Return to Transcripts main page


Tapper Interview with Durbin; Graham and Durbin Deal on Immigration; Senators Disappointed about Immigration Deal; Russia Investigation Continues. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired January 16, 2018 - 13:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer. It's 1:00 p.m. here in Washington. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks very much for joining us.

The president of the United States defiant. Sources tell CNN, he's not backing away from his vulgar meeting, despite the anger and outrage erupting around the country, indeed around the world.

And in just minutes, the Democrat, who first accused him, speaks out right here on CNN.

Also, as the government gets closer and closer to potentially shutting down with no Dreamer deal in sight, both sides now daring the other to blink first in this very high-stakes game of chicken.

And there's breaking news. Word of a subpoena for the president's fired chief strategist. Robert Mueller calling Steve Bannon's name after Bannon's explosive comments in that book, "Fire and Fury."

All that coming up.

Let's start, though, with no apologies from the president or the White House over the president's rather salty language from his Oval Office meeting on immigration.

But we did hear another insider's account of what was said when the Homeland Security secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, was grilled in a Senate hearing.

Listen to this exchange with the Illinois Senator, Dick Durbin, who was also in the Oval Office meeting with the president.


DURBIN: How did he characterize those countries in Africa?

KIRSTJEN NIELSEN, SECRETARY, HOMELAND SECURITY: In -- I don't -- I don't specifically remember a categorization of countries in Africa.

DURBIN: You said on Fox News that the president used strong language. What was that strong language? NIELSEN: Let's see, strong language. There was -- I -- apologies. I

don't remember a specific word. What I was struck with, frankly, as I'm sure you were as well, was just the general profanity that was used in the room by almost everyone.

DURBIN: Did you hear me use profanity?

NIELSEN: No, sir. Neither did I.

DURBIN: Did you hear Senator Graham use profanity?

NIELSEN: I did hear tough language from Senator Graham, yes, sir.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: The president ran hot and I think I know why. Something happened between Tuesday and Thursday, and we'll get to the bottom of that.

And, quite frankly, I got pretty passionate and I ran a little hot, too. Somebody needs to fix this problem. Obama couldn't do it. Bush couldn't do it. And both of them, to their great credit, tried.

Do you think President Trump can do this?

NIELSEN: I think he wants to do it, yes, sir.


BLITZER: Our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is over at the White House. Jim, we've heard some conflicting stories, some nondenial, denials. Where does all this stand right now?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we had a chance to ask the president some questions here at the White House. He was meeting with the president of Kazakhstan here in the last hour or so.

This started in the Oval Office where he was sitting down with the president of Kazakhstan. They were exchanging words, as you so often see with the president and a head of state here at the White House.

And at the end of their remarks, at the conclusion of their remarks, we tried to ask the president about this controversy over his describing countries from Africa and Haiti as shithole countries.

And we also asked the president about a remark that was relayed to reporters, that he said he wanted more people to come in from places like Norway.

I asked the question about that, and here's what the president had to say in response to that.


ACOSTA: Mr. President, did you say that you wanted more people to come in from Norway? Is that true, Mr. President?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I want them to come in from everywhere. Everywhere.

Thank you very much, everybody.

ACOSTA: Just Caucasian or white countries, sir? Or do you want people to come in from other parts of the world where there are people of color?



ACOSTA: And I'm not sure if you could hear the end of that there, Wolf. But as I tried to ask whether he wanted more people to come in, just from white or Caucasian countries, he said, out. He pointed to me and said, out. As in get out of the Oval Office.

After that, we went into the Roosevelt room inside the White House where he and the president of Kazakhstan made some pretty lengthy remarks, essentially just talking about foreign policy and business dealings between the two countries.

And at the conclusion of those remarks, we attempted to ask the president more questions about this controversy. And it was at that point, Wolf, I have to underline, I've never encountered anything like this before at the White House.

The deputy press secretary Hogan Giggly and a wrangler, press wrangler over here at the White House, got basically right up in my face and the faces of other pool reporters here at the White House, and started shouting so loudly that it was impossible for the president to hear our questions or even see that we were trying to ask questions. It was that kind of a display.

It reminded me of something that you might see in less Democratic countries, when people, at the White House or officials of a foreign government, attempt to get in the way of the press in doing their jobs.

[13:05:00] But, essentially, that is what just happened a few moments ago here. They were so determined to block us from asking questions that they got right up in our face and started shouting, no questions, no questions, so the president could make an exit from the Roosevelt room without taking any questions -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, we definitely heard -- when you tried to do that follow-up question with the president, we definitely heard the follow- up question. And we, then, heard the president look at you and point and said, out. As if, get out of the Oval Office.

You're a member of the press pool. That's your job to go in there, listen to what the president has to say, listen to what Nir Sultan Viterbi, the visiting president of Afghanistan -- of Kazakhstan, has to say.

