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White House Scrambles to Contain Immigration Fallout; Crying Children Separated from Parents Caught on Audio; Interview with Senator Tina Smith; President Trump Escalates Trade Wars with China. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired June 19, 2018 - 10:00   ET


[10:00:00] MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: -- affected the outcome of this investigation. While people may have had their own political biases, the inspector general did not say that this was -- the end result of the investigation had anything to do with anyone's own personal feelings, so the president may be going out on a little bit of a limb there -- Poppy.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: It seems like it. Manu, appreciate the reporting on the Hill, thank you so much.

It is 10:00 a.m. Eastern. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. Let's get to it.

So this morning, outrage is building, the White House scrambling to contain the fallout over the administration's practice of separating families at the border. The president remaining defiant, pointing his finger solely at Democrats writing moments ago, quote, "Democrats are the problem. They don't care about crime and they want illegal immigrants."

This despite mounting pressure from both parties to end his own administration's zero tolerance practice.

Here's Republican Senator Lindsey Graham just moments ago.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: It's not all the Democrats' fault. This is a problem a long time, in 2014 we had the same problem. The problem is that neither party has been able to come together to fix it. I've tried a bunch.

Now it's President Trump's chance. He's president. Not Obama. I think there is a deal to be had. I think Melania got it right. My advice to the president, listen to Melania.


HARLOW: The president is heading to Capitol Hill in hours. He will meet with congressional Republicans on this issue, on two proposed bills. Many of those leaders have spoken out against the separation of children from their parents at the border.

Let's go to the White House ahead of that meeting, Abby Phillip is there.

Look, the White House, the president defiant as he just showed us on Twitter, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen defiant. What is the message heading up to the Hill today?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's somewhat confused here today, Poppy. The president and many White House officials are saying publicly that they still blame Democrats, but they're not owning up to the underlying problem, which is that this practice is happening, and some White House officials acknowledge that it is part of an effort to deter immigrants from coming up from Central America and crossing the border illegally.

Listen to some of this back and forth just in the last 24 hours about whether or not this is part of a plan put in place by this White House to get immigrants to stop crossing the border.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Are you intending to send a message?

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, HOMELAND SECURITY SECRETARY: I find that offensive. No. Because why would I ever create a policy that purposely does that?

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Perhaps it's a deterrence?


LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Are you considering this a deterrence?

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: I see that the fact that no one was being prosecuted for this as a factor in a fivefold increase in four years and this kind of illegal immigration, so, yes, hopefully people will get the message and come through the border at the port of entry.


PHILLIP: So today could be a really pivotal day for this issue. The president is meeting with House Republicans later this afternoon to talk about the issue of immigration and the White House has said that they believe that the issue of family separations will come up. There are several bills being proposed by Republicans to deal with family separations separately from other immigration issues at the White House has pushed Congress to deal with.

Will the president back those bills? It remains to be seen. How much fire is he going to get from his own party this afternoon will also be a big question here -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes. What will those congressional Republicans who publicly oppose this actually say to the president when they're sitting in the room with him.

Abby Phillip, thank you very much. This is an issue dividing the country, dividing political leaders on

how to address it. On an emotional level, though, it is searing to hear what it is like for these children separated from their parents.

Nick Valencia is live for us in Brownsville, Texas, with more.

Nick, we're hearing, we're hearing from these kids at one of these detention centers. What can you show us?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: It is absolutely excruciating and heartbreaking to hear the sounds of these children, Poppy. Ten Central American children, some of them as young as 4 years old, who are fleeing violence, their families faced with a choice between life and death, running away from gangs like MS-13, which I should remind our viewers were founded on the streets of America.

We don't know a lot about this audio here that was released from the investigative nonprofit ProPublica. They say that this audio was taken sometime last week along the U.S.-Mexico border. It is gut wrenching to hear. We should warn our viewers, some of you may find this disturbing.








UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we have an orchestra here. Right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What we're missing is a conductor.


VALENCIA: We have reached out to the White House as well as Border Patrol to try to verify independently here at CNN, but we have yet to hear back.

[10:05:05] Meanwhile, this morning we are getting new poll numbers at CNN which show that a majority of Americans, two-thirds, disapprove of the president's zero tolerance immigration policy. He has blamed Democrats for creating this issue, not being tougher on border security. Democratic lawmakers I've spoken to here in Texas say that's disingenuous -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Nick Valencia, thank you very much for that reporting. So a bipartisan group of more than 70 former U.S. attorneys have

written an open letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions this morning, condemning this practice of separating parents from children at the southern border. They write in part, quote, "Your zero tolerance policy has produced a tragic and unsustainable result." It goes on to say, "Until now, no Republican or Democratic administration nor any prior attorney general has endangered children in order to deter illegal entry."

