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House Republicans Gut Independent Ethics Watchdog; Interview with Rep. Steve Cohen; Trump Dismisses N. Korean Threat, Pokes China. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired January 3, 2017 - 09:00   ET


[09:00:02] CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Now, he's doing that, you know, proper shoes can help you, you know, your feet from a health issue. But just from a dignity issue and an employment issue, it can make a big difference.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Really. That's a great "GOOD STUFF." Thank you very much. Time now for NEWSROOM with Carol Costello.

Good morning, Carol.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, thanks. Have a great day. NEWSROOM starts now.

CAMEROTA: You too.

COSTELLO: And good morning. I'm Carol Costello. Thank you so much for joining me. House Republicans defy party leaders taking a bold step, as some say, is at odds with Donald Trump's pledge to drain the swamp. GOP lawmakers meeting behind closed doors, vote to rein in an ethics watchdog office, and put it under the control of the very members it's supposed to police. Full approval is expected on this first day of a new Congress.

Phil Mattingly live on Capitol Hill this morning. Hi, Phil.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Carol. Look, this wasn't supposed to be what Republicans were talking about as they get ready to be sworn in for the 115th Congress. They want to talk about their agenda, bold promises, kind of issues that they think they can take on and pass for about a mile long. Instead, they're talking about something their members did behind closed doors last night.


MATTINGLY (voice-over): In a sign perhaps of what to expect from the new Congress, House Republicans voting behind closed doors Monday night overwhelmingly in favor of a proposal that guts its own independent ethics watchdog, tasked with investigating allegations of misconduct among House members. The proposal would place the Office of Congressional Ethics under the oversight of the very lawmakers it oversees.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi slamming the move in a statement saying, "Republicans claim they want to drain the swamp. Evidently, ethics are the first casualty of the new Republican Congress."

But Republicans went against their own leadership, House Speaker Paul Ryan and the Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not back the move. Today, the full House of Representatives is set to vote on the proposal which could last for at least two years if passed.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The House will be in order.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): Republicans this week also expected to cast their first votes on repealing the Affordable Care Act.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: The Obamacare repeal resolution will be the first item up in the New Year.

MATTINGLY (voice-over): With a major fight over Obamacare brewing, top Democrats launching a preemptive strike, calling Republicans' rapid push to dismantle the President's signature health care law without a clear agreed upon plan to replace it, a, quote, "act of cowardice." Pelosi urging the American people to, quote, "take a second look."

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MINORITY LEADER: Just repealing Obamacare even though they have nothing to put in its place and saying they'll do it sometime down the road will cause huge calamity.


MATTINGLY: And, Carol, as you noted, when you talk about that independent ethics committee, the move seems to fly in the face of the phrase we heard so often during the campaign, "Drain the swamp." Now, the President-elect himself hasn't weighed in yet but one of his closest advisers has. And she took a rather measured approach. Take a listen.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT-ELECT DONALD TRUMP (through phone): Gutting it doesn't mean that there won't be a mechanism. I don't want your viewers to be given the impression, George, that there's no way for complaints to be reviewed, but there's also been an over-zealousness in some of the processes over the years. And we don't want people wrongly accusing. We don't want people mired in months, if not years, of ethical complaint reviews.


MATTINGLY: And, Carol, Kellyanne Conway really makes the crucial point as to why this actually happened. Sources that were in the room last night tell me that, essentially, members who had been accused or alleged to have done things by this office stood up and said that this was an overzealous office. It was something that had ran amok, and it targeted staffers unnecessarily. And some said, anonymously, this was being used as political tool.

Now, obviously, this still isn't something that wipes away the fact that they, more or less, took away the primary power of this investigation entity, but that explains why these members have done this. And it looks like it will definitely be voted in favor of by the House in just a couple of hours, Carol.

COSTELLO: I'm just wondering exactly how many have been unfairly accused by this ethics committee.