But reporters -- and I was a White House reporter for seven years. Reporters always follow up with questions. That's our job. If they don't want to answer the questions, they don't have to answer the questions. Our job is to ask the questions.

But, clearly, the president was, once again, irritated at you.

Jim Acosta, thanks very much.

ACOSTA: You bet, sure.

BLITZER: We're standing by for the White House press briefing later this afternoon.

Meanwhile, the Illinois senator, Dick Durbin, has come under fire over his recollection of the meeting specifics.

The senator sat down with our own Jake Tapper to talk about what exactly happened during that very, very tense Oval Office meeting.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR, "THE LEAD": Leader Durbin, thanks so much for doing this. We appreciate it.


TAPPER: So, 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. It 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 -- and 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: And just to clear it up. When he said, s-hole countries, he was referring to Africa?

DURBIN: Yes. Yes.

TAPPER: Now, Senators Cotton and Perdue have challenged the notion that he said s-hole. And I believe there's some reporting out there that 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 could tell you, explicitly, they are wrong. And let me also say, is that their defense? That s-house is acceptable. 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 have had some things to say about you and your memory. And I just want to read them to you and give you an opportunity to respond.

Perdue said, I'm telling you he did not use that word. And I'm telling you, it's a gross misrepresentation, that you are making in this representation.

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, though, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by that.

And I was sitting farther away from Donald Trump than Dick Durbin was. And I know what Dick Durbin has said about the president's repeated statements is incorrect.

DURBIN: I don't know what he's referring to. And, as I said back in Chicago just yesterday, politics ain't beanbag. I expect, you know, harsh critics on both sides. It's fine. It comes with the territory.

I stand by every word I said. And Senator Cotton and Senator Perdue should remember a word as gross as that in the course of a conversation with the president of the United States.

TAPPER: What do you think of the notion that they are, as you say, 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's the best they can come up with? I mean, it really tells a story.

This was a horrible moment in the history of our country and 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: Now, there were other people in the room that day, and they have either not commented, such as Congressman Diaz Ballard and some others. And -- or they have said that they don't recall, like Secretary Nielsen of the Department of Homeland Security.

Lindsey Graham was there. And in my understanding from reporting is that he was upset as well. He said in a statement, without going into what he heard the president say, was, I said my piece 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.

[13:10:09] He turned to him and addressed that directly. Directly in what I thought was one of the best statements about immigration policy in America I've ever heard. He explicitly repeated that vulgarity so that there was -- it was clear why he was exercised and why he was making this statement.

I've told him since and I want to say this publicly. I respect him so much for speaking out. I think it had added importance that a member of the president's own party would be that explicit, standing up for what I think 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's an idea. It's an ideal. And 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. They 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 -- a member of the president's own political party would be that explicit in his face, right there at that moment.

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

PURDUE: I certainly do. And I'll add, my mother's 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 two.

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, we came here with nothing. Our family had nothing. My grandmother didn't speak English. I mean, 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. I pointed out that he's from Indiana, but he called him a Mexican.

Based on his assertion that there are very fine people on both sides of the rallies in Charlottesville, do you think the president is a racist?

PURDUE: I'm not going to say that. I will tell you that the comments that he made when I was in the White House, I thought were vile. They were 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.


BLITZER: We're going to have more of Jake's interview with Senator Durbin. That's coming up.

And why some lawmakers are now saying that a shutdown of the federal government here in Washington is growing more and more likely.

Plus, breaking news. "The New York Times" reports that the special counsel, Robert Mueller, is issuing a subpoena for Steve Bannon. And the first known Grand Jury subpoena for a member, or at least a former member, of the president's inner circle.

We'll be right back.


[13:17:41] BLITZER: The president's harsh comments about immigrants and African countries have seemingly derailed plans for immigration reform, but the president is blaming Democrats like Senator Dick Durbin for the failure. Jake Tapper asked Senator Durbin about the criticism he's receiving directly from the president.


JAKE TAPPER, CNN: The president said in a tweet that you are to blame for the breakdown in immigration talks. He said, quote, Senator Dicky Durbin totally misrepresented what was said at the DACA meeting. Deals can't get made when there is no trust. Durbin blew DACA and is hurting our military.

What's your response to him?

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), ILLINOIS: Two things I'd like to say. Yesterday may be one of the most bizarre weeks I've ever experienced in Washington. I've been here a few years.

To be invited by the president on Tuesday to sit next to him, literally next to him, at a meeting of 26 members of the Congress and talk about immigration and hear the president say, you send me a bill and I'll sign it. I'll take the political heat. Now, get down to work. You need a cabinet room? You can have a cabinet room. Let's get it done.

