Return to Transcripts main page


Biden Confirms Briefing on Russian Claims Against Trump; Trump's CIA Pick Backs Intelligence Community on Russia; New Investigation into Handling of Clinton E-mail Probe; Obama Awards Biden Presidential Medal Of Freedom. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 12, 2017 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: briefing the Senate. In a highly unusual secret meeting, the intelligence community briefs the full Senate on Russian meddling in the presidential election. This comes as both Vice President Joe Biden and the director of national intelligence James Clapper, confirm CNN's reporting.

[17:00:32] Storming the Hill. At today's confirmation hearings, three more of Donald Trump's nominees make their cases, but all three express views contradicting the president-elect's campaign statements.

Investigating the FBI. Also breaking, a new probe looking at how the FBI and the Justice Department handled the investigation of Hillary Clinton's e-mail server. We'll get reaction from Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager.

And Obama surprises Biden. A very emotional moment over at the White House as the president awards the nation's -- nation's highest civilian honor to his loyal No. 2.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news. The full United States Senate in a closed-door briefing this afternoon hearing about the U.S. Senate intelligence report on Russian meddling in the presidential election. This comes after James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, put out a rare statement, rejecting Donald Trump's attacks on the intelligence community and corroborating CNN's reporting that the classified report provided to President Obama and President-elect Trump last week included allegations that Russian operatives claimed to have compromising personal and financial information about Trump.

During confirmation hearings today, secretary of defense nominee James Mattis; Mike Pompeo, Trump's pick to run the CIA, they both expressed confidence in the intelligence community and differences with the views of Russia expressed by Donald Trump.

Also breaking, word the Justice Department's inspector general has opened to new investigation into how the FBI and the Justice Department handled the probe of Hillary Clinton's e-mail. We'll speak with Clinton's former campaign manager.

We'll also get more on the breaking news with the Republican senator Tom Cotton. He's here with me. And our correspondents analysts and guests, they will have full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with the breaking news. Vice President Joe Biden confirming publicly he and President Obama were briefed on the intelligence community's unsubstantiated claims against the president- elect.

Our justice correspondent, Evan Perez, has been following the story for us. Evan, update our viewers. What are you learning?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Vice President Joe Biden is confirming that he and President Barack Obama were briefed last week by intelligence officials about unverified claims that Russia may have compromising information on President-elect Donald Trump.

CNN first reported that the nation's top intelligence chiefs provided both the president and the president-elect with a two-page written synopsis of these claims, which came from a 35-page report that was compiled by a former British intelligence operative based on Russian sources.

Intelligence agencies appended the summary of the allegations to documents that were prepared for the briefing on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The vice-president told reporters this afternoon that he and Obama were briefed about the claims, but said that neither Biden nor Obama asked for more information about them. The vice-president said that intelligence leaders felt obligated to tell Obama, because they were planning on informing Mr. Trump about the allegations.

Biden also said that he read the entire 35-page dossier.

These comments by Biden are the first by any top government official confirming that they were told about these allegations as part of their intelligence briefing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Thanks very much for that. Evan Perez reporting.

Donald Trump's top national security nominees are expressing support for the U.S. intelligence community and deep suspicions about Russia. Let's go to our justice correspondent, Pamela Brown. She's got more on this part of the story.

What are you learning, Pamela?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, today Mike Pompeo vowed to put politics aside if he's confirmed as CIA chief and made it clear he has full confidence in the intelligence community's assessment about Russia.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you accept the conclusions of the IC regarding Russia's active measure (ph)?

MIKE POMPEO, CIA DIRECTOR NOMINEE: Everything I've seen suggests to me that the report has an analytical product that is sound.

BROWN: Today CIA director nominee Mike Pompeo testifying in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, blaming Russia for interfering in the election.

POMPEO: It's pretty clear about what took place there, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy.

This was an aggressive action taken by the senior leadership inside of Russia; and America has an obligation, and the CIA has a part of that obligation, to protect that information.

BROWN: Pompeo went on to blast Russia for its role in international affairs.

POMPEO: Russia has reasserted itself aggressively, invading and occupying Ukraine, threatening Europe and doing nothing to aid in the destruction and defeat of ISIS.

BROWN: Pompeo also addressed CNN's exclusive reporting that U.S. intelligence chiefs provided a synopsis of allegations compiled by a former British intelligence official to President-elect Trump and President Obama.