MATTINGLY: Yes, there's no specific number. It's not always known who is being investigated, who is being looked at. But when you talk to people who are talking about some of the members who spoke up last night, people like Peter Roskam or Blake Farenthold, their biggest issue has been they don't feel like there was due process. They feel like their names were leaked out or their issues were leaked out.

And, again, the primary issue here becomes they believe it's often used anonymously as a political target. When you talk to aides on both sides of the aisle, Carol, there are a lot of misgivings about what this office did. But if you talk to aids on both sides of the aisle, they also acknowledge, when this office was put into place in 2008, it was necessary and it has done some good things since.

And even Republicans will tell you this morning, this is the last thing they wanted to be talking about on such a big day for their conference.

COSTELLO: All right. Phil Mattingly reporting live from Capitol Hill this morning. So let's talk about this with Representative Steve Cohen. He's a Democrat from Tennessee.

Welcome, sir.

REP. STEVE COHEN (D), TENNESSEE: Thank you, Carol.

[09:05:01] COSTELLO: First question, Republicans say the Office of Congressional Ethics has ran amok. You heard what Phil Mattingly had to say. It was accusing innocent lawmakers of wrongdoing. This is what one of your incoming colleagues from Florida said, Republican Brian Mast. Let's listen.


REP. BRIAN MAST (R), FLORIDA: There are certainly members on both sides of the aisle that want to see this entity go away because of the very far-fetched investigations that have gone on that they've had to spend, you know, literally hundreds of thousands of dollars as individuals to get rid of these investigations that had no merit whatsoever.


COSTELLO: Is that how you see it, Congressman?

COHEN: Well, I think the optics of it are just awful. They're horrendous. And if Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan are against it, which I suspect they are because they're a little bit more experienced than most of the members in the caucus, it shows a problem in the Republican caucus with the membership, understanding that some experienced and wise Congress people who want to see the optics be different and also want to see ethics maybe prevail.

I think this portends problems with leadership having the caucus, the conferences they call it, behind them and --

COSTELLO: Congressman? Congressman, this is Mike Pence. He's speaking outside of Trump Tower. Let's listen.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: We look forward to legislation that will give us the tools to roll back the avalanche of red tape and regulation that had been stifling American jobs and growth, but President-elect has a very clear message to Capitol Hill and that is, it's time to get to work. And it's time to keep our word to the American people to make this country great again, make it prosperous again, and we look forward to being on Capitol Hill tomorrow.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you been briefed on Russia yet?

PENCE: Say again?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Have you been briefed on Russia? And when will that briefing take place?

PENCE: We receive regular intelligence briefings and I'll be joining the President-elect today for routine intelligence briefing. But, I think, over the course of the coming days, the President-elect will be receiving more information about that and other topics on the world stage. OK?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And have you lost confidence in the U.S. intelligence community?

PENCE: I think the challenges that America faces on the world stage are going to be met with renewed American strength and renewed American leadership. Rebuilding our military, engaging leaders around the world as the President-elect has done on a personal basis, is all part and parcel of, I think, a new season.

It's 2017. We are just a few weeks away from a new administration taking office, and I think the world will see, with our President- elect taking office, that America will be standing tall in the world again, engaging the world again, and standing firmly for America's interests. Thank you all.


COSTELLO: All right. So that's Vice President-elect Mike Pence talking outside of Trump Tower. Congressman, I apologize so rudely interrupting you.

We wanted to get in what Mike Pence was saying on this ethics commission. We missed the first part of what he had to say, but you can see that Mike Pence was choosing his words carefully when it came to the dismantling of this ethics commission.

So, I guess, I'll ask you again, the Trump people seem to think, you know, they're taking a wait and see attitude. Republicans say that it was a commission running amok. And you again have to say what?

COHEN: Well, you know, I haven't seen it running amok and I don't know that it's -- I certainly know it's bad optics for this to be the first thing for this Congress to do. This was a democratic provision put in by Nancy Pelosi after there was corruption on both sides of the aisle. I think the American public is not rating our Congress as very low and this will certainly make it lower.

