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Controversial Arrest; Pope Francis to Visit Cuba; White House: Muslim Allegation Part of 'Cynical Strategy'; Donald Trump Says He doesn't Know if President Obama was Born in the U.S.; Russian Fighter Jets, Tanks Arrive Syria. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 18, 2015 - 18:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Amid a report he will spend up to $100 million of his own fortune to win the White House.

Thrown to ground, a controversial arrest caught on camera. This teenager says he was just trying to watch a bus. Police officers say he was trespassing. Did they use excessive force? We are going to talk about it with the head of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks?

History in Havana, Cuba now preparing for the arrival in less than 24 hours of the first Latin American pope, Pope Francis, about to begin his highly anticipated trip to the communist country before heading to the United States. We're live in the Cuban capital tonight.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

It's Donald Trump's trump card of the presidential contest, his personal fortune, and there is a new report breaking now that the Republican front-runner is ready and willing to tap into it. "The New York Times" reporting that Trump says he's prepared to spend $100 million or more to lock down the Republican presidential nomination, but tonight, he's also facing some new controversy, this time ignited not by what he said, but what he didn't say.

Trump stood silent and failed to correct a town hall participant who said President Obama is a Muslim and "not even American." Trump is under fire for that from both Democratic and Republican rivals and after this controversy exploded, he dropped out of the conservative forum tonight where GOP candidates are speaking.

We're covering that much more this hour with our correspondents and our guests.

Let's go to our political reporter, Sara Murray. She begins our coverage this hour in Greenville, South Carolina. That's where Donald Trump was supposed to join his rivals at a conservative Q&A forum.

Sara, what's the latest with Donald Trump?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, like you said, Donald Trump canceling his appearance here at the last minute. Now, this is not a candidate who tends to back down from a fight, but a number of folks here in South Carolina think that's exactly what Trump is doing, backing out to avoid questions over the firestorm he set off last night.


MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump canceling a campaign appearance at the last minute today, as he's under fire for this exchange last night in New Hampshire.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: We need this question, this first question.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: But, anyway, we have training camps growing where they want to kill us. That's my question. When can we get rid of them?

TRUMP: We're going to be looking at a lot of different things.

And a lot of people are saying that, and a lot of people are saying that bad things are happening out there. We're going to be looking at that and a lot of other things.

MURRAY: Trump didn't press the questioner to explain what he meant by "get rid of them" or push back on the false charge about the president, who is a Christian and American citizen.

Trump's campaign claiming he did not hear that part of the question, but refusing to say whether Trump believes President Obama is in fact an American. Trump's silence sparking a chorus of criticism today, Chris Christie saying he would have handled it differently.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R-NJ), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: If somebody at one of my town hall meetings said something like that, I would correct them and say, no, the president's a Christian and he was born in this country. I think those two things are self-evident. And I think you have an obligation as a leader to do that.

MURRAY: Senator Lindsey Graham calling it inappropriate.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You need to look the guy in the eye say, listen, I don't agree with you. I don't appreciate what you said. This is not the way I'm going to campaign.

MURRAY: But polls provide a hint to why Trump might be willing to let the issue linger; 54 percent of his supporters wrongly identify Obama as Muslim, according to a CNN/ORC poll. Among all Republicans, the number stands at 43 percent.

Today, amid the fallout, Trump scrapping an event in South Carolina just hours before he was slated to speak, saying in a statement that he has a significant business transaction to attend to.

Ben Carson, appearing at the same South Carolina event on the day of his 64th birthday, saying Trump's absence is the best birthday gift he could ask for.

BEN CARSON (R), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I guess the best birthday present is I heard Donald Trump had dropped out.


CARSON: Oh, wait a minute. That was just for today.



MURRAY: You see there Ben Carson not exactly missing Donald Trump tonight and there are still plenty of presidential candidates for voters here from 10 that are slated to speak. Ted Cruz just wrapped up and he's going after roughly the same pool of voters as Donald Trump and he got a very warm response here tonight, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, thanks very much, Sara Murray reporting.


The Democratic candidates are piling on Donald Trump for failing to correct the man who said President Obama is a Muslim.

Let's go to our national correspondent, Suzanne Malveaux. She's joining us from Manchester, New Hampshire, right now with more.

