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Trump Insists to Reporters He is Not a Reporter; Trump Accuses Democrats of Not Wanting DACA; Flake To Liken Trump's Media Attacks To Stalin In Speech; Trump To Reporters: "I'm Not A Racist"; Trump: Two GOP Senators Deny He Used Vulgarity. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 15, 2018 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:01] JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: This comes as some Republican senators who's in the room are actually denying they heard the president use the offensive word and if you can believe it, a new report that they're basing these denials on the difference between a hole and a house.

So as officials play games with these H words, the fate of some 800,000 Dreamers hangs in the balance and a possible government shutdown looms, and days after the president rejected a bipartisan deal, the president this morning is reiterating his claim it is the Democrats who do not want a deal.

CNN's Kaitlan Collins watching all the developments for us in West Palm Beach this morning.

Kaitlan, what's the latest?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, an extraordinary statement from the president just hours before the Martin Luther King holiday where he denied that he's a racist and he denied that he made those disparaging remarks about African countries during a meeting with lawmakers at the White House. And in another twist, these lawmakers have gone from saying that the president -- that they do not recall the president making those remarks to on the Sunday show saying that they -- the president -- insisting that the president did not make these remarks.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, HOST, ABS NEWS' THIS WEEK: Are you saying the president did not use the word that has been so widely reported?

SEN. DAVID PERDUE (R), GEORGIA: I'm telling you he did not use that word, George. And I'm telling you, it's a gross misrepresentation. How many times do you want me to say that?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ALABAMA: I didn't hear that word either. I certainly didn't hear what Senator Durbin has said repeatedly.

KIRSTEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: It was an impassioned conversation. I don't recall that specific phrase being used. That's all I can say about that.


COLLINS: Now, John, you would think that if you're in a meeting with the president with a few lawmakers in the Oval Office you would recall if he had said something of that nature. But regardless of the specific wording that the president used it does not change the overall sentiment of the message that the president was getting across in that meeting and he has not denied saying that he feels the United States should take more people from places like Norway, but we won't see the president again today until he departs West Palm Beach this afternoon to head back to Washington.

BERMAN: Kaitlan, you made a couple of crucial points there. Number one, the president is not denying he'd rather have more people from Norway than countries from Africa, Haiti or El Salvador, and number two, that these senators denying they heard it.

This is a new recollection for them. They didn't seem to have that recollection on Friday, Friday night, Saturday morning until this evolved which is peculiar to say the least. But this is more than just about the back and forth here. This is having international ramifications now, Kaitlan. The U.S. envoys in many African nations and Haiti had been called in for something of addressing down, correct?

COLLINS: Yes. That's correct. The fallout is not just in Washington, not just here in West Palm Beach but also all over the world as these top diplomats are being summoned to governments in places like South Africa, Ghana, to meet with officials after the president made those remarks. And we're told by State Department officials that the diplomats have been told not to soften the president's remarks or try to defend it but to listen and acknowledge the concerns of these countries.

But it's clear here, John, that this is not just having repercussions here in the United States but what the president said is changing things around the world.

BERMAN: All right. Kaitlan Collins for us in Florida. Kaitlan, thank you very, very much.

And of course all of this has major ramifications. If you were one of the 800,000 Dreamers in this country trying to figure out your future or anyone who might want the government to keep running. The country faces a shutdown at the end of the week. Democrats say that funding will not happen without a deal for Dreamers. Some at least say that. This is what the president says.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think the Democrats want to make a deal. I think they talk about DACA but they don't want to help the DACA people. I don't know if they'll be a shutdown. There shouldn't be.


BERMAN: CNN's Suzanne Malveaux on Capitol Hill.

What's the latest with the negotiations, Suzanne, if in fact there are any?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, John, it is so fitting here, Martin Luther King talked about a dream for this nation, that we're talking about the Dreamers and their fate here. The president clearly blaming the Democrats for this, saying that they're not offering enough on the table when it comes to national security.

