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THE SITUATION ROOM

Interview With California Congressman John Garamendi; Skakel Case; Putin Responds to Russia Sanctions; Top 10 Political Moments of 2016; CNN Film on the Band Chicago Airs New Year's Day; Trump: Putin 'Very Smart' for Response to U.S. Sanctions; Murder Conviction Reinstated for Michael Skakel. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 30, 2016 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:02]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Forced out. Russians who got the boot from President Obama are on the move, as the sanctions sink in. Why is Putin refusing to respond in kind? We will have a live report from Moscow.

Boxed in. A top Trump aide suggests President Obama ordered sanctions to try to force the hand of his successor. The president-elect has been huddling with high-level advisers as he faces a big decision on Russia once he's sworn in.

Also, convicted again. A cousin of the Kennedy political dynasty may be heading back to prison after a new ruling that his murder trial was fair after all, this hour, another dramatic twist in a sensational case that's been on and off for some four decades.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: The breaking news tonight, president-elect Trump is applauding Vladimir Putin for brushing off new U.S. sanctions against Russia. The Kremlin leader saying he will not expel American diplomats after President Obama ordered 35 Russians to leave the country as punishment for election-related hacking.

In a tweet, Trump is praising Putin's "great move," adding that he always knew Putin was very smart. Russians are starting to feel the impact of the U.S. sanctions, with people leaving a diplomatic compound that was forced to close and heading to the Russian Embassy.

Today, some Russia experts suggest that Moscow's muted response to all this is a classic Putin move, designed to manipulate and even surprise. As the drama plays out, president-elect Trump is facing a decision about whether to keep or lift the sanctions once he takes office in three weeks.

Top adviser Kellyanne Conway telling CNN that President Obama may have taken action against Russia to box in Trump. I will talk about all this with a top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. He's Congressman James (sic) Garamendi, who is standing by, along with our correspondents and analysts, as we bring you full coverage of the day's top stories.

Even as president-elect Trump praises Putin, the Russian leader is throwing another curveball at the U.S.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO (voice-over): Tonight, Russians vacating compounds shut down by the U.S. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, dismissing Washington's payback, instead wishing President Obama and his family a happy new year, saying in a statement -- quote -- "We will not stoop to the level of irresponsible diplomacy. It is a pity that the President Obama administration finishes its work this way, but, nevertheless, I congratulate him and his family a happy new year."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recommended Putin expel 35 American diplomats from Russia after the U.S. ordered 35 alleged Russian spies to leave the U.S. by this weekend.

SERGEI LAVROV, RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): We cannot let such escapades happen without a response. The Russian Foreign Ministry, together with our colleagues from other departments, have made a proposal to declare 31 staff from the embassy of Moscow and four diplomats from the general consulate of St. Petersburg as persona non grata.

SCIUTTO: President Putin, likely waiting for a far friendlier administration under Donald Trump, did not take that advice, saying in his statement: "We will not create problems for American diplomats. We will not send anyone away."

With a stroke of drama, Putin even issued this invitation to American children: "In response to the new U.S. sanctions, I invite all children of the U.S. diplomats to the new year and Christmas children's show at the Kremlin, signed yours sincerely, Vladimir Putin."

The U.S. shut down two Russian government-owned compounds, one in New York, where law enforcement was seen outside, and another in Maryland, a 45-acre property purchased by the Soviet government in 1972. Today, vehicles were seen leaving the Maryland estate and returning to the Russian Embassy in Washington. The White House says the Russians working at the compounds were spying on the U.S.

LISA MONACO, CHIEF WHITE HOUSE COUNTERTERRORISM ADVISER: What these individuals were doing were basically collecting intelligence. They're intelligence officers operating here and using these compounds, one in New York, one in Maryland, for intelligence collection purposes.

SCIUTTO: Russia, however, refutes that the estates were being used for espionage.

VITALY CHURKIN, RUSSIAN AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: I think it's quite scandalous that they chose to go after our kids, you know? They know full well those two facilities which they mentioned in their notes, they are vacation facilities for our kids, and this is Christmastime.

SCIUTTO: Four of the Russians sanctioned by the U.S. are part of the Russian military intelligence unit known as the GRU. One of them is the unit's chief.

MICHAEL WEISS, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: It's assigning blame to Russia's military and intelligence service, but the actual perpetrators of these hacks are contractors, if you like, people who have been found by the Russian government to do their dirty work for them.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

[18:05:00]

SCIUTTO: Let's go live to Russia now for more on Vladimir Putin's response to the U.S. sanctions and the kudos that he's getting on Twitter from Donald Trump.

CNN senior international correspondent Matthew Chance is live in Moscow.

