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Interview With Delaware Senator Chris Coons; Horror in Syria; Exxon CEO Nominated as Secretary of State; Trump Delays News Conference on Business Conflicts; White House Debated Response to Russian Hacking for Months; U.S.: ISIS Leaders Linked to Paris Attacks Killed in Strike. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 13, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:05]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, there's new fuel for a fight over the nomination of oil executive Rex Tillerson.

Stalled intelligence. What did the Obama administration know about Russia's election-related hacking? And when did they know it? We're getting new information on that this hour.

Conflicts can wait. The Trump camp suggests the president-elect is too busy to explain how he will separate himself from his business. What will he reveal and when, if a delayed news conference actually happens?

And West wing. Trump takes time out from his transition to meet with rapper Kanye West and an odd assortment of stars from the worlds of sports, business and fashion. We will take a closer look at the resolving door over there at the Trump Tower.

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

We're standing by to hear from Donald Trump. He has a rally in Wisconsin tonight just hours after revealing his choice to be the secretary of state the ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson. Tillerson now facing the possibility of a confirmation battle because of his close ties to Russia at a time when Moscow's reported attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election are under scrutiny.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio declaring he has serious concerns about Tillerson as a member of the committee that will hold hearings on his nomination.

Also tonight, sources say Trump is tapping a bitter campaign rival turned supporter to be energy secretary. If confirmed, former Texas Governor Rick Perry would lead a department he once promised to eliminate.

Even as Mr. Trump works on his transition, he took time out today for a surprise meeting with Kanye West, posing for photos with the rapper and calling him a friend and a good man. I will talk about Trump's choice for secretary of state and his ties with Russia with the leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chris Coons.

Our correspondents and analysts are also standing by as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.

First to CNN's Phil Mattingly. He's over at Trump Tower in New York covering the transition.

Phil, the Tillerson nomination is drawing both praise and criticism. Update our viewers.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's exactly right.

And Trump advisers willing to acknowledge that people willing to do the former are all the more important to counter the latter. A very real recognition that there will be problems and there will be major questions, but this is a fight the president-elect and his team are willing to have.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

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

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: He knows many of the players and he knows them well. He does massive deals in Russia. He does massive deals for the company, not for himself. For the company.

MATTINGLY: Those ties include extensive relations with Russia, 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, one that also underscores very real concerns awaiting Tillerson on Capitol Hill and not just among Democrats.

Some GOP senators quickly raising those concerns, suggesting the possibility Tillerson's nomination could be in for an uphill climb.

Marco Rubio saying -- quote -- "I have serious concerns about the nomination," and Lindsey Graham signaling he expects the U.S.-Russia relationship to be front and center in Tillerson's confirmation.

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 recommended and endorsed Tillerson to Trump, Rice calling him an excellent choice and Gates touting his vast knowledge, experience and success in dealing with foreign leaders. Even former Vice President Dick Cheney weighing in, calling Tillerson

an inspired choice, this as Trump sources tell CNN Trump will select Rick Perry as his energy secretary, former long-serving governor of oil-rich Texas. Perry once proposed eliminating the Energy Department altogether, but in trying explain why, had this epic oops moment.

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

MATTINGLY: Trump is also delaying his own announcement about his plans to separate himself from his business empire, postponing what was to be a news conference on those details Thursday until January.

[18:05:00]

Trump also tweeting this: "Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my businesses before January 20 so that I can focus full-time on the presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my terms of office."

Aides say Trump's focus has been on personnel and Cabinet choices and that final plan simply wasn't ready.

But was still able to find time today to meet with someone decidedly not in contention for a Cabinet post, hip-hop star Kanye West.

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

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MATTINGLY: Wolf, while that meeting was of a personal variety, the president-elect also meeting with activists and advocates representing the African-American community, among them, football superstars Ray Lewis and Jim Brown.

Why that's notable, Jim Brown is a longtime advocate and activist on the civil rights side of things, came in after the meeting saying even though he voted for Hillary Clinton, he loved what the president-elect had to say in that meeting today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil Mattingly outside Trump Tower in New York, thanks very much.

Also tonight, the influential chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is promising to launch a new investigation of Russia's election-related hacking. I will talk to a Democrat on the panel in just a moment or two.

But right now I want to bring in our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto and CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd

Jim, as more details come out about how Russia conducted these cyber- attacks and why, does this look like an unprecedented act of cyber- warfare, as some are suggesting? And should we be talking about it in terms of an invasion into the country by a foreign adversary? JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Listen, there

are some that have described it that way. And John McCain called it an act of war. Folks in the intelligence community, they referred to it certainly as a successful information op, intelligence information operation.

