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Interview With Delaware Senator Chris Coons; Fake News, Real Crimes; Trump vs China; Police: Gunman Fired Multiple Shots in Pizza Restaurant; Criminal Probe into Warehouse Fire That Killed Dozens; Al Gore Meets with Trump. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 5, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:04]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: False story, real crime. A wild conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton prompts a gunman to fire multiple shots inside a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. Is the fake news that thrived during the campaign now posing a real threat to public safety?

And deadly fire probe; 36 people are now confirmed dead in a California warehouse fire, and officials fear that number will rise. What sparked the inferno that claimed so many lives?

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 out of South Carolina, a mistrial declared in the case of former police officer Michael Slager, charged with murder for killing Walter Scott after a traffic stop. Scott was unarmed and he was shot in the back.

In New York, a surprise meeting between Donald Trump and Al Gore. The former vice president was supposed to meet only with Ivanka Trump about climate issues, but afterwards spoke to the president-elect as well, a meeting that Gore called very productive.

Here in Washington, prosecutors now say a gunman who claimed to be investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton fired multiple shots inside a very busy pizza restaurant. He's now charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.

And there are grim new developments tonight in a deadly warehouse fire in Oakland, California. Officials have now confirmed 36 people were killed, and they expect that number to rise as a dangerous search of the building continues.

We're covering all of that, much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Chris Coons a key member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

And our correspondents and expert analysts are also standing by.

Let's begin with the breaking news, a mistrial in the murder case against declared former police officer Michael Slager.

A lawyer for the family of victim Walter Scott says this is not the end.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

L. CHRIS STEWART, ATTORNEY FOR FAMILY OF WALTER SCOTT: Michael Slager will face justice in this. We aren't worried. We don't need to scream or shout, because we know that it's coming. It's just been delayed. So think what you want that the fight is over.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Brian Todd is working the story for us. We're also joined by CNN legal analysis Laura Coates and our senior legal analyst, Jeffrey Toobin.

Brian, you have covered this story since Walter Scott was first killed a year-and-a-half ago. Take us through what happened today in the court.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, just moments ago, the judge declaring a mistrial in this case.

Earlier today, our colleague Nick Valencia reported that jurors were asking questions of the judge, including what is imminent danger? That is clearly a question that was operative on their minds, as they told the judge again today they could not reach a verdict.

On the stand, Michael Slager argued in his defense. He told jurors that he shot Walter Scott as he ran away because he posed a threat and could have turned around and charged him. The jurors today asking those questions about what is imminent danger.

Wolf, we're going to be very interested to find out what the jury's dynamic was today, because, on Friday, they had deadlocked. It was 11-1 in favor of convicting Michael Slager for first-degree murder. Today, we're not sure what the jury's dynamic was. Did the one juror sway other jurors to his side?

This is really a key question. The prosecutor in the case, Scarlett Wilson, said, "We will try Michael Slager again." That is in the state court. He also faces federal charges. So, yes, according to that attorney for the Scott family, he will face justice again at least twice, and the key question is, what is the makeup of that jury going to be in the next state trial and how are they going to fare, if they're going to fare any better than this one did?

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, on Friday, you told us this was a slam dunk, given the video that all of us have seen. So what happened here?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: I think you have one holdout juror, and I think there's a very different perspective, especially when prosecutors think about a hung jury, where there's a 6-6 or a 7-5, where you really have to think as a prosecutor there are problems with your case. If the jury breaks 11-1 in your favor, you have a holdout, and you

have someone who is maybe not behaving rationally, someone who you just made a mistake in allowing on the jury in the first place, and then you simply go do it again. And that sounds like what they're going to do.

BLITZER: They're going to do it again in the state in South Carolina, Laura, but there's a federal trial that's supposed to begin in January as well.

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: There is. That's going to be a little bit of a harder uphill battle, because that trial is about figuring out whether the officer used his color of authority, his badge to actually commit an act against this man, Walter Scott.

It's a harder trial. It's an uphill battle. But this really shows you, there is a distinction between how jurors view police officers as defendants and police officers as witnesses. You will see here, as going forward in other trials and totally in this case, they gave more credit to the officer than even what the eyes saw on the videotape.

[18:05:05]

BLITZER: All right, we're going to stay on top of this and watch it every step of the way. Guys, thanks very much.

There's also other news we're following, including the Trump transition. The president-elect is naming former rival Dr. Ben Carson to his Cabinet and he also talked climate change today with former Vice President Al Gore.

