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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Trump Honors MLK Jr. Amid Vulgar Remark Controversy. Aired 4- 4:30p ET

Aired January 12, 2018 - 16:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[16:00:01]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Good afternoon, and welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We are learning more today about the president's crude and arguably racist remarks in the Oval Office in which, in the context of immigration, Mr. Trump expressed a desire for fewer people from majority black and brown countries to come to the United States.

A source familiar with the remarks tells me that the conversation with the president, Trump administration officials and a bipartisan group of members of Congress turned at one point to those immigrants here in the United States who have what's called temporary protected status, specifically Salvadorans, Hondurans and Haitians.

The president said, according to my source: "Haitians? Why do we need more Haitians? Take them out" -- meaning take them out of the immigration deal being negotiated.

Now, that is not quite how the president sounded when he was trying to get the votes of Haitian Americans in the key background state of Florida back in October of 2016.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I will tell you what, I just -- I told you, I just left Little Haiti. The love is unbelievable. It's unbelievable. There is no racists. There is no nothing. It's love.

They want solutions. They want better lives, not more petty attacks from failed and totally discredited politicians like crooked Hillary Clinton.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: And in the department of bad timing today, in fact, this very hour is the eighth anniversary of the devastating Haitian earthquake that killed at least 220,000 people and prompted the United States to welcome almost 59,000 Haitians under temporary protected status. Now, at another point in the conversation, my source tells me -- and

parents might want to hit the mute button for the next few minutes -- the topic turned to the diversity lottery program and people coming from Africa.

And that's when President Trump asked, as first reported in "The Washington Post": "Why are we having all of these people from shithole countries come here?" -- unquote.

The president then suggested the United States would be better with immigrants from places such as Norway, instead of Africa.

A White House official tells CNN that the president took a victory lap last night, calling friends and allies to get their opinion on the breaking news.

Well, you know who loved the news? Racists. Racists such as David Duke, tweeting: "Trump spoke blunt, hard truth."

And racists such as Richard Spencer, saying of Haiti -- quote -- "The problem is it's filled with shithole people. If the French dominated, they could break it great again. # MakeHaitiGreatAgain."

The neo-Nazi Daily Stormer Web site said -- quote -- "This is encouraging and refreshing, as it indicates Trump is more or less on the same page as us with regards to race and immigration. The real issue is all of these shitty brown people who come to the country exclusively to parasite off of us" -- unquote and disgusting.

This morning, however, the president tweeted -- quote -- "The language used by me at the DACA immigration meeting was tough, but this was not the language used."

The president's ambiguity there seems a bit deliberate, since some of the original reporting conflated what he said about the 54 nations of Africa and what he said about Haiti.

So, to be clear, he objected to Haitians coming to the U.S., but it was African countries that he specifically called shitholes. The president also tweeted in part -- quote -- "Never said anything derogatory about Haitians," which is technically true, I suppose. He just expressed the opinion that the United States doesn't need more of them.

He's being a bit cute there with his non-denial denials. But Senator Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, who was in the room, he did not mince words today about what he heard in the Oval Office.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: In the course of his comments, he said things which were hate-filled, vile and racist.

I use those words advisedly. I understand how powerful they are, but I cannot believe that in the history of the White House and that Oval Office, any president has ever spoken the words that I personally heard our president speak yesterday.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Senator Durbin might want to read up a bit more on previous presidents, but be that as it may.

Republican Senator Jeff Flake today, who was told of the remarks by Durbin and a Republican senator in the room, he told me -- quote -- "The words used by the president as related to me directly following the meeting by those in attendance were not tough. They were abhorrent and repulsive. There is no good explanation" -- unquote.

Now, one explanation offered by President Trump and his defenders is that he wants to go to a merit-based system of immigration and not admit immigrants based on the country that they're from.

