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U.N. Hundreds of Children Trapped in Aleppo; Trump Nominates David Friedman as Israel Ambassador; N.C. Republicans Attempt to Strip Power from Incoming Democratic Governor; Obama Questions if Trump Will Follow Up Action Against Russia; Obama's Last Press Conference Soon; A look at Obama's Legacy. Aired 1:30-2p ET
Aired December 16, 2016 - 13:59 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[13:30:00] FRED PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: As you mentioned, many are children, but many other people who are simply sick, who are wounded, who are weak, and who need to be evacuated. Otherwise, they, too, could die very soon.
Now, apparently, what happened earlier today, Wolf, was that a convoy that was supposed to evacuate people from east Aleppo towards other areas coaled by the opposition was stopped. And all of this happened after the entire day and entire night convoys had gone through, but this convoy was stopped. Several people taken off. Some shot and killed. And then that convoy was turned around. There's differing accounts why that happened. The opposition believes it was a Shiite militia fighting on the side of Bashar al Assad that didn't want the convoy to go through, unhappy about the evacuation deal. The government, for its part, said people on the convoy were carrying weapons they weren't supposed to carry.
Bottom line, the deal in big trouble. Evacuations in big trouble and unclear whether they will resume. But it's been hours. And with every moment that goes by, there is a threat of violence starting again, of firefights starting again in Aleppo. A bad situation at this point.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A horrendous situation.
Fred Pleitgen, in Beirut for us. Fred, thank you very much.
President-elect Trump has named his pick to serve as ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, Trump's advisor, a longtime friend of Donald Trump. He's a bankruptcy lawyer who has raised questions about a two- state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians. He strongly supported moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Friedman has said Israeli settlement activist on the West Bank is legal.
Global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, is joining us, taking a closer look at David Friedman's record on all of this.
Elise, so let's talk about some of these issues. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Donald Trump said during the campaign he would do so if elected president, even though, since 1948, when Israel was established, the U.S. has not recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capitol. The U.S. embassy has always been in Tel Aviv.
ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right. Donald Trump, and most candidates, said on the campaign trail they would move the embassy. Once the president gets into office, they realize this would complicate relations with the Arab states and the whole idea of the U.S. as an honest broker in the Mideast peace process, that is a key element. Jerusalem, the fate of the capital, is something for final status negotiations. But, you know, Donald Trump has been more explicit what he would do. And in a statement last night by David Friedman accepting his nomination, he hoped to serve the American interests in Israel from the eternal capital of Jerusalem. It raises questions whether he would actually do that. Some Trump advisors on the Mideast have told Arab ambassadors, I understand that would be part of a longer, complicated process that may not happen right away. But there are a lot of concerns President-elect Trump, once in office, would take the step. As you know, Wolf, it would take a really long time to make such a move and it would play into the dynamics in the region.
BLITZER: People have suggested it wouldn't necessarily take a long time. There is a U.S. consulate in west Jerusalem, as you well know, and it would only mean putting a sign on there. Instead of a "consulate of the United States," putting a sign saying "embassy of the United States" on that building, and that would be the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. It wouldn't necessarily take a long time to change the sign.
LABOTT: You've been there many times. The U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv is huge. It's a fortress. It has hundreds if not thousands of people coming in and working in and out there. Yes, you could technically do that. Logistically, very difficult. And it would also signal that the U.S. is accepting Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and that would mean that the whole idea of Jerusalem as a final status issue in negotiations would be dead.
BLITZER: In 1995, Congress passed legislation, signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton, recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moving the embassy there.
LABOTT: And every president has waived that, right.
BLITZER: But there's been a waiver in there. Every six months, a president can sign a waiver delaying that implementation of that law.
LABOTT: Every president does do that.
[13:34:38] BLITZER: Republican presidents waived it, Democrat presidents waived it since 19995, for 20-plus years. We'll see if the next president, President Trump, decides to do that as well. We'll see what he says.
Thanks, Elise, for that report.
Live pictures from the White House briefing room where President Obama will give a news conference at the top of the hour. He's expected to take serious questions on Russia and about President-elect Trump. We'll have a preview, right after this.
BLITZER: These are live pictures from the White House. President Obama soon will take podium and head to the lectern. Take questions from reporters before he and his family head off to Hawaii for the holidays. He'll likely be asked about retaliatory reaction again Russians hacking into the U.S. presidential election. We'll bring you the news conference life. It's scheduled to last at last one hour. That's coming up in the next hour.
For a second day in a row, meantime, protests erupted at the general assembly in North Carolina.
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UNIDENTIFIED NORTH CAROLINA LEGISLATOR: The guests in the gallery are reminded that the House is in session right now and the people elected us to be here. You are interfering with the duties of this House.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Many upset about what's claimed as an unprecedented power grab. North Carolina State Republicans held a surprise session this week to introduce legislation to limit the power of the governor- elect. Roy Cooper is a Democrat. He narrowly won the governor seat and Republicans are trying to strip away some of his authority and influence.
