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Dissent Over What Happened in White House Meeting; Trump: 'I'm Not a Racist'. Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired January 15, 2018 - 07:00   ET

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


CLAPPER: To judge a characterization, is it an attack and what is the nature of the attack?

[07:00:17] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Let me ask you something else. You were in the intelligence business for so long. What is your take on where we are in terms of credibility for truth telling in government?

You know, and look, you've had people come after you about certain testimony that you've given and whether or not you were being truthful. We are not unfamiliar with chasing after public officials who may parse or craft the messages a certain way, want to cherry-pick facts.

But what we're dealing with right now about what word the president used in his ugly comparison of brown people to white people, you know, when he -- what else was he talking about when he said, "We don't want people from countries like this. We want people, like, from Norway."

Now we have two U.S. senators, one of them a decorated war veteran, going from "I don't recall" to what he said to "he definitely didn't say what is being reported." Where are we in terms of the value of truth?

CLAPPER: Well, you know, I've certainly had my ups and downs here and learned lessons about the -- what to me is of critical importance of being credible and telling the truth, being straight as often as you can. And when you -- when you screw up, then acknowledge you made a mistake. And this administration doesn't do that too much. And I think it's very regrettable. I think it does -- at times it kind of raises a credibility issue not only in this country but, importantly, the rest of the world.

CUOMO: Yes. It is the old adage, I wish you to live in interesting times. What kind of interesting is never made clear.

James Clapper, appreciate your perspective, as always. Thank you, sir.

CLAPPER: Thanks, Chris.

CUOMO: All right. Let's go on -- let's get going into our next hour here. A lot of news. Good morning. Welcome to our NEW DAY. This is Martin Luther King Day. And we have some real stark contrast to talk about, especially on a day like this. Alisyn is off. The one and only Vikings fan, Poppy Harlow, joins us.

And up first, President Trump declaring he is not a racist. Once again, he says he is -- he is the least racist people that these journalists would have ever interviewed. He has a credibility problem this morning. He's denying the reference that he made to Haiti and some African nations, using a word you probably heard enough.

His real problem is that he clearly expressed a preference. He said, why do we have to have people like these brown people, right, because that's what he was talking about, to people from Norway, who he said he preferred. And what's the difference? There's a color difference.

All right. Now, we have this sickening coverup going on. You've got lawmakers who are in the Oval Office who went from saying, "I don't recall what he said" to insisting that the president didn't say what's being reported. Remember, the White House, White House staff, they had a chance to walk it back. They never walked it back. Don't be distracted. No one denies the comparison that I just told you about, and that is the real problem.

HARLOW: It is. Also, the president is creating more of his own trouble. And it puts the prospects of a DACA deal for DREAMers in jeopardy. Some Democrats are now threatening to vote against the funding deal if it does not include protections for hundreds of thousands of DREAMers.

The president said he doesn't think Democrats even want to make a deal. This all comes the week a government shutdown looms. The deadline to pass a funding deal to keep the government lights on and doors open, at work for you, the taxpayer, is this Friday.

We have it all covered. Let's begin with our Kaitlan Collins. She joins us in West Palm Beach, Florida.

Good morning, Kaitlan. What are you hearing?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Poppy, an extraordinary statement from the president coming on Martin Luther King Day, where the president is denying that he's a racist and denying that he made disparaging remarks about African countries during a meeting with lawmakers at the White House.

This comes days after the White House did not deny that the president expressed these sentiments as he met with lawmakers. But Poppy, what's clear is there's no denying that what happened in that meeting is pitting senators against each other during what is going to turn out to be a critical week for Washington.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TRUMP: I'm not a racist. I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed, that I can tell you.

COLLINS (voice-over): President Trump on defense after days of outrage over his disparaging comments about immigrants from Haiti and some African nations.

TRUMP: Did you see what various senators in the room said about my comments? They weren't made.

COLLINS: Lawmakers who attended the meeting offering differing accounts about whether Mr. Trump referred to these countries as shitholes.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: He said these hate-filled things, and he said them repeatedly .

COLLINS: The lone Democrat in the meeting, Senator Dick Durbin, arguing the president did use the vulgar characterization, while two of Mr. Trump's Republican allies said Friday that they did not recall the phrase before insisting Sunday that it did not happen.

[07:05:07] SEN. DAVID PERDUE (R), GEORGIA: He did not use that word, George. And I'm telling you, it's a gross misrepresentation.