Our senior Washington correspondent, Jeff Zeleny, is joining us from outside Trump Tower in New York City.

Jeff, Donald Trump was very critical at times of Ben Carson when they were competing during the Republican presidential primaries, but all that has gone away.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: It has gone away, Wolf. But I still remember him questioning his experience. Donald Trump even calling Ben Carson low-energy, even he said lower than Jeb Bush.

But all that has gone away, as you said, as he named him a member of his Cabinet. But, Wolf, the most intriguing meeting today at Trump Tower came from a man who had sharp words for Donald Trump. That man was Al Gore.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): An unlikely visitor today at Trump Tower. Former Vice President Al Gore dropping by for a face-to-face meeting with Donald Trump. He was scheduled to talk climate change with Ivanka, but had what he called a lengthy and very productive meeting with the president-elect. AL GORE, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The bulk of the

time was with president-elect Donald Trump. I found it an extremely interesting conversation and to be continued. And I'm just going to leave it at that.

ZELENY: Tonight, Trump's Cabinet is coming into clearer view, Trump tapping Dr. Ben Carson as secretary of housing and urban development.

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT: We're excited to have Dr. Carson as our intended nominee for Housing and Urban Development.

ZELENY: Before Trump takes another victory lap this week, holding rallies in North Carolina, Iowa, and Michigan, he spent the day inside Trump Tower, assembling his team. He's widening his search for secretary of state. Advisers say he's no closer to making a decision, and no longer has the choice narrowed down to four finalists.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: He's broadened the search. And secretary of state is an incredibly important position for any president to fill.

ZELENY: Trump is still not ruling out Mitt Romney, advisers say, but he's also not yet leaning towards him, despite their dinner last week in New York.

A new list of prospects includes former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, and Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China.

CONWAY: More than four, but who knows many finalists there will be? It's a big decision and nobody should rush through it.

ZELENY: Former CIA Director David Petraeus also still in the mix to lead the State Department. The retired four-star general pleaded his case on weekend talk shows, saying he made a serious mistake mishandling classified information, but should not be disqualified.

DAVID PETRAEUS, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: I apologize for it. I paid a very heavy price for it, and I have learned from it.

ZELENY: Trump's Cabinet is increasingly taking shape, filling nearly half of the positions. Trump advisers tell CNN more announcements are expected this week.

By nominating Carson as HUD secretary, Trump is bringing aboard one more former rival. A neurosurgeon, Carson has limited experience in housing and development and during the GOP primary was critical of efforts to fight housing segregation.

Democrats criticized the choice, with Nancy Pelosi calling him disturbingly unqualified for the post.

A week after Trump first suggested millions of people voted illegally, but has failed to produce any evidence backing up that claim, Pence is offering a new defense but no proof. PENCE: It's his right to express his opinion as president-elect of

the United States. I think one of the things that's refreshing about our president-elect and it's one of the reasons why I think he made such an incredible connection with people all across this country is because he tells you what's on his mind.

ZELENY: All this as Trump keeps tweeting up a storm, including a thumbs down to "Saturday Night Live," calling it "Unwatchable, totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can't get any worse, sad." He was responding to this.

ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR: Kellyanne, I just retweeted the best tweet. Wow, what a great, smart tweet.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: Mr. Trump, we're in a security briefing.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So, now one other thing here in New York, Wolf, the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, asked Congress today for $35 million to help pay for security costs here in Manhattan during the transition.

No word yet if that will actually happen. But, of course, it's causing so much disruption here in Midtown. That's what they're asking.

Wolf, I'm also getting a little bit reporting on that Al Gore meeting. I'm told they talked specifically about the state of Florida. Donald Trump knows and likes and loves Florida very well. So I'm told that the former vice president used that as an entree to make his case on climate change -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Interesting. I wish I would have been able to watch that meeting. Would have been fascinating. Let's get some more details. Jeff, thank you very much.

Donald Trump is now engaged in a war of words with China, sparked by his unprecedented phone call the other day with Taiwan's president.

[18:10:01]

A front-page editorial in China's state-run newspaper is warning Trump that he's creating trouble for both countries. But Donald Trump is not backing down. In fact, he tweeted this today: "Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency, making it hard for our companies to compete, heavily tax our products going into their country? The U.S. doesn't tax them. Or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so."

Let's get some more from our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott.