Suzanne, you asked Hillary Clinton about this latest Trump controversy. What did she say to you?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: I asked her very specifically about the Trump supporter's comments about Muslims being a problem in the country, about the president being a Muslim and not even American and then finally that training occurring to train to kill folks and the final question, when can we get rid of them? Trump's response, saying, this is the first question, we need this question.

Well, Hillary Clinton saying that we should not respond that way and also, of course, chastising -- having this opportunity to chastise Donald Trump.


HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Well, I was appalled, and, as you may know, quickly put out a tweet expressing the great disappointment with that kind of rhetoric, and calling on him and anybody else who is seeking the highest office of the land to start behaving like a president, to show respect and to stand up for the truth. He knew or he should have known that what that man was asking was not

only way out of bounds; it was untrue. And he should have from the beginning repudiated that kind of rhetoric, that level of hatefulness in a questioner in an audience that he was appearing before.

So, I would, you know, call on him and call on all of the candidates to stop this descent into the kind of hateful, mean-spirited, divisive rhetoric that we have seen too much of in the last months.


MALVEAUX: And, of course, Wolf, we heard Trump say before offensive comments regarding Latinos, regarding women and now Muslims. So what I asked Secretary Hillary Clinton, former secretary, rather, is whether or not she thought these comments went too far, whether or not she thought it was racist of this individual to say and the response from Trump. And here is how she responded.


CLINTON: I think it's prejudiced. I think it's discriminatory.

I think it comes out of the same unfortunate reservoir of hateful rhetoric that we have seen too much of, where people are being, you know, set against one another. And that has no place in our politics.


MALVEAUX: And, of course, Wolf, this was an opportunity for the other Democratic candidates to jump in, to weigh in on this. They do so via Twitter.

This is Vermont Governor (sic) Bernie Sanders putting out this tweet earlier, saying: "Trump must apologize to the president and American people for continuing the lie that the president is not an American and not a Christian."

And this from Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, saying here: "Shame on you, Donald Trump. Muslim is not a slur. You cannot scapegoat your way to the presidency."

So everybody getting a piece of this, weighing in on this controversy, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator, not the Vermont governor, but that's -- he's from Vermont after all.


BLITZER: And he issued a tough statement after.

MALVEAUX: Misspoke.

BLITZER: I just wanted to correct that little issue. All right, Suzanne Malveaux, thanks very, very much.

Let's dig a little bit deeper on all of this.

Joining us, our chief political correspondent, Dana Bash. Also joining us, our senior political reporter, Nia-Malika Henderson, our politics senior digital correspondent, Chris Moody, and our CNN political commentator, the host of CNN's "SMERCONISH," Michael Smerconish.

Michael, what did you make of Hillary Clinton's response to what Donald Trump had to say today?

MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I thought it was appropriately strong and I think that what she was attempting to do and what the other Democrats are trying to do is make Trump synonymous with GOP so that if and when he fades, there is still this indelible imprint of what the Republican Party represents.

And the data that Sara referenced at the outset, 43 percent of Republicans believe that the president is a Muslim. So there is traction there for the D's.

One observation, if I might, Wolf, I had a telephone caller who stands out in my mind this week. His name was Robert and he was from Memphis. And he said, every time you people in the media reference a Trump gaffe, it's something inconsequential to me.

And the point was left on me that we parse these things. And I think this is a big issue. But among that hardened core of support that he has, it will take more of this to dislodge him. There is just no growth opportunity for the man as I see it.

BLITZER: That's a good point.

Dana, the Republican Party after the defeat in the 2012 presidential election, they said they needed to make changes to bring in more people, young people, minorities, women. What's going on over here? Because a lot of people are saying this kind of talk only hurts the Republican -- the overall Republican Party.

DANA BASH, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, certainly, a lot of people are saying that.

Before I answer that, I just want to comment on one thing that Michael said, which is if you look -- actually maybe to echo that with Donald Trump's own words, if you look at "The New York Times" article that just came out where Trump had talked to the reporter after the speech last night, he said Americans like the fact that I, Trump, don't just respond like a regular politician when voters or questioners ask me things.


And that I think is a big reason why we're not hearing a typical clarification right now. I should also mention that Trump is going to be on "STATE OF THE UNION" on Saturday with Jake Tapper, so we have to wait a couple of days maybe to hear that, but you can tune into CNN for that. But on the Republican Party, look, there was a whole autopsy done

after 2012, when Mitt Romney did poorly with a lot of groups other than white men, and the conclusion was you got to stop rhetoric like this. And for awhile, Republicans were really working on it. And that's why you have a lot of frustration from the Lindsey Grahams of the world and others who are trying to kind of broaden the Republican tent that Donald Trump has done so well, because they feel like he is bringing the party back to where they will shrink and not expand.

