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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Lott Stepping Down as Majority Leader

Aired December 20, 2002 - 11:18   ET

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

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: A big part of the story is what involvement the White House could have had in pushing Trent Lott out, and let's go to the White House right now and Suzanne Malveaux, who has any reaction from the White House.
Suzanne, hello.

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: There's really no official reaction yet. We expect that they are actually -- they're in a meeting right now, trying to figure out just what the line is going to say, the official line from the White House.

We do know that one White House official has told CNN they knew of this news early this morning. We don't know whether or not Lott had a conversation with the president or just how high up it went on the food chain, but we're working on that, but as you know, it was a very difficult situation for the White House, the position it was in. It really had a very delicate balancing act.

Jon had mentioned the fact on the one hand the White House could not be too aggressive in actually pushing for one candidate or trying to oust Lott in any public way in fear that the Republicans or the senators would be very resentful of the White House.

But at the same time, there were very clear signals that the White House was distancing it to a certain extent from Lott. We saw President Bush just last Thursday when he came out very publicly in Philadelphia, admonishing Lott's comments, saying that this did not reflect the feelings of the national, the spirit of the nation, that they were offensive remarks.

We also heard from Secretary of State Colin Powell, as well just this past week making very similar statements. At the same time, we also heard from Ari Fleischer as early as this morning, saying that the president's position was clear and that it was consistent, that he did not believe that Lott should step down, the two had a conversation after that will Philadelphia speech. We are told that Lott initiated that conversation, that it went well, but at the same time, there were many people that took very clear signals that the White House is silent, which perhaps spoke much louder than the words coming from the administration, that perhaps Lott was not the ideal spokesperson for the Republican Party.

And definitely a lot of people concerned within the administration about how this would play out, what kind of repercussions this would mean for the domestic agenda of the president, of the Republican Party, as well as how it would undermine, potentially undermine, the outreach to the African-American community. These are a number of concerns the administration had. These are private conversations that White House aides had amongst each other.

But Fleischer, from the very beginning up to this morning, saying the president did believe that Lott should keep his position, that he should not resign, but again, we did not hear the praise, sometimes effusive praise we hear from the president when he is very confident and the people that he has on board.

KAGAN: Suzanne Malveaux, at the White House. Suzanne, thank you very much.

We want to go ahead and put back up on the screen the statement Trent Lott released some 20 minutes ago, making his announcement. It says here "That in the interest of pursuing the best agenda for the future of our country, I will not seek to remain majority leader of the U.S. Senate for the 108th Congress, effective January 6th, 2003. To all those who offered me friendship, support and prayers, I will be eternally grateful. I will continue to serve the people of Mississippi in the United States Senate." Signed Trent Lott, Republican, Mississippi.

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