They also referred to it as criminal activity backed by a foreign state. By any measure, it was unprecedented, in the sense that Russia has done and the Soviet Union has have done these kind of operations before, information operations before. But using cyber-means here in the U.S. with a presidential election, applying to the U.S. a tactic that it's used in Eastern Europe and other European countries, in that sense, yes, it is.

And the significance of it, listen, not underestimated by anybody I speak to in the counterterror, the intelligence or even in the administration as well.

BLITZER: So, Phil Mudd, in that view, in that context, how significant is that it the president-elect refuses to accept Russia's involvement?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think it is hugely significant.

Let's move forward here. We came out of a campaign where facts became irrelevant. It was fact-free zone. We're now moving into a situation where the facts don't relate to a campaign. They relate to national security. Let's fast forward here.

We have a briefing, let's presume, about Iranian compliance with the Iranian nuclear deal which many in the incoming Trump administration presumably will oppose. If that information suggests Iran is complying, what is presented? Are facts presented or do you simply say I don't accept what we see on the ground?

There's a second issue within government, Wolf. And that is the president-elect is setting himself up already before entering office in a fight with the Congress, including congressional Republicans. That's to me extremely surprising for an incoming Republican.

And, furthermore, he has a CIA nominee who will go down for a nomination hearing in an impossible situation. Do you support the president by saying in front of a congressional hearing that CIA information was incorrect and that you don't believe it or do you back the work force that you're going on lead by saying, I don't agree with the president?

He has put Mike Pompeo, the CIA nominee, in an impossible position.

BLITZER: Jim, has Russia faced any repercussions or retaliation from the Obama administration over this?

SCIUTTO: Not that we know of.

We do know the Obama administration debated this. I have spoken to administration officials, intelligence officials who have talked about how the president was reluctant to immediately respond, perhaps, with a retaliatory cyber-attack. The administration is concerned about starting a cycle of escalation on each side.

There were other concerns as well. They were trying to make a deal with Russia on Syria. All these factors factoring into the decision as to how they respond.

You're even hearing criticisms from Democrats now. When you look at this, this was a massive asymmetric attack, arguably a successful one, asymmetric attack, where a smaller power attacks a bigger power, uses sort of unusual weapons to bring about an effect here.

And here they did. Some hackers, some fairly-low level tactics in some ways. A phishing attack is something all of us have experienced before. It's something that plain old criminal hackers use to just try to get your personal information. And a lot of this started with something very simple like that, not particularly sophisticated, but with tremendous effect.

[18:10:01]

BLITZER: It certainly did.

Phil Mudd, what needs to happen now to deter Russia, for that matter, China or North Korea or Iran or others from launching these kinds of cyber-attacks against the United States? What does the outgoing administration need to do and the incoming administration need to do?

MUDD: The outgoing administration can't do much with a month left.

If you think foreign relations isn't three-dimensional chess, let's try the Russian piece of this and make a couple of moves. Typically, unbelievably, Putin's approval ratings in Russia hover at or above 80 percent, incredibly positive.

One of the reasons is his interventions in Crimea and Syria are extremely well received within the Russian population. You want to go in and find another lever. That lever is the Russian pocketbook. That's sanctions. Let's say impose sanctions.

What might Putin do? Make one of those moves in an area where we have difficulty responding like Eastern Europe or Syria to relieve the pressure. So, if you make one move, it causes another move. Furthermore and finally on sanctions, you have an incoming secretary of state who is proven to be I think suspicious on sanctions because of the impact on the oil industry.

This is really three-dimensional chess, and I don't think we have an easy option here, Wolf.

BLITZER: Phil Mudd, Jim Sciutto, guys, thanks very much.

Let's bring in Senator Chris Coons. He's a leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

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

BLITZER: What do you think the United States needs to do to retaliate, if you will, or deter Russia from these kinds of cyber- attacks?

COONS: Well, first, we need to make sure that we have got all the relevant facts, Wolf.

Back in August, I called for a hearing into allegations that there had been Russian hacking to try and influence our elections. I'm encouraged that Republican Senator Leader Mitch McConnell has joined the minority leader, Chuck Schumer, and a number of others of senators, Republicans and Democrats, now in calling for bipartisan hearings.

And I'm hopeful that we're soon going to see those hearings, not just the Intelligence Committee, which of course can't share its outcome publicly, but Armed Services, Foreign Relations, perhaps Judiciary as well.

We need to be united and I think we need to be firm in pushing back against this completely unprecedented and unacceptable attack on our democracy by Russia.

BLITZER: Do you have any doubt that Russia was responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta, the former Clinton campaign chairman's e-mail account?