Elise, the White House says Trump may be undermining progress in relations between Washington and Beijing. What are you hearing? ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the

descriptions of this phone call have varied widely from spontaneous to a long-planned engagement with Taiwan.

It seems to be somewhere in the middle. I'm told the decision to take the call was carefully considered by president-elect Trump and his team, but not as some new strategic shift or deviation in that U.S.- China policy. And his advisers, vice president-elect Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, are downplaying this as a courtesy call, denying any policy shift before Trump has even taken office.

But, unsurprisingly, the White House and State Department are worried about the fallout. Here's White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: It's unclear exactly what the strategic effort is, what the aim of the strategic effort is, and it's unclear exactly what potential benefit could be experienced by the United States, China, or Taiwan. But I will leave that to them to explain.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

LABOTT: Now, Donald Trump has promised to strike a hard bargain with China on all aspects of U.S. policy from trade to the economy to security. And this is a man, Wolf, who has written about China as an enemy, about taking away what he called China's advantages.

So I think it would be fair to say that Donald Trump knew the message he would send to China. There's a new sheriff in town. But it doesn't seem to be completely mapped out, Wolf.

BLITZER: Elise, how is China reacting to all of this?

LABOTT: Aside from those editorials, they're playing it cool for now. They're criticizing the contact for their domestic political consumption. They're pretty much ignoring those tweets.

But they're shell-shocked. Wolf, they don't know where this is headed. China does expect to negotiate some sort of grand bargain with Trump. But they don't know whether that call is Trump's opening salvo and negotiating tactic or is he really going to abandon these long-held traditions that govern relations with Taiwan?

The White House on the phone all weekend with Chinese officials trying to assure them. There were Chinese delegations here last week. They have been trying to get more information. But China has seen this movie before. You know that incoming Republican administrations, Ronald Reagan, George Bush, both thought to elevate Taiwan when they took office.

So, Chinese relations usually settle down after that, so I think things will calm down, but certainly right now it has caused a big shock.

BLITZER: Elise Labott reporting for us, Elise, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware is joining us. He's a key member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, listen to what Trump's senior economic adviser Stephen Moore said about Donald Trump's phone call with the president of Taiwan.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

STEPHEN MOORE, DONALD TRUMP ADVISER: Taiwan is our ally, John. That is a country that we have backed because they believe in freedom, and we ought to back our ally. And if China doesn't like it, screw them, screw them.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, so I want to get your reaction to that. You're on the Foreign Relations Committee. What are the possible repercussions?

COONS: Well, Wolf, this is an area where clumsiness can lead to real conflict, where a casual and careless Twitter war could conceivably lead to a real war.

China is a very important country, and Donald Trump made it clear that he may well pick a fight with them on international trade and our trade balance and on America's business interests. And that may be well and good. And he may need to stand up to China on some issues, but we also need Chinese cooperation in order to rein in North Korea's very dangerous nuclear weapons program.

So why on earth Donald Trump, the president-elect, would pick this fight, pick a fight with the People's Republic of China over this 40- year-long, carefully balanced relationship, where we provide defense materials to Taiwan, but we do not recognize Taiwan, why he would pick this fight by accepting a call from the president of Taiwan puzzles me and I think deeply concerns many of us in the Foreign Relations Committee and in the Foreign Relations community.

Recent reports that president-elect Trump didn't consult experts in the State Department and that this call may have been put together pretty quickly suggests that he's being a little too casual about one of the most vital strategic challenges we face in years ahead.

BLITZER: Clearly, this is a break with almost 40 years of diplomatic protocol, Senator. But the Chinese president speaks directly with the Taiwanese president. They speak on the phone. Why is it OK for them to speak, but not OK for a president-elect of the United States to simply take a courtesy call, a congratulatory call from the president of Taiwan?

[18:15:08]

COONS: That's a fair question, Wolf.

And let me put it to you this way. This is longstanding, simmering conflict where the Chinese feel very strongly about it. It's one of their core interests. And we have reached a way of living together around this conflict.

Reinserting ourselves into the conflict between the People's Republic of China and Taiwan strikes me as foolishly picking a fight here that is unnecessary. It is something that the president-elect can elect to do. He can choose to elevate our role in the China-Taiwan conflict, but it's going to have costs and it's going to make it harder for us to get any sort of cooperation from China on reining in North Korea's nuclear weapons program or on working together in other areas of security and cooperation that deeply matter to us.

I think he made it clear to the American people he was going to pick some sort of a fight with China over trade. Why he's choosing this one instead, I frankly don't understand.

