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Trump Says He's "Not a Racist" in Wake of Vulgar Remarks; Government Shutdown Looms as "Dreamers" Deal Stalls; Hawaii to Change Protocol After False Missile Alert. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired January 15, 2018 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:15] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: Wolf, thank you.

Hi, everyone. I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thanks for being with me on this special Martin Luther King holiday.

It is a day marked by a disturbing contrast as people across the nation pay tribute to the icon's fight against racism, the president of the United States is defending himself today insisting that he is not a racist.


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.


BALDWIN: The president continues to be dogged by the fallout of reports that he called African countries an obscenity and preferred immigrants from places like Norway. Now you have not just but these two American senators who at first didn't recall the president using this vulgar speech that they have now come forward certain that the president did not say this, backing the president's denials.


GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ABC NEWS ANCHOR: 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's a gross misrepresentation. How many times do you want me to say that?

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


BALDWIN: All right. So, two Republicans there. Meantime, a Democrat here saying he stands by every word of what he says happened during a bipartisan meeting last week. And you also have Republican Senator Lindsey Graham telling a South Carolina journalist this, citing the tweet from "The Post and Courier" reporter, quote, Lindsey Graham declines to confirm s-hole countries comment but tells me, my memory hasn't evolved. I know what I said. And I know what I said.

This whole he said/he said sidelining the conversations just as the government is facing a shutdown possibly at the end of this week.

Let's go to the White House now and our senior correspondent there Jeff Zeleny is standing by live.

To be clear, the president is denying that he used this obscenity, but not denying the gist of his comments, correct?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: As clear as it is, Brooke, yes, that is what's happening here. Let's just reset the story here a little bit. This all started last Thursday, of course, that meeting in the Oval Office. And initially after that, the White House did not deny that the president said it. There was some confusion if he did or if didn't. He tweeted the next day that he didn't. Those two senators said they didn't recall that, those two Republican senators. It took until Sunday when they went on the Sunday talk shows to say, no, he didn't say it.

So, for a meeting in the Oval Office about immigration, of course, you know, a hot button issue. There was a lot of slow remembering what happened in that meeting. But, Brooke, it's a moot point at this point, because the reality is the president said he used strong language. Regardless of the word used, which s-word was used, it is clear as we start the week here with the government shutdown potentially looming in four days, a deal over DREAMers is very much up in the air, likely not to happen now.

A week ago, it looked like it would happen. That's why Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has long pushed for immigration, he had words for both sides earlier today in South Carolina. Let's watch.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I urge the president to lead us to that bipartisan solution. Mr. President closed the deal. Eighty percent of Americans want to give the DACA kids a better life and 80 percent of Americans want to secure our border and change a broken immigration system. It's 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's going to be done by talking and understanding.


ZELENY: So, we will see if any of those meetings happen here this week, Brooke. The president is flying back to the White House from his three-day weekend at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Again, that government shutdown potentially looming on Friday. Not much time to do a lot of work -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: Jeff, thank you so much. And, you know, Sunday wasn't the first time President Trump felt compelled to say he's not a racist.


TRUMP: I said tremendous crime is coming across. Everybody knows that's true. It's happening all the time. All of the sudden I'm a racist?

Just so you know, I am the least racist person -- the least racist person that you have ever seen. The least.

If you want to have strong borders so that people come into our country but they come in legally through a legal process, that doesn't make you a racist. It makes you smart.

I'm the least racist person that you have ever met and you can speak to Don King who knows me very well. You can speak to so many different people.


BALDWIN: Let's start there. With me now, CNN national political reporter Maeve Reston and CNN political commentator Tara Setmayer.

[14:05:05] Ladies, great to have both of you on.

And before we get into the conversation about how the president is defending himself as not a racist, Maeve, I want to ask you, you know, it's MLK Day, a federal holiday that President Trump and every other U.S. president designated a day of service since 1994. Going back and looking at years during Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, it's community service, right, from the presidents.

From what we can tell, you look at the president's schedule today, was at, you know, the golf club. You know, he's flying back to D.C. No community service that we know of. Is that odd?

MAEVE RESTON, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Absolutely, that's odd, especially considering the controversy that's engulfed him in the last couple of days. I mean, you would think that, clearly, as Jeff just said, you know, the sentiment that he expressed, no matter what the word actually was, was something that was offensive to people all over the world, especially coming up on a holiday of this kind of importance.