Also listen to two border state Republican lawmakers condemning the practice.


REP. WILL HURD (R), TEXAS: It's very clear that it's within Department of Justice, it's within DHS' ability to not separate kids from their parents and so acting as if this is something that Congress is preventing from happening is just incorrect and it's something that this administration could change right away.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: All of us who are seeing these images of children being pulled away from moms and dads, in tears, we're horrified. This has to stop. I am this week introducing legislation, the Protect Kids and Parents Act that will mandate that kids must stay with their parents and it will also expedite the proceedings.


HARLOW: With me now, Robby Mook, CNN political commentator, former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton, and Scott Jennings is here, CNN political commentator, former special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Gentlemen, I'm glad you're here.

And Scott, let me begin with you because you worked in the Bush White House. And obviously you've seen the reaction to Laura Bush's opinion piece this week. You call this policy, quote, "trying to mow your yard with dynamite." How is this going to play out for the Trump administration?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it's not going to play well. I mean, the politics of it are bad, the polling is bad, the images are bad. I think most Republicans and most Americans support the idea of stopping violent criminals from coming into the country. The problem is these images we're seeing from the border are not of violent criminals, they're little children who have been taken away from their parents. This audio is terrible politics.

I think this has been a terrible mistake. I think the president could reverse it and what I'd like to see happen here is to try to make something out of this crisis. I want to see the president go up to Capitol Hill tonight, I want him to rally the Republicans. I want the Republicans in the House to support this legislation that is sitting there that would end the child separation and get comprehensive immigration reform. I want to see that move on down the line because out of this crisis,

out of this mess, if we can turn it into something, then it wouldn't be all for naught.

HARLOW: Scott, you have said on this network, look, the president could be, in your words, the hero here. Here is the thing. I asked a Republican member of Congress last hour on this show who doesn't support this policy either, should the president order the practice to be stopped immediately, and he keeps saying -- he kept saying as a lot of Republicans said, well, if he can, then he should.

There is no question, right. Scott, there is no question about whether President Trump can stop the practice of separation right now.

JENNINGS: Yes, I think he should end the practice. I think he's going to regret his administration having engaged in this. We saw this blow up in President Obama's face back in 2014. Doing this has never worked for any administration. And by the way, I don't really think it's going to be a deterrent. I mean, they're fleeing violence, and --

HARLOW: Well, it's actually not.

JENNINGS: Yes, it's not a deterrent.

HARLOW: I mean, it's actually not a deterrent.


HARLOW: We have new publicly available data out that shows that those border crossings have actually increased 5 percent.

JENNINGS: Yes, I don't see how they're going to win. They're just not going to win the public relations battle over this. And it's not -- it's morally not right either and so there is a way to move forward here and try to make something out of a mess in my opinion.

HARLOW: But, Robby, the polling, it's interesting because Scott brought up the polling at the beginning. The new CNN polling this morning actually shows 58 percent of Republicans support this practice. What do you make of that?

ROBBY MOOK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes. I mean, look, it deserves to be said upfront. What is happening is absolutely outrageous and it's wrong and it's immoral. And I don't even like talking about this in a political context because it actually reinforces what the president is doing, which is turning these children into pawns in a political game. But I do think that the polling numbers there explain exactly what is going on here.

Donald Trump took a lesson from the -- from the 2016 campaign, he actually took two lessons. First of all, do outrageous things to get everybody focused on the outrageous things, not the issues at hand and not hold him accountable for whether he's doing a good job. That's lesson number one. They took away. Lesson number two they took away is do extreme things that your base likes. That will generate high turnout and that will win you elections. And that 58 percent number is exactly what is underpinning this.

[10:10:02] And I think you even heard Corey Lewandowski, one of Donald Trump's campaign managers from the 2016 campaign, said as much. And so that's what's particularly disgusting about what's going on to me is this is not out of their moral desire to stop illegal immigration, this is not coming from a law enforcement standpoint as you just outlined, the evidence doesn't back that up. This is a purely political move and these children are being traumatized as part of an effort to increase Republican turnout in the election. That is all this is.

HARLOW: Well --

MOOK: And it's disgusting.

HARLOW: Robby, let me ask you about Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, who writes this, quote, "Releasing those who unlawfully enter because they came with children creates a cruel incentive to bring children on this dangerous journey."

Now some of the data, you know, doesn't bear that out, but that is the counterargument, Robby, that if you just continue with catch and release, as in the previous administration, you endanger these children as well. Does he have a point and what should Democrats do? What is it incumbent on Democrats to do at this point?