So what are you hearing there tonight?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I mean, the Russian media are absolutely euphoric about this. This was a remarkable bit of political drama on the part of Donald Trump.

We saw his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, appear very solemnly -- you heard it there in that report -- recommending that 35 U.S. diplomats expelled in response to the 35 Russian diplomats expelled by the United States.

It gave Vladimir Putin the opportunity to show that he's magnanimous and take the high road and say, no, I'm not going to make life difficult for these diplomats. I'm not going to expel anyone.

He also extended that invitation to the kids to celebrate new year at the Kremlin, the children of U.S. diplomats. Incredible. He managed to turn around what was an extremely serious rebuke from the United States into a positive for him, sweeping to one side the Obama administration and reaching across it, directly appealing to the incoming administration of Donald Trump, saying, look, the future of U.S. policy with U.S.-Russian relations is going to be the policy that Donald Trump has.

And that was something that was appreciated by at least one person, of course, by Donald Trump, who tweeted himself from his estate in Florida saying: "Great move in delaying this by Vladimir Putin. I always knew he was very smart."

So Vladimir Putin must be very happy with his work today.

SCIUTTO: Let's look through all the theater here, that serious statement by the foreign minister who had to have known what his president was going to do afterwards, reaching out. This is really a Russian leadership knowing that they are going get a much friendlier U.S. president in three weeks' time.

CHANCE: Yes, and it's also the Russian leadership that knows Donald Trump faces a lot of headwinds from his own party, the Republicans, from Congress that want to crack down harder on Russia and establish even more sanctions.

This was perhaps an attempt to disarm them and to help Donald Trump in maintaining his stance, because they need a friendly White House. They need Donald Trump here in the Kremlin, because they want sanctions lifted. They want the United States to get involved with the peace process that they have established in Syria to try and bring an end to the conflict there in Russia's favor.

They want all sorts of other issues that have divided United States and Russia over the past couple of years under the Obama administration. They want those issues to be resolved, and they see Donald Trump as the best chance of them doing that.

SCIUTTO: Matthew Chance in Moscow, thank you very much.

Tonight, president-elect Trump's glowing tweet about Vladimir Putin may be a hint at what he plans to do about those new U.S. sanctions once he takes office.

CNN's Sunlen Serfaty is with Trump in Florida.

So, this new tweet comes after Trump suggested on camera it's time to move on from the uproar about the Russian hacking. We're getting a collection of signals as to what he is going to do once he takes office.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim.

President-elect Donald Trump has not said firmly what he's going to do with these sanctions, whether he will reverse them once he takes office or leave them in place. But the tone of the tweets and the statements coming from Donald Trump tonight is certainly sending a very distinct message.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY (voice-over): Tonight, president-elect Donald Trump is out with new praise for Vladimir Putin, applauding the Russian president for withholding retaliatory sanctions on the U.S., Trump tweeting: "Great move on delay by V. Putin. I always knew he was very smart."

But as the president-elect determines his next move responding further to Russia and the new U.S. sanctions, his advisers are calling out the Obama administration for what they see as politics at play.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP SENIOR ADVISER: We have been talking about this for a while. I think that, you know, all we heard all through the election was Russia, Russia, Russia whenever it came to anything Donald Trump said or did, it seemed most days. And now, you know, since the election, it's just this fever pitch of accusations and insinuations.

SERFATY: Trump transition officials are speculating the administration sanctions against Russia are a distraction to undermine his win and tie his hands on Russia before he becomes president.

CONWAY: I will tell you even those who are sympathetic to President Obama on most issues are saying that part of the reason he did this today was to -- quote -- "box in" president-elect Trump. That would be very unfortunate if that were the motivating -- if politics were the motivating factor here.

SERFATY: Since the sanctions were announced, Trump himself has only issued a blunt two-line statement Thursday night saying in part -- quote -- "It's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things," a posture he's taken publicly in recent days.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think the computers have complicated lives very greatly. You know, the whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what's going on.

SERFATY: But the president-elect has now agreed to sit down with the intelligence community.

[18:10:04]

REINCE PRIEBUS, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: We just need to get to a point ourselves where we can talk to all of these intelligence agencies and find out once and for all what evidence is there, how bad is it.

SERFATY: That closed-door meeting likely to take place in New York next week, where Trump will be presented with the evidence the intel community says points a finger at Russia for the hacks.

PRIEBUS: Maybe at that time or maybe later, he will have a response, but right now we're just not in a position to sit here and respond to all of these details before we have a full-blown intelligence report on this particular matter.

SERFATY: In the past, Trump and his aides have publicly been skeptical of the intelligence community's conclusions.

