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CNN: Trump Allies Urging Him Not to Talk to Mueller; Source: Trump Slurs Immigrants From "Shithole Countries; Interview With Delaware Senator Chris Coons; Interview With New York Congressman Adriano Espaillat; Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 11, 2018 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[18:00:01] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Talking to Kim? President Trump is oddly cagey about whether he's spoken to North Korea's dictator, suggesting he probably has a good relationship with a man who says his entire nuclear arsenal is targeting the United States. Stand by for more on Mr. Trump's surprising new interview.
Likely or not? CNN has learned that Trump allies are urging him not to talk to special counsel Robert Mueller. We have new information on the Russia investigation, including a new call for testimony from Ivanka Trump.
And confusing the issue. Mr. Trump undermines his own administration's policy by criticizing the FISA surveillance just hours before a critical House vote. Did the commander in chief simply tweet what he saw on conservative TV on a matter of national security?
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Breaking tonight, a series of jaw-dropping new comments from President Trump denigrating immigrants and striking a surprisingly friendly tone towards North Korea's dictator.
A source tells CNN that, in a meeting with lawmakers, President Trump pushed back at the idea of protections for immigrants from Africa and elsewhere, asking why people from -- quote -- "S-hole countries" are coming to the United States.
This as the president tells "The Wall Street Journal" he probably has a very good relationship with North Korea's Kim Jong-un. Mr. Trump would not reveal whether or not he had spoken with Kim, saying -- quote -- "I just don't want to comment."
Also breaking, the White House is refusing to acknowledge that the president's tweet criticizing the FISA surveillance program caused confusion just hours before a pivotal reauthorization vote in the House of Representatives.
But the chaos seemed obvious to mostly everyone watching, as Mr. Trump's allies scrambled to understand why he seemed to be contradicting his own administration's national security policy. This is an issue of major concern.
And the House voted to authorize a key provision of FISA anyway, but only after the president finally posted a second tweet making his support clear. This incident is escalating concerns about the president's instant and unfiltered response to what he sees on TV and whether he fully understands what's in the legislation supported by his own administration.
We're covering all of that and much more at this hour with our guests, including Senator Chris Coons. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.
First, let's go to our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.
Jim, a chaotic day for the Trump administration and now this capper, the president's slur against certain immigrants.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.
A shocking and sad day over here at the White House, as it has been revealed by "The Washington Post" and confirmed by CNN that the president did use offensive and racially charged remarks in reference to countries like Haiti and other countries in Africa and their immigrants coming into the United States.
This was first reported by "The Washington Post." It happened over here at the White House earlier today. The president meeting behind closed doors with a group of lawmakers from both parties. They were talking about immigration, trying to reach some kind of agreement to protect those 700,000 or so dreamers from deportation.
They got into other immigration subjects during this meeting specifically about the temporary protection status that has been granted by previous administrations that the Trump administration would like to get rid of for people coming from Haiti and El Salvador and other countries in Africa.
And it was during that discussion, specifically with Senator Dick Durbin and other senators who were in this meeting, when the president said this. And we can put this up on the screen. And, of course, we have to warn our viewers this is very deeply offensive language.
It says, the president quoted here: "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here," Trump said -- this is reading from the "Washington Post" article, according to these people -- referring to African countries and Haiti.
He then suggested that the United States, moving on here in the article, "should instead bring more people from countries like Norway," whose prime minister he met yesterday.
And so the president making it very clear in these remarks -- and, by the way, Wolf, we've confirmed these remarks ourselves through other Senate offices, aides who are familiar with the remarks made by the president today here at the White House. What these remarks reflect is that the president just seems to harbor some deep-seated racial attitudes about people of color coming in from other parts of the world. And he makes it very clear in these comments that he would rather not see people coming in from countries like Haiti and countries in Africa, and obviously Caucasian people coming from places like Norway.
This is obviously going to inject a lot of poison into the debate over immigration. And, by the way, there are 700,000 or so dreamers still waiting for White House and members of Congress to get to the bottom of all of this.
Remember, the president met with lawmakers. It was in front of the cameras. It was just a couple of days ago. This was heralded as a pretty big success over here because it was such an open meeting. We got to see the give and take between the president and lawmakers.