COONS: I have gotten compelling evidence supporting that conclusion.

BLITZER: That they did both?

COONS: That they did both.

BLITZER: Because Peter King, the Republican congressman from New York, says he's been briefed. And he says there's no doubt the Russians were responsible for the hacking of the DNC. There is some question whether they actually did the John Podesta e-mail hack. That's what he says.

COONS: I will say this. I think all members of the Senate and the House need to have thorough hearings where we get access to the best and most current information we have, particularly given the recent change in conclusion by the intelligence community about what goal the Russians were trying to pursue.

They initially concluded they were simply trying on undermine confidence in our election. They have more reached the conclusion that they were actually trying to help Donald Trump win the election.

BLITZER: So tell our viewers who are watching at home right now why they should care about all of this.

COONS: They should care because the United States defines itself as a democracy, because a country, Russia, that has been our adversary for decades has now knowingly and intentionally interfered in our democracy.

And for us to fail to take some responsive measures I think simply invites more assaults on our democracy, not just by Russia, but by other countries. It is also complicated by the fact that we have a president-elect who didn't disclose his taxes, so we don't really know his potential conflicts of interests, who in the course of the campaign said positive, even laudatory things about Vladimir Putin.

And we are the principal architect of sanctions against Putin for his illegal invasion and annexation of the Crimean province of the neighboring country Ukraine.

BLITZER: What are your concerns about Rex Tillerson potentially becoming the next secretary of state? As you know, the announcement came forward today. He will be nominated. He will have Senate confirmation hearings before your panel.

COONS: Well, in his 40 years of working for ExxonMobil, his near decade leading one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, he certainly had a lot of exposure to world leaders.

My core concern is that he has a very close relationship with Vladimir Putin. He helped to execute an agreement with Russia to drill in their Arctic batters that would have been worth billions of dollars to ExxonMobil and he's been a strong critic of the very sanctions that we imposed on Russia for invading Crimea.

BLITZER: But the president-elect and his advisers say that is an advantage that the U.S. will have, that someone who actually knows Putin, has negotiated with Putin, has said no to Putin, has made deals, tough deals with Putin, they say that would be an advantage for the U.S. in scoring advantages with the Russians.

COONS: It certainly is an advantage that he actually knows personally leaders of many countries around the world.

But I will just say to you, Wolf, that it is a very different thing to be negotiating deals for an oil and gas company and pursuing shareholder interests than it is to be standing up for American interests.

[18:15:00]

The secretary of state has to fight for things like a free press, human rights, democracy, that frankly aren't always at the top of the list for an international oil and gas company.

BLITZER: John McCain, the Republican senator, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he says he would never take any award from Putin. He calls him a killer, a murderer, invaded Crimea, as you point out, doing what he's doing in Syria right now. Yet Tillerson accepted an award from Putin. I assume that's a problem for you as well?

COONS: That raises real concerns for me.

But, frankly, I'm more concerned about the real potential for ongoing conflicts of interest, because he has got 40 years of relationships, 40 years of ties to folks often in authoritarian countries, often in countries like Russia that are not our allies, but are in fact our adversaries.

And I think that's exactly why we need thorough and searching confirmation hearings to get some answers to the questions that have been raised by both Republican and Democratic senators about this nominee.

BLITZER: Back in an interview in 2013, Tillerson, he was the -- he still is the CEO of ExxonMobil -- was asked if his philosophy was "drill, baby, drill." He's in the oil industry, as you know. He responded this way. Listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REX TILLERSON, CHAIRMAN & CEO, EXXONMOBIL: Well, my philosophy is to make money. And so if I can drill and make money, then that's what I want to do.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: That's his responsibility as the CEO of one of the biggest companies in the world.

But do you think he could translate that and deal with delicate diplomatic issues that any secretary of state has to deal with, including human rights, global warming, issues like that?

COONS: Well, we will have to see. And that's the point of the confirmation hearings.

I think the larger issue is that there's some unresolved questions about president-elect Trump and about his relationship with Putin and what kinds of decisions he might make with regard to Ukraine, with regard to Syria and Russia's actions, whether hacking into the American elections or whether they're ongoing violations of human rights and their aggressive actions towards NATO.

BLITZER: You're open-minded right now? You haven't made a final decision whether you will vote for confirmation or oppose it?

COONS: That's right. I have got some very tough questions. I'm looking forward to thorough answers.

But I think we owe every one of Donald Trump's nominees what Merrick Garland, Judge Garland, did not get in the last Congress, a full, fair and open hearing.

BLITZER: Merrick Garland was the nominee for the Supreme Court justice position that was vacated. All right. Stand by, Senator. There is much more to discuss.