I think if the Congress is supposed to be the body closest to the people, which it is in response to the people, they would not deal with this issue. And I think it shows a problem with the leadership, Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy, who apparently were against this, and their membership that don't see the wisdom of not going forward.

And this is going to be indicative of problems down the line and it's going to show where Paul Ryan may very well need Democratic votes to pass any measures at all on transportation infrastructure or some of the better things that he wants to do.

COSTELLO: On another matter, there's another item at the top of the agenda in this 115th Congress, and that would be punishment. Last summer, Democratic lawmakers including yourself staged a sit-in on the House floor to force Republicans to act on gun control. Democrats Periscoped it which enabled C-SPAN to broadcast the video and that was in violation of House rules. Republicans want to impose fines on lawmakers for breaking the rules and that means you. Are you afraid?

COHEN: I'm not afraid at all. I'll stand or sit with John Lewis anywhere. John Lewis led us in that demonstration and protest. The Republican leadership turned the cameras off, the C-SPAN cameras, and some of our younger, more techie members got the Periscope and whatever other means there were to televise this to the people of the world. It was almost like being in an eastern European republic where the protests were cut off by the repressive administration.

[09:10:04] John Lewis knew that there were certain areas where you needed to stand up and make a difference. He said there's trouble and there's good trouble, and this was good trouble. It was good trouble in the '60s with voting rights and civil rights, and this was good trouble.

They wouldn't take a gun control bill, a simple gun control. If you can't get on an airplane, you shouldn't be able to buy a gun. No fly, no buy. The votes were there to pass it, but the House Republican rules wouldn't let it come to a vote. We were trying to see it come to a vote. We wanted to see some sanity in seeing people who are terrorist threats not get guns and terrorize our people.

COSTELLO: Still, to Periscope from the House floor was a violation of the rules. And evidently, the fines imposed would be, what, 500 hundred bucks for the first offense, $2,500 for a second offense? And those fines would be deducted directly from your paycheck. COHEN: And they would be. It's levied by a House staff member, which

I think is unconstitutional rule, appropriate abrogation. The House member should vote on the fines themselves, not a staffer who they're delegating that position to, so I think it's unconstitutional. I think it's a question of freedom of speech and freedom of protest in the First Amendment, and it's another bad optic that the Republicans have in this rules package.

It's hard to fathom why they'd come with gutting the ethics commission and then having an iron fist come down on what was a very popular and, I think, righteous protest to show that the House was not operating in regular order and not allowing bills to come to the floor that had the votes of the majority of the membership.

COSTELLO: But some people might say that Republicans are trying to exert total control over the Congress, so they can get things done, and marginalize Democrats. Do you think this is all part of that critique?

COHEN: Oh, no question. They would marginalize Democrats, and this shows they are going to have a heavy hand. And that's really unfortunate. You know what we're looking at overall here, Carol, is oligarchy.

When citizens united and let's the wealthiest people put more and more money into the government, when one of the priorities of this Republican team is to cut taxes particularly for the wealthiest and eliminate the inheritance tax, which would benefit the 5,000 richest families in the country each year not to have to pay an inheritance tax, it gives the rich more and more money and more and more power.

Right now, the Republican Cabinet that you're looking at is a cut out the middleman Cabinet. They're putting the billionaires as the Cabinet members, and you buy your way in with campaign contributions to the Trump campaign. And then rather than have experienced people operate the departments, they're putting inexperienced billionaires in. So this truly is an oligarchy in the formation.

And, you know, the scary thing is about his position with Russia, the last two people I remember in this western hemisphere that were so close to Russia were Armand Hammer, who loved oil and money; and Fidel Castro, who loved to talk for long periods of time, hated disloyalty and dissent and eliminated it, and was very much an ego-centric individual. I'm afraid that's a problem.