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

COLLINS: Senator Tim Scott telling "The Charleston Post and Courier" that fellow Republican Lindsey Graham told him the comments are basically accurate.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: I was in a meeting directly afterwards where those who had presented to the president our proposal spoke about the meeting. And they -- they said those words were used before those words went public.

COLLINS: The bitter infighting is stalling talks over a potential immigration deal that would protect DREAMers.

SEN. RAND PAUL (R), KENTUCKY: You can't have an immigration compromise if everybody is out there calling the president a racist.

COLLINS: The president declaring Sunday morning that DACA is, quote, "probably dead," but later leaving the door open.

TRUMP: We are ready, willing and able to make a deal on DACA, but I don't think the Democrats want to make a deal.

COLLINS: The stalemate raising concerns that a deal will not be reached ahead of Friday's budget deadline to avoid a government shutdown.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I for one will not vote for government funding until we get a deal on DACA.

TRUMP: I don't know if there will be a shutdown. There shouldn't be.

COLLINS: President Trump also addressing this frightening false alarm in Hawaii.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The U.S. Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii. A missile may impact on land or sea within minutes. This is not a drill.

COLLINS: The mistake sending panicked residents running for their lives. President Trump suggesting that tension with North Korea contributed to the chaos.

TRUMP: But part of it is that is people are on edge. But maybe eventually we'll solve the problem so they won't have to be so on edge. We have great talks going on. The Olympics you know about. A lot of things can happen.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COLLINS: Now, the outcry over the president's remark comes at a time when Republicans and Democrats should be negotiating over how to keep the government open, but instead, they're arguing over which vulgar language the president used during that meeting in the Oval Office. As a reminder, Chris and Poppy, the government runs out of money in just four days.

CUOMO: All right, Kaitlan, appreciate it. Thank you for the reporting.

Let's bring in some guests. We've got CNN contributor and "Washington Post" national reporter Wes Lowery; and RealClearPolitics associate editor and columnist A.B. Stoddard.

A.B., what do you make of the suggestion that the House versus whole controversy is just a distraction? You now have two GOP senators, one of them a decorated veteran, basically coming to the president's defense. Nobody denies the comparison that he drew, saying, "Why do we need people from Haiti and Africa," who I'm terming brown people, because I saw this as a brown versus white thing. I know we just met with the minister -- the prime minister of Norway, but he brought up that contrast. It seemed pretty obvious why. Nobody denies that comparison. What is this all about?

A.B. STODDARD, ASSOCIATE EDITOR, REALCLEARPOLITICS: This is really, if you look back, Chris, over the last couple of days with this, starting on Thursday night, this unbelievable scare in Hawaii and now two U.S. senators accusing another one of lying.

Just imagine the perspective of friends and foe all around the world looking at the United States the last 72 hours, even in this time of peak tribalism and hyper-partisanship, the accusations by Senator Cotton and Senator Perdue that Senator Durbin is lying when there is a difference between just "s-house" and "s-hole" is really extraordinary. There are so many ways they could have tried to protect the president and said, "I didn't really hear that."

But they went on. It's not just this word. Perdue said, "This is a gross misrepresentation" of what was said at the meeting.

Senator Cotton said he didn't hear any derogatory comments about the individuals or persons. That is not the case. It is absolutely staggering that it has gone on. This is the kind of thing that senators accuse House members of doing, of treating each other this way. And the fact that they would do this when Senator Graham told Senator Scott and Senator Flake. There are so many other people that have corroborated this. The White House has not denied it. It's just absolutely staggering to me that they would do that.

HARLOW: You know, Wes, to A.B.'s point, I mean, Republican Senator Tim Scott, the only black Republican senator, said, "Look, Lindsey Graham said to me that, yes, it's basically accurate, that reporting. And you even have Kirstjen Nielson, you know, part of the cabinet, just saying, "I don't recall that specific phrase being used."

Again, parsing words, as A.B. Points out, which is pretty remarkable this morning, to be saying that that is what matters when what Chris elaborated is exactly what matters, the sentiment of it.

Let me ask you, Wes, why. Why do you think Senator Perdue and Senator Cotton would go this far to try to protect the president on this?

WES LOWERY, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, Senators Perdue and Cotton are both allies of the president.

HARLOW: OK. But to call their other -- you know, their fellow sitting senator, Dick Durbin--

LOWERY: A liar.

HARLOW: -- also respected, a liar.

