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What's Next in Fight Against ISIS?; Interview With Senator Lindsey Graham; White House: Trump Knew Russia Hacks Were Benefiting Him; Trump's Conflicts of Interest: Russia Investigation Continues; Desperation in Syria; U.S. Officials Say 50,000 ISIS Fighters Killed. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 14, 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: Happening now: family ties. Donald Trump's children join the president-elect at a high-profile transition meeting. How much power will they have once their father moves into the White House? New questions tonight about their role and possible conflicts of interest.

Russian infiltration. The Obama White House insists that Donald Trump knew that Moscow was meddling in the U.S. election to benefit his campaign. I will ask Republican Senator Lindsey Graham about the impact of Russian hacking and his call for an investigation.

Plunging into hell. As pro-Syrian government forces bombard Aleppo, a top U.S. official warns the slaughter of innocent civilians may amount to war crimes. Tonight, tens of thousands of people are trapped in an exploding humanitarian crisis.

And musical chairs. The seating chart in the White House Briefing Room could affect news coverage of the next president. Will the Trump administration mix things up?

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

Tonight, we're learning more about the role of Donald Trump's adult children in his transition and the influence they may have in the White House. Ivanka, Don Jr. and Eric, they're all taking part in the president-elect's meeting today with tech industry leaders, this as sources reveal that Don Jr. and Eric were actively involved in interviewing and vetting some candidates for Cabinet posts.

And that's fueling more questions about potential conflicts of interest, since Trump has said his sons will take the helm of his business as he steps back to run the country.

Tonight, there's also new evidence that Ivanka Trump may be a very visible presence in the White House, a source now telling CNN she will get space in an office usually used by the first lady. We're told it will be designated as the first family's office. We're also monitoring a new attempt at a cease-fire in the battered

Syrian city of Aleppo; 50,000 civilians are believed to be trapped in a small rebel-controlled area. Pro-Syrian government forces are now on the brink of retaking the city after pounding it with heavy shelling and airstrikes, one resident telling CNN there are dead bodies everywhere.

I will where Senator Lindsey Graham about the crisis. He's the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents and analysts, they are also standing by as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.

First, let's go to CNN's political reporter, Sara Murray. She's over at Trump Tower in New York.

The president-elect's children, Sara, they are clearly in the spotlight tonight. Update our viewers.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf.

While ethics experts and lawyers have raised questions about the role Trump's children might play once he enters the White House, Donald Trump's transition aides are already downplaying that, that as Donald Trump's three adult children sat in on a very important meeting today at Trump Tower.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump's transition turning into quite the family affair.

As tech executives trek to Trump Tower, the Trump children, Eric, Ivanka and Don Jr., all sat in on the meeting.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: Well, I just want to thank everybody. This is a truly amazing group of people.

MURRAY: And as the president-elect taps Montana Congressman Ryan Zinke to lead the Interior Department, a source says Don Jr. helped interview candidates for that post.

Meanwhile, another source says Eric Trump sat in on a meeting with Mitt Romney as Donald Trump evaluated his secretary of state options. But Trump, poised to turn his business operations over to those two sons, the opportunity for conflicts of interest appears abundant, but not to Trump transition aides.

SEAN SPICER, REPUBLICAN NATIONAL COMMITTEE COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: Bottom line is, is that he has been very clear from day one with his family -- the role his family plays and the trust that he has in them in terms of help guide decisions.

MURRAY: There is no sign the family's influence is waning, though. Once Trump moves to the White House, the first lady's office is slated to become the first family's office, to help incorporate Ivanka Trump. But Trump's focus is elsewhere today, as he convenes a meeting with

tech luminaries he has lobbed insults at in the past. Trump once accused Amazon CEO and "Washington Post" owner Jeff Bezos of buying the newspaper for purposes of keeping taxes down "at his no-profit company Amazon," while Bezos suggested it was time to send Trump to space.

But today Bezos, along with Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg, Apple's Tim Cook and others, met Trump to chat about growing U.S. tech jobs.

TRUMP: There's nobody like the people in this room.

And anything we can do to help this go along, and we're going to be there for you. And you will call my people, you will call me. It doesn't make any difference. We have no formal chain of command around here.

MURRAY: Those compliments a far cry from the Trump accused Bezos, who owns "The Washington Post," of buying the newspaper for purposes of keeping taxes down "at his no-profit company Amazon," while Bezos suggested it was time to send Trump to space.

[18:05:00]

MURRAY: As Trump picks the brains of the business community, his team is turning to how best to execute the president-elect's legislative priorities.

REINCE PRIEBUS, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: We're probably going to lead with Obamacare repeal and then replace. Then you will have tax -- a small tax reform package and then a bigger tax reform package at the end of April.