COSTELLO: So you're comparing Donald Trump to Fidel Castro?

COHEN: Personality traits? Indeed. Castro wanted --


COHEN: You watch the Netflix program on "Cuba Libre." Castro needed to be the center of attention at all times. He executed certain of his comrades for trumped up charges because he wanted total control and wanted to put that fear into people. He was very close to his family, and he had a multitude in his family, didn't trust others. And it was all about him and public speaking and he liked to speak on ad infinitum. He was not --


COHEN: So with the exception of the fact that he was dedicated to a philosophy and to his country making allegiance with Russia, there are lot of personality traits that are similar.

COSTELLO: Well, Congressman, I feel I have to push back on you because those who support Trump and support a better relationship with Russia would certainly disagree with you. They would say that Donald Trump is just trying to evoke change and get Washington to work, especially Congress which hasn't worked very well in the last, oh, more than several years, more than a decade?

COHEN: I don't think he's anything to do with Congress. I don't think he even understands the tripartite system of government we have and a Congress under Article I as an independent branch of government. I don't think he understands that it's Congress and really the judiciary committee that can bring impeachment charges.

He needs to work with Congress and not threaten people like Paul Ryan and threaten other people as he did during his campaign. You don't bully people to have a system work. You need to work together. And I don't think this is about congress, and I think he thinks he can do a lot by executive action and by independent action that he can't do, unless the Congress passes appropriations bills that are similar to what he proposes.

They're trying to cut out Medicaid, they're trying to limit Medicaid and change it to a voucher system, make people work. If you're sick and you can't work, you should still get Medicaid.

They're going to eliminate the Affordable Care Act. People are going to die because they can't get health care. Community health centers will be limited in the funds they get. The people at the bottom will be hurt. The people at Lago-a-Mar, which is his focus group, it'll be a great life for them. Still is a great life now but your focus group as President should not be Lago-a-Mar.

[09:15:04] COSTELLO: All right. I have to leave it there.

COHEN: Or Mar-a-Lago or whatever it is. I haven't been there.

COSTELLO: Mar-a-Lago.

Congressman Cohen, thank you so much for being with me this morning.

COHEN: You're welcome, Carol. Sorry about the (INAUDIBLE)

COSTELLO: Me too. That was awful. It was just so awful. I don't like to think about it.

Thanks for being with me, Congressman.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM: Trump's foreign policy in 140 characters, one small sentence, big consequences? (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSTELLO: President-elect Trump pushes back against a rogue nation and its latest nuclear threat against the United States. Trump taking to Twitter, batting away North Korea's claims it will test a rocket powerful enough to strike U.S. soil. And for good measure, Trump took a poke at China.

CNN's Jessica Schneider is outside of Trump Tower with more.

Good morning.


The president-elect's slamming China for not being tough enough as he puts it on North Korea and also continuing to knock China when it comes to trade. All this part of his Twitter tirade overnight.


SCHNEIDER (voice-over): President-elect Donald Trump airing his diplomatic grievances on Twitter yet again, targeting the leaders of North Korea and China.

Trump taunting Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, who threatened over the weekend that his reclusive country was close to test launching a missile that could reach the U.S. Trump tweeting, "It won't happen".

Even though China supported new sanctions against North Korea, Trump continued, "China has been taking out massive amounts of money and wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won't help with North Korea. Nice."

[09:20:01] This as new video obtained by CNN shows Trump from his New Year's Eve party at Mar-a-Lago, speaking to the crowd of 800 wealthy revelers.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: The ones that I really care about are the members, I don't give a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) about their guests.


SCHNEIDER: Trump lavishing praise upon his Dubai billionaire business partner, Hussain Sajwani.

TRUMP: Hussain and the whole family from -- are the most beautiful people from Dubai are here tonight.

SCHNEIDER: Despite pledging to step away from his business and address glaring conflicts of interest, a top adviser springing to Trump's defense.