BLITZER: Chris, you put together a little video of the number of times over the years that Donald Trump has spoken of the president of the United States maybe being a Muslim. I want to play that for our viewers.


TRUMP: People have birth certificates. He doesn't have a birth certificate. He may have one, but there's something on -- maybe religion, maybe it says he's a Muslim. I don't know. Maybe he doesn't want that or he may not have one.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: On Bill O'Reilly's show, you said maybe he doesn't want to release it because it might say he's a Muslim.

TRUMP: No, I didn't say that. I said there may be something on it and they asked me like what? I said, well, perhaps because he's a Muslim, perhaps something. Who knows what's on it? I don't know. He didn't want to release it, maybe because, if they had it, there is something on it, because I can't understand. Why is he spending all this money in legal fees when all he has to do is say release my birth certificate? I released mine a month ago.

COOPER: Again, you don't know how much he's spending on this particular issue.


TRUMP: Anderson, he's spending a tremendous amount of money.


TRUMP: Anderson, he's fighting all over the country on this notion.

COOPER: There is no part for religion on that.


BLITZER: All right, Chris, what do you make of this? Because you have been taking an in-depth look into this issue.

CHRIS MOODY, CNN POLITICS SENIOR DIGITAL CORRESPONDENT: If you remember back to 2011, Donald Trump really dabbled in a lot of conspiracy theory fever swamps. He fueled a lot of the birther movement and breathed new life into that.

And then within that he brought in the questions of his faith. He tried to defend himself there in saying, I didn't bring this up. I just said maybe. But when you're a person of authority, someone like Donald Trump that people look up to, that they follow, that fuels their conspiracies.

And when he responds to people's questions like the way that he did this week, I think that also fuels that even more And as we have pointed out so many times, 54 percent of his supporters believe President Obama is a Muslim and comments like the ones he makes does not necessarily help.

BLITZER: And I guess the decision to cancel this important political forum in South Carolina, Nia, today, that's only fueling a little bit of this controversy right now.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, you know, I don't know if it's controversial among his followers.

As Moody mentioned here, there are many Republicans and many Trump supporters who believe this lie that Obama is a Muslim. I don't know if -- I think everybody is looking to see if this will be the turning point or tipping point for Donald Trump. So far, we have been wrong at every turn. I think this is just kind of a reversion to the old Donald Trump that we knew from 2011.

I think it would have been surprising if he did say something in that form. I don't think it was surprising at all that he sort of just let it go. I think we will have to see what he says on Sunday on "STATE OF THE UNION."

I think it is surprising that he isn't saying anything more at this point, that he hasn't taken to Twitter at least so far, and maybe we will see that in the coming days.

BLITZER: Are you surprised, Michael, at this poll that we have, the CNN/ORC poll? Just a couple weeks ago, we asked the question, do you happen to know what religion Barack Obama is? Is he Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, something else, not religious? Overall, 39 percent thought he was Christian, but 29 percent overall thought he was Muslim.

Among Republicans only, do you happen to know of his religion, 29 percent said he was Christian; 43 percent of Republicans in the poll thought he was Muslim. Does that surprise you?

SMERCONISH: It floored me. And it was also a wakeup call because I think sometimes we try and be read in, those of us who comment on these matters, and we make assumptions as to how well read in members of the electorate are.

And I think that this was a big wakeup call to remind us that perhaps people aren't paying the attention the way that we wish they were.

BLITZER: Stand by. Everyone, stand by, because we have much more to discuss. There is other information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now.

We will take a quick break -- more right after this.



BLITZER: We're following a major political story developing tonight, Donald Trump under fire from both Democratic and Republican rivals for standing silent as a town hall participant said President Obama is a Muslim, not an American.

Trump was supposed to speak at a conservative forum in South Carolina happening right now, but he canceled that appearance earlier in the day.


It's important, Nia, to remember that being Muslim is not bad.

HENDERSON: Right. Yes.

BLITZER: Millions of Americans are Muslims and they're decent people. But in this context, this guy who stood up gave the impression that just being Muslim...

HENDERSON: Was sort of a slur, right. Or there was something wrong with it.