MOOK: Well, Democrats are caught in a trap where we're having to spend all of our time talking about something that is totally immoral and outrageous and never should have happened in the first place, rather than focusing on the big issue here, which is we have an immigration crisis in that we don't have a sensible system.

The illegal immigration has slowed, illegal border crossings have slowed. You'll notice the language that was used, this type of immigration has increased. What's happening is, and Scott said this, there is a crisis in Central America where people are literally being terrorized. They are trying to come to our country because they're children and they themselves are not safe. Gangs literally steal their money and shoot them if they don't pay them. So that's what's going -- let's go solve that problem and we'll actually stop the flow of immigrants. Illegal immigrants.

HARLOW: We heard that some of that fear outlined from a young mother from Guatemala in Gary Tuchman's piece last hour saying, look, if I don't get in this time, I'm going to try to come back again.

Let me ask you, Scott, quickly before we go, something the president just wrote, and Maggie Haberman from the "New York Times" on Twitter makes a very important point about this. OK. He writes, he writes, "Democrats are the problem. They don't care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, pour into and infest our country like MS-13. They can't win on their terrible policies so they view them as potential voters."

The president was up in arms, Maggie points out, remember a few weeks ago when he made the comment calling MS-13 animals and then said that the media was conflating it, and he didn't mean it about all immigrants. Well, now before he says MS-13 in this tweet, he says illegal immigrants and they're infesting our country. What's your take?

JENNINGS: Well, I believe the president is correct on policy and correct on politics to make MS-13 an issue. I think what the president said a few weeks ago was completely blown out of proportion. I knew what he meant at the time. So I need to look at this tweet more closely.

I would just say that people are going to support him on MS-13, but they're not going to support on this family separation issue. You asked earlier, by the way, if I might, Poppy, what can Democrats do? Here is what I think the Congress can do. If the president can rally the Republicans to support this bill that takes care of everything the president wants and takes care of the Dreamers and takes care of the family separation, what the Democrats are going to have to do frankly is deliver 10 votes in the Senate.

That's what they got to do. If both parties recognize this opportunity this week, we're going to look back on this and regret the policy but be happy that we finally got what we all want, I think, which is comprehensive immigration reform, something that has vexed both parties for years.

MOOK: I don't think --

HARLOW: You think you could achieve -- I have to leave it there. You think you could achieve that without children screaming for their mothers and fathers.

Scott Jennings, Robby Mook, thank you very much.

Still to come, a growing list of Democrats are calling on DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to step down amid outrage over the separation of families at the border. We'll talk to one of them.

Also markets take a tumble over a fresh trade war fear. The president threatening new tariffs to the tune of $200 billion against China.

And DOJ inspector general Michael Horowitz back on the hot seat today on Capitol Hill, facing questions over the findings in his report about the Hillary Clinton e-mail probe.


[10:18:18] HARLOW: Welcome back. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York.

And just moments ago, the president wrote this. "#changethelaws, now is the best opportunity ever for Congress to change the ridiculous and obsolete laws on immigration, get it done, always keeping in mind that we must have a strong border security."

Joining me now is Senator Tina Smith, Democrat of Minnesota.

Nice to have you here. Thanks for joining us. SEN. TINA SMITH (D), MINNESOTA: It's good to be with you.

HARLOW: All right. So on this issue of family separation at the border, you've made it very clear in the last 12 hours you're now calling for DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen to step down, to resign. Why?

SMITH: Well, I think there is a reason that Minnesotans and this whole country are transfixed by what we are seeing and hearing on the southern border of our country. We are using cruelty to children as a public policy and that is so wrong. Anybody who has walked into the sanctuary of a church and heard the nativity story knows that this is wrong.

I called on Secretary Nielsen to resign because not only is she implementing this policy on the one hand, but on the other hand, she is denying that it is even is a policy. She has got to resign. She's lost all credibility.

HARLOW: Well, Senator, to her point, I mean, this is not a new policy. This is a policy that was in place under the Obama administration. It's the practice of it that effectively separates children from their parents at the border. And her pushback to that, Nielsen's pushback to questions just like yours yesterday, she said, surely it is the beginning of the unraveling of democracy when the body who makes the laws rather than changing them, meaning Congress, asks the body who enforces laws not to enforce the laws. That cannot be the answer. What is your response to that?

SMITH: Well, my response to that is that this administration announced a new policy, a zero tolerance policy, which results in separating children from their parents.

[10:15:07] And if the president doesn't like this policy, he says it's terrible, then he could change it right now by making one phone call.

