Return to Transcripts main page


Intense Search Underway For Tunisian Suspect; Berlin Suspect Was Known To German Intelligence; German Minister: Terror And Refugee Connection Exists; Trump: Berlin Terror Rampage "An Attack On Humanity"; Trump Gets Official Intel Briefing Today. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 21, 2016 - 16:15   ET


[16:00:02] BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Brooke Baldwin. Thank you for being with me. "THE LEAD" starts right now.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Thanks, Brooke. They had him and they let him go. THE LEAD starts right now.

Breaking news, a manhunt going on right now for the terrorist who plowed through a crowded Christmas market in an 18-wheeler. As we find out authorities were already familiar with him.

Plus, just being bitter betties or threatening democracy, North Carolina Republicans ramming through legislation that strips the new Democratic governor of key powers. Is North Carolina a preview of bigger things to come?

And, powder keg, a massive plume of smoke, explosions shooting out in every direction after a fireworks market tragically ignites.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper. We will begin today with an urgent international manhunt. Police in Europe are desperately searching for this man, Anis Amri, a 24-year- old Tunisian national believed to be the terrorist who plowed a tractor-trailer into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin Monday.

Twelve people were killed and nearly 50 others injured. Some quite seriously. According to the authorities, the suspect arrived in Germany in July of last year and has direct ties to an ISIS recruiting network. He was previously known to authorities, we're told.

Let's get right to CNN's Erin McLaughlin in Berlin. Erin, sources are telling CNN the suspect was arrested in August but he was released. What can you tell us about that?

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. He was arrested in August for trying to cross illegally on forged documents over to Italy. But a judge took the decision to let him go, even though German authorities had tried and failed to deport him back in June and his known Islamist ties, all of this leading to some serious questions in Berlin tonight as to what could have been done differently to prevent this attack. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MCLAUGHLIN (voice-over): In Germany and across Europe tonight, a desperate manhunt. This arrest warrant issued by German authorities Wednesday for a 24-year-old Tunisian man, Anis Amri, now the only identified suspect of the Christmas market attack.

His identity papers were found at the scene inside the stolen truck's cabin. Turns out he has been on the German authorities' radar for some time. According to German intelligence sources, he arrived in Germany mid-2015 and was involved in radical Islamist circles.

He was linked to a leading figure of an ISIS recruitment network and was arrested in August for trying to travel to Italy using forged documents, but was let go by a judge.

Amri also raised alarms when German intelligence believed he was looking to get a gun. Now raids are being carried out in the Cologne area where police believed he lived.

The German public is being warned that Amri could be violent and armed. The Polish man found shot dead inside the truck has been identified as its original driver, and the gun used to kill him has not yet been recovered.

All this raising new questions as to how the deadliest terrorist attack to strike Berlin will impact German Chancellor Angela Merkel's political future.

In 2015, Chancellor Merkel announced Germany would admit nearly all Iraqi and Syrian asylum seekers, triggering a human tidal wave through Europe. Germany accepted more than 800,000 refugees.

Now a senior member of her own party admitting there is definitely a connection between increased terror danger and refugees. This year, German officials said they foiled multiple terror plots, but the country has seen at least two small-scaled ISIS inspired attacks carried out by refugees.

As a result, the far right have made gains on an anti-immigration platform. After the horror in the Christmas market and with federal elections approaching in 2017, the woman many see as the linchpin holding Europe together could face the toughest battle of her career.


MCLAUGHLIN: And we're already beginning to see the political fallout from this attack. Legislators pushing new laws that would increase the government's powers of surveillance. Meanwhile, we are seeing increased security presence, especially focusing on public transportation as people try to make it home for the holidays -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Erin McLaughlin in Berlin for us, thank you so much.

Joining me now to talk about this all is CNN terrorism analyst, Paul Cruickshank, David Ignatius, a foreign affairs columnist for "The Washington Post," and Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University School of Law. Thanks to all of you for being here.

Paul, are German authorities confident that this man acted alone?