But, John, it is fair to say that those negotiations, those talks, bipartisan immigration proposal really blew up, that it is at a state of play that everything is frozen now after those remarks from the president, those very controversial racist remarks, and so now you have this very public blame game that's been going on for the last 24, 48 hours.

Republicans are saying openly and quietly that this does nothing to help the negotiations with the Democrats and with the president on an immigration deal, that essentially this undercuts and undermines the work that they've been doing, the delicate balance here. They needs Democrats here. They need a super majority, that 60 votes on the Senate side at least to push forward and get the government funded. That runs out in four days.

The Democrats for their part you talk to them and they say they're in no mood for negotiating here. Some say that they don't necessarily want to make a deal because the environment is so toxic. They would rather let the president kind of stew in it if you will than not give him a win.

[09:05:01] For many, John, this is a line in the sand. We have heard from Democrats and Republicans throughout the weekend and also this morning on how they should move forward.


SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: A majority of my caucus, myself included, we will not fund the government without a DACA deal.

REP. CARLOS CURBELO (R), FLORIDA: If we don't have any measurable progress towards a DACA deal, I am not going to vote for a stop gap measure, and I am asking Republicans and Democrats to take that position.

We're in Congress and regrettably Congress is an institution that only acts when it's forced to.


MALVEAUX: So, John, as lawmakers come back to work in earnest tomorrow is whether or not the Democrats are going to take advantage, use and exploit the leverage that they do have at this time to push forward and make this essential that DACA must go with immigration reform, that must go with the budget, or if they decide that they too, along with some Republicans, will simply kick it down the road -- John.

BERMAN: All right. Suzanne Malveaux for us on Capitol Hill.

We'll get a chance to ask a member of Congress about that very shortly. In the meantime, joining me, CNN's senior political analyst, senior editor at the "Atlantic," Ron Brownstein, CNN political analyst Karoun Demerjian of "The Washington Post," and from "USA Today" Susan Page.

And, Ron, I want to start with you here, because we have this remarkable, remarkable debate now, and I'm putting debate in quotation marks, about what was said inside this meeting with the president where you have Senators Tom Cotton now and Perdue all of a sudden coming out and saying, oh, they didn't hear the president say those words.

You know who could clear this up is Senator Lindsey Graham.


BERMAN: The Republican senator who allegedly confronted the president inside that room and this is no small thing now, Ron.

BROWNSTEIN: Right. Look, I mean, the accusations from Senator Cotton and Perdue against their colleague Senator Durbin is just a reminder of how much, you know, kind of the Geneva Conventions of politics have been torn up. And it's extraordinary here, sitting senators accusing another senator of in essence lying about what the president of the United States said.

Lindsey Graham basically confirmed the remarks to Tim Scott, according to Tim Scott. Jeff Flake says the remarks were confirmed to him by a participant in the meeting. Both of them Republican senators but Lindsey Graham I think at this point has a clear obligation to explain exactly what it was that the president said that provoked him by his own words to confront him in the meeting and you know, this really -- this whole episode underscores the situation that Republican members of Congress put themselves in when they commit to reflexively defending the president because the price just gets higher and higher.

I don't think Tom Cotton and David Perdue a year ago, who, by the way, it's important to note, are the proponents, the sponsors of the hardlined legislation to cut legal immigration in half that the president has endorsed. Imagine that they could be in this situation I think a year ago but that I think is kind of the price of getting into this situation with President Trump.

BERMAN: By the way, we have every reason to believe that in fact the president did say those words, according to the sources talking to CNN, according to the fact that the White House didn't deny them over that night, and according to the fact that those senators took a long time to reach their stories.

And Karoun, I want to file this under questions I never thought I would ask, especially in this way. But Josh Dawsey, "The Washington Post" reporter who broke this story, now writes this. "White House official told me tonight there is a debate internally on whether Trump said shithole or shithouse. Perdue and Cotton seemed to have heard the latter, this person said, are using to deny."