And you would think Donald Trump would want to do something to show that wasn't what he meant and that he honors the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., that he would go out and do something showing service to that community or extending an olive branch. But, of course, we know that's not how he operates. He seems to be digging himself deeper into the hole, insisting that he didn't say that and that people are misconstruing what he said.

The fact that we have a president of the United States that has to come out and say, I am not a racist, over and over again repeatedly after the campaign that he ran over the last year is just a sad moment for our country, I think.

BALDWIN: That's what I wanted to get to. Tara, I want to hear you weighing in, right? It's not only this time, as we just showed multiple times. But just, you know, it is extraordinary in 2018 that we are here with a president who has to publicly declare, I am not a racist".

TARA SETMAYER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Right. This is not good. It goes back to the joke of, you know, yes, I have stopped beating my wife, you know, or any time it is a political axiom. Any time you are defending yourself in a situation like this, you are losing the argument. The fact we are debating whether he's a bigot, is he a racist, did he say hole or house or -- that is relevant.

The principle behind this, the sentiment behind it is what's problematic here. And the fact that the president is now vacillating over whether he said it, didn't say it and these cowards in the Republican Party who were in the room that refuse to come out and be honest about what the president said there, you know, I don't believe for one second they all of the sudden didn't remember. I don't recall.

I mean, that's the political CYA of the century. If you don't want to admit, you say I don't recall.

BALDWIN: I don't remember. Yes.

SETMAYER: Yes, you know? Clear and present danger, I have no recollection, Senator. I mean, everyone know what is that means. Which is why so many of us who listen to these very weak comments coming from Senators Perdue and Cotton, because they just didn't want to admit it.

If the president didn't say that and it wasn't close to that, they would have come out immediately and said we were there, he never said that.


SETMAYER: That's not what happened. So, we all know he said it. Whether it was hole or house, he said it. So, and he was proud. "The A.P." reported that he was calling up his friends bragging about it and --

BALDWIN: He loves it. He loves the controversy swirling. He loves that we are talking about it.

But, to your point on the two Republican senators and the whole I don't recall, what's up with Mitch McConnell? Senator majority leader silent.


BALDWIN: Silent.

SETMAYER: Mitch McConnell silent. You know, Paul Ryan gave a half- hearted. I know Paul Ryan is conflicted and is trying to maintain the politics of this. He's got a caucus he has to keep together. They are trying to legislate, but I don't care. But at some point, you need to come out and say what it is. And people are looking at this, shame on them for their silence on this.

RESTON: Think about --

SETMAYER: And Lindsey Graham needs to come out and say what he said, too, because be honest. We know that he at least stood up in the meeting.

BALDWIN: And challenged him according to Tim Scott -- according to Lindsey Graham.

SETMAYER: Good for him there. But he should come out publicly and admit it.

BALDWIN: Go ahead.

RESTON: Think about the politics of this. I mean, we went from that incredible meeting at the White House where we got kind of a front row seat to everyone talking openly about immigration issues, looking like they were going to make some progress on DACA, potentially even a broader, you know, immigration -- comprehensive immigration reform bill down the road. And you go from that, which was really a high moment for Republicans when they are trying to swing, you know, Democrats over to their side as it looks worse and worse for them in this midterm election.

And they now are engulfed in controversy where Mitch McConnell doesn't know what to say about it.

[14:10:01] Other Republicans are struggling.

BALDWIN: If you're a Democrat, why do you want to play ball?



BALDWIN: After that meeting, after all of this, why do you want to play ball with Republicans and come to a solution ahead of Friday?

SETMAYER: Exactly.

RESTON: These are the moments for Trump when he really, really loses the middle. And we remember that in the campaign. It's people -- not just black Americans and Hispanic Americans and people from those countries of origin, but white Americans, the middle -- that very important middle part of the electorate gets totally turned off by this. And, you know, they are less likely to elect these Republicans at the ballot box in November.

SETMAYER: That's why Republicans have a problem with women. These kinds of issues, they look at this as well and think, what are we teaching our children? This is part of what the problem is for the Republican Party, losing demographics they need to hold onto power in Congress.

This is problematic. It's so unfair. As someone who worked in Republican politics for 20-something years who has tried or believes that our policies benefit everyone and individual empowerment, all of those things and trying to shed that stereotype that Republicans don't care about minorities in this country and they are all racists from wherever, that's not the case.

