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Trump Releases "Very Nice" Letter from Putin; U.S. Abstains in U.N. Vote Against Israeli Settlements. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 23, 2016 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:00] JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: A new warning that ISIS may be plotting attacks on American soil pegged through the holidays with churches among the possible targets. We'll look at the potential danger in the days ahead.

ISIS allegiance. The Berlin market attacker vows his support for the terror group on a video released after he was gunned down in Italy. Authorities are scrambling to track his travels and his ties to an ISIS cell that could be active right now.

Up in arms. Donald Trump talks even tougher about expanding America's nuclear might, telling a TV news anchor, let it be an arms race. Is the president-elect threatening Vladimir Putin even as he reveals that the Russian leader sent him a very nice letter?

And unsettled. The Obama administration refuses to veto a controversial U.N. resolution defying pressure from Israel and from President-elect Trump. This hour, new details on the dramatic clash between global allies and between the current and future U.S. president.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and from around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Jim Acosta. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

ACOSTA: Breaking news tonight. A new warning of ISIS threats against churches and holiday events here in the United States. Federal authorities issuing a new bulletin to law enforcement across the country about potential plots around the holidays.

The warning comes as ISIS releases a video of the Christmas market attacker, declaring his allegiance to the terrorist group. The video was posted shortly after Anis Amri was killed in a shootout with police in Italy.

Tonight, authorities are trying to determine how Amri managed to escape Berlin, traveled more than 600 miles and elude authorities for days.

Also this hour, President-elect Trump is fueling concerns about a possible nuclear arms race with Russia. He and Vladimir Putin both have been talking about strengthening their nuclear capabilities. Now Trump is going further, telling a cable news anchor, quote, "Let it be an arms race."

Tonight, Mr. Trump is responding to a stunning move by the Obama administration, its refusal to veto a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. President-elect who had called for a veto is promising that things will be different on his watch. I'll talk about all of this with the Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Congressman John Garamendi. He is standing by along with our correspondents and analysts as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.

First to CNN's Erin McLaughlin in Berlin with more on the terror investigation -- Erin.

ERIN MCLAUGHLIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, even though the main suspect is dead authorities say this investigation is far from over. They're worried that he had accomplices, worried that there could be more potential terrorists out there plotting future attacks.


MCLAUGHLIN (voice-over): Tonight, new video released by ISIS shows Anis Amri, the man police believed attacked the Berlin market, pledging his allegiance to the terror group's leader, Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi. And threatening the West.

ANIS AMRI, SUSPECT IN THE BERLIN MARKET ATTACK (Through Translator): By god's will, we will slaughter you pigs. I swear, we will slaughter you.

MCLAUGHLIN: It's unclear when the tape was made or where it was recorded. The 24-year-old Tunisian man was killed overnight in a shootout with police, outside of a small train station near Milan. The Italian government says it was not tracking Amri and didn't even know he was in the country. Officers on regular patrol approached him around 3:00 in the morning because he was acting suspiciously.

MARCO MINNITI, ITALIAN INTERIOR MINISTER (Through Translator): The suspect immediately drew out a gun and shot at the police officers who'd asked him to show identification documents.

MCLAUGHLIN: With Amri dead, police across Europe are now frantically trying to find any accomplices who may have helped him. The fact ISIS had the tape of the alleged terrorist ready to release combined with Amri's train route from Germany to France, and on to Italy, suggests he may not have acted alone.

BILL BRANIFF, NATIONAL CONSORTIUM FOR THE STUDY OF TERRORISM: The death of the attacker from Berlin certainly doesn't mean the end of the investigation or the end of the threat. He was unfortunately embedded in a much larger network.

MCLAUGHLIN: CNN has learned authorities were not just aware of Amri, it appears they were concerned he might turn to terror. Two German intelligence officials tell CNN this spring, Amri was put on a list of what they called dangerous Islamists, one of about 550 people considered to be on a, quote, "terror spectrum." Sources tell CNN Amri was on the list because of his connections to a

known ISIS recruitment network in Germany, raising fears his death could accelerate plans for other attacks by those with whom he was in contact.

BRANIFF: Clearly whatever reticence the German authorities had to disrupting this network prior to now, that's gone. And so these individuals know they're operating on a finite plot.


MCLAUGHLIN: Well, tonight, CNN spoke to Amri's brother in Tunisia. He asked for the people of Berlin's forgiveness, apologized for what happened. His family has been absolutely devastated.

[18:05:07] Meanwhile, people here in Germany continue to mourn the 12 lives lost, wary, Jim, of what could happen next.

ACOSTA: Absolutely understandable. Erin McLaughlin, thank you very much.

Now to the ISIS threats here in the United States. As Americans celebrate the holidays. Let's bring in our justice correspondent Evan Perez.

Evan, what are we learning about this holiday warning? It just came out this afternoon.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. This was a bulletin that went out in the last few hours to law enforcement and private security companies around the country. And it reads in part, quote, "ISIS sympathizers continue aspirational calls for attacks on holiday gatherings, including targeting churches."

