Return to Transcripts main page


Trump Denies He's Racist in Wake of Vulgar Remarks; Syrian Forces Step Up Attacks on Rebel-Held Areas; Nigerian President Vows Justice After Herders and Farmers Clash; Money that Workers Earn in Russia Goes to North Korea. Aired 12-1a ET

Aired January 16, 2018 - 00:00   ET



[00:00:10] ISHA SESAY, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN NEWSROOM live from Los Angeles.

Ahead this hour:

A game of vulgar semantics -- what did Donald Trump really say about African countries? What is hole or house -- sadly the emphasis really does remain the same.

Plus communal violence in Nigeria pits farmers against herders. Dozens killed in the bloody conflict over fertile land with many now calling on President Buhari to act.

And California catches (ph) a house of horror for 13 people age two to 29, some shackled to beds with chains and padlocks; their parents now behind bars.

Hello and welcome to our viewers around the world. I'm Isha Sesay. NEWSROOM L.A. starts right now.

Well, Donald Trump will mark his first full year as U.S. president this week. But instead of celebrating, he's on the defensive once again.

The President returned to Washington Monday insisting he's not a racist. He spent part of the Martin Luther King national holiday golfing, not performing community service like his predecessors, and vulgar comments about African countries continue to dog him.

A senior Republican source familiar with the matter says Republican in that Oval Office meeting heard Mr. Trump use a slightly different phrase. But the Democrat in the meeting is standing by his account.


SENATOR DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: I don't know that changing the word from hole to house changes the impact which this has.

I stick with my original interpretation. I am stunned that this is their defense.


SESAY: Well, now the President is attacking Democratic Senator Dick Durbin saying he's to blame if there's no deal on DACA. That's the program that protects children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.

CNN's Jeff Zeleny has all the details.


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.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: President Trump insisting again he's not racist as the firestorm still rages over his vulgar comments on immigration.

As the nation remembers Martin Luther King Jr. today, the President denies describing African-Countries as shitholes during a heated Oval Office meeting last week. But the furor is threatening a bipartisan agreement to shield young immigrants from deportation.

TRUMP: Well, we're ready, willing and able to make a deal on DACA but I don't think the Democrats want to make a deal. And the folks from DACA should know the Democrats are the ones that aren't going to make a deal.

ZELENY: But it's the President's own words that have also complicated finding a fix for DACA -- the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals -- young immigrants also known as Dreamers.

With a government shutdown looming in just four days, Democrats were pushing for a deal to protect Dreamers as part of the broader spending plan. But that potential compromise is now overshadowed by a fight over the President's language about immigrants.

Two Republican Senators and a cabinet secretary who attended that Oval Office meeting said the President didn't refer to African countries with a specific vulgarity that Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said he did.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm telling you he did not use that word.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I didn't hear it. And I was sitting no farther away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't recall him saying that exact phrase.

ZELENY: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham who also was in the meeting and did not dispute the President's inflammatory remark called on both sides to elevate the discourse.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: 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: The President's insistence over the weekend that he wasn't a racist struck a familiar tone.

TRUMP: Racism.

The least racist person.

I am the least racist person.

The least racist person that you've ever seen.

I am the least racist person that you've ever met, believe me.

ZELENY: Republican Congressman Charlie Dent said Trump's pattern on race was troubling.

REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: If it had not been for the fact that the President had previously made statements about Mexicans and Muslims and his failure to denounce David Duke in a timely manner and then, of course, the Charlottesville situation, I think that -- those previous incidents I think also are cause for concern. And it made this situation even more alarming.

ZELENY: Mitt Romney also weighing in today as he prepares to rejoin the political debate through a likely Senate run in Utah.

"The poverty of an aspiring immigrant's nation of origin is as irrelevant as their race. The sentiment attributed to POTUS is inconsistent with America's history and antithetical to American values.

And President Trump back in Washington after a three-day holiday break at his Florida resort. A question facing him now, what will he and the Republican leaders in Congress do to keep the government open past that Friday deadline?

[00:05:00] An immigration deal was supposed to be at the heart of a bipartisan compromise. That now looks unlikely. So four busy days here in Washington and only the third week of the year.

Jeff Zeleny, CNN -- the White House.


SESAY: Busy, busy, busy. Let's break it all down.

Ethan Bearman is a California talk radio host and Shawn Steel is a California Republican National Committeeman. Gentlemen -- as it's the first time I've seen you this year, Happy New Year. Welcome.


SESAY: Ethan -- to start with you. As you heard in that piece there's this game of semantics under way. Did the President say shithole or shithouse about African countries, Haiti and El Salvador? I call it a game of semantics. Does it matter to you?

