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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Electoral College Meets; Terror in Germany; McCain: Russian Meddling A Threat To Democracy; Trump Nominates Billionaire Vet For Army Secretary; Evacuations Resume In Eastern Aleppo After Standoff; Syrian Regime On Brink Of Seizing Whole City Of Aleppo. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 19, 2016 - 16:30   ET

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


[16:31:53]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

We're following several breaking stories today, including -- you're looking right now at images from Berlin. A truck plowed through a Christmas market in West Berlin that's now being investigated as terrorism. We know now that at least nine people have been killed, dozens more, perhaps as many as 50, injured.

And what the Russian government is calling an act of terrorism, another incident, a gunman assassinating Russia's ambassador to Turkey, that also took place earlier today. The assassin, after killing the ambassador from Russia to Turkey, said, don't forget Syria, don't forget Aleppo.

I want to talk about this all with former CIA Director James Woolsey. He also advised president-elect Trump during the campaign.

Thanks so much for joining me. I appreciate it.

JAMES WOOLSEY, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: Good to be with you.

TAPPER: Let's start with Berlin. We know it's being investigated as an act of terrorism. We know the State Department issued a warning telling American citizens what out during the holiday season. If you go to Europe, avoid outdoor markets and holiday-themed events. They said they had credible information.

It certainly looks like an act of terrorism.

WOOLSEY: It does.

It looks very much like Nice a year or so ago, and ISIS telling its own forces that this was a good way to approach to killing us.

TAPPER: Yes. On a practical level, what can be done about this sort of thing? It's just intelligence, I suppose.

WOOLSEY: It's really hard. There's no weapons. There's nothing you have to smuggle. There's no special skill involved. It's a tough situation. President-elect Trump, together with most of

the European leaders, are entering a situation of real tension and difficulty, I think, coming up here.

We don't know, for example, what's going to happen to the Turkey- Russian relationship. It could conceivably be hostile. Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft a year or so ago, and this has happened.

On the other hand, Putin may be friendly and decide to try to charm Turkey, and they have got a summit coming up that we're not a part of very soon. And he, I think, would like nothing better than to damage NATO as much as possible, and Turkey is a key member of NATO.

So I don't know what's coming, but it's not going to be straightforward or easy, and president-elect Trump is entering a very, very difficult situation. It would be tough for President Obama, in a way tougher for him, because he has a history of caving in on not sticking to the red line.

TAPPER: President Obama, you're talking about.

WOOLSEY: Right, President Obama not sticking to the red line that he drew in the sand for Syria not to cross and so forth.

So he has a lot of weight, I think, to try to deal with. But for a brand-new president, it's going to be a sporty course.

TAPPER: And the situation in Syria is so murky, with the Russians allied with Assad, and Assad against the world in many ways. That includes Western powers. It includes moderate Arab nations.

[16:35:00]

It also includes al-Nusra, ISIS and al Qaeda not in partnership with the West, but also equally against Assad, and now the Russians are claiming that this person who assassinated their ambassador is a terrorist and may even be affiliated with ISIS.

WOOLSEY: And Syria is an Iranian poodle.

They do what they're told, I mean, by Iran, which has the money and the resources and the power and is growing because of this, I think, very bad agreement that we signed with Iran.

Iran is getting closer and closer to having a nuclear capability, and before many years, hopefully years, not months, are up. So there is a great deal of tension in this part of the world. Africa is pressing against Southern Europe and the Near East. The Near East and Southern Europe are in a real state of uncertainty as to where things are going to go.

And Europe with its refugee crisis and the way it was treated by Merkel and others that made it more difficult is even indirectly having some sort of effect on us here in the United States, on the degree and number of refugees that we see and the like. TAPPER: You advised president-elect Donald Trump during the campaign

and you mentioned that these are now his problems he's about to inherit as the pending president of the United States.

WOOLSEY: He's got a month.

TAPPER: And I guess one of the questions I have is, he's made it very clear that he sees an opportunity for a partnership, a friendship with Russia. Where do you come down on that? I know a lot of intelligence officials are very skeptical of Putin.

WOOLSEY: Well, I'm pretty skeptical of Russia long term, because I think its history has been one of aggrandizing itself through taking neighbors and the neighbor's neighbors.

Abraham Lincoln used to say about the old farmer who lived next to him when he was growing up, the fellow used to say, I don't need much land, just what adjoins mine.

And that's kind of been Russia's history. But there are times when you can get along with them well and work together. I was lucky enough to negotiate a treaty in '89 with them, and they were delightful to work with. They were great for nearly a decade. And then with Putin coming in, things have turned, I think, somewhat more sour.