The specific allegations, which CNN has not verified or included in its reporting, claim that people within Trump's campaign communicated with Russia before the election. And also that the Russians have compromising personal information about the president-elect.

POMPEO: These are unsubstantiated allegations. I will continue to pursue foreign intelligence collection with vigor, no matter where the facts lead.

BROWN: The testimony comes a day after President Trump rejected the reports, calling them fake news, and claimed, without proof, intelligence officials were responsible for the leaks.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: Maybe the intelligence agencies -- who knows, but maybe the intelligence agencies, which would be a tremendous blot on their record if they, in fact, did that, a tremendous blot. Because a thing like that should have never been written. It should never have been had, and it should certainly never have been released.

That's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.

BROWN: Vice President Biden downplayed the leaks today, telling print reporters the allegations are, quote, "unsubstantiated," saying, quote, "The president was like, 'What does this have to do with anything?' Neither of us asked for any detail."

And U.S. intelligence chief James Clapper called Trump last night, trying to ease the tension between him and the intelligence community.

Clapper released a statement after, saying, "I do not believe the leaks came from within the IC," intelligence community.

And in what amounts to the first public confirmation of CNN's report that the synopsis existed and have been put together for the president-elect, Clapper added, "However, part of our obligation is to ensure that policy makers are provided with the fullest pictures of any matters that might affect national security."

POMPEO: The leaks that occurred, as well, I consider to be intensely serious, too, and I think Director Clapper's statement from last night or the this morning about his concern about these leaks is worthy.

BROWN: Today, Pompeo who was once a supporter of enhanced interrogation techniques, split from Trump and his campaign promise to bring back waterboarding.

TRUMP: Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I'd afford (ph) it.

SEN. MARTIN HEINRICH (D), NEW MEXICO: Can you commit to this committee that under current law, which limits interrogation to the Army Field Manual, that you will comply with that law and that the CIA is out of the enhanced interrogation business?

POMPEO: Yes, you have my full commitment to that, Senator Heinrich.


BROWN: And James Clapper also said in that statement he released late last night that the IC has not made any judgment that the information in that document is reliable, and that the intelligence community did not rely upon it in any way to reach the assessment that Russia tried to hurt Hillary Clinton and help Donald Trump during the election -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Pamela, thank you. Pamela Brown reporting.

Let's get some more now on all of this from our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, who's with us.

Jim, Joe Biden has now confirmed what you and our team reported a couple of days or so ago, that the president and the president-elect were both briefed on these unsubstantiated allegations.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: You know, I think we should highlight the rarity of this, because these are highly- classified briefings, the most classified, really, because you're talking about the briefings delivered by the intelligence community to the post powerful people in the land, the president and the president- elect.

Our reporting was based on officials who did not comment on the record in light of the classified nature of the material involved. But, as questions had been raised about our reporting, you now have the rare fact where several people, or at least two people who were in the room for these briefings, have now said on the record what was contained in them. One of them being the vice-president, who was of course with President Obama; another being the director of national intelligence, James Clapper saying that these, though unsubstantiated allegations, were considered at least important or relevant or potentially connected enough to be included in that briefing.

And, listen, part of that must be, it seems, to counter the alternate narrative that is being shared by the president-elect, who called this fake news. And as you know, called our organization a fake news organization, as we were the first to report this.

BLITZER: Another extraordinary moment today, the 100-member U.S. Senate, all members were invited to a closed-door classified briefing by the U.S. intelligence community on Russian interference, hacking, cyberattacks, whatever you want to call it, in the U.S. presidential election. What are you hearing from members who are emerging from that -- from that classified session?

SCIUTTO: Well, it's interesting. A lot of these members, of course, it's not the first that they've heard of this. There are many public news reports. There are public comments. The director of national intelligence briefed the Hill last week, giving some details. But this was a more detailed briefing on this, including classified information that can only be shared in closed session.

And many of them came out saying, "Well, it's even worse than we thought."

Listen to Democratic Senator Dick Durbin.


SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL), MINORITY WHIP: Russian infiltration of our last election and our nation is like a spreading cancer. And the question is whether or not this Congress and the president-elect will stand up for the integrity of our democracy and our system of elections.

The evidence we've been given here in a classified briefing is overwhelming in terms of what the Russians were attempting to do and actually what they achieved. There was more detail today, and that's why I came out of this saying, I thought it was terrible. It's even worse. And if we don't take it seriously, shame on us.


