Return to Transcripts main page


Electoral College Meets; Russian Ambassador to Turkey Assassinated; Terror in Germany; Russia Hacking Investigation Battle Heats Up; Obama Grants Clemency to 231 People; Trump's Pick for Israel Signals Sharp Policy Shift. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 19, 2016 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:00] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: deadly truck attack. A driver plows into a Christmas market in Berlin, leaving a trail of bodies. We're told it's being investigated as terrorism. Could ISIS be to blame?

In cold blood, a Russian diplomat gunned down on foreign soil, the shooting caught on video. And, tonight, Moscow is calling it an act of terror, and Vladimir Putin is promising to hit back.

Done deal. The Electoral College seals Donald Trump's victory, his opponents venting their anger, but failing to derail his presidency. Will there be any change in Trump's transition now that he's officially heading to the White House?

And China standoff. A U.S. underwater drone is seized by China's navy and president-elect Trump adds to the tensions by accusing Beijing of stealing. Are the superpowers on a collision course tonight?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Brianna Keilar, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KEILAR: We're following multiple breaking stories, including two suspected acts of terrorism.

In Germany tonight, at least nine people are dead, 50 injured after a truck rammed into a Christmas market in a major public square in Berlin. A suspect is in custody. He's believed to be the driver. And tonight, the White House says the incident appears to be a terrorist attack. We're standing by for new details.

Also this hour, president-elect Donald Trump says Russia's ambassador to Turkey was assassinated by a "radical Islamic terrorist." Neither the White House nor Turkish officials going that far. The gunman captured on the video shouting "God is greatest" after he opened fire on Moscow's convoy to Turkey. Authorities say he was a Turkish police officer.

And Russian President Vladimir Putin is vowing to step up the fight against terror, saying criminals will feel the heat. Also, the Electoral College just made it official, giving president-

elect Donald Trump more than the 270 electoral votes that he needed to be confirmed for his White House victory. Texas putting him over the top. These results will be certified on January 6 during a joint session of Congress that will clear the way for his inauguration later in the month.

Our correspondents, analysts and guests are all standing by with full coverage of the news breaking right now.

And first to CNN senior international correspondent Frederik Pleitgen. He is in Berlin.

Fred, you have more on this truck crash. What is the latest there?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, absolutely, Brianna. We remain here on the scene of that truck crash.

Once again, I want to show you the crash site right behind me. You can see the area where the truck actually plowed through that Christmas market. I can still see some of the fencing from that Christmas market. We can see some of the debris from some of the stalls that were hit, some sort of Christmas tree that it apparently hit as well, and then, of course, it also hit a lot of people who were on that Christmas market.

As you said, there's at least 50 confirmed injured, at least nine people confirmed dead, and we're finding some out more details as well. We know that there's one man who is in custody. The police at this point is not saying whether they're yet sure that this man is connected to all this, whether or not he may have been the driver.

There was also another person found dead on the passenger seat. So unclear what that person has to do with all this, whether or not this truck may have been hijacked. We also now have found out just a couple of minutes ago, Brianna, that the truck was also fully loaded. It has metal beams loaded in that area.

It is of course a very big tractor trailer, so this truck was not only going very fast. It was also very heavy with that load. And from what eyewitnesses are telling us, they say that it was doing about 40 miles an hour when it plowed into this Christmas market, a very, very crowded area, also one with some very, very narrow ways there, so people wouldn't have had much chance to escape.

Crowds were there. We heard that some people were actually trapped under the truck as it was going forward, so absolutely a tragic scene here in Berlin. And I can tell you that many, many people here in the city obviously very shaken by what happened here tonight.

KEILAR: It's horrific, the scene that you're painting there. Fred Pleitgen in Berlin, thank you for that report.

And I want to talk more about this suspected terror attack.

We're joined by counterterrorism analyst Philip Mudd and CNN senior international correspondent Clarissa Ward.

OK, so, Phil, this is being investigated as an act of terrorism, and we have seen al Qaeda, we have seen ISIS calling on people to use a truck or use whatever they have. We saw something similar in a way at Ohio State University recently. Is that what we could be seeing here?

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think we could be seeing this for a simple reason.


If you have looked at we have faced over the past 15 years, early on, if you look at an airliner or even an airport, the access to that facility is difficult. It requires planning. It might require some inside assistance.