HENDERSON: And I think Colin Powell during the 2008 campaign essentially came out to say. He said that Obama is a Christian, but so what if he was a Muslim? And he sort of suggested that that was the right approach to that.

And John McCain of course in the famous town hall interacted with a woman who basically cast aspersions on Obama. And he came back with a response. I think probably too much to ask of Donald Trump to have a similar response, because it's just not his style to do that, especially with this issue that he's been so much a part of sort of galvanizing people around it.

BLITZER: Dana, I want you to weigh in on this point as well, because it's an important point. Millions and millions of Americans are Muslim. And they're wonderful people.

BASH: Absolutely, Muslim members of Congress. There are elected officials all over the country who are.

And I was listening to sort of the conversation and I also actually also just think it's important for us to make clear that the perspective of the man who is asking the question is that if the president is Muslim, that's not a good thing. That was obvious. That was sort of embedded in his question.

But there is nothing wrong with it if he were, but the issue is he's not. I think the bigger thing was he also said he's not an American, which of course is the whole discussion we were having about the birther movement, the one that Donald Trump really tried to stoke back in 2011.

BLITZER: Chris, Donald Trump isn't the only Republican presidential candidate dealing with some controversy, some political fallout. The Ohio governor, John Kasich, he is facing some criticism for having said this. Watch.


GOV. JOHN KASICH (R-OH), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: They are great. They're God-fearing, hardworking folks. And a lot of them do jobs that they are willing to do.

And that's why in the hotel, you leave a little tip when they -- this lady wrote -- my hotel there in L.A., she wrote this note. It said: "I really want you to know that I care about your stay."

That is just -- is that just like the greatest thing? We can learn a lot. And she's Hispanic and I -- because I didn't know it at the time, but I met her in the hallway and asked her if I could get a little bit more soap.


BLITZER: Now, the Ohio governor was actually trying to praise Latinos, Hispanics, but there are some people who were offended by this comment.

MOODY: I think, in this case, John Kasich's heart is in the right place. He's trying to make a point about hardworking people that he respects.

And I think a lot of people will watch that and say what is offensive about that? However, I think when you are a group of people in the United States and you're constantly being referred to as one single thing, a maid or someone that cleans or someone that mows lawns, I think that's a point where people just want to come out and say, hey, we're a lot more than that.

And politicians, even though -- like we said, his heart is in the right place, he's trying to tell a nice story, they can be mindful of that, that they shouldn't just perceive an entire large people group as one occupation.

BLITZER: A spokesman for Kasich issued this statement: "He was talking how great the service was and how we should respect everyone in our society, no matter what their job or position might be."

Obviously, his heart is in the right place, but sometimes the way you phrase it can be offensive.

HENDERSON: That's right.

And now that he's on this big stage running for president, running against someone name Jeb Bush, who is married to a Mexican American, and very much trying to broaden our ideas about who Latinos can be and who are they are in our different communities, whether they be doctors, lawyers, or married to Jeb Bush, that I think it's a problem for him in that respect.

I do think here is a guy who really wants to eye the New Hampshire primary and win there. Not a lot of Latinos will be in that race. Not a lot of Latino voters are necessarily going to be in the GOP primary just more generally. But when it comes to the general election, this kind of rhetoric that, again, the GOP really wants to cut down, could be a problem for their overall aspirations.

BLITZER: I know Governor Kasich.

And, Michael Smerconish, I assume you have interviewed him many times over the years. I have interviewed him many times going back to when he was a member of Congress. He's a very, very decent, wonderful guy and certainly he may have said something that could be interpreted as being offensive, but I'm sure his heart was nowhere close to that.

SMERCONISH: Yes, I see no harm, no foul and I agree with everything that has been offered thus far.

I would just make this observation in terms of the big picture significance. And George Will pointed it out recently. George Herbert walker Bush received 59 percent of the white vote and that was back in '88. It got him 426 electoral votes; 24 years later, Mitt Romney, the exact same percentage of the white vote, it was only worth 206 electoral votes.


Republicans have an issue. They have got to expand that tent. They have got to do better with non-whites or they will always win House seats, but not the White House.

BLITZER: All right, guys, good discussion, indeed, Nia, Chris, Dana and Michael Smerconish.

An important note. Be sure to join Michael for his show tomorrow morning right here on CNN, 9:00 a.m. Eastern. It's replayed 6:00 p.m. Eastern. It's called "SMERCONISH," only here on CNN.