BLITZER: This is a sensitive issue clearly for China. But why should the United States let China dictate the U.S.-Taiwan relationship? Taiwan, a country, what, with about 20 million people, increasingly democratic, they have free elections right now. There's a woman who is the president of Taiwan.

If the president or if the president-elect of the United States wants to speak with her, why not?

COONS: Well, Wolf, you raise a good point. Why should we let China, the People's Republic of China, dictate our Taiwan policy? They don't dictate it.

This is a matter of cost. What are the costs we're willing to bear? We have got this roughly 40-year-old policy where we provide defense equipment. We have lots of relations and communications with Taiwan. But we don't officially recognize them.

Our president doesn't communicate with their elected leader. There will be costs to this. It will aggravate the Chinese and it will elevate this particular conflict. That's a choice that president- elect Trump can make. But I don't think it's a very wise choice.

We have got many other conflicts around the world and we have got many other issue where we will be in conflict with the Chinese. So, it just doesn't make sense to me why he's picking this fight.

BLITZER: Could this actually give the U.S. some serious leverage in dealing with China? There are economic issues, as we all know, military-related, defense issues. Could this strengthen the U.S. bargaining position by simply accepting this phone call?

COONS: Well, it will certainly raise the temperature in the room. And if what Trump is trying to signal is that he's willing to shatter long-held conventions, that will have repercussions outside just this conflict as well, Wolf.

In the course of his campaign, he said things about retreating from NATO, about reconsidering our nuclear umbrella protection of South Korea and Japan. So there will be secondary consequences to picking this fight with China, because he may also unsettle some longstanding allies in terms of their reliability, their sense of whether or not they can take him at his word and whether or not he's going to shake up very longstanding American alliances and positions on difficult and divisive issues around the world.

BLITZER: Here's a point that I have received. I have heard from some of Donald Trump's national security people, his advisers. They make the point, the president of the United States, President Obama, he broke, what, 40 years of diplomatic protocol, picked up the phone and called President Rouhani of Iran, Iran, according to the State Department, the leading state sponsor of terror.

He broke 50 or 60 or 70 years of diplomatic protocol and established diplomatic relations with Cuba, even though Castro Raul Castro, is still in charge. A president can do that, right?

COONS: That's right.

And all I'm trying to point out, Wolf, is that making bold moves like that have risks and have consequences. President Obama's opening to Cuba, President Obama's engagement in Iran has had consequences in terms of our relations with other countries and allies in the Persian Gulf and in the Middle East and with other partners and allies in the Western Hemisphere.

So choosing this particular fight, choosing to elevate the centrality of the China-Taiwan fight at a time when there are so many other conflicts in the world is somewhat puzzling. But it certainly is the prerogative of the president-elect.

I just hope that he's relying on the advice not just of his current close circle of political advisers, but on those career independent professionals in the intelligence community and the State Department who advise every president, regardless of partisan concerns.

BLITZER: Those are all serious points, of course. We're going to take a quick break.

But the point they make is that the president, President Obama, he broke diplomatic protocol in speaking with tyrants, if you will. In this particular case, Donald Trump broke diplomatic protocol in speaking with a democratically elected president of Taiwan.

All right, stay with us, Senator. There's more information coming in. We will continue all of this right after a quick break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:24:12] BLITZER: Prosecutors now say multiple shots were fired inside a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant by a gunman who says he was investigating a conspiracy theory about Hillary Clinton and a supposed child sex ring.

We're back with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He's a key member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

A member of the Trump transition, Senator, promoted a false conspiracy theory that led to this man apparently going into this pizza shop armed, firing multiple rounds. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Luckily, I must say, no one was hurt.

We haven't seen Donald Trump or any of his team yet denounce these fake stories.

Adam Schiff, the ranking got on the House Intelligence Committee, just issued a statement saying this: "It is incumbent on Trump, his nominee for national security adviser General Flynn, and his entire team to disavow these falsehoods and conspiracy theories. They will soon have a country to run, and God help us if they conduct the nation's affairs like their transition, without the willingness or ability to separate fact from fiction."

[18:25:17]

The son of General Flynn, he was promoting some of these fake theories, not General Flynn himself.

But give us your reaction. This is very disturbing, because all of a sudden a fake story could have resulted in serious injury.

COONS: Well, these are very real-world consequences for fake stories online.