In recent days some pro-ISIS Web sites have pushed published threats specifically calling for attacks on churches. They published a list of thousands of churches in the United States. And the military in Europe issuing a warning to troops and their families. They suggest that taking precautions, such as going to shopping malls in off-peak hours and avoiding less secure public areas.

ACOSTA: And I guess the obvious question here, is this link to any credible threat at this point or are we just really reacting to what happened in Berlin?

PEREZ: It's partly reacting to Berlin. Law enforcement agencies are being asked to look for some specific types of suspicious activity. But officials tell us that the bulletin was sent out of an abundance of caution. That there's no credible, specific threat here in the United States. Officials tell me that in the last couple of days, following the attack on the Christmas market in Berlin, they've noted an increase in threat intelligence.

Now this is the time of year that they typically see that so it's not really out of the ordinary in the past, Jim. We've seen ISIS mostly call for attacks on military and law enforcement, the harder targets so to speak, churches and Christmas gatherings are the ultimate in soft targets.

ACOSTA: We hope for a safe holiday this weekend.

Evan, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

In the last hour, I talked to a Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee about the ISIS and the terror threat. Now we're joined by Congressman John Garamendi, a Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee.

Congressman, the suspected attacker Anis Amri, he was killed in Italy this morning. It's believed he traveled there from France. So he was able to not only elude German authorities for almost a week after carrying out this attack, he was able to travel across much of Europe to Italy. Was this a failure of European intelligence? What do you make of this?

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE: I really don't know. I think we're all going to find out a lot of issues. You said earlier during this interview from Germany, everybody is scrambling to figure out what's going on.

I think the really important thing here is that 500-person cell that they're concerned about in Germany, that really needs to be shut down, turned off and put aside in whatever way the Germans need to do that. That's where the next attack will come from.

The borders of Europe have been open for many -- well, for decades now. There's clearly going to be tightening them up. They're going to be watching the train and planes much more closely. They have since the Belgium circumstances. Obviously more needs to be done. But this guy may have just been one step ahead and it's hard to say exactly when he did get to Italy. He may have been there two or three days ago.

ACOSTA: And that is the difficult part of this. How do we stay one step ahead of them. One of the obvious questions right now is, did he have help? Do you think he could have done this alone?

GARAMENDI: I don't know. But what we do know is that he was targeted by the German Intelligence Services as a part of a group, perhaps as many as 500 people that were under or being influenced by a recruiter. That is a very good target for the German intelligence to go after. That obviously must be broken up. And anyone that's in that group that is contemplating or could potentially be involved in some sort of terror attack, they must be put aside in one way or another.

Either watched much more closely or if there's some cause of action for an arrest, that should be done also.

ACOSTA: And Congressman, we've seen --

GARAMENDI: And they ought to be alerting --

ACOSTA: Yes. No, go ahead. GARAMENDI: I wanted to say, they ought to -- they ought to alert the

United States intelligence services so that we can watch closely for any of those names that might be part of that group that might try to come into the United States.

ACOSTA: And we've seen ISIS, Congressman, they tend to carry out these attacks in the West when they're squeezed on the battlefield, in the Middle East. They've been losing territory in Iraq and Syria. Do you expect to see ISIS shift this model of attacks to these soft targets away from really focusing on establishing a caliphate, which has been their goal for the last several years?

GARAMENDI: Well, their caliphate is about to succumb. It is pretty much over.

[18:10:02] The attack -- the action in Mosul is moving forward. Difficult but nonetheless moving forward. That is their main city, that was their main economic foundation. They're clearly going to lose addition al territory in Syria so they are definitely on the defensive, and yes, absolutely, they have decided to reach out beyond that area of the world and to do attacks around the world.

We're going to see this, it's going to be something that we will be with for some time to come until finally ISIS is put aside. But clearly ISIS is on the defensive and will be eradicated from that part to have Middle East.

ACOSTA: But they can still wreak havoc. The FBI and DHS issued a bulletin today to law enforcement agencies all over the country about an ISIS threat against churches and holiday targets. This obviously appears to be connected to what happened in Berlin. And so if they are capable of pulling off these attacks on religious oriented targets like the Christmas market in Berlin, that obviously means that they are shifting targets and that U.S. authorities are going to have to be on guard.

GARAMENDI: Well, certainly we already are. You take a look at the number of police that are on the streets around the country, and certainly in New York. They're going to certainly be patrolling more carefully the soft targets, wherever those may be. But there's something else that each and every one of us can do. We've said it many, many times. And that is if you see something, say something.

Most of these incidents just don't arise momentarily. There's some indication ahead of the incident that something is afoot. And so that's when we ought to be notifying the police to say hey, something's going on here. This is a suspicious situation and that's our responsibility as citizens watching out for each other. Unfortunately, it is the Christmas and Hanukkah holidays coming down, a time of presumed peace. But we're going to have to be alert.