We will resume our conversation with Senator Chris Coons of the Foreign Relations Committee right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:21:14]

BLITZER: Tonight: A highly anticipated news conference by president- elect Trump is on hold. It may be a few more weeks before Americans get details about how he plans to separate himself from his businesses.

We're back with Democratic Senator Chris Coons of Delaware.

I want to talk about that in a moment. But we're now hearing from you that you are going to be meeting, you're going up to New York tomorrow to Trump Tower to sit down and meet with Donald Trump? What's that all about?

COONS: Yes, Wolf, it will probably be a fairly brief meeting.

Senator Boozman, Republican from Arkansas and I, we are the co-chairs of the annual Prayer Breakfast, the National Prayer Breakfast. And we're simply extending an invitation to president-elect Trump to follow a tradition that goes back to President Eisenhower. Every president has spoken to this wonderful dinner -- excuse me -- wonderful breakfast.

It is nonsectarian, nonpartisan. It's a celebration of the role of prayer and spirituality in America. There's 3,500 people who come from over 70 countries. And we're very hopeful that he will accept the invitation and he will speak in February.

BLITZER: I'm sure he will accept that invitation, because almost all of the presidents do accept that invitation.

But when you're there tomorrow, will you raise some of your concerns with him, whether about Russian hacking or some of the nominees he's put forward? Is that appropriate?

COONS: My goal really simply is to extend an invitation to the National Prayer Breakfast.

BLITZER: But if he says, let's get into a conversation with you and your Republican colleague, you're more than happy to talk to him about those kinds of sensitive issue?

COONS: We are going to try and keep this focused on what I think will be a very positive national event.

But if he wants to talk, we're always happy to talk about other things.

BLITZER: All right, let's talk about the news conference that has now been delayed at least until January and how he is going to separate himself from his huge business out there.

This is what he tweeted last night. And I will put it up on the screen: "Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my businesses before January 20 so that I can focus full-time on the presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my terms -- terms in office."

So, is that satisfactory to you?

COONS: Well, I don't think we even know yet just how complicated, how sprawling Donald Trump's interests are, because he's never released his taxes.

So, the general public, members of Congress, we don't really know the reach and scope of his business interests. We don't who know is invested in his properties. We don't know whether he has obligations or commitments to either Russian oligarchs or to Chinese banks or other potential sources of complication.

So, frankly, we don't know. And I don't know yet whether this will be acceptable. I do think that he has a significantly greater risk of conflicts of interests than any modern president because of how broad and complicated his global network of real estate holdings are and because his immediate family, even under his scenario, would continue to have a direct hand in making those key decisions.

BLITZER: But he is right when he says, I am not mandated by law to do so.

He doesn't to do anything, but he is doing it anyhow.

COONS: There's a conflicts of interest statute that cover thousands of federal employees.

BLITZER: But not the president or the vice president.

COONS: And it specifically exempts the president and vice president.

I do think we haven't had a modern president with the kind of potential for very real conflicts here. When I was a county elected official, I was involved in a lot of land use decisions. And those often can be very complicated, very contentious and even political.

I don't see how he can be president and yet still have this family empire going ahead with development projects in countries as diverse...

BLITZER: He's not going to do new ones, though. He says no new ones. He has got existing deals that will be implemented.

COONS: He's got significant...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: But his two sons with executives are going to be in charge.

And we're going to get more details, if and when he holds this news conference in January. But he makes the point, you know what? Being president is a full-time 100 percent job.

COONS: It is.

BLITZER: And I'm not going to have time to do any of those other deals, if you will.

COONS: I hope what we will hear is he is going to sever all ties with his family business. I know that will be hard to do, but it's worth it.

[18:25:02]

BLITZER: When you say sever all ties, how do you -- you want him to sell that business? Is that what you're saying?

COONS: I think he should separate himself from the global...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: What does that mean, separate himself, because what I -- the only way he could completely sever himself is he says, you know what? It is up for sale. Let some huge company buy the whole thing right now.

But there's a lot of real estate. That is not that simple.

COONS: It is not simple.

But he said for many years that a lot of the value of the Trump organization is the brand. And the brand depends on things that he, Donald Trump, does.

So, it will be very hard for him, I think, to be president and to stay focused on the obligations of the presidency if he still has this complex web of significant real estate interests that is going on and going forward.

BLITZER: Senator Coons, thanks, as usual, for coming on.

COONS: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead: why the White House chose not to reveal what it knew about Russian interference before the U.S. presidential election.