Then we call him two days later, Senator Graham and I, and say we've done it. We've met your criterial. We have a bipartisan bill. We're ready to go. And then to be called into the president's office to explain it to him and find that we've been sandbagged.

General Kelly and Steve Miller, as I understand it, invited five other members of Congress who are not in favor of immigration reform, or are in a very harsh sense, and they we there to refute any assertions we made that this was a good policy.

So you ask me where we are today. I'll tell you where we are. We are finding that more Republicans are willing to step up now, distancing themselves from those outrageous comments by the president. And, really, I hope join us in a bipartisan effort to solve this problem.

TAPPER: What do you think of the nickname Dicky Durbin?

DURBIN: I -- you know, I guess it's something I should wear with honor. He has said a lot of negative things about a lot of people. And like I said earlier, this is not an easy business. It's not bean bag. It's a tough business. And if the president wants to throw adolescent rants at me, that's his business.

TAPPER: What do you make of the more substantive argument that you violated the trust of those in the room that day and that there can be no trust if people in the room then go out and talk publicly about what was said in the room?

[13:20:03] DURBIN: Listen, I didn't take an oath of secrecy when I walked into the White House at all. No one did. And there came a moment when the president denied the next morning that he said these things that I felt duty-bound to speak.

What the president said was outrageous. I don't believe it represents the views of America. I don't believe it represents the views of either political party. And the American people have a right to know.

The president had made a campaign promise. He made all sorts of things about immigration. Always based on the security of the United States, losing American jobs. Let me tell you, neither of those topics came up in that White House meeting. We talked about the color of the skin of the people coming to the United States.

TAPPER: When the president called you and invited you to the Oval Office to talk about the meeting, you and Senator Graham, did you think you were going to cut a deal?

DURBIN: I had hoped so. I called him. At the end of our meeting on Tuesday he turned to me and said, call me. I thought, really? So came Thursday, when we had an agreement, 10:00 in the morning, I called him. And he called back immediately. I was kind of surprised. And he said, good, good, let's get going. I'm not going to let them slow-walk this. So Lindsey's coming down to explain it. I said, yes, I understand. And then within a few minutes I was invited to join Lindsey. By 12:00, the same morning, we were there to make that explanation and in came five critics of immigration reform invited by the White House staff.

TAPPER: Do you think your compromised bill, the gang of six, you, Senator Graham, two Democrats, two Republicans, do you think that that could pass the Senate?


TAPPER: Do you think it could get a sizeable Republican vote?

DURBIN: Enough. If we're talking about 60 votes, I think we can get -- reach that goal.

And let me add, it's the only proposal. The only bipartisan proposal. We've been working at this for four months. Seriously working at it. Give and take. There are parts of it I hate, but that's the nature of a compromise. And we've done it. We've put it together. Six of us have signed off. There's real interest on the Republican side and on the Democratic side. And if Senator McConnell wants to solve this problem, I hope that he does, he'll give us a vote this week.

TAPPER: The parts that you hate, what are they?

DURBIN: Well, I can tell you that I think that when it comes to family unification, there are some painful suggestions for Republicans --

TAPPER: Reducing the number of immigrants that come here for family reunification, so-called chain migration.

DURBIN: That's right.

TAPPER: And increasing the percentage that are --

DURBIN: That's right.

TAPPER: Based on skills.

DURBIN: That's right. And it's a point I made in the White House too. I mean this is a nation of families. And to think that some of these immigrants would at some future date like to bring in a critical member of their family, whether it's a parent or if it's an adult child, to me that is making that family stronger and giving them a better chance to succeed in America. We restrict that. I wish we didn't, but we do, in deference to Republicans who have their own political concerns. We're trying to find enough balance here to move forward.

TAPPER: There's a government funding bill this week. Will Democrats vote for it if it does not include some sort of solution for DACA or the dreamers?

DURBIN: I can tell you, I'm going to work every single day until Friday, which is the deadline, to get this done on a bipartisan basis. And we can do it. We can do it. But Senator McConnell has to cooperate and help us. He's in charge. He decides the agenda. I hope that he doesn't put us in a position where members say, I can't vote for this. He, McConnell, can lead us into a bipartisan conclusion that will be the best thing for this country.

TAPPER: Can't a deal be done with the president, who has said what he said, and with whom you've had this very public back and forth?

DURBIN: Yes. If enough Republicans will step up and say, we do not subscribe to these views as expressed last week, we see a different America and we're willing to show it with our votes, yes, we can do it.

TAPPER: You've seen a lot of misrepresentations of fact come from the White House about any number of issues. But here's one that you were actually a witness to. What is your feeling about the support for truth and the willingness of your colleagues to step up and acknowledge truth given your firsthand witnessing to what the president said?