Now, president-elect Trump may have some way of dealing with Russia that emphasizes the easy parts and not the hard parts. We will see. I certainly wish him well and hope that that can be worked out.

TAPPER: It seems to me, and perhaps I'm doing a disservice to president-elect Trump's view of the world, but it seems he views the number one threat to the United States as being terrorism, ISIS, al Qaeda, and a partnership with Putin to fight terrorism would be wise.

But I have also heard, for instance, that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs say that Russia is actually our number one geopolitical foe.

WOOLSEY: I think I would vote for Iran, because they are the leading terrorist state in the world.

They're in the process of becoming a nuclear power. If they do, so will Saudi Arabia and others, so we will have the next crisis in the Mideast two, three, four, five years from now be one where there are three or four nuclear powers instead of none or one.

And that's extremely troubling. I think that things could go haywire in any one set of directions, but to me that's the most troubling one.

TAPPER: Could Putin help with that problem?

WOOLSEY: He could if he wanted to.

What he wants, I think, is to expand his reach into the Middle East, but he may be able to be worked with. I think the odds are a bit less than 50-50, but they're not zero. TAPPER: All right, Former CIA Director James Woolsey, it's always a

pleasure to see you, sir. Thanks for being here.

WOOLSEY: Good to be with you.

TAPPER: Really appreciate it.

We're going to continue to monitor both Berlin and Ankara and bring you new information there.

Right now, Electoral College voting is happening across the United States. The results are pushing Donald Trump even closer to officially, officially becoming the president-elect. But some of today's voting has not been exactly smooth sailing -- that story next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:42:30]

TAPPER: That was the scene in Madison, Wisconsin, the capital of the Badger State.

"You sold out America," protesters hurlers accusations in Wisconsin as that state and every other state across the United States are going about the business of making Donald Trump's election as president of the United States official.

Sara Murray is in Palm Beach, Florida, at president-elect Trump's Mar- a-Lago estate.

Sara, has president-elect Trump commented at all on these various outbursts?

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He has not weighed in on it today, although he did have some sentiments on Twitter over the weekend.

I think one thing is clear, though, Jake. When you see these outbursts, you get a sense of division that still remains in the country as Donald Trump prepares to take the White House.

But it does appear that he will cross over that 270 mark with no problems, this sort of last hurdle mostly a ceremonial one.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): With a dash of last-minute drama.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The votes are 10 votes Donald J. Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You sold out our country!

MURRAY: The Electoral College is making it official today, which will seal Donald Trump's victory as he prepares to head to the White House.

Trump critics making a final stand. Protesters aired their grievances at state capitals. A few electors attempted to vote for candidates beside Trump. And former President Bill Clinton, an elector in New York, lamented the -- quote -- "bogus e-mail deal" and the hurdles Hillary Clinton couldn't overcome in her bid for the presidency.

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: She fought through that. She fought through everything. And she prevailed against it all, but in the end, we had the Russians and the FBI deal. She couldn't prevail against that. She did everything else, and still won by 2.8 million votes.

MURRAY: Trump appearing to take the final snubs personally, tweeting Sunday: "If my many supporters acted and threatened people like those who lost the election are doing, they would be scorned and called terrible names."

With Trump's win official, on Russia, some are hoping the president- elect will adopt a tougher tone, Republicans, like Senator John McCain, expressing alarm to Jake Tapper on "STATE OF THE UNION" about Russia's attempts to meddle in the U.S. election.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: This is serious business.

If they are able to harm the electoral process, then they destroy democracy, which is based on free and fair elections.

MURRAY: Trump's top aides continue shrugging aside U.S. intelligence agencies' assessment that Russia interfered, insisting they need more proof.

[16:45:03 REINCE PRIEBUS, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: I think he would accept the conclusion if these intelligence professionals would get together, put out a report, show the American people that they're actually on the same page.

MURRAY: Trump stop approach with Russia,

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE USA: I would treat Vladimir Putin firmly, but there's nothing I can think of that I'd rather do than have Russia friendly,

MURRAY: A sharp split with their dealings with other countries that rifts on full display this weekend. And Trump admonished China for ceasing a US underwater drone. Trump tweeting, "China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters - rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act." Meanwhile, Trump is pouring over candidates for administration flocks in a series of meetings at his Mar-a-Lago Estate, filling out at least one post today. Announcing billionaire businessman and former U.S. Army Infantry Officer Vincent Viola as his pick for Army Secretary.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Yeah, Donald Trump has largely been cloistered away his Mar-a lago estate doing meetings this afternoon, although we did just catch sight of him out on the terrace here at Mar-a-lago. He is expected to continue these meetings, interviewing his potential candidates through the evening. Jake.