ETHAN BEARMAN, TALK RADIO HOST: It doesn't. And actually for the first time ever, I actually called President Trump a racist over this statement. It's one thing to make a racist statement but when you do it over a series of things -- over 18 in 20 months, you know, from the Mexicans being rapists, to Muslims, to there's my black guy in the audience, et cetera -- this was the culmination. For the first time I publicly call President Trump a racist over this incident.

SESAY: To bring you in -- Shawn. The White House when this broke last week did not deny it. They did not deny that the President made these comments. In fact CNN learned that the administration actually believed it would play well with the Trump base.

Now we have the President coming out saying he was misrepresented. Let me ask you a blunt question -- Shawn. I expect a blunt answer. Where do you stand with what the President said? Do you stand with him?


SESAY: Or do you stand in condemnation of the comment?

STEEL: No. I stand for the truth. And Senator Durbin's well known gold-plated liar. Obama's own White House rebuked him in 2013 when he made up stuff --

SESAY: Let's not do --

STEEL: No, no. The truth is he is not an honorable person.

SESAY: Let's not do this.

STEEL: Of the six people, only one actually attributes the words to Trump. Nobody else agrees.

SESAY: Let's -- let us not do that because that's not true.


STEEL: And the fact is this is a left-wing media attack where there's very little credibility.

SESAY: Ok. I'm going to hit pause. I'm going to hit pause. We're not going to do what-aboutism this evening.

STEEL: I'm not saying it's what-aboutism --


STEEL: -- messenger and he's not credible.

SESAY: Ok. So Lindsey Graham -- Lindsey Graham who attended the meeting - -

STEEL: Yes. SESAY: -- confirmed the comment.

STEEL: Not true. Totally not true.

SESAY: He absolutely did.

STEEL: Would you like to read what he actually said to the "Wall Street Journal"?

SESAY: He absolutely did.

STEEL: He said, he said his piece and he wasn't going to say any more about it.

SESAY: Absolutely stood --

STEEL: He never confirmed it nor denied it.

SESAY: The White House had not denied this. So I'm going to ask you the very basic question that the White House did not deny these comments last week. Do you stand for the comments or do you stand in condemnation? It's a very --

STEEL: Nobody stands for the comments including -- including Trump. Including the three Senators who said he didn't do it, including the Department of Homeland Security.


BEARMAN: No, no, no, no, no. They did not say he didn't do it. They said this isn't the exact phrase. It's lawyer speak.

STEEL: And this is a myth. Why are the Democrats trying to destroy a DACA deal because that was the only purpose that Durbin went in.

SESAY: You know what --

STEEL: And Durbin -- Durbin's taking a tactic that's going to set back 800,000 illegal immigrants.

SESAY: I would not -- we will get to DACA. You make a very valid point -- Shawn. So we will get there.

But that is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the comments that were made. And I am asking --

STEEL: I don't believe the comments were made. That's the point of principle (ph).

SESAY: I want you to take a listen to --

STEEL: Comments like this made by anybody, it's unacceptable.

SESAY: Why did the White House not deny them last week?

STEEL: I don't know if you have to deny every day of the week. I don't know about the timing. I don't think that's telling particularly.

SESAY: Of course, it's telling. These were offensive comments that offended allies of the United States. Countries around the world that the country's engaged in diplomatically.

And the White House did not condemn them. It is not enough to say it does not matter.

STEEL: Maybe they should have been --

SESAY: Be that as it may --

STEEL: -- you can say that but Durbin on the other hand has himself been attacked by Obama's own White House.

SESAY: Not talking about that.

STEEL: The man is not truthful.

SESAY: Not talking about that because we know that Tim Scott, Jeff Flake, a number of other Republicans have all come out and said they heard from people who attended the meeting that those were the comments.

STEEL: Now you're getting into hearsay. Hearsay is not a pretty good -- how about a military hero like Tom Cotton. Senator of Arkansas --

BEARMAN: Who, by the way --


BEARMAN: -- parsed the words. Parsed the words.

SESAY: Last week --

STEEL: Wait - -Durbin is the one that's changing a story. He's parsing the words.

Listen --


SESAY: I want you to take a listen to --

STEEL: This is why people hate main stream media.

SESAY: Pause. Pause. I want you to take a listen to what Mia Love said. She's a representative. She's a Republican. She's the first Haitian-American elected to congress. I want you to take a listen to what she had to say and then Shawn -- give me your thoughts.


REP. MIA LOVE (R), UTAH: I still think that he should apologize. I think that there are people that are looking for an apology. And I think that that would show real leadership. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Were the comments racist, do you think?