MURRAY: While Trump himself defends former critic Paul Ryan, a key player in ensuring the success of his agenda on the Hill.

TRUMP: Oh, no, I have come to appreciate him. And, you know, honestly, he is like a fine wine. Every day goes by, I get to appreciate his genius more and more. Now, if he ever goes against me, I'm not going to say that, OK?

MURRAY: And Trump is doing some defense work of his own, using his thank you tour to defend his pick for secretary of state, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.

TRUMP: Rex is friendly with many of the leaders in the world that we don't get along with.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, one of the interesting things and the question of conflict of interest and Donald Trump's family members, the transition is out there today, saying they have been very transparent about the role Trump's kids are playing in the process.

And it's true. They were clear about naming Donald Trump's own children as transition officials. But aside from this meeting today where reporters were allowed in to get in a spray and where we were informed the children would be involved, it's really been through sources, not through the Trump transition efforts' own disclosure, that we found out the Trump kids have been involved in some of these other high-level meetings for Cabinet posts -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Sara, thank you, Sara Murray reporting.

The president-elect is facing some growing pressure to unload his -- unload his stake in the Trump -- the new Trump hotel just down the street from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. The question tonight, what will happen if he doesn't do that?

Let's go to our senior political reporter, Manu Raju. He's over at the Trump Hotel here in Washington.

What's the latest on this, Manu?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the latest is that Donald Trump and his attorneys are having discussions about how exactly to separate himself from his business and real estate empire, including this very lucrative property behind me, because if he does not fully divest himself from this hotel, he's going to open himself up to scathing criticism from Democrats, but also potentially be in violation of his contract with the federal government.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RAJU (voice-over): Donald Trump has never been shy about touting his luxury hotel in Washington's old post office pavilion.

TRUMP: And a magnificent place at that.

RAJU: But as president, Trump could be forced to give up his ownership stake in the hotel or be in breach of his deal. That's because Trump is renting the property from the federal government, which wrote into its contract with Trump that no elected official of the government of the United States shall be admitted to any share or part of this lease.

Tonight, House Democrats say a top official at the General Services Administration, which oversees the lease, privately told them this month that Trump must divest himself not only of managerial control, but of all ownership interests as well.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I care about the 60-year lease for president-elect Trump's new luxury hotel here in Washington, D.C., that will be breached the moment he steps into the Oval Office, unless he completely divests his ownership interests.

RAJU: But a spokesperson for the federal agency said in a statement to CNN that: "We can make no definitive statement at this time about what would constitute a breach in the agreement until Trump indicates his intentions."

Trump officials say the president-elect is undergoing an extensive review of his real estate empire, including how he will handle the hotel located steps away from the White House, plans they originally promised to explain tomorrow, but now say they will explain in January.

SPICER: We're sitting down with lawyers and accountants and making sure that it's crystal clear so that he can focus on this. He doesn't have to do this. The law is clear that he doesn't have a conflict of interest.

RAJU: But the Office of Government Ethics recently tweeted at the president-elect, writing: "Bravo. The only way to resolve these conflicts of interest is to divest."

Trump has said he would hand over his companies to his two adult sons, Don Jr. and Eric. But he has not said if he would fully divest his own stake in his companies. Trump's sons have been heavily involved in his efforts to select a Cabinet, and if the sons take ownership of the Trump Hotel, they will be negotiating directly with the GSA, an agency that has to report to their father.

Republicans on Capitol Hill are so far staying quiet about any potential conflicts.

SEN. DAVID PERDUE (R), GEORGIA: He needs to make sure that the appearance of any conflict is taken care of, and I'm sure he will do that. Divesting right now is a really onerous thing to do with somebody with that complex a net worth.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[18:10:00]

RAJU: Now, two questions, Wolf.

One is what role will Ivanka Trump play going forward with this hotel? She played a central role in ensuring that this hotel came under the Trump properties. And, of course, now she's going to be advising her father, the soon-to-be president. And two, will Republicans on Capitol Hill decide to investigate and look further into this issue if Donald Trump does not go far enough to separate himself from his business?

We don't know the answers to either of those questions just yet, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Manu, thanks very much, Manu Raju reporting from the Trump Hotel here in Washington.

Tonight, the Obama White House says Donald Trump was -- quote -- "obviously aware" that Russian hacking was intended to benefit his campaign. The president-elect has repeatedly rejected U.S. intelligence about election meddling by Moscow.

Joining us now to discuss this and a whole lot more, the Senate Armed Services Committee member, the former Republican presidential candidate Lindsey Graham.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: So, you have called for investigations to try to determine precisely what the Russians did, what their motive was. Do you believe Vladimir Putin, though, swayed this election?