TRUMP: I don't think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. Could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds. OK?

SERFATY: And have attempted to deflect blame away from the Russians, vowing during the campaign to improve the relationship with Russia.

TRUMP: Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along with Russia and these other countries? Wouldn't that be a positive thing?

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) SERFATY: Once sworn into office in January, Trump has the power to reverse the sanctions or keep them in place. That decision hanging in the balance tonight.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SERFATY: And all of this continues to play out on Twitter this evening. After Trump posted that tweet this afternoon, it was only a matter of minutes before the Russian Embassy and the U.S. retweeted that praise from Donald Trump for Russian President Putin -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Sunlen Serfaty, thank you very much.

Well, in the last hour, we got Republican reaction to the sanctions on Russia and Trump's praise of Putin.

I want to hear now from a Democrat.

We're joined by Congressman John Garamendi. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee in the House.

Congressman, thanks very much for taking the time.

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: Good to be with you.

SCIUTTO: First to this tweet from Donald Trump praising Vladimir Putin.

Just to remind our viewers: "Great move on the day by V. Putin. I always knew he was very smart."

Can you give me your reaction?

GARAMENDI: I am scared. I am frankly very, very scared that our next president hasn't a clue about what Russia is actually up to.

Doesn't he recognize what happened in Georgia years ago, not so many years ago, to Crimea and in the Ukraine? Does he know about the overflights of the Russian planes against our ships in the Baltic Sea? Has he no clue at all about Russia trying to undermine NATO and do away with the one protection that we have had since World War II to protect Western Europe from an aggressive Russia?

Doesn't he understand what he's playing into here? Does he know that his secretary of state wants to do away with the sanctions that have been imposed by both the European Union, as well as the United States, against Russia for their invasion of Crimea, takeover of Crimea, as well as the actions that they have taken in Eastern Ukraine?

This is very, very serious stuff, and our new president is marching out there in what can only be described as either naivete or else trying to do away with what has been the American safety in Europe for more than 50 years. It is a frightening situation.

SCIUTTO: Are you concerned that the president-elect is putting the United States' national security at risk? GARAMENDI: Absolutely. Absolutely true.

And the sanctions -- listen, Tillerson, Exxon's CEO, has been against the sanctions that have been imposed by both Europe and the United States against Russia. Now, just giving Putin an open road would be extraordinarily dangerous.

And we know for a fact that Putin wants to destabilize the European Union and certainly NATO. This has been a long-term goal of Putin. Why would he want to do that? So that they could play whatever game they want in Eastern Europe, to once again dominate Eastern Europe, as they did during the Soviet period.

This is a very, very serious situation, in which I believe the next president is naive. And, oh, my, we're going to go do an intelligence briefing now, next week? He's been offered intelligence briefings since even before he was elected in the November election, and mostly refused to do that.

This is not a political play by the Obama administration. This is what we needed to do, and that is to smack Russia as best we could with these issues that have been taking place. And, by the way...

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: I do want to ask you on that, because the Obama administration has been accused of boxing Trump in.

[18:15:01]

And to be fair, it was October 7 that the intelligence community identified Russia as being behind this hacking, a full month before the election. The Obama administration had enormous opportunity to take action like this weeks, even months ago. Why just now?

GARAMENDI: It probably took some time to figure out exactly what would be the best way.

Also, note that there were four individuals that are being accused of a federal crime, and there's money on their head for somebody to give us the information so that we could retrieve those individuals and prosecute them here in the United States.

This is a serious breach of American law. It is a crime to hack into a system, to steal information. And it's a felony.

SCIUTTO: To be fair, I do have to ask you this, because, listen, it was already on October 7 that the intelligence community said they were confident, they went public with an enormous statement saying we are confident Russia hacked the election.

You know better than me the intelligence community doesn't do that unless they have the goods. Why did the president need to wait two- and-a-half month if he had the goods then? It gives credence to what Trump and his supporters say, that he's only doing it now because Trump is the president-elect. (CROSSTALK)

GARAMENDI: Well, certainly the Trump transition team wants to play this as though it is some sort of political game, tit for tat.

No, no, this is something really serious. This is about a crime, a federal crime, hacking into the DNC, into Podesta, and probably into dozens of other people. Whether it was leaked for political issues or not, it is still a crime.

And you have got to be aware, you have to be aware of what is being played out here, and that is that our next president is cozying up to the Russians, maybe providing them with an excuse to continue their nefarious schemes that they have been under way undermining NATO, and also literally invading, not literally, actually invading other countries, invading Georgia, invading Ukraine, taking over Crimea.

This is serious business, and our president has to stand up to them. Yes, absolutely, we want to have a better relationship, but don't back down and don't ever approach Russia with weakness and kindness and a wet kiss.