But just two days after all of that, the president just really, I guess, wasting away a lot of capital that he might have built up in that meeting, a lot of good feelings he might have built up in that meeting, some positive attitudes perhaps towards a compromise, by making what are, undoubtedly, without question, very disturbing and, yes, racist remarks about people coming in from other parts of the world.
BLITZER: He certainly did.
The president also had a bombshell interview with "The Wall Street Journal" in which he made some extraordinary comments about North Korea, including about Kim Jong-un.
ACOSTA: That's right, Wolf.
And these are some curious comments as well, much less troubling than what the president was quoted as saying in "The Washington Post."
But the president was asked by "The Wall Street Journal" earlier today in an interview here at the White House whether he has spoken with North Korea. And let's put this up on screen. This is what the president had say about all of that.
He indicated that he has some kind of relationship with Kim Jong-un. He says: "I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un. I have relationships with people. I think you people are surprised."
And then he was asked specifically by "The Wall Street Journal," well, did you actually speak with Kim Jong-un? And essentially the president said: "I don't want to comment on it. I'm not saying I have or I haven't. I just don't want to comment."
But Wolf, on a day when obviously that would make major news, the president indicating that he has some kind of a relationship with Kim Jong-un, somebody he has referred to as Little Rocket Man, that is obviously greatly overshadowed by these remarks that were apparently made in this meeting with this group of lawmakers.
And, of course, we should underline, not only has "The Washington Post" reported this. But we and other news outlets have confirmed that the president made these very, very offensive comments about immigrants coming from Haiti and places in Africa.
BLITZER: As you point out, the White House issued a lengthy statement, but did not deny that the president described those immigrants from Haiti and African countries the way he did.
Jim Acosta, thanks very much.
Let's bring in our panel of analysts.
And, Gloria Borger, it's truly stunning, when you take a look at "The Washington Post" story, as CNN, as Jim has reported, we have confirmed it itself.
"Why are we having all of these people from S-hole countries come here?" the president told the bipartisan group of members of the House and Senate who were in the Oval Office with him.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Why is it that every time the president seems to open his mouth, it's a problem for him, or tweets something, it's a problem for him?
I mean, it was disgraceful, it was disturbing, it was vulgar, it was alarming in every way. And this is a president who not only seems to not understand his office of the presidency, but not understanding what America is and who Americans are and actually what makes America great.
And to listen to this, I'm reminded of -- I think it was "The New York Times" who reported late last year of a meeting the president had with some members of his national security team, where he said something very similar, which is, why are we bringing in these Haitians, who have AIDS? And the Nigerians, they will never go back to their huts, according to "The New York Times."
So, now we're seeing this kind of pattern here. And the fact that the president had no sense of dignity of what he was discussing and the people he was discussing it with and talking about is stunning even to those of us who have covered this presidency over and over again.
I have guess I lost the ability to be shocked.
BLITZER: In the story in "The Washington Post," when he said "Why are we having all of these people some S-hole countries come here?" "The Washington Post" says he was referring to the African countries and Haiti.
And then "The Washington Post," David, says he then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries like Norway, whose prime minister he met yesterday.
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN COMMENTATOR: Right. That "Washington Post" reporting by my colleague Josh Dawsey is
contrasting a wealthier Scandinavian country with developing countries where predominantly the population is people of color.
There's two problems -- there are many problems, including -- not just two -- but two problems I want to point out about what the president said, Wolf.
One is, there's a fig leaf in front of Republicans' tough-on- immigration stance, this idea that immigrants take jobs away and this idea of national security from these countries that are involved in the travel ban.
But when you hear these comments and those other comments reported by "The New York Times," it gives a little bit of a lie to this idea that that's all that is motivating them, that part of what is behind this is sort of this, we like people from some countries better than others, this almost, if you want to say, white nationalist type framework that he is putting around it, whether or not he believes it.
The other thing I want to just point out quickly, Wolf, is that one of the biggest problems for this president, this goes back to what you said, Gloria, is that when people now hear these things reported, even before they are confirmed, Jim said he confirmed it, people believe it. Like, no one says, oh, there's no way President Trump said that.