And later tonight, another chance to see the contest everyone is still talking about. We're going to be re-airing the CNN Republican presidential debate. That will air tonight 10:00 p.m. Eastern.

And CNN will be hosting the first Democratic presidential debate on October 13 in Nevada.

Up next, the White House speaks out about latest Donald Trump uproar. We are going to go there. We will get live reaction.

And another controversial arrest now caught on camera. Did these police officers use excessive force? I am going to speak about this and more with the head of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks.


BLITZER: We're following the fiery new controversy heating up for the race for the White House. The Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump, is facing sharp criticism for failing to correct a questioner at a town-hall event who falsely said President Obama is a Muslim and not even an American. Our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is joining us now.

[18:31:15] Jim, what's the reaction over there from the White House?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the White House fired back at Donald Trump today after he failed to correct a supporter who said President Obama is a Muslim. And aides to the president are going one step further, blaming the GOP for this latest flare-up of birtherism.


ACOSTA (voice-over): They are lies President Obama had heard before. They hounded his first bid for the White House. Now they're back just as he's approaching the end of his second term. This time, it was a false smear about the president's religion at a Donald Trump rally.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have a problem in this country. It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even American.

TRUMP: We need this question, this first question.

ACOSTA: Trump's failure to set the record straight was no shocker to White House aides, who heard the GOP frontrunner repeatedly deny the truth of the matter, that the president is a Christian who was born in Hawaii.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Is anybody really surprised that this happened at a Donald Trump rally?

ACOSTA: But the White House did note, unlike Trump, Mr. Obama's one- time rival, John McCain, made it clear seven years ago when false rumors swirled in the heat of that campaign.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: He's an Arab. He's not...



MCCAIN: No, ma'am. No, ma'am. He's a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with.

ACOSTA: Colin Powell did the same just days later.

COLIN POWELL (R), FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, the correct answer is he is not a Muslim. He's a Christian. He's always been a Christin. But the really right answer is "What if he is?" ACOSTA: Four years ago, it was Trump lead the birther movement,

questioning the president's background.

TRUMP: Very simple. I have people looking into it.

ACOSTA: The president responded, posted his own birth certificate, dubbed Trump a carnival barker...

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We do not have time for this kind of silliness.

ACOSTA: ... and then mocked him at the White House Correspondents Dinner days later.

OBAMA: For the first time, I am releasing my official birth video.

ACOSTA: Despite the president's numerous speeches about his Christian faith...

OBAMA: It led me to embrace Jesus Christ, my Lord and Savior.

ACOSTA: ... 29 percent of Americans still believe the president is a Muslim, as do 43 percent of Republicans and more than half of Trump supporters.

The lies live on in social media. Every time the president tweets, the smears are tweeted right back at him. The White House insists it's up to Republicans to stop it.

EARNEST: This is a cynical strategy that too many Republican politicians have dabbled in, because for some of them, it's proved to be successful.


ACOSTA: White House officials all but rolled their eyes after the Trump campaign claimed that Trump did not hear that supporter calling the president a Muslim. Aides to the president are just not buying it, Wolf.

And a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, he is lashing out at the White House, saying they crossed the line here today in tying Trump to Republicans, a sign that perhaps the speaker's office is not pleased with Trump either.

BLITZER: On that question, he didn't just call him a Muslim. He said he wasn't an American, the president of the United States.

Jim Acosta, thanks very, very much.

Let's get some prospective, unique perspective with the president and CEO of the NAACP, Cornell William Brooks.

Cornell, thanks very much for joining us. The failure of Donald Trump to respond: his aides say he didn't hear the question properly. First of all, do you buy that? CORNELL WILLIAM BROOKS, PRESIDENT/CEO, NAACP: I'm not sure I buy

that. The fact of the matter is Donald Trump has a history of making statements against Latinos, calling into question the president's citizenship, his standing as an American.

[18:35:04] And the fact of the matter is you cannot kiss and cuddle bigotry without embracing it. That is, in fact, what he seems to do on a regular basis.

The things that he says, the condescending attitude he seems to have toward women. The fact of the matter is, the NAACP has taken a very clear stance against bigotry from our founding over 100 years ago. And this kind of conduct by a presidential candidate does not contribute toward the kind of America that we aspire to build.

