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Senate Judiciary Committee Grills DHS Secretary on Trump Comment; Jake Tapper Interviews Dick Durbin on Trump Comment. Aired 11:30-12p ET

Aired January 16, 2018 - 11:30   ET


[11:30:00] SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D), ILLINOIS: The president is insisting on something that is physically, illegally possible as a condition for him to give them a chance to be here in the United States legally. You've seen, because you commented on it on FOX News, the proposal, which Senator Graham and I as well as four other Senators have made on a bipartisan basis, and you rejected it. You said at one point, I believe, that -- let me see the quote here, "There is nothing in there that would prevent us from getting here again." Are you aware of the fact that included in this proposal is the entire request of the administration for border security in this fiscal year, $1.6 billion for walls and barriers and fences and another billion dollars for technology, exactly what you asked for? If you don't believe this will solve the problem, which is what you said on FOX News, why did the administration request it in first place?

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: Sir, that's not all we requested, as you know. We also requested to close the loopholes that serve as the pull factors that continue to exacerbate the problem. I cannot apprehend if I cannot remove. That's not border security.

DURBIN: Let me add, the first meeting we had last week, we agreed, and the president agreed there will be two phases to this conversation. The first immediately to deal with the DACA challenge, and the three other elements the president --


NIELSEN: Including border security, sir.

DURBIN: Including border security, every penny that you ask for. And then the president said, phase two goes into comprehensive immigration reform, many of the issues which you described as must haves. We understand that. To put the entire burden of immigration reform on the shoulders of these DACA recipients is fundamentally unfair, not practical, and jeopardizes their future and their lives. What we're trying to do is an honest bipartisan approach to deal with the first phase of this, and you have rejected it.

NIELSEN: I thank you for your passion. I hope you understand mine. I cannot agree to a deal that does not give the tools and resources to the men and women of Department of Homeland Security to do the job you have asked them to do.

DURBIN: We gave you every penny you asked for.

NIELSEN: It is not the pennies.


NIELSEN: It is closing the loopholes.

DURBIN: Can we cut back on some of this money because we could sure use it?

NIELSEN: The need the wall, too. The wall works. As you know, it is part of border security.

DURBIN: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


SEN. THOM TILLIS, (R), NORTH CAROLINA: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Madam Secretary, thank you for being here. I'm glad I missed that meeting. The latter part --

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: You've been watching the Senate Judiciary Committee grill the Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in what has been an extraordinary appearance. She was at that meeting on immigration that Senator Durbin was as well, the immigration where President Trump allegedly referred to African nations as shithole countries and talked instead about wanting immigrants reportedly from Norway instead. She has said she does not recall what words were used. She said here in this testimony that she did not hear that word used. She certainly seemed to recall the gist of the conversations, but not the specifics of the conversations. She avoided repeating all of the specifics, instead saying there have been tough language that was used by the president, and she also added, by other people in the room, something that Senator Durbin took offense to or certainly felt differently about, having been present in that same meeting as the secretary.

I want to discuss this now with CNN politics reporter and editor-at- large, Chris Cillizza, as well as CNN congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, and CNN Political Director David Chalian.

This is pretty interesting to watch. Senator Durbin clearly came ready to play a lot of the questions Democrats have had about whether the immigration proposals, policies of the administration, are motivated by racism. And that was also part of what he was trying to get at as he was talking to the secretary.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICS DIRECTOR: I actually think the secretary has proved the point here that many of us have been saying over the last couple of days. It doesn't matter what the word was that came out of the president's mouth because what it clearly agreed upon -- and I think clearly we learned what happened here -- is whether he said shithouse or shithole -- and Lindsey Graham repeated the work bad back to him and perhaps misquoted it, and perhaps that's why two different words were bandied about the meeting -- it is completely beside the point of what was enraging certain people in the room, which was that the president's approach of how he was thinking about these countries of origin for people that want to immigrate to the United States, and that the derogatory way that he was treating them was not what the president of the United States should be thinking of the nations as an ideal in this conversation moving forward. I think that overall was the point and it derailed this entire negotiation over DACA and the DREAMers.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I think, look, what you saw Senator Durbin doing was very calculated. As you noted, it was very planned. It was twofold. First, it was to get on the record, in public, by two actual participants on either side of that meeting exactly what happened. One, Senator Durbin trying to defend his remarks, which have been called into question by two Republicans Senators, by the administration itself. Something he wanted to do. But he also wanted to have the fight on policy, have a very clear discussion about what his proposal on the DACA issue would do, where the administration stood and why, at least according to his questions, the administration rejected that proposal when he feels like it addresses many of the things they asked for in the beginning. You can make the argument he was effective in the first part. But it's also very clear, if you want to look at the long game here and the negotiations ongoing right now, that where he sits and where Secretary Nielsen sits and where the Trump administration sits on this DACA issue, specifically, they're still very, very far apart and they have a very compressed time window to try to figure out some resolution right now on Capitol Hill.