DURBIN: You know, I said afterwards, I wonder if in the history of the Oval Office there's ever been anything said like that, the statement made by President Trump last week. Someone took me to task in "The New York Times" over the weekend and went through Jefferson owning slaves and --

TAPPER: Yes, 12 presidents had slaves.

DURBIN: Liberia --


DURBIN: As a nation to send African-Americans and on and on. And so you always have to be careful saying I don't know if that ever happened in history. But I will tell you this. I believe that we can salvage from this something positive. Despite the president's denunciation of me and despite the fact that he has said that he didn't utter these words, those of us in the room know better. And I think we have to speak out on behalf of this country in what our values are and what we want them to be for future generations.

[13:25:18] TAPPER: What is the path forward for DACA, for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals?

DURBIN: We can meet the president's challenge of last September 5th, more than four months ago. He said to Congress, pass a law. We can do it. We've got a bipartisan measure that I think moves us in the right direction and gives legal status to those who were protects by DACA and those eligible for DACA. That, to me, is the right thing to do.

I've been at this for 17 years. Seventeen years the first time I introduced the Dream Act that long ago. There are hundreds of thousands of lives hanging in the balance. It shouldn't be a matter of political pride or hubris that stops us from doing the right thing for these people and their families. And that's why I believe that enough Republicans can join us to make this a reality.

TAPPER: Have you heard from anybody from Haiti or from Africa about what the president said?

DURBIN: It's interesting, Chicago is a big city. And a lot of people and a lot of immigrants. And it's interesting how many have come up to me. They usually say, hey, Durbin, how you doing? That's the best I get and that's fine. But they stop me now and put their hand on my shoulder and said, be strong, do the right thing. I mean they realize what's at stake here. It's their future in America and the future of their families. They're good people. They're hard-working people. They're doing the best they can for their families and for this country. I want to be there for them.


BLITZER: Very powerful words from Senator Durbin.

Joining us now, our CNN politics senior writer Juana Summers, our CNN political reporter and editor at large Chris Cillizza, and CNN's chief political analyst Gloria Borger.

This is tritely an extraordinary day, the exchange that Senator Durbin had with the secretary of homeland security, Kirstjen Nielson, was powerful. Lindsey Graham's exchange with her, very powerful. We're learning a lot more about this extraordinary meeting that occurred at the White House.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, what we seem to be learning from both Senator Graham and Senator Durbin is that they thought things were going along swimmingly, and then they get to the White House for this meeting and it's clear that they feel that there was some kind of a setup there and that suddenly anti-immigration reform the way they wanted, folks were rushed in at the last minute of a White House meeting. And as Lindsey Graham said to journalists, I want to know what the difference was between the Tuesday Trump and the Thursday Trump. And they clearly believe that the White House chief of staff, General Kelly, and that perhaps Steven Miller, a White House aide who has been very vocal about immigration reform, didn't like the compromise that they were coming up with and kind of wanted to stop it in its tracks.

And you saw today how upset Lindsey Graham was and how upset Dick Durbin is because these are people who have been working on this issue for more than -- for more than a decade and they felt that the president, after the meeting earlier in the week, said, look, I'll take the heat. I'm going to get this done. And Lindsey Graham said to him, you have to close the deal, Mr. President. They were heading to the White House to close a deal. A deal that just didn't happen.

BLITZER: And all of a sudden when they got to the White House, they were stunned to see some really hardliners, anti-comprehensive immigration reform types, including Senator Perdue.

BORGER: Right. BLITZER: I'm looking at the list, Senator Cotton, Representative Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. They hated this bipartisan compromise deal that Lindsey Graham had worked out with Senator Durbin and others.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, and they clearly won in that last minute there in that they kyboshed this two hours after Lindsey Graham, to Gloria's point. Lindsey Graham and Dick Durbin, I think the reason they're so upset is because for a president that they struggled -- both sometimes struggled to get along with, this looked like it was actually going to happen. Dick Durbin -- Lindsey Graham recounted that Dick Durbin called him after talking to the president Thursday morning and said, this is the best conversation I ever had with the president of the United States. Lindsey Graham said, let's go up there and get it done.

I -- you mentioned Senators Cotton and Perdue. I kind of feel like we need to hear a little bit more from them, because their story at this point is the one that doesn't jibe. They were both in the room. They both first put out a joint statement saying, we don't recall exactly what term was used. OK. That's sort of where Kirstjen Nielsen is.

But then, on the Sunday talk shows, they both went further. I believe that Perdue said it was a gross mischaracterization or misrepresentation that what Dick Durbin was saying about what Donald Trump said. OK, well, so one of these two groups is not telling the truth. Either he said it like Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham acknowledge, or he didn't say it, like sort of the president acknowledges and what Tom Cotton and David Perdue said. So it's got to be one or the other.

[13:30:07] And you heard Dick Durbin talking about trust with the president and Lindsey Graham talked about it. You know we need -- we need certainty.