KELLYANNE CONWAY, TRUMP ADVISER: This man is allowed to have a New Year's Eve celebration with his friends and his business partners. The idea that he's giving a speech recognizing a friend and his beautiful wife and people are just going to twist that around to somehow it's a business favor -- I mean, we've got to get ahold of ourselves here.

SCHNEIDER: All the while Trump continuing to cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community's conclusions on Russian hacking. The president-elect cryptically promising to reveal inside information on Russia's alleged election cyber meddling today or tomorrow.

CONWAY: They can come in a tweet, it can come in a press conference, it can come in a statement.


SCHNEIDER: And new this morning, Donald Trump announcing his nomination of Robert Lighthizer for U.S. trade representative. That's, of course, the chief negotiator for U.S. trade policy. Lighthizer did serve in the Reagan administration as deputy U.S. trade representative and he also worked for the past few decades as a law partner at Skadden, Arps heading up their international law trade practice -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Jessica Schneider, reporting live outside of Trump Tower this morning, thank you.

As you heard Jessica just say, Trump is lashing out against China for to the stepping up to help deal with North Korea. Now, China is pushing back.


GENG SHUANG, CHINESE FOREIGN MINISTRY SPOKESMAN (through translator): China's position has been clear and consistent. We insist on denuclearizing the peninsula and maintaining its peace and stability and resolving the issue through dialogue and consultations.

China has been making great efforts in maintaining regional peace and stability as well as promoting a peaceful and effective resolution on the North Korea nuclear issue. Our efforts have been obvious to all and widely recognized.


COSTELLO: OK. So, let's talk about this.

With me now, James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute. David Swerdlick joins me, CNN political commentator and assistant editor at "The Washington Post". And Rebecca Berg is here, too, CNN political analyst and national political reporter for Real Clear Politics.

Welcome to all of you.

Ambassador Jeffrey, I want to start with you.

You've testified before Congress on the implications of the Iranian nuclear deal. As someone who has dealt with putting a lid on nuclear proliferation, is Mr. Trump's tweet wise? I'm specifically talking about this one, this is what Trump tweeted, "North Korea just stated that it is in its final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won't happen."

So again, I ask you the question, is that wise?

JAMES JEFFREY, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO IRAQ AND TURKEY: As a diplomat, I'm a believer in walking softly but carrying a big stick.

The key thing is, how do we stop this from happening? There are both military ways to do this and we looked at this in the Bush administration and there are diplomatic ways which basically go through China.

One way or the other, the sentiment is correct. We have to stop this from happening.

COSTELLO: So, are you saying -- I wasn't clear. Is it good or bad that Trump is tweeting this and challenging North Korea and challenging China as well?

JEFFREY: Currently we have one president, that's President Obama for the next three weeks. What North Korea does it doesn't do is his responsibility. Then, it becomes Mr. Trump's responsibility.

I'm not a fan as I said of speaking out publicly before you take decisions of one or another military or diplomatic matter which the situation now. But the underlying problem is what North Korea is doing and what China isn't doing about it.

COSTELLO: So how might Kim Jong-un who many people feel is an unstable leader, take a tweet like that from the future president of the United States?

JEFFREY: In my mind, he's not going to react in any kind of way that I or anybody else can predict in advance. I've had personal experience with his father's very unstable reactions to American moves. This is an extremely dangerous situation. This is an extremely dangerous individual, no matter what we do, they seem to up the ante.

COSTELLO: So, the tweet won't make a difference?

JEFFREY: I think the tweet will be taken as an indication of what Trump will do once he becomes president. But again, the North Koreans are going to think of what's going to happen in the next three weeks.

COSTELLO: So, as far as China is concerned, could China do more to tamp down on North Korea?

[09:25:02] JEFFREY: Absolutely. China goes through the motions but essentially fuel much food and the materials that North Korea needs to run its very, very large army all flow through China. And China could cut back drastically on that. What they've said for decades and we buy this mantra is, oh, we can't deal with refugee flows and such. While Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan are dealing with 10 million people

flowing out of Syria in the last couple of years, China could deal with North Korea. It doesn't want to for whatever reason. It probably involves putting pressure on the United States.