[11:35:47] CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER & CNN EDITOR-AT- LARGE: Yes. To Phil's point, I think really what we're talking about now is are they going to pass a government funding, a short-term government funding measure, not are they going to pass an immigration measure. That seems as though -- I think that -- a little bit of that got lost in last Thursday's meeting because of the folks on what word he used. The fact was that that was the moment. That moment has now passed. And you don't -- Dick Durbin said earlier today, it took us four months to get here. You don't just suddenly say, oh, I'm going to move this. These things take time. You can't do it in two-and-a- half-day period.


CHALIAN: The proposal was never going to be the final deal, right?


CHALIAN: It was just a launching point for --


CILLIZZA: Once Trump went down that road, it became a first step that just got cut out from under them.

Another thing, I'm with David. And I've written about this. That the word, this specific word doesn't matter. The one thing I do want to address, we're still at the point in which we have two United States Senators, Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin, saying he said this.

KEILAR: Bipartisan agreement.

CILLIZZA: And we have Tom Cotton and David Perdue, in various ways, but on the Sunday talk shows yesterday -- two days ago, saying, well, he didn't say this. I mean, it is not the most important part of the debate. But I just think that Perdue and Cotton position is increasingly untenable. Because you see here the White House essentially again admitting that he did this.


CILLIZZA: I don't know where you go. Maybe it disappears. But in terms of -- not that there is that much comedy in the Senate, but even so, you have Tom Cotton and David Perdue calling Dick Durbin a liar.

KEILAR: It does in a way help you decide where certain people are in backing up President Trump on this.

I'm going to have you guys stick around because we have a really important thing to talk about.

Because just minutes -- just before this hearing, our Jake Tapper sat down with Senator Dick Durbin to talk about that Oval Office meeting. Here is his exclusive interview.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN CHIEF WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT & CNN HOST, THE LEAD & CNN HOST, STATE OF THE UNION: Leader Durbin, thank you so much for doing this. We appreciate it.

DURBIN: Happy to join you.

TAPPER: There's been a lot of back and forth about what was exactly said. Can you clear it up for us? What did the president say? What did you hear him say?

DURBIN: He said many things. Went on for probably half an hour. The most outrageous comment obviously is in reference to countries overseas that might send immigrants to the United States, and the president used the vulgar term which has been repeated over and over again. But it was a long, far-ranging meeting about immigration in general. Negative things were said about Haitians coming to the United States. The president was talking -- I think this is a tell, if you will -- we need more people from Norway, he said. Norway, they don't even take refugees in Norway, he said. And I just met with a Norwegian prime minister. We need more Europeans. We need -- I mean, it was pretty clear to me what the president's message was in that meeting.

TAPPER: Just to clear it up, when he said S-hole countries, he was referring to Africa?

DURBIN: Yes. TAPPER: Now, Senators Cotton and Perdue have challenged the notion

that he said S-hole. And I believe there is some reporting out there that the White House officials say that Perdue and Cotton think he said S-house countries as opposed to S-hole countries.

DURBIN: Let me say they're wrong. I can tell you explicitly they are wrong. And let me also say, is that their defense? That S-house is acceptable, and S-hole he would never say? Come on. To think that the president of the United States would refer to any country on earth as an S-house country, for goodness sakes, what does that say?

TAPPER: So those Senators had some things to say about you and your memory. I want to read them to you, give you an opportunity to respond. Perdue said, "I'm telling you he did not use that word and I'm telling you it is a gross misrepresentation" -- that you are making, a misrepresentation. And Senator Cotton said, "I certainly didn't hear what Senator Durbin has said repeatedly. Senator Durbin has a history of misrepresenting what happens in White House meetings. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by that. And I wasn't sitting as far away from Donald Trump as Dick Durbin was, and I know what was Dick Durban has said about the president's repeated statements was incorrect."

Your response?

[11:40:01] DURBIN: I don't know what he's referring to. As I said in Chicago, yesterday, politics ain't beanbag. I expect harsh critics on both sides. It is fine. It comes with the territory. I stand by every word I said.

Senator Cotton and Senator Perdue should remember a word as gross as that in the course of the conversation with the president of the United States.

TAPPER: What do you think of the notion they are, as you're saying, defending what the president said by leaning on the fact that he -- that they heard him say S-house as opposed to S-hole.