But when Donald Trump coming out and making these kinds of comments saying, why can't we have more people like those in Norway, what do you think you're supposed to do? And then you have Republican leaders standing by.

Kevin McCarthy is another one. I'll name-check him, too. He was in that meeting. He was in the room. And he stood next to Donald Trump with a blank look on his face, didn't say a word from Mar-a-Lago because I guess the cat has his tongue, too. This is where leadership and integrity should matter because this is unacceptable behavior from the president.

BALDWIN: No. And reading ahead to some of the senator, Senator Jeff Flake's comments today, I get you. You know, he's free to speak because he's about to bounce at the end of the year. Not only is he calling out Trump in the speech, looking at the comments on Wednesday. But he's calling out other Republicans for standing with him.

SETMAYER: They deserve it.

BALDWIN: Ladies, we've got to go. I appreciate the conversation.

RESTON: Thank you.

BALDWIN: Thank you so much for joining me on MLK Day, Tara and Maeve.

Coming up next here on the clock, Democratic Congressman John Lewis says there will be no government funding without a DACA deal for thousands of so-called DREAMers. Can the government shutdown be avoided by the end of the week? That's the deadline, Friday.

Also, 38 minutes of sheer panic. New details on what went so wrong in Hawaii with that false nuclear missile alert. What's happening to the employee who pushed the wrong button?

And a remarkable catch. Look at this. The video shows the dramatic moment a hero firefighter catches a child trying to escape a burning building. Look at that. The back story on what happened there?

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.


[14:17:14] BALDWIN: We are back. You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin.

Lawmakers return to Capitol Hill tomorrow as the government shutdown gets closer and closer. The deadline is the end of the week. That's when they have to come up with this agreement to fund the government.

But Democrats want to use this moment to fight over DACA. They are considering withholding their votes unless there is an agreement on the protection of these 800,000 or so DREAMers across the country. A lot of lawmakers are questioning if President Trump's rhetoric is influencing his policy decisions after his vulgar and racist remarks about African nations became public.

But Republican Senator Rand Paul says it will be tough to negotiate a deal for DREAMers if critics keep calling the president racist.


SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: I do want to see an immigration compromise.


PAUL: And you can't have an immigration compromise if everyone is out there calling the president a racist. They are actually destroying the setting, and he was a little bit of it. But both sides now are destroying the setting in which anything meaningful can happen.


BALDWIN: David Chalian is here, he's our CNN political director.

And how true are the words of Senator Paul and because of that, negotiations may be really difficult, especially with Republicans. If you're a Democrat looking at this, how do you see it?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes. So put aside the debate you were talking about earlier in the show about exactly what was said and different accounts that we're getting.

What we do and what the White House and the president has never pushed back on was that he offered some tough language that was clearly disparaging towards origin country for people that emigrate into the United States, right?

So, that's something everybody agrees on. And that's actually what has spoiled the well here, because Brooke, if indeed the Democrats see this funding bill and trying to attach DACA to it as their only piece of leverage because it is very often that the Republicans will need some votes from the Democratic side in order to fund the government certainly in the Senate, it's absolutely necessary that this is their moment of leverage.

Comments like that are just going to dig in the Democrats even harder into their position that they must have a DACA agreement.

BALDWIN: Yes, yes. Let me fold in this sound. This is from John Lewis, civil rights icon, congressman. He says he will not vote to fund the government unless there is a deal on DACA.


LEWIS: We must not give up or give in. We must continue to press on and get a deal. I for one will not vote for government funding until we get a deal on DACA.


BALDWIN: So, obviously, significant coming from him, David. But at the 11th hour would Democrats really be willing to shut the government down over DACA, over the DREAMers?

[14:20:00] CHALIAN: It's a good question and it's one Democratic leaders are sort of grappling with in these days leading up to this deadline.

Now, John Lewis, of course, if every Democrat in the House was to follow John Lewis's example there and no Democratic votes on this, Paul Ryan showed in December that he could muster enough Republicans to get over the hurdle to fund the government at least for a short- term kick the can down the road thing until they work it out.


CHALIAN: It's on the Senate side that's the big question about Democrats. Will Chuck Schumer be able to hang onto some, you know, red state potentially vulnerable Democrats from states, you know, like Heidi Heitkamp in North Dakota or Joe Donnelly in Indiana that Donald Trump won by a huge margin. Are they going to be willing to shut down the government over not having a deal on DACA?