They're like, sounds what he said last time. And I think that's a huge problem.
BORGER: And this is the president of the United States.
I want to go to Abby Phillip, our White House correspondent.
You were there. You confirmed that the president told these seven lawmakers those ugly words.
And then the White House issues a statement not denying it, a lengthy statement. But they didn't deny that the president said that.
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No, not at all, Wolf.
In fact, it was quite the opposite, that they asserted it as part of the president's idea around immigration is that he wants people in the country who he thinks are contributing, that it shouldn't just be that visas are going out to countries based on some kind of preexisting allocation.
We also just heard from another source familiar just a few moments ago that the idea in the meeting was that about half of the lottery numbers that would have been for the visa lottery would have gone to countries like African countries and like Haiti, an idea that the president was very opposed to, partly because it does not fit into his world view of how immigration should work in this country.
But this source also noted it shouldn't be kind of presupposed that there is no deal, that they didn't come out of a deal in this meeting, but that the negotiation continue.
Obviously, however, these comments were so shocking to some of the people in the room. And notably it's important to note we know about this in part because there were a lot of people in the room. This was not a sort of like small meeting. It was a meeting of more than half- a-dozen people.
Plenty of people heard these comments and it's no secret that it got leaked in part because they were very shocking to the people in that room, including several Democrats.
BLITZER: Yes, including Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois. Lindsey Graham was in that room, Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader.
Phil Mudd, let me get your reaction to what the president said about these immigrants who want to come to the United States from countries like Haiti and Africa.
PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well, close your ears, Wolf, because I'm going to give you a reaction. And it's personal.
I'm a proud shitholer. My family was called wops and mackerel eaters. We came from Italians and Irish who were regarded as people from shithole countries.
A century ago, we called people slant-eyes, Chinese immigrants, that we're now ashamed of speaking about in those terms, because they came from a shithole country, and now they're a backbone of this country.
In the 1940s, we called people traitors because they came from a shithole country we call Japan, and we're ashamed. We called people who fled from conflict in Central America spics and wetbacks. And we're ashamed.
The president is growing this country on the backbone of bigotry that comes from when I saw my family called spics, wops, and mackerel eaters.
We should be ashamed. We have learned way too many lessons. And history will tell you that, if you don't read history, you will repeat them. That's what our president did for us today. I am not proud.
BLITZER: A lot of people are not proud right now.
Let's get -- I want everybody to stand by. I want to get some reaction to all the breaking news on the president's truly stunning remarks.
We're joined by Congressman Adriano Espaillat. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.
REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT (D), NEW YORK: Thank you.
BLITZER: I know your country is from the Dominican Republic.
You represent Harlem here in Washington in the House of Representatives. Give us your reaction to the way the president described immigrants from countries like Haiti and Africa, in contrast to immigrants from countries like Norway.
ESPAILLAT: Well, I wish I can tell you that I am surprised, but I'm not, because there's a saying that goes this way, my grandmother always told me. Tell me who you walk with, and I will tell you who you are.
And so the president has surrounded himself with white supremacists. He has even spoken well of them as they run over people in Virginia. And so these words are very consistent with who he surrounds himself, and, therefore, he is that.
And so this is a moral freefall that the White House is experiencing, just as he begins to talk about DACA and dreamers. And we saw like a small opportunity that perhaps this could be resolved. He goes ahead and makes these racist remarks, throwing fuel to the fire and making it very difficult for anybody to be able to reach an agreement with him.
BLITZER: Congressman Espaillat, the White House isn't denying that the president used those ugly words. And some White House staffers actually believe that this will resonate with his political base.
What does that tell you?
ESPAILLAT: Well, if he wants to fan the flames of racism, as it has been done throughout the history of our nation, he can do that. But he will have a sad ending.
And America deserves better than this. We are very -- we are traumatized as a nation about this president and how he behaves. He's not behaving presidential. And attacking people based on their race, where they come from, their gender, it's just unacceptable.
And I think the White House is facing a moral freefall. I believe they don't know what to do with it. And the people around them may be in shock themselves. This is not what America deserves from this president.