If you look at what we saw in Nice, that truck attack some months ago, if you look at Ohio State, if you look at this, ISIS has talked about this in their magazine, because it's not only easy to do, you don't require any training, you don't require much access to anything but a large geographic space.

It's a long way from where we were years ago, because a lot of these people don't have training that the original al Qaeda hijackers had.

KEILAR: And, also, Clarissa, I know that folks must be looking at the target here, a Christmas market, and trying to connect the dots with that.


I don't think it's difficult to see the symbolism of hitting a Christmas market, of course, the association with Christianity, but also with trying to hit a soft target, a tourism target, a place that would be full of people engaging in revelry.

For many reasons, this seems like a very obvious place for some kind of a terrorist attack or for some kind of an attacker to try to hit. And just to piggyback off of what Phil was saying, if you look at one of the main manifestoes that jihadis pore over, it's called "The Management of Savagery."

And it talks in detail about these types of attacks, essentially hideously violent, over-the-top attacks in Western countries. The goals of those attacks are not just to inflict damage and to frighten people, but also to drive a wedge between Muslim people living in those lands and non-Muslim people living in those lands, and to try to -- essentially try to get Western superpowers to then respond with military incursions in Muslim lands.

And the idea being that once they respond militarily, these terrorists or insurgents can then try to bleed them out really slowly, drawing them into protracted, messy, long conflicts. That may sound very, very detailed, but this is a core ideology that is favored not just by ISIS, but by al Qaeda as well, Brianna.

KEILAR: It's so important that you point that out.

And I wonder -- I want to bring in now Paul Cruickshank. He's a CNN terrorism analyst.

Paul, you see what's happened there. We still don't know definitively that this is terrorism, but it's being investigated as an act of terrorism. So you see something like Nice last year. You see Ohio State recently where someone drove a car and certainly caused injuries in that way to a lesser degree. What is there to be done? What is there to counter actions like this?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: Well, unfortunately, it's very, very difficult, because as ISIS well knows, something like a Christmas market, something like a pedestrianized area is a very, very soft target, very easy to attack.

You can't protect all of these areas all over Europe, all over the United States. That is just impossible. So they will continue to be able to launch these kind of attacks just as long as they can persuade either followers in the West or their own operatives to launch these kind of attacks.

Obviously, we don't know whether this was any kind of act of Islamist terrorism,but certainly many of the scenes we're seeing tonight in Berlin very similar to that terrible attack in Nice, 86 people being killed in that attack. And since then, ISIS has really flooded the zone, calling on their followers in the West to launch these kind of vehicle attacks, not with cars, but with as big a truck as their followers can manage to get.

It's a very effective and efficient form of terrorism, and it can lead to mass casualty events as we saw play out in Nice, which was carried out by an ISIS-inspired attacker.

KEILAR: Phil, as we're expecting celebrations here upcoming in the U.S., what are concerns with security here?

MUDD: We have already seen those crop up.

You may remember, a few weeks ago, around Thanksgiving, the New York Police Department had to deploy trucks along the Thanksgiving Day Parade because they were worried about a follow-up to Nice. We have a luxury in the United States.

The density of threat we have in the U.S. compared to Europe is lower. But I'm with Paul. I don't know how, if you're looking, for example, at a mile-long parade route and trying to you're prevent access by a truck, how you can secure that kind of facility, that kind of event, unless you shut it down to only pedestrians. This stuff, in contrast to something like an airline attack, is very difficult to stop.

KEILAR: Paul, as investigators are now looking into the background of the driver, what are they trying to figure out? What are they mining for information?

CRUICKSHANK: Well, they're trying to figure out who carried this out, whether this was an attack by two people or whether perhaps this was an attack just by one person, whether this was a possible hijacking scenario.


This was a truck with Polish number plates, a Polish trucking company. Was perhaps the driver hijacked on his way to Germany by some terrorist who then used the truck in this attack? Do they have somebody in custody at the moment who is linked to the attack or was that person perhaps not linked?

We don't have all the answers yet at this hour. They will be furiously working to prevent, as Phil could tell us, another attack. That will be their biggest concern, that in the hours ahead there will be more attacks in German, more attacks in Europe by a group of people potentially linked to these attackers.

They will trying to scrub their social media, their Internet to see if they have got connections back to ISIS or another terrorist group. We have seen in recent months ISIS instigate a number of terrorist attacks inside Europe. People in the ISIS terror group reaching out directly over encrypted apps to sympathizers in Europe and really grooming them every step of the way to launch attacks.

We will be looking as well whether there was any message left by the perpetrator or perpetrators. ISIS have been telling their followers, you have got to claim it for us. Leave a note or something in your cell phone so people will link this to us.

KEILAR: Clarissa, other European countries, Paul mentioned them there, they must be very concerned at this point.

WARD: Listen, European countries, Brianna, have been on edge for some time now.

There was a period over the summer where it seemed like the attacks were just going on and on. And I think it's important to note that what makes it so difficult for European authorities is that it is not just people who would be expected to be involved with extremist Islamist behavior or attacks who are perpetrating these attacks.

Often, these attackers don't fit the typical profile of a jihadist at all. Paul mentioned Nice. Well, we know that the nice attacker by all accounts never set foot in a mosque, enjoyed a hot dog and drank a lot of alcohol and was having affairs with women.

So often these disturbed individuals do not fit the profile of what one would expect an ISIS operative to look like. And that makes it that much more difficult for authorities to find them before they can launch hideous attacks like the one we have seen tonight, Brianna.

KEILAR: Certainly does. Very good point.

Clarissa ward, Paul Cruickshank, and Phil Mudd with us, appreciate your insight. And ahead, we will talk about Russia's ambassador to Turkey

assassinated by a Turkish police officer, all of it caught on camera. We will have more ahead.



KEILAR: Another breaking story that we're following tonight, Russia's ambassador to Turkey assassinated in a gruesome shooting caught on video.

Moscow is calling the attack in the Turkish capital an act of terrorism.

I want to bring in now CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Brianna, tonight, there is no claim yet that the gunman is affiliated with any particular group, but this is the kind of, as you said, gruesome violence that the new president of the United States could find himself confronting.


STARR (voice-over): The shocking assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey caught on video. Ambassador Andrey Karlov was shot dead while making a speech at an art exhibition in Turkey's capital, Ankara, the horrifying moment the ambassador is hit and falls to the ground after being shot in the back with multiple rounds. As onlookers scrambled to safety, the gunman shouted defiantly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): God is greatest. Do not forget Aleppo. Do not forget Syria. Do not forget Aleppo. Do not forget Syria. Get back. Get back. Only death will remove me from here. Everyone who has taken part in this oppression will one by one pay for it.

STARR: Turkish authorities said the attacker was -- quote -- "neutralized." Russian President Vladimir Putin tonight reacting to the assassination.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): The only response we should offer to this murderer is stepping up our fight against terror. And the criminals will feel the heat.

STARR: Turkey's interior minister said the gunman was a law enforcement officer, a 22-year-old member of the riot police who was born in Turkey.

The State Department condemned the attack.

JOHN KIRBY, U.S. ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: We stand ready to offer any assistance that may be required to Russia and Turkey as they investigate this despicable attack, which was, as the secretary noted, also an assault on the right of all diplomats to safely and securely advance and represent their nations around the world.

STARR: A journalist took these stunning photographs moments after the carnage began. After the attack, as the ambassador was quickly taken to the hospital, Turkish security forces swarmed the area.

It is not clear what impact the killing may have now on Turkey's sometimes fragile relations with Russia, which hit an all-time low after Turkish forces shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November 2015.

Russia also is widely blamed by many in the region for its part in supporting Syria's Assad regime amid a humanitarian crisis taking place in war-torn Aleppo.

Following the ambassador's assassination, Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin spoke by phone, according to a Russian news agency. Both countries, along with Iran, expected to hold a summit on Syria in Moscow on Tuesday. The slain ambassador had served as Russia's ambassador to Turkey since 2013. He was married and had one son, according to the Russian Embassy.


STARR: And for the Russians now, the question may be how much of the terror threat has now expanded to their presence in Turkey, a NATO ally, Brianna?

KEILAR: All right, Barbara Starr, thank you for that report.

Let's go back to our experts now. We're also joined by Soner Cagaptay. He's director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute.

And, Soner, this is really in your wheelhouse, when we're talking about Russia and Turkey and how they relate to each other. Tell us how this is going to affect relations, especially as these are both big players in the fight against is.

SONER CAGAPTAY, DIRECTOR, TURKISH RESEARCH PROGRAM, WASHINGTON INSTITUTE FOR NEAR EAST POLICY: Russia and Turkey had really difficult relations for about the duration of the Syrian civil war.


They support different sides. Turkey backs the rebels. Russia backs the Assad regime. They were locked in a proxy war and that kind of came to an end last year when they decided to normalize their relations. The two presidents met.

