Return to Transcripts main page


President Trump Claims Obama Administration Wiretapped Trump Tower during Presidential Campaign; Trump Supporters Hold Rallies Across U.S.; Department of Homeland Security Considering Proposal to Separate Children from Adults Crossing into U.S. Illegally. Aired 2- 2:30p ET

Aired March 4, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: -- who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When Pilate asks Jesus, "What is truth?" we have a great example of dramatic irony. Truth should be exactly the thing that he understands.


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: All right, "Finding Jesus" airs tomorrow night, 9:00 eastern time right here on CNN.

The next hour of the "CNN Newsroom" starts right now.

Hello, again, everyone. Thanks so much for being with me. I'm Fredricka Whitfield.

All right, just in to CNN, Senior Trump administration officials say they learned of a tweet storm about former President Obama after President Trump sent those tweets. The president launched a series of wild accusations this morning without consulting any of his aides, tweeting this, quote, "How low has President Obama gone to tap my phones during the very sacred election process? This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad or sick guy." And President Trump offered zero evidence to substantiate those claims.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny has spoken to an administration official and he joins me now on the phone with more on this. Jeff, what are you learning?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, this tweet storm from President Trump really did take administration officials back in Washington at the White House by surprise. This has been a tense week in the last, I would say three or four days inside the White House ever since these revelations about Russia and the meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to light.

But these tweets this morning really surprised senior administration officials. And the officials believe that the president was not trying to get ahead of any particular story but simply he is furious about how the whole Russia investigation and discussion is playing out. And this official said there has been a story from Breitbart news that has been circulating throughout the West Wing and among the president's advisors talking specifically about this issue, about wiretapping, about other things.

So as we have seen over the last several weeks and months, Mr. Trump often tweets when he sees something in the news. And Fredricka, it appears this was an example of that potentially talking about this and tweeting about this after seeing that Breitbart news story.

WHITFIELD: And so did this official express concern about learning of this tweet rant by the president after the fact?

ZELENY: Fredricka, this is something that is not new. Of course, Mr. Trump has been tweeting throughout the course of this campaign and his presidency, so this is something that officials have just gotten accustomed to.

WHITFIELD: But on wiretapping, accusations of wiretapping though? Now we're talking about an extremely serious matter.

ZELENY: Of course, but this is similar to the veins of his allegations of voter fraud, something that is simply not backed up by any facts, but now he is talking about this.

But the reality here is the administration has a lot of actual work on their plate. They're still working on crafting a second travel ban, the executive order, which they're expecting next week. They're still working on crafting legislation to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, et cetera.

Now, this is something that they will also have to contend with. I can tell you, Fredricka, on Monday, when there is a press briefing, the press secretary will be asked specifically for what evidence that there is for the president to support this. So this is something that the president appears to be tweeting and the staff will have to respond to after the fact as opposed to the other way around in tweeting actual facts.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jeff Zeleny, thank you so much. Appreciate that.

So now a spokesman for former president Barack Obama is calling those accusations, quote, "simply false." Let's go now to CNN's Athena Jones live from West Palm Beach. So Athena Jones, what more is the former president saying about these very serious accusations that, again, were made without Donald Trump revealing evidence?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right. Hi, Fred, without revealing evidence or any proof of any sort. This is a statement from the president, the former president's spokesperson, Kevin Lewis, and it reads "A cardinal rule of the Obama administration was that no White House official ever interfered with any independent investigation led by the Department of Justice. As part of that practice, neither President Obama nor any White House official ever ordered surveillance on any U.S. citizen. Any suggestion otherwise is simply false." So a very strong categorical denial from President Obama that he was

in any way involved, and other officials, former Obama administration officials have made this point, that the president himself does not order wiretaps.

[14:05:00] Now, we are still awaiting official comment from the White House. You heard from my colleague, Jeff Zeleny, who did speak with an administration official was able to shed some light on where the president may have gotten this idea that somehow the president, the former president was involved in wiretapping.

We can tell you that he has returned to Mar-a-Lago. He has spent several hours at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach where he played at least a few holes of golf. The pool upon arriving there, we were told he was going to have some meetings and make some phone calls and he may hit a few balls. We did get some video of him out on the golf course. Now he's back to Mar-a-Lago but we are still waiting for any sort of proof or evidence to back up these explosive allegations. Fred?

WHITFIELD: Athena Jones, thank you so much, appreciate that.