[07:10:04] LOWERY: Yes, no. And I think it really, in many ways, is a commentary about the state of the depth of the partisan divide in our politics. I mean, it is pretty stunning to have sitting senators accuse their colleague, and their senior colleague, of essentially making something up, of being a liar, when reality, when on-the-record descriptions of that meeting and also, to be honest, our own basic understanding of how this president speaks.

I mean, it's in his cadence. Of course, he said it. This sounds exactly like something that Donald Trump would say, if we're in the meeting or not in the meeting. And when you have Senator Dick Durbin on the record saying, this is what was said--

CUOMO: Right.

LOWERY: -- it's pretty stunning to see these Republicans come out and just -- and to completely deny that this was said.

Now, I can see why they're trying to parse this word. They're trying to circle -- you know, look for any kernel of truth in their denial. But I do think that it's, you know, frankly a little craven that you would accuse one of our colleagues this way of completely lying. I think that beyond that, you know, we're having these conversations about these words and about this conversation, and I think it speaks to the depths at which the likelihood of a deal here never even really existed. They can't even come out of a meeting and someone here is lying. Right?

CUOMO: Right. LOWERY: If they can't even have a meeting and come out of it and have

everyone in good faith tell the truth about what was said, we're supposed to accept that this set of people can crack a massive deal?

CUOMO: Right. And look, once again, this is the president getting in his own way. OK? That's what this is. He created the situation. He chose to make this comparison, which nobody questions. They're parsing the word because they can. They're trying to blame it on the media. because they think that it works for them. Time will tell the test.

You have these two senators on one side. You'll remember, A.B., we went to the White House when it happened. And Raj whatever his name is didn't back off the words.

HARLOW: Not a word.

CUOMO: Kaitlin Collins talked to a staffer. He said, "Yes, that's what he said. And we believe the base is OK with it, just like with the NFL stuff."

Lindsey Graham was in the same room. A contemporaneous statement to Tim Scott. Has a lot of value in it.

Jeff Flake says that people told him that this was the language, this was the sentiment before it even came public.

Dick Durbin put out this statement. Let's put it up for people. They're using the fact that Durbin got jammed up once in the past talking about what happened in a meeting during the Obama administration. The Obama administration wound up backing off what Durbin had said. Now, they're trying to hoist him on that petard.

And he is saying, "Credibility as something that's built by being consistently honest over time. Senator Durbin has it. Perdue does not. Ask anyone who's dealt with both."

A.B., tit for tat, blah, blah, blah. The -- what does this mean for the DACA deal?

STODDARD: Well, actually, of all those accounts, I found conservative writer Erick Erickson as the most compelling. Because he spoke with one of the people that the president called to sort of bask in the glow of the backlash with, basically gauging his allies' response to this firestorm.

So it's really hard to believe that it wasn't a naked base play. He knew staff was in the room. He had had that meeting last week for which I give him enormous credit for saying something that illustrated leadership we haven't seen from him before. He said, "I'll take the heat."

CUOMO: Right. So much for that.

STODDARD: "I will take it for Democrats, and I will take it for Republicans." Getting to a deal requires giving everyone a built of cover from their base. Now the left wing of the Democratic Party is going to say, "That man is a racist, and you can't make a deal with him."

So it definitely exacerbates the divide.

I think, though, the court ruling gave Trump a few days to play to his base. They have renewed applications for DACA protection. And I think it buys him some time, and he thinks he can play this sort of, you know, immigration hawk thing, keep the base happy, respond to the criticism from Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh and on and on, and get back in his corner.

I think there's absolutely a chance he comes back into the middle again. He's very erratic this way. You never know what side he's on. But will it happen by this Friday? No, they're going to do an extension this week and punt this whole thing for another two weeks, likely. I think the date that I've seen is February 16.

And it allowed him some time with this court ruling to let these people be safe from deportation while he roars like the, you know, wall builder he once was on the campaign.

HARLOW: Wes, Representative John Lewis -- obviously, you know, his history fighting for civil rights in this country will always be remembered -- calls the president a racist. Yes. They are ideological opposites on many points, in different parties. He calls him a racist.

Representative Mia Love, right, first Haitian in Congress, said, "I can't defend the indefensible."

Then the president comes out and says, "I am not a racist" last night. Where does this leave us?