And we saw Russia and Turkey coming to a convergence on most issues relating to Syria, including the seizure of Aleppo. East Aleppo, which was controlled by Turkey-backed rebels, is about to fall into the hands of pro-Russian regime. And they had a deal, the Russians and Turks, that they could evacuate the civilians. So it looked like things were working out. The assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara will of course

derail Turkish-Russian normalization. I don't think the Russians will overreact, though. I think they got a lot what they wanted in Syria, including Aleppo, Turkish green light to the fall of Aleppo. So, they will probably play it well if the Turkish side launches a thorough investigation of the assassination.

KEILAR: When you see this Turkish riot police officer, you hear what he says, he says God is the greatest, don't forget Aleppo, don't forget Syria, do you see his motorizations as a radicalized Islamic terrorist or is this someone who is more a nationalist? It's hard to know at this point, but what is your instinct?


There could be a number of culprits in this. Turkey, unfortunately, has the distinction of being hated by all sides in the Syrian civil war. In the Syrian civil war, you have Kurds and ISIS and the Assad regime, and they fight each other, but they all fight Turkey at the same time.

So, the culprits could be any of those or outside actors too. But I think problem, as you pointed out, is you're seeing a government employee, whose job is to be apolitical, carry out a political murder.

So this points at a very different and very dangerous trajectory for Turkey. For a very long time, Turkey was known as a country of stability. It's the exception, rather than being the norm when it comes to surviving crisis.

It's an island of stability when compared to its neighbors. What kept Turkey uniquely stable was its institutions, from the military to the police. And now we're seeing the politicizing of these institutions. The failed coup plot last year was part of that.

This guy, who is a cop, off-duty officer, nevertheless carries out a political murder, is part of that. So I'm deeply worried about Turkey's future, because what I'm seeing is a trend of politicization of its institutions.

KEILAR: Clarissa, you're in Moscow. What is the reaction there to this?

WARD: Well, so far, I think the Russians are trying to keep a level head about this.

Make no bones about it, they are upset. They have called it an act of terror. They have demanded a full investigation. They have themselves sent investigators to participate in the Turkish investigation. But President Putin, when he gave a speech some hours ago, essentially said that while this would be met with the highest, you know, retaliation for those perpetrators, he also said he saw this as a provocation to derail the warming of relations between Russia and Turkey, a provocation to derail any hope of a sort of political solution to the conflict in Syria.

And what he said, to quote him, was the only response we should offer to this murder is stepping up our fight against terror.

So, certainly, as you heard from Soner, this is a major challenge to Turkish-Russian relations. But I do get the impression, reading between the lines and listening to the official Kremlin line, that Russia is keen for this to not escalate.

At the same time, Brianna, it's not just the Kremlin who is living in Russia, so to speak, and we have seen on social media some Russian lawmakers, allies of Putin, voicing real anger about this, blaming the West in some cases, saying that Western propaganda about Aleppo has essentially incited hatred against Russian officials and Russians across the world.

So, that's an interesting shift that we're seeing on behalf of a more sort of populist element of Russia, trying to kind of shift the blame here possibly onto the West, onto Western media coverage of Aleppo, which, of course, as we know, Brianna, having been there myself, is not propaganda. It is very real.

It is incredibly disturbing to watch. And it has galvanized Muslims across the world. It has anguished them. It has frustrated them. It has led them to go and fight jihad. And it's not entirely surprising, as awful as it may be, to see this kind of an act carried out in the name of anger over the situation in Aleppo, Brianna.

KEILAR: Phil, what is your read on this attack as we try to figure out exactly what the motivation is of this attacker?

MUDD: I'm already seeing mistakes, including comments by the president-elect about the motivation of this individual.

Let's look at two issues clearly, what happened in Germany today, and what's happening here. I believe, in Germany, we will find this is ISIS-inspired, individuals who want to not only oppose Western intervention, but, as Clarissa was talking about earlier, draw the West into a religious fight, because they believe the West represents nonbelievers.


That is an ISIS-inspired view. In this case, what we may see is more humanitarian-driven, someone who is watching what's happening in Aleppo and Syria overall. We have something like 450,000 people dead, and who believes the West is responsible for that humanitarian crisis.

ISIS' religion -- this may be a humanitarian attack to tell the Russians, stop bombing, you're killing too many of our people.

KEILAR: Soner, a final thought from you, as we are still waiting to get more information.