ACOSTA: OK. Congressman, stand by. We're going to take a quick break. We want you to come back and we're going to talk about what the president-elect has been talking about and tweeting when it comes to nuclear weapons. We'll be right back.


[18:15:36] ACOSTA: And we're back with House Armed Services Committee member, John Garamendi.

Congressman, stand by. We're getting new details about the back and forth between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin over their nuclear intentions. The incoming U.S. president escalating his rhetoric by reportedly telling a TV news anchor, quote, "Let it be an arms race."

Let's go to our Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr who's going to put this into context for all of us. I'm sure there are people at the Pentagon who are talking about this all day long today, Barbara.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, yes, good evening, Jim. You know, call it an arms race, call it nuclear proliferation. The question for the U.S. military now, the new commander-in-chief, what are his plans for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.


STARR (voice-over): Russian President Vladimir Putin vowing today to stay neck-and-neck with the U.S. if President-elect Donald Trump does seek to expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal after taking office.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (Through Translator): If someone accelerates and speeds up the arms race, it will not be us. I would say that we will never, if we are in an arms race, we will never spend too much.

STARR: But Putin said he saw nothing new in Trump's tweet Thursday, promising to strengthen and expand the U.S. nuclear arsenal. This morning, Trump went a step further in comments to a morning TV anchor, an alarming statement delivered in a surreal festive setting.

MIKA BRZEZINSKI, CO-HOST, "MORNING JOE": He told me on the phone, "let it be an arms race because we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."

STARR: A Trump spokesman later suggesting the president-elect wasn't necessarily talking about Russia alone.

SEAN SPICER, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There are countries around the globe right now that are talking about increasing their nuclear capacity. And the United States is not going to sit back and allow that to happen without acting in kind.

STARR: Concern now that a new global nuclear arms race could quickly emerge.

JOE CIRINCIONE, PLOUGHSHARES FUND: If the U.S. and Russia who each have about 5,000 weapons in their active stockpile say they need more weapons, well, how about China, who has about 200, 250? Do they need more? What about India? What about Pakistan?

STARR: As a candidate, Trump struggled to speak precisely about nuclear weapons. ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: But if you say to Japan, yes, it's fine,

you get nuclear weapons. South Korea, you as well. And Saudi Arabia says we want them, too.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT-ELECT: Can I be honest? It's going to happen anyway. It's going to happen anyway.

STARR: And while Trump has talked about the need to modernize the nuclear force, he has not offered specific plans.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The three legs of the triad, though. Do you have a priority? Because I want to go to Senator Rubio after that and ask him --

TRUMP: I think, for me, nuclear is just -- the power and the devastation is very important to me.


STARR: So what does Vladimir Putin now want from Donald Trump? Well, most experts will tell you, he wants U.S. sanctions lifted. The Russian economy is suffering. Oil prices are down. If he has to be nice to Donald Trump to get those sanctions lifted, it's a price he might be willing to pay -- Jim.

ACOSTA: Let the negotiations begin. Barbara Starr, thank you very much.

Let's get back to Congressman Garamendi.

Congressman, Donald Trump tweeted yesterday that the U.S. needs to strengthen our nuclear capability. Today he apparently told Mika Brzezinski over at MSNBC in an off-air conversation, quote, "Let it be an arms race."

You're on the Armed Services Committee. You saw in Barbara Starr's story there are pictures of missiles being launched, file pictures of missiles being launched and Donald Trump hasn't even been sworn into office. What is your reaction to that?

GARAMENDI: Deep, deep concern. Deep concern here. We're talking about the most destructive things on earth, nuclear bombs. And we're talking about it in a way that's almost cavalier. You can't do that. This is extremely important aspect of the work of the president. He will, shortly after he takes office, have to issue the nuclear doctrine for his administration, which specifies what it is he wants to do. Right now you just can't tweet about things that can destroy every life on earth. But he's doing that.

So wait a minute, President-elect, step back, don't go down this road right now. Let's understand very carefully what is at stake here.

ACOSTA: Are you telling him not to tweet anymore about nuclear weapons? Are you saying -- it sounds like you're issuing a plea to him to stop doing this. GARAMENDI: I am definitely issuing a plea to him. If you want to

talk about nuclear weapons, do not do it with a 140 character tweet. This is a very complex situation. We have to START -- the new START treaty in place in which the United States is obligated under that treaty to reduce its nuclear weapons by 2018. In fact, we've already been doing that.

[18:20:14] Now all of this is going on in the context where Russia and the United States and China are already engaged in a new nuclear arms race, not for more weapons, but for more stealthy, more complex, more accurate, more reliable weapons. It's a $1 trillion enterprise for the United States. We're well into the first quarter of that 25- to 30-year program that's laid out in all of the work that the Pentagon is now doing.

New intercontinental ballistic missiles in North Dakota, new submarines out in the ocean, new stealth bombers, new stealth cruise missiles. Billions of dollars.