SCIUTTO: Congressman Garamendi, stand by. I want to ask you about Putin's next move.

We are going to come right back after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:20:37]

SCIUTTO: We're back with Democratic Congressman John Garamendi.

Congressman Garamendi, expulsions like the one we're seeing now were so common years ago during the Cold War, as well as more serious things, like alleged violations of arms treaties here. Are we entering or have we entered a second Cold War?

GARAMENDI: Well, last week, our president-elect said he wanted to start a nuclear arms race. This week, he, I don't know, goes opposite direction and wants to make love to Putin.

So, where is this man going? What is his position? What is he going to do when Russia sends his little green men into Estonia, a NATO country that we're there to defend? This is scary, scary stuff.

I'm not at all sure what the new president-elect wants to do. He's not negotiating a new hotel deal. He's negotiating an international relationship with what our generals believe to be the existential threat to the United States, Russia.

This is not something to be taken lightly, and certainly naivete and avoiding intelligence briefings over the last month-and-a-half is just not what should be done.

(CROSSTALK) SCIUTTO: So, what is Vladimir Putin's next move? Is he waiting to read Donald Trump's actual actions once he takes office?

GARAMENDI: Well, what he ought to be reading now is that a man one week threatening a nuclear arms race and the next week giving Putin a big wet kiss. What's going on here?

What is the position of this new president? And what is he trying to achieve? Does he really want to do away with NATO? Does he really want Japan and others to have nuclear weapons? And you can't be on multiple sides of issues here. You have to be clear.

You're dealing with a very dangerous situation. Are we to ignore what Russia did in Syria and Aleppo? I suppose so. This is -- this is a very difficult and a very dangerous situation.

And to simply say that the Obama administration is playing politics ignores the underlying reality of what is transpiring here. Russia hacked into the Democratic Party, into the chairman of the campaign, and then leaked that information for political purposes. It is a crime.

And Russia was clearly engaged in that. So what are you going to do, just stand aside and do nothing? The president of the United States is responsible for carrying out the authority of the United States in persecuting and prosecuting criminals. Russia is a criminal.

SCIUTTO: Congressman Garamendi, thanks very much for taking the time today.

GARAMENDI: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Just ahead, more on the new Trump tweet and what it tells us about his plans for Russia once he's sworn in.

And a member of the Kennedy family may be heading back to prison. Michael Skakel's murder conviction has been reinstated tonight. We will talk about this new ruling in a notorious case.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:27:17]

SCIUTTO: Breaking tonight, Donald Trump is responding to a surprise move by Vladimir Putin with words of praise.

The Kremlin leader says he will not expel American diplomats, at least not now, despite new U.S. sanctions for Russia's election meddling. President-elect Trump tweeting: "Great move on the delay by V. Putin. I always knew he was very smart!"

Let's bring in our national security experts.

So, Evan Perez, you have heard from Trump supporters in particular questioning just how certain they are that Russia did this. Why do you believe intelligence agencies believe they know who did this? EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: One thing they can do is they

could read this 13-page report from the Homeland Security Department, the FBI, which has a lot of technical data showing exactly how they say the GRU and the FSB broke into the DNC, the Democratic National Committee, beginning in 2015.

It shows you the malware code. It shows you a lot of the technical data, including the so-called signatures that they used to get into these systems. Look, if you don't want to believe this and you don't believe this, it doesn't matter what proof is shown to you.

But if they are interested in being persuaded, and the Russians have asked for this, Donald Trump has asked for this, the people around him have asked for this kind of proof, this document is actually pretty useful. I know people in cyber-security business, experts who spent the night poring over this document, looking specifically at the I.P. addresses and all the technical data, because it is something that is very important.

It goes beyond the DNC. If you read the report yesterday from the administration, they're saying the Russians have been doing this for 10 years or so and it goes beyond the DNC. It goes to critical infrastructure, the United States' nuclear power plants. So what I know is happening is a lot of people are looking at this data, trying to now find the signs.

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: Vulnerabilities, so they can protect, no question.

So, Evelyn, the past two presidents, Republican and Democrat, Bush and Obama, entered office with hopes of better relations. W. said I could see into his eye. They ended with the invasion of Georgia. Obama had the reset, ends where we are now.

Putin and Trump, any potential for this ending warmly, ending as warmly as it started?

EVELYN FARKAS, FORMER DEFENSE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: It's going to start warmer.

But if I could just add one thing to what Evan said, I was in there reading the intelligence for three years, all the intelligence very closely. Obviously, I can't talk about it.