LOWERY: Well, I mean, it has to be said, most people who aren't racist don't generally have to put out statements saying that they're not a racist. That's a general rule. If you're trying to convince the television camera that you're not a racist, somewhere you've gone wrong, right?

But I think that beyond that, you know, it does -- it puts us in a place where increasingly, it's becoming clear for, I think, some members of Congress and other members of both the Democratic Party, as well as the Republican Party, that Trump is crossing lines and lines that were just leading otherwise reasonable people to conclude they don't have a desire to work with him. Right?

[07:15:15] And this point was just being made. You're going to have real pressure from the left flank of the Democratic Party. It's going to be extremely skeptical of giving this president any type of win, of coming to a table with him on some of these issues. And a real fear that, again, you know, it's been said about Donald Trump over and over again that he often says the quiet part out loud.

And here you have a case where there has been this kind of conservative ideology, this belief for a long time that we need -- or this talking point that we need to pivot towards, you know, high- quality immigrants and certain types of people. And Trump basically just comes out and says it: "I want more people from Norway." It really lays bear in some of the ugliness that belies some of these policy proposals. And I think it makes people less willing or less likely to be willing to find common ground with him in this administration.

HARLOW: All right. Wes, A.B., we appreciate it. Thank you, guys, very much.

HARLOW: Who do senator believe in their own ranks when it comes to what the president said or didn't say in that heated meeting? Some senators' stories are changing dramatically this morning. Democrat Chris Coons is with us.

CUOMO: Also coming up, the mistake that led to 38 minutes of pandemonium in paradise. The changes that could be coming after Saturday's false alarm about a missile attack in Hawaii. Imagine having half an hour where you think the end is coming.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[07:20:32] HARLOW: All right. Welcome back to NEW DAY. President Trump declaring he is not a racist. Overnight he's denying using a vulgar word you've heard more than enough of over the past few days to describe black and brown people coming to this country as immigrants.

Now some sitting senators who were in that heated White House meeting are changing their story dramatically.

Joining us now is Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware joins us.

Senator, thanks for being with us on this Martin Luther King Day, an important day, very important day for the history of this country.

Look, just listen to your fellow sitting senators, who both said in a joint statement on Friday, asked if the president used that word, basically, the "S" word, to describe these people, "We do not recall."

Here's what they said yesterday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PERDUE: I'm telling you he did not use that word, George. And I'm telling you it's a gross misrepresentation.

COTTON: I didn't hear it, and I was sitting further away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was. And I know what Dick Durbin has said about Donald -- about the president's repeated statements is incorrect.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: Senator David Perdue and Senator Tom Cotton, they're saying that Senator Dick Durbin is lying. What do you say? SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, Poppy, on this Martin Luther

King Day, rather than get too far inside the "he said, he said" back and forth here, I believe Senator Durbin and Senator Lindsey Graham, both of whom put out clear statements following their interaction with the president that demonstrated, I think, that we -- we are dealing here with a tale of two Trumps. With a president who a week earlier has a positive, open, constructive bipartisan meeting in which he says he'll sign any reasonable deal. Any deal, he said that they are able to bring back to him.

And then this second meeting where he is not only close-minded but says things that are offensive, racially insensitive and strongly at variance with our history as a nation.

I agree with what Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said following that meeting, that the United States is an idea not an ethnicity and that our strength is that we have welcomed people from all nations and that immigrants have strongly contributed to our country.

I choose to focus on the positive here. It's disappointing that this has dissolved into a fight of who said what at that meeting. What matters more is what we do next. Because it's going to get even harder now for us to come together and reach any sort of an agreement on DACA. We've got a federal government that shuts down this coming week, this Friday, if we can't come to an agreement. And it's just getting harder when we have a president who, rather than tamping down our distances and disagreements, fans them and enflames them.

HARLOW: So a few things on that. You say focus on the positive, focus on advancing this country not on dividing this country. Your fellow Democrat, Representative Jerry Nadler, who's going to be on the show a little bit later, he is proposing censuring the president. Essentially, and he would need to get a majority on board with him to do that. But essentially, a public reprimanding of the president for using this language. Do you believe that's productive or do you oppose that?

COONS: Well, Congressman Nadler is of course, free to take whatever step he thinks is required to emphasize what President Trump is doing doesn't speak for a majority of Americans.

Sadly, I doubt that that motion of censure will pass in either chamber. We have a Republican majority House and Senate that has stood by the president.

This is not the first time the president has said something that has taken us badly off track or that speaks to the worst of America's historic negative impulses, and it frankly, probably won't be the last time.