Now I want to be clear, if he refuses to do that, which it seems as if he will, we have a bill in Congress., this bill that I'm co-sponsoring with Senator Dianne Feinstein, 49 Democrats have signed on to that. But we don't need that. All the president needs to do is to change this policy that he announced just recently.

HARLOW: This is the Keep Families Together Act that you proposed with Senator Feinstein.


HARLOW: Also you proposed the Help Children Separated Act that would do such things as make sure parents can call and arrange for their care -- of their children when they face arrest or detention.

You say you have 49 Democrats on board with the Keep Families Together Act. Do you have any Republican support for either of these pieces of legislation?

SMITH: So my bill addresses this challenge that we have in our country right now, which are children with parents who are undocumented, those parents might get caught up in an immigration raid at their place of work and what happens to the children? They are left either at home or maybe at a babysitter with the parent then has no ability to make sure that the parent is safe. Excuse me, that the child is safe.

My bill has 27 Democratic co-sponsors, no Republicans, and I think that's a real shame because this is a problem that is affecting children in our country right now.

HARLOW: So here's what Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has said in response to all of this. He said, quote, "Releasing those who unlawfully enter because they came with children creates a cruel incentive to bring children on the dangerous journey."

He's talking about the catch and release practice that was utilized throughout the prior administration. And really up until more recently. Does he have a point that if you just continue that practice, that it incentivizes traffickers to bring children to the border?

SMITH: Well, our country needs comprehensive immigration reform. There is no doubt about that. But what we have happening now --

HARLOW: But is he right, Senator? Is he right that catch and release incentivizes this dangerous practice?

SMITH: What we have happening right now is we have parents bringing their children to our country, seeking asylum. They're refugees escaping violence. And the fact that what we are doing then is cruelly separating these children from their parents is unconscionable. I believe it is immoral. And that is the immediate problem that we need to fix right now.

HARLOW: I hear that. And I talked about your legislation that would end that. But do you think Senator Rubio, your Republican counterpart, is right that catch and release doesn't work and that it can be dangerous?

SMITH: I think that what we need to do is have comprehensive immigration reform in this country. That is absolutely essential.

HARLOW: Listen to what Secretary Nielsen said just yesterday when she was asked about the conditions under which these children are being held.


NIELSEN: It is important to note that these minors are very well taken care of. Don't believe the press. They are very well taken care of.


HARLOW: That was her speaking earlier on the day before the White House press briefing to a big group of sheriffs. Have you visited any of these detention centers. Have you seen firsthand the conditions under which these children are being held?

SMITH: I haven't had a chance to visit the detention centers. But my colleagues have and we've all seen the pictures. We have children that are as young as 4 who are in warehouse type situations, in cages with nothing but space blankets, no parents, nobody that they know there, that they can trust. And I don't even understand how parents are going to ever be reunited with these children. That, to me, does not sound like a situation that is good for children.

In fact, I believe that it will cause great trauma. And we've heard from experts in child development that say that these children could be living with the trauma that they're being -- that our government is causing for years to come. That is so wrong.

HARLOW: Very quickly before you go, as a Democrat, in Congress, who can help affect change, what are you willing to give on this? What give will you make to end this practice?

SMITH: I have supported policies and legislation that would enhance our security while also moving forward with comprehensive immigration reform. But the most important thing right now is that we have a crisis, we have a humanitarian crisis, and we can fix it right now by the president making a phone call.

HARLOW: So you will vote for funding for a border wall?

SMITH: I have been clear that I support a strong border. I think a border wall is a -- is a bad idea. But I think that we need to have strong border security. The point, though, here is that we have almost universal agreement that we should not be separating cruelly these children from their parents and that's what we should be focusing on fixing right now.

HARLOW: Senator Tina Smith, appreciate you being with us today, thank you.

SMITH: Thank you very much.

HARLOW: All right. Stocks falling as the president threatens new tariffs on Chinese goods, $200 billion worth.

[10:25:05] China says it will fight back. We're live at the New York Stock Exchange.


HARLOW: Stocks taking a big hit today on Wall Street. Trade war fears are at the heart of it. Let's get straight to Alison Kosik at the New York Stock Exchange.

Good morning. What are you seeing?

ALISON KOSIK, CNN BUSINESS CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. We are seeing the Dow sitting at its lowest level of the morning, the Dow down 410 points. This as more questions surround this trade war or trade war dispute if you want to call it. Not exactly at war status yet. It's more of a war of words. And investors don't know where all that tough talk is going to end. The latest skirmish happening on Friday when President Trump vowed to slap a 25 percent tariff on $50 billion worth of Chinese exports, something that he said would take effect on July 6th --