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Interview with Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee; Trump Postpones News Conference on Business Empire; Horror in Syria; Exxon CEO Nominated as Secretary of State. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 13, 2016 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Governor Rick Perry nominated to run the department of -- of -- oops.

THE LEAD starts right now.

It's official. The ExxonMobil CEO with ties to Putin is now Donald Trump's pick to be America's top diplomat. But could the Republican- led Senate end up saying nyet?

No new deals. President-elect Trump vowing businessman Donald Trump will go into something of a hibernation for the next four years. But could we still see a crossover episode of "The Apprentice" and "The West Wing"?

Plus, breaking news: a cease-fire in Syria to stop what's being called a complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo. Syrian forces knocking down doors, reportedly slaughtering men, women and children. Will these innocents now have a way out? And is this a cease-fire or a surrender?

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

Ending weeks of speculation over his secretary of state pick and kicking off weeks of more speculation about whether his pick can pass a Senate confirmation hearing, president-elect Donald Trump finally made his choice, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, a successful businessman with significant experience doing deals with foreign entities, as when he negotiated a multibillion dollar deal with Rosneft, Russia's state-controlled oil company, to drill in three key Russian regions, the Arctic, the Black Sea, and Siberia.

The signing ceremony was attended by Vladimir Putin himself. U.S.-led sanctions against Russia for invading and annexing Crimea hurt ExxonMobil's bottom line, so Tillerson has opposed those sanctions.

Texas' former Governor Rick Perry, he knows something about oil business himself, having run the petroleum-rich Lone Star State. And Perry also made the Trump administration cut. He will, Senate confirming hearing coming up, he will run the Department of Energy, a government agency that Perry once vowed to eliminate.

And, yes, in that infamous oops clip, Energy was the one governor -- that Perry forgot.

CNN correspondent Phil Mattingly is live outside Trump Tower.

Phil, one assumes that the president-elect saw the comments from Republican senators expressing concern about Tillerson's ties to Putin. He must know this could be a tough confirmation battle.


In talking to Trump advisers, Jake, they know they are going to have a fight on their hand. But they believe that if they make the case and they will that they can smooth the way to eventual confirmation.

What this underscores is something frankly the president-elect has said throughout. He is going to pick who he wants to pick and he's willing to defend them, no matter their history.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): Today, president-elect Trump sticking to his pledge to pick unorthodox business-minded Cabinet secretaries, even if it sets up a bipartisan confirmation confrontation for his choice to be top diplomat.

MIKE PENCE (R), VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT: We just couldn't be more grateful that someone of Rex Tillerson's proven leadership and accomplishments has been willing to step forward to serve our nation.

MATTINGLY: Rex Tillerson, CEO of oil giant ExxonMobil, now tapped to be Trump's secretary of state, a man with no government experience, but decades of deal-making and international business ties.

Those ties include extensive relations with Russia and, most notably, Vladimir Putin, ties Trump and his team see as a net positive.

JASON MILLER, TRUMP ADVISER: What we're going to see with Tillerson is someone who has been a business leader on the world stage. Rex Tillerson has actually stood up and said no to Vladimir Putin.

MATTINGLY: The pick coming amid allegations from the intelligence community that Russia was involved in meddling in the election to Trump's advantage, an allegation the Trump team rejects. Some GOP senators quickly firing out statements raising concerns and raising the possibility Tillerson's nomination could be an uphill climb.

Marco Rubio saying -- quote -- "I have serious concerns about the nomination."

Tillerson, however, getting an immediate boost from former Cabinet Secretaries and GOP foreign policy standard-bearers Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates. Both did work for Tillerson's firm and, behind the scenes, sources tell CNN both recommended and endorsed Tillerson to Trump.

[16:05:01] Rice calling him an excellent choice and Gates touting his vast

knowledge, experience and success in dealing with foreign leaders, this coming as sources tell CNN Trump will select Rick Perry as his energy secretary, the former long-serving governor of oil-rich Texas. It elevates a man who once proposed eliminating the department altogether, but in trying to lay out that specifically, had this epic oops moment.

RICK PERRY (R), FORMER TEXAS GOVERNOR: The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops.

MATTINGLY: Trump also delaying his own announcement about his plans to separate himself from his business empire, aides saying Trump's focus has been on personnel and Cabinet choices and that the final plan simply wasn't ready, but Trump still able to find time to meet with someone decidedly not in contention for a Cabinet post today, hip-hop star Kanye West.

KANYE WEST, MUSICIAN: I just wanted to take a picture right now.


MATTINGLY: Jake, we have it on pretty good authority Kanye West is not in the running for a Cabinet selection.

