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Interview With Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings; School Bus Crash Investigation; Trump Dismisses Criticism of Business Conflicts; Mitt Romney Considering Secretary of State Position; School Bus Driver Charged in Deadly Accident. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 22, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Where will he draw line between businessman and president?

Peace broker. Trump says he believes he can succeed where others have failed and forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Trump says he would love to be the one to settle the decades-old conflict. Is he planning to put his son-in-law in charge of that effort?

And bus crash arrest. The driver of a school bus is arrested and charged with homicide after a crash that left at least five children dead. Many more are injured, some in intensive care. Was the driver speeding when the bus spun out of control?

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: We're following breaking news, President-elect Donald Trump making some of his most extensive comments since the election in a meeting with one of his favorite Twitter targets, "The New York Times."

After bashing the paper in a tweet this morning and canceling the on- the-record conversation, Trump changed his mind, sat down with reporters and executives and backed away from his campaign promise to investigate, prosecute and jail Hillary Clinton.

Trump also defended his controversial chief strategist, Steve Bannon, saying that allegations of anti-Semitism and connections to the alt- right movement are -- quote -- "not him," even though Bannon himself has said that Breitbart News site he ran is the platform for the alt- right.

Trump also disavowed neo-Nazis and white nationalists who gather in Washington, D.C., to celebrate his victory. The video of that event showed Nazi salutes and shouts of hail Trump. The president-elect Trump said it is not a group he wants to energize.

Trump also addressed questions about conflicts of interests between his presidency and the Trump Organization's sizable business interests around the world. Trump claimed -- and I'm quoting him now -- "The president can't have a conflict of interests." And he stated he could in theory run the country and his business perfectly.

We're covering all of that, much more this hour, with our guests, including the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, Congressman Elijah Cummings. Our correspondent and our expert analysts are standing by.

Let's begin with Donald Trump'S meeting with "The New York Times."

Our political reporter Sara Murray has the very latest.

Sara, this morning, Trump called "The Times" a failing newspaper. This afternoon, he called it a great American jewel. What is the latest?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, that's not the only issue Donald Trump appears to be having a change of heart on today. After spending more than a year traveling the country, referring to Hillary Clinton as crooked Hillary, and saying he would name a special prosecutor to investigate her, now he says he just doesn't feel strongly about it.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: Hillary Clinton will be under investigation for a long, long time.

MURRAY (voice-over): That pledge to put Hillary Clinton behind bars is no longer a top priority. Donald Trump telling "The New York Times" today he is not taking a potential investigation entirely off the table, but saying: "It's just not something that I feel very strongly about, adding that such a move would be very, very divisive for the country.

One of his top advisers, Kellyanne Conway, is hoping other Republicans follow Trump's cue.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP CAMPAIGN MANAGER: I think when the president- elect, who is also the head of your party now, Joe, tells you before he is even inaugurated he doesn't wish to pursue these charges, it sends a very strong message, tone and content to the members.

MURRAY: While Trump appears poised to forgive some grudges, that doesn't appear to extend to the press. After a fiery meeting with television executives Monday, Trump spiraled into a Twitter tantrum against "The New York Times" today, saying: "I canceled today's meeting with the failing 'New York Times' when the terms and conditions of the meeting were changed at the last moment. Not nice."

Then he ventured out for his meeting with the newspaper anyway, telling "New York Times" reporters he is focused on how much climate change regulations will cost American businesses and admitting there's some link between humans and climate change, saying: "I think there is some connectivity, some something. It depends on how much." The billionaire businessman also suggesting he wants to be the one to strike a peace agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the help of his Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

And yet again Trump leapt to the defense of his key strategist Steve Bannon under fire for his ties to the alt-right movement, which has embraced elements of white supremacy and anti-Semitism.

Trump saying of Bannon: "If I thought he was racist or alt-right, I wouldn't even think about hiring him."

But Bannon himself has boasted that Breitbart News is the platform of the alt-right.

That is as another one of Trump's White House picks, incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn, is facing a new wave of scrutiny for these comments in August speech.