But I also worked for almost 10 years on North Korea also reading all the intelligence. We have excellent intelligence on Russia. It's different from the intelligence we have on many other countries. So, I just want to underline that, that also in the case of this country, it's different. OK.

SCIUTTO: They're not doing a lot of guessing when it comes to this.

FARKAS: Right, right.

So I feel very confident, knowing what I know from having been in there, and also this unanimous statement and all that work.

OK, so back to your question. I think it's going to start very warm, because Donald Trump has made it very clear it's going to start very warm, and so has Putin.

[18:30:09] But I don't think it's going to end very warm unless Donald Trump really sells the farm, if you will. Because -- because we have real interests at stake. Our allies have real interest at stake. So I think he can only go so far. And I'm leaving out, of course, the whole issue of Congress pushing back on him. And Congress, while they can't make the president do things -- we saw that under Obama -- Congress certainly can block the president from doing things.

SCIUTTO: It seems like there's a consensus there, even among Republicans.

Mark Hertling, if Putin doesn't get what he wants from Trump or as much as he wants, does he turn on him?

LT. GEN. MARK HERTLING (RET.), CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, let me -- if I can first, Jim, let me jump on what Evelyn just said.

Because my last job as commander in Europe, I used to get that intel black book every single morning. And for two years, I studied Putin, his army and his government and what they were doing on a daily basis. And the intel is phenomenal, and here's a shout-out to all the intel professionals that give it to you.

Is Putin going to get what he wants? You know, he's playing this according to something called the Gerasimov Doctrine, something that one of his generals came up with. They are right in line with non- linear warfare and cyberwarfare. Part of cyberwarfare is sowing distrust and sowing misunderstanding of your enemy. That's what they're doing.

So when he turned this morning and said, "Oh, no, no, come on in. I'm Santa Claus Putin. You can all come to the Kremlin and watch my shows, he was doing exactly what he needed to do, because he was, first of

all, stroking Trump's ego. Secondly, he was trying to portray himself as the good guy, the better of the two between himself and Mr. Obama, because he was actually inviting people in and not doing a tit-for- tat.

And third, he was sowing more distrust and driving a bigger -- bigger wedge between Mr. Trump and the intelligence community, and his fellow Republicans. This is right in line with what Mr. Trump wants to do, and he's playing -- I'm sorry, Mr. Putin wants to do, and he's playing Trump like a fiddle.

SCIUTTO: Peter, enormous political theater here.

PETER BERGEN, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. And we'll see how it all plays out. I mean, Donald Trump has been -- has a dilemma, I think, which is, you know, he can either go along with these sanctions and expulsions and basically sort of, in some way, concede that Obama and the intelligence community is correct, or he can reverse them. I think reversing them would be very strange and unusual. So let's see.

SCIUTTO: Right. We've seen strange and unusual. Thanks very much, Peter, Evan, Evelyn and Mark Hertling. Great to have you on.

Just ahead, the new ruling in a sensational murder case involving a cousin of the Kennedys.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:36:30] SCIUTTO: Breaking news tonight. A murder conviction reinstated for a member of the Kennedy family. The Connecticut Supreme Court ruling that Michael Skakel did receive a fair trial when he was convicted in 2002 of killing Martha Moxley.

Skakel was released from prison in 2013 when a lower court ruled that his legal defense had been deficient. Skakel, the nephew of Ethel Kennedy, may have to return to prison now for the killing of Moxley back in 1975, when they were both just 15 years on.

CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin is on the phone with us. He's covered Skakel's trial and knows it well. So Jeffrey, tell us how we got here to this reinstatement of the verdict.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST (via phone): Well, after Skakel was convicted in 2002, he went through his usual round of appeals all the way up to the Connecticut Supreme Court and remained convicted.

However, he then petitioned a state court for what's called a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that his lawyer, Mickey Sherman, was defective, gave him ineffective assistance of counsel. The court granted his petition for habeas corpus, ordered him released from prison, but the state of Connecticut appealed to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

Today, the Connecticut Supreme Court reinstated his conviction, so if the status quo remains, he will be ordered back to prison.

SCIUTTO: You've been in that courtroom for days through this trial. Do you believe the evidence was convincing?

TOOBIN: I do. I think the court that granted the writ of habeas corpus was wrong. Mickey Sherman was a competent lawyer. He made some difficult strategic choices about whom to blame as the real murderer, but I think it was clearly a constitutionally permissible defense.

I think the jury was correct in its ruling. I think the judge was correct in upholding the ruling; that is the trial court judge. And I think justice was done here.

You know, just parenthetically, I think it's worth noting that the only reason this case was brought all these years later was my great friend and colleague, Dominic Dunn of "Vanity Fair," drew attention to it through his work. And though Dominic died several years ago, I think he's looking down with satisfaction of the fact that justice will again be done in this case.