PAUL CRUICKSHANK, CNN TERRORISM ANALYST: That's -- it seems to be what they think at this point, that he acted alone. He is the only publicly identified suspect now in this attack. They're obviously very worried that he could strike again. They're also worried because he had these connections to this ISIS recruiting network that they could hide him or help him leave the country.

[16:05:08]So they've now essentially crowd-sourced the investigation. They put out the pictures, they've put out the name, all the details, and they're hoping for tips in the hours ahead because it's a race against time.

They believe that this man is armed and dangerous and is likely to strike again, and there is not much that might stop him from hijacking another truck somewhere else in Germany if he so wishes at this point given he has a gun.

TAPPER: Karen, does it seem odd that he would leave his documentation behind in the truck?

KAREN GREENBERG, DIRECTOR, CENTER ON NATIONAL SECURITY AT FORDHAM: It seems odd, but it's not impossible because sloppiness is -- it can be expected in any kind of situation like this. Look at the 9/11 attack on the -- the first attack on the World Trade Center where the perpetrators went back to return their rental vehicle and that's how law enforcement caught up with them.

So you never know. There are a lot of things to pay attention to. It's as an adrenaline-filled a situation as you can imagine. He was intent on getting away. That's what he wanted to do. Very few of these guys actually get away. He did. And the fact that he left something behind, although it could turn out to be suspicious or misleading, is also understandable in the circumstances.

TAPPER: David, this man was known to authorities. He had ties, they believe, to this ISIS recruiting center, or recruiting person. Is this, do you think, an intelligence failure?

DAVID IGNATIUS, FOREIGN AFFAIRS COLUMNIST, "WASHINGTON POST": I think it is an intelligence failure. It's a connect-the-dots failure, as we begin to learn about him. It's clear the Germans knew a lot about him from the moment he came into Germany. They were suspicious of him. They wanted to deport him. They arrested him. Let him go.

Somehow the pieces didn't connect. I'm sure in Germany in the aftermath of this incident there will be the kind of focus we had in the U.S. after 9/11 and the French had after last year's attack in Paris looking at what went wrong.

TAPPER: Paul, have the raids, do you know, yielded any new intelligence about this attack or other possible plots in the works?

CRUICKSHANK: They've been tight-lipped about that, the Germans, but there were raids earlier today where this attacker was residing for a period of time. Not clear if the raids were to try to get him because they had intelligence suggesting he was there or perhaps to raid a residence so that they could get more information.

But this is a very fast-moving investigation right now. They are getting a lot of tips in from the general public and they -- they're going to have to hope to make an arrest before he can strike again.

TAPPER: Karen, what might have mean for the U.S. specifically, the way that U.S. officials deal with the threat of these ISIS-inspired attacks, these lone wolves who in many ways are self-radicalized?

GREENBERG: Yes. This is a problem because you don't know what kind of network they are tied to. They decide on their own, radicalize on the internet very often. So the real challenge is to be able to understand the point at which they are willing to do violence.

And so what you have to focus on is acquisition of materials. You can be sure there is going to be vigilance around trucks, truck safety, communication between drivers and their companies. But this is a -- this is -- shines a light on just how difficult it is to predict who -- who is and who is not going to conduct some kind of terrorist attack.

TAPPER: David, obviously there is a political fallout from this, this Tunisian man applied for asylum, I believe he was rejected. He was not part of this wave of migrants, immigrants coming from Syria. But still the fears that Germans have about what these Muslim extremists who are coming into their country are doing could really have some political ramifications, not just for Angela Merkel's career but in the E.U. in general and even here in the United States.

IGNATIUS: Germans, like Europeans, generally like people in Britain in the Brexit vote, feel they've lost control of their borders and there has been increasing anger at Chancellor Merkel, who has been chancellor for more than 11 years now, for having been too open to migration. She faces election in September of next year.

There is really no challenger to her on the center right in her own party. She just has been reaffirmed by them. It's hard to know who would knock her off. But there is, I think, deep, growing anger in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. What will President-elect Trump say to these right-wing parties in Europe that have very similar lines to his own about migration?