Tonight, there are some angry Democrats out there who are demanding answers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Right now, we're getting some new information with the Russian hacking controversy. CNN has learned that the Obama White House knew about intelligence on the cyber-attacks for months before the election and has been debating what to do about it.

[18:30:30] Let's go to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. He's been digging on this story. Tell our viewers exactly, Evan, what you're learning.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the question that Democrats are asking right now is why didn't the Obama White House respond more forcefully to the Russian hacks targeting the Clinton campaign?

Six months ago, by July this year, law enforcement and intelligence agencies were sure that the Russian intelligence hackers had breached the national -- the Democratic National Committee. A month earlier, in June, the hackers had released an opposition file on Donald Trump that had been stolen from the Democrats.

Now over the next three months, White House and government agencies debated over exactly how to respond. Some officials in the intelligence agencies warned that the U.S. risked starting a wider cyber-conflict with Russia, in which the U.S. had a lot more to lose.

The State Department on the other hand was worried the risk to ongoing efforts to strike a deal with Russia over Syria.

Now, as the months went by, WikiLeaks kept releasing documents only targeting the Democrats. Obama officials also were growing confident that the Russians were deliberately trying to hurt the Clinton campaign and. Therefore. trying to get Donald Trump elected.

Now, at the same time, the White House officials were worried that publicly outing Russia would appear to be an effort to help Clinton, and they were also sure that Trump was going to lose. So they were worried that giving him any excuse to call the election into -- election results into question would play into his hands.

Now, months later, Democrats are now angry, because they now see the elections results; and they blame the White House, Wolf, for not doing something earlier. We now know the White House officials are preparing a range of options for President Obama, hopefully for him to have something to do about this before he leaves office in January -- Wolf.

PEREZ: All right. Thanks very much. Good reporting from Evan Perez.

Let's talk about Russian hacking; Donald Trump's choice to be secretary of state. Our political team is with us. Dana Bash, do you get a sense that Democrats are frustrated, angry at the president for not speaking up more directly, more assertively, about Russian hacking before the election?

DANA BASH, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Not yet that it's directed at the president, per se. But I'm guessing that more and more people who hear what Evan is reporting, the more that frustration is going to sort of bubble up.

Because look, I mean, if you go back in time, the Democrats in the Clinton campaign, over the summer, at least, you know, as these e- mails and the WikiLeaks postings became more prevalent, they were saying very forcefully, publicly, that they believed that the Russians were behind it.

Now, obviously, it's one thing to have the campaign say it. It's another thing for the administration with all of its intelligence agencies and so forth, up first....

TOOBIN: They did it on October 7. The intelligence community issued a statement...

BASH: That's true.

TOOBIN: ... blaming the Russians for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. So they did do that.

BASH: They did. But -- and I guess to your point, they did it for the president who was highly, highly political at the time to say it, as Well. I'm trying to remember if he actually said at point blank -- he may have alluded to it. You know, who knows what a difference that might have this was? Because this was -- there was a siren that was being called by the Clinton campaign early on in this, saying, "We believe that this is the Russians."

BLITZER: Let's talk about Rex Tillerson, the nominee now, the intended nominee to become the secretary of state. How much of a problem is he going to have getting confirmed? You know what Marco Rubio said: he's got some serious questions. Serious problems.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Right, right. And you know, we all thought that Jeff Sessions was going to be the one that was going to take a real beating on Capitol Hill. Certainly from Democrats.

And then we say, he's going to be the one that's really going to get beat up on Capitol Hill. And then Rex Tillerson all of a sudden, you know, comes on.

It's not so much that he heads ExxonMobil. It's his connections to Russia and Vladimir Putin in particular. What are those connections? Because I still think it's a little bit murky. He certainly has better connections with Russia than most people do. And we're certainly going to see that on full display.

The question is can Republicans marshal up 51 votes in order to get him confirmed? It's very likely they will be able to.

BLITZER: But Reince Priebus is the incoming White House chief of staff. He says that's beneficial, the fact that he has a history, a relationship with the Russians, especially with Putin.

PRESTON: I think that's OK, actually. I do think that being able to pick up the telephone and get Vladimir Putin on the line is very important. I think the question about Trump and his attitude towards foreign policy, will he be considered weak in the eyes of Vladimir Putin? And again, we have to see what happens.

[18:35:09] BLITZER: Kevin, your former boss, Mitt Romney, he was under consideration, apparently very serious conversation. He got the call last night from the president-elect. He was not going to be the secretary of state. But do you see him still having some sort of role, advisory role in this new administration?

KEVIN MADDEN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Sure. I think during the whole process he made it cheer that what he wanted to was offer insights or offer help in any way. And that would -- that would apply to any president-elect of the United States, whether it's Donald Trump or somebody else.