BLITZER: The former Maryland governor, Martin O'Malley, is a Democratic presidential candidate. He tweeted this today. He said, "Shame on you @RealDonaldTrump. A Muslim is not a slur. You cannot scapegoat your way to the presidency."

I guess the bottom line question is, what do you, as the leader of the NAACP, believe Donald Trump must do now?

BROOKS: What Donald Trump should do is comport himself with the values of the majority of people in this country. And in fact, the values of those he claims to be a member of, mainly Christians, which is to say that you don't demean people based upon their race or religion.

He should issue an apology, and he should issue an apology to the millions of people in this country who call themselves Muslims. He should issue an apology to the millions of people in this country who call themselves Americans. And he should cease and desist from calling into question people's patriotism, their citizenship, as a consequence of their religion, a consequence of where they were born.

Donald Trump needs to rise to the standard of being a serious candidate for the highest office in this land. And that standard does not contain bigotry, plain and simple. Point, period, paragraph.

BLITZER: All right. I want to switch topics while I have you here, Cornell. I'm going to play some video. It's pretty shocking video. A 16-year-old was arrested in Stockton, California. Watch this video for a second.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: That's a child! That's a child! That's a kid! What's wrong with y'all? (EXPLETIVE DELETED).

That's a kid. What's wrong with y'all?


BLITZER: All right. So he was arrested. You saw what was going on over there. He was jaywalking. He says he was trying to catch a bus. And all of a sudden, he was surrounded by all these police officers and brought to the ground. When you see that, what do you think?

BROOKS: It's very alarming. After over a year since Michael Brown lost his life in Ferguson, Missouri, where he was first confronted by a police officer who thought he was jaywalking, that led to an unbelievable tragedy.

So here we have a teenager, again, who's suspected of jaywalking. I would simply say that this is troubling. More facts will emerge. What we need to be clear here: conversation is also a tool of law enforcement, engagement, reason. So very troubling.

BLITZER: I assume, as the leader of the NAACP, you meet with law enforcement all over the country. Right?

BROOKS: Indeed. We just completed a 1,002-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington D.C. Walking beside police officers, sheriffs, agents of bureaus of investigation. And what we found, over and over again, people of high professionalism, people went the extra mile to ensure our safety and protection. So it's only a minority of people in law enforcement who engage in this kind of conduct, not the majority.

BLITZER: Thanks for completing that march. I know it was important to you. It was important to the NAACP, important to so many people to do it. Glad you're here. Cornell, thanks very much.

BROOKS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Cornell William Brooks is the president and CEO of the NAACP.

Just ahead, we're going to have more on the Donald Trump uproar. Does the GOP frontrunner still doubt whether President Obama was born in the United States? You're going to hear what he told CNN about the so-called birther controversy.

Plus, a stunning mistake by police turns this teen's life upside-down. But there's a bright spot: he's now been invited to the White House.


[18:43:36] BLITZER: Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump was supposed to be in South Carolina right now at a conservative forum with the other Republican presidential candidates, but he abruptly cancelled today, citing a pressing business deal, after he came under fire for standing silent at a town hall while a man falsely stated that President Obama is a Muslim and not an American.

Trump himself has previously questioned President Obama's citizenship, where he was born.

Let's dig deeper right now. Joining us, our CNN anchor Don Lemon and our senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

Don, back in 2012 I spoke with Donald Trump about his contention at the time that President Obama wasn't born in the United States. Even when I showed him the birth certificate, the full-form, long-form birth certificate that had been released that day, the simultaneous -- the contemporaneous announcement in "The Honolulu Star-Bulletin," the newspaper there in Honolulu, the birth announcement that he was born in Honolulu, he said he still didn't believe that he was.

More recently, and this is just a few weeks ago, he had this to say in an exchange with our own Anderson Cooper. Listen to this.


COOPER: It's rare politicians actually admit mistakes. You've admitted you made mistakes in the past.

TRUMP: I have.

COOPER: You and I talked about President Obama and the whole birth certificate thing.

TRUMP: I didn't say it was a mistake. I just said I was...

COOPER: No, I'm asking you now: Do you accept that President Obama was born in the United States?

TRUMP: No, I really don't know.

COOPER: You don't know?

TRUMP: I don't know why he wouldn't release his records, but you know, honestly, I don't want to get into it. He came up with this thing all of a sudden.