TAPPER: If Vladimir Putin had planned, as a fallout from his involvement in the war and supporting Assad, for these millions of migrants to go into Europe and destabilize the country and encourage more nationalistic parties to gain strength, he couldn't have planned it better.

[16:10:11]IGNATIUS: If you were to write this plot as a spy novel, people wouldn't read it. They would say it was too far-fetched, you know, these chain of events, whether planned or unplanned, is leading to a situation where the liberal western order in Europe and elsewhere is really falling apart. We heard John McCain say that recently. Again, the question is what will Donald Trump as president of the United States do about it.

TAPPER: Fascinating stuff. Paul, David, Karen, thank you one and all. Merry Christmas to all of you.

To our "Politics Lead" now where Donald Trump will soon inherit these terrorism concerns. We know he gets some sort of security briefing, but are his daily updates up to par with top U.S. intelligence and ready to address some of the world's biggest challenges? We'll talk about that story next.


TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. Our "Politics Lead" now, President-elect Trump said costs were out of control and that the price tag on the new Air Force One, what Trump claimed was $4 billion, though we couldn't find that number anywhere, the price tag was way too high.

Now he appears to have struck a deal with Boeing, the maker of Air Force One, to deliver a new ride for the commander-in-chief for under $4 billion. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg wrapped up a meeting with Donald Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate and said he would personally guarantee his company would get it done for less than $4 billion.

A little before that, Trump spoke about the terror attack in Berlin calling it attack an humanity.


DONALD TRUMP, U.S. PRESIDENT-ELECT: What's going on is terrible, you have intelligence here right now. What's going on is terrible.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Has it caused you to rethink or re-evaluate your plans to create a Muslim ban since you're a fan, of Muslim immigration to the United States?

TRUMP: Hey, you've known my plans, all along. I've been proven to be right, 100 percent correct. What's happening is disgraceful.

That's an attack on humanity. That's what it is.

[16:15:00] It's an attack on humanity. And it's got to be stopped. OK? Thank you.


TAPPER: You know my plans, he says.

Trump, of course, called for a, quote, "total and complete shut down of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on," unquote, on the campaign. A policy which still remains on his website. CNN's Jim Acosta is here with me in Washington.

Jim, Trump saying he was 100 percent correct all along. Has the transition team clarified, is he talking about this proposed Muslim ban that many leaders of Congress say is unconstitutional?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No, Jake. I just talked to a senior Trump transition official who says that the president-elect was talking about, in his mind, the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorists. Something he talked about on the campaign trail all the time, not about the past proposal for a ban on Muslims entering into the United States.

As we know, over the course of the campaign, they scaled back that proposal during the campaign and are now talking about banning people coming from terror-prone states or having extreme vetting of people coming in from terror-prone states. But, once again, Jake, Donald Trump is defending his election victory. That's the other thing he's been up to today.

His latest tweets, though, come at an odd time and just as attention is coming away from his win in the Electoral College and toward bigger questions about his business interests.


TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you.

ACOSTA (voice-over): It's Donald Trump's favorite subject at his post-election rallies. Not his upcoming agenda or his cabinet but his victory.

TRUMP: By the way, as soon as the polls, the real polls came out, we won in a massive landslide.

ACOSTA: But it wasn't a landslide. Trump's electoral win is modest by historical standards. Still, the president-elect is pushing back on any critics who note he came up nearly 3 million voters short in the popular vote.

"I would have done even better in the election if that is possible if the winner was based on popular vote. Would campaign differently. Campaigning to win the Electoral College is much more difficult and sophisticated than the popular vote. Hillary focused on the wrong states."

NEWT GINGRICH (R), FORMER HOUSE SPEAKER: This is the football season. A team can have more yards and lose the game. What matters is how many points you put on the board. The Electoral College is the points.

ACOSTA: But Democrats aren't buying it and accuse Republicans of inflating their election win to justify a broad mandate.

Former Clinton campaign spokesman Jesse Ferguson wrote in "TIME" magazine, "If we don't fight back against unfounded claims of a mandate or navel-gazing that this election was a total rejection of our party, we will be wondering why the Republican agenda has gained momentum in just a few short months."

