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Trump to Reporters: "I'm not Racist"; Trump, 2 GOP Senator Deny He used Vulgarity; NYT: Friend says Romney will Run for Senate. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired January 15, 2018 - 10:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm John Berman. Welcome first Martin Luther King Jr. Day of the Trump presidency in the 95th day that the president has spent at a Trump golf course. In the words that hang over it all this morning are "I'm not a racist." That is how the president is defending himself against the controversy created by his comments in the Oval Office where he called African nations among others blank hole countries. Listen to what he told reporters overnight.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you.


BERMAN: So within the last few minutes, we got fresh reaction from key Republican Mitt Romney who it seems might be a retired politician no longer and new comments from a key senator who was actually in the room with the president.

First, let's go down to Florida, Kaitlan Collins in West Palm Beach covering the president for us, who we understand is now at least at the golf course, if not golfing. What's the latest, Kaitlan?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Yes, that's right, John. President Trump is at his golf course here in West Palm Beach, on Martin Luther King Day, extraordinary day overnight with the president denying that he's a racist and denying that he made disparaging remarks about countries in Africa during that meeting in the Oval Office. And all of this comes as those Republican senators who have sided with the president have had a change of heart over whether or not he made that vulgar remark in that meeting. Listen to what they've had to say.


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. I'm telling you it is a gross misrepresentation. How many times do you want me to say that?

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: I didn't hear that word either. I certainly didn't hear what Senator Durbin 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: So, John, I'm not sure how you go to a meeting at the White House and don't recall the president making a statement, especially one of that nature. But regardless, it is getting close to being down to semantics at this point, whether the president used that specific term. And those senators and the DHS secretary Kirsten Nielsen who you just saw right there are not denying that the president expressed the sentiment overall about countries in Africa, about Haitians, about people from Norway. They're simply denying that he used that specific term, but as you saw there at the end, even Kirsten Nielsen doesn't deny outright that the president said the phrase. She just said she doesn't recall him saying that exact phrase here, John.

BERMAN: You may be seeing the results of political pressure, what can happen, when a White House pressures you to view something a certain way.

In the meantime, Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator who was in that meeting, and by all reports including his own, confronted the president about his language. We're getting new comments from Senator Graham this morning. Kaitlan, what is he saying?

COLLINS: That's right. Senator Lindsey Graham is continuing to not confirm that the president made those remarks, but he also is not denying it. We're kind of seeing him straddle this road of trying to go out of his way not to provoke the president by saying, yes, he did make this comment. But Lindsey Graham is not denying that the president made that remark, instead saying he just spoke with him about it privately in the Oval Office as the people who were there can attest to. But he certainly is not denying it here, John.

BERMAN: All right, Kaitlan Collins for us in West Palm Beach, Florida.

There is a new development to this story which is either comic or tragic depending on how you view it. And it all comes down to the difference between a hole and a House.

Josh Dawsey is a "Washington Post" reporter who broke this story on Friday. Really on Thursday night, that the president said these things in the Oval Office. There are new developments that you're reporting, Josh, about how White House officials are now explaining this. I will leave it to you to say these words so I don't have to. What are you hearing? JOSH DAWSEY, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, "WASHINGTON POST": People said to me over the weekend that there is a semantic difference. Some people in the meeting heard the phrase shithouse instead of shithole and are using that to kind of despair or to knock back some of the reporting. Apparently the senators heard that per White House officials that I have spoken to. And they're using that discrepancy to say the president did not make those comments. To be clear, I've called my sources repeatedly over the weekend. I know colleagues, other outlets have too and no one in the White House is denying it other than the president that he made a similar remark to what we reported. There was just a difference in hearing on how he ended that phrase.

BERMAN: So, Josh, I'm tempted to say that Republican senators Perdue and Cotton are going on TV denying the comments were said, and they're hanging it on the difference between a blank hole and a blank House. One might reasonably ask are you effing kidding me?

DAWSEY: Well, I'm not going to get into that. All I'm saying is there is no denial from people that I speak to in the White House and from others in the meeting that he made a comment that way.

[10:05:02] It seems that the White House realized over the weekend that there were some problems in that being out there over and over. You saw the president's comments last night, I'm not a racist. You saw the DHS secretary. You saw the senators on TV trying to defend him. This is a story line that has been persistently negative for them for several days now. Nothing really tends to stick that much in the Trump era. But we're what, day five, and this is still in the headlines. So I think it is becoming an issue for them.