So I think, you know, he is somebody who's thought a lot about these issues and cares about these issues. So his willingness to offer insights, I think, will continue, even though he wasn't chosen for an official post.

And you know, we have seen a lot of needs in the past on foreign policy for senior statesmen or envoys to play a role that goes beyond or in a complementary role of secretary of state. He very well could be in line for something like that. I do know that, throughout this whole process, he's made it clear that he's willing to help in any way that he could.

BLITZER: So when the president of the United States calls him, that he will say...

MADDEN: It would be -- if it's consistent with some of his beliefs, on some of the big issues, that he would be willing to do that.

BLITZER: Special envoy. Something like -- something along those lines.

Rick Perry, the longest serving governor in Texas, a former governor, he's been tapped now, we're told, to become the secretary of energy, a department he, four years ago in that "Oops" moment in the debate. He couldn't remember the Department of Energy, one of three departments he wanted to eliminate. He says that now he's going to be leading, if he's confirmed by the Senate, the Department of Energy. What's your take on that?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "WASHINGTON POST": So despite saying that he wanted to eliminate it at the time. You know, in a way, him being the governor of a big oil and gas state, on the surface, it makes sense to pick Rick Perry, except that the Department of Energy really has a lot to do with nuclear energy and nuclear labs. So I wonder if -- we'll have to see.

BLITZER: And nuclear bombs, too.

SWERDLICK: And nuclear bombs. See if he can, you know, ramp up to that or if that's his area of expertise.

The outgoing secretary of energy, Ernie Muniz, is someone who played a big role in the Iran nuclear deal. So, you know, it's a different thing for Rick Perry.

BLITZER: Perry was very, very critical of Donald Trump. He was running for the Republican nomination as well. Listen to this. These comments he had about the then-Republican front-runner.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RICK PERRY (R), FORMER CALIFORNIA GOVERNOR CANDIDATE: Let no one be mistaken. Donald Trump's candidacy is a cancer on conservatism, and it must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded.

TRUMP: I see Rick Perry the other day. And he's so -- you know, he's doing very poorly in the polls. he put glasses on so people will think he's smart. And it just doesn't work. You know, people can see through the glasses.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And now best, he's about to be nominated as the secretary of energy, one of the most important cabinet positions out there. Not only is charge of oil and energy and bought that, responsible for the safety of America's nuclear weapons.

Yes. I think a couple things come to mind. One is when a politician said something nowadays, perhaps you just can't believe them anymore. And we've seen it time and time again in this campaign, Wolf. Where people have come out and been highly critical of Donald Trump, only then to go up to Trump Tower, sit down and hold a meeting.

Perhaps they're being patriotic. But perhaps they're also being opportunists, as well. And for Donald Trump, it says something for him to actually bring these people in.

BLITZER: A cancer on conservatism. Throws the words he leveled against Donald Trump and Donald Trump made it clear that he thinks the guys is stupid. He said wearing glasses to make him look, apparently, a little bit.

PERINO: You especially need them on see.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: I'm not going to see you -- but go ahead. Those were angry words for both of them.

BASH: They were. Very angry.

BLITZER: But remember, Rick Perry was one of Donald Trump's former rivals, after it was clear he was going to lock up the nomination to say he would endorse Donald Trump.

In fact, I remember calling him and talking to him on the phone and asking him specifically about the fact that he did call him a cancer on conservatism. And how he squares that. And he gave me this long story about how he and his former Republican rival in Texas were, you know, really at each other's throats. And then the two of them worked beautifully together. Because they have that sort of, you know, admiration for one another as political adversaries.

You know, I mean, there are all kinds of ways that people who go after one kind of explain it away when they need to work together because the circumstances change. And this is clearly one of those circumstances.

I do believe that the fact that he says that he wants to get rid of the Department of Energy, or has said in the past. That Trump's pick for the EPA has said the same and actually worked towards the same at the EPA.

[18:40:04] Shouldn't be a surprise. This is one of the many times where we will say, "Elections have consequences." Republicans have said this for years and years and years, that if and when they got into office, they would hope that they would help to dismantle those agencies in particular.

BLITZER: Scott Pruitt, the man that's selected to head the EPA, he wants to get -- has said he wants to rid of it. But you know what? Donald Trump has said he wants to get rid of the EPA, too.

All right. Everybody stand by. There's more coming up. An important note to our viewers right now. Please be sure to check out the first ever book from CNN Politics. It's called "Unprecedented: The Election that Changed Everything." You can pick up your copy today in stores around the country, or you can get it online. go to CNN.com/Book.