And I would agree with Congressman Schiff. One of the things we need to here do is to call on our elected leaders, and in particular president-elect Trump and the transition team, to not traffic in these fake stories and news that whips up passions around conspiracy theories that are groundless.

This gentleman walked into a pizza shop with an AK -- excuse me -- with an AR-15 and .38 revolver and a knife. And he could have killed many people. He could have done much more damage. Thankfully, swift action by the police resulted in this being concluded very quickly without great harm.

But stirring up people's passions with fake news, Wolf, particularly at this divided and difficult moment in our history, is particularly troublesome. So it's my hope that the Trump transition team members will take this to heart and that all of us will work together to try and lower the temperature a bit in terms of stirring up passions around some of these fake news and conspiracy stories.

BLITZER: On a different note, are you encouraged by the meeting that the president-elect had today with former Vice President Al Gore? They spoke about climate change, spoke about what's going on in Florida as far as climate change is concerned.

Al Gore, you see him there emerging from the meeting in the lobby over Trump Tower. He was pretty upbeat about this meeting, even though Trump at one point called climate change a Chinese hoax. Are you encouraged by what happened today?

COONS: I'm encouraged that president-elect Trump is taking meetings with a very wide range of people, Democrats, independents, Republicans, and in particular his interest from learning from former Vice President Al Gore about his views on climate change and what we could do to address it.

That makes me optimistic that president-elect Trump will be looking for advice and input from a wide range of people from different backgrounds.

BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks so much for joining us.

COONS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, we're going to have more on the fake news that sparked real violence, shots fired at a popular restaurant here in Washington, D.C.

Plus, prosecutors have just announced the criminal investigation into that massive warehouse fire that killed at least three dozen people. We are going to get a live update on the search for victims.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Former vice president Al Gore was over at Trump Tower in New York City today for a meeting with Ivanka Trump, but he wound up also speaking to the president-elect, discussing climate change in a meeting that Al Gore later called lengthy and productive. He said it was very interesting.

[18:32:32] Let's bring in our political panel. Dana Bash, what do you make of this? Pretty extraordinary, given the fact that it wasn't all that long ago that Donald Trump was saying climate change was a Chinese hoax.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And this is not just any former vice president, this isn't just any Democrat, this isn't just any opponent of climate change or sort of spokesperson for it. This is the person. I mean, Al Gore personifies the efforts to bring climate change to the forefront of people's minds. Obviously, he won an Academy Award for -- for his documentary about it.

And the fact that a Republican president-elect, maybe his daughter invited him, but the fact that he spent time with Al Gore, especially given what you said, that he insisted it was a Chinese hoax -- and that is one of the things that makes liberals in this country, and even some conservatives who don't agree with that, nervous -- should be a very good sign for them. Whether or not it's going to mean anything policy-wise, who knows? But you know, we'll see. The fact -- fact that he had this meeting at all is certainly remarkable in many ways.

BLITZER: It's clear, David Chalian, that the former vice president came with information that may be appealing to Donald Trump. You heard Jeff Zeleny say they spoke about the impact of climate change on Florida, the water over there. Donald Trump, as you know, he has Mar- a-Lago and Palm Beach, Doral. He's got a lot of property in Florida. He says it's his second home. That may have resonated with the president-elect.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, I'm sure he'd like those properties to stay above water.

Wolf, I think there are two things that was going on here. And I think it was Donald Trump's very sort of cunning savvy on display. One, as Dana is saying, this isn't just any Democrat. This is -- in the last ten years, in the post vice presidency, Al Gore has become sort of the champion of the liberal Democratic wing of the Democratic Party in many ways, and in large part, due to this issue.

Remember, this is now the second thing on this issue that Donald Trump has done to indicate that he really wants to erase that tweet about that hoax -- being a hoax of the Chinese. He told "The New York Times" that perhaps humans do indeed contribute to climate change and to global warming; and now meeting in a very high-profile way with Al Gore. That's one thing on that issue specifically which, by the way, has a lot of appeal to independents.

Secondly, remember when he was in Cincinnati last week. Donald Trump has been stating now several times since he won the election, including on election night itself, about his desire to bring the country together after this very divisive election. And this is somebody who is utilizing what he knows is a very media-friendly moment, that Al Gore will come out of the elevators, have this meeting, even though it wasn't on the schedule beforehand, and use that as evidence that he is, indeed, trying to bring the country together.

[18:35:24] JEFF TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Wolf, can I disagree with my identical twin, younger brother, Mr. Chalian?