HARLOW: So--

COONS: Our challenge--

HARLOW: Go ahead. COONS: Our challenge, Poppy, is to remember the spirit of Martin

Luther King, who stood up to and confronted racism but also was able to find a way to heal our country and to move it forward from its original sin, from the slavery and the racial segregation that was the very founding of our nation. That's partly why he is so celebrated all across our country.

And one of the things I hope we can do is to stop letting our president take control of our news media day in and day out with these winks, and nods and innuendos that are nativist or racist. And that frankly, we need to find a way to move forward.

HARLOW: So Senator, on DACA, as you know, some of your fellow Democrats have said even over the weekend, we will not give our support and give our vote for a funding bill to keep the government open this Friday if it doesn't include a deal for DREAMers, if it doesn't include a DACA agreement. Are you in that camp, or will you agree to something that keeps the government up and running another continuing resolution without a DACA deal?

[07:25:15] COONS: Poppy, at this point, we've got a long list of things that are way overdue. This is no way to run a government. And I remember back to the first days of this Congress, when the majority leader said, "We get back to what we call regular order," which means moving things without crises, without cliff hangers, in addition to DACA, which we have to address, we have to provide--

HARLOW: But will you?

COONS: -- some confidence to these 800,000 people, Poppy. We also have to deal with or remind you, unfunded hurricanes, wildfire response.

HARLOW: Yes.

COONS: And unresolved--

HARLOW: But as some of your fellow Democrats -- some of your fellow Democrats say this is your moment of leverage. If you don't grab it by the horns--

COONS: That's right.

HARLOW: -- this time and say, "We will not fund the government if you have no deal for DREAMers, no deal for DACA, we're going to lose all our leverage, because you don't have the majority. It sounds like your -- you will agree to fund the government without a DACA deal, without a DREAMer deal. Is that correct?

COONS: Poppy, a majority of my caucus, myself included, we will not fund the government without a DACA deal. The challenge is to make it clear to the American people this is not just about immigration. It's also about CHIP. It's also about community health centers. It's also about response to hurricanes.

The Republican majority and the Republican president, to put a very sharp point on it, have failed to come up with a way that we can fund the government and address the vital needs of states and territories, of families and children all over this country.

This isn't what folks want us to be doing in Washington, is to have yet another cliff hanger and possibly a government shutdown. No one wants to shut the government down. I don't want to shut the government down.

But when the president has a meeting at the White House, at his own invitation, and brings together bipartisan leaders and says, "You go find a deal. I'll sign it, anything that helps solve this DACA program." And then a strong bipartisan group comes back with that deal, and he blows up the meeting and blows up the deal, it's hard to understand this is anything other than intentional sabotage of a responsible attempt by a good group of bipartisan senators led by Republican Lindsey Graham and Democrat Dick Durbin, to solve this longstanding problem.

And I'll remind you, a crisis of the president's own creating. The deadline that we're working up against for finding some resolution to the DREAMers, to the DACA situation, is an artificial one created by the president.

Congress should take statutory action to put into law the protections that are previously administrated. And I support our making responsible compromises to get there. That's part of what we have to do in the Senate. But we've got so many other important things we also need to be moving forward on, Poppy. And that was the point I was trying to make. There's lots of issues that we should not -- we should not move forward without having addressed and resolved.

HARLOW: All right. We'll be watching very closely this week when you guys are all back at work tomorrow. You've got four days to get this done. Senator Chris Coons, we appreciate it.

COONS: Thank you, Poppy.

HARLOW: Chris,

CUOMO: Great interview. The point that you're making about why the Democrats are doing what they're doing. You know, the most recent--

HARLOW: It's all in leverage.

CUOMO: Yes, but it's so strong. It's not often mentioned, what Poppy was just putting to Senator Coons.

Quinnipiac poll says you have overwhelming majorities of both parties saying you have to have the DREAMers. So why are the Democrats in such a hurry--

HARLOW: Eighty percent.

CUOMO: -- to give Trump as much as they seem to have on the table right now. Because really, this is about the president who wants the wall, whatever that means. So it's really good to push him on that. Thank you.

All right. So Republican Congressman Carlos Curbelo has been on the front lines. He's pushing a bipartisan bill to protect DREAMers. But President Trump is now sending mixed signals about whether a deal is even possible. What is that about? Does Curbelo even know? Next.