CAGAPTAY: I think that there's clearly a potential for a jihadist angle in this, because Turkish-Russian deal in Northern Syria was basically where the U.S. had stepped out and Turkey had become the voice of reason. It was trying to make sure civilians in East Aleppo would be evacuated

and that was moving forward nicely with Turkish-Russian rapprochement. Now it could break down. If it did, who would benefit from it? Not the Turks, not the Russians, but the jihadists. How so?

The jihadists' claim, al Qaeda's claim is that they're the avenger of Sunni Muslims, they defend the Sunni Muslims against persecution. If the deal broke down between Turkey and Russia, then Russian bombing of Aleppo would start.

Sick as it sounds, it would involve the killing of Sunni Muslims, but that would only help al Qaeda's recruitment efforts. They don't want peace. They would like war to continue because war actually helps them to recruit further Sunni Muslims to their cause.

KEILAR: It is sick, as you say, as you point out.

CAGAPTAY: Incredibly. Absolutely.

KEILAR: Soner Cagaptay, thank you so much.

CAGAPTAY: My pleasure.

KEILAR: Phil Mudd and Clarissa Ward with us as well, thank you.

We have much more breaking news ahead. New details of the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin that killed at least nine people.

Plus, Donald Trump's controversial tweet about China as the Electoral College officially makes him president-elect.


KEILAR: We're back now with a lot of breaking news this hour.

[18:30:25] Nine people have died after a truck plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin. The White House says it appears to be a terrorist attack. A suspect is in custody, and officials say he is likely the driver of this truck.

Also tonight, a cold-blooded assassination. Russia's ambassador to Turkey gunned down in Ankara. The suspect, a Turkish police officer, was caught on video opening fire and shouting "God is greatest. Don't forget Aleppo. Don't forget Syria." Russia is calling this a terror attack.

President-elect Donald Trump is going farther than the White House and any foreign government, blaming the killing on a, quote, "radical Islamic terrorist." Trump issuing that statement just minutes after the Electoral College sealed his election victory. Texas put him over that 270 electoral threshold that he needed to make this official.

I want to go now to CNN political reporter Sara Murray. She is with Donald Trump where he is vacationing at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. And Sara, the president-elect has had a lot to say here in the past few minutes. SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brianna.

Even though he remains cloistered here at Mar-a-Lago, his team and Donald Trump are putting out a flurry of statements, acknowledging the terror attack in Berlin. As you note, he tied it to Islamic terrorism, as well as the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey.

He also took to Twitter in addition, saying, "Today there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland, and Germany. And it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking."

All of this, dampening what was otherwise a very bright day for Donald Trump as he crossed that 270 electoral vote threshold, the last ceremonial hurdle preventing him from coming to the White House.


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

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The votes are, ten votes, Donald J. Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You sold out our country!

KEILAR: The Electoral College is making it official today, sealing 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 besides 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 everything, and she prevailed against it all, but, you know, in the end, we had the Russians and the FBI deal, which she couldn't prevail against that. She did everything else and still won by 2.8 million votes.

KEILAR: Trump tweeting 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're 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 this aside U.S. intelligence agencies' assessment that Russia interfered, insisting they'd need more proof. REINCE PRIEBUS, TRUMP PICK FOR 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's soft approach with Russia...

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 his dealings with other countries. That rift on full display this weekend as Trump admonished China for seizing a U.S. 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 an unprecedented act." And later adding, "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back. Let them keep it."

Meanwhile, Trump is poring over candidates for administration slots, 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.


MURRAY: Now, I'm told by a Trump aide that when Donald Trump did cross that 270 electoral vote threshold, there was no big cheer, no big celebration in Mar-a-Lago. They just kind of went about their work. He continued with his meetings.

[18:35:07] But he did clearly relish in his victory. In a statement he put out, Trump calling it a historic electoral landslide victory. While it was not necessarily the largest landslide in history, he clearly is enjoying this moment, crossing this ceremonial hurdle -- Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Sara Murray, thank you so much for that.

Now, tonight, some top Republican senators are ramping up pressure for a new investigation of Russia's election-related hacking. And they're getting an assist from Democrats.

CNN senior political reporter Manu Raju with us now. Where does this push for an investigation stand right now?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, they need a vote in the Senate to establish a select committee on Russia. And that means that the Republicans and Democrats are going to need to join together in order to get the 60 votes needed in to establish this committee.