Just ahead, why did the president-elect meet with Kanye West today? Look at them in the lobby over at Trump Tower. We'll talk about the transition priorities and more when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:23] BLITZER: We're back with our political team and we're talking about many unanswered questions about the future of the Donald Trump's huge business and the potential conflicts of interest when he becomes president on January 20th.

Dana, they delayed this news conference which he was going to explain how it's all going to unfold, to try to avoid conflicts of interest. His aides saying it's very, very complicated and I'm sure it is complicated.

But there's always political advantage to delay the answers to these questions, isn't there?

BASH: Yes. Well, I think that you're -- first and foremost, I think that you're right. That the answers are not readily available, but it is going to take a very long time for them to figure out how to unwind. But sure, the longer they delay, the more it gets caught up in the reality of the news of a new administration, of confirmation hearings and everything else that's going to be happening.

Right now, there's a lot of talk. I mean, there's news of the picks that we're hearing about for the first time. Pretty soon, it's not just going to be about personnel. It's going to be about the personnel making policy. And the longer he delays whether this is the reason, just the political plus, is that it can get hidden tunneled other things that are very, very real.

BLITZER: You've heard the criticism from some of his biggest critics say, they see a pattern, right? And just like at one point, he said he was going to release his tax returns, never release his tax returns. They're saying, you know what, he says he's going to detail how he's going to deal with the conflicts of interest but he's never going to do that. You've heard that criticism.

PRESTON: Yes. Well, I think we will get answers on the conflicts of interests. It's just not going to be satisfying to 99.9 percent of Americans.

I mean, the fact of the matter is, he has interests or he has ownership in 500 companies, 125 of them have done business in -- or 150 of them have done business in 25 foreign countries. That's just foreign countries and business.

I don't know how he sits down at dinner with his two sons who are supposedly taking over the business and not talk about business. His whole life is one big deal. So, as he has said over and over again, there's really no laws. I mean, there is law in the books, but there's really no laws that prevents him from doing any of this.

BLITZER: You know, David, he's got a lot of critically important decisions he's making and he's working very, very hard. But he did take some time out today. And we're going to show you a picture from TMZ, special guest over at Trump Tower, there you see Kanye West, Ivanka and the president-elect of the United States. The president- elect brought him down into the lobby of Trump Tower later to talk a little with reporters. Some are suggesting this was simply a PR stunt.

How do you see it?

SWERDLICK: I mean, to quote Kanye himself, President Trump listens to the kids, bro. I mean, you know, he -- these are two guys with big, you know, egos with a lot of self-regard, a lot to say. It kind of makes sense that they wanted to meet together. Maybe Trump is considering him for the head of National Endowment for the Arts, or National Endowment for the Humanities. Probably not, but --

BLITZER: Well, he did tweet, I don't know how serious he is. "Kanye West, #2024."

SWERDLICK: Right, he's giving himself the eight-year cushion. It makes sense.

BLITZER: Yes.

MADDEN: You're telling me that's a future debate stage there? That footage right there?

BLITZER: No. He can only run two terms. If he gets reelected in 2020, then 2024, then he can't serve again.

PRESTON: The most 2016 B roll I've ever seen. BASH: I was going to say five words: Welcome to the Trump years.

BLITZER: It's going to be something we're going to have to get used to. Is that what you're saying?

BASH: Totally.

BLITZER: Do you have a problem with any of this?

PRESTON: No, I'm just wondering what their conversation was and what was the purpose of actually going down before the cameras.

BLITZER: He's Kanye West, you know? The president-elect clearly has been friends with him for a long time, but it's always interesting to see who he goes down the elevator with into the lobby in front of -- I mean, if you've been in the lobby as I've been in that lobby, you see all those cameras throughout and the pool. It's live all the time.

He decides I'm going to go down there with Kanye West. But other guests he's not going to necessarily -- when Al Gore came down, he didn't go down with Al Gore.

PRESTON: Right. There's no purpose to go down with Kanye West. It's one thing to go down there with the potential cabinet person. But really, that is just a photo-op.

BLITZER: The criticism he's also getting is, you know, he postponed his news conference on his conflicts of interest until January because he's been so busy. It is very complicated. But he has time to do that.

SWERDLICK: Right, he's got time to meet with Kanye West and not necessarily take the daily briefing. It's not a daily briefing right now.

BLITZER: The intelligence briefing. He's been -- apparently, Jim Sciutto saying he's getting it three times a week now.

[18:50:00] So, that's better than once a week.

All right, guys. Everybody, stick around.

A very emotional moment today for President Obama, as he signed one more bill into law before leaving the White House. The $6.3 billion legislation includes a boost in spending for cancer research and it's named in honor of Vice President Joe Biden's son, Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer last year. It also addresses the country's mental health crisis and the opioid epidemic.