BLITZER: How would you hope your Republican colleagues in the House react to this?
ESPAILLAT: Well, I hope they're sensible and they're practical and they understand that this is not good for America. This is not a Republican problem or a Democratic problem or an independent problem. This is a problem with a leader in our nation who chooses to scapegoat people, to ridicule people and to kick down the least among us.
And so this is not what our nation stands for. And I think that both Republicans and Democrats and independents should feel the same way.
BLITZER: How will this impact, do you believe, Congressman, the fate of these 700,000 or 800,000 dreamers? Their fate is on the line right now. Could this push Democrats, for example, to shut down the government over a DACA deal if it doesn't happen?
ESPAILLAT: Well, the ironic thing about this is that the instability of the White House is such that tomorrow we could expect them to go out and say that he never said this.
And so, look, we're looking to save 800,000 dreamers. They deserve to be in our country. I think that we were heading somewhere. And now he makes these statements.
This is not helpful at all. We will stick with it. We will stick with the script and we will make sure that we continue to follow through for them, because that's our responsibility, to ensure that they stay in our nation and they continue to contribute as folks, young people that came at the age of 1, 2, 3 years old.
But these kind of statements certainly don't help matters and they certainly don't lead to a consensus.
BLITZER: President Trump also told "The Wall Street Journal" today that Mexico will, he says, end up paying for the border wall. He said this, and I will read it to you. "They can pay for it indirectly through NAFTA. We make a good deal on NAFTA and say I'm going to take a small percentage of that money and it's going towards the wall. Guess what? Mexico's paying."
What's your response, Congressman?
ESPAILLAT: Well, the Mexicans have said time over and over again that they are not paying for the wall.
So this has become a tit for tat game. And he wants to score some points maybe with his base that is motivated by this macho thing. And perhaps his base will be motivated if NAFTA is changing in a way that they perceive they're extracting some dollars from Mexico, and they may go to the wall.
But this is nothing more than a scam. This is nothing more than a shell game, a Three-card Monte game, as they do in New York City. He's trying to fool people. I don't think that the Mexicans will pay for the wall. If the wall is ever built, and I will vote against it, we will have to pay for it.
BLITZER: Congressman Adriano Espaillat, thanks so much for joining us. ESPAILLAT: Thank you so much.
BLITZER: All right, coming up, more reaction to the president slamming immigrants as coming from S-hole countries. We will have that, a lot more, right after a quick break.
[18:23:33] BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the president's bombshell remark during talks with lawmakers in the Oval Office earlier today on immigration.
The president referring to immigrants from Africa, Haiti, elsewhere as being from, his word, "S-hole countries." I won't say it, but you get the point. You can read it.
Mark Preston, let's talk about this a little more. It's going to cause the president a lot, a lot of grief.
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL EDITOR: A lot of grief that he has brought on himself.
And let me answer this in a political way and in a moral way. Politically, I have spoken to Republicans since this comment was published and since we have since confirmed it as well. Nobody was surprised. The Republicans were not surprised that this happened, but what they noted is that it really does reinforce his belief about people who come from Africa and who come from Haiti.
They know, as all we have noted here, this is not going to hurt him with the base. But what they are concerned about is, going into 2018 right now, Wolf, going into 2018, and having every Republican now being asked by their local reporters back home, do you agree with the president?
But let me just say something from a personal level. And Phil Mudd really led it off and I think he was right on. I'm the son of an immigrant. My parents came over here on a boat from Ireland.
If you go back to the mid-1860s to the early 1900s, no Irish need apply. And people are outraged now by that. I think Phil gave us the good history lesson when you talk about the Chinese, when you talk about the Jews, when you talk about the Italians.
The fact of the matter is, history repeats itself right now. We are seeing that happen as we speak.
BLITZER: And in contrast, Rebecca Berg, the president saying he doesn't want people coming from Haiti or African countries, what he described as these S-hole countries.
He suggested that the United States, instead, should bring more people over to the country from countries like Norway. He did meet with the prime minister of Norway yesterday.
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right.
And so this idea that not all immigrants in the president's mind are created equal, that he wants to bring only in certain people and not others.