So hole versus house, Karoun. This is the hill to die on in this debate. It's mind boggling.


KAROUN DEMERJIAN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes. I think the clip that you played of David Perdue talking, he was talking about it's a gross misrepresentation. There's not that much of a difference between those two words if you're talking about, you know, gross misrepresentation. That does not seem to apply if this is the internal debate between these two words. So it's certainly -- you know, it's taking a point of nuance between two bad things, I guess maybe choosing lesser of two evils but using it to hang your hat on to basically yes, oh, no, no, no, because it's not precisely right.

Clearly everything about it is wrong when that's not -- that does not appear to be what happened based on Josh's reporting and he's a very, very good reporting with many sources in the White House as well that I'm sure are -- you know, the paper is standing by his reporting and I trust his reporting as well.

So it is ironic basically that the Republicans are hanging their hat on what may be just a very, very fine difference between the character of the word used and the longer that they do this, the longer we continue to debate, you know, not just what comes out of the president's mouth but what's actually kicking around in his head. And we've been talking about this for days now so if they're trying to make it go away it's not really going away by what they're doing.

BERMAN: I want to talk about that in just a second, Karoun, because that's a great point but in the meantime, Susan, I do want to ask, what does this do to the negotiations here if there are, in fact, negotiations?

[09:10:03] What does it do for Democrats who may want to come in the room to make a deal or Republicans who may want to come in the room and make a deal? Is this a good environment, to sit down and hammer things out?

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, USA TODAY: You know, the thing you need when you make a deal is a certain level of trust on both sides and I think even the low levels of trust that they had before have now just been blown to smithereens. You have Republican senators accusing the member of the Democratic leadership Dick Durbin basically of lying in this case and of lying in the past.

It's a jaw-dropping statement that the two senators made. You've got to assume they talked beforehand because they said essentially the same things on two different Sunday shows. So it seems to be quite deliberate and the idea that the senators will now come together and make a deal to keep the government funded to deal with the Dreamers I think seems increasingly unlikely. BERMAN: And look, also, the government is now saying the Democrats

don't want a deal. This is after he said bring me a deal and I will sign it and a bipartisan group of legislators brought him a deal and he, you know, crapped all over it, you know, pun intended, I suppose in this case. Ron?

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. Look, it's really important to understand the hang- up here because it's an important evolution in the attitude of the Republican Party toward a changing America. For years we heard from Republican leaders that they wanted to be tough on border security. They opposed undocumented immigration but they liked legal immigration.

But what the president is asking for here and what Cotton and Perdue have proposed is not only tougher border security but a significant reduction in the amount of legal immigration in the country. The Cotton-Perdue bill that President Trump has endorsed which is why they're at the meeting would cut legal immigration in half and that means that over the next 30 years the best estimates are, if you cut legal immigration in half, you would have no net growth in the number of working aged Americans between now and 2050 while we're adding 40 million more seniors which means every worker would have to support Social Security, Medicare for 80 percent more seniors than today.

Cutting legal immigration the way the president has proposed is a clear and present danger to the long-term financial stability of Social Security and Medicare of which his supporters rely but that is the hill I think on which they are demanding. These not only funding for the border but reductions in legal immigration that would in the long run imperil the financial security of Social Security and Medicare.

BERMAN: You know, Karoun, I want to loop back to the point you were making earlier that this debate, this discussion only now continues because of the White House's handling it. Part of this discussion now is the president's comments that he chose to make overnight on the eve of the Martin Luther King Day holiday. I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed. Ever interviewed, he said to these reporters.

These reporters have interviewed a lot of people right now. And I also do want to note that the president's comments in that room have been supported by some of the most racist people, Richard Spencer, David Duke, the Storm Front, the publication came out over the weekend and said they were very supportive of the comments the president made there and they continue, the White House does, to engage in this discussion about who is and isn't racist.