GRAHAM: No. I think Hillary Clinton lost because she wasn't an agent of change and she tried to disqualify Trump and she wasn't able to do it.

I do believe that the Russians hacked into the DNC. I do believe they hacked into Podesta's e-mail account. They hacked into my campaign account. I do believe that all the information released publicly hurt Clinton, did not Trump, but I don't think the outcome of the election is in doubt.

What we should do is not turn on each other, but work as one people to push back against Russia, because if you don't Russia, China and Iran will eventually do this, because Trump is going to take China and Iran on. He should. I want to help him do both. But they will turn on him and they will hack into his e-mails.

BLITZER: I didn't know your hacked, your e-mails were hacked by the Russians. Tell us about that.

GRAHAM: Absolutely.

Our campaign vendor that we used was hacked.

BLITZER: And so what happened?

GRAHAM: We were told by the FBI in August that that we were hacked in June.

So, they're trying to destabilize democracy all over the world, not just here. It's not just about pulling for Trump. It's bigger than that. They're trying to break the backs of democracies. They're doing worse things in other countries.

They're trying to get us to fight among ourselves. And here's what we should do. We should tell the Russians in no uncertain terms, you interfered in our elections, we don't care why. We're going to hit you and hit you hard. I'm going to introduce sanctions that will be bipartisan that names Putin as an individual, his inner circle, for not only hacking into our political systems, but trying to destabilize democracy throughout the world.

BLITZER: What happened to the information that was hacked? You say a vendor that your campaign was using was hacked. Was it just your campaign or was other information hacked by the Russians as well?

GRAHAM: I think some of it was actually released. But I have never sent an e-mail, and I'm not about to start now. So, they didn't have a whole lot...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Do you know what they released?

GRAHAM: It went through the D.C. Leaks thing. But we were called in August by the FBI that our account, this vendor was hacked in June that we used.

BLITZER: And they specifically said the Russians did it?

GRAHAM: They pointed us to the fact that the Russians did it. Yes, the Russians did it.

BLITZER: Why do you think the president-elect still refuses to accept that the Russians were involved? He says it could have been the Iranians, it could have been some guy in New Jersey.

GRAHAM: The Iranians are hacking into our systems.

If it's a 400-pound guy, it was a 400-pound Russian guy. There's three reasons, I guess. Number one, he's been briefed and just can't put the puzzle together. He's very smart, so I take that off the table.

That he hasn't paid much attention, hasn't received the briefings, maybe that's true. Or he just doesn't want to know, if he was briefed. There is no doubt in my mind that the Russians hacked into political systems throughout the United States, trying to interfere with our elections. They're doing it all over the world.

And when it comes to Mr. Tillerson, he's a very prominent fellow. I have been told by people I'm close to that I really respect that he would be a good secretary of state.

Here's what he's got to do to convince me. I want him to be briefed by the FBI and the CIA about what the Russians did in our election and what they're doing all over the world, particularly helping Assad, and I want to hear from him if he believes the Russians tried to interfere in our election, they're trying to destabilize democracies throughout the world.

If he doesn't believe that, I would have a hard time voting for him. Secondly, if you do believe it, what are we going to do about it? Because Obama has been so weak in the eyes of the Russians, that that's what has led to all of this mess. And you don't want to follow weakness with more weakness.

BLITZER: Do you think the Obama administration made a mistake by not publicizing all of these leaks more assertively?

We know, in early October, General Clapper, the head of the national intelligence, he did release a joint statement with Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, accusing the Russians of doing this. But do you think they made a mistake in not publicizing this more assertively?

GRAHAM: I think they should have came to the Congress and said we have definitive evidence the Russians are interfering in our election, like they're doing all over the world, and that I want your help to hit them back.

[18:15:01]

But he was so worried about the Iran deal. He's been so afraid to take on Russia and Iran. The only thing I can surmise, that he's more worried about Russia's help with the Iran deal, and he doesn't want to take them on. And God knows Russia and Iran have been marching through the Middle East. Look at Aleppo.

BLITZER: Now, as far as the Russian motive was concerned, there seems to be a disagreement among some of the intelligence agencies.

The FBI -- some say the motive was to help Trump become the president of the United States. Others say the motive was to simply disrupt the American democratic process, if you will, and embarrass the United States. What is your understanding what the Russian motive was?

GRAHAM: I don't think it matters. We know they interfered in our elections.

Whether you like John Podesta or not, he's an American. And it could be us tomorrow. It could be Bannon if we take on the Chinese and the Iranians. I don't know what their motive was, but here's what happened. Most of the information that was hacked into was designed to hurt Clinton, not going after Trump.

But it could be us the next time. This is not a Republican/Democratic issue. I want to punish them for interfering in our elections, trying to destabilize the entire world, democratic movements throughout the world. And if you don't, the Chinese and the Iranians are going to see this as weakness and they will come after us when we take them on.

BLITZER: When you say punish, what does that mean? What should the U.S. do?

GRAHAM: Crippling sanctions that identify...

BLITZER: Do you think Donald Trump as president will approve sanctions? Because, as you know, at the Republican Convention over the summer, in the platform, there was a call for greater sanctions against -- in the Republican platform against the Russians because of what they did in Crimea and Ukraine. But that was eliminated, that plank, by -- at the request of the Trump campaign.

GRAHAM: I don't work for Donald Trump. I'm in the legislative branch.

We have ability in the legislative branch to formulate foreign policy. But he's the commander in chief. I want to help him when it comes to China and Iran. I want to help reset the world when it comes to Russia. Obama has been incredibly weak in the eyes all of all of our enemies, particularly Putin.

My goal is to put on President Trump's desk crippling sanctions, based on the fact they interfered in our elections, they're trying to destroy democratic movements all over the world. They have been a chief benefactor of the butcher of Damascus, Assad, and they need to pay a price.

And every Republican needs to understand that if we don't stand together as a nation, we will be next. And I want the Russians -- excuse me -- the Iranians, and the Chinese, and the North Koreans to know America is not going to stand for this.

BLITZER: But you know Tillerson opposed sanctions when he was the chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil and he's apparently just resigning now in order to get ready for confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: If he tells the committee he still opposes sanctions against Russia, what will be your reaction?

GRAHAM: I can't imagine I would vote for anybody that believes that we should not sanction Russia, given the fact that they did in fact interfere in our election.

They have been destabilizing democracies all over the world, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia. I can give you 20 minutes of Russian misdeeds toward our allies. I can tell you what they have done in terms of war crimes in Syria. And if somebody wants to be secretary of state, and they hear the briefings that I have heard and they don't believe the Russians were involved in our election, interfering in our elections, then I really question their judgment.

If they don't believe sanctions are appropriate, given what Putin has been doing all over the world, including in our backyard, then I don't think they have the judgment to be secretary of state, because if you don't go after Russia, you're inviting the other bad actors on the planet to come after you.

BLITZER: But you know, Senator, the president-elect in recent days, he said it was ridiculous to assume the Russians did this.

GRAHAM: I think it's ridiculous to believe they didn't.

And to the president-elect, if you are listening to what I'm listening to, and General Hayden said it best. I have not found one person who believes that the Russians did not hack into Podesta's e-mails, the DNC. I know they hacked into my campaign vendor.

I know they have been doing this all over the world. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to understand what Russia is up to when it comes to our allies.

BLITZER: But the president-elect in that famous tweet, as you know, Senator, he recalled that the intelligence community was wrong in the buildup to the war in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein, because the intelligence community said there were stockpiles of weapons of destruction. The other day, he said, you know what? Take a look at their record.

He really smeared the intelligence community, recalling that one incident, that blunder, that there was a blunder, a serious blunder leading up to the war in Iraq in 2003.

GRAHAM: Intelligence is an art and it's a science.

They say we killed 50,000 ISIL fighters. The original estimate, there was about 35,000. It's hard to know exactly how many people have gone to ISIL's cause. It's hard to know exactly what is happening inside of dictatorships.

But when it comes to technology, when it comes to hacking, when it comes to espionage, it's easier to identify.

[18:20:01]

Here's what I would challenge president-elect Trump to do. Tell everybody, including me, why we're wrong. Be specific.

I think the FBI and the CIA have made an incredibly detailed case about Russia's involvement in our election, throughout the entire world. And here's what I would ask president-elect Trump. Do you think they're interfering in the Balkans area? Do you think they're interfering in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Ukraine?

I'm going there. I will be glad to tell you what I found. Spend some time talking to our allies and they will tell you what they're up to. They're going to France and Germany next. So, Mr. President, don't be like Obama. Don't lay down in the face of aggression, Russian aggression, push back. If you want to push back, I will help you.

BLITZER: All those countries you mentioned, former republics of the old Soviet Union.

We have a lot more to discuss, including this war against ISIS, all the statistics now coming out from the Pentagon, from U.S. officials.

Senator, stay with us. We will resume this interview right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:25:02]

BLITZER: We're back with Senator Lindsey Graham.

Senator, I want you to stand by for a moment.

There's breaking news on the crisis in Aleppo, Syria.