Let's go to CNN's correspondent, Polo Sandoval, to explain.
Polo, can state Republicans really do this to this incoming Democratic governor?
POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good question, Wolf. We have a Republican-led effort that's being put together by Republicans under a still Republican governor. Yes, highly likely here.
As you mentioned, it started this week in a special session called among lawmakers there in North Carolina, as Republican legislators introduced a long lineup of bills, essentially limiting the powers of incoming Governor Roy Cooper.
[13:40:05] One of the ones being highly discussed right now and highly debated is the requirement for any of the incoming governors' cabinet positions to be approved by state Senators. This would also cut the number of appointments by the governor from 1,500 down to 300, a significant decrease. It's causing plenty of criticism, as you mentioned there, and plenty of chaos taking place in the gallery. Officials even forced to escort some of those members of the public and even make several arrests there's in Raleigh while the bills were debated and discussed.
At this point, again, Republicans control both chambers, we have no reason to doubt these bills will be signed into law before the end of the week. Now the question becomes, what will Pat McCrory do, the outgoing
governor, with what is left of his administration? Will he sign them? If he does, Wolf, that will cause a turbulent transition period between Pat McCrory, who is on his way out, and incoming Democratic and newly elected governor, Roy Cooper.
That context you mentioned at the top is very important. It's all coming after a highly contested, a very bitter governor's race in North Carolina -- Wolf?
BLITZER: Polo, we'll watch it together with you. Thank you very much.
And we're watching for President Obama to take to the podium any moment, near the top of the next hour. We'll have his last press conference of this year, maybe his last press conference, period. We'll go there live when we come back.
[13:45:18] BLITZER: Welcome back. Looking at the live pictures from the White House now where President Obama will soon take the podium and head to the lectern, taking questions from reporters before he and his family head off for more than two weeks in Hawaii for the holidays. The news conference coming up soon. Full live coverage at the top of the next hour.
President Obama told NPR, National Public Radio, that the U.S. intends to, quote, "take action against Russia for hacking political operatives and trying to influence the U.S. presidential election." But he doesn't seem to know if his successor, President-elect Donald Trump, plans to follow through with his threats. Watch this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I can't look into my crystal ball, and that's probably a question better directed to the president-elect.
I can say that I have had a conversation with the president-elect about our foreign policy, generally, and the importance of us making sure that in how we approach intelligence gathering, and we think about fighting terrorism, and keeping the country secure.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Let's bring in our panel to discuss, Matea Gold, a national political reporter for "The Washington Post"; CNN Politics executive editor, Mark Preston; and Molly Ball, political writer for "The Atlantic."
Molly, how serious is the threat from the president to retaliate against Russia for the hacking if he doesn't know that the incoming president, and that president is going to take office on January 20th a month away or so is going to follow through? MOLLY BALL, POLITICAL WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: President Obama is still
the president. Still the president for a month, and there's a lot that can be done in that time. One thing that seems clear. A lot of Democrats especially feel that the White House has been too slow to react to this Russian cyber attacking throughout the process, and so there's some question about, is there the urgency there? Will it be too little too late? And then the question bother the next administration followings through. What you heard the president saying there, which is I think is correct, Donald Trump is unpredictable and dismissive of this threat, we have no idea how and whether he would respond to it.
BLITZER: As you know, Mark, on October 7th, a month before the election, director of National Intelligence, secretary of Homeland Security issue add statement saying, "The Russians did this and were confident the Russian government directed the recent compromise of e- mail. We believe based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, only Russia's senior-most officials could have authorized these actions."
But I didn't see any retaliatory action following the release of that statement?
MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECTUVIE EDITOR: That we know of. The fact of the matter, this goes on all the time, and the facts the Russians got in, we're told by intelligence sources Russia has tried to tweak our system and gotten involved and got those e-mails. We're doing the same to Russia. Could be going on now. It's key of what President Obama said, not tell you when and where, but it going to happen. So, to the extent, we'll see what it is. But there are very volatile issues now on the table. Number one being Aleppo and Syria.
BLITZER: And the U.S. needs Russia's assistance in those areas. One of the reasons why some thought the U.S. was sort of cool in its initial response before the election.
How forceful do you think the president will be in his news conference?
MATEA GOLD, NATIONAL POLKITICAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: He seems to be wanting to send the message he's taking this issue incredibly seriously. One issue Molly mentioned, Democrats feel incredibly alarmed there wasn't a louder outcry about this before the election, but I think there is a bottom line in which he wants to make it clear to the Russians where America stands on this and it seems evident that president-elect the response is causing a lot of concerns within the intelligence community that he will not have the same sort of approach towards what this administration has had and he will not take seriously the threats reported so far.
BLITZER: This is probably going to be his last major full-scale news conference as president of the United States. Certainly, his last one this year. We'll see if he does one more before January 20th.
But I want to take a step back and look at his legacy over the past years. I'll play some clips reminding us of some of the issues he's faced. Listen to this.