Now Democrats are expected to be largely united. The question is whether or not Republicans join forces with Democrats. We have seen John McCain and Lindsey Graham agree to move forward on something. But they're facing some resistance from Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wants this investigation to happen in the select committee on intelligence, not a brand new, wide-ranging committee on Russia. He believes it should happen in the existing committees on Capitol Hill.

And in a key development tonight, Brianna, we have learned that two Republican senators, who are gettable votes to potentially create this committee, Susan Collins of Maine and Jeff Flake of Arizona, both are telling us that they're unlikely to support this new panel on Russia.

So it sounds like that these people, who are pushing for this new investigative body will have a difficult time getting there, unless they convince them to change their minds.

KEILAR: There's been this split between Donald Trump and certainly those in his orbit and how they relate to Russia and are more friendly with Russia and a lot of Republicans who are not. Are we seeing any move, any elimination of daylight there?

RAJU: Well, it's a difficult position for people like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan. They are sharp critics of Russia. They're sharp critics of Vladimir Putin. But they are going to be working hand in hand with the Republican president, who allies himself with Vladimir Putin, dismisses these Russian hacking allegations.

So they're in a tricky spot. As some people in their Republican Caucus are pushing for a very hard line on Russia, pushing for a sweeping investigation. On the other hand, they're saying that they're trying to play this middle ground almost, saying you know, we'll look at this in our own existing committees, but we're not going to go as far as the hardline people in our caucus are willing to go. It shows kind of a difficult line that they're going to have to navigate on issues like Russia going forward, especially as Donald Trump comes into office.

KEILAR: Twisting themselves into rhetorical pretzels. I'm sure in time we will see. Manu Raju, thank you so much.

Now tonight, new action by President Obama to grant dozens of people clemency before Christmas and before his term ends, just weeks from now. Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, has this story for us.

Tell us what you're learning about this, Evan.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, the president granted clemency to 231 people, many of whom were serving time for drug-related sentences. This is the largest number of clemency that he's granted in one day. Now, among those were 153 commutations and 78 pardons.

The White House says this is about giving a second chance to people who are serving long sentences under harsh drug laws from decades ago. But there are some critics, including some from the incoming Trump administration, who say that the Obama administration is making a big mistake that could lead to higher crime rates -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And this is part of a larger priority for the president. Right? Contrast this with what's expected from the president-elect.

RAJU: That's right. It's going to be a big difference. Today's action brings to 1,324 the total number of clemencies under President Obama while he's been in office. Now, he got a lot of criticism early -- you'll remember some of this -- he got criticism early in his presidency for being stingy with clemencies. But now he's far ahead of George W. Bush, who granted 200 pardons and commutations, and Bill Clinton, who granted 457.

As you said, this is part of a broader effort. This administration calls it "smart on crime." We expect President Trump to take a much different stance on this issue. His Justice Department plans to make -- make violent crime a top priority for their administration, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Evan Perez, thank you so much for that report.

Our political team is here. We have a lot to talk about. We're going to be right back with them after a quick break.


[18:43:15] KEILAR: And we are back now with our political team and the breaking news. The Electoral College seals Donald Trump's presidential victory.

And Jeff Zeleny, I can't remember the last time that we paid attention to the process like we did today, and there was some drama.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: There was indeed. So much, this is, you know, just a rite of passage every four years. We don't pay that much attention to it. Some Trump supporters I saw in line were asking if this is something new, and why is this happening now? But this happens all the time.

There was a bit of drama in Wisconsin and Colorado, some other states. Some people were shouting their disapproval, some Democrats shouting their disapproval. But none of these revolts we heard, you know, sort of predicted, happened. And the state of Texas put Donald Trump over the top...

KEILAR: With two faithless electors.

ZELENY: Exactly. Two Republican faithless lectors. But they got 36 out of the 38.

And, you know, this -- I also saw demonstrations in Michigan and some other places that Democrats were hoping to win, and they lost. That was happening. But this is -- you know, it's over now. This puts the exclamation point on this, and it becomes official when all of these are sent into the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on January 6.

Interesting, Bill Clinton was an elector in New York, was hoping, obviously, to cast his vote for Hillary Clinton. That didn't happen. CAMEROTA: OK. So David, as you watched all of this happen, you know

that on the left, there are people saying this whole -- and we heard this even from Donald Trump in the past. This Electoral College thing, it's not good, the way it's working. But it seems so unlikely that that would change. I guess the question is, should it change?