TAPPER: Sarah, it's a -- it's kind of shocking that we have not heard anything from President-elect Trump on Twitter about the apparent terrorist attack in Berlin and about the assassination of the Russian Ambassador in Turkey. Both of which are being investigated as acts of terrorism. This seems like the kind of thing during the campaign that he would immediately tweet about.

MURRAY: Well, we've not heard from him yet, but I'll also as I've just pointed out, Jake, he has been in back-to-back meetings. Reports here has been keeping us posted about the various candidates he's been meeting with. He just emerged in a break between these months, so if he's getting news of that, that's probably happening right now is my guess, and obviously we'll be standing by to see if he is briefed on these events. And we'll let you know if he is, and if he decides to make any comments, as you can see we're right here at Mar-a Lago and so obviously he has the opportunity to do that via Twitter or to the reporters who are on his property. Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Sarah Murray, stick around and join us here with The Washington Post Columnist Josh Rogin. Josh, I mean one thing that's interesting about whether it's the terrorist attack in Berlin or the attack in Turkey, it's a lot easier when you're not President to say these acts of terrorism are going to stop once I'd become President. But then once you actually become President, it's really not that simple.

JOSH ROGIN, WASHINGTON POST COLUMNIST: Well, that's right, and the reason that this is such an open question is because we know so little about what the Trump Administration will do on all these issues. We've heard that Donald Trump is going to make a deal with Russia on Syria. He said he's talked to Vladimir Putin about it. Before that, he's going to be tough on ISIS. We have heard lots of incremental tidbits about what the policy might be. But until he got his team in place, until we figure out what his overall strategy is going to be, it's impossible to predict what the Trump Administration is actually going to do.

TAPPER: And one of the things we've heard out of Turkey and out of Russia today having to do with this assassination, this terrorist attack and the view of Russia against the Russian Ambassador, Turkey is you have people allied with Erdogan, the Leader of Turkey, saying that this all has to do with this cleric in Pennsylvania who the United States has refused to turn over, who was accused of being part of the attempted coup. And then the Russians saying that this individual is all part of the terrorists that they are fighting in Syria, using this attack to -- for their own political purposes.

ROGIN: Right. I think this follows from your last question. We're in a vacuum right now where we have one President on his way out and one President-elect who is not quite in. So, countries around the world are acting accordingly and they're pursuing their own interests and their own objectives. So, for the Turks, this will be an opportunity if they want to, to crack down further on their opposition, on civil society, that's what they've been doing over the last year. They're pointing to Gulin, who is the leader of a movement that's an opposition to the Turkish Government. There is no evidence yet that he was involved. We'll have to wait and see. For the Russians, it's a very simple calculation. They see all terrorist as the same. They want to increase their activity in Syria against Syrian opposition groups. And this is the perfect justification for that. The irony of the whole situation is that this attacker, this assassin, apparently wanted to drive a wedge between Turkey and Russia who are meeting tomorrow in Moscow with the Iranians to decide what to do in Syria, and in effect it might actually bring them together, and give them incentive actually to get closer not farther apart.

TAPPER: And Sarah, let me ask you about something having more to do with politics. John Podesta, the Clinton Campaign Chair, was on "Meet the Press" yesterday, and he was asked if this was a free and fair election. Take a listen to what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOHN PODESTA, CLINTON CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN: I think it was distorted by the Russian intervention, let's put it that way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

[16:49:58] TAPPER: No answer, specifically saying that this was a free and fair election. In fact, an answer suggesting that he does not think it was. I'm sure that the Trump forces are saying that if the shoe were on the other foot and if Hillary Clinton had won and it was Kellyanne Conway refusing to say it was a free and fair election, there would be hell to pay.

MURRAY: Oh, that's absolutely true. And you know we saw Bill Clinton making for the similar remarks that Hillary Clinton could overcome everything except for the FBI and Russian meddling today. And I do think going into this election, Hilary Clinton and her allies made a big deal of the notion that Donald Trump said he would necessarily accept the election results. I think the difference here is that Hillary Clinton and her allies are not saying they don't accept the election results, but they are saying that there was Russian meddling. I think one of the worrisome things from Trump's end is that he hasn't indicated that he's concerned about Russia's influence on the election or their continuing influence, Jake. Our colleagues here at CNN have been reporting that the cyber hacking attempts by Russia against U.S. political institutions are continuing, even with the election over with. So, there are certainly issues here, concerns here, that are going to be a problem for Donald Trump when he takes the White House. So far, we have not heard him speak skeptically or critically of Russia really at all. Maybe that will change when he gets over those 270 electors. And he did not see any more hurdles in the path between him and the White House. But that's a big maybe, Jake.