Trump is restarting the debate over his election win just as questions are being raised about his business interests. The Trump family is distancing itself from a fund-raiser scheduled one day after inauguration, seeking donations of up to $1 million in exchange for hunting outings with Trump sons.

Transition officials maintain the sons won't be involved despite the fact that the group holding the fundraiser lists Trump sons, Don Jr. and Eric, as two of its directors.

JASON MILLER, TRUMP TRANSITION SPOKESMAN: There is no involvement of this with Don Jr. or Eric. Nor do they plan on being involved with it.

ACOSTA: And other questions about conflicts of interest are being raised, like the Kuwaiti government's decision to hold an upcoming event at Trump's new D.C. hotel, just steps from the White House.

Top Trump supporter Newt Gingrich says the president-elect doesn't even like his campaign catch phrase "drain the swamp" anymore.

GINGRICH: I'm told he now disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn't want to use it anymore.


ACOSTA: Now, as for that fund raiser that mentioned Trump's sons, Don Jr. and Eric, are no longer listed as members of the group holding the event. And as for the Kuwaiti event, at the new Trump hotel here in D.C., the Kuwaiti ambassador tells me over the phone earlier today that he would like the State Department to clarify whether or not it's proper to book events at Trump properties. He called this uncharted territory -- Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jim Acosta, thank you.

They call it the presidential daily briefing -- except for President- elect Trump, it's been anything but daily. Trump, on average, has gotten one so-called PDB per week. Yesterday, the day after terrorist attacks in Germany and Turkey sparked fresh fears of violence and put the world again on edge, the Trump transition team would not say if the president-elect had received the classified briefing.

Today, his team says he did receive the formal briefing and is also meeting with his choice for national security adviser, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn.

CNN's Barbara Starr is at the Pentagon for us now.

And, Barbara, when the president-elect does not get the official briefing, what is he missing out on?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, Jake, intelligence professionals will tell you, what he is missing out on is that essential conversation with his formal government intelligence briefer, the two-way conversation. The president-elect asks questions, they answer, they go find more information to give him. And events of this week perhaps show just how important that is.


STARR (voice-over): When President-elect Donald Trump addressed reporters today, he had his new national security adviser right behind him.

TRUMP: What's going on is terrible.

STARR: Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn in Florida to discuss world events and staffing.

[16:20:03] The meeting was on the schedule before the terror attacks in Germany and Turkey. Trump began the day with an official president's daily brief, the PDB. Trump's staff insists he is getting some type of intelligence briefing every day and will be on top of things from day one.

MILLER: He's very much up to speed in what's going on and fully ready for the -- to be sworn in next month and take over the role as commander-in-chief.

STARR: A U.S. official tells CNN Trump is averaging one formal intelligence briefing a week, the same type that President Obama gets. Trump is also getting intelligence briefings on specific topics.

MILLER: The one thing I will say is that the president-elect is receiving numerous briefings, whether it's from his national security team, with General Flynn and others, as well as the formal PDB.

STARR: The briefings come as the pace of international events is quickening. The Kremlin today said relations with the U.S. have frozen, a day after President Obama imposed new sanctions aimed at Russia's involvement in Crimea and Ukraine -- sanctions the incoming president could reverse.

JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: The next administration will obviously have to make their own decisions about this. We hope that they will come to see the wisdom in not conducting business as usual with Russia.

STARR: All leading to the greater question, how friendly will the incoming president be to Vladimir Putin.

CHRISTOPHER HILL, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR: He sure has to be more cautious about Russia than he appears to be. I mean, he needs to understand that their interests and their attitude does not align with ours.

STARR: Nowhere may that be more clear than the Moscow meeting of Russian, Iranian and Turkish officials on what to do next in Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): All three countries presented here are united.

STARR: But U.S. officials still believe the talks will not stop Moscow from continuing its military operations in Syria beyond Aleppo.


STARR: And tonight, a top Trump transition official is adamantly denying that Mike Flynn, the new national security adviser, ever met with right wing Austrian politicians in New York, from a right-wing party in Austria that was founded in the 1950s by former Nazis -- Jake.