Let's bring in our senior international correspondent, Clarissa Ward. She was the last Western journalist to report out of the rebel-held parts of Aleppo.

What's the situation, Clarissa, there right now? CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: OK.

So, Wolf, what we're hearing now from a spokesman for one of the rebel groups on the ground in that ever-shrinking rebel-held conclave of Eastern Aleppo is that, in fact, a truce deal is going to go into effect. This should be take within a grain of salt, because we have all seen this movie before.

Just last night, we heard that a truce was supposed to go into effect. After just a few hours, it collapsed. The primary purpose of this truce is to try to get the estimated 50,000 people who are still trapped in that ever-shrinking enclave out of Aleppo alive.

Since the truce collapsed last night, we have heard reports of rockets raining down on Aleppo. I have spoken to residents who have been taking cover in underground bunkers. But it's important for our viewers to understand, Wolf, they don't have any food, they don't have water, there's no power.

We have heard an eyewitness report telling CNN that the hospitals are covered in the dead bodies of the injured, because the hospitals don't have any medical equipment to treat these people. And we have seen these incredibly touching and profound goodbye messages from some of these residents, one of which I actually personally received myself, Wolf, from someone who I know in Eastern Aleppo who said to me simply: I appreciate your friendship. I appreciate your work that you have done in Syria, and, quite simply, we do not know, we do not think that we will live to see tomorrow.

It is really difficult to describe in words, Wolf, just how harrowing and how horrifying the onslaught has been on these people. And now we just wait to see if both sides can come together in that truce being brokered by Russia and the Turks to get some of the estimated 50,000 people out of Eastern Aleppo, Wolf.

BLITZER: Clarissa Ward reporting on the latest. Clarissa, it is a horrific, horrific situation. Thanks for that report.

Let's get back to Senator Lindsey Graham.

Some have suggested that Congress shares at least some of the blame for what's going on in Syria right now.

GRAHAM: You're right.

BLITZER: Because, as you know, the president, he had that red line, but he said he was waiting for congressional authorization, even though he really didn't need it, he said. But you guys never gave him that congressional authorization to deploy troops in Syria.

GRAHAM: Yes, I would say that those who opposed the authorization to use force on this, too, those members of Congress -- I'm not one of them -- on Labor Day weekend. I can't remember the year.

BLITZER: 2013.

GRAHAM: OK.

I went up with Senator McCain. I was briefed by the president and Susan Rice. He said he was going to attack Assad.

BLITZER: After they used chemical weapons.

GRAHAM: Yes, that he was going to use military force against Assad's installations and infrastructure. He was going to upgrade the rebel capability and try to change the momentum on the ground.

I went outside the Oval Office with Senator McCain and said, I stand full square with the president. Then, a week later, I found out that we're coming to Congress, which was a huge mistake.

But to those members over of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party who said that if you authorize the use of force after the red line has been crossed, you're al Qaeda's air force, and there's some people on my side who said that, they own this too.

But here's the deal. Assad was on the ropes four years ago. Obama's entire national security team said if you act now by helping the Free Syrian Army, Assad will fall. The Russians and Iranians came in to help Assad. The Russians had been bombing the Free Syrian forces we trained, not ISIL.

They have destroyed the Syrian opposition. When Aleppo falls, and it will, big win for Russia, Iran, Assad, and ISIL, because with Assad in power, ISIL can recruit for generations to come. Big loss for the United States, all of our Arab allies and the poor people of Syria.

And there are a bunch of young kids growing up in Syria, they are going to hate the West, and you know what, you know what? They probably should.

BLITZER: Well, you know that president-elect Trump, he has made it clear he has no desire to deploy U.S. troops to that part of the world again.

He was a bitter opponent, he said, of the Iraq War.

GRAHAM: Well, let me tell you about the Iraq War. You can blame Bush for going in and having the invasion and toppling Saddam Hussein.

But Trump has said that we're better off with Saddam Hussein in power, Gadhafi, Ben Ali, and all -- and Assad.

Let me tell you this, Mr. President. You're the leader of the free world. Would you want your family to grow up in a dictatorship where they could take your daughter any time they wanted to take her? So, you're going to be the leader of the free world.

Obama left Iraq too soon. He didn't act when Assad was on the ropes. He owns Aleppo. This is part of his legacy as much as Obamacare.

Now Trump is coming in. Now, what are you going to do about this?

[18:30:04] BLITZER: Does he have a good national security team getting ready to take charge?

GRAHAM: Yes, I think so.

BLITZER: You like that team he's put in place?

GRAHAM: I like General Flynn. But to destroy ISIL, you've got to hold the territory once you take -- take them down in Mosul. Shia militia are not going to hold Mosul. Kurdish fighters are not going to hold Raqqah. We need more Arabs in the fight inside of Syria, and we need security fierce forces that are less sectarian when it comes to holding Mosul and Iraq.

BLITZER: Do you believe all these numbers coming out by the administration...

GRAHAM: I think they're -- I think they're...

BLITZER: ... that 75 percent of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria have now been killed?

GRAHAM: Nobody knows. The one thing about intel, we've got patriots out there on the battlefield, giving us the best picture they know how.

It's one thing to estimate the number of ISIL fighters and exactly what a dictator's up to at any given moment, but we know what the Russians are doing inside -- toward our election and what they're doing throughout the world. The intelligence community are patriots. They got it right when it comes to Russia interfering in our election.

As to Syria, if you leave Assad in power, ISIL can never be destroyed. The Arabs in the region will never accept him. The Syrian war never ends, because the people of Syrian are not going to accept him as their leader. Turkey is going to be under constant friction. So I hope the president will re-evaluate.

Here's what I would do if I were him. I would destroy ISIL with more of an Arab force that could hold. I would train what's left of the Syrian Free Army and recruit more people to the cause. I'd have a no- fly zone and tell the Russians and the Syrians that they come over to bomb these people, we'd shoot them down. And I would train a force that could take Assad on and put pressure on him military. Then the Russians and the Iranians would actually come to the table to negotiate the end of this war. Without that, the war never ends.

BLITZER: One final question before I let you go. I know you're a very strong supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship.

GRAHAM: Yes.

BLITZER: A strong supporter of Israel. During the campaign, Donald Trump said he would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, where it's always been, to Jerusalem if he were expected president of the United States. Do you think he should?

GRAHAM: Yes, I think he should. But I think he should not leave Assad in power, because Assad is the biggest supporter of Hezbollah. If you want create security for Israel, you better get -- you better get Syria in a better spot.

So yes, moving the embassy is a symbolic move that I really appreciate. But if you want to help Israel, give them more weapons; give them more money. The Iranians are threatening to destroy Israel literally every day.

Trump is right to want a better deal with Iran, and the only way you're going to do that, Mr. President, is to support new sanctions on the ayatollah outside the nuclear program to give you leverage. And I look forward to working with President Trump to deal with Iran.

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

GRAHAM: Thank you.

BLITZER: Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Just ahead, he says they're going to run his business empire. But Donald Trump's sons are also helping him pick cabinet members. Should the president-elect untangle these family ties?

Plus, there's new progress reported in the fight against ISIS. Thousands of fighters, according to U.S. officials, have been killed. Is the U.S. now closing in on the ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:37:35] BLITZER: Tonight, the Obama administration is defending itself against criticism that it was slow in responding to Russia's election-related hacking. The White House pointing a finger at President-elect Trump and what he knew about Russia's intentions. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There's ample evidence that was known long before the election, and in most cases, long before October, about the Trump campaign and Russia. Everything from -- the -- Republican nominee himself calling on Russia to hack his opponent. It might be an indication that he was obviously aware and concluded -- based on whatever facts or sources he was -- he had available to him, that Russia was involved.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's discuss with our expert analysis right now. David Axelrod, let me start with you.

Did the president make a mistake by not more assertively speaking about this Russian hacking during the campaign, if you will. They waited until October, the -- when General Clapper released a statement. But it really was not a big issue at the time.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first of all, let me just say I ceased being a spokesperson for the administration or the government five years ago, so I can only comment as a commentator for CNN now.

But I will say that, you know, I remember in mid-October Vice President Biden speaking pretty forcefully to this, and I don't think there was a mystery about the fact that the Russians were up to no good here. There are questions that have been raised about whether more covert action should have been taken in response to that. I'm sure we'll hear more about that as this investigation moves forward.

But I agree with Senator Graham that the one thing that seems not to be in dispute by the FBI or anybody in the intelligence community is the fact that the Russians did do this. There's some dispute as to what their motive was. And he's right in that they're doing it all over Europe.

So this is a real challenge to democracies everywhere, and we need a strategy to deal with it. And it has to begin with the president of the United States incoming, acknowledging that, in fact, it happened.

BLITZER: Yes, he hasn't done that yet. October 7, when the joint statement was released by the director of national intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security, October 7, that was also the same day that that "Access Hollywood" video came out. That certainly dominated the news.

[18:40:09] DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, it did.

And to your previous question, look, I think the general narrative of Republicans that President Obama has been too weak on Russia is exaggerated. President Obama in 2014 rallied the world to put sanctions on Russia for what they did in Crimea.

That being said, in this specific case, what happened this year in this election, if this played out the way it's been reported in "The New York Times" and elsewhere, I think the president's response was probably too lax.