SCIUTTO: Jeffrey Toobin, thanks very much. Fascinating case.

I want to turn now back to Donald Trump, his transition, his relationship with Vladimir Putin, and we're joined by our political panel, analysts Rebecca Berg, Jackie Kucinich, and CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.

Douglas, I want to take advantage of the fact that you spoke with President-elect Trump just on Wednesday, face to face at his Florida estate. Did he say anything to you about Russia, his plans for Russia, rebooting relations with Russia?

DOUGLAS BRINKLEY, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: No. I didn't even mention the name of Putin to him. But I did talk about presidents. It dawned on me that the presidents that Donald Trump really talks about a lot -- Ronald Reagan, who had the famous diplomacy with Mikhail Gorbachev, and kind of reinventing what the Cold War was of that era; John F. Kennedy, who had the showdown with Russia but also was trying to -- did the famous nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union back in the early '60s and wanted to co-go to the moon with Russia at one point, JFK -- that he is really somebody that looking out of the box for a big breakthrough in the international arena, to change what, in Donald Trump's mind, is a kind of gridlock that's gripped Washington through the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.

[18:40:14] So I think he can go in any direction -- nuclear arms increase or nuclear arms reductions -- in the coming years.

Doug, Trump is coming into office as one of the most unpopular president-elects in recent history. Let's look at the poll. His approval rating before taking office, 41 percent. Compare that to Obama's, George W. Bush, slightly higher. Clinton and Bush in the 60s. He has a short leash with voters, you might say, based on those numbers. What happens -- does it matter, you might even say, if that approval rating continues to decline?

BRINKLEY: Oh, it could matter, and it does matter greatly. He's got to somehow build some momentum heading into his inauguration. And as your program has been pointing out today, Russia is just going to be at the forefront of things.

And here he has, within the own Republican Party, John McCain and Lindsey Graham as just basically attack dogs on Donald Trump's view of Putin's Russia.

So it's going to be hard to see how he gets that number to go over 50 and 60 percent approval without successfully navigating through a type of crisis we don't want.

Further making it difficult, if the economy takes any dip downward -- it's pretty good now. The stock market has been high. Unemployment at pretty good levels. He'll be held accountable very early on. So he's going to have to find something out of the gate beyond just picking a Republican Supreme Court -- somebody the conservatives love to the Supreme Court. He's got to find an American issue that he could bring another 10 or 15 percent to him. Ronald Reagan always said don't operate below 50 percent in the box office in politics. And right now, Trump is below it.

SCIUTTO: Rebecca Berg, is this a good strategy for Trump? Purely of his own political fortunes here. Because he's got his own party against him on Russia. You're going to have a report coming out from the White House just before the inauguration, you're going to have hearings, you're going to have measures voting on the Hill that all talk about Russia's interference and penalties for it. Why is that going to make him more popular?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, Donald Trump certainly is not uncomfortable being the odd man out. That's where he's been for the duration of his political career now. And he did all right; he won the election. So I don't think that the Republicans speaking out against him are necessarily going to be damaging.

But it does become damaging if there are repercussions, if there are consequences that the American people can see and dislike. And I think that's where he'll be judged on his relations with Russia and, more broadly, his foreign policy. Are there outcomes that are good for Americans or bad for Americans?

Obviously, Donald Trump is betting that strengthening relations with Russia and, to use his terms, negotiating a deal with them, will have good consequences for America. Many Americans and Republicans and Democrats alike are warning that that's not so simple.

SCIUTTO: So Jackie, if you look at Obama's actions in recent days. You can understand the Republican argument that -- they say that Obama is trying to tie Trump's hands. I mean, you look at the Russian sanctions. You look at this U.N. Security Council resolution on Israel. You look at his push next week on the Hill to save Obamacare. Is there substance to that?

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think two things are going on. One, the Obama administration thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. So they didn't think that they had to -- they had to cross all these "T's" and dot all these "I's" before January 20.

The other thing at play is, yes, he's trying to tie his hands, both politically in a lot of ways, but when you talk about some of the drilling regulations that he put in, that's going to tie him up in court. So there are some obstacles that he's put in his way in order to try to save his legacy. And also just trying to preserve some of the things that he's done.

And when it comes to Russia, it's like he's trying to slow down the process. Because if Trump -- that's one thing he can do -- this is an executive action. He can swipe it away the first -- his first day in office. That will create a lot of heartburn on the Hill with Hill Republicans and Democrats. So a little of a trip wire for him right there.