The Democratic base may demand it. And this is why I think you're going to see the Democratic leadership really trying to grapple with whether or not this is the moment in time to really do that and fear the backlash and blame, but placate the base. Or to move ahead and fund the government in hopes of getting a deal down the road.

BALDWIN: Deadline is Friday. We'll talk about this every day until then. David Chalian, thank you so for now on that.

CHALIAN: Thanks, Brooke.

BALDWIN: Coming up here, my next guest was just brushing his teeth when this alert came in. I mean, imagine seeing this pop up on your phone. Everyone seek immediate shelter, this is not a drill. What do you do when you get an alert about an incoming nuclear missile? That's next.


[14:25:55] BALDWIN: Just think about this for a second. What would you do for 38 minutes?

The people in Hawaii were paralyzed in fear, huddled in bathtubs, praying, crying. I saw some video of some dad dropping their kids in a manhole. Seeing goodbye to your kids, running for shelter, 38 minutes.

Thousands of people thought they were about to die because of this. An emergency alert on their phone. It read, ballistic missile threat inbound to Hawaii. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill. Well, it turns out it was a drill. This highway sign in Honolulu

showing the unthinkable correction. And now, the worker responsible for clicking the wrong button has been pulled from his job. Hawaii officials reassigning, not firing, that employee.

And now, officials including the president want answers.


TRUMP: Well, that was a state thing, but we are going to now get involved with them. I love that they took responsibility. They took total responsibility. But we are going to get involved. Their attitude and their -- what they want to do is terrific. They took responsibility. They made a mistake.


BALDWIN: Jemar Tisby is with me now.

Jemar, Jemar, it was your last day of vacation in Hawaii. You're with your wife and your 7-year-old son. You just had woken up. And it is your wife who said what?

JEMAR TISBY, ON VACATION IN HAWAII DURING FALSE ALARM: She walks in the door and she said, did you hear about the ballistic missile threat? And so, you can imagine my response. I'm brushing my teeth and I just stare at her like, what, I have no category for this. So, we were shocked.

BALDWIN: And then what did you do?

TISBY: And then, you know, Brooke, it's odd the thoughts that come to you when you think you're about to die. I remember thinking what do I wear for imminent death? And so, I threw on a shirt and my shoes. And we were scanning through social media trying to get more information, because we had just gotten this alert on our phones. I actually didn't get the alert.

So, I'm just going through social media. So, we're scanning and no one knew what was going on. We were even checking national news media outlets. They hadn't heard yet.

So, the only people talking about it were civilians like us. And everyone was asking the same question, what's happening, is it real?

So, we were just trying to find out more information and those few moments felt like an eternity.

BALDWIN: So, I read your piece. You tried to click off the gloom and doom of the local news on to some cartoons for your kid. And then, was your hotel evacuating? What was the sense of where you were?

TISBY: Yes. So, we turned on the television to distract our son from death raining down from the skies as we thought was about to happen. And it was confusing, because the alert we got on our phone said to seek shelter. So, everybody went indoors. But then we got an alert via the hotel P.A. system that said everyone

evacuate. And so, we were confused. We didn't know if it was directly related to the ballistic missile alert. Was this some separate incident like a fire in the hotel that we were responding? And some people left, some stayed. I actually stayed in the hotel.

I figured, well, if a nuclear missile is coming, the safest place is probably indoors rather than outside. But, you know, likely that everything is going to be destroyed, so what's the difference?

But we were starting then to get unofficial reports that it could be a false alarm. And more and more of those were coming. So, we were starting to think, OK, this may not be imminent danger. But we still had no official word.

BALDWIN: So, how did you get word that -- all right, just kidding, you know, there isn't a ballistic missile coming. Go back to your Hawaii vacationing. How did you feel? How did your wife feel? I mean, I read that you said people were joking around you.

TISBY: Right. Yes. It was a swirl of emotion. So you are trying to think logically, but your emotions kind of take over. I remember this frozen moment when we were about to leave the room where I was wondering what do I take with me if everything gets destroyed?

And so, the one thing I picked up was my wedding ring, which was I think a good choice. We just headed out but there was this sense of shared solidarity in a moment of crisis, where all of a sudden --