The president noted that Democrats and Republicans supported the measure, striking a bipartisan chord after a bitter election.

Just ahead, a new blow to ISIS in Syria, amid reports of a horrifying slaughter in the country's civil war.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) BLITZER: Tonight, the U.S. military is revealing details about a new success against ISIS.

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

[18:55:01] Barbara, three leaders of the terror group were killed?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: In fact, Wolf, the Pentagon announcing just today that they conducted this strike back on Sunday. It was a drone strike against three men in a single vehicle in Raqqah, Syria.

Now, Raqqah, of course, ISIS's self declared capital deep inside ISIS territory. But a U.S. drone had been watching and killed all three men with the hellfire.

Why were these three men so important? All of them were ISIS operatives working on external attacks, attacks against western targets. Two of them said to be responsible for those deadly November 2015 attacks in Paris. They were involved in plotting, in financing, in getting foreign fighters, all of it, Wolf.

This really underscores an intelligence plus for the U.S. military. They have drones over Raqqah. They watch constantly. They are getting better information on where these people are and they watch. So, when they move, the U.S. can move in and strike them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're also following urgent new developments in Aleppo, Syria, Barbara, after reports of dozens of civilians, including women and children, slaughtered. What are you hearing?

STARR: Summary executions are the words that we're healing, Wolf. Aleppo really being called a meltdown of humanity. The pictures are just more dreadful by the hour.

There is some talk of safe passage being granted to some people out of Aleppo. But still, this horror continues. Right now, it does appear that the Syrian regime very much has control of eastern Aleppo, and it appears the Russians are not stepping in to do anything to stop the slaughter.

That may well be a message to the Trump administration, many people feel, about what Russia's priorities are and what the U.S. needs to consider under a Trump administration in dealing with Moscow, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara. Thanks very much. We'll follow these stories.

Also tonight, a shocking murder that's remained a mystery for two decades. A child beauty queen killed. Her family under suspicion. Now, JonBenet Ramsey's is speaking out. Here's a clip from tonight's CNN special report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's going on, ma'am? JEAN CASAREZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It is one of the greatest unsolved crimes in history.

PATSY RAMSEY, MOTHER: We have a kidnapping. There's a ransom note here.

CASAREZ: A little girl vanishes from home Christmas night.

JOHN RAMSEY, FATHER: It's just like you got hit in the stomach. Where's my child?

CASAREZ: Hours later, she's found strangled to death.

J. RAMSEY: I couldn't do anything but scream.

P. RAMSEY: Keep your babies close to you. There's someone out there.

CASAREZ: Surreal images of the pageant star transfixed the nation.

LARRY KING, TV HOST: Were you a stage mother?

P. RAMSEY: Probably. What's wrong with that?

CASAREZ: No charges have ever been filed. Nobody ever convicted. Tonight, the theories, secrets, and bombshells.

P. RAMSEY: Hurry, hurry, hurry.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Patsy? Patsy? Patsy?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: CNN's Jean Casarez is joining us now.

Jean, you spent a long time with JonBenet Ramsey's father, John Ramsey. How has he dealt with this unsolved murder of his daughter for 20 years, specifically being in the shadow of his daughter's death?

CASAREZ: You know, Wolf, it was so interesting to talk to him about at this point, because he doesn't do interviews anymore. And this is one of the very few he's done recently. But he talked and he admitted that he lost his respect because there were leaks in the Boulder Police Department. He and his wife were the prime suspect. The media took a hold of that. All focus is on them.

He said he lost all of his money, because he was very wealthy. He had a company in Boulder that made over a billion dollars in 1996, because he said he had to pay attorneys and then there were PR agents.

He said that he lost his privacy. And he lives, Wolf, in a very small community. He doesn't want it out where he lives. We traveled there, took a long time to get there. And he leads a very peaceful life now. He is remarried.

But he said every day of his life that he looks at that picture of JonBenet on his television and he wants to find who he says murdered her because he wants to restore the reputation of his family members.

BLITZER: Why do you think after all these years people are still fascinated with JonBenet Ramsey?

CASAREZ: After all these years, and, Wolf, I know you did a lot on this case because you used to anchor Larry King and you would talk about it. So, you know it is a mystery then. It is a mystery now. There are various theories and you can go various ways on this.

So, everybody -- we want everybody to watch tonight at 9:00.

BLITZER: The CNN special report, "The Murder of JonBenet", airs tonight once again at 9:00 p.m. Eastern. We'll be watching. Jean, thanks very much.

That's it for me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.