You know, I think there is far less here than meets the eye. Who is on his transition teams in terms of actually taking over the Environmental Protection Agency? A climate change denier. The Republican Party institutionally is committed to disbelief in climate change.

The idea that he had a polite meeting with Al Gore -- and you notice that Al Gore said nothing of substance about the meeting. The idea that this meeting is somehow going to change the entire direction of the Republican Party--

CHALIAN: Nobody's saying that, Jeff. Nobody is suggesting -- nobody is suggesting that that is going to change. Obviously, we'll all wait for policy. What is on display here is some cunning political strategy and P.R. strategy. TOOBIN: Well, I'm sure the climate is really going to appreciate, you

know, as the seas raise, "Well, but there was a clever political strategy there." I mean, the climate doesn't care about the politics. It's changing.

BASH: But -- but here's one thing that I will say to push back on the older brother of David Chalian, and that is that Donald Trump is known to be very -- the people who he talked to can leave impressions. He's impressionable. That's the word I was looking for.

And you know, in his life, I'm not so sure that he's had a lot of very long, in-depth conversations with people about the policy of climate change, about the science behind climate change. He was -- he was opposed to it, because that's what you do when you're in -- in a Republican primary. And he's impressionable. And maybe Al Gore could change his--

BLITZER: And David Swerdlick, we've seen that already on other sensitive issues. Dana makes a very good point, because during the campaign, how many times did we hear Donald Trump say, "Waterboarding, what's so bad about waterboarding? Torture, enhanced interrogation, what's so bad about that?"

He has one meeting with General Mattis, who says, "You know what? We don't need that. We don't want to do that. We can get more out of -- give them a pack of Marlboros. We'll get more information out of them that way." Trump then tells the "New York Times," you know, "Maybe he's right. Maybe I was wrong." He didn't say that, but he said maybe General Mattis was right.

So this isn't the first time for -- potentially, that Donald Trump can swing.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Sure. I mean, Donald Trump has his finger on the pulse or did during the campaign, of what would work with his core supporters and enough other supporters that he needed to win his election.

On the other hand, as you're saying, Wolf, he's not ideological in the traditional sense. He's not a conservative, really, in any sense. And so he has that flexibility on a wide range of issues. But I think, as Jeffrey is saying, we do need to wait and see on policy.

BLITZER: Yes. I've been interviewing him for 10 or 15 years, and I've seen that flexibility. One year he'll say this. The next year he'll say something very different. He can definitely be moved; he can definitely be -- he can definitely evolve.

You know what? What I'd like to do, play a little clip on a very different note, and David Chalian, I want you to react to this "Saturday Night Live." He parodied -- they parodied Donald Trump's tweeting, if you will, as opposed to national security briefings. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AIDY BRYANT, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Seth, I thought I told you to turn off your phone.

PETE DAVIDSON, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": I'm sorry, Mrs. Lehman, I think someone retweeted me.

BRYANT: Seth, you're just some random kid in high school. Who would retweet you?

ALEC BALDWIN, ACTOR (AS DONALD TRUMP): Kellyanne, I just retweeted the best tweet. I mean, wow, what a great, smart tweet.

KENAN THOMPSON, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": Mr. Trump, we're in a security briefing.

BALDWIN: I know, but this could not wait. It was from a young man named Seth. He's 16; he's in high school. And I really did retweet him. Seriously, this is real.

KATE MCKINNON, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": He really did do this.

THOMPSON: Well, sir, you're the president-elect. So I guess you can do whatever you want. But we'd really like to fill you in on Syria.

BALDWIN: Seth seems to cool. His Twitter bio says he wants to make America great again.

ALEX MOFFAT, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": That is cool, sir.

BALDWIN: It also says he loves the Anaheim Ducks.

KATE BALDWIN, CAST MEMBER, NBC'S "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE": There is a reason, actually, that Donald tweets so much. He does it to distract the media from his business conflicts and all the very scary people in his cabinet.

THOMPSON: Oh, that does make sense.

MOFFAT: Very clever, sir.

BALDWIN: Actually, that's not why I do it. I do it because my brain is bad.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right, David Chalian, he did not like that skit. He tweeted later that it was sad, if you will.

[18:40:00] CHALIAN: Yes, he didn't like it at all.