BERMAN: And CNN of course reported that the president was calling his friends after your report came out, half bragging about what was said, saying it would be good for him half taking the temperature, but certainly not denying that the conversation took place, which is certainly, you know, very interesting. You would think that would have been a time where he could deny it if he chose to. And then also key, Josh, no one seems to be denying the sentiment expressed in your report, that he would rather have people from Norway and maybe some Asian countries. --

DAWSEY: Right.

BERMAN: -- that any country in Africa, Haiti or El Salvador.

DAWSEY: Wait, the substance is more key here. I mean, John, to be clear, I spoke to several of the president's friends as well, who said that he did not deny to them either. What the president was essentially making the case and the Oval Office interview, whether he said hole or House is that he preferred immigrants from countries like Norway to immigrants from countries like Africa and he did not want Haitian immigrants in the country. You can say hole. You can say House, but the substantive difference is the kind of immigrants that the president prefers.

BERMAN: You say tomato. I say tomato. The president says Norway. Josh Dawsey, great to have you with us, thank you, once again, so much for your reporting on this.

All of this controversy happening, a very important week -- during a very important week on Capitol Hill, showdowns underway right now over negotiation over Dreamers, what to do about some 800,000 people living in this country, some Democrats say that they will not vote to keep the government open and operating if there is not a deal for Dreamers on the table. This is what the president says.


TRUMP: 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 there will be a shutdown. There shouldn't be.


BERMAN: Congress has until the end of the day Friday to fund the government to reach some kind of deal. Let's talk about all of this.

Joining us, CNN political commentators Alice Stewart and Symone Sanders, plus Lynn Sweet of the "Chicago Sun-Times" and CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers of "USA Today."

Lynn, I want to start with you because you spoke to Dick Durbin, who's the key player in all of this as well. It was Senator Durbin who publicly said that President Trump said blank hole. Where does Senator stand now on this back and forth over the he said, he said.

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Well, when I talked to him last night, he said very clearly I stand by every word and I think my colleagues now have restored memory. So, Senator Durbin is not backing down. He has been devoted for more than 16 years to the issue of providing legal protections for Dreamers or youths illegally in the United States through no fault of their own. This is one of his signature issues that is -- a top priority for him at this time. And he talked about how he remembers very well what was said in that Oval Office meeting. And he has no -- no hesitation in standing by what he said.

BERMAN: And Lindsey Graham, of course, just through a South Carolina reporter moments ago, you know, would not deny that it was said. Lindsey Graham, Kirsten, I think trying to play -- I don't know if Lindsey Graham is trying to play game here. He could clear this up, couldn't he? Lindsey Graham in this story confronted the president in the Oval Office, said he was very disappointed with what he says, but now doesn't want to be the ref between what the White House is claiming was said and what is being reported.

KIRSTEN POWERS, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, look, what is incredible about this is if you think about the underlying issue here are you have a bunch of young people who are in the country who through no fault of their own because their parents brought them here are possibly facing deportation. And what is our government doing? They're squabbling over something that we can hardly say on air, a word, you know, that was said and either version is obviously problematic. It is a racist sentiment from the president of the United States that he wants a certain kind of people coming into the country and that are blond haired and blue eyed and not people who are brown skin or black skin essentially is what he said.

So, you know, it is just -- I just think this is a real travesty when you think about how serious the underlying issue is. And that you have our leaders who are playing some sort of semantic game, when the bottom line is, as you said before, the underlying sentiment, regardless of what word he used, is the same. So, you know, I just -- for them not just to stand up and speak honestly, and you have people like Tom Cotton coming out, Senator Tom Cotton coming out and essentially trying to give cover to the president for something that nobody is disputing the sentiment.

[10:10:06] And so, I think that you know this is a really -- it is a travesty.


BERMAN: You know, Symone -- go ahead.

STEWART: Yes. John if I can say, I've known Senator Cotton for many, many years, for living in Arkansas. I can say he has never been one to lie or stretch the truth for himself or anyone for that matter. And I think we also have to take into consideration the fact could be that some heard what the president said, and some maybe didn't, maybe Durbin heard exactly what the president said and there could be the truth that Cotton and Purdue didn't hear it. I think we have to take that into consideration.