LOVE: Well, I think they were -- yes. I think that they were unfortunate.


[00:09:53] SESAY: What part of what Mia Love said, Shawn, was wrong? That the comments -- we're going to take it that they were said because that is what we heard and the White House did not deny them. What part was wrong that they were racist? What part was wrong that she --


STEEL: I say you know the White House has denied it.

SESAY: -- what part was wrong that the President should apologize?

STEEL: You know, that most of the people in the room denied it.

But I like Mia Love. I think she's a star. I think she's wrong in this issue. I don't think Trump is a racist. I think he's a boor. I think he's a rough-talking person that behind closed doors.

And I can guarantee you, Durbin will never be invited back to the White House because you can't trust the man. He makes up stuff. And that's why his own colleagues don't trust him.


SESAY: Ok. So can I just remind you -- let me remind our viewers at home that President Trump in 2017, said all Haitians have AIDS and also said once Nigerians come to this country they won't want to go back to their huts. So it does not seem like a leap and a jump and a hop and a skip that the President would utter such comments.

STEEL: I'm not sure he said those but I'm going to take your word for it.


STEEL: To me that's new information. It's absurd. It's silly.

BEARMAN: It's a pattern.

STEEL: It's embarrassing. I'm not sure it's accurate though but I'm going to -- I'm going to look it up.

BEARMAN: It's a pattern and the Republicans are going to get stuck.


STEEL: You get it from the mainstream media, you get distorted views from left-wing reporters.

SESAY: Let Ethan speak and then --

BEARMAN: It's going to get --


BEARMAN: Because Republicans are going to get painted with this with them cozying up with the alt-right. And now you have Trump in a continuing pattern of statements --

SESAY: Let him finish.

BEARMAN: -- that are racist in nature which adds up over all to being racist and that's what the Republicans face in the midterms and if that's that little minority of the United States that you want to attract and people with latent racist tendencies --

STEEL: It's funny you talk about Nazis because it was Senator Durbin that equated American soldiers in Afghanistan of being Nazi soldiers.


SESAY: We are not talking about Senator Durbin. He's not the President of the United States. He is not so we're talking about him.

STEEL: Durbin is the source of this lie. It's a fundamental lie.

SESAY: I do want to listen to what Representative Val Demings said --

STEEL: Oh, God no. But if you insist.

SESAY: My show so you have to --

STEEL: Yes. Well --

SESAY: -- take a listen.


REP. VAL DEMINGS (D), FLORIDA: When the President of the United States has to repeatedly say, because of his words or his actions, that he's not a racist we have a definite problem. I think the fact that we are talking about this during Martin Luther King's birthday is just a painful reminder that racism is still the ghost in the room and it has found its way to the White House.


SESAY: Ethan, how much damage has the President's words done? Is it long lasting?

BEARMAN: Well, I'm not sure if it's terribly long lasting. But I think the issue is we have allowed racists to come out of the closet again. We have nationalists. We have extremists on the far right who feel comfortable going after people. We saw that with the Charlottesville rally. This just exacerbates that problem. We have now alienated an entire

continent diplomatically. I mean Africa is an extremely diverse continent with a variety of people and languages and he called -- lumped them all together and explicitly contrasted all of them with Norway.

And there is no getting around the fact that that is a racist statement. And yes, we have to face -- South Africa is very upset as they should be. You have Haiti who is very upset as they should be.

And we need to work on repairing these relations not just with the countries but with people. People need to come together. On Martin Luther King Day, of all days we need to understand that coming together as different religions, as different ethnicities, different cultures -- we are all human beings that need to be treated equally on this planet.

SESAY: Shawn -- I'm going to give you the last word. But before I do I want to make it very clear to you. I am African. I am from the continent of Africa. So I am offended by the words attributed to the president.

But I'm going to give you the last word and ask you whether you care that parts of the world including many parts of Africa believe that the President said this and are offended. Do you care?

STEEL: I certainly care a good deal. Here's what I'm concerned about. How offended are we that Obama called Libya a shithouse just two years ago? Now, that wasn't behind closed doors, it was publicly. It was put in "The Atlantic" magazine, never refuted by Obama.

But I think Libyans, as a people, they're brown, they're African, they speak Arabic but to accuse them of being a shithouse.

And then you have Lindsey accusing Mexico of being a hellhole. And he said that in public testimony in 2013. Are you offended with that? That's my question to you.

If you're offended with that you're consistent.

SESAY: I think it's really interesting --


STEEL: I don't think it's necessary to describe any country because all of our countries at one time were poor, enfeebled and corrupt including, sad to say, even Ireland.