I have to touch on this idea, reported first by our White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins, that President Trump believes this will play well with his base. You kind of touched on this, Mark Preston, as well.
It's just -- it's completely cynical. It's not playing to the base. It's playing to our basest instincts as humans. It's just so far beyond the pale, even for President Trump, who ran in some ways a very cynical campaign on the issue of immigration, sometimes using very nationalist language.
But it also tells us a lot, I think, about how he views his role as president. He's never viewed himself as a moral leader. He's never really considered his words to have the weight that they do with the American public, and he's never felt any sort of responsibility or obligation to say the right thing at the right time.
BORGER: And I also think this cynical notion, as you point out, that this was going to play well with the base, I think it's giving the base a bad rap, to be honest.
PRESTON: I do too, absolutely.
BORGER: Why would you assume that members of the president's base would think that these kind of comments are good? I mean, it's cynical to the extreme, and I would argue with the premise.
I don't think it's going to play well. I think people aren't proud of a president who speaks this way. And this -- this notion that only merit-based immigration is good. So does that mean the poor people from poor countries have less merit than, say, people from Norway?
I mean, you know, everybody has probably at this table some kind of immigrant story, immigrant history. And if you don't, you know people who do. So why would you assume the people in the president's base would feel any other way?
PHILLIP: And Gloria -- to Gloria's point, the idea that you can say with a blanket statement that people from Norway have more merit than people from anywhere else doesn't actually make much sense.
We have to push back on some of the spin coming from the White House that this does not actually line up with the president's stated goal, which is a merit-based immigration system. Such an immigration system wouldn't say that people from Norway are more deserving of coming to the United States than people from Haiti or people from Africa.
So that doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And it also reinforces this idea that the White House, in the past, just a couple of weeks ago, tried to push back on the idea that the president has made similar derogatory comments about people from countries like Haiti and from Africa.
It's hard to take the White House's word on some of this stuff, because the evidence keeps coming out day after day after day, and it all lines up in a very consistent way. And the White House is having a really hard time squaring the circles.
BLITZER: Abby, you're our White House correspondent. You and your colleagues have learned an incredible nugget, what the president was actually doing when "The Washington Post" published this report about how he described immigrants from Haiti and Africa.
PHILLIP: That's right.
I mean, this is -- we're about to go into Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. So, the president was in the White House taping a video message for that occasion, which is something that past presidents have done. So the timing of this report is really incredibly interesting and awkward for this White House.
The president also, according to another official, has been telling his aides that he thinks that this story is blown out of proportion, that it's being covered differently from how he interprets it. That should not come as a surprise to you.
Clearly, this White House and the president himself do not believe that the things that he has said ought to be interpreting as having racial overtones or being overtly racist. The president is going into a really important weekend for African-Americans and for this country with this cloud of racism hanging over him.
BLITZER: Phil Mudd, are we blowing the story out of proportion?
MUDD: I don't think we are.
We have to have some context here. The context is a president who is coming across in a campaign from aligning women for the way they look, for attacking a judge because he had Hispanic heritage, for talking about his genitalia on stage. It's not like we're looking at this issue in isolation and saying the president just made one slip-up after a history that is pure.
I will tell you the one thing I'm looking for, Wolf. And I would rarely say this. I don't like it when former presidents engage with current presidents.
But last I checked, President Obama is the son of an African, that is, a Kenyan. And I'm curious about what the son of an African says about a president today who says someone from Africa isn't suitable for immigration to this country. I want to see that one.
BLITZER: That's a good point. David Swerdlick?
DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, just a couple points, Wolf. One is that, you know, on the big picture, I think what everyone is saying here is that the president doesn't seem to get his hands or his mind around this idea that, unlike other countries, we're not supposed to be a country that's based on nationality or race. We're supposed to be based on ideas. If he can't grasp that or if he refuses to grasp that, I think he's missing a core duty of being the head of state in our country.
On a smaller note, I think going back to what we're talking about with the base, I agree with you, Gloria, that there are going to be people who, in theory right now, are part of the base who are going to walk away from the president on this.