DURBIN: This is the defense? The defense that instead of S-hole, it was S-house, that is best they can come up with? It tells the story. This was a horrible moment in the history of our country, in the history of the Oval Office and the White House. And they should, I think, honor that responsibility they have as public officials to tell the truth.

TAPPER: There were other people in the room that day, and they have either not commented, such as Congressman Diaz-Balart and some others, and -- or they have said that they don't recall, like, Secretary Nielsen, the Department of Homeland Security. Lindsey Graham was there. And my understanding, from reporting, he was upset, as well. He said in a statement, on that, on what he heard the president say, was, "I said my peace to the president after his comment."

Did he say something to President Trump?

DURBIN: It was an extraordinary moment. After the president made these outrageous statements, with these vulgarities, I was sitting to the left of Lindsey. Lindsey was sitting closer to the president than we're sitting. He turned to him and addressed that directly, directly, in what I thought was one of the best statements about immigration policy in America that I've ever heard. He explicitly repeated that vulgarity so that it was clear why he was exercising -- why he was making this statement. Told him since -- I want to say it again publicly -- I respect him so much for speaking out. I think it had added importance that the member of the president's own party would be that explicit in standing up for what I think is a value that most Americans have to share.

TAPPER: What did he say?

DURBIN: Well, he basically went through it and said, let me tell you, Mr. President, this America is not about where you came from. It is an idea. It is an ideal. People come here, aspiring to be part of America's future. And he said, my family was from one of those S-hole countries. He used the word himself. He said they came here with limited training, limited experience. They made a life, started a business, and they gave me a chance. That's what America is all about. It was really an extraordinary moment. And I was so heartened that a president's own -- that among the president's own political party, would be that explicit in his face, right there, at that moment.

TAPPER: You and I have talked before and I know that memory of when the Irish and Irish Catholics were considered lesser, that that is something that you feel in your bones when you think about modern immigrants.

DURBIN: I certainly do. I'll add, my mother is an immigrant. She passed away now when I was first elected to the Senate. She was brought to the United States from Lithuania at the age of 2. I don't know if she would have fit the president's European category because she was a white girl, being brought to the United States. But for goodness sakes, I mean, we came here with nothing. Our family had nothing. My grandmother didn't speak English. And they came to this country and struggled to make a life. Here I sit today, the son of an immigrant, in those circumstances, as Senator from the state of Illinois. That's my story. That's my family's story. But that's America's story.

TAPPER: So President Trump has had a lot to say in response. He said he didn't make the comment. He isn't a racist. But I wonder, based on what the president said in that Oval Office meeting, and based on other things he has said, about Judge Curiel not being able to do his job because of his heritage. He called him a Mexican and pointed out that he's from Indiana, but he called him a Mexican. Based on the assertion there are some fine people on both sides of the rallies in Charlottesville. Do you think the president is a racist?

DURBIN: I'm not going to say that. I'll tell you the comments that he made when I was in the White House, I thought were vile, hate- filled, and they were racial in tone. There's no question about it. You can't talk about S-hole countries in Africa and why don't we get more Norwegians and Europeans in the United States without the inescapable conclusion that the president is raising race as an issue for immigration.


[11:44:44] KEILAR: That was Jake Tapper's exclusive interview with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. We have a lot to discuss.

We'll get in a quick break. Stay with us. We'll be right back.


KEILAR: And welcome back. We just heard Jake Tapper's exclusive interview with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin. They discussed that infamous Oval Office meeting where President Trump referred to African countries in vulgar terms and said he wanted more immigrants from Norway. Senator Durbin also applauded his Republican Senator Lindsey Graham for speaking out at that meeting.

And joining me now to discuss, back now, Chris Cillizza, Phil Mattingly and David Chalian.

He made the point, which he also made, David, in the hearing with Secretary Nielsen, that Lindsey Graham repeated the vulgarity, which makes it, as Chris Wallace, on FOX News said to Secretary Nielsen, somewhat implausible that she wouldn't have heard it. And that was the point that he was really getting at in the hearing and in this interview with Jake.

CHALIAN: Yes. I think that's the new piece of information we learned today about what -- how did this unfold, what really took place in that room. I think what we learned today, and why perhaps different people heard different things is because it wasn't just the president using the word, using the vulgarity. It was also Lindsey Graham. As you heard Dick Durbin tell Jake Tapper, Lindsey Graham was really close to the president and got right back at him and repeated the vulgarity. So now you had two different -- what Lindsey Graham heard and repeated might be different than what the word that other people heard initially come out of the president's mouth. Maybe that was the confusion. Again, I think all of that belies the point that Graham was trying to make to the president.

[11:50:21] KEILAR: It doesn't matter whether he said S-house or S- hole, as Senator Durbin said, is that their defense, when he was asking about Republican Senators who might have been splitting hairs on that.