DEMERJIAN: Well, we've seen the president not denounce when he -- when the company that wants to keep company with him, praises him, he's not very quick to say, wait a second, I did not mean that for that audience. Thank you very much but I don't want your endorsement there, which is what a lot of people want him to say. And we have this pattern of these in some cases epithets and in some cases just, you know, off the cuff thoughts that he dishes out. Everything from -- you know, it's difficult not to draw a mental line

going back from this episode, going back to Charlottesville and the other things interspersed in between that go back to the time of his campaign and draw inferences when he's not really doing a lot to dissuade people from drawing those inferences.

I mean, look, the president has characterized himself in many different ways. He's clearly understanding that there is a -- you know, a groundswell against him and he's pushing back against the people, you know, making assumptions that this is reflecting his views of different races and different cultures and different countries, and -- but it's pretty soft answer compared to everything else that's coming out. If he's trying to do damage control and convince everybody who's saying that he may be a racist, he's not a racist, probably needs to do a little bit more to drive that point home because it's not landing with the audience that needs to hear it.

BERMAN: Look, Bill Kristol notes he could've on this Martin Luther King Day holiday the first thing that he tweeted about could have been Martin Luther King, for instance, on this holiday.

DEMERJIAN: Yes, that's also --

BERMAN: That's type of the thing that influences that.

Susan, you know, this is going to be another interesting week, you know, in a string of 50, you know, straight interesting weeks. Right? Jeff Flake, the Republican senator from Arizona, has big plans to give a speech on the floor of the Senate right now criticizing the president for what he has said about the press.

[09:15:00] Let me read you a rather long clip now, "Mr. President, it's a testament to the condition of our democracy that our own president uses words infamously spoken by Josef Stalin to describe his enemies.

It bears noting that so fraught with malice was the phrase enemy of the people that even Nikita Khrushchev forbade its use telling the Soviet Communist Party that the phrase had bene introduced by Stalin for the purpose of annihilating such individuals who disagreed with the supreme leader."

Now Jeff Flake and Donald Trump, there's no love lost between them, but there's a Republican senator who is going to compare the president to Stalin in this Senate. That's a member to note here this week.

SUSAN PAGE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "USA TODAY": Although, you know what, John, I think what's also notable is that the Republican senator who's doing this is not running for reelection. And once again, on this controversy as on previous ones, only Republicans who don't expect to face voters in the near-term future are the ones that are willing to be critical of the president.

Because I think Republicans on the Hill generally have made this bargain that they will pretty much keep quiet about the president's most provocative statements if they can help him deliver on policies they have, deregulation or the tax bill that was signed in December.

Surely there will be long-term consequences for the Republican Party in terms of appeal to this rising generation of voters that -- who are increasingly diverse and at odds with President Trump and the Trump GOP, but for the moment it is hard to find voices like that of Senator Flake who are willing to take him on.


RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Real quick. The policy point, what the president is arguing is about shifting from family reunification, chain migration to merit based immigration. It's worth remembering that in 2013 in the comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate, every Senate Democrat as well as over a dozen Senate Republicans voted to tilt the legal immigration system more toward skills based immigration but not in the context of severely retention the family side.

That is the core issue here. The goal is to reduce the number of immigrants in the country. That is the dispute I think much more than whether the balance within that is towards families or skills because there was bipartisan consensus to shift it more toward skills.

BERMAN: Four years ago, a lifetime ago. Ron, Karen, Susan, thanks so much for being with us.

Still to come, the president's comments not sitting well on Capitol Hill. Now, some calling for an official reprimand. I'm going to speak to a member of the Congressional Black Caucus about that.

Plus 38 minutes of panic, how Hawaii puts new plans in place to stop this accidental ballistic missile alert from scaring people again.

And the queen like you have never heard her before. A very rare conversation you'll want to stick around for this.



BERMAN: This week, some Democratic members of Congress are moving to censure the president for his comments in the oval office calling African nations blank-hole countries.

Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York. Congressman, thank you so much of being with us. Overnight, the president said I'm not a racist and he told the reporters that he is the least racist person that they have ever spoken to. Is that correct?