SESAY: I think it's very interesting that even though the topic at hand is the president of the United States --

STEEL: Oh I see, it's not Obama; he gets a pass because --

SESAY: He's not the president of the United States.

(CROSSTALK) [00:15:02] STEEL: But he gets a pass. Lindsey gets a pass. It's all about Trump all the time. This is a Trump-hating idea.

BEARMAN: Muslims must be banned from coming into the country.

STEEL: You're making it up.

BEARMAN: We are not making it up.

STEEL: And by the way, most of America doesn't buy this.

SESAY: As I said, you're either with the President and his comments or you're against them.

STEEL: I don't like the comments if they were true.

SESAY: Be that as it may, we are going to hit pause.

STEEL: Nobody has proven they're true.

SESAY: We hit pause because I said so.

STEEL: Indeed.

SESAY: We hit pause.

All right. Gentlemen, appreciate it. Thank you.

BEARMAN: Exactly.

SESAY: All right.

Turning now to Syria and the Syrian state media say the Syrian Army wants to end the U.S. presence in the country. This comes after the U.S. announced plans to form a Kurdish-led border security force in Syria. Russia, Turkey and Syria are against the plan saying it will further destabilize the area.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government has stepped up its air-raids against rebel-held areas in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta where civilian deaths are mounting with growing concern that the Assad crackdown could trigger a refugee catastrophe.

Let's take a closer look at the situation now. I'm pleased to say we're joined by CNN national security analyst Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. Gayle -- thank you for being with us.

Both Idlib, Eastern Ghouta coming under sustained attacks from the Assad regime in recent weeks -- help us understand what's going on because these areas are de-escalation zones. They had been designated as such -- correct?

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Presumably they have been designated as such but there is a move by the Syrian regime to retake areas that are held by rebels and rebels are retaking towns. And so what you have is the same story of the Syrian civil war which is moms and dads caught in the crossfire of a civil war that they did not create trying to figure out how to get their kids through the end.

And you know, every time -- the worst part about Idlib we met when we were (INAUDIBLE) this summer, we met a family whose in-laws were in Idlib and they were talking about what it's like to cross back and forth. And Idlib had been seen as a relatively safe place to be.

It was difficult but it was relatively safe in terms of strikes. That is not the case now. And you have families who fled Aleppo. Moms and Dads who fled Aleppo.

SESAY: Because those are people who left other areas to come to Idlib.

LEMMON: Come to Idlib -- right. I mean we talk about the refugee crisis -- that is nothing compared to the internally displaced persons crisis.

SESAY: Right.

LEMMON: People who were kicked out of their homes by things falling from the sky onto their balconies and children going on to the ground beneath it, right.

I mean we talk about this war as this nameless, faceless conflict affecting nameless, faceless people but when you're on the ground and meet them as so many here have been and as we were this summer, right.

I mean you're talking about young people who have not ever been in school. We're talking about moms and dads who are really watching their children die in front of them from either barrel bombs or strikes.

SESAY: And, you know, what is the -- what's the end goal on the part of the Assad regime for this? Because there were talks scheduled -- or rather there are talks schedule in Sochi, a national dialogue, for a month.

So what is this about -- I mean the designation of the de-escalation zones was supposedly about creating conditions that would be beneficial for talks. And escalation and attacks on these areas -- what's the end goal?

LEMMON: In 2011 the past policy with the Assad regime, time has come for Assad to step aside. By now the policy, and this is certainly not the Trump administration, it was more or less the Obama administration as well, which is, you know, the time has come for Assad to mostly stay because we don't have a better alternative.

What the Assad regime has been able to do is with the help of Russia and Iran. It would never have been possible without the two of them behind him. It's to shape facts on the ground and to basically prove to the rest of the world that you don't know what's going to come if we're not here. So we are the better alternative.

And there's no sign that the Assad regime is going to stay. And for Russia, right, I mean there's also the challenge of does the Russian government actually have as much influence with Assad as everybody has given it credit for because there's no sign coming that the Assad regime is actually prepared to have elections which was the next plan.

We talk about us but Geneva is the U.N. process. So everybody has, you know -- we talk tough about the axis of mistrust among Russia, Turkey and Iran when it comes to Syria. And none of that looks like they'll be changed (ph).

SESAY: And we always (INAUDIBLE) the conversation with the civilians are caught in the middle and they are dying and they are suffering and the war grinds on.

Gayle -- we always appreciate it. Thank you. >

LEMMON: Nice to join you.

SESAY: Thank you.

A mass burial in Nigeria after deadly clashes over fertile land -- now the country's president is vowing justice. The details next.

Plus Pope Francis is being welcomed in Chile with cheers and admiration but he's also facing threats and protests. We will explain why, next.