Obviously, as we noted, Rick Perry is. And it's important to note Rick Perry at one point called Donald Trump's candidacy a cancer on

conservatism. Now he is in the fold. We have seen it repeatedly over the last couple of weeks. Despite some of the bombastic statements, despite the Twitter attacks, there is a very real effort inside Trump Tower behind me to try and unify the party as the president-elect prepares to become the president -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Phil Mattingly outside Trump Tower, thank you so much.

Next year, Tillerson could face a bruising confirmation process. First, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee meets to consider him. He needs a majority of those senators' support to move forward. If Senator Marco Rubio, for instance, votes no, Tillerson could be rejected. Or Republicans could do some maneuvering and get the Tillerson recommendation to the full Senate, bypassing the committee.

Now, if every Democrat there votes no, Tillerson needs all Republicans but two to vote yes in order to be confirmed. At least four Republicans have expressed concerns about the pick, which would theoretically sink his nomination, unless some vulnerable Democrats in energy-rich states decide they could back Tillerson.

CNN senior reporter Manu Raju joins me now.

Manu, the Trump campaign will have to get organized to get this nominee through.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it, Jake, especially since Democrats by and large are signaling they are going to oppose this nomination, particularly those senators -- Democratic senators on the Foreign Relations Committee.

That means that there is virtually no margin for error, particularly if you start to see significant defections within Republican ranks. Now, the one good piece of news for the Trump campaign, for those Republican senators who have expressed some concern is that they're not saying they will oppose the pick.

They are willing to listen to what Mr. Tillerson's views are especially on the issue of Russia, his views on Russia, whether or not he opposes or supports sanctions on Russia and what his relationship really is like with Vladimir Putin.

All the senators and the sources that I have talked to, they say that they want to hear more about that before making up their minds, which means, Jake, this is going to be a rather thorough and potentially bruising confirmation process.

TAPPER: And, Manu, several high-profile conservatives have praised the Tillerson pick, Condi Rice, Bob Gates, Jim Baker, Dick Cheney. Does that matter to these wavering or questioning Republican senators?

RAJU: I think it does have an impact.

You saw today Trump critic and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who does sit on that Foreign Relations Committee, he said that that carries considerable weight in his view. He thought it was a very good sign. Potentially, if he can win over a Jeff Flake, potentially, he could win over others in that more skeptical position, you could push him through.

So those are very significant statements that Republicans are taking seriously, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Manu Raju, thank you so much.

The Trump transition team has attempted to downplay the relationship between its nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, and the president of Russia.

Noted Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway -- quote -- "It's not like he's pounding down vodka with Vladimir Putin."

Fact-check: True. They did not drink vodka together. It was champagne, as we see them here Tillerson and Putin celebrating a big oil deal with a champagne toast.

Of course, that was Tillerson as CEO of an oil company representing stockholders, not representing the American people. We have not heard from Tillerson about how he'd approach Russia as secretary of state. But that hasn't dampened the enthusiasm coming from Moscow.

CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance joins me now from Moscow.

Matthew, the Russian government expressed support for Tillerson even before he had been officially chosen. MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's

right. I don't think his Senate confirmation hearings is going to be as quick to endorse Rex Tillerson as the Russian government have been.

But you're right. When his name was floated some days ago as a potential choice for Donald Trump as secretary of state, even then Russian officials were virtually tripping over themselves to try and lavish praise upon Rex Tillerson, who is somebody they know quite well.


The head of the Russian Parliamentary International Affairs Committee, Aleksey Pushkov, said it was a sensation that Rex Tillerson had been nominated for secretary of state and that it showed the seriousness of Donald Trump, the seriousness perhaps of Trump to do a deal with Russia.

The Kremlin has also come out and made remarks saying that Rex Tillerson is a respectable and professional person. That's about as high praise as you get from the Kremlin these days, it seems.

And the foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, who would be Rex Tillerson's counterpart here in Russia, has also lavished praised on the oil man from Texas, saying that him along with Trump are both pragmatic people and that they are not opponents to the development of relations between the two countries, so a resounding thumbs up all around from Russian officials when it comes to this nomination of Rex Tillerson for secretary of state.

TAPPER: All right, Matthew Chance in Moscow, thank you so much.

He was on the Trump short list for secretary of state. And now Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee is launching his own investigation into Russia's hacking. Senator Corker will join us next.

Stay with us.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Staying in politics now, a handful of Republican senators are expressing concern about Donald Trump's secretary of state pick, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, because of his long relationship with Russian officials.

And a handful of Republican nay votes are all it would take to sink Tillerson's chances.

Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee joins me now.

Senator Corker was also under consideration to be Trump's secretary of state. Thank you so much for joining us, Senator.

Marco Rubio, your colleague, tweeted this before Tillerson's nomination -- quote -- "Being a friend of Vladimir is not an attribute I'm hoping for from a secretary of state."