I think we'll all agree that the president does speak in very derogatory and demeaning language and uses terms that many of us would never use. But the fact we have spent x loads of air time talking about whether he said s-House or s-hole, I think is a real disservice to what have really on the table. So we need to get the DACA fix and we need to figure out the best way to do that because 80 percent of the country wants that and Republicans and Democrats need to get together and make that happen.



BERMAN: I know you know Senator Cotton, you know, Alice. But if Senator Cotton is hanging his denials and it was said on the difference between hole and House, though, that's just ridiculous. Symone, go ahead.

SANDERS: I mean, look, clearly, Donald Trump has dragged us all down into the gutter with him because we're currently sitting on air discussing whether he said shit-hole or shit-House. You know the problem with Senator Cotton and Senator Purdue for that matter is that they went out and impugned the credibility of Senator Durbin. It is one thing to disagree. But it is a whole another thing to impugn the credibility. And totally just seemingly excuse the underlying issues of the conversation or whatever occurred at the White House. And so, it is a travesty that not only we're discussing this, but on today, you know, the day that we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

BERMAN: And on this day, on this day the president, you know, was tweeting this morning, the first thing he tweeted was once again about the DACA negotiations, Symone. And of course, we're left with the statement from overnight where he told reporters, I'm not a racist, and he told these reporters I'm the least racist person you have ever interviewed, Symone. What do you make of that statement?

SANDERS: You know, I -- if you have to state that you're the least racist anything, I think that's problematic in its own. Look, even the members of the Ku Klux Klan would not come out and tell you that they're racist. And so, I think we can have a separate conversation about the fact that being a racist and racism is not transactional because people will tell you, well you know what, I go to school with people of, you know, different backgrounds, I have black friends. But race -- the system of racism is a system, it is not transactional.

So I don't, you know, I have my feelings about the president. So clearly, I don't believe him, but I think what's more important here is that Donald -- this has ramifications not just for Donald Trump but for Republicans down the line in the midterms. Every single person, if I'm a Democrat, working under this racist. I'm encouraging my candidates and my principles to go out there and put these Republicans on their heels and make them answer for the travesty that this president has created.

BERMAN: We're going to talk about one perspective Republican candidate whose name is Mitt Romney after the break. But before we get to that, let's talk about where the DACA negotiations are, the negotiations over Dreamers are right now, Lynn. Because it got to be hard to sit in a room, both Democrats and Republicans, after what has happened, and try to do something constructive.

SWEET: Well, it is. I talked to Senator Durbin about that in our interview and one of the things that the Democrats are willing to do is help pay for the wall that President Trump wants to build. In the bipartisan proposal that Senator Durbin and Senator Graham were bringing to the White House on Thursday to brief the president on was $1.6 billion in the next fiscal year, the current fiscal year, funding for the wall. And Senator Durbin tells me, and it is in my story, the "Sun-Times," that the response of the president was that he wanted all $20 billion for the wall - so he could not have to go back to Congress next year and fight for it. Well, Durbin said he just told the president that's not how it's done.

And by the way, it would be -- and so Trump can build it in a year. Well, as everyone knows who deals with government, just getting the permits, the permissions, the studies, the land condemnation, you can't build it in a year. And no project gets its entire funding -- I'm sure maybe there is an exception some place, so bear with me. But it is not usual to give an entire $20 billion project funding all in one swoop.

And so, as you talk about negotiations, this just shows how hard it will be, even when the Democrats are willing to help pay for the wall or any kind of enhanced border security, which, by the way, is not a new position. They have been willing to do that for years.

[10:15:06] BERMAN: You know it is interesting, Kirsten, by the way that Democrats as part of this deal were willing to put money toward the wall. Gregory Meeks, a liberal Democrat from New York, was sitting with me here last hour and wouldn't shut out the possibility that he would vote for money for the border wall. The president was handed a win on something that was very important to him, or at least something he could say was a win, and he turned it down.

POWERS: Well, look, the Republicans have caricatured the Democrats' position on immigration for a long time. So I think it seems surprising that they would do that. But it is really not surprising. They actually have -- as Lynn just said, have long supported border security and I think that, you know, that they have been willing to deal with the Republicans on this. I actually -- I actually am to the left of the Democrats on the issue of immigration. So I'm not saying this in a praiseworthy way. I actually don't think they have a great -- their bills have not been that good in my opinion. And that they have been very draconian, even if you look at the Obama bill or the Kennedy bill.