[18:45:00] Remember this one thing, I'm going to get one thing. Because I'm about jobs, the economy, and I'm about the military and taking care of our veterans.

COOPER: But you still don't know --

TRUMP: Let me just tell you something, do you know Hillary Clinton was a birther? She wanted those records and fought like hell. People forget. You know, that John McCain was a birther, wanted those records? They couldn't get the recordings. Hilary failed. John McCain failed. Trump was able to get them to give something, I don't know what the hell it was. But it doesn't matter because I'm off that subject.


BLITZER: All right, Don, what do you -- when you hear that kind of talk, what goes through your mind?

LEMON: Boy, Wolf. It's tough because when you look at the numbers that every single person has presented, you know, inside this network or outside of this network, when you look at the number of people who believe the president is a Muslim, it's just mind boggling. It's perplexing. The president is not a Muslim. The president was born in the United States and no matter how many times you say it people want to believe what they want to believe.

I'm not -- I'm not sure what it's rooted in. It could be -- it's probably rooted in Islamophobia most likely. It's -- there is some -- some of it that's rooted in racism. But I don't know why someone of Donald Trump's statute and ilk, and someone who's running for the United States president couldn't just simply come out and say what he believes. Yes or no. It's a very simple answer to the question.

Do you, Mr. Donald Trump believe that President Obama was born in the United States? Yes or no? Do you, Mr. Donald Trump, believe that President Barack Obama is a Christian or a Muslim or -- if he's a Christian? Yes or no. Or is he a Muslim? Yes or no. But the fact of the matter is, it does not matter if he's a Muslim because we have religious freedom in this country, it's called religious -- freedom of religion for a reason.

There are many people in this country who would say, you know what, it would be great if the president was a Muslim. I would like to be a -- to claim having a Muslim president. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being Muslim, with being a Jehovah's Witness, with being a Christian, with being an atheist. That is what America is about. We accept all types of religions here. So if he was a Muslim then, more power to them. So I think that he should have chopped that question off right at the beginning, and said listen, what you said is completely untrue. But I will answer your question if it relates to ISIS and those sorts of things. But when it comes to someone's religion, that is out of bounce and we don't need that in our society.

BLITZER: All right, well said. You know, Jeffrey, 29 percent, according to our CNN-ORC poll, of all Americans believe the president of the United States is a Muslim. You see it over there, 39 percent say he's Christian, 29 percent say he's Muslim, 2 percent say he's Mormon, 1 percent say he's Jewish, 11 percent not religious. That's a national poll.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: And, you know, we're treating this like this is some kind of gaffe by Donald Trump. This is a feature, not a bug. This is why he's famous. This is why he's popular because he is engaged in this racism, this bigotry, this Islamophobia, directed at Barack Obama. That's what made him a presidential candidate, so the idea that he is -- you know, made some sort of mistake and he's unsure about how he wants to respond to this, this is another example like his stuff about John McCain or Megyn Kelly that we think is a problem but is good for him politically.

BLITZER: You know, some people have suggested, Don, it's in part because his name is Barack Hussein Obama and his biracial, if you will, and that has generated all this hatred against him over these years. What's your take?

LEMON: No, I think what's generated hatred for him is the fact that he is a man of color. I mean, that's just a fact. And you know, if his name is Hussein -- Barack Hussein Obama, then that -- you know, that's Islamophobia, that's racist in some ways as well. There are people like John McCain who disagree with him politically. And that's all well and good. John McCain handled the situation very well back in 2008 when that happened, we all remember when that happened.

And many people, most people applauded John McCain for that, even though the people, the birthers, or the people who believe he's a Muslim, said, well, John McCain shouldn't have said that, he may have even lost some support but I think that it comes -- it's rooted in some sort of ism or phobia.

TOOBIN: This is an uglier time than it was eight years ago and Donald Trump's political rise is an example of one.

BLITZER: All right. Jeffrey Toobin, Don Lemon, guys, thanks very much. Don, by the way, is going to be back later tonight. Not at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 9:00 p.m. Eastern tonight for a full hour of "CNN TONIGHT." 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

We're only days away from the arrival of Pope Francis here in the United States. Tomorrow he lands in Cuba. We're going live to Havana for a preview on the Pope's visit.



BLITZER: The U.S. intelligence official not telling CNN Russia is engaging in what it calls a significant military buildup in Syria right now, including war planes, battle tanks, armored personnel carriers.