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": I do think it should change, but it is unlikely. You see the last two times that the popular vote winner was not the Electoral College winner.

[18:45:01] It was a Republican. Republicans controlled the Congress and most of the state legislatures. They're unlikely to change that.

I think on the Democratic side, Democrats need to accept that these are the rules and they've got to win by these rules, not by the popular vote. On the Republican side, Republicans I think need to get comfortable with the idea that you're going to have these faithless electors like in Texas simply because if you didn't have a couple of people voting their conscience then why would you have the Electoral College in the first place. That's why it was set up.

KEILAR: And just to show how much attention the Electoral College is getting, "SNL" did a spoof on this idea that electors would switch their votes perhaps from Donald Trump. Take a look.


KEILAR: Now, if you are a fan of the movie "Love Actually," you know what that is a parody of.

But my question for you, Rebecca, is, this is what Donald Trump has to deal with, is a huge swath of the country that doesn't believe necessarily that he should be president, and that's going to be a challenge for him moving forward in his presidency.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Although what we saw today with the Electoral College is you actually had I think ultimately more Democratic faithless electors than you did on the Republican side. Democrats who were Bernie Sanders supporters or had supported someone else who didn't feel comfortable supporting Hillary Clinton.

And so, I think what helped Donald Trump moving forward in terms of uniting the country and at least getting some of these Democrats to calm down after this election, is that Hillary Clinton, for many Democrats, was not a hero. She was not their ideal candidate either. And I think that's why there isn't this level of outrage that we might have expected from her winning the popular vote by so much and still losing the Electoral College, because so many Democrats were not very excited or energized by her candidacy.

ZELENY: Some weren't. But I think overall, I mean, the majority of Democrats rallied behind her. And I think they're still moving through this grieving process. But, you know, they have to get over it.

KEILAR: It's a good way to put it, by the way. ZELENY: And it really is a grieving process. But, you know, they know they have to get over it, and there are even some Democrats who wonder why John Podesta all of a sudden is sounding so -- still so angry about this, because the reality is, the Electoral College rules are such as they are, and had she campaigned in some of those rural areas as President Obama suggested she should have in his NPR interview, she likely would have won the election.

But I thought, Donald Trump put out a statement tonight I thought was interesting. He said, "I will work hard to unite the country and be president of all Americans." I thought his statement was pretty conciliatory.

KEILAR: That's very interesting.

And you said it's grieving, I've been thinking about that as well, because there's the different phases, and you almost see supporters of Hillary Clinton going through that anger, bargaining, you know? I sort of wonder about that.

I want to talk to you, David, about this interview that the first lady sat down with Oprah for, because it's really interesting. She's so candid, where she talks about being labeled by some as an angry black woman.

Here's what she said.


OPRAH WINFREY, TV HOST: When you were labeled that angry black woman, is that one of the things that knocked you back a bit?

MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: That was one of those things that you just sort of think, dang, you don't even know me, you know?


OBAMA: I mean, you just sort of feel like, wow, where did that come from?


OBAMA: You know? And that's the first blowback, because you think, that is so not me. But then you sort of think, well, this isn't about me. This is about the person or the people who write it.


OBAMA: You know? I mean, that's just the truth.

WINFREY: That was Maya always used to say. I mean, yes.

OBAMA: It's so much about that, and you start thinking oh, wow, we're so afraid of each other. You know, color, wealth, these things that don't matter still play too much of a role in how we see one another. And it's sad, because the thing that least defines us as people is the color of our skin. It's the size of our bank account.


KEILAR: She has a very sympathetic interviewer, and also, it's towards the end of her time in the White House. These two things together gets you a pretty candid interview.

SWERDLICK: Yes, I think that's important that it's at the end of her time in the White House, as the first family leaves, both the first lady and the president have a high approval ratings.

[18:50:04] So, I think she has some running room to talk candidly to Oprah about these issues.

In my view, Brianna, throughout the presidency of President Obama, there was some misunderstanding, both on the left and the right, about who the Obamas were. The Obamas were quite establishment folks. They were -- they believed strongly in broad American ideals but also tried, I think, at various times to get across this idea that there's a lens to which African-Americans see certain issues. Loving them, the United States, but also seeing some of the problems within the United States.

They didn't always succeed in getting that dual message across, but I think they succeeded more in recent times.

KEILAR: We've also seen in this interview honesty from Michelle Obama where she's talking about feeling like there is no hope. This is a window, in a way, perhaps into the White House and the way folks there are thinking about this loss.