But that's not what the president was arguing. And one might note that being born in Norway is not a particular achievement of any sort. In fact, according to the U.S. Census, more than 60 percent of people with Nigerian ancestry age 25 and older have a bachelor's degree or higher. And that's more than twice the U.S. rate of 28.5 percent.

So, the question, why the objection by the president to people from majority black countries coming to the United States?

Well, this doesn't happen in a vacuum. It's of a piece. He's a real estate developer who was sued by the Justice Department during the Nixon administration for not admitting black tenants.

[16:05:02]

He led a political campaign claiming falsely that the first African- American president was born in Africa. He has described Mexicans as "rapists and drug dealers, and I suppose some of them are good people."

And he said a judge of Hispanic heritage born in Indiana couldn't do his job properly because -- quote -- "He's a Mexican."

And on and on and on.

Now, the president's favorite network has been offering a vociferous defense of the president's crass remarks.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is how the forgotten men and women in America talk at the bar. is how Trump relates to people.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: "This is how the forgotten men and women of America talk at the bar."

Well, there is a word for people who go to bars and denigrate black people, but the word is not forgotten. CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny joins me now live

from West Palm Beach, where the president is set to land this evening.

Jeff, what are you learning about how people in the White House are responding behind the scenes?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jake, we know that as this news was breaking yesterday, the president, perhaps ironically, was taping a message on Martin Luther King Day, for Martin Luther King Day, to be released on Monday.

And indeed he was again delivering a message about Martin Luther King when he was asked about this earlier today. Let's take a look at what he was asked and what he didn't answer at the White House.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

QUESTION: Mr. President, will you give an apology for the statements yesterday?

QUESTION: Mr. President, did you refer to African nations as shithole countries?

QUESTION: Mr. President, are you a racist?

Mr. President, will you respond to these serious questions about the statements, sir?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZELENY: So, the president clearly not answering questions there, Jake, but we are told by talking to several advisers and officials that the president actually, at least initially, thought this was playing very well. He was talking to friends of his last evening, earlier this morning, and he thinks it plays just fine with his base from a political point of view, if you will, but, Jake, so many inconsistencies.

The White House last evening, we checked with multiple people, did not deny that he said those comments. It wasn't until this morning, some 12 hours after the fact, that the president said, look, I didn't say that. But the preponderance of the evidence certainly suggests that he did.

Republicans are coming out, you know, saying that it's not the type of language they want to hear. Jake, his base of core supports him essentially through anything. This is not new information. Talking about politics here for a second, the independents who will vote in the midterm elections this year, it is giving more pause to Republicans who are trying to control the House and Senate.

But setting politics aside, just matters of decency here, the president not answering that, Jake, I suspect he will be asked these questions again until he finally answers them -- Jake.

TAPPER: Jeff Zeleny with the president, thank you so much. My panel is here with me.

So let me start with you, Perry. As Jeff Zeleny just reported, a source about this controversy says the president loves it. How could he possibly love this?

PERRY BACON, FIVETHIRTYEIGHT: I don't think he can.

If you work at the Trump White House, you have been through birtherism, you have been through Charlottesville, I assume you have to say this is good for the base, this is a good strategy. They often say this.

It seems like Donald Trump just says things that are outlandish and afterward his staff defends him. And one thing about this base, Trump won about 46 percent of the vote in 2016. His approval rating is about 39 percent right now.

This idea that his base is sort of with him all the time, it's probably like 30 percent, 35 percent, but he's actually declining in popularity. And you saw the exit polls in Alabama -- Alabama -- showed a high amount of people don't approve of him in Alabama.

I think it goes to the notion that his base is not stable and he's losing support among more moderate Republicans.

TAPPER: What's been your reaction, Symone, to some of the defenses we have heard for the president on FOX and other places where people say these countries are shitholes, people flee them to come here?

I'm not defending it. I'm just asking you.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. Right. No, I understand.

TAPPER: What is your response when you hear that?

SANDERS: I mean, those people, in my opinion, are ignorant of history.

So, one, those people have also probably never stepped foot on the continent of Africa, because I was in -- I was on the continent earlier this summer and I will be back next year. And it's a very wonderful place and I encourage some of these folks that think it's a -- quote, unquote -- "shithole" to go.

But specifically when the president offered his defense of why he -- of Haiti today and said, well, it is a poor place, you had multiple people came out and suggest that.

And I just want to remind folks that Haiti may be a cash-poor, gold- poor country because of its history. Before it was established, it was a French colony that was established during the slave trade, the Spanish slave trade. And when the Haitian people revolted, they got their country, they were punished by the Europeans and the Americans.

TAPPER: Yes.

SANDERS: And the only way that they could regain economic prowess, if you will, is to pay 150 million gold frank ransom to the French.

And how did they get that money? They had to ask some of the United States banks for the money. And you know what? The banks in 1914, I think it was, President Wilson sent in the Marines to pillage the gold reserves in Haiti for the money.

[16:10:07]

So you know what? If it's a shithole, we had something to do with it.

TAPPER: We did.

President Wilson, by the way, also quite racist.

Amanda, I want to ask you. A lot of Republicans have been pretty quiet about this. But we did hear from Speaker Paul Ryan, and here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: I read those comments later last night.

So first thing that came to my mind was very unfortunate. Unhelpful. I see this as a thing to celebrate. And I think it's a big part of our strength. Whether you're coming from Haiti -- we have got great friends from Africa in Janesville who are doctors who are just incredible citizens. And I just think it's important that we celebrate that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So he thought the comments were unfortunate and unhelpful.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He's pushing back. I mean...

TAPPER: That's pushing back?

CARPENTER: That's not aggressive enough, but, I mean, listen, I -- Republicans have got to feel like the person that follows a horse in a parade every day that Trump opens his mouth. I don't use four-letter words on TV, OK?

TAPPER: That's OK. You don't have to.

CARPENTER: So, you know what I meant.

TAPPER: Yes.

CARPENTER: It's exhausting.

And the only answer for the Republican Party is to be willing to primary this fool. That is the only answer. Until people get fed up enough to start threatening Trump and saying, if you continue this, we will support a presidential primary, that is the only way out of this, because, honestly, I don't see a strong Democratic alternative that's going to take him out in 2020.

This is a Republican Party problem. And we can't get our house in order. Instead of having the guts to say I would support a presidential primary in 2020, a lot of people are heading for the hills. They're retiring. They're saying we will pursue some kind of other office.

Apparently, they don't think the party is worth saving. I don't agree. But that's what where we're at.

SANDERS: But, look, I don't think we have to like -- the Republicans could push back in other ways.

They are a co-equal branch of government. You don't got to say you're going to primary the president of your party first, but how about at least standing up and say, not only is this unfortunate and unhelpful, but it's also racist, not who we are, and, Mr. President, you cannot continue to make...

CARPENTER: Yes. How many times can we keep saying this? Paul Ryan said it during the primary and it didn't stop anything.

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: I know people would like for Republicans not to vote for any bills to protest Trump. That's not going to happen. I would support the bills down there because I'm a Republican.

It's his character that is the problem. And I would gladly substitute any other Republican in Congress probably right now for President Trump, so we can get a dignified office once again.

SANDERS: I wouldn't. They don't got spines or cojones.

(CROSSTALK)

CARPENTER: Hey, you're talking to a girl that takes on her party all the time. I did it when I worked for Jim DeMint. I did it, worked for Ted Cruz.

If anyone is willing to do it, call me.

(CROSSTALK)

SANDERS: Press secretary Amanda Carpenter.

(LAUGHTER)

TAPPER: One of the issues is, so, there were three Republican senators, Perdue, and Cotton and Graham, who were there, none of whom have denied that this happened, but Perdue and Cotton issued a statement saying they do not recall the president making those statements.

Lindsey Graham, Republican senator of South Carolina, who Tim Scott, the only African-American Republican in the Senate, says told him that the comments were basically as reported were true, but he hasn't said it publicly, Graham wrote -- quote -- "Following comments by the president, I said my piece directly to him yesterday. The president and all those attending the meeting know what I said and how I feel. I have always believed that America is an idea not defined by its people, but by its ideals."

So, let me ask you, it sounds like Lindsey Graham, beneath that statement, is offended and maybe even hurt that the president said this. Why not state what Symone just said?

BACON: Because Trump is really popular among Republicans. He's got an 80 percent approval rating, Amanda excepted apparently.

(CROSSTALK)

BACON: He's got an 80 percent approval rating among Republicans. So I do think that.

And one of the big questions I had was, after the tax cut bill, what would happen? The Republicans at that point could have said, OK, we got what we want out of Trump. Let's move on from supporting him all the time.

But I think the decision instead has been, the tax bill shows Trump can govern with us. We're going to work with him more.

And if you look at Paul Ryan's statements, Paul Ryan at some point in 2016 front line was very strong in criticizing Trump. And now he used two words and then sort of moved on.

TAPPER: Unfortunate and unhelpful.

BACON: And very quickly, and then moved on to say something -- he doesn't want to attack Trump, because I think that's where the party is now.

You and I have been covering politics a long time. "I don't recall" usually means, "Yes, I do recall, but I'm not saying so." And that's what I take those statements from Perdue and Cotton to mean.

TAPPER: And John Kelly, a source tells CNN that he is now basically a let Trump be Trump guy. He's not pushing back on this. He's not trying to stop it.

Does he need to be a let Trump be Trump guy?

CARPENTER: If you want to survive in the White House, apparently, that is a requirement.

It is a requirement, in order to work for Trump, you have to go along with his wild allegations, accusations and lies. Otherwise, you don't survive. The end. TAPPER: But what does that mean for the Republican Party?

SANDERS: I mean, I think that means, for all of those folks that thought that General Kelly would be the one to go in there and kind of hold Trump accountable and be able to pull him back when he was on the deep end, those folks are sorely mistaken.

[16:15:07] We tried to tell y'all. I never thought that General John Kelly was going to be the person able to hold Donald Trump accountable. And lo and behold, here we are.

TAPPER: All right. Stick around. We've got a lot more to talk about, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s nephew and his response to the question, is President Trump a racist?

Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today, we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

That was President Trump reading a prepared statement honoring Martin Luther King Jr. today. Quite a contrast from his off-the-cuff remarks reportedly made by the president in which he referred to Africa as keeping shithole countries while questioning while the U.S. admits so many of its immigrants and not more from places such as Norway.

[16:20:07] My panel is back with me.

So, Martin Luther King Jr.'s nephew Isaac Newton Farris Jr. was standing there next to the president. And spoke at the event today. He says the president said to him about his remarks that he's not the guy described by the media and he also said this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ISAAC NEWTON FARRIS, JR., NEPHEW OF MLK JR.; ATTENDED WHITE HOUSE EVENT TODAY: I don't think that President Trump is a racist in the traditional sense as we know in this country. I think President Trump is racially ignorant or racially uninformed. But I don't think that he's a racist in the traditional sense.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Symone?

SANDERS: Let me help you. Let me just help everyone. One, just because it's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s nephew means --

does not -- means nothing to me, frankly. In 2018, racists do not all wear white hoods and ride on horses and burn crosses. They wear khakis, they wear Brooks Brothers suits and live in the White House and work in the White House, and currently the president of the United States of America.

That nuance that you tried to hear, that racially -- we heard that from Omarosa post her White House exit tour. That's semantics and you can't get around it. The president of the United States absolutely has not only like sided with white supremacists but has said not just racially charged but racist things. And him standing today in the White House today speaking those very prepared remarks about Dr. King that he clearly does not believe was just disgusting and an affront to everyone in this country, but especially to the legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

TAPPER: I suppose, Amanda, if somebody's trying to understand the difference between racially ignorant and racially uninformed which is what Dr. King's nephew said of President Trump and racist. I suppose the difference would be whether or not you have malice towards people of different races as opposed to you're just racist of people of different races.