But I do think there are still people out there with whom this does resonate. He has only gone from 45 percent to 40 since inauguration day. So clearly, there is some amount of people, maybe less than 40 tomorrow, who are sticking with him, in spite of all these things that Phil just listed off.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: I want to agree with that. I want to go back to Abby's point for a moment.
Because she was talking about how the White House kind of rationalizes everything and tries to explain everything, and we heard that earlier today when they were trying to explain the clear contradictory statements from the president on FISA. You know, first he tweets out and says don't approve it. Then he does a little bit of cleanup after people obviously got to him and he says, "OK, approve it."
And now they're doing cleanup on these comments, right? And the cleanup on these comments is, "Well, you know, it would work with his base, and this is what the president really wants to do with immigration," kind of -- you know, they can't deny it because there were so many witnesses, but they find different ways to shove these things under the rug every single time.
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And they have no other answer, right? They have no other answer to justify the unjustifiable. You know, I think we're all in agreement here about how this is going to play out politically. Let's remove the word "base," OK, out of it. Let's just call them Trump supporters.
If you look at polling right now, Trump is at, what, 78 percent with Republicans. Of that 78 percent, I bet you more than a majority, a strong majority would not agree with him and are very upset by it.
There is that small core group, though. There is that white nationalist group...
PRESTON: ... that is considered his supporters. We're calling it his base, and it is his base that will cling onto this, and they'll think it's good. I guarantee you right now, if you go to any of these racist websites -- I won't name them -- or any of these racist leaders, they are having a field day with this right now.
BORGER: Well, we saw in Charlottesville, after Charlottesville... PRESTON: Correct.
BORGER: ... there was -- there was that split.
BLITZER: Everybody stand by. We're following the bombshell reports. Much more on the breaking news right after this.
[18:37:16] BLITZER: We're following breaking news on the president of the United States using a slur to denigrate immigrants while suddenly softening his tone about North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-un.
We're joined now by Senator Chris Coons. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees. Senator, thanks so much for joining us.
What does it tell you when the president of the United States says he doesn't want the immigrants coming from Haiti, El Salvador, African countries? "Why are we having people from s-hole countries come here?" He wants more people to come to the United States from countries, he says, like Norway. He met with the prime minister of Norway yesterday. What does that say to you?
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Wolf, it says to me that President Trump doesn't understand what makes America truly great, which is that we have a long history of welcoming people from around the world, of embracing folks who come here as immigrants or as refugees from troubled places around the world, who are coming here for opportunity and for freedom and who have contributed immensely to our country.
As a number of the commentators in the last half an hour said, whose own family histories included coming here from countries that used to be disfavored, used to be the subject of these sorts of slurs. This is just beneath the presidency but also suggests he doesn't quite get what it is that really makes America great.
BLITZER: What is stunning is the White House issued a lengthy statement. They didn't deny the president used these ugly words to describe people who want to come to the United States from Africa, from Haiti, or El Salvador. They didn't deny that. And Kaitlan Collins, one of our White House reporters, is saying that they're sort of pleased that this will resonate with the president's supporters, the president's base.
COONS: This shows a president who, at times, is much more concerned about playing to his own base or continuing the nativist or even, at times, racist themes of his campaign rather than governing successfully.
He was on the verge of having exactly the bipartisan deal on addressing border security and working with DACA that he had asked for just a few days ago in a hopeful bipartisan session that he hosted in the White House.
This afternoon, a bipartisan group of senators announced they'd reached a deal and, given that government shutdown is looming just next week, something all of us would like to avoid, ought to avoid, the president throwing himself into this mix with this kind of slur is exactly ill-timed. It shows the worst in his instincts and his weaknesses as someone able to govern...
BLITZER: And as you point out, it's not just words. It does have an impact on policy on some of the most sensitive issues.
COONS: Absolutely. As we go into Martin Luther King weekend, as he faces important foreign policy decisions around Iran tomorrow and in our ongoing confrontation with North Korea, his weird innuendo about maybe he's
got a relationship where he's speaking with Kim Jong-un of North Korea suggests that this is a president who is governing or leading by tweet, by slur and by innuendo. That's no way to lead this great nation.
[18:40:13] BLITZER: Because a lot of people remember what the president said when he announced his candidacy, speaking about Mexican immigrants to the United States. "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people."