He has since gone on post-nomination to say that he has serious concerns about Tillerson's moral clarity, about his potential conflicts of interest. Do you share those concerns?

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I have no reason to have concerns one way or another. Senator Rubio called me over the weekend, and -- when he was hearing that this might be a possibility, and shared those.

[16:15:04] But look, I don't know how any of us necessarily would have any knowledge about what his views are. So, we're going to have hearings. Look, as you look at somebody like him, who is the CEO of Exxon, a major global enterprise with 70,000 employees. The State Department, by the way, has 75,000. So, this is somebody who comes to the job certainly with a working knowledge of the world. He's dealt with many of these leaders.

And so, just from the standpoint of vast experience, he's got it. I think President-elect Trump has done a great job going through this. I was honored to be on the short, short list relative to this. But, look, I think he has chosen someone who has got an incredible background for this kind of thing.

But what hearings are about, and what confirmation hearings do, is they give you the opportunity to understand those things. And, obviously, there has been some flirting, if you will, with Russia. That's been a little different than what we're used to. I think folks are a little shaken by that, plus the hacking allegations.

So, you know, obviously, Rex Tillerson will come to these hearings with that knowledge, and I'm sure will -- I hope will do everything he can to allay any fears that people have.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, let's talk about one of the policies where you and senator Rubio disagree with Rex Tillerson. You are a strong proponent of sanctions against Russia for their seizing of land that is not theirs in Ukraine, for Crimea, et cetera.

CORKER: Right.

TAPPER: Tillerson has been out there saying that he opposes the sanctions. Now, maybe he was saying that as CEO because it hurt ExxonMobil's bottom line to have those sanctions in place. If he says, well, I was just doing -- opposing it, using my power as CEO because it hurt my organization, my company financially, regardless of the humanitarian reasons you were in favor of sanctions, is that a good enough excuse?


Well, look, I think people perform the roles they're in in the best way that they can. He was a CEO of a company that had shareholders around the world. We actually had some conversations during that time, and look, I think he'll express his views when he comes in relative to what they are as secretary of state.

Look, I had lots of calls during that time from global CEOs about our sanctions. I do believe that sanctions should be in place on Russia relative to what they're continuing to do in eastern Ukraine, what they did in Crimea, and I hope that, as a country, we're going to hold together with European communities, who have also had some shakiness relative to future sanctions on Russia.

So, look, this will be one of those things that comes up, and I think to prejudge before we have an opportunity to explore it is probably not appropriate. But we'll see. We'll see when he comes forth.

I know he knows these issues are going to be front and center. My guess is he is spending time looking at those.

TAPPER: You're planning to have the Foreign Relations Committee conduct a review over these Russian hacks. What do you think about president-elect Donald Trump's response to what the intelligence community has said, which is definitively they feel confident that Russia was behind the hacks, although the question about what Russia was trying to do remains a subject for debate within the intelligence community. Some say they were trying to sway the election for Donald Trump. Others say they were just trying to undermine confidence in the American electoral system.

When President-elect Trump comes out and just says that he doesn't believe any of it, does that concern you at all?

CORKER: Well, I can only -- look, I have my own role as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. We each have our own roles. I have a lot of respect for the intelligence community. There are times when there is disagreement.

And apparently between the Office of Director of National Intelligence and the CIA there is a disagreement here. The FBI goes about things in a different -- a little bit different way. And so, there has been some confusion.

But I think anytime we have a country that is attempting to discredit our democracy, it's an important issue for us to pursue. That inures to his benefit, that is what he's tried to achieve. How deep it goes and whether they actually tried to tilt it towards a candidate or not, it's hard for me to discern at present.

But what I do know is that with Ben Cardin, our great ranking members and members of the committee, we're going to go through this process in January, like other committees are going to be doing, and we'll get to the bottom of it. That's our job, and we'll do this in earnest. And we certainly don't want another country inappropriately potentially interfering in an election in this way.

[16:20:02] TAPPER: Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- thank you so much for your time. We appreciate it.

CORKER: Thank you. Thank you very much.

TAPPER: Call it the art of the non-deal. Donald Trump now says he'll have his sons Eric and Don Jr. run his companies and he will not do any new deals while he is president. But does that really avoid the potential conflicts of interest out there.

And then, as humanity melts down in Aleppo, a ceasefire agreement is reached. But will it stop innocent women and children from being executed?


TAPPER: We're back with our latest installment of conflict of interest watch. Instead of clearing up the fog, Donald Trump is drawing even more questions about how he will separate himself from his global business empire when he takes office. He is now postponing a press conference on the matter until January, which means that the earliest that would happen, 19 days before Mr. Trump becomes president.

Let's bring in CNNMoney correspondent Cristina Alesci.

And, Cristina, Trump is raising many eyebrows over all of this, but also about this deal he says he just turned down. Take a listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: I turned down seven deals with one big player, great player, last week, because I thought it could be perceived as a conflict of interest.