COSTELLO: So, I'll pose this question to David. You heard what the ambassador said.


COSTELLO: Maybe Trump is on to something, that those critics who say he shouldn't be tweeting out stuff like this, maybe they should just wait and see.

SWERDLICK: Well, Carol, look, tweeting in general has been a pretty effective means of communication for President-elect Trump. Both in terms of campaigning and he has had some interesting forays during this transition period.

In terms of what Ambassador Jeffrey, said, I think this is not speaking softly and carrying of big stick. This is speaking rather loudly. Whether or not it works, I think remains to be seen.

One of the benefits for President-elect Trump is that he can have these sort of short, crisp communications with the world, with Americans, with people abroad without having to go before reporters and answer questions. One of the downsides of these tweets though is that they do leave room for ambiguity in terms of what he means.

What the North Korea tweet -- when he says this won't happen, does he mean that the tests of the intercontinental missile won't happen or ultimately North Korea won't develop the capability? With the China tweet, Carol, does he mean that we have to unilaterally sort of increase our posture with North Korea or does he mean China get onboard and work with us?

That's the challenge with tweets. No matter what you're talking about, is that you really have a very limited space to say quite a lot.

COSTELLO: Well, it's certainly illustrates one thing, Rebecca, right? China is listening. Right? And it's already reacting.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. Absolutely. And so I think that is maybe the most significant element of this -- these tweets from President-elect Trump, because any U.S. president would come in wanting to prevent North Korea from proliferating its nuclear weapons from obtaining nuclear capabilities, but what is unique about Donald Trump has always been his very aggressive stance towards China and his very vocal way of addressing them. And so, it is very significant of course that he is doing this before he is sworn in as president, but also significant in the context of after that, after the inauguration, how he will deal with China.

Of course, he is also promised a trade war with China. So, we need to think about how that would potentially affect his capability of negotiating with them on an issue like North Korea. It might tie his hands a little bit.

But really I would agree with David that we don't know what the details are of Donald Trump's plan because he hasn't had a press conference because he hasn't gone into these details. What would he recommend for dealing with North Korea?

Kellyanne Conway, his incoming counselor in the White House, suggested in an interview that he would consider more sanctions on North Korea. Well, some people would question whether that would have any affect over a leader like Kim Jong-un who is so unpredictable and somewhat rogue.

And so, these are the questions that Donald Trump is really going to need to address moving forward.

COSTELLO: Well, but, Ambassador, is it possible that Donald Trump is just laying the groundwork and making China think and that once Donald Trump becomes president of the United States, China will know what it's dealing with and they'll talk in that way?

JEFFREY: I think it's more China won't know what it's dealing with, as one who is not a real expert on China but I've been there several times and I've had to deal with it when I was in the White House. China sees us as very predictable, that we operate within certain boundaries. And it has been able to take advantage of this in many different ways.

With Trump, beginning with the call with the president of Taiwan, it's obvious that there will be a new situation, a new administration can use this to its advantage to get our relationship on a more equal, a more long-term basis than it is now, and the Chinese are well aware that they may have to respond differently and they may have to make some compromises that they haven't been willing to make in the past. And believe me, North Korea would be at the top of the list.

COSTELLO: All right. I have to leave it there. Ambassador James Jeffrey, David Swerdlick, Rebecca Berg, thanks to all of you.

Still to come in the NEWSROOM, new arrests in Turkey's terror attack has police reveal selfie images of the suspected killer. We're live in Istanbul, next.

Oh, but first, we are moments away from the start of business on Wall Street.

I almost forgot about you, Cristina Alesci.


COSTELLO: I don't know.

ALESCI: You're killing me.

Well, yes, investors see a lot of optimism in this market.