LT. GEN. MICHAEL FLYNN (RET.), NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER-DESIGNEE: We are facing another ism, just like we faced Nazism and fascism and imperialism and communism. This is Islamism.

[18:05:03]

And it is a vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people on this planet. And it has to be excised.

MURRAY: All of this as Trump continues to stoke the palace intrigue around those Cabinet positions that have yet to be filled. The president-elect confirming to "The New York Times" that General James Mattis is under serious consideration for Department of Defense.

And after meeting with Dr. Ben Carson today, Trump announced that he is still in the running for a top slot and could be tapped to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Trump tweeting: "I am seriously considering Dr. Ben Carson as the head of HUD. I have gotten to know him well. He's a greatly talented person who loves people."

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Donald Trump is taking a break from his flurry of meetings for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Right now, he is en route to Mar-a-Lago in Florida, where he will be spending the next couple of days with his family members, a little time off even for the president-elect -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Sara, thanks very much, Sara Murray in New York.

It is not clear tonight how Donald Trump will address concerns about his sprawling business empire, his new role as president and potential conflicts of interest.

CNN's Tom Foreman is working the story for us. Tom, this issue also came up today.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it did. In his meeting with "The New York Times," Donald Trump was asked about numerous business relationships that could lay the groundwork for trouble for conflicts of interest. And yet he still appears to be straddling the fence between being a private businessman and a public servant.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN (voice-over): When Donald Trump opened his billion-dollar Scottish resort in 2012, he had big ambitions.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: We wanted to build what we determined could be easily the greatest golf course anywhere in the world.

FOREMAN: But soon he was tilting at windmills, embroiled in a legal fight with the Scottish government over a wind farm just offshore ruining the view, a fight that he lost less than a year ago.

But shortly after his election, he met with British politician Nigel Farage, who helped the lead the Brexit movement. And did they discuss wind farms again? Just today, Trump told "The New York Times," "I might have brought it up."

The story embodies everything political watchdogs are worried about.

ALEXANDRA WRAGE, PRESIDENT, TRACE INTERNATIONAL: Whether a position is abused or there's just the potential for that abuse, there's just the opportunity to abuse it, either way, it's undermining of confidence in government.

FOREMAN: The billionaire politician told "The Times": "In theory, I could run my business perfectly and then run the country perfectly," adding, however, he is phasing that out now, letting his children take over.

But a firewall has clearly not gone up yet. So, the president of Argentina says, when he called to offered congratulations, Trump's daughter Ivanka was on the line too. The transition team says no business was discussed, but the Trump Organization is working on a $100 million project in Buenos Aires.

When the Japanese prime minister came calling, there was Ivanka again. With the Trump Organization doing business with at least 150 companies in 25 countries, the potential for professional ties colliding with politics is huge.

Will the new president recognize the new envoy from the Philippines picked just before the election? Sure. It's his former business partner. Lawsuits are also a worry, such as the one over Trump University, which he just settled for $25 million.

So are reports of questionable behavior and bookkeeping at the Trump Foundation. And even that fancy new D.C. hotel he so proudly opened recently, some legal analysts think that too could run afoul of federal laws because it's on property leased from the very government he will now lead.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

FOREMAN: Even as the president-elect promises to step away from all these entanglements, it remains unclear when he will complete that step. And one thing is very clear. He is confident this won't be a problem, telling "The Times," "The law is totally on my side. The president can't have a conflict of interest" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Tom, is there any indication he's actually done some deals since being elected president?

FOREMAN: We don't know.

We do know that with regard to that Argentine deal we mentioned a moment ago, Eric Trump was with one of the developers on election night. And even though project had appeared to be stalled, just days after that phone call with Ivanka, the developer put out a press release saying construction will start next June.

That's not proof of anything, Wolf, but it is the very thing that is raising eyebrows.

BLITZER: Tom Foreman reporting for us, Tom, thank you.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland is joining us. He's the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: It's good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, Donald Trump, the president-elect, he told "The New York Times" that, "The law is totally on my side." I'm quoting him now. "The president can't have a conflict of interest."

[18:10:04]

Is that problematic, in your view?