BLITZER: We're also learning, Rebecca Berg, that more than a dozen congressional Democrats running for election that their information was stolen, as well, hacked by the Russians, released trying to undermine them.

Should politicians now generally assume that all of their sensitive information is vulnerable like that?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, certainly these security concerns have always been a concern. And that's why you have people in Congress who their sole task is to ensure that those e-mail networks are secured.

But it's not only their House or Senate e-mails that are being targeted. We're seeing personal accounts, as you heard from Lindsey Graham earlier. There are campaign accounts, ones that are -- tend to be less secure and less subject to these sorts of oversights. And so I think certainly on the political side, you're going to see

people being more cautious about what they're seeing over e-mail. And frankly, it's not just the political side. It's not just government that needs to worry about this, but also corporations. We saw with the Sony hacking a few years ago that corporations are now being targeted by foreign nation states, as well, as a form of cyber warfare. So this is something the next administration is going to need to look at in terms of how can we make corporations and the government more secure from these sorts of attacks?

BLITZER: Bianna is joining us, as well. She's an anchor at Yahoo! News, an expert on Russia.

Bianna Golodryga, the -- there's a British parliamentarian is claiming that it's highly probable the Russians influenced the U.K.'s Brexit referendum, as well. Are we seeing a global pattern now, the Russians increasingly assertive in this -- in this area?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, NEWS AND FINANCE ANCHOR, YAHOO! NEWS: I think we are, Wolf. And I think it's shocking that Russia impacting or trying to infiltrate our e-mail systems or influence our elections turned into a partisan issue here at home, as opposed to people being outraged and doing something about it.

The fact that we're having this debate, this ongoing debate, is something that Vladimir Putin loves. He loves it when he's the focus of attention. He's a master of deflection. He's got a load of problems in his own country. The fact that other countries are now talking about his power is something that he wanted to achieve and that we have a president-elect who seems to be giving Vladimir Putin the benefit of the doubt with these claims that he's infiltrated our e-mails, when intelligence agencies are saying that he has, and he's saying, "I don't believe it."

BLITZER: So David Axelrod, do you think the politicians here in Washington are taking all of this seriously enough?

AXELROD: I think some of them are. Certainly, Senator Graham was rather outspoken just a few minutes ago on your air here.

I think one of the questions is how is the leadership going to deal with this? Because what we've seen is a notion of trying to limit the probe. Don't have a select committee. Don't let this thing get out of control.

And it seems to me that everybody, Republican and Democrat, ought to be very vigorous about this, because regardless of what happened in this past, this is going to be an ongoing challenge, not just here but overseas. And we have to have a vigorous response to it.

BLITZER: Bianna, if the U.S. does retaliate against the Russians, how do you think Putin will respond?

GOLODRYGA: Well, it depends on how we retaliate.

BLITZER: Sanctions. Let's say greater sanctions. GOLODRYGA: Greater sanctions? Well, we'll see if that's something

that the president-elect chooses to do. Obviously, that's going to be his ultimate decision.

It's something that his secretary of state, or at least who he's hoping will be confirmed as secretary of state, has appointed as secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, did not support sanctions against Russia. It lost his company, ExxonMobil, billions of dollars. We'll see if he transfers his thoughts and opinion on that into his new role if, in fact, he is confirmed.

But there are things that you can do as far as President Obama, just embarrassing Vladimir Putin by releasing some of his bank accounts. He, by many, is considered the richest man in the world. There's a lot of shady dealings surrounding Vladimir Putin and his ties to oligarchs. I think our intelligence agencies knows a thing or two about these and could expose them.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by. Don't go too far away. Let's take a quick break. Much more news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:49:07] BLITZER: Tonight, the United States is claiming major gains in the war against ISIS.

I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you remember that Donald Trump said he wanted a new plan from his generals so he could wipe out ISIS.

Well, given some of the gains the Obama administration is now talking about, it seems some of that may already be under way.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): As President Obama prepares to hand off the fight against ISIS to the new commander-in-chief, Donald Trump, the White House says there is significant progress.

BRETT MCGURK, U.S. ENVOY TO THE COALITION AGAINST ISIS: The number of battle ready fighters inside Iraq and Syria is at its lowest point that it's ever been.

STARR: The U.S. estimates there are now 12,000 to 15,000 ISIS personnel, a dramatic decline from the peak, in September 2014 when ISIS had amassed close to 32,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria.

[18:50:00] ISIS had always been able to replace its ranks, moving people across the Turkish border into Syria. But no more.

MCGURK: ISIL now has no access to international border and this has significantly impacted the overall campaign because they are now a very isolated entity.