So we are hearing from other senior former officials under the Obama administration who are also denying the phone wiretapping claims. One saying, quote, "This did not happen. It is false, wrong." Another telling CNN this is, quote, "Just nonsense." Obama's foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes slamming Trump on Twitter, writing "No president can order a wiretap. Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you," end quote. And former senior advisor to President Obama, David Axelrod, tweeting this -- "This seems nuts. Frantic way in which @realDonaldTrump is kicking up dust only adds to suspicions and the need for full public reckoning," end quote.

Let's discuss more of this now with Julian Zelizer, a historian and professor at Princeton University. So this is pretty serious because you're talking about a sitting president making accusations about his predecessor without any kind of evidence. Has there been any kind of reference to this kind of history that you can recall?

JULIAN ZELIZER, HISTORIAN AND PROFESSOR, PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: No, not recently. It's hard to think of one sitting president making an accusation about either the former president or someone who was in office many decades earlier without anything to substantiate claims for an allegation of this sort.

From what we know, this is based on news reports in Breitbart news, from some radio show hosts, and that's it. So this is not something that's normal. This is not something that we see all the time, and this is part of an unprecedented and unusual presidency.

WHITFIELD: And now that our own Jeff Zeleny talked to an administration official with the Trump campaign, saying that person was even blindsided, many who were back here in Washington with the Trump camp blindsided, not knowing that the president would tweet out things like this, how messy, how bad does this look probably, for the White House? ZELIZER: It's messy especially in the context of what some might call

Russia-gate, this ongoing investigation into the connections between Trump advisors and Russia. So this comes in that context. And it also comes in the context of many people wondering just how controlled this president is. And so now you're hearing some divisions within the White House, within his inner circles, and these statements seem to suggest that some national security officials working for the president are not comfortable with the kind of allegations that he just made. So this is difficult moment for this presidency.

WHITFIELD: The word "reckless" has been used as it pertains to this president perhaps getting his information from news reports. We're talking about at least two instances now that he may have been inspired by news reports, whether it's this wiretapping, perhaps inspired by conservative media outlets, and then even just a couple of weeks ago with Sweden, him possibly being inspired by something he saw on FOX News and now not being able to back this material up with evidence.

It is a pattern, but is your feeling that this in any way can be stopped, ended before this White House really kind of implodes?

ZELIZER: Well, it can stop, but he's his only firewall. And this isn't "The Apprentice" anymore, meaning he is now the president of the United States. And so these kind of claims, whether you're talking about a story about some terrorist attack that seemed to have happened according to his rhetoric in Sweden, which didn't happen, or the outcome of election or this, his words really matter. Not only are they paid attention to, but his followers and even people who don't support him listen, and they believe some of what comes from his mouth.

[14:10:00] So I think it is reckless and I do think there is a danger in a president doing this. Ultimately, he has to control himself. All the advisors in the world can't stop a president from doing the wrong thing. That's one thing we learned from history. So it's really a question of where he goes in the next few weeks, not what Steven Bannon does, not what Jared Kushner does, but it's actually what President Trump decides to do when he wakes up in the morning.

WHITFIELD: All right, Julian Zelizer, always good to see you. Thank you so much, appreciate it.

ZELIZER: Thank you, thank you.

WHITFIELD: Still ahead, from New York to Washington, D.C. and south to Nashville, Tennessee, pro-Trump supporters are gathering around the country today. A live report from New York City next.


WHITFIELD: All right, welcome back. A lot of pictures right now of a rally in support of Donald Trump. That's Austin, Texas. Supporters have also been gathering outside of the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. as well as Nashville, Tennessee, and New York. Right across the country, many pro Trump rallies. Two national groups are actually organizing the coast to coast events. CNN's Sara Ganim is live for us in New York where a rally is still taking place there. So Sara, what is happening there? What are people saying?

SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey there, Fred. Yes, you've got a couple hundred people out here in front of Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. You're right, these protests happening -- I'm sorry, rallies we should call them, rallies in support of the president, Donald Trump, happening across the country.

[14:15:03] You mentioned the one in Nashville. They're also happening in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Most of them organized on Facebook. This Facebook group Mainstream Patriots organize the Spirit of America Rallies, sort of protesting the protests, the anti-Trump protests that have happened across the country since President Donald Trump took office. They talked to some of the people who were here in New York City at these rallies to hear why they wanted to come out. Take a listen to what they told me.


KERRI CAPASSO, TRUMP SUPPORTER: I feel like there's been a lot of anti-Trump, untrue statements made about him, and I'm here to show that the silent majority does support Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I voted for him and support him. He's doing exactly what he asked him to do, and that's exactly why he's the greatest president.

GANIM: Have you been happy so far?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm completely happy. For everything he's doing right now is every reason I voted for him.