CUMMINGS: It is problematic, because, clearly, I don't think Mr. Trump realizes how significant the mine field is in this area.

Keep in mind, Wolf, that, during the campaign, he said one of his top priorities would be to bring honesty to government. He also talked about draining the swamp and used a lot of terms, basically saying that he was going to clean up government and he was going on make sure that there would be transparency.

When you have -- when you're dealing in so many businesses in so many countries, it is basically a mine field for conflicts. And to say that because you are the president that the law does not apply to you, it is not so much just the law. It is the appearance of the conflict.

And so, you know, one of the things the American people, I think, is saying to us is, they want to us act on their behalf. They don't want to necessarily to see elected officials benefiting financially, and their families benefiting from their actions. They want to see government that is transparent, that is honest.

And I think, basically, what Mr. Trump needs to do, president-elect needs to do, is to do what he said he would do during the campaign. And, by the way, keep in mind, he almost said, every other rally, was talking about Hillary Clinton and talking about the elites taking advantage of government, enriching themselves.

And I don't think he wants to be even viewed in that light. So, as I have said many times, I think our part in the Congress, Government Reform and Oversight, is to look at these issues. It has come squarely under our purview. And I think we're doing him a favor by asking these questions now before he steps on some of these mines.

BLITZER: What he said during the campaign, he would have a firewall between himself, his adult children would run the business, he would spend 100 percent of his time being president of the United States. Is that good enough?

CUMMINGS: No.

You have got to keep in mind that his children are also on the transition team, based upon the report you just had on your show. Apparently, they're sitting in on meetings with dignitaries from the various countries where he is doing business.

The firewall is not clear. Even the experts have said -- I have not run into hardly any expert in this area of ethics who says that it is good enough. And so he talks about a blind trust. Some say that even a blind trust would not accomplish what needs to be accomplished.

So we asked the questions. I have asked Chairman Chaffetz to look into this, again, before president-elect Trump even gets into office, so that hopefully we will be able to avoid hearings in the future after he becomes president, after he again has possibly got into some difficulties.

More importantly, the American people deserve to know what their president is doing, how he is benefiting and how he is conducting government. Keep in mind, Wolf, we still haven't gotten the tax returns. So, that might be a little helpful, too. But he seems to want to withhold that.

BLITZER: So, correct me if I'm wrong. Are you staying the only way he can deal with this issue is to sell off his business and completely move away from it? Is that what you want him to do?

CUMMINGS: What I'm saying is that I want him -- he says that he has the experts on his team who can tell him how to address these issues.

I first want him to fully acknowledge that it is a problem and a potential problem and the seriousness of it. Number two, if these experts have ways to address this through a blind trust that would be satisfactory to the average expert in this area, fine.

I just want to know how he is going to do it, because I don't know how he is going to do it. I think he would almost have to sell off the assets, put that in a blind trust and then have an independent person to oversee the blind trust. That's what most experts are saying.

I don't know that it will have to come to that. He has said that he has people that are advising him. I'm sure he has the best minds available. So, I just want to know what they're going to be. And I think the American people want to know how he is going to deal with this.

BLITZER: As the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, you're in the minority, but you're the ranking member.

Will you be investigating the president-elect's business practices? Can you do it without the majority letting you do it?

CUMMINGS: Yes, it becomes very difficult.

A lot of people don't realize it, but when you're in the majority, you basically call the shots. And so I have appealed to Chairman Chaffetz and said to him, our chairman of the Oversight Committee, and said, let's look into these matters. Let's hold president-elect Trump to the same types of standards that you held Hillary Clinton to.

[18:15:15]

Let's look at his situation in the way -- I told him, now, held -- you sent out 100 letters in less than three months, letters and subpoenas about Hillary Clinton, trying to look to see behind everything that she had done. Why don't we make sure that we, even before the president-elect Trump even gets into problems, try to find out where he's going with it and try to make sure that we have answers to those questions?

So far, he has been reluctant to do that. But, on the other hand, he said that he will hold him to a high standard and that if he sees a situation that deems inappropriate for investigation, he would.

I think we need to do it, and I think we need to do it immediately.