I think my favorite moment in that entire sketch right there is when Kate McKinnon, the actress playing Kellyanne Conway, has to look straight in the camera to tell the audience, "He really did do this, just in case, you know, you thought it was a comedy sketch. It was actual reality." That will eventually change. We're all going to get used to the fact that Donald Trump is a different kind -- he was a different kind of candidate; he's going to be a different kind of president. This tweeting and retweeting of people is certainly part of that. It is very novel right now still, I think, for us. At a certain point down the road in his administration, I will imagine it won't be as novel anymore.

But he is going to continue to communicate this way. There's no doubt about it. He was tweeting today justifying it, saying he doesn't get a fair shake from us in the press, so he needs to do this.

BLITZER: Yes, he's got about 14 million followers on Twitter. He's got millions more on Facebook. It's a way for him to convey his message.

All right. Everybody stand by. Up next, a very serious story we're following. A shooting here in Washington, D.C., at a pizza restaurant that's been -- that was sparked by a wild conspiracy theory. We're learning new information. We'll update you right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:45] BLITZER: We're following a disturbing twist in one of the wilder conspiracy theories that cropped up during the presidential campaign. At the very end in fact, a fake story about Hillary Clinton, a child sex ring, and a Washington, D.C. pizza restaurant.

Our justice correspondent Pamela Brown is working the story for us.

Pamela, prosecutors now say a gunman fired multiple shots inside that restaurant, crowded with a lot of people.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

Very disturbing, Wolf, police say he fired multiple rounds after pointing his rifle at an employee. No one was injured, but the armed confrontation shows the real-life consequences of online lies.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN (voice-over): The dramatic standoff captured in these photos began moments after this man, Edgar Maddison Welch, armed with an AR- 15 semi-automatic rifle and a hand gun, walked into this popular D.C. pizza place, police say firing multiple rounds.

SHARIF SILMI, WITNESS: He was walking straight directly to the back room. A staff member, you know, kind of look at me and indicated that this was a gunman, and, you know, we just swiftly made our way out to the exit and got out of there.

BROWN: Police quickly surrounded the building, coaxing Welch outside with his hands up.

Tonight, he's charged with assault with a dangerous weapon.

What may be more bizarre than Welch's alleged actions are what led him there. Police say the 28-year-old was on a mission to stop a crime that had never been committed. An outlandish allegation made months ago online that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chairman were running a child sex ring in the basement of the restaurant, Comet Ping Pong.

The story has been repeatedly proven to be false by police and others. The restaurant doesn't even have a basement, and the story has been traced to a series of lies and fabrications, which first circulated on underground Internet message boards during the campaign, in part, because the owner has donated to Democratic causes.

The fictional story took off on Twitter and was passed around as if it were news, followed by the #pizzagate. Police say Welch told them he read online that the Comet restaurant was harboring child sex slaves and he wanted to see for himself if they were there. And that, police say, is what motivated Welch to drive more than four hours to investigate the claims.

JAMES ALEFANTIS, COMET PING PONG OWNER: I really hope that all of these people fanning the flames of this conspiracy will take a moment to contemplate what has gone on here today and maybe to stop.

BROWN: But that hasn't happened. Even after Sunday's incident, the wild conspiracy theories continue, with some online oddly suggesting Welch was an actor, and that the police standoff was a hoax.

Even people connected to Donald Trump's transition team spread the baseless claim. Michael Flynn, Jr., who was the son and chief of staff to Donald Trump's incoming national security adviser, tweeted, "Until pizza-gate is proven to be false, it will remain a story. The left seems to forget Podesta e-mails and the many coincidences tied to it."

In a rare move today, even the White House weighed in, saying the latest incident proves fake news stories can potentially cause real harm.

EARNEST: We all hold the responsibility regardless of whether or not we are planning to serve in a government position or if one of our family members is planning to serve in a government position, that we shouldn't be propagating false things that could inspire violence.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: The suspect appeared in court this afternoon and will stay behind bars for now. Meantime, we have reached out to the Trump transition team about Michael Flynn, Jr.'s tweet, but so far, no comment -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Pamela, thanks very much. Pamela Brown reporting for us.

David Chalian, does the Trump campaign need to respond to this?

CHALIAN: Well, whether they need to or not, there's an opportunity for the Trump transition team to make a forceful statement, not having anybody associated with them, retweeting or promoting fake news stories that could result in harm.

This is -- this is a very easy thing. This may not be on Donald Trump's highest list of priorities to knock down fake news stories, but it is very easy to send a message from the top down that promoting these kinds of fake news stories and not sort of choking them off and destroying them and faking them totally worthless, which is what they are, so they don't gain traction is a relatively easy thing to do because they have a very large podium.