TAPPER: Sara Murray, Josh Rogan, thanks to both of you, appreciate it. We're going to go back to the Breaking News in Turkey where that Russian Ambassador was killed. The gunman shouting, "Don't forget Aleppo." Next, we're going to go to Aleppo, to where evacuees are escaping horrors of war. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [16:55:00] TAPPER: We're back with more in our "WORLD LEAD". Shortly after gunning down the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, his killer was heard shouting, quote, "Do not forget Aleppo. Do not forget Syria.", which of course suggests that the role Russia is playing in supporting the Assad government in bombing rebel-held territory, including innocent civilians in places such as Aleppo played something of a role. Meanwhile, the suffering in Aleppo continues. Evacuations have resumed in Eastern Aleppo after days long standoff, but thousands are still trapped in the rebel-held areas. Five buses that were supposed to carry wounded to safety were set on fire over the weekend. There is, however, some good news to report. You might remember the heart- wrenching message from an Aleppo orphanage. Now, we're told that all 47 children (INAUDIBLE) have been evacuated to safety. Also we're told that Bana Alabed, the seven-year old who has been tweeting about Aleppo was evacuated from her town. The Turkish government announced that Bana and her family can start a new life in Turkey. They're the few lucky ones as those who fled Aleppo are facing the new kind of tragedy and uncertainty right now. Joining me now via Skype is Nabih Bulos, he's a Special Correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, he's been writing great stuff from Aleppo itself. And Nabih, thanks so much for joining us. What can you tell us about the evacuations right now?

NABIH BULOS, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES: Well, the fact that they're still going on, and that's a good thing. That in and of itself is an achievement. Because we have to realize that actually -- I mean, that wasn't the case for the last four days now. I mean, every time they tried to do this, it just sputtered and collapsed into a total breakdown and again with fire, and et cetera. Today was so far anyway, the first day of where it's gone without a hitch. And again, so far.

TAPPER: And you were there when residents returned to their homes in Aleppo, one man telling you he wants to commit suicide after losing everything. Tell us about that.

BULOS: Well, this was a person who hadn't been able to come back to his store in the old city of Aleppo the last five years. You have to remember this area had been an active warzone for all this time. And many of the shops there, these sort of old (INAUDIBLE) or market places in the area there had been totally destroyed by the conflict. And so this man went back and he'd tried to see what had happened to his place, and it was on the ground, it was levelled. And as you can imagine for someone like that, and we're talking about someone who had spent 35 years abroad, getting enough money to buy the merchandise and to invest in his store, and now that was gone. So, for such a person, he was quite old, it's just -- I mean there is no going back.

TAPPER: Obviously, it's so tough to predict anything in Aleppo, in Syria. Are the people there convinced that the fighting in Aleppo is really finally over?

BULOS: Well, to be honest with you, I'm not sure anyone is convinced that the fighting is over. But there certainly is a sense of a (INAUDIBLE), if you will, a certain kind of end at least at this point right. I mean, one has to remember that you still have a lot of territory outside of Aleppo that is still held by the opposition. I mean, if you consider the fact that the last point of government control is an area called Rashidin four, and that is literally, I think, four miles to the west of Aleppo, and that should give you an indication of how close the rebels are. So, no, I don't think it's the end by any measure. It might be the end for the -- I mean, rebels inside Aleppo itself, but there is still a long way to go until the government can reclaim the entire area as secure.

TAPPER: When this war finally does end, what do you think the future holds for the people of Aleppo?

BULOS: That's a hard question. I mean, the fact of the matter is, yes, I mean the old city and many areas of this once beautiful, gorgeous metropolis have been destroyed, but that can be rebuilt at some level. The problem I think, I mean, the far greater issue, and I know this sounds cheesy perhaps, is the society here. I mean, we're talking about communities that have been -- I mean just divided in two for the last five years now. And Aleppo, I mean - I mean, elsewhere it's been six years, but in Aleppo it's been five years. How can they go back to each other? I mean, we're talking about so much blood, so much anger, so much resentment. I mean, how can they go back? It's a question I, you know, I wonder about myself every day. I mean, just today I saw a family that had been divided over the last five years. Two brothers went with the opposition, one brother stayed here. I mean, what do you do about that? What happens? It's -- I think there will be a lot more work to be done on the people themselves.

TAPPER: Nabih Bulos, thank you so much for talking to us. Thank you for your great reporting. Please stay safe.

BULOS: Thank you. I appreciate it.

TAPPER: Be sure to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @JAKETAPPER. You can tweet the show @THELEADCNN, we actually read them. That's it for THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. I turn you now over to Brianna Keilar. She is subbing for Wolf Blitzer and she is right next door, in a place we like to call "The Situation Room". Thanks for watching.