BLITZER: So, basically, it's up to the chairman, Jason Chaffetz, and the Republican majority to decide to use subpoena power and get that kind of information. The minority, you guys, the Democrats, you don't have that authority, right?

CUMMINGS: We do not have that authority. I wish we did.

BLITZER: Let's talk about Hillary Clinton for a moment.

Donald Trump said today he is not going to prosecute Hillary Clinton. He doesn't want to cause her more pain. Your reaction to that? CUMMINGS: When he said it, I could not help but think about the many

times I turned on my television, Wolf, and heard people saying, lock her up and listening to what Mr. Trump had to say about it.

I think we need to move on. When you start threatening your political opponents even before the election that you're going to lock them up, I think it sends the wrong message.

And the fact is, is that he is about to have a -- we're about to have a new attorney general. And I think that's going to fall within the realm of the attorney general.

But I think it is good that he sent that message out. And I think that, but, on the other hand, you know, I would hope that we would look at issues too, and I would hope that the attorney general would look at issues like the Russians trying on interfere with our elections.

After all, we have had 17 intelligence agencies to say that the Russians did interfere. We need to know that. That's not a Democratic or a Republican issue. That is an American issue that we need on look at.

And if there are ties between president-elect Trump and the Russians, and this surveillance that is efforts to interfere with our elections, we need look at those things too.

BLITZER: Congressman, there is more to discuss.

I need to take a quick break. Much more with Elijah Cummings right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:18]

BLITZER: The breaking news this hour, president-elect Trump Donald Trump disavowing white supremacists, denouncing neo-Nazi groups that are celebrating his election, Trump telling "The New York Times" -- and I'm quoting him now -- "They're not a group I want to energize."

We're back with Democratic Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee.

Congressman, how concerned are you about the rise of hate crimes since the election?

CUMMINGS: I'm extremely concerned, Wolf.

When you see the significant increase and you listen to citizens, as I have in my district, a lot of people are very concerned, and I am too. I think that the appointment of Mr. Bannon, then the rise of the white nationalist groups -- and I don't like the term alt-right.

And the reason why I don't use it is because I think it is a way of normalizing what they do, the anti-Semitism we're seeing, and a lot of this thing I think came out of the campaign.

And if could I send a message to president-elect Trump, it would simply be this. I think he needs to do a major speech where he talks about how he disavows these types of groups and the things that they are saying, and that he talks about uniting our country. He has said it during the campaign and I think he needs to do it now.

Keep in mind, when President Obama was running and the issue came up with regard to his pastor, Jeremiah Wright, he gave a very significant, a very important speech.

Donald Trump is now about to become the president of the United States of America. And I emphasize united. And I think it is time that he not just talking to "The New York Times" or talking in private meetings, but that he give a speech dedicated solely to uniting the country, telling people not to be doing these acts of hatred and spewing out hatred, and talk about unifying the country, and talk about the things that he will do to unify the country.

And one of the things I would also like him to do is talk to his Republican colleagues in the House and the Senate about voting rights, making sure that every American has the right to vote, and to stop -- tell them to stop trying to diminish the rights of African-Americans, Hispanics and others to vote, because, to me, that attacks our democracy.

[18:25:03]

And if he wants to talk about unity, I think unity in the right to vote is very, very significant. And I'm hoping he will do that.

BLITZER: One final question, Congressman, before I let you go.

Senator Bernie Sanders, he thinks the Democratic Party right now should move away from what he calls identity politics. Do you agree with the senator?

CUMMINGS: I think that we -- I think we need to -- no, I don't necessarily agree.

I think we need to deal with economics. I think economics is very important. But I think that we need to still pay attention to so many people who have been left out of the system in one way or another, just like what I just talked about, the voting rights of certain segments of our population.

I think we can do both. But we have got to concentrate on economics, because a lot of people are suffering. And African-Americans and Hispanics are suffering probably more than other parts of our communities.

And so that would be my answer there.

BLITZER: Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Thanks so much for joining us.

CUMMINGS: Same to you and yours.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Just ahead: an arrest and charges in a school bus crash that killed five children. We're learning new information about the investigation.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. President-elect Donald Trump addressing concerns about conflicts of interest without getting specific.