TOOBIN: But what if they don't want to turn them down? What if they don't want to stamp down these stories?

[18:50:01] I mean, you know, he -- Donald Trump has been the beneficiary of this alt-right lies factory for months and he got elected president of the United States. He wants to tweet about "Saturday Night Live" every Sunday, but he doesn't want to talk about all these people because he doesn't want to talk about these people, isn't that the reason?

BLITZER: Dana, you believe the transition -- the Trump transition needs to address this directly?

BASH: I agree with David that they don't need to, but they definitely should. I think, you know, Jeffrey poses a question that is troubling, and I think it's an answer that the Trump transition, Donald Trump, himself, could give if he just deals with this.

You know, again, to me, it -- look, this is terrible that this happened. It is terrible when anybody propagates something that is fake to the point where they take it so seriously that they show up at a place with a gun. It is especially terrible when a guy who is not just the son of the next national security adviser but the chief of staff to the next national security adviser.

National security we're talking about, says that this may not be fake. I mean, come on. I think it's because of that that was there was a responsibility inside the Trump transition to say that that's wrong.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: The son -- Michael Flynn Jr., he does have a transition email, if you will. Do you think they need to respond?

SWERDLICK: I think they should respond. I agree with what everybody said.

The only thing I would add, you would think you wouldn't need to say this, but I think it's worth saying, is if this story were true, if pizza-gate were true, it's not true. But if it were true, it still would be no excuse for someone to show up at a pizza place with a gun. It's (INAUDIBLE)

BLITZER: Jeffrey, is there a legal issue here spreading these fake stories that, a legal issue, a legal requirement, if you will, that has been crossed?

TOOBIN: You know, I think there actually may be. You know, the time may well have come that the operators of this pizza place who have been maligned so unfairly could start suing people. I mean, there are organized groups that are sustaining these lies and the libel laws apply to the Internet the way they apply to newspapers.

So, yes, I think it is a civil matter potentially, not a criminal matter, but when you damage someone's reputation intentionally with false stories, that can be libelous and I think there could well be grounds for lawsuits and it may well be appropriate at this point.

BLITZER: Yes, I suspect, David Chalian, we may see some lawsuits like that. The question is, will that have a chilling effect on these fake stories?

CHALIAN: Right. I mean, that's something we should watch as this proceeds. Clearly, the owner of that establishment made clear that he doesn't want to back down from this fight in any way. So, perhaps those lawsuits are forthcoming.

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

Just ahead, there's another important story we're following. The probe into a deadly California warehouse fire. It is now a criminal investigation. We have new information right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:57:37] BLITZER: The district attorney in Oakland, California, has just announced that the probe into the deadly warehouse fire that killed dozens of people is now a criminal investigation.

CNN's Dan Simon is on scene for us.

Dan, 36 people are now confirmed dead, but that number may rise. What's the latest?

DAN SIMON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, hi, Wolf. It is such a mind- boggling number, and with about 25 percent of the structure still left to be searched, that number could get even higher. But right now, the number stands at 36 victims, recovered. About half of the families have been notified.

I want to show you what things like about a block away. You can see this makeshift memorial. There is so much sadness, so much grief, but there are also so many questions including why people were living in the warehouse. This is what the mayor had to say just a short time ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MAYOR LIBBY SCHAAF, OAKLAND: Our priorities as a city remain, number one, to recover these victims into run a 24/7 recovery effort until every victim has been found, to ensure the rapid and compassionate identification of those victims and to support the families who are learning of this devastating news. And finally, to do everything we can to ensure that you will get, that the families will get, that this city will get the answers to every question about this incident.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SIMON: Well, still no theories about the cause, but investigators think they know where the fire started. So, hopefully, that will yield some clues, Wolf. As for the residents, one person told me she said she was drawn to that warehouse because she said it fell like a church, a place where people could go and draw inspiration from one another for those art projects.

But what the residents have to say and what the partygoers have to say, obviously, it's going to be a crucial part of the investigation. And as we just said, there's now a criminal probe that has been launched -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very quickly, the identification of the bodies is very painful, very difficult, isn't it?

SIMON: It's very part to do. We know that in some cases, the victims have been identified through fingerprints. That's especially true for California residents, but there are also some international victims involved. How those people are going to be identified still isn't clear, Wolf.

BLITZER: Dan Simon reporting for us. Dan, thanks very much.

That's it for me. Thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUFRONT" starts right now.