SCIUTTO: I should mention that one senator also confirmed to CNN that, included in the Senate's briefing, the full briefing to the full 100 members of the Senate, was a copy of this dossier talking about these, though unsubstantiated claims, alleging compromising personal and financial information about the president-elect.

BLITZER: None of which, of course, we've confirmed at all, and they're pretty horrendous. All right. Thanks very much for that. Jim Sciutto reporting. With us now, Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a member of the Armed

Services Committee and Intelligence Committee. He served in Iraq, as well.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

SEN. TOM COTTON (R), ARKANSAS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: I assume you were there and listened to that briefing. First of all, do you believe there should now be a select committee, a special Senate committee to take a look at all of this, based on what you heard?

COTTON: I did attend this all-senator briefing, Wolf, which is -- happens from time to time on matters of particular concern in the entire Senate.

Of course, on the Intelligence Committee on which I sit, we have been reviewing this matter and Russia's covert and overt operations against the United States more broadly for many months. We've had numerous hearings on this matter. We went deeper than we could go in an all- Senate briefings. There are some matters that are restricted to the Intelligence Committee. And as Senator McConnell said, I think the Intelligence Committee is the best place to continue this inquiry, given all the work we've done and all the work that our staff has already built up among the agencies.

BLITZER: Did you learn new information today?

COTTON: I didn't personally learn new information because of the hearings that we've had on the Intelligence Committee.

BLITZER: The closed-door classified briefings that you've already received?

COTTON: The briefing that we had today was a more limited version of information that has been provided, that was provided to all senators, that was provided to the Intelligence Committee previously.

BLITZER: Did they get into that whole two-page synopsis of these unsubstantiated allegations that this opposition research team, this British -- former British intelligence operative put together? You're familiar with ha?

COTTON: I don't -- I don't want to get into the details of what was happening in a classified setting. I mean, as you heard Senator Durbin say, though, it was primarily about the director of national intelligence report, about the hacking into the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta's e-mails.

BLITZER: So let's -- let's be precise. You have no doubt -- I assume you have no doubt that what you heard from the intelligence community not only today but in -- over these past several weeks and months is that Russia interfered, A, is that correct?

COTTON: No reason to doubt that Russia or Russian affiliates were responsible for hacking the DNC and John Podesta and also responsible for releasing that information. As a member of the Intelligence Committee, we're going to thoroughly reviewing the report, also checking the sources and methods to conclude that conclusion is sound, but I have no reason to doubt that.

BLITZER: Do you have any doubt that it was Putin himself who coordinated or orchestrated, at least authorized this?

COTTON: It's hard to imagine something so serious occurring in Russian -- in the Russian government without Vladimir Putin authorizing it. And at least becoming aware of it.

BLITZER: What was the objective on the part of the Russians?

COTTON: Well, Vladimir Putin has a long-running objective to try to undermine the United States-led international order, to bring discredit to constitutional democracy and market-based economies, and to try to reassert Russia as a great power.

I don't think Vladimir Putin had any particular political insights last year that anybody in Washington or New York had. So, I think he is primarily -- his primary -- his primary goal was to sow disorder and chaos in our country and to discredit an expected Hillary Clinton presidency and probably also to retaliate against Hillary Clinton for some of the things she said about Vladimir Putin when she was secretary of state.

BLITZER: Because at least originally, they were working under the assumption that Hillary Clinton would be elected. They wanted to weaken her as much as possible by publicizing through WikiLeaks all this embarrassing information. Is that right?

COTTON: I mean, when "The New York Times" was giving Hillary Clinton a 99 percent chance of victory up until the evening of the election, I don't think Russian intelligence services had any insight than your averaged well-informed American would have.

BLITZER: But did they have an inclination, too, that Donald Trump might be from their perspective a better president than Hillary Clinton? From their perspective, the Russian perspective?

[17:15:00] COTTON: I think the evidence on that question is mixed. Donald Trump said some things that suggest he might have a more open relationship with Russia and try to cooperate with them in places like Syria.

On the other hand, he's pursued policy that are clearly not in Syria's interests, like rebuilding our military, accelerating our nuclear monetization, expanding oil and gas production. And now we've seen nominees like Mike Pompeo and Jim Mattis and Mike Flynