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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Hawaii False Alarm Fallout; Trump's Racial Firestorm; Hawaiians Sent Scrambling After Mistake Missile Alert; U.S. Military Preparing For All Scenarios With North Korea. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired January 15, 2018 - 4:00   ET

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


[16:00:10]

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: From "I have a dream" to "I'm not a racist."

THE LEAD starts right now.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the president pushes back after his vulgar remarks about Africans coming to America threatened to paralyze talks to keep the government running.

And the state that cried nuke. Changes now being made after a false alarm about incoming ballistic missile creates a panic in paradise.

Plus, getting ready to respond to the real thing. U.S. troops facing real fire as the military prepares for the worst-case scenario, all- out nuclear war with North Korea.

Welcome to THE LEAD on this day honoring Martin Luther King Jr. I'm John Berman, in for Jake Tapper.

And let this day go down in history as the moment when two U.S. senators chose to stake their reputations on the difference between a blank-hole and a blank-house.

I will say the real words in a second. I'm just building up to it.

As the president visited one of his golf courses for the 95th time today, the White House continues to deal with the blank-storm created by comments he made in the Oval Office. The president insists, "I'm not a racist" and told reporters, he is the least racist person they have ever interviewed.

And two Republican senators joined the president in denying that he called African nations blank-holes in an Oval Office meeting when he said he would rather have people from Norway and Asia.

Now we have learned the reason why they are denying it. And this is where I'm going to say the actual words, so earmuffs for the kids.

A senior Republican source tells CNN that during last week's Oval Office meeting, some Republicans actually heard the president say shithouse instead of shithole. Get that? House instead of hole. And that's why Senators Tom cotton and David Perdue went on TV and denied pretty much the whole thing, house instead of hole. So, ask yourself, though, does that really change the meaning? Is

saying, I would rather have folks from Norway and Asia than shithouse African nations somehow better than saying I would rather have folks from Norway and Asia rather than shithole African nations?

Is that how the president explains that he is the least racist person ever? Because racist people always say hole when denigrating entire continents.

(LAUGHTER)

BERMAN: Non-racists say house.

As Shakespeare might say, what is in a name? That, which we call a hole by any other name would smell like blank.

Moments ago, President Trump denied making the comments again, this time on Twitter. This is what he wrote. "Senator Dicky Durbin totally misrepresented what was said in the DACA meeting. Deals can't get made when there is no trust. Durbin blew DACA and is hurting our military."

CNN's Jeff Zeleny joins me now live from the White house.

Jeff, of course, there's one more thing. The president is now denying making the comment. But originally he was telling friends that using the word would help him politically. He was calling people on the phone that night.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: He was indeed, John.

And there is still a dispute over what specific word may have been used in the Oval Office last week, but there is no mistaking the underlying sentiment. It was a derogatory sentiment. And what that means is this. It seems to have blown up any hopes of a bipartisan deal on immigration that was intended to help keep the government open past its Friday deadline.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No. No, I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed. That, I can tell you.

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump insisting again he's not racist as a firestorm still rages over his vulgar comments on immigration.

As the nation remembers Martin Luther King Jr. today, the president denies describing African countries as shitholes during a heated Oval Office meeting last weekend. But the furor is threatening a bipartisan agreement to shield young immigrants from deportation.

TRUMP: Oh, we're ready, willing and able to make a deal on DACA, but I don't think the Democrats want to make a deal. And the folks from DACA should know the Democrats are the ones that aren't going to make a deal.

ZELENY: But it is the president's own words that have also complicated finding a fix for DACA, deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, young immigrants known as dreamers.

With the government shutdown looming in just four days, Democrats were pushing for a deal to protect dreamers as part of the broader spending plan, but that potential compromise is now overshadowed by a fight over the president's language about immigrants.

Two Republican senators and a Cabinet secretary who attended that Oval Office meeting said the president didn't refer to African countries with the specific vulgarity that Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said he did.

SEN. DAVID PERDUE (R), GEORGIA: I'm telling you he did not use that word.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: I didn't hear it. And I was sitting no further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't recall him saying that exact phrase.

ZELENY: Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who was also in the meeting and did not dispute the inflammatory remark, called on both sides to elevate the discourse.

[16:05:00]

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It is going to take you, Mr. President, working with Republicans and Democrats, to get this done. It's not going to be done on Twitter, by tweeting. It is going to be done by talking and understanding.

ZELENY: The president's insistence over the weekend that he wasn't a racist struck a familiar tone.

TRUMP: Racism. The least racist person.

I am the least racist person, the least racist person that you have ever seen.

I am the least racist person that you have ever met. Believe me.

ZELENY: Republican Congressman Charlie Dent said Trump's pattern on race was troubling.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: If it had not been for the fact that the president had previously made statements about Mexicans and Muslims and his failure to denounce David Duke in a timely manner and, of course, the Charlottesville situation, I think those previous incidents, I think, also are cause for concern that have made this situation even more alarming.

ZELENY: Mitt Romney also weighing in today as he prepares to rejoin the political debate through a likely Senate run in Utah. "The poverty of an aspiring immigrant's nation of origin is as irrelevant as their race. The sentiment attributed to POTUS is inconsistent with America's history and antithetical to American values."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: The president is flying back to Washington after a three-day holiday weekend in Florida.

John, what is at stake here is again that looming government shutdown on Friday. Will they get any type of immigration deal? Look for meetings to happen here at the White House.

One adviser told me he hopes they can move beyond last week's meeting and make progress. We will see if that happens this week, in week three of this new year -- John.

BERMAN: That's right. Tweeting about Dick Durbin on the eve of these meetings may not be the most constructive way of moving on. But we shall see.

Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks so much.

My panel is here to discuss all of this.

Basil Smikle, Democratic strategist, executive director of the New York State Democratic Party, I want to start with you here.

Jeff talked about it in his piece there. There is this discrepancy about what was actually said at the meeting, the actual word used. But does that change the gist of what the discussion was about? No one seems to be debating that.

BASIL SMIKLE, NEW YORK STATE DEMOCRATIC PARTY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR: Not at all. It doesn't change it at all.

As a person of color, I don't have the luxury to parse words here because I know the sentiment. The president during his private life, and his campaign, and as president of the United States, has made so many of these comments. You have to move from a point where he is just making racially tinged remarks to him being an outright racist.

And that's exactly what I would call him. So it is incumbent for Democrats to push everything they need to push for and to hold Republicans accountable, because if you agree with this man, then I have to say that you're a racist just like him. If you don't agree with him, but you're aligning yourself with him, I would just say, not only is that shameful, but we don't need you in Congress.

BERMAN: You're saying it is incumbent upon Republicans to do X?

Margaret, it's incumbent upon Republicans to do what? Because we saw what Senators Cotton and Perdue did. And if you believe the latest reporting from "The Washington Post" and now from CNN, they're staking all these denials on one word, right? MARGARET HOOVER, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Wouldn't it be lovely as

a Republican to hear, if there is some bit of a dispute about what specific word was used, to then have the next, not even sentence, the next clause of each of those senators' denials say, but that language is totally inappropriate for the White House, totally inappropriate for the president, and not presidential, and what we hope is we will develop an immigration system, even if you're a restrictionist on immigration?

Go on to make the policy points, that you want it to be merit-based, if you wanted -- whatever it is. OK? Be a responsible leader in the Senate. Make it about policy. Steer it away from the president's unpresidential behavior and try elevate it.

That's your responsibility as a Republican in the Senate elected to serve your constituents.

BERMAN: At the end of the day, it's not about swearing either. This isn't about cussing in the Oval Office. You can swear, but it is the sentiment that's described here.

JOHN AVLON, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: Yes.

This was a total degradation of the moral authority of the office that this president has seemed utterly uninterested in even trying to reach for.

But senators like Lindsey Graham are trying to do their jobs. First of all, they're calling it like they see them. Good to them. What Perdue and Cotton are doing is, honestly, dishonest.

Medically, they basically went from saying that they had no recollection to they knew for a fact. Congratulations. We have discovered a new cure for political amnesia.

But it is totally expedient. That's because Tom Cotton wants to be CIA director. And that's because Perdue has got his own interests. But Lindsey Graham is telling truth and has been unflinching, unwavering, and actually has credibility on the immigration issue.

The real tragedy is, there's still a shot at getting a broader deal done. And it is not going to be by the president calling these folks DACA people and blaming Dick Durbin. It's going to be both sides compromising and trying to elevate their game above the president.

BERMAN: Margaret, Lindsey Graham did talk today more about this and his quote was: "My memory hasn't evolved. I know what was said and I know what I said."

He is refusing to confirm the exactly words used, but he's also not denying it. Do you think he should he come out and say more? Is he going as far as he should, as maybe the only grownup in the room?

HOOVER: I know what Lindsey is doing.

[16:10:01] What we know Lindsey is doing is that -- by the way, Lindsey is a comprehensive immigration reform Republican who has survived primaries in South Carolina, OK?

This is a guy who cares about policy and is trying to get the ball down the field for the sake of all those DACA kids whose lives are waiting in the balance. And so he is choosing not to get into the words for the tit for tat about the president's heart says or what his words were.

He is trying to get the ball down the field, because he is trying to get real policy accomplished. You have to respect what he's doing. And I appreciate it and I understand it. And I don't begrudge him for not throwing in with the president in the mud fight.

I respect him. That's what Tom Cotton should be doing. That's what David Perdue should be doing. That's every elected should be doing. Don't bring your behavior down to the president's.

(CROSSTALK)

AVLON: But he has a way of corrupting everyone around him, unfortunately.

SMIKLE: And completely undermining everything that -- every policy.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: This is what Senator Durbin had to say about this whole episode. Listen to him.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: I don't know that changing the word from hole to house changes the impact which this has.

QUESTION: Could it have been either word then?

Durbin: No. I stick with my original interpretation. I am stunned that this is their defense.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BERMAN: And also I don't know, Basil, that continuing to discuss the language here actually pushes anything forward in terms of getting a deal done for the dreamers, which is what the real issue is.

Patti Solis Doyle sat here with me last week. She was Hillary Clinton's campaign manager for a time in 2008. But she said she wants a deal almost no matter what.

Patti wants to see -- she would take wall funding, even more I think than what was in this deal, to get some kind protections for dreamers, because there are people, Democrats, who think it is just that important.

SMIKLE: And I agree with that.

I don't care -- look, I don't agree with spending the money to build the wall, but if you're going to build a wall, fine, do that. But we cannot -- Democrats cannot go back to their constituents and say we cut the policy on dreamers short so that we could build a wall.

We cannot do that. We have to ask for everything we need and we have to fight for everything we need at whatever cost. Our constituents are going to hold us accountable for that.

AVLON: Yes.

And the opening seemed to be, the president has apparently discovered that you don't need a physical wall because geography makes it unnecessary in certain places.

So whatever the mode or revelation, however late, we will take it. If the focus is on border security, not border wall, that seemingly simple linguistic difference actually has a huge difference for the politics of getting this done and the actual funding of it.

But we have to get back to that place we were last week. And, no, house v. hole, a comparative study, is not going to demonstrate...

(CROSSTALK)

AVLON: What we need really to do and what the folks in Congress need to do is get serious on the politics of the policy.

(CROSSTALK)

BERMAN: All right, guys, thank you very much. Stick around. Lots more to talk about.

From putting kids in storm drains to hiding babies in closets, the false alarm that sent Hawaii into a panic raising new and serious questions about just how ready the U.S. is for a ballistic missile attack. Don't go anywhere.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:17:05] JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: We got live pictures right now of Air Force One in West Palm Beach, Florida. The president just boarded. He will be heading back to the White House very, very shortly.

This after spending the long weekend in Mar-a-Lago and golfing I believe each of the days he was down. The president heads back to Washington. He will arrive in the White House in a couple of hours. We will see if he speaks then. He did not speak while boarding the plane.

In the national lead, panic paradise after an incoming missile alert was mistakenly sent across TVs, radios and phones in Hawaii, sending folks scrambling. Now, the officer who accidentally pushed the wrong button is being reassigned. The false alarmed has raised critical new questions about exactly how prepared Hawaii and the U.S. government might be if a missile were actually on the way.

Let's get right to CNN government regulation correspondent Rene Marsh. Rene, the alarm may have sparked some action this time from the U.S. government after all.

RENE MARSH, CNN GOVERNMENT REGULATION CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. Action to get prepared.

Tonight, there are questions about how well-versed state, local and federal officials are in working together to get accurate information out to people in a panic, in the event of a nuclear missile attack.

In Hawaii, we saw that this false alarm essentially revealed that there is need for improvement.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH (voice-over): Running for cover, crowding hotel basements and hiding children wherever they could.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We put the baby in the bathroom. We didn't know what else to do.

MARSH: Reaction to Saturday's false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii was a sobering reality check. And not just for that state.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It exposes tremendous gaps in our preparedness and planning. And I think now, we have to begin to recognize that it is a possibility and begin to sort of reeducate ourselves about what to do in an instance of a nuclear detonation.

MARSH: In Washington, sources tell CNN, a domestic nuclear missile scenario has not been tested at the cabinet level under the Trump administration.

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: We did have what's called a deputies committee. So, that's the deputy secretaries of the department. Exercising in December, specific to this threat, and we'd already planned to have a principle cabinet level exercise if you will earlier next month.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii.

MARSH: At the state level, it took only a few minutes for officials to determine there was no Hawaii-bound ballistic missile. But it took nearly 40 minutes before a second public alert went out indicating a false alarm.

During the confusion, at Honolulu airport Saturday, a reporter from Australia's ABC News tweeted this antidote from a colleague. No one had any answers. There was no announcement over the airport or airline P.A.s at any time. One staff member said, our manager told us to pray.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a bomb, duck and cover. Paul and Patty know what to do.

MARSH: Government PSAs such as this were routine in the cold war.

[16:20:03] But nearly seven decades later, duck and cover seems to have been replaced with dread and confusion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: People can survive a nuclear detonation if they actually protect themselves from radiation. That means shelter, hiding, and that means not coming out for some period of time while the radiation passes.

MARSH: December marked the first test of Hawaii's siren warning system since the cold war era. Hawaii's emergency management agency says a cancellation button has now been created for false alarms. But the question is whether federal and state emergency officials would be ready if the launch were real.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: Well, John, if you were on social media, specifically Facebook, you may have learned that this was a false alarm about 13 minutes into all of this. As Hawaii's Emergency Management Agency posted a message there saying that there was no missile threat. But clearly, many people were not on Facebook. And so, the mechanism to get information out more broadly to panicked people in Hawaii, clearly flawed in this scenario -- John.

BERMAN: And, hopefully, though, as you say, these fixes will be made.

Rene Marsh, thank you so much.

So, what changes need to be put in place after what happened in Hawaii? We ask a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:34] BERMAN: All right. Back now with the word lead.

Despite the U.S. push for a diplomatic solution with North Korea, American forces are preparing for every contingency, including conducting mock missions that simulate all out war on the Korean Peninsula.

Let's get right to CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, the military is really not taking any chances at this point when it comes to readiness.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: They are not, John.

You know, when it comes to U.S. troops in Korea, the commanders like to say, their motto: ready to fight tonight. This time, these days, they are making sure of it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) STARR (voice-over): A nighttime paratroop jumped by the 82nd Airborne Division over the skies of Nevada, practicing dropping into enemy territory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Operation Panther Blade.

STARR: At Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, one of the largest ever live fire exercises. Both are part of the Pentagon ensuring troops are ready if there's a war against North Korea.

For now, President Trump suggesting it's not likely.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think we're going to have a long period of peace. I hope we do.

STARR: But Defense Secretary James Mattis has made clear for months that being ready to fight just in case is job number one for the Pentagon.

JAMES MATTIS, DEFENSE SECRETARY: This is the reality that faces our Department of Defense and our like-minded allies and we must have militaries fit for their purpose.

STARR: With the drawdown in Iraq and Syria, more troops at home can practice vital combat skills.

GEN. MARK MILLEY, U.S. ARMY CHIEF OF STAFF: Readiness for war, readiness for the intense combat of ground operations of any type anywhere in the world. That is our task and I can tell you that it has never been more important than it is today.

STARR: Hawaii's missile attack false alarm underscores the hair trigger alert the military would be up against in a real war with Kim Jong-un.

But President Trump recently has changed his tone on the crisis from bellicose --

TRUMP: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.

STARR: To optimistic.

TRUMP: We have certainly problems with North Korea, but a lot of good talks are going on right now, a lot of good energy.

STARR: The changing rhetoric has some worry the U.S. could lose leverage to force North Korea to give up its weapons and add to confusion in the region.

COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: This really complicates the issue of U.S. military commanders on the Korean peninsula and in East Asia because they've been -- for the last 60 years, they've been poised to conduct offensive operations against North Korea. (END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And it may be about to get more complicated. The Pentagon is about to put out a report detailing the future of nuclear weapons and it may recommend the development of smaller, less explosive nuclear weapons, something that critics worry about a lot saying could it make it easier for a nuclear attack by the U.S. to take place -- John.

BERMAN: It is an interesting subject.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon -- Barbara, thank you so much.

Joining me now is Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York. He serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee and is an Iraq War veteran.

Congressman Zeldin, nice to see you. Thank you so much for being with us.

You know, this attack, the warning of an attack in Hawaii raises so many questions. Tulsi Gabbard, the Democratic member of Congress from Hawaii, suggested that President Trump really needs to have a conversation without conditions with Kim Jong-un. The president wouldn't tell the "Wall Street Journal" if he, in fact, has had such a conversation.

But do you think it would be a good idea just to have some kind of an informal chat between president and the North Korean leader?

REP. LEE ZELDIN (R), NEW YORK: If there was going to be a conversation, I don't know what other option there would be other than a conversation. It's possible that over the course of the initial conversation, you may be able to discuss preconditions for follow-up. Whether it be President Trump speaking with Kim Jong-un again, whether it is cabinet level appointments here in the United States speaking to cabinet level leadership in North Korea.

But going into that first conversation, as far as I'm aware of, all that is available would be an informal conversation which should mean that we would need to have low expectations going into a first call.

BERMAN: But you wouldn't dismiss it out of hand?

ZELDIN: No. I wouldn't. It's -- you know, we've tried a lot over the course of 2017. One thing, for example, that was good, was a vote this past summer.