So there is a history of this kind of talk.
COONS: Sadly, there is. The president has, on many occasions, shown himself to careen back and forth from positions that could be supported or embraced by a wide range of people: "Let's support manufacturing. Let's build on our infrastructure." And then veers wildly over to the right to positions that are not just marginable but genuinely nativist or even racist.
BLITZER: Let me read to you, Senator, a comment we're getting now from the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressman Cedric Richmond. Let me read it to you: "@RealDonaldTrump's s-hole comments are further proof that his 'Make America Great Again' agenda is really a 'make America white again' agenda." Your reaction?
COONS: That's the chilling implication of the president's remarks. Given what happened last year in Charlottesville, given the president's failure to speak as the sort of moral leader that our country needs and expects from a president in a moment like the Charlottesville demonstrations, and his abject failure to really stand up and address it in a way that was constructive or positive or healing, I agree with those comments. That it suggests a really troubling, consistent theme: that the president winks at or toys with or actively embraces racist instincts and gives voice to them.
BLITZER: Very quickly, he also gave a bombshell interview to the "Wall Street Journal" in which he said, quote, "I probably have a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. I have relationships with people. I think you people are surprised." He said surprised to hear him say that.
You're on the Foreign Relations Committee. You've been well-briefed on U.S./North Korea relationships right now. Have you been told that the president, A, has -- probably has a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un, and that they've actually spoken?
COONS: It's inconceivable that the president is publicly saying he has a good relationship with Kim Jong-un. And I have no idea what basis in fact he has for that assertion.
Would it be good for our country if there were open lines of communication, if there were ongoing negotiations, if there was progress being made in terms of de-escalation and addressing the nuclear threat to South Korea, Japan and to the United States that we faced from Kim Jong-un? Yes, that would be good. And my new year's resolution was to be hopeful.
But there's no basis in fact for this. We had a briefing earlier today on North Korea. I think it would be a huge surprise to the Senate to know that the president has been speaking directly to Kim Jong-un and that they've somehow developed a warm and positive relationship.
BLITZER: He was asked, "Have you spoken to Kim Jong-un?"
He says, "I don't want to comment on it. I'm not saying I have or haven't. I just don't want to comment." But he says he probably has a very good relationship with Kim Jong-un, the man he only days ago called "Little Rocket Man" and all sorts of other words.
Senator Coons, thanks so much for joining us.
COONS: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Much more on the breaking news right after this.
[18:48:00] BLITZER: We are following multiple breaking stories, including the president's very ugly slur of immigrants from Haiti and Africa in a private meeting with lawmakers in the Oval Office over at the White House.
Right now, I want to quickly turn to the Russia investigation and the possibility that the president might be interviewed by the special counsel Robert Mueller.
Our chief political analyst Gloria Borger and our team have been digging on that.
Gloria, you've been talking to those close to the president about what they think the president should do if he gets that request for an interview. What do they say?
BORGER: Well, almost to a person, Wolf, people close to him and advisers, friends, are warning him to be very wary about this and not sit for an interview with the special counsel. And that skepticism, I would have to tell you, extends to some members of his legal team.
So, there is now going to be this ongoing constant conversation between Mueller's team and the president's team about where they can come to some agreement about how to hear from the president and that would range from sort of answering written and interrogatories and there's a chance, by the way, Wolf, that the president's team could challenge Mueller and could say, you know what, you don't have the right to interview this president and say it doesn't reach a certain legal threshold. Now, if they got into an extended legal battle, they understand that this would also extend the Russia investigation. So, they are not quite sure they want to do that.
The threshold question that they have to have answered, Wolf, that they are trying to find out, is just what does Robert Mueller want to hear from the president? What is he asking him? Is this just a way to wrap up the investigation, or is there something more that he needs to get from the president? And in that case, they might be more interested in protecting him.
BLITZER: The lawyers are always cautious. But what about the president? Last June, he said 100 percent he'd be willing to meet with him.
BORGER: Not, you know, not so much anymore. The president is obviously talking to his lawyers. He's talking to friends. I mean, I talked to one friend of the president who said, the president told him, I just want to get in there and do it.