GANIM: Now, a lot of those people who I talked to said they've never come out to a protest before but have felt compelled in the last couple of weeks to show support for the president who they say they voted for. In addition, across the street earlier today, there was an anti-Trump protest. It was education themed, and the NYPD expecting that that may ramp up again this afternoon. But for a time, these two protests facing each other, exchanging chants. Nothing at all got out of hand, but you could see the dueling protests across the street. And like I said, they may continue into the afternoon here in New York City, Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right, a very windy Manhattan today. Sara Ganim, thank you so much. Appreciate that.

GANIM: It is.

WHITFIELD: All right, and new details in the fight to strengthen the border. The Department of Homeland Security now considering a proposal that would separate children from adults crossing into the U.S. illegally. That's next.


[14:20:57] WHITFIELD: The Department of Homeland Security is considering a proposal that would separate children from adults when they illegally cross over the southern U.S. border. The agency released a statement saying, quote, "The journey north is a dangerous one with too many situations where children brought by parents, relatives, or smugglers are often exploited, abused, or may even lose their lives. With safety in mind, the Department of Homeland Security continually explores options that may secure those from even beginning the journey," end quote.

So let's talk with immigration analyst Raul Reyes. He is also a CNN opinion writer and an attorney. Good to see you.


WHITFIELD: So one part of this plan that remains unclear is how agents will determine these units or groups of people, whether they are families, whether they're smugglers, et cetera. Is this a realistic plan given those uncertainties in your view?

REYES: Well, based on what we know about it, so far it seems like there's so many potential legal and practical problems with this proposal. First of all, on legal grounds, remember, most of these women and children are people who are applying for asylum. And typically people apply for asylum together, and the reason for that is they can corroborate each other's stories. They can serve as witnesses for each other. If you're separating, if you're breaking them up, that makes it harder for the individual claims to be successful, and that could lead to a potential legal challenge based on due process grounds of the 14th Amendment.

And also, looking at it from a legal perspective, this idea of breaking apart women and children, it goes against existing U.S. family law, existing international law, even against the U.N. High Commission on Refugees which we led the way in creating which says that family unity should be of paramount importance. So no matter where this goes, I'm pretty sure one thing, there will be myriad legal challenges.

WHITFIELD: So we understand the Obama administration actually considered this same or a very similar idea, but a former DOJ official said this, I'm quoting now, "It was never implemented because the idea was that it was too detrimental to the safety of the children to separate them from their parents, and the thinking was that it was always preferable to detain the family as a unit or release the family as a unit." So what are your thoughts on that?

REYES: Right. Well, that's a good reminder that, to be honest, this is an issue that the Obama administration struggled with too. And I want to clarify something for the viewers just to be certain about something. These are not the people who we typically think of when we think about undocumented immigrants. These are not from Mexico. They're not coming here to work.

This group of people that is affected by this proposal, these are people coming from Central America, from countries that are among the world's most dangerous nations. They are literally fleeing for their lives.

Now, given that, the reason the Obama administration struggled with this and now we see that the Trump administration as well is basically with that type of reality back home, people will literally risk anything to get back here. And the fact is this is a harsh reality for whoever is running DHS. There has so far been no empirical evidence that shows that this deterrent strategy works, that it is effective in getting people not to undertake this journey.

But what we do know is that it could potentially increase the cost for detention, lead to increases in terms of having the number of beds available for detainees leading to different increases or surrounding legal challenges. So for everyone to say on the conservative side who maybe favors small government, this is potentially creating a whole new bureaucracy where now we're going to be having to process women and children at a whole new level and potentially at a much longer length of time.

And aside from that, this is a very difficult situation to deal with, because, as I said, both administrations have struggled with it. But the idea, I think you don't have to be a legal analyst. You don't have to be an immigration expert just to understand that the idea of separating women and children at a very perilous moment in their lives after they have endured some potentially traumatic experiences, I think that strikes many people as a lack of empathy, lack of sympathy, really borderline inhumane.

[14:25:05] WHITFIELD: All right, Raul Reyes, we'll keep it right there. Thank you so much of course.

REYES: Thank you, Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: Check out "Your right" and for the latest on all that you have to say on this matter. Thanks so much, Raul.

All right, that's going to do it for me. Thanks so much for being with us this Saturday. Much more of the newsroom at the top of the hour, but right now, "Vital Signs" begins after a quick break. I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Have a great day.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Imagine receiving a diagnosis and then learning there's not much you can do to fight your disease. That's a reality for so many people around the world. But as technology catches up and we learn more about our own biology, the concept of reversing disease may now become a reality.

[14:30:01] This is "Vital Signs." I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.