STARR: Based on estimates from nearly 17,000 coalition strike, the U.S. believes 50,000 ISIS fighters in total have been killed over the last two years. Its ranks slashed by nearly 75 percent. The top coalition commander says that's only part of the story.

LT. GEN. STEPHEN TOWNSEND, COMMANDER, U.S. FORCES IN IRAQ AND SYRIA: We've taken back over half of the land that Iraq, for example lost to ISIL in 2014. I think that is a measure of the progress.

STARR: Now, the top priority, get ISIS out of its self-declared capital in Raqqah, Syria.

TOWNSEND: We also know they are plotting attacks on the West. And we know that central to external operations plotting is the city of Raqqah. And that is why we need to get down there and isolate that city as fast as we can.

STARR: U.S. Special Operations forces watch Raqqah around the clock from drones override. It's all led to key intelligence and a critical strike. One drone struck a vehicle with three ISIS leaders inside, operatives who had been involved, according to the U.S., in attacks against the West. Two said to have facilitated the deadly attacks in Paris last year.

But even with the death of many fighters, ISIS has not given up the fight. ISIS has retaken the area around Palmyra and captured Syrian regime weapons.

TOWNSEND: Some armored vehicles and various guns and other heavy weapons, possibly some air defense equipment.

The U.S. now watching closely to see if, in fact, those weapons, possibly including shoulder-fired missiles, will threaten U.S. troops.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And, look, there is still plenty of worry. Topping the list besides Raqqah, ISIS's ideology still, there is worry it can inspire lone wolf attacks across the world -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Barbara, thanks very much.

We're joined by our CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank and CNN counterterrorism analyst Phil Muddy. I want to talk about the accuracy of the figures on ISIS.

Everyone, stand by for a moment. We're getting some more information. Let's take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:56:44] BLITZER: We're back with CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank and counterterrorism analyst Phil Mudd. We're talking about the new figures released from U.S. officials claiming 50,000 ISIS fighters have now been killed. Phil, you've heard these numbers. They say 75 percent of the ISIS

fighters already have been killed. How accurate do you think these numbers are?

PHIL MUDD, FORMER CIA COUNTERTERRORISM OFFICIAL: Wolf, this is the rare moment where I feel like laughing in the SITUATION ROOM. We call this in the intelligence business a WAG. That is a Wild Ass Guess.

You're in an aircraft. You are running drone operations. You're killing 20, 30, 40 people at a time. This is a guesstimate number.

Furthermore, second point, I'm not sure how relevant the number is. If you want to interpret this to believe that we finish the game against ISIS, let me change your game. There are a couple of characteristics you think about. How leaders of terror organizations are out there who think their primary target is Washington and New York? And how many spaces are out there where they can plan operations? Yemen, Nigeria, Libya.

So, I think this is significant. We've made huge progress in Iraq and Syria. But there are still a lot of places where terrorists can operate and a lot of leaders who think about Los Angeles and New York and Washington. Don't put your jammies on. This game ain't over yet, Wolf. This number is a wild ass guess.

BLITZER: Paul, what do you think?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, EDITOR IN CHIEF, CTC SENTINEL: Yes. I mean, you need to put the claim of 50,000 ISIS fighters killed into some context. The current estimate for ISIS fighting strength in Syria Iraq is 15,000 fighters. Well, that's just 5,000 fewer than the estimate the CIA gave, the low range estimate in the late summer of 2014 when this air campaign started.

So what that tells you is that ISIS have been able to replenish their ranks at tens of thousands of new fighters over the last several years. This is a group that's shown significant resilience. But that resilience is indeed now fraying to some degree. They are finding it more difficult to replenish their ranks. They control less territory and that makes it more difficult for them to muster new fighters. Also, there's been a sharp reduction in number of foreign fighters coming over the border from about 2,000 a month at its peak to about 50 a month.

Now, that has made it more difficult for them to replenish fighters as fighters are being killed in these airstrikes. This is a group that is losing it's luster to some degree. It's more difficult for these foreign fighters to access ISIS' territory through Turkey. But it is still a very dangerous force, indeed.

This game is not over by any stretch. And we see a lot of challenges potentially ahead, particularly with this battle for Mosul. If that battle for Mosul ends up destroying Mosul, you could see a mass exodus of Sunnis from there without home, dislocated who could be a new recruitment pool for ISIS in Iraq.

BLITZER: Yes.

And, Phil, I assume you agree the more they are pounded on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, the more likely they will blast out and go forward with terror attacks against the West.

We're going to continue this in the days ahead. A very, very serious development right now.

That's it for me. To our viewers in the United States and around the world, thanks for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.