ZELENY: Without a question, and I think that -- I believe she was talking there, the question was about that very first speech or one of the for prominent speeches she gave in 2007 about how she's proud of her country in the first time and that really sort of introduced her to a lot of the country here, and they had to do a lot of damage work on that. So, she's been so cautious for eight years. So, this interview would never have happened four years ago when running for re-election.

But I think her candor there is so fascinating. It will be an interesting interview to watch.

BERG: And a preview, perhaps, of what we will see from Michelle Obama moving forward, because certainly her career, her role in the public is not over when she leaves the White House. It's really just beginning. Now she has this opportunity to go out and sort of blaze her own trail separate from her husband and find the issues that are important to her and be more candid.

ZELENY: Shut the door on never running for office.

BERG: Exactly.

KEILAR: It doesn't mean she can't be vocal, though, and so, we'll see about that. Rebecca Berg, Jeff Zeleny, David Swerdlick, thank you so much.

Just ahead, new details on the two suspected terrorist attacks unfolding overseas tonight.

Who was driving the truck that crashed into a Christmas market in Berlin?

And officials say a police officer turned into an assassin, gunning down a Russian diplomat. We have much more ahead.


[18:56:11] KEILAR: Tonight, with Donald Trump's inauguration only about a month away, the U.S. may be heading toward a major shift in its Mideast policy. The president-elect sending possible signals about his intentions through his choice to be U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Let's bring in now our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott.

And, Elise, tell us. This is controversial.


David Friedman has voiced opposition to decades of U.S. policy with positions that are considered radical by even some Israelis, themselves. It's raising serious questions about whether he could actually tie Donald Trump's hands in making Mideast peace.


LABOTT (voice-over): If he had his way, Donald Trump's new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, might reverse decades of U.S. policy on Mideast peace, telling Israeli television during the campaign, Trump would back that country's government in whatever path it chooses.

DAVID FRIEDMAN, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL NOMINEE: He will be guided by what the Israelis want to pursue. The United States under a Trump administration is going to be loyal to his friends. It's going to trust its friends.

LABOTT: Friedman supports legalizing settlements and Israel annexing the West Bank. In an op-ed earlier this year, he called the idea of giving Palestinians their own country, the so-called two-state solution, quote, "an illusion that serves the worst intentions of both the United States and the Palestinian Arabs."

That's a position even the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, contradicted just days ago in an interview with CBS News.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Two states for two peoples, and that's where I focus. Yes, I like to help to have a President Trump when he gets into the White House, help me work on that. It's a new reality. New possibilities. LABOTT: With Friedman as ambassador, Mideast experts warn Netanyahu

could no longer have U.S. cover to push back against hardliners in Israel.

AARON MILLER, DISTINGUISHED SCHOLAR, WILSON CENTER: It will remove an argument that Mr. Netanyahu made repeatedly, that if, in fact, you push too fast, too far, you are going to alienate the United States and cause significant problems for the coalition government.

LABOTT: Friedman also backs moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, a controversial idea that Trump backed on the campaign trail.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: We will move the American embassy to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.

LABOTT: In a statement, Friedman said he looked forward to doing his job, quote, "from the U.S. embassy in Israel's eternal capital, Jerusalem."

For decades, U.S. presidents have argued the status of Jerusalem which both Israelis and Palestinians see as their rightful capital, can only be settled as part of a peace deal -- a position on which many Jews agree, like the left-leaning American Jewish lobby, J. Street. Friedman has branded the group which criticized only Israeli policies, quote, "far worse than kapos -- Jews who turned in their fellow Jews in the Nazi camps."

Asked to respond to these comments, Friedman said, quote, "They're not Jewish and they're not pro-Israel."

In a statement, the group that supports a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians called Friedman's appointment, quote, "reckless," and "putting America's reputation in the region and credibility around the world at risk."


LABOTT: And current and former diplomats say in appointing Friedman as ambassador and also promising to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, Donald Trump is actually running counter to his professed desire which is to remain neutral in what he calls negotiating the ultimate deal between Israelis and Palestinians because it raises doubt about whether the U.S. can continue to be even-handed in future Mideast peace talks, Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, and he has expressed that desire where he said that this is something that he would like to achieve so that choice is very interesting.

Elise Labott, our global affairs correspondent at the State Department for us -- thank you so much.

I'm Brianna Keilar. Thank you for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.