OBAMA: Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.
Guantanamo will be closed no later than one year from now.
JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This is a being (EXPLETIVE DELETED).
OBAMA: Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well. For, as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children's innocence has been torn away from them too early.
I know well that we are weary of war. We've ended one war in Iraq, we're ending another in Afghanistan, and the American people have the good sense to know we cannot resolve the underlying conflict in Syria with our military.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[13:50:26] BLITZER: Mark, what do you think will be the legacy of this two-term president?
PRESTON: It's going to be Obamacare and we'll see if it survives the Donald Trump presidency. But you have to step back and look at the totality of his eight years in office. He came in at a time when we were in economic freefall. At one point, we had an unemployment rate at 10 percent. People forget those times.
So, look, he had a very difficult presidency in some ways but he's gone out on a high note and the American people apparently think so, too. His approval rating is comfortably over 50 percent.
BLITZER: Matea, you thought this moment -- and I'm going to play the clip -- was very, very telling going back to 2015. Dylann Roof, who was convicted yesterday for killing nine African-Americans at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina. Let me play the clip of the president.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: That was a powerful moment, indeed. All of us remember it.
Tell us why it stood out so much for you.
GOLD: I think that moment encapsulates the role that Obama had thrust upon him in this administration, one he did not ask for, but I think even his critics would say he rose to the occasion, which is of mourner in chief. And he had to provide over and over again with eulogies for victims of violence in this country.
And that Charleston eulogy spoke to how he attempted to comfort the nation, which I think really speaks to his larger view point of his role in the presidency, which putting in the context of history and religious traditions, trying to have some perspective and retain optimism in these very difficult times. That was something he did well.
BLITZER: A very powerful moment, indeed.
Molly, I want to play a clip because you reminded us of this. This is a speech he gave in Kansas, December, 2011. Let me play the clip and we'll discuss.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
OBAMA: This is a make-or-break moment for the middle class and for all those fighting to get into the middle class. Because what's at stake is whether this will be a country where working people can earn enough to raise a family, build a modest savings, own a home, secure their retirement.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Tell me why that moment, that message, stood out in your mind.
BALL: So much of the thinking and talking I've been doing since the election has been about those working-class voters in the Rustbelt who swung this election for Donald Trump. How did the Democrats lose them? How did Trump win them over? A lot of them voted for Obama in 2012.
This was his big turn to economic populism, right? An attempt to grasp the mantle of the party of the little guy. He went to the place where Teddy Roosevelt had announced the Square Deal.
And what I think we saw in this election was that that attempt to turn the Democrats into the party of the little guy didn't work or didn't convince a lot of people. And there were enough people out there who certainly didn't believe that Hillary Clinton was the candidate who represented that message and may have turned their backs on Obama as well, and that is what really has decided our politics going forward.
BLITZER: And the next president of the United States is not going to be Hillary Clinton. It's going to be Donald Trump, obviously.
The relationship over this past, what, five weeks since Trump won the election, between the president and the incoming president, it's been pretty good, but there was a shaky turn yesterday.
PRESTON: It's been hot and it suddenly got very, very cold. Having Josh Earnest, who is the press secretary, go to the podium and have very harsh words for Donald Trump I think sets it up for what we're going to see in the next hour. And I believe we're going to hear from Barack Obama some very -- a very sobering assessment about the situation that our nation, that countries around the world are facing right now, and that I think he'll have some advice in a very stern way for Donald Trump. But it will be interesting to see how he delivers it.
BLITZER: The president, usually, as you know, Matea, has a full-scale news conference at the end of the year before going on the holiday, vacation with his family. But this one seems a little bit more significant, given the stakes. What's going on right now.
[13:55:03] GOLD: Well, everything is at stake for him. It's his legacy, how much he can persuade the incoming president to embrace portions of it, while also having to feel like he needs to send a message to them about what he thinks the risks are. And we have to remember this is going to be a really unique dynamic. President Obama is going to come back to Washington and still be working here and be a presence. And I'm sure he's hoping will be an influence on the new president,29 but what that dynamic is going to be remains to be seen.
BLITZER: It will be fascinating.
What will you be listening for at this news conference?
BALL: I'm listening for this change in tone we're talking about. In all of his interactions with Donald Trump or in speaking about Donald Trump so far, President Obama has really made his emphasis on ensuring the legitimacy and the smoothness of the transition, really on supporting America by supporting Donald Trump. And with so many, especially Democrats out there, being so anguished about the results of the election, Obama has been very forceful in ensuring people have confidence in it. Does that change with this new tone?
BLITZER: Molly Ball, thank you.
Mark Preston, Matea Gold, guys, thanks very much.
Our special coverage continues of President Obama's year-end news conference. Once again, he's expected to take the podium, head over to the lectern soon, take questions from reporters before he heads to Hawaii for the holidays.
I'll be joined by Jake Tapper when our special coverage continues right after this quick break.
[14:00:07] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer, in Washington. I want to welcome --