TAPPER: Do we know anything more about this huge deal that he says he turned down?

CRISTINA ALESCI, CNNMONEY CORRESPONDENT: In good Donald Trump style, we do not.

[16:25:01] But what we do know is that he is still taking callings about business deals, which seems odd in the middle of a transition. And it also is a distraction and a way to avoid answering the question about what he's going to do with his current conflicts, let alone getting into new ones.

TAPPER: So, last night, Trump tweeted that his adult children Eric and Don Jr. will make no new deals while he is president. What does that mean in terms of potential conflicts of interest? And is that possible, to operate without any new deals?

ALESCI: That's an excellent question because this leaves Trump in a position where he is going to have to explain what a deal is. What happens when his children have to renegotiate the terms of let's say a lease with a foreign government that's renting out of one of their buildings? What is a new deal, Jake?

At the end of the day, Ivanka is in the middle or at the tail end of negotiating a deal to license her clothing line in Japan by a company that's owned by -- partially owned by the state. Is that a new deal?

How about the deal to start a hotel brand that's marketed towards millennials? Is that a new deal? We just don't know.

Again, this is another example of Donald Trump trying to answer the question but only raising more questions at the end of the day.

TAPPER: All right, Cristina Alesci. Thank you so much.

We wondered if Mr. Trump would take questions on this topic on December 15th when he said he was going to explain how he'd wall off his global business empire from the White House. But as Cristina just said, that date has been put off until next month.

President-elect Trump has not held a press conference in 139 days. That was the day, of course, that he told Russia to hack Hillary Clinton's e-mail servers. He said he was saying so jokingly.

In the modern era, no president-elect has ever gone this long without taking questions from reporters in such a setting after winning the White House.

Let's bring in our political panel Maggie Haberman, White House correspondent for "The New York Times", Phillip Bump, political reporter for the "Washington Post."

Thank you both for being here.

So, Maggie, do you think it's possible that President-elect Trump, President Trump, will never do a press conference? Newt Gingrich has suggested that that's what he thinks should happen.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: I think any assumption that what we know of in the White House is just going to continue is an erroneous one. I think that there might be certain traditions that hold. I suspect there will be some form of a daily briefing. They are looking at traditional titles, you know, communications director of some kind, press secretary.

But I think it is possible that you'll see the president, once he is president, just tweet out his thoughts or give one-off interviews and make his thoughts known that way. His press conferences, as you know, used to be very contentious. He would shoot down questions or tell people to sit down when he didn't like them. He is very, very good at controlling the information flow right now, but it is disturbing in terms of access to a free press.

TAPPER: Well, because there are questions to ask.

HABERMAN: Sure, yes.

TAPPER: Phillip, one of the things I think that President-elect Trump doesn't necessarily quite understand is that this whole conflict of interest thing, this actually, if he actually did the responsible thing that the "Wall Street Journal" and others, conservative media have suggested he needed to do, liquidate his assets or put it in a blind trust or whatever, that actually would help him with his presidency. I don't think he thinks that, though.

PHILIP BUMP, POLITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: No, pretty clearly. This is a guy who is still making the transition, I think, mentally into being a politician, right? I mean, he prides himself on not being a politician. I mean, once you're president-elect of the United States, it's kind of hard not to consider yourself a politician.

But I think, fundamentally, he is very good, too, at being reactive in the moment to whatever it is he wants to deal with, but not good at thinking longer term about what it is he should be doing, right? I think that he doesn't want to have a press conference in part because a lot of questions are floating at this moment that he probably doesn't want to deal with beyond sending out a tweet or two. I'm not sure he really gets that where he's going to be four years from now assuming he serves his full term is a very different place than where he is in right now and it has significant implications for his business.

TAPPER: Something that is a discrepancy for the president-elect and almost everybody else, including people in his party has to do with Russia. And the intelligence community suggesting that they have a pretty high degree of confidence that Russia was behind the hacks. Listen to Kellyanne Conway talking to Anderson Cooper last night about this issue.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP TRANSITION SENIOR ADVISER: It smells like politics, plain a simple. We in the Trump presidency do not want foreign governments interfering in our elections. That's very clear.

We also don't want -- we don't want intelligence interfering in our politics, but we certainly don't want what we have now, which is politics interfering in our intelligence.


TAPPER: It's a bipartisan group of senators who are calling for an investigation. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican majority leader, you just heard Bob Corker on the show saying the Foreign Relations Committee is going to be conducting a review. They take this very seriously. They think it's real.

HABERMAN: Yes. I mean, it is basically seen as questionable for most Republicans and Democrats in Congress as to why you would say -- object to an investigation into whether a foreign power was trying some espionage role in an American election.