SCIUTTO: No question. It's going to be a battle. Rebecca, Jackie, thanks very much. Douglas Brinkley, as well. We'll have much more news just after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:48:09] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: There are now just about 29 hours left in one of the most tumultuous election years in U.S. history. Many Americans are still feeling the after shocks from one bombshell after another.

CNN's chief political correspondent Dana Bash looks at the top ten political moments of 2016.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Controversial, unprecedented, and unexpected, 2016 was an election year for the ages with an ending meant to disrupt Washington, and that it did. The fight for the GOP presidential nomination hit new lows in 2016 as Republicans scrambled to beat frontrunner Donald Trump at his own game.

SEN. MARCO RUBIO (R), FLORIDA: And you know what they say about men with small hands. You can't trust them, you can't trust them, you can't trust them.

BASH: The insults got under Trump's skin.

TRUMP: He referred to my hands. If they're small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there's no problem. I guarantee it.

BASH: But nothing could knock the billionaire from the top spot.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), HOUSE SPEAKER: All right, everybody.

BASH: In a remarkable display of GOP hesitation and consternation about Donald Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan, the top Republican in government, refused to endorse the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.

RYAN: Well, to be perfectly candid with you, Jake, I'm just not ready to do that at this point. I'm not there right now.

BASH: Then, touche. Trump parroted Ryan's language in an interview with "The Washington Post". "I like Paul but these are horrible times for our country. We need very strong leadership. We need very, very strong leadership and I'm just not quite there yet."

Ryan did eventually offer Trump a tepid endorsement but the party's discomfort with their unconventional nominee persisted through Election Day.

[18:50:07] On the Democratic side, there was Hillary Clinton's rhetorical fumble about Trump voters.

HILLARY CLINTON (D), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: You could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables, right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.

BASH: She issued an apology but Trump and his supporters embraced the moniker.

TRUMP: You remember what Hillary Clinton said? Basket of deplorables, right?

BASH: Months of intraparty fighting culminated in two historic conventions. Each party tried to repair their rifts before the general election.

In Cleveland, a public display of GOP disunity. Trump's former rival, Senator Ted Cruz, was invited to speak but refused to endorse the nominee.

SEN. TED CRUZ (R), TEXAS: Stand, and speak, and vote your conscience.

BASH: Trump, ever the showman, stole Cruz' thunder, appearing in the family box in the middle of the speech.

And in Philly, it was an unknown couple, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who took on Trump.

KHIZR KHAN, GOLD STAR FAMILY: Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will -- I will gladly lend you my copy.

BASH: Trump took the bait, going after the Gold Star family in interviews and on Twitter and handing Hillary a post-convention lead.

For President Obama, 2016 was personal.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Donald is not really a plans guy. He's not really a facts guy, either.

BASH: Obama eviscerated Trump on the campaign trail and Trump hit back.

TRUMP: He is the founder of ISIS. He's the founder of ISIS.

BASH: But after years of stoking conspiracies about President Obama's birthplace, Trump reversed course for the sake of his own presidential run.

TRUMP: President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period.

BASH: Then, there were the debates. The candidates' performances in three face-to-face fights were must-see T.V. for voters.

TRUMP: Hello.

CLINTON: Hello.

BASH: Clinton used the match-ups to lure Trump off message.

CLINTON: He called this woman "Miss Piggy" then he called her "Miss Housekeeping" because she was Latino. Donald, she has a name. TRUMP: Where did you find this? Where did you find this?

CLINTON: Her name is Alicia Machado.

BASH: But Trump successfully painted Clinton as more of the same -- part of the problem in Washington which, it turns out, really resonated.

TRUMP: She's been doing this for 30 years and why hasn't she made the agreements better?

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: The monster political storm rocking Donald Trump's campaign.

BASH: October brought an unwelcomed surprise for the Trump campaign, an instantly infamous caught-on-tape moment from a 2005 "Access Hollywood" appearance where the Republican nominee is heard making extremely lewd comments about women.

TRUMP: And when you're a star, they'll let you do it. You can do anything.

BILLY BUSH, FORMER "ACCESS HOLLYWOOD" HOST: Whatever you want.

BASH: Those words led to a string of accusations from women saying that Trump had sexually assaulted them. With only weeks until the election, it seemed like the contest might be over.

But in a stunning move, FBI Director James Comey broke historical precedent by taking action 11 days before the election and handed the Clinton campaign their own October surprise. Comey had more power than usual since Attorney General Loretta Lynch was compromised after Bill Clinton boarded her plane during the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.

Comey decided not to bring charges against Clinton in June, but then he sent a letter to Congress a week and one-half before the election saying the FBI was looking into additional emails discovered on Anthony Weiner's home computer.