[18:50:03] And the friends are saying, you know, not so fast. And so, what we heard from the president this week was, you know, we're going to have to see what happens. So, he's clearly holding back a little bit and his lawyers are trying to tamp down his enthusiasm to talk to Mueller and get it over with.
BLITZER: The president keeps saying we'll see. So, we'll see.
BORGER: We will see.
BLITZER: Good reporting, Gloria. Thanks very much.
Just ahead, what does it mean for U.S. troops in African nations when the commander-in-chief says those are S-hole countries.
[18:55:14] BLITZER: There's a lot of strong reaction tonight to the breaking news that the president of the United States described immigrants from certain African nations as being from S-hole countries.
Let's bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
Barbara, four U.S. soldiers died last year in an ambush in Niger. Remind our viewers how many are there, why and the risk they face on behalf of the commander-in-chief.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Look, Wolf, Africa is now a national security imperative. This commander-in-chief is responsible for 6,000 U.S. troops spread across the continent, every day working with mutual respect with African military forces to bring security to that country. Back in October, four U.S. troops killed in western Africa, in Niger, in an ambush by ISIS fighters.
The investigation report into what happened to them is about to come out. It may be a very difficult report to read. We are getting indications that there could be problems with the troops that some could face disciplinary action.
STARR (voice-over): CNN has learned investigation into the ISIS ambush in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers questions these intelligence agencies gave the troops the most current assessment of the ISIS threat before they were sent to the field. Multiple officials say no intelligence operatives were present at the ambush, but did play a role behind the scenes.
Critical questions also remain over the adequacy of communications the troops had during the battle and how the mission was approved from the beginning.
GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, JOINT CHIEFS CHAIRMAN: The questions include, did the mission of U.S. forces change during the operation? Did our forces have adequate intelligence, equipment and training? Was there a pre-mission assessment of threat in the area accurate?
STARR: A key question, did specific failures result in the 12-man team being attacked by approximately 50 heavily-armed ISIS affiliated fighters and why did it take 48 hours to find the body of Sergeant La David Johnson?
DUNFORD: How did U.S. forces become separated during the engagement, specifically Sergeant Johnson?
STARR: Within days of the October 4th ambush, top military officials were aware what was supposed to be routine patrol was plagued with problems. On the intelligence, officials originally said they worked off the best information they had.
LT. GEN. KENNETH MCKENZIE, JOINT STAFF DIRECTOR: This was an ongoing operation, series of operations based on an assessment that contact would be unlikely.
STARR: The investigation is assessing who made that judgment and why it was not accurate. It's a critical question because the team got orders, while in the field, to visit an abandoned ISIS camp.
COL. CEDRIC LEIGHTON (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: That Special Forces team did not have a true picture of the environment that they were in. They didn't understand the village and local dynamics that they were dealing with, and they also did not understand how close terrorists were to their operation.
STARR: Military investigators re-enacted the ambush.
LEIGHTON: The attackers used a sophisticated series of tactics. They also understood the kind of tactics they would need to use in order to defeat the Special Forces A-Team that was out there. STARR: The Americans did not request back up support for one hour.
But there were problems in getting there quickly. Communications proved difficult, officials tell CNN.
DUNFORD: I think it's a fair conclusion to say that about two hours after initial contact was made, the initial French mirages arrived overhead.
STARR: But one of the most emotional issues, the fate of Sergeant La David Johnson. His wife is due to deliver a baby this month.
The ambush sparked global headlines when his body was not found and recovered from villagers for 48 hours. President trump's phone call to the widow was poorly received.
MYESHIA JOHNSON, WIDOW OF SGT. LA DAVID JOHNSON: And that made me cry even more because my husband was an awesome soldier.
STARR: All indications are that the troops on the ground, they fought with honor and valor until the very end. This is why U.S. troops in Africa are trying to improve security. There could be some discipline for those involved in planning and executing the mission -- Wolf.
BLITZER: There could be some very, very angry, negative reaction from African countries after the way the president of the United States described Africa today. That's certainly not going to make the lives of U.S. military personnel any easier over there.
Barbara Starr, thanks very much.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.