ACOSTA: OK. Well, Congressman, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much. We appreciate it. Good talking to you, sir.

There's more breaking news ahead. Top Israeli officials are seething at President Obama after the U.S. abstains from a United Nations vote condemning Israeli settlement activities. We'll get reaction to the uproar from the president's National Security adviser -- his deputy National Security adviser, Ben Rhodes. He'll join us live from the White House coming up.


ACOSTA: Tonight, the Obama administration is defending its controversial decision to abstain from a U.N. vote condemning Israeli settlement activity.

[18:25:06] Israel is claiming it's been abandoned by the United States but President-elect Trump is promising he'll do things differently.

Our global affairs correspondent Elise Labott is here.

Elise, there's a lot of diplomatic and political intrigue surrounding all of this. You're supposed to have one president at a time. It doesn't sound that way today.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS REPORTER: That's right, Jim. Well, it was high drama tonight at the U.N., as a dispute over peace, politics, and a role over the U.S. presidency came to a head, sending shockwaves through Israel, raising questions about a critical U.S. alliance.


LABOTT (voice-over): Tonight, the Obama administration poured salt in an already openly wounded relationship with Israel, abstaining from a controversial vote at the United Nations to condemn Israeli settlements in disputed territories.

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N.: It is because this resolution reflects the facts on the ground, and is consistent with U.S. policy across Republican and Democratic administrations throughout the history of the state of Israel that the United States did not veto it.

LABOTT: The administration's decision not to exercise its right to a veto, despite pleas from the Israeli government, prominent Democrats and President-elect Donald Trump allowed the resolution to pass. The U.S. ambassador to the U.N. told the Security Council the U.S. was not abandoning Israel, even though the U.S. has traditionally wielded its veto to protect the Jewish state on votes regarding settlements.

POWER: Our vote today is fully in line with the bipartisan history of how American presidents have approached both the issue and the role of this body.

LABOTT: President Obama has long held the settlements were an obstacle to peace. But the vote today in the waning days of Obama's presidency was seen by some as a parting shot against the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who at times has clashed with Mr. Obama.

After the resolution passed, President-elect Donald Trump tweeted, quote, "As to the U.N., things will be different after January 20th."

Israel's U.N. ambassador said in a statement he expected his country's, quote, "greatest ally to act in accordance with the values we share and that they would have vetoed this disgraceful resolution." And he said he hopes the Trump administration will be more sympathetic.

The vote brought to head a standoff between the current and future presidents over Middle East peace. It was initially delayed Thursday after a diplomatic scramble by Netanyahu, who CNN has learned reached out to President-elect Donald Trump to intervene. When Trump sent out a statement Thursday calling for a U.S. veto, Egyptian President Sisi, whose country sponsored the resolution, took a call from Trump and then put the vote on hold.

Today, other members reintroduced it. Behind the scenes, officials complained Trump's interference runs afoul of the long standing tradition that a president-elect does not interfere with an outgoing president's administration, especially in foreign policy. But publicly, the State Department has appeared unfazed.

JOHN KIRBY, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: Nobody here felt boxed in by a tweet from the president-elect. And he's perfectly entitled to express his views on these kinds of things.

LABOTT: This morning, Trump's new spokesman made clear this president-elect won't be staying on the sidelines until he takes office next month.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: President Obama and his team have been unbelievably gracious to the president-elect and his team, but at the end of the day he's not someone that's going to sit back and wait.


LABOTT: And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office is accusing President Obama and his administration of colluding behind the scenes against Israel. Something the White House has vehemently denied. Israel says it's looking forward to working with the Trump administration to negate the effects of this resolution and President -- Prime Minister Obama has recalled his ambassadors from countries who voted for this resolution, taking some pretty harsh diplomatic actions tonight -- Jim.

ACOSTA: Absolutely. Elise Labott, thank you very much.

Tonight, Israel and President-elect Trump are clearly on the same page against the Obama administration.

Let's get reaction right now from the White House. We're joined by Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes.

Ben, thanks for being with us. I guess the question, and you probably already heard this one today but I'll ask it to you here, is this President Obama getting back at Prime Minister Netanyahu?

BEN RHODES, DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: Absolutely not, Jim. The fact of the matter is, bipartisan policy of the U.S. government for decades has been to oppose settlements. The reason we took this step is because for years we've seen an acceleration in the growth of these settlements. And frankly if these current trends continue, the two-state solution is going to be impossible and the peace that people say that we want, that we badly want for the people of Israel, a secure Israel living side by side with a Palestinian state, that goal will become impossible under the current trend. That's why the president took the decision that he did today.

ACOSTA: But the prime minister's office is obviously deeply disappointed. They're expressing some outrage today over this. What do you say to the prime minister's office and various Israeli officials who are now saying that President Obama, that this White House does not have their back?

[18:30:05] RHODES: Well, Jim, it's just not backed up by the record. We just concluded a $38 billion tenure MOU for security assistance to Israel. We've had unprecedented security cooperation with Israel under this administration. But the fact of the matter is, for years, Jim, and you know this from covering the issue, we have expressed grave concern about continued Israeli settlement construction. And the fact is, this settlement construction pushes far outside boundary of even the security barrier that the Israelis built for themselves.

It's deep into the West Bank. Deep into what anybody who looks at the issue would consider to be a future Palestinian state. And just the other day -- recently Prime Minister Netanyahu said this is the most pro-settlement government in Israeli history. And he said that with pride. And the fact is, we can't just stand on the sidelines as these trends take place that threaten the viability of a two-state solution and the peace that we want for the Israeli people and for the region.

ACOSTA: So you felt like you had to send a message to the prime minister, is that what this is?

RHODES: No, to the world. This is an affirmation of what is existing U.S. policy, Jim. There's nothing in this resolution again that hasn't been consistent U.S. policy under two different bipartisan administrations. The fact is that the resolution also condemns incitement to violence, which we've seen too often in the Palestinian territories, which is also an impediment to peace. So we made clear the responsibilities on both sides, the Palestinians to stop terrorism, to stop the incitement to violence, and the Israeli government to not continue with settlements that will make peace impossible.

ACOSTA: So why not work behind the scenes to prevent this resolution from being considered in the first place? Was that not a possibility? You could have worked against it behind the scenes instead of allowing all of this to unfold in this very public, spectacle like way.

RHODES: Well, look, contrary to what's been said, this was not a U.S. resolution. We did not draft it. We did not put it forward. The fact of the matter is. There are resolutions that are pursued all the time in the Security Council. This was put forward by Egypt yesterday and was taken to a vote -- called to a vote by other members of the Security Council today. Again, we didn't draft it. We did not have any role in bringing it forward. But when we assessed the resolution, this is consistent with U.S. policy.

And like I said, Jim, we've had years and years where we've tried the peace process, we've tried direct talks, proximity talks. We've warned publicly that the continued advance of these settlements was going to make a peace process less viable and a two-state solution potentially impossible. We cannot in good conscience leave this office without affirming that what we're seeing on the ground, and I wish -- I know there's a lot of coverage of the politics of this, Jim.

President Obama doesn't have to worry about politics, he's leaving. We're worried about the situation on the ground in the West Bank where we see settlement activity that is making a two-state solution impossible.

ACOSTA: But the situation you're turning over to is going to President-elect Trump, soon to be President Trump. He was involved in all of this yesterday. You were on a conference call with reporters earlier today saying, we only have one president at a time. That seemed to be sort of you registering some displeasure with what Donald Trump has been up to these last couple of days, apparently talking with the Israelis, as our Elise Labott has been reporting, also talking with the Egyptian president about all of this.

Should he has been staying out of this? I mean, after all, you're in the White House, he's not.

RHODES: Well, look, after January 20th, he will be responsible for the conduct of American policy. Until January 20th, President Obama is. That's how it works. There's one president at a time. And this, by the way, again, is not a new policy for the United States. There have been Republican administrations, including the Bush administration, that have addressed Israeli-Palestinian issues at the U.N. Samantha Power, ambassador to the U.N., began her statement today quoting Ronald Reagan from 1982, expressing his opposition to settlements.

Again, we have business to do until January 20th, there's one president at a time here, Jim.


RHODES: And we're going to do our job until the end and then we'll hand it off to the president-elect.

ACOSTA: There is one president at a time, but are you satisfied with the way President-elect Trump handled this matter in the last 48 hours?

RHODES: Well, look, it's unusual. There's been a lot of unusual during this transition. Look, the way in which President Obama handles his business is we control what we control. He's been very gracious, he's been very clear to us that we are to help execute the most successful transition that we possibly can. So that will be our attitude going forward, Jim.

We will do our part to do whatever we can for the incoming team and to do our jobs here until January 20th.

ACOSTA: And do you think that this has damaged the relationship between President Obama and President-elect Donald Trump? They seemed to be hitting it off at the beginning of this transition process. And there seems to be some turbulence here.

RHODES: Look, Jim, they had a difference on this issue. That was already clear. They've taken different positions as it relates to a number of foreign policy issues. Obviously the president-elect wasn't the preferred candidate for President Obama. So, you know, that's priced in. That's baked in, Jim.


RHODES: We can do what we can do and control our own behavior. And that is to govern as best we can, to be very clear about what we're doing, and to help the new team as they transition in.

[18:35:08] And that's what we're going to do. It's up to the president-elect and his team as to how they're going to conduct themselves.

ACOSTA: One last question but a different subject. Donald Trump apparently told Mika Brzezinski in an off-air conversation, "Let it be an arms race," when it comes to this back and forth with Vladimir Putin over nuclear weapons. Is that appropriate to have that kind of language coming from a president-elect when as you said there's one president at a time? That they can't obviously make matters easier for you at the White House.

RHODES: Well, it's also an unusual comment, you know, Jim. Hereto I'd just say every administration since the Reagan administration and the end of the Cold War has reduced our nuclear stockpiles. That's been in our interest. It helps us get other countries like Russia to reduce their nuclear stockpiles and avert a great risk of nuclear war or nuclear proliferation.

We think that's the right course of action. That's what we've done in office. And frankly we already have a very expensive nearly trillion- dollar nuclear modernization plan just to maintain the arsenal that we currently have. So the cost and price tag of another arms race would be absolutely staggering. So that's the position we've taken. Again, the president-elect will have every opportunity to take his own positions and govern from those positions after January 20th.

ACOSTA: All right. We know it's been a busy day for you, Ben. And it's -- the holidays coming up this weekend. Thanks for making time for us. We appreciate it. Good talking to you.

RHODES: Thanks, Jim. Merry Christmas.

ACOSTA: Merry Christmas to you.

Just ahead, more on the new warning about ISIS threats here in the U.S. pegged through the holidays. Is the terror group shifting to new targets?

And new twist in the unusual relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. From a very nice letter to hints of a nuclear armories. That's coming up.


[18:40:32] ACOSTA: All right. There's more breaking news on the terror threat tonight. The State Department is issuing a new warning to U.S. citizens about to travel to Jordan and Egypt, citing threats from terrorist groups, including ISIS. This comes on the heels of a new warning from the FBI and Homeland Security about ISIS threats against churches and holiday events here in the U.S.

Our justice correspondent Evan Perez is back along with Graeme Wood, national correspondent for "The Atlantic," and CNN military analyst, retired General Mark Hertling.

Evan, you're hearing about new warnings from the FBI and DHS, separate from these State Department warnings. What can you tell us?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, the warnings really are about in light of what happened in Berlin, Jim. And the fact that in the last few days, you've seen ISIS Web sites -- pro ISIS Web sites posts essentially threats, encouraging their supporters to attack these churches.

Now, look, this is out of an abundance of caution, there is no credible threat than they've seen so far. And I think we've talked in the last couple of days that there has been actually kind of a quiet threat scenario for going into the holidays. After Berlin, they noticed suddenly there was a lot more threat streams coming in. And it's kind of right on schedule, frankly. At the end of the year is where they see a lot of this stuff and right on schedule, they're seeing it.

And obviously we still have the inauguration coming up, which is also going to generate its own level of address.

ACOSTA: Absolutely. It does seem like we hear about this every -- this time every year.

Graeme, let me ask you. Is this a shift in targets for ISIS? It sort of feels new to us that we're talking about religious targets, churches, holiday events, that sort of thing. Obviously this is in response in part to what happened in Berlin. Are we going to be seeing more of this to come, do you think?

GRAEME WOOD, AUTHOR, "THE WAY OF THE STRANGERS": Well, ISIS for a long time has been mostly of course attacking Muslims, but they have never played nice with Christians and they've always said that they view Christians who are fighting against them as legitimate targets. But I think the most important thing to realize about this new threat and this acutely felt threat about religious gatherings and the Christmas season is that it's ISIS capitalizing on Berlin, noticing that there is a particular type of fear in the air, and suggesting to its followers that hey, here's another type of threat that seems to really get under the skin of our enemies. And if we emphasize it, then we get a lot of bang for our buck.

Just by saying attack churches, they can make sure a lot of people are uncomfortable at a time when they want to be celebrating the holidays.

ACOSTA: And General Hertling, you know, I guess one of the things that is just so frustrating about this is when you hear about this attacker being able to travel from Berlin across western Europe all the way down the Milan, did German authorities, did European authorities drop the ball here? You don't want to say that because obviously they're working around the clock just as U.S. authorities are. But did they drop the ball?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: I don't think so, Jim. And in fact, I'm going to say they worked pretty quickly to get this guy even though he was absconded by accident. But when you take a look at the attack scene in Berlin, there was literally a train station about 200 yards away that an individual could have jumped on, got into the main Berlin Hauptbahnhof and then gone in to any of the other 26 countries in Europe that are part of the Schengen zone.

You can travel freely. No one asks for a passport on a train as you go from France -- or from Germany to France and then onto Italy. Or he could have driven that way, you know, depending on what happened. But, you know, you're not having the passport controls at the border the way it used to be several decades ago. And it's just a whole lot easier to move around. The other thing I'd say, though, too, is we have a lot of talk about

we have the intelligence now. But as an operator, Jim, you also have to take that intelligence and when you go after someone, you have to have something that is either good intelligence and something that will be able to hold them in jail for questioning, or that they're about to do an attack and you have to weigh when you go after an individual based on the intelligence and what they're doing at the time and catching them at the right moment.

ACOSTA: And apparently, Graeme, this attacker was affiliated with a known ISIS recruiting network run by a man known as Abu Walaa. What do we know about this recruiting network? Are authorities in Europe paying close enough attention to it? I would have to think they're looking at this group very closely.

WOOD: Yes, I've been to some of the areas that Abu Walaa and his followers have been most active. If you go to North Rhine-Westphalia, a town called Dinslaken, would be one of the centers of this, you find jihadist propaganda, you know, stickers on bus shelters, for example, that I was able to spot. It's not hard to find signs that there had been radicalization afoot. The good news is that German authorities are well-aware of this, that there has been a great effort to find out who has been inspired to travel, who has been left behind and who might want to attack now. It's not too surprising at all that an attack in Germany would be associated with that kind of a cell.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN ANCHOR: All right. It's a big concern. Gentlemen, thank you very much.

Up next, the president-elect is fuming because of something his son Eric felt he had to do. We'll take you inside Trump's newest tweets. That's coming up ahead.


BASH: Tonight, President-elect Trump seems to be sending mixed signals about his relationship with Vladimir Putin. Trump releasing a very nice letter, as he called it, from the Russian leader, even as the two man hint at a nuclear arms race.

Our chief political correspondent Dana Bash is following all of these new developments in the Trump transition.

Dana, nice letters, an arms race. It's hard to keep it straight.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: It is. And it's all very confusing and I think that is part of the point here. Keep everybody guessing to keep the upper hand. It's how Trump maintained leverage in negotiations in business, "The Art of the Deal". But when it's about nuclear weapons, this is practically unchartered territory.


BASH (voice-over): A "Dear Mr. Trump" letter from Russia's Vladimir Putin released this morning by the transition team. "I hope that after you assume the position of the president of the United States of America, we will be able by acting in a constructive and pragmatic manner to take real steps to restore the framework of bilateral cooperation."

Today, Trump called it a very nice letter from Vladimir Putin, his thoughts are so correct. The date on Putin's letter, December 15th, more than a week ago. Releasing it now could be designed to lower the temperature after his own explosive comments hours earlier, threatening to engage in a nuclear arms race.

Off camera telling a pajama-clad MSNBC host, quote, "Let it be an arm race. We will outmatch them at every pass."

Trump's incoming White House press secretary explains.

SEAN SPICER, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: There are countries around the globe right now that are talking about increasing their nuclear capacity. The president is going to put our nation and security first and is not going to worry about how -- he's going to do it.

BASH: Unorthodox approach to just about everything should be a surprise to no one. It's what Trump's campaign was all about.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: Things to have change. And they have to change right now.

BASH: Now that change means threatening on roll back decades of diplomatic work on nuclear arms control, and shaking things up on the domestic front, too. Trump sent Lockheed into a momentary tail spend by tweeting about cost overruns for the Pentagon's new F-35 Strike Fighters.

TRUMP: These crooked people.

BASH: But some of Trump's harsh campaign rhetoric feels different now that the shoe is on the president-elect's foot.

TRUMP: You look at that foundation. It is pure theft and pure crookedness.

BASH: He attacks Clintons on allegations of pay-per-play with their charitable foundation, which does good works like global health initiatives. Now, his son Eric suspended his own foundation to avoid allegations of pay-per-play which Trump lamented on Twitter, saying, "My wonderful son Eric would no longer be allowed to raise money for children with cancer because of a possible conflict of interest with my presidency. Isn't this a ridiculous shame? He loves these kids. Has raised millions of dollars for them and now must stop. Wrong answer."

And then there is how Trump spent his morning, on the links with Tiger Woods. An enviable outing for any golf enthusiast, yet curious since Tiger was a regular part of Trump's anti-Obama campaign riff.

TRUMP: He played more golf last year than Tiger Woods. Now, think of it. We don't have time for this.


BASH: Now, to be fair since becoming a candidate, Trump has not spent much time playing golf, especially considering his website list 17 branded Trump golf courses. But Trump also said during the campaign that he loves golf. He thinks Tiger Woods is one of the greats. But he just doesn't have time to play with him.

But, Jim, maybe now, the weight of presidency or at least being president elect is on him and he releases that everybody, at least, especially someone like him, needs a bit of a mental break at times.

ACOSTA: I think that's right.

Dana Bash, stay with us.

Let's bring our political analysts, Josh Rogin, Ron Brownstein here as well.

Josh, what do you think of what happened at the U.N. earlier today and in this threat that you're hearing up on Capitol Hill about pulling funding from the U.S. to the United Nations. It's something Lindsey Graham has tweeted about, talked about.

What are you hearing?

JOSH ROGIN, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that's right. I just got off the phone with Senator Graham, minutes ago. He said, he had just gotten off the phone minutes before with Prime Minister Netanyahu and told him that he plans to spearhead an effort to defund the U.N., to withdraw the United States contribution, which makes up 22 percent of the U.N. budget.

Senator Graham said he has a group of about a half dozen of Republican senators already signed on. He said, Prime Minister Netanyahu couldn't weight in specifically. But the quote that Netanyahu gave Graham was it is time to take the gloves off and he welcomed Graham's strong stance in opposition to this resolution.

Now, it remains to be seen whether the Trump administration is going to joining this. But you can imagine a situation where Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration join hands to really disrupt the regular in the U.N. in a major way in response to this.

ACOSTA: And, Ron, I thought the gloves were already off. But it seems like we're going to go from bad to worse here.

What do you make of this talk of pulling funding from the United Nations? I supposed with Republicans in the Congress, Republicans in the White House, anything is possible.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I mean, let's start with the first step. Just -- it was quite a gauge or a yardstick of the degree of distrust and enmity between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government that we got here in the first place, that the U.S. failed to block -- decided not to block this resolution. And it was I think a reflection of their belief -- that administration belief that Netanyahu is fundamentally not serious about a peace process, a two-state peace process anyway.

[18:55:11] And the fact that Donald Trump, you know, has tweeted in opposition to this just underscores how different things are going to be under his presidency. There is going to be much more precedence to Netanyahu's definition of what it takes for Israel to be secure in the Mideast, and that is, you know, a very different posture that we saw from Obama, very different from Bill Clinton.

I mean, Netanyahu was aligned much more with the Republican Party, probably more than any foreign leader has with one U.S. party over the course of his career. And, look, on the other side, normally, you say the cooler heads prevail. And probably could predict that. Sooner or later, the U.S. is not going to withdraw from the U.N., which provides many benefits to the U.S. But nothing seems entirely off the table anymore.

ACOSTA: And, Dana, you heard Ben Rhodes calling this all unusual, Donald Trump's involvement in this vote earlier this week, unprecedented, you might say. And it just sounds like the White House is not happy about this and they're very fine with making it very clear.

BASH: Absolutely. He also -- Ben Rhodes also said to you and reminded you that Samantha Power, the Obama ambassador to the U.N., in her speech today talked about Ronald Reagan, suggesting this is a Ronald Reagan ideal to end settlements, which may be true, but it doesn't change the fact that the U.N. has been kind of the ultimate -- I don't know oasis -- but the ultimate place for the U.S. and Israel to bond and to never kind of stray from that and if on this particular issue and this particular time that happened.

I think that Ron is right. It is going to be a different ball game and so many ways and shapes and forms in the Trump world. But you know from reporting and, you know, you covered the whole campaign, that on Israel in particular he fundamentally believes that either it is approach or neglect or what have you, that not just this administration but past administration have put towards Israel, obviously has now worked and he thinks he can do better. And whether that is, you know, thumbing his nose at the U.N. or doing it another way -- we'll see.

ACOSTA: Josh, does President Obama deserve a break here? I mean, Ben Rhodes was saying as Dana Bash is pointing out, this is not terribly different from Republican administrations. Is President Obama being held to a different standard?

ROGIN: Well, there is a different standard but there is also a different history and context here. You know, what previous administrations have done is they have built strong relationships with Israel so then they have leverage and they have capital that they can spend when they decide to do something tough. That is how Reagan did it. That's how Clinton did it, OK? Obama skipped the part where you build a good relationship and went right to the top, OK? And it didn't work. So, that could be a lesson.

Now, what the Trump administration is going to just get rid of the top and just be as close to Israel as lips and teeth. They are just going to buddy, buddy up with them. Whether or not that produces better or worse result results, we're all going to wait --


BASH: In fairness there was also a very big and deep personality conflict between the two leaders, between Obama and Netanyahu, which didn't allow for any of that --

ROGIN: We'll never know because --

ACOSTA: And, Ron, we saw that on display when Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke in front of Congress.

BASH: Right.

ACOSTA: But getting to results, it is an unknown, whether or not President-elect Trump is going to get results by having a very different relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu. You don't know what's going to happen in that part of the world.

BROWNSTEIN: Right. Well, look, Joe Lieberman, former Democratic vice president became independent senator was on "NEW DAY" yesterday and said, one thing the Trump administration is not going to do is pressure Benjamin Netanyahu to do, anything he doesn't believe is in Israelis, you know, security interest.

That is a very different posture. And if that is going to be your posture as the U.S. president, it is very hard to play the honest broker role because the evidence of the last 20 years is that Benjamin Netanyahu has a pretty narrow needle to tread to see anything that would be in Israel's interests in terms of a negotiation with the Palestinians. So, if what this is signaling and the appointment of the nominee is more deference, you could end with just more stalemate.

ACOSTA: All right, Ron, Josh, and Dana, thank you very much. We appreciate. Good discussion.

We have breaking news just in to CNN, actress Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in "Star Wars" as everybody knows, has been hospitalized after suffering a cardiac event aboard a flight from London to Los Angeles. A source familiar with the incident says the flight was approaching L.A. when Fisher became ill. Carrie Fisher is 60 years old and, of course, she's best known for that role as Princess Leia, so many other movies, "When Harry Meets Sally" and so on.

CNN will be following the story and as we get more information, will bring it to you.

I'm Jim Acosta. Thanks for joining us tonight.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" anchored by Poppy Harlow starts right now.