So but what has happened is Republicans have caricatured them to make it seem like they support amnesty and they don't want border security. But that's just not true. They actually probably could reach some sort of agreement with Trump and Trump wasn't so busy, you know, making racially inflammatory statements and having stupid arguments over s- hole versus s-House.

BERMAN: Guys, stick around. We have a lot more to discuss. Mitt Romney once called President Trump a phony, and this morning he's putting out a new statement, new criticism of the comments that the president made inside the Oval Office. What does this all mean for, yes, Mitt Romney's political future?

Plus, panic in paradise, Hawaii's governor is apologizing over the accidental ballistic missile alert, what the state is doing to make sure it doesn't happen again.


[10:21:11] (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MITT ROMNEY, FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Think of Donald Trump's personal qualities -- the bullying, the greed, the showing off, the misogyny, the absurd third grade theatrics.

There's plenty of evidence that Mr. Trump is a con man, a fake. Mr. Trump has changed his positions, not just over the years, but over the course of the campaign. Here's what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.


BERMAN: So that was Governor Mitt Romney on Donald Trump before Donald Trump was President Trump. It was during the campaign season. Well, Mitt Romney has a new statement out this morning on the president. And by the way, Mitt Romney may have new plans for his political future.

My panel is back with me now. Guys, let me read you what Mitt Romney now says. This is about the Oval Office meeting that we have all been talking about. The governor writes, "The poverty of an aspiring immigrant's nation of origin is as irrelevant as their race. The sentiment attributed to the president is inconsistent with America's history and antithetical to American values. May our memory of Dr. King buoy our hope for unity, greatness and charity for all."

Alice Stewart, I want to begin with you here because as we said, former Governor Romney of Massachusetts wants to be, we think, the future senator from the state of Utah. So what do you make of the statement he put out this morning?

STEWART: I think he answered a lot of questions people had as whether or not he's going to be a check and balance on Trump or whether he was going to run on the issues facing the people of Utah. And clearly he's going to push back on a lot of the things that the president says. And that resonates well with the people of Utah. That's a very conservative state, President Trump won by just 45 percent in that state, and that's low, the lowest in 25 years.

So, Mitt Romney does see he has a great lane and great avenue there to run the Senate race or potentially looking further down the road. And I think clearly he is a man of great faith and it is not surprising whatsoever he would have such harsh words to say about the disgusting words that we've heard out of the president. And I think what he's doing is laying the ground work that he's certainly will be someone that is not going to be a rubber stamp on this president.

BERMAN: You know I will say, I noted it, I had forgotten it, that speech that he gave skewering Donald Trump, he delivered it in Utah back in 2016. So it is not that he's afraid to say these things about Donald Trump in the state where he wants to be a senator, Kirsten, but as I'm comparing this speech, during the campaign to the statement now, which is critical, but it is carefully worded, Kirsten. Now you know I don't know what you make of it.

POWERS: Well, I mean, I think Alice is right. There has been a question of is he going to -- if he runs, is he going to run as somebody who is a foe of Trump or somebody who's a supporter of Trump. And you know, to a certain extent, Romney is trying to have it both ways. Let's remember he was also considered to be Trump's Secretary of State and went and sort of kissed the ring at Trump Tower and came out and made statements that were a little more conciliatory towards Trump.

Now, he's going to Utah and in Utah, as Alice pointed out, Trump is not as popular. Mormons are not as on board with Donald Trump than, for example, Evangelicals and the Mormon vote are so important in that state. So you know, I think that Romney if nothing else is able to read the political tea leaves very clearly and is going to adjust to that and probably be whatever he thinks the voters of that state want him to be.

BERMAN: That's an interesting -- it will be an interesting dynamic, Lynn, you know if Mitt Romney, if Mitt Romney chooses to run, he has a pretty clear path. Let's just establish that right now. This is really up to Mitt Romney, if he wants to run, he will likely be the next senator from the state of Utah to have a Republican critic of his stature in the Senate, Lynn, that's a strange dynamic for a White House.