[18:31:10] Let's bring in our political experts and correspondents to discuss. I want to go to David Axelrod first. This reporting that we're getting, a source familiar with the transition discussions now says Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee four years ago, seriously considering the possibility of serving as secretary of state. That would be a major development, if the president-elect were to bring in Mitt Romney as his secretary of state.

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER OBAMA SENIOR ADVISOR: Yes. It would be extraordinary, particularly given the interplay between them in the campaign. No one was harder on Donald Trump during the campaign than Mitt Romney. He castigated him in really, really personal terms and made clear that he wasn't going to support him.

But I will say this. If he does appoint Mitt Romney, there are going to be a lot of people who will -- will be relieved to see that. Because Mitt Romney is seen as someone who is bright, able and an institutionalist at a time when people are worried about our institutions and particularly that one.

The question, Wolf, really is how does a Mitt Romney, who has been virulently anti-Putin, get along with General Flynn, who's now the NSA director, NSC director, who has taken a much softer stance on Putin and Russia? It will be interesting to see how that all melds together if this Romney appointment comes to pass.

BLITZER: What would it say, Jeffrey Toobin, about the president- elect? Given differences that they've had, the sharp words they exchanged. What would it say about the president-elect of the United States, if he to reach out and say to Mitt Romney, "You know what? I want you to be my secretary of state"?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it would certainly say that he is being broad-minded and having a big-- and believing in a big tent. But, you know, governments stand for something. And a David points out, what is American policy towards Russia? I mean, there are actual substantive differences.

Donald -- Mitt Romney called Donald Trump a conman and a fraud. But he also pointed out that, you know, his attitude toward Putin was very different from Romney's own. How that will play out is mysterious to me if, in fact, this report turns out to be true.

BLITZER: Well, in the end, it's the president, Julia Ioffe, of the United States who makes the final decisions, and the cabinet members, they fall in line with the president. Presumably, Mitt Romney, who told me four years ago, and he got some criticism at the time, that Russia was then -- and presumably he still believes America's, and he used the words No. 1 political -- geopolitical foe. Those were Mitt Romney's words, and he was ridiculed at the time. Was he right?

JULIA IOFFE, CONTRIBUTING WRITER, "POLITICO" MAGAZINE: It turns out he was a lot more prescient than people gave him credit for at the time, especially given how this year has played out and Russia's extensive -- extensive meddling in the 2016 election.

I do want to go back to what Jeff said about Romney having criticized Trump so heavily in the campaign, now saying he actually wants this post. He wants to serve in the administration of a man he seemed to loathe throughout the campaign.

And in some ways, this is Trump exposing something about his party, about the Washington establishment. There were so many people that I spoke to throughout the campaign on the Republican, in the Republican establishment, especially the foreign policy establishment, who said they would never, ever, ever serve in a Trump administration, except maybe if their country needed them. So is this in some ways exposing a lack of integrity, some kind of naked ambition? This kind of lack of moral fortitude that maybe Trump voters suspected people had?

BLITZER: Since the election, though, Phil Mudd, we've seen the president-elect moderate his views, change his views, including following his conversation with retired Marine Corps General James Mattis, now saying, "You know what? Waterboarding, not necessarily all that useful." Mr. Trump said he's not going to make that kind -- it's not going to make that kind of a difference that a lot of people are thinking.

[18:35:19] He used to support waterboarding, enhanced interrogation, which some people call torture. But now, based on conversations he had with the man he might nominate as his defense secretary, General Mattis, he's saying, "You know what? General Mattis said give them a couple cigarettes and a beer. Maybe you'll get more information out of them that way."

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, let's think about this like Hillary's e-mails, like the wall with Mexico. There's a reality during a campaign, and there's a reality once you become the president-elect.

I think President-elect Trump is saying, "Look, there's not a lot of interest in this across America." And furthermore, within the CIA, there would be a lot of people who say, "You can say what you want." If you cross the river, the Potomac, from the White House to CIA headquarters in Langley, CIA people are going to say, "We did this in 2002, 2003, 2004, and we really got hammered for it later on."

I think he's confronting reality. A reality he did not have to confront during on campaign trail.

TOOBIN: Can I dissent from that view? I think these issues remain very much open. You know, Donald Trump has a history of saying different things in different settings. The fact that he says that Hillary Clinton is not going to be prosecuted, that does not mean that, if the FBI goes to Attorney General Jeff Sessions and says, "We found interesting material. We want to pursue this investigation." That doesn't mean that investigation will not go forward.

It does not mean that he will not authorize waterboarding. It does not mean he's not -- he's going to not try to build the wall. I mean, this is not -- these are not final decisions. These statements made in passing that could definitely come and go, as we proceed.

IOFFE: And statements made to a certain audience. He has a tendency to play to whatever audience he's speaking to and trying flatter and cajole them and win them over. There's this need to be liked that he has. And so he says whatever the audience wants to hear.

So I agree with Jeff that, you know, give him another week. He might say, "You know what? Lock her up." And then two more weeks, "Don't lock her up."

MUDD: Time out. We have one CIA officer at the table. Let me give you a reality check.

You walk across the street and talk to a CIA official, regardless of the legalities, regardless of the political aspects of this, and you say "After you got hammered by the Department of Justice, investigated for years, investigated by the Senate, hammered by the Senate, I'm going to tell to you waterboard"?

I'm going to tell what you my friends at the CIA are going to say. Not every one of them but most of them. "We will not do this. Find somebody else."

BLITZER: That's presumably what General Mattis told the president- elect, as well.

David Axelrod, you worked in the White House. You know something about conflicts of interest. In the interview with "The New York Times" today, Donald Trump said, "The law is totally on my side. The president can't have a conflict of interest." He says, "You know what? I'm going to let my kids run the business. I'm going to be the president of the United States 100 percent. Don't worry about a conflict of interest."

From your perspective as someone who served in the White House for four years, is that good enough?

AXELROD: In a word, no. The fact is, we've already had an exhibition during this transition of him meeting with Indian business partners and posing for a picture with them that was used back home, presumably to promote his project and his interests.

Him personally lobbying, informally, Nigel Farage about opposing a wind farm that might block the view from his golf courses in Scotland.

He's got business interests all over the world, and he's going to be dealing with leaders who have an impact on those businesses.

He's quite right that the president is except from the rules that apply to everybody else in the government. And he's shown in his career a willingness to push the limit whenever it serves his interests. And so it's concerning.

And the fact that they keep saying, "Well, he -- there's no legal barrier to him doing it," that doesn't make it right. That certainly doesn't allay the concerns that people have about the White House becoming the swamp that he promised to clean up.

BLITZER: Well, Jeffrey Toobin, let me just ask you from a legal standpoint. When Donald Trump says to the "New York Times," "The president can't have a conflict of interest; the law is totally on my side," from a strict legal perspective -- forget about the politics. From a legal perspective, is he right?

TOOBIN: He is right, that there is absolutely no legal requirement that he put his assets into a blind trust. Every modern president has done that. And though there is no legal conflict of interest, there is clearly an actual conflict of interest.

I mean, just think about Russia. Think about the fact that it appears, since we don't see -- have his tax returns, we don't know for sure. But it appears he owes money to Russian banks. What does that tell you about how it might affect his negotiations with Russia? That conflict is multiplied around the whole world.

[18:40:21] You know, yes, it's true that he doesn't have to divorce his holdings from -- when he's president. But is there an actual conflict of interest? Of course there is.

BLITZER: So Jeffrey, what would you want him to do?

TOOBIN: Well, the "Wall Street Journal" said he's got to sell the company. Which he's, of course, not going to do. Just sell the Trump real estate company, have somebody else own it, put his money in treasury bills like Barack Obama did. I mean, it is certainly possible for him to do that. He's just choosing not to do it.

And he is almost certainly going to get away with it. This Republican House, Republican Senate, they're not going to investigate this. Who's going to investigate?

BLITZER: David...

TOOBIN: I mean, he's on his own.

BLITZER: ... what do you think he should do? Because he has a fire sale, he's probably not, all that real estate, for example, he's not going to make the money he potentially could make years from now.

AXELROD: Well, there's no question about that. But then he shouldn't have run for president if this was a concern -- a concern of his.

You know, when I went into the White House, Wolf, I mean, I'm a pauper compared to Donald Trump, obviously. But when I went into the White House, I owned two business. I sold them before my first day in the White House, because I didn't want any conflict of interest. I was advised to do that.

People throughout the government do these things to avoid conflicts of interest. And here's the person with the greatest power and influence who is unwilling to do it. It sends a terrible signal.

BLITZER: You know, Julia, let me move on to this other issue that came out -- came up in "The New York Times" interview today. He told "The New York Times" he wanted, in his words, to find out why his candidacy has energized some of these neo-Nazi groups, these white supremacists. What do these groups -- why do these groups seem to like Donald Trump? And you've been criticized, you've been attacked by some of these groups personally.

IOFFE: Well, I think that it's very obvious he plays footsie with them, sometimes under the table. Sometimes he plays handsie with them over the table by retweeting their tweets, by repeating their messages, by refusing, for example, in an interview with you, to condemn these people.

Now that he's president-elect, he kind of said he doesn't want their support. But I think, from talking on people like Richard Spencer, the man we saw in video from "The Atlantic," leading a group of white supremacists and "sieg heiling" in a federal office building, these people know that, even if now, even if Donald Trump said, you know, "I disavow you guys," just like he said in the "New York Times" interview, or how he reluctantly disavowed David Duke, the record already shows that he is sympathetic to their views. Or at the very least, he doesn't mind their views.

And a lot of his voters, a lot of his supporters don't mind these views. So even if he does say something now, I think it would be meaningless. These -- these groups would still see his victory as their victory.

BLITZER: Because, you know, Congressman Elijah Cummings feels -- and a lot of others have suggested to Donald Trump, "Don't just answer questions. Go out there affirmatively and deliver a speech denouncing these people, saying, 'I don't want your support. I hate you. Go away'."

MUDD: This is not complicated. Be as vehement in opposing these people who violate American interests and American values as you are in talking about Broadway shows and "The New York Times." How difficult can this be? Speak out against these people as you speak out against people who get under your thin skin. I don't think this is very complicated.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stay with us. Don't go too far away.

Just ahead, there's another important story we're following. A city reeling with grief after a deadly school bus accident. Tonight, we're learning new details on the investigation.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:44] BLITZER: We're learning new information tonight about Donald Trump's possible pick for defense secretary, a retired U.S. marine whose past remarks have caused some controversy.

Our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto is joining us.

Jim, General James Mattis appears to be the top contender right now to lead the Pentagon. What are you learning?

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He's very popular inside the military, both soldiers and commanders. He's been described to me as a soldier's soldier. He's also popular on the Hill among both Republicans and Democrats. But oddly enough, it may not be politics that stands in the way but the law.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: All I can say is he is the real deal.

SCIUTTO (voice-over): President-elect Donald Trump is, quote, "extremely impressed" with retired Marine General James Mattis following their meeting this weekend. Sources tell CNN that Mattis is now the leading candidate for secretary of defense.

RET. GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET), U.S. MARINES: The U.S. military is quite capable of giving our enemies their longest day and their worst day if ordered to do so.

SCIUTTO: Mattis is a seasoned commander with 44 years of service in the Marine Corps and key demands in both Afghanistan and Iran. He won praise for his role in the deadly 2004 battle of Fallujah. His ferocity earning him the nickname "Mad Dog".

Reaction to his possible nomination so far has been positive.

[18:50:03] GEN. JAMES "SPIDER" MARKS (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Jim Mattis understands how the military can influence and is influenced by those other elements of power. He's very much a strategic thinker.

SCIUTTO: But his career has not been without controversy. In 2005, he came under fire for remarks he made in a panel discussion which seemed to make light of killing in combat.

MATTIS: It's fun to shoot some people. I'll be right up front with you. I like brawling.

SCIUTTO: In 2013, Mattis compared Israeli settlement expansion to apartheid.

MATTIS: If I'm Jerusalem, and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here somewhere to the east and there's 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don't get to vote, apartheid.

SCIUTTO: Mattis' nomination would, however, face immediate and significant legislative hurdle. Federal law requires that the Pentagon be led by a civilian or a military veteran who has been out of uniform for at least seven years. Mattis has only been retired for three years, so Congress would have to vote to give them a waiver.

Congress has only used the waiver once in history, in 1950, allowing President Harry Truman to appoint General George Marshall to the position of defense secretary. The law is rooted in a long standing American principle of civilian command of the military.

WILLIAM COHEN, FORMER DEFENSE SECRETARY: There's nothing magical in the seven years. They want enough time to say, are you separated enough from the military ethic and culture and part of the community as such to be a civilian boss?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: Donald Trump, of course, has the advantage of Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, the Senate, and the House, but also this, Wolf, I've spoken to Democratic lawmakers, they have enormous respect for General Mattis and say this is not one they would necessarily fight if the president were to choose him as his defense secretary.

BLITZER: Presumably, if he were to select him, the Congress would go ahead and pass that waiver, right?

SCIUTTO: That's what I hear. Of course, you have the advantage of the Republican majorities, but also is this one that the Democrats would dig their heels in and fight? At least from folks I've spoken with, it's not likely to be, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Sciutto reporting for us. Thanks very much.

There's breaking news ahead. President-elect Trump outlines his policy plans for his first 100 days in office and he does it in a video.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:03] BLITZER: Hundreds of people have been killed in days of intense bombing of Syria's second largest city by government forces.

CNN's Will Ripley is monitoring developments for us.

Will, you've spoken to people inside Aleppo. The situation sounds very, very grim. What are you hearing?

WILL RIPLEY, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And it' only getting worse, Wolf. People who have lived through more than four years of bombing in East Aleppo say this is unprecedented. The worst they have ever experienced. And they're afraid it will only get worse.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) (EXPLOSION)

RIPLEY (voice-over): The explosions are like clockwork in rebel-held east Aleppo --

(EXPLOSION)

RIPLEY: -- all day, every day.

ISMAIL ALABDULLAH, EAST ALEPPO RESIDENT: They don't know how to wake up normally without the sound of bombing, without anything.

RIPLEY: Ismail Alabdullah takes cover in his basement. During our 14-minute conversation, I count at least 17 blasts.

(EXPLOSION)

RIPLEY (on camera): And there is another one.

(voice-over): Each getting louder and closer.

(on camera): I am listening to these explosions here and it does not faze you. You are used to it.

ALABDULLAH: It's normal for us. We are not a human being anymore because of this.

(SIREN)

RIPLEY (voice-over): This is a normal day in east Aleppo. First responders racing from one site to the next.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREING LANGUAGE)

RIPLEY: "This is our country, our country," says this man, refusing to let destruction like this to force him move.

(on camera): Why did you stay?

ALABDULLAH: What do we stay? We stay because it's our city. It's because they -- they stay because they have no place to go.

RIPLEY (voice-over): Alabdullah says the more than a quarter million people who remain in east Aleppo don't trust the so called humanitarian corridors. He says snipers on both sides shoots and kill people who try to leave.

ALABDULLAH: We aren't going to leave. We are going to die.

RIPLEY: He lost three friends in three days. He says many feel tired, hopeless, abandoned by the world.

(on camera): That was close. That one was close.

ALABDULLAH: OK, I am going to go.

RIPLEY: OK. Be safe. Be safe.

(voice-over): Despite nearly five years of pleading for help, the relentless bombing of east Aleppo continues.

(EXPLOSION)

(END VIDEOTAPE)

RIPLEY: In the last week, more than 300 people have died. We have see all of the major hospitals in east Aleppo knocked out of service. School and homes have been targeted. Children have been among the casualties, Wolf.

And the Syrian regime and Russia have not stopped this bombing campaign despite mounting international pressure. And a warning from the United Nations, that there will be mass starvation in this city if food, water supplies and water are not allowed in very soon.

BLITZER: All right. Will Ripley reporting for us. Thanks very much.

That's it for me.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.