overall, he's winning on the economy, according to this polling.

SELLERS: Yes, because contrary to the harsh rhetoric that Donald Trump puts out about the fact that he inherited a country that was in economic turmoil. He actually inherited a country that had 74 straight months of job growth. When Barack Obama took office, the stock market was at, I believe, 6,000. When he left, it was teetering on 20,000.

And so, yes, he's able to ride those gains. And hopefully, for the sake of all Americans he can sustain those, if not expedite those. -- But one of the things that Donald Trump has against him as we talk about the economy, just briefly, is that -- is this level of uncertainty. The repeal and replace Obamacare, his tax reform plan, all of those things that I believe are going to be a detriment are also going to have a harsh effect on our economy and I expect those numbers will match his approval rating sooner rather than later.

[10:15:09] HARLOW: What do you make of these polls, final word, David?

LAUTER: Well, you know, President Trump got elected as a minority president, a minority of the vote. And he has not yet managed to expand his support. That leaves him in a vulnerable position. He's managed to thread the needle in November, and it was a very, very close call. He won.

Ideally, if you're in his position, you would like to be able to go into the next election with a little bit more cushion. But the key thing, as you noted, is he still has support of his Republican base which means that Republican members of Congress are going to stick with him.

HARLOW: Absolutely, and that's what we're seeing play out. Alice Stewart, David Lauter and Bakari Sellers, nice to have you all, thank you very much.

We've got a lot ahead this hour. Still to come, Mexico, coming out swinging against the Trump administration's new immigration policies. This is ahead of a crucial meeting between some of the president's top staffers and the Mexican president today. Are they going to mend some proverbial fences there?

Also, conservatives gathering at CPAC, among those expected to make a show of force, we're going to see live on this network, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon sitting down at 1:00 p.m. Eastern.

Also, reunited at last, this story you will not want to miss. A toddler burned in a fire at a refugee camp reunited with his parents, weeks after being separated. This Iraqi child is now with his parents. Why his parents are saying thank you, now for President Trump.


[10:20:40] HARLOW: Mexico slamming new U.S. immigration policies that could lead to an increase in deportations back to Mexico. This is just hours before the president's top diplomats meet with the President of Mexico. Homeland Security secretary John Kelly, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Mexico for these meetings that will be part meet and greet and part fence-mending mission. They will likely be met with resistance from Mexican authorities who have said clearly they're not just going to accept what the U.S. is pushing. Maureen Meyers is with me, senior associate for the Washington Office on Latin America, nice to have you here.


HARLOW: Let's begin with this. Here is what Luis Videgaray, the foreign minister in Mexico, had to say yesterday about one of the policies that is included in this new immigration crackdown here in the United States.


LUIS VIDEGARAY, MEXICAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): I want to make it clear in the most emphatic way that the Mexican government and the Mexican people do not have to accept measures that in a unilateral way one government wants to impose on another. We will not accept that because we don't have to, and it's not in our best interests.


HARLOW: So, they said, for example, Mexico will not take back people that the United States is deporting who have crossed the border who are not Mexican nationals. As Rex Tillerson and Secretary Kelly walk into this meeting today with Mexico's president, what leverage do they have?

MEYER: I think they have a lot of challenges. I mean, Secretary Videgaray from Mexico made it very clear that this issue is going to be a priority in the conversations. It wasn't part of the agenda as of two days ago, but really trying to talk to the Mexican government about their plans on migration. I think Mexico is rightly being firm in saying we will receive Mexican migrants from the United States, it's our responsibility. They have done a lot to try to improve that process.

But they're pushing back on the part that would say, but we're also not -- we don't want Central Americans or other migrants who are waiting for their final resolution in the United States to be on the Mexican side of our border. It's not our responsibility. It actually creates a lot of security risks and would certainly tax the Mexican government and social services at the border.

HARLOW: You know, the White House is really pushing back, Maureen, against this narrative that there is even tension between Mexico and the United States. Despite the fact that the Mexican president cancelled his trip to meet with the president and despite the controversial tense phone calls between the two. Here is how the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer put it just yesterday.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: But I think they -- relationship with Mexico is phenomenal right now. And I think there is an unbelievable and robust dialogue between our two nations.


HARLOW: Is phenomenal how you see it?

MEYER: Certainly not. I think, we wouldn't view it phenomenal, the Mexican government wouldn't, and the Mexican population who really feel humiliated by the Trump administration, during the campaign, the anti-Mexican rhetoric, the rhetoric about the wall, but now of the criticism from the president himself about Mexico, about their efforts to address security.

And I think the feeling from Mexico of the United States isn't recognizing their contributions to the United States, both the cultural ties, the economic importance of having a strong relationship with Mexico, and how they cooperate on areas between counterterrorism, combatting drugs entering the United States and even on issues on migration.

HARLOW: So, what's interesting is internally, the politics that are at play here in Mexico, because you've had these really big boycott demonstrations in Mexico, these anti-Trump demonstrations. At the same time, as President Pena is facing another election and the liberal candidate right now there is polling higher than him. What kind of political pressure is he under to really stand up for Mexico and the Mexican people against the desires of the U.S. government?

MEYER: I think tremendous pressure. The Mexican government clearly wants to have a good relationship with the United States. There has been two decades of building unprecedented level of cooperation on the economy, on security, on several issues. But I think in the end, President Pena is right. He can only go so far. You do have public opinion in Mexico saying, we do not, we should not. And I think the government is also saying this, cave to whatever the United States wants. We want to be good neighbors but you cannot just push us around and order us to do things.

HARLOW: Yes. All right, we'll wait for the headlines out of this big meeting today between Secretary of State and secretary of Homeland Security and the Mexican president. Maureen Meyer, nice to have you on, thank you.

[10:25:04] MEYER: Thank you.

HARLOW: Still to come for us, an entire continent left shrugging its shoulders. What message are they supposed to take, this after the vice president says one thing. The president's chief strategist says something entirely different. That's ahead for us.

Also, thousands of conservatives converging at their annual CPAC conference, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus set to be on the stage today. We'll see them both live here on CNN at 1:00 p.m. We'll be right back.


[10:29:44] HARLOW: Good morning, everyone, I'm Poppy Harlow. John Berman is off. So glad you're with us. The seeming disconnect at the highest levels of the Trump administration, two very different messages to the European Union. Sources telling CNN that before Vice President Pence pledged steadfast commitment to NATO and the EU as a whole, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon said something that is diametrically opposed to that on a call with the key European ambassador. How the U.S. would be dealing with the EU? Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott joins me now.