One of the things I found interesting about this interview and also about Secretary Nielsen's take on the words that were used that we heard Senator Durbin pretty incredibly describe with backup from Senator Graham, she seems to really emphasize the -- what the president was saying about Norway. Oh, their prime minister had relayed to the president that they are hardworking, that they have low crime. She is purposely deemphasizing the whole point of this, which Jake really got to in that interview, which is the idea of African countries being discussed in derogatory terms and European countries being discussed as something to aspire to, what should be coming into the U.S. MATTINGLY: She's serving as the presidential translator in some way,

right? Most interestingly about that, when she is explaining how the meeting actually came together, it was something I was reminded of a Republican aide, shortly after the remarks came out and the Norway piece came out, came out and said, I guarantee you this had more to do with the fact he just met with the Norway leader yesterday and it was top of mind than anything else, and it just came out appearing to be very racist or something that Democrats seized on and called very racist. I think what that kind of undersells here is the reality right now on Capitol Hill and the reality in general, which is that's how Democrats are viewing this, based on history. That's how a lot of people are viewing those remarks. And based on what's going on, on Capitol Hill right now, the exchange you heard with Senator Durbin and Secretary Nielsen on the policy issues, that's what's poisoning an atmosphere right now where there was limited trust to begin with. There is no trust right now. And in terms of a path forward, I don't necessarily know that one exists at this point.

CILLIZZA: Yes. I defer to Phil, and I'm with Phil on that. I'm very skeptical. Let's say they kick it another month, the same well poisoning still exists. This doesn't just go away.

It was semi-painful/awkward to watch the Department of Homeland Security head, Kirstjen Nielsen, try to talk her way around that under questioning from Senator Durbin. I understand why she's doing it. But it's just -- it strikes me the selective memory issue -- and politicians of both stripes exert this. But it feels to me like you would remember that.

KEILAR: Convenient memory is what it seems to me.


CILLIZZA: I just feel like you would never -- I actually think one of the reasons that there might be a little bit of confusion, just to add to David's theory here, is if the president said something like that, I think there would be a little -- like a little taken aback moment.


KEILAR: The part where she said that rough language was being used all around, and Senator Durbin said, basically, did you hear me curse?

CILLIZZA: Or Senator Graham.

KEILAR: And she said no. She was able to definitively say that Durbin did not, and that Graham did, to which Durbin pointed out that he was recounting what the president had said. Her recollections actually sounded pretty specific.

CILLIZZA: Well, I just -- having been in some meetings, certainly not at this level, but in meetings in which there were harsh words exchanged, maybe not these words, but I remember meetings like that that happened 10 years ago, and it was nowhere near this level of stakes of players involved.

CHALIAN: No meetings here at CNN.


CILLIZZA: No. This was decades ago.

KEILAR: You worked somewhere else.

CILLIZZA: The always-contentious "Washington Post."



CILLIZZA: I would say it's strange credulity that you would not recall it.


CILLIZZA: That's human nature to me.


CILLIZZA: It seems unlikely that would be the case.

KEILAR: And she's been challenges in that regard.

I think one of the bigger issues here, David, might be that there is clearly a pressure that has been made so clear from this president, whether it's Secretary Nielsen or Senators who want to ally themselves with him, whether it's the attorney general, that they have to kowtow to what he wants to hear.

CHALIAN: This goes to what you were saying about how she proved her recollection of certain things or what was said between Durbin and Graham seems crystal clear. Where her recollection seems so broad and not crystal clear is she uses the euphemism of tough language. That's exactly what the president put in his tweet that he used tough language, tough words, rough language. She's just repeating the president's words here because of exactly what you're saying, which is that she understands that she needs to remain firmly with no daylight between her and her boss, the president.

KEILAR: What do you think?

[11:55:06] MATTINGLY: It's strategic. It's strategic in the sense that people have watched for 12 months in this administration what works and what doesn't work when you're trying to push a specific policy goal, whether it's Rand Paul on health associations, whether it's Senator Graham on his health care bill the president ended up getting behind. When people stick close to the president, do not attack the president, compliment the president, often their issues become top of mind and might actually move to the front of his agenda. I think that's the case with Senators. You see it on Capitol Hill where Republicans in both chambers have made a calculated decision that it makes more sense to me, even though privately it's off-putting that something was said or done, to be able to move something forward. It's especially the case when you're a cabinet member in the administration.

KEILAR: We'll have to leave it there, gentlemen.

Thank you so much, David Chalian, Phil Mattingly and Chris Cillizza. I appreciate it.

Tune in to Wolf at 1:00 for the second part of Jake Tapper's exclusive interview with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin.

"INSIDE POLITICS" with John King begins after a quick break.