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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Talk with Roy Innis

Aired December 20, 2002 - 11:31   ET

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

LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: Let's go to our Jonathan Karl on Capitol Hill, who was the first to deliver this news for us -- Jon.
JONATHAN KARL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Leon, I've got another significant development here if we can have any more today. This one in terms of the race to replace Trent Lott. As you know, Frist is the person that is the leading candidate right now. Rick Santorum is also weighing a run.

But I a brand new statement about to be released publicly, this one coming from Senator Mitch McConnell, the incoming number two man in the Senate is, Trent Lott's strongest ally. He put out a statement saying -- quote -- "I want to thank my friend Trent Lott for making the courageous and correct decision," and he says the decision is in the best interests of the Senate, the Republican party, and the country.

But most significantly, Leon, he is endorsing Bill Frist to be Lott's replacement. Mitch McConnell, somebody who had been Lott's strongest ally, is now supporting Bill Frist to be the leader of the Republican Party. That statement makes it almost a certainty that he will get the support he needs, because Mitch McConnell was the most public and strongest defender of Trent Lott.

HARRIS: Have you seen any of the other senators there or any senator's aides or whatever walking the halls with any reaction?

KARL: I've seen a lot of people scrambling, and people think this is a situation where Bill Frist has got so much momentum, he's impossible to stop. I do know that Senator Rick Santorum had been making phone calls this morning, talking about a possible run himself for majority leader, talking about possibly challenging Trent Lott, but this is a significant blow to that effort, the fact that Mitch McConnell is saying he's going to endorse Bill Frist, makes it look all but certain that he's going to be the person to take over.

HARRIS: That's a heavyweight endorsement, as Mitch McConnell is the money man here in the Senate.

Thanks, John.

We'll get back to you in just a minute -- Daryn.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We want to go ahead and talk with a man who has been consulting Trent Lott, and that is Roy Innis. He is chairman for the Congress for Racial Equality. He's on the phone with us from New York. Good morning. Thanks for joining us.

Are you surprised by this news given the fact you've been in touch with Trent Lott?

ROY INNIS, CONGRESS OF RACIAL EQUALITY: Not surprised, but I am very proud of Trent Lott for doing the right thing based on the circumstances. I'm even more proud of President Bush for being courageous, two very courageous men did what had to be done.

KAGAN: Why do you think this did have to be done?

INNIS: Because of the furor, because of the thoughtless statement. Let me just say that I do not believe for one moment that Senator Lott is a racist. He's a good man. He's done good work. He means well. He made a foolish statement, and he did the right thing in the final analysis. He stepped down for the good of the party and the country.

KAGAN: Has that been your advice all along, that he should step down, or have you been advising him he should be in there and fight?

INNIS: No, my advice to him was to clarify as much as possible what he meant with that very unfortunate statement.

KAGAN: He tried to do that at least five times. Why was that not enough to save his leadership position?

INNIS: The events of the time. This was not going to happen. People's ears were closed to the explanation. I wish he had used the Tenth Amendment argument, which is a legitimate political diabetic around the balance of power between the federal government and the state government. He did he not want to use that because it would have been misinterpreted again. It would have come under an argument about states' rights, and of course we have polarized state's rights to mean slavery and segregation.

KAGAN: Mr. Innis, it appeared that Trent Lott had to go because the Republican Party not wanting to be tainted as a racist party, but is his stepping aside enough to do that? Or does the party need to go further?

INNIS: No, I think the Republican Party has done a proud thing to itself. It has transformed its image. President Bush is clearly the moral leader of our time. Now, I think we're on to a brand new road in politics in America.

KAGAN: Simply by Trent Lott stepping aside, do you think any stain of racism on the Republican Party has been erased?

INNIS: I think so. I think the Republican Party now needs to take this momentum they have gained with this act, which this very courageous act, courageous on both sides, courageous on Senator Lott stepping down and the leadership race, and not stepping down from the Senate, and President Bush doing what he had to do.

KAGAN: And just quickly, have you talked with Senator Lott since he's made this decision?

INNIS: No, but I intend to talk with him and I intend to write him and commend him for his courageous act.

KAGAN: We appreciate your time, Roy Innis, chairman of the Congress for Rachel Equality -- Leon.

HARRIS: Now Senator Lott has said he is not going to be assuming the post of Senate majority leader, but still going to continue to represent the people of Mississippi. He said he has a four-year contract with them -- he has four years left on his term.

Let's go to his hometown of Pascagoula, Mississippi, where Gary Tuchman is standing by. Curious about the reaction there to the news.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Many of the people here, in Trent Lott's hometown, are stunned, and they're literally paying condolence calls to his office in downtown. They're walking in the door talking to the staffers inside, who are very upset, as you might imagine. We have been here all week. It was exactly a week ago today that Trent Lott came home to hold a news conference in his hometown. It was a very confident Trent Lott. You may argue with whether it all worked or not, his news conference. He was often smiling. But we've witnessed over the past week the political deterioration of the Senate Republican leader. Lots of people have been honking at us, and they've been doing that all week, because many people are angry that the media has been covering the story so extensively.

Last week we saw a confident Trent Lott having his news conference. We saw him at church on Sunday, and that was the day you may recall that Senator Nickles announced there should be an election for a new leader. We asked Trent Lott about that. He was obviously very angry, had a very angry face and didn't want to comment, and said, you talk to Senator Nickles about that.

And then as the week went on, we saw less and less of Trent Lott. I've been talking to his wife, Trisha Lott. She said we feel good. She told me this is very unfair what's happening to my husband, Trent Lott.

But then yesterday, for the first time, her attitude changed a bit, and told me we're not going to speak any more, we're in holiday mode. She almost sounded resigned, and yesterday and today we haven't seen Trent Lott at all. It was believed he was very busy making this determination today, that he would step down, making phone calls to see if he had support, but it's been downhill politically all this week for Trent Lott.

Right now we haven't seen him at all. His wife has been at their house, but Trent Lott himself wasn't at his house last night, and we assume he was very busy coming to the conclusion that he's made today.

Leon, back to you.

HARRIS: Very interesting.

Gary, how late in the day was it that you spoke with his wife and got that sense of resignation from her yesterday?

TUCHMAN: Yesterday morning I spoke to her. And like I said, I must repeat this, it has been very nice for her to talk with me all week, but she was very upset yesterday, and we sensed that this would be coming down very soon.

HARRIS: That's got to be a tough thing and for her to go through, and to stand by and watch her husband go through as well.

Gary Tuchman reporting for us, live from the streets of Pascagoula, Mississippi, outside the offices of Senator Trent Lott.

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