[10:25:09] SWEET: Well, just always look at the numbers, always look at the numbers, there are only 51 Republican senators now. The chance that they will do better in the midterms is almost nonexistent. So if you add Romney to the block of Susan Collins and a few others who will not go lockstep with President Trump, you have a political configuration that will present problems for President Trump going forward. I would expect a Senator Romney would be with the Republican president on issues that are clear, a Republican judicial nominee, such as Supreme Court justice, Neil Gorsuch. There are reasons why Republicans voted for Trump.

The other thing to watch would be the relationship between a Senator Romney and his niece, Ronna Romney McDaniel, who is the chairman of the Republican National Committee and for now has thrown in her lot with President Trump because that is what the job calls for.

BERMAN: She even stopped using the Romney name. I mean, as a sense of how much she's thrown in with President Trump, although she doesn't distance herself from her family. You know, Symone, it is interesting. We have been talking about standing up to the president. Lynn was noting the -- that Mitt Romney would likely be with the president on judges, on taxes.

Jeff Flake, the Senator from Arizona, who is also a Mormon, with the president on judges and taxes, yet he has plans this week to deliver a speech on the Senate floor, skewering the president on the issue of the press. I'll read you a little bite of what we are told, the senator will say, "It is 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 the key to Khrushchev forbade its use telling that so many economies this party that the phrase had been introduced by Stalin for the purpose of annihilating such individuals who disagreed with the supreme leader.

Now, Symone, a twist on this, Democrats over the last 24 hours criticizing Jeff Flake saying you're willing to give this speech, but you're not going to vote against the president. Why should Jeff Flake vote against tax cuts if he's in favor of them? Isn't it a big deal that he's giving this speech?

SANDERS: So, I do want to say, yes, it is a big deal that he's giving this speech. I've been one of the Democrats that have been very vocal saying that if Republicans do not like what this president is doing, they have different forms and venues where they can, again, because they're co-equal branch of government, call him out and hold him accountable. 2 The problem with Jeff Flake and even, you know, folks like Mitt Romney, you can be verbally critical of the president but your voting record matters. And if you would really like to quote/unquote "stick it to Donald Trump," do not go along with his agenda, do not give him wins, make him work for it and corral him into a box. And that is not what this Republican held Congress has done. And, frankly, why folks are all talk and no actual action.

BERMAN: I just don't get, though, a certain point, I don't know if you want to weigh in on this, Kirsten, why Jeff Flake should be expected to vote against a tax plan that he supports just to stick it to the president?

POWERS: Yes, no, I think that's a fair point. And a lot of times we have these conversations even over what is going on right now with DACA, should the -- people are saying, now, because it is such a toxic situation and there won't be a deal and maybe Democrats won't want to work with Trump because of what he said. Ultimately I agree, I think people should vote on the substance of what the bill is, and if it is consistent with their beliefs and what they think is best for the country, then regardless of what is going on in terms of, you know, name calling or words that are being used, shouldn't be used, you know, ultimately you need to do what you think is best for the country and you would hope that that would be what leaders would do.


SANDERS: I want to say one more point. I just think that it is interesting. Donald Trump and some Republicans in Congress are not playing by rules as we know it. The game has absolutely changed. And so, yes, while I would say under regular circumstances that's what folks should do, but Donald Trump and this Trump White House is a different type of animal. And I think if folks continue to play by the rules that we all know, and continue with business as usual, they're going to be on the outs and they're going to lose. The tax bill wasn't that popular. Folks will lose their seats over that tax bill. So they've gone along with Donald Trump. He's not going to have their backs in the midterms and they're not going to have jobs.

BERMAN: All right, Symone, Alice, Lynn, Kirsten -- quickly, Alice, because we have to go.

STEWART: To Symone's point, they're going to stick it to Donald Trump. They're sticking it to the American people. So I think Republicans, they hold their nose, but the tone that he uses that they'll stand behind him on policy and so far, let's hope that it continues being successful as it was with tax reform.

BERMAN: Maybe more of their policy, than his policy based on the discussion inside. You know, inside the White House when Kevin McCarthy had to tell the president where he stood on DACA. But that may be a whole other issue. Guys, thank you so much for being with us this morning, I appreciate it.

STEWART: Thank you.

POWERS: Thank you.

SANDERS: Thank you. BERMAN: 38 minutes of panic, what are officials in Hawaii doing to make sure nothing like this past weekend's events ever occur again?