SESAY: Pope Francis is visiting Chile where he toured the streets of the capital Santiago to cheering crowds. But keeping him safe is a concern. The Pope is facing threats and protests, many there furious over how the Vatican has dealt with scandals of child sex abuse. The Pope could also find anger protests when he visits Peru later this week.

Well, the president of Nigeria is promising justice for those killed in clashes between cattle herders and farmers; 72 people were laid to rest in a mass burial in Benue State after fighting on New Year's Day. The violence comes after a new law which limits cattle grazing. Experts say fertile land is getting harder to find as Nigeria's population grows.

CNN's Stephanie Busari joins us now from Lagos in Nigeria. Stephanie -- always good to have you with us.

So the deaths here are attributed to clashes between farmers and Fulani herdsmen. However CNN has heard from a representative of the herdsmen's association who denies that the Fulani were actually involved.

So my question to you is what more do we know about what actually happened? What further details are emerging?

STEPHANIE BUSARI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's been a long standing and complex issue between the herdsmen and the farming community. The details are still emerging but, you know, one side blames the other -- the sides of -- SESAY: Stephanie -- apologies. We are struggling to make sense of

what you're saying. We clearly have a connection issue. Let's work on reestablishing a better line if you will and get you back to keep this conversation going.

So Stephanie -- we're going to drop for a second and just dial you up again and see what we can do.

All right. We're going to hit pause on that for a second and move on.

The United States and Canada are co-hosting a summit on the North Korean nuclear threat Tuesday. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis will attend the meeting in Vancouver. South Korea and Japan are among the 18 other countries participating.

But North Korea's largest trading partner China will not attend. The summit comes a day after delegates from the North and South held a second meeting in the demilitarized zone. They're working on plans for North Korea to take part in next month's winter Olympics. >

Well, sanctions against Pyongyang will be on the table at the Vancouver summit. The U.N. approved new sanctions just last month, you may remember, but so far they don't appear to be slowing Kim Jong- Un's nuclear program. Part of the reason is the money North Korea receives from its workers in Russia.

Matthew Chance has our exclusive report.


[00:24:57] MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Behind these ramshackle gates a hidden world of North Korean labor where Pyongyang sends its camera-shy workers to live and to earn hard Russian cash. It's a crucial economic lifeline from Moscow to the sanctioned North Korean regime.

KONSTANTIN KOSACHEV, SENIOR RUSSIAN LAWMAKER: Sanctions is their own instrument to my mind. This is not the solution of the problems of North Korea.

CHANCE: So employing these tens of thousands of North Korean workers is Russia's way of going around those sanctions.

KOSACHEV: Absolutely not. We will not go around any sanctions which are supported by the Security Council.

CHANCE: We visited this construction site in the Russian city of St. Petersburg where the workers are North Korean migrants. U.S. diplomats tell CNN they believe more than 50,000 North Koreans work in Russia and upwards of 80 percent of their wages are paid directly to Pyongyang. It's an important source of funding for the cash-strapped regime.

ALEXANDER GABUEV, CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT CENTER: Russia is allowed to keep the workers which they have but not to either enlarge the quotas or introduce new labor or to resign the contracts.

And the ambiguity is that nobody has looked into the proper contracts so nobody knows how many years they are allowed to stay.

CHANCE: And as sanctions tighten on North Korea, there are concerns about how Pyongyang uses the cash earned by the laborers who work and sleep and even eat here.

All right. Well, this looks like it's the canteen for the North Korean workers. And here they are in here having their lunch. Obviously, this is very important.

There are a lot of people just here. And it's very important because across Russia there are thousands -- come on in, come on in -- there are thousands of Russians, thousands of North Koreans rather that operate on North Korean sites.

And the importance of that is that the U.N. says that this is one of the main ways that North Korea funds its missile program and its nuclear weapons program.

But Russia denies undermining international sanctions saying it stands against Pyongyang's military ambitions and supports U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for North Korean nuclear restraint.

The money these workers earn, insist Russian officials, is a form of direct aid keeping North Koreans alive.

KOSACHEV: The money is used to assist people who live in North Korea to survive because they do experience economic and social problems. I cannot imagine a situation where you may color this money and see look this money earned in Russia go for the nuclear program and that money earned I don't know in Japan it goes somewhere else.

CHANCE: Russia it seems supports efforts to isolate the North Korean regime, but also helps to keep it afloat.

Matthew Chance, CNN -- St. Petersburg.


SESAY: Well, we're going to take a very quick break now.

When we come back we're going to take you back to Lagos to get the very latest on those New Year's Day clashes between herdsmen and farmers that left 72 people dead.

Stay with us.