But when you look at the context of the actions and the things and that have been said, it's not him saying ignorant things necessarily that probably every white person in history has said at one point or another. These are things that are of malice, we don't want Haitians coming into the country, we don't want Africans coming into the country. Sued by the Justice Department during the Nixon and Ford years for not letting blacks rent apartments in his buildings, et cetera.

CARPENTER: So you're saying Donald Trump has a pattern?

TAPPER: Yes.

CARPENTER: Yes.

Here's the thing that is kind of mind-boggling to me as a conservative, before Donald Trump became president we would kind of, you know, it seemed like every time you expect opposition to President Obama you would be called a racist. Like I had that experience of opposing Obamacare and amnesty and saying, you have racist tendencies. And having to always explain, no, we don't, it's based on the policy.

Here we go, this is why we want to move to a merit-based immigration system because what's best for America is best for the word, yada, yada, yada. Now, Donald Trump comes in and essentially spews racist stuff all the time to justified policies that I do believe in.

And it's just so sad to me because this question of -- are you a racist? You're acting racist, was always hurled against conservatives. And now, we're to a place where it is a legitimate question for the president, for a Republican president. And so that is really hard to reconcile. TAPPER: That's got to be tough for conservatives and Republicans.

BACON: I'm not sure if I buy this idea that Trump doesn't understand racial issues. It seems like he ran a campaign if you were trying to animate a certain aggrieved white person who doesn't feel like there is, too much diversity actually saying Trump ran a very sophisticated campaign. There is a lot of evidence that he won the primary over the Rubios and the Jeb Bushes because he understood how a lot of Americans in the Republican Party viewed racial issues better than other Republicans did.

TAPPER: Especially immigration.

BACON: Especially immigration. So, I'm not sure he's clueless at all. Barack Obama was very informed on racial issues in a variety of ways. But I'm not sure Trump is clueless, as opposed to he has views that people don't like and he's not interested in changing his views.

TAPPER: Maybe Dr. King's nephew was trying to be charitable because he was on the North Lawn of the White House and just been invited to an event.

One source tells CNN, Symone, that what's going on here is that President Trump just likes to live on the edge and take it as far as he can and prove he won't fall off the cliff.

SANDERS: Oh my goodness. This is just so dangerous. This is not normal. I just want folks to understand this is absolutely not normal.

And this is going to cost Donald Trump. Look, we are in -- midterms are coming up and this is going to cost Republicans, because every single Republican across this country that's running, if I'm a Democratic operative talking to these opposition campaigns to the Republicans, I'm telling them, you have to get them on the record, are they going to hold the president accountable? Are they going along to get along with what he says about people of country, especially in the tough districts, districts that Hillary Clinton won that Republican members of Congress currently hold.

So, this has real implications for the Republican Party this year.

TAPPER: Don't go anywhere. The president just finished his first physical as commander in chief. Is he the healthiest president ever, such as his doctor once said?

[16:25:01] You remember that guy.

Stick with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

You're looking at live pictures of President Trump at Joint Base Andrews. He's just finished with his physical and he's headed to Mar- a-Lago for the weekend. It's a good time as he finishes up his physical for us to talk about our health lead today.

The man whose personal physician once killed called him the healthiest man to ever become president is getting a second opinion. Moments ago, President Trump left Walter Reed Army Hospital after his annual physical and now we'll see if his affinity for McDonald's cheeseburgers and his disdain from exercise will merit the same level from army doctors as we normal Americans might get if we behaved that way.

CNN chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, joins me now.

And, Sanjay, I don't want to be rude about it, but the president doesn't look healthy and what we know about his diet and exercise habits, he doesn't lead a particularly healthy lifestyle. What are we expecting to learn about his health?