TAPPER: Barbara Starr, thank you.

The man who once ran Trump's presidential campaign is starting a new business right down the block from the White House. How does that square with the promise to drain the swamp?

Plus, she hit a winning streak on "Jeopardy" but she died before the episodes air. Her special request to the game show producers as the world now learns of her incredible story.


[16:25:58] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD.

Sticking with our politics lead. When President-elect Trump walks into the Oval Office, as president, in just 30 days, his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski will have set up shop just a few blocks away.

Let's talk about this and much, much more with CNN political commentator S.E. Cupp, and senior political reporter for "USA Today", Heidi Przybyla.

Heidi, let me start with you. Lewandowski is opening a consulting firm. It's about a three-minute walk from the White House. We are told that he still regularly talks to President-elect Trump. According to a source, he met with Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner on Monday. We know Mr. Kushner has a big leadership role in the transition team. He is still very plugged in.

Does this contradict at all the "drain the swamp" thing or is this just --

HEIDI PRZYBYLA, USA TODAY: I think it actually backs it up, Jake. It's becoming clear that they're going to drain the swamp and then put an addition on it and build it out. That's what's happening with Corey moving in down the street.

In his defense, he wasn't going to get the job he wanted in the administration.

TAPPER: What did he want? Do we know? Deputy chief of staff, something like that? PRZYBYLA: Some senior-level job. And apparently, that was not forthcoming. So, this is not uncommon in Washington. But it does kind of go against that narrative of draining the swamp because the campaign made pretty clear who the swamp creatures are. And consultants like that who are cashing in and openly advertising based on their access and proximity to the administration are defined as swamp creatures.

TAPPER: Interesting. And Newt Gingrich was on NPR, he's an informal adviser to President-elect Trump. He says the drain the swamp is not a phrase that the president-elect likes anymore. He told NPR, quote, "It was cute, but he doesn't want to use it anymore." So no more drain the swamp.

S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, to Corey, the idea that someone would come off of a winning presidential campaign and not try to get some business opportunities off it -- I mean, that's kind of silly. So, I think we might be making too big a deal of that particular aspect.

But I never really bought into this sales pitch of draining the swamp, because you want people who have done the job before to know a little bit about what they're doing. You know, when a baseball team has a couple of bad seasons they have a rebuilding year. They get rid of everyone but they still bring in baseball players, unless you're Tim Tebow and the Mets. They don't just hire football players.

So, the idea that Donald Trump was going to come in and rid politics of politicians just never really made a ton of sense. And I guess Rex Tillerson aside, maybe he is the Tim Tebow of the Trump administration, Trump has made the decision to hire career politicians.

TAPPER: Let's talk about Rex Tillerson, President-elect Trump's nominee to be secretary of state. "The New York Times" reported that Tillerson, in February of this past year, told students at the University of Texas that he has, quote, "a very close relationship," unquote, with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

This is something that the administration -- I'm sorry -- the incoming administration, the transition team, is being pushed back on. They're saying, no, no. He did business there, but he is a hard-nosed realist and is not a friend of Putin even though he did get a friend of Putin award.

PRZYBYLA: Democrats are going to make Tillerson kind of their symbolic battle. They've got to decide which one of the nominees they're going to go after. I think it's becoming clear that, to them, Tillerson kind of represents the nexus of a lot of the issues they want to elevate during the Trump administration in terms of billionaires being in the cabinet, big oil, the connections to Russia.

And so, he will, I think, probably undergo some of the most severe questioning during his round of hearings. And he'll have to make clear kind of what Donald Trump's policy is vis-a-vis Russia. That's a big question right now, and given his ties as well to Exxon. They'll also make him symbolic in terms of making him push to divest, hoping that that will then set a precedent for some of the other billionaires who are coming into the cabinet because it is something that is defining this cabinet in terms of business people coming in with expansive portfolios and they're going to try to push him hoping that it will press the others to do the same.

CUPP: I just think this could -- this could backfire. When you have people like Condoleezza Rice backing up Rex Tillerson as a man of integrity and skill and talent, if they go real hard against him.