Our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr is working this developing story for us. What are you picking up, Barbara?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the Russians are now pouring equipment into Syria. The latest, four aircraft fighter jets arriving in Syria from Russia.

[18:55:09] Look at some of the satellite imagery that has been captured at this airfield along the coast. We are seeing aircraft helicopters, armored vehicles, tanks, artillery. A close-up even shows one of the giant transport planes, they're landing two a day now bringing equipment in. Earlier today, Defense Secretary Ash Carter had a 50-minute phone call with the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoygu, the first time the two men have talked. The Pentagon says they are now talking about what the Pentagon calls de-conflicting U.S. and Russian military operations.

But, Wolf, here's the big question. The Pentagon does not know exactly yet what the Russians are up to so what are they talking about de-conflicting? If the Russians are there to support Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. supposes that. There should be nothing to talk about. If the Russians are there to fight ISIS, the U.S. is willing to talk about it. But right now they don't now and right now what the Russians are setting up is a military capability where they may be able to control a significant amount of airspace there -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Disturbing information indeed, Barbara. Thank you. We're also now just being told President Obama spoke by phone with the

Cuban president, Raul Castro, about the ongoing normalization of relations between Washington and Havana. Tomorrow Pope Francis sets out on his highly anticipated trip to Cuba and then to the United States. The Pope is scheduled to arrive in Havana in less than 24 hours from now.

Chris Cuomo, the co-host of CNN's "NEW DAY" is already in Havana for us.

Chris, what are you learning about first of all that phone call?

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR, NEW DAY: Well, I'll tell you, Senor Lobo, here we are in Havana and I'll tell you this place is so filled with anticipation for the trip of Pope Francis coming but there's big news to report out of here about this phone call this morning between Raul Castro and President Obama as you see the picture of President Obama on the phone.

There were some big items discussed. One, the idea of Raul Castro going to the New York City to see the U.N. and to speak there in front of the General Assembly, maybe meeting with President Obama. President Obama perhaps coming here to visit Cuba, which would be a very big sign of what the future in this country could be.

They spoke specifically about telecom restrictions being eased. That's huge here. The biggest need right now, other than the personal freedoms issue, is going to be infrastructure. So them talking about that is a very big move forward.

They also were very important on this call in inflecting the need, Wolf, for more, more exchange. And on that level, Raul Castro was supposedly thanking President Obama for the big memo that came out of the U.S. government today that, as of Monday, September 21st, there will be a list of an ease of restrictions that have to do with travel, who can come here and what they can do with respect to money.

Remember, especially as an American, Wolf, there is no monetary exchange here. That is going to change. There will be an ability to set up bank accounts, to do types of commerce. They are removing the restrictions for remittances, for those who have family here in Cuba. That's huge. So these are all going to be taking effect on Monday. It's going to be met with some controversy about those who believe the U.S. should maintain a posture but that time seems to have passed.

Then the last big point from the phone call, Wolf, which is most demonstrative of why we are here in Havana is that they showed mutual gratitude for the man responsible. The interesting part is that that's not Raul Castro nor President Obama. But Pope Francis. There is no denying the involvement of the pontiff in bringing these two Sovereigns together. It's been going on for a long time. We've reported extensively through Patrick Oppmann and others about the Pope's role with President Obama when they met at the Vatican saying you have to think about Cuba, the president echoing that sentiment.

The metaphor to use here is that if John Paul II helped bring down the wall, Pope Francis wants to build a bridge. Specifically between Cuba and the United States. And in so doing he now comes to Cuba. Why? Well, as a reassurance. Yes, it's about shoring up the catholic community here which has had somewhat of a resurgence but also an increase in competition, frankly.

Wolf, there has been an insertion here of religion since Raul Castro came into power. You have evangels, you have Mormons here, so the Catholic Church has some competition so the Pope is here to reassure but also to acknowledge and fortify the understanding of this bridge to the people and, more importantly, to the power structure namely Raul Castro.

So the place is certainly dewed with anticipation or maybe it's just really hot and humid, but people seem to be looking forward to it here. When you talk to them on the streets they don't know what the future will hold, Wolf, in terms of benefits for their lives but they do know that the Pope can only be a signal of good things to come.

BLITZER: It's going to be exciting. The Pope in Havana, in Cuba, then on Tuesday afternoon he arrives here in Washington. Chris is going to be covering every step of the way.

[19:00:01] Chris, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching. "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.