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D), NEW YORK: That's a joke. Look, how do you judge whether a person is a racist or not is by their words and their actions and deeds and clearly, if you look at the entire body of this president, going back to New York with the Central Park Five, but listening to all the statements he made about President Obama and the birther movement. Talking about individuals who were good people, neo-Nazis and others, his words are clear. The words and the language of a racist and if you look at the actions of what he was -- what he wants to take us back to, let's make America great again, what period of time was he talking about even during the campaign?

When we had racist that were leading the way in this particular country? What I believe what -- in making America great is that we were able to move from the past to the present and he wants to take us back to the past.

BERMAN: The nephew of Martin Luther King Jr. was at the White House on Friday and said, that he doesn't think the president is racist just racially ignorant because he may not understand the meaning I think and implications of what he's saying.

MEEKS: Stable genius. Listen, I think that what the president is doing is diabolical. That he absolutely knows that he is playing to the racist. Listen, those individuals that we know who were former members of the Ku Klux Klan, they're the ones that are coming out, supporting the president in a very big way.

BERMAN: David Duke, the question is you say this is a president, this is something of the people he's playing too clearly racist like David Duke, what do you then or how do you categorize members of Congress, Republicans who are supporting what the president said or not criticizing it or remaining silent, are they complicit in this what you call racist?

MEEKS: Yes, I think that as we celebrate Dr. King's birthday and all that he has done for America because virtually Dr. King saved America from itself, that -- in that time he talked about those who remain silent, that we will remember those -- our friends who remain silent as opposed to our enemies who spoke those evil words.

It is incumbent upon all Americans particularly those of us who have the responsibility of being members of the United States Congress be it in the House or the Senate to have a strong voice.

[09:25:09] And to say that what the president said is wrong, irrespective of your political viewpoint, what he said is morally wrong and we should say it and stand up for -- stand up against it loudly and clearly.

BERMAN: You support the formal censure of the president in the House?

MEEKS: Absolutely. It sends a message to our children. How can we stand up and lose our moral compass completely?

BERMAN: So, the question is what else besides that? Because Congressman John Lewis now says that he will not vote for any deal on government funding temporary or otherwise unless there is a deal for DREAMers. Is that your stance also?

MEEKS: Yes. I think that you've got to have a moral. You know, sometimes when with you're a member of Congress and I would hope all of us you would have to vote your conscious, so how can we consciously move on with leaving individuals out? I want to just bring this to point too because the president has lied about the what the diversity visa program is, and we need to get the facts out to the American people.

BERMAN: Government shutdown, you won't even support a temporary extension, a continuing resolution.

MEEKS: I am saying that what we need to do is to make sure we are creating America that is great, an America that includes all of us, an America that is fair and without that, then I've got to stand my ground.

BERMAN: This deal that was before the president that he rejected that caused him to swear like he did and make the comments that you think are racist, that deal did include some funding for a border wall. Could you support that?

MEEKS: Yes. I mean, we all think so. You know, I know that in government when you are in a position like I am, I don't get everything that I want.

BERMAN: So, you'd support money for a border wall to get the protection for DREAMers. You couldn't support the deal that was before him on Friday.

MEEKS: I would have to see the deal to look at it, but I've always been one that looked at trying to make sure we had moderation and worked together and do something in a bipartisan way. Some people get what they want, and you get something that you don't.

You have to yield to something that you don't. So, I would like to look at that deal and I would consider and would have considered that deal, but I think that the president's statements and his statements today does not make that likely.

BERMAN: Congressman Gregory Meeks from New York, great to have you with us. Thanks so much. We were talking before. Martin Luther King would have been 89 years old today which is not that old. It would be interesting to see what he would think if he were here now.

MEEKS: We need him.

BERMAN: Thank you, Congressman.

The worker responsible for sending out a false ballistic missile alert in Hawaii is reassigned as the state works to prevent this from happening again.