CLINTON: It is incumbent upon the FBI to tell us what they're talking about.

BASH: He cleared Clinton again before November 8th, but her team points directly to his actions as a key reason for her loss.

CLINTON: I accept your nomination for President of the United States.

BASH: After trying in 2008, Hillary Clinton did make history in 2016, becoming the first female presidential nominee of a major political party. Still, her heartbreak was palpable when she spoke about falling short of a historic benchmark she failed to reach.

CLINTON: I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling. But someday, someone will and, hopefully, sooner than we might think right now. BASH: For the political world, 2016 will be remembered with one head- spinning day, November 8th.

[18:55:05] CNN can report that Hillary Clinton has called Donald Trump to concede the race. She has called Donald Trump to say that she will not be president.

Even Donald Trump, himself, appeared surprised.

TRUMP: As I've said from the beginning, ours was not a campaign but, rather, an incredible and great movement.

BASH: Voters certainly called for change in 2016. The test for 2017 is whether Donald Trump, a first-time politician and unconventional candidate and president-elect, can deliver his promise to fix Washington.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: To our viewers, please be sure to check out the first ever book from CNN politics, "Unprecedented: The Election that Changed Everything." You can pick up your copy today in stores or you can get it online at CNN.com/book.

On New Year's Day, you can ring in 2017 with music from the legendary band Chicago. The latest CNN film explores the group's history, extending more than fifty years.

CNN's Poppy Harlow met up with Chicago and some of its original members on tour. Have a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

POPPY HARLOW, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): After 47 golden platinum records, dozens of charting songs and more than 100 million albums sold, Chicago, the legendary band, is still rocking today.

A brotherhood started with a handshake nearly fifty years ago.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a handshake and a jam session.

HARLOW (on camera): Did you ever imagine the success?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. None of us did.

LEE LOUGHNANE, FOUNDING MEMBER/TRUMPET/VOCALS: To have this kind of success for this long is unprecedented.

HARLOW: So, guys, when was the -- when was the pinch me moment?

LOUGHNANE: We're still having it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, Poppy, do you want to walk up on stage?

HARLOW: Yes. Yes. You --

HARLOW (voice-over): We caught up with Chicago on the final leg of their tour in Omaha, Nebraska.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Omaha, how the hell are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a true band. A band of brothers, yes.

HARLOW (on camera): A band of brothers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes.

ROBERT LAMM, FOUNDING MEMBER/KEYBOARD/VOCALS: We would build these songs and build these albums together. And at some point I realized, and I think we all realized that -- that music is, indeed, what we're going to be doing pretty much for the rest of our lives.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The music talent is amazing. It transcends all ages.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can't find bands producing this kind of music today. This is it.

HARLOW (voice-over): There have been decades more wild than others, like their years at Caribou Ranch.

CHICAGO (singing): Singing Italian songs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Caribou Ranch happened to be very close to a college town. There's a ton of drugs. There are really good drugs.

LAMM: And it ended up just kind of like being a party in the Rockies.

CHICAGO (singing): If you leave me now --

HARLOW: Chicago was flying high, but then came their heartbreak. Original guitarist Terry Kath died suddenly, accidentally shooting himself.

LAMM: That made us all -- pulled us short, and we kind of didn't know what we were going to do.

HARLOW (on camera): You've said that you were still working through Terry's death.

LAMM: Yes.

HARLOW: Decades later.

LAMM: I -- to be honest with you, I give Terry a look every night when we play "Saturday in the Park."

CHICAGO (singing): Another day --

LAMM: There's a lyric in there that refers to him.

CHICAGO (singing): A man playing guitar, singing for us all.

LAMM: I -- I still dream about Terry. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was like the musical leader of the band at the

time. He would want us to stay together, as well.

HARLOW: You loved him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Uh-huh.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was very lovable.

HARLOW (voice-over): They did, they say, what Terry would have wanted. They stayed together and kept playing. Chicago has toured every single year of its existence.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Please welcome, Chicago!

HARLOW: And finally, in 2016, the ultimate honor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is my honor to finally induct Chicago into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

HARLOW: But no sign these rockers are slowing down. Not even for a second.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've always contended that -- that music -- creating music keeps -- keeps me in a childlike state that is not too bad.

HARLOW (on camera): Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We wanted to be as organic as it started out being, and that's why we're still together.

HARLOW (voice-over): Poppy Harlow, CNN, Omaha.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCIUTTO: "Now More Than Ever", the history of the band Chicago, airs New Year's Day at 8:00 p.m., here on CNN only.

I'm Jim Sciutto, from all of us at CNN, a sincere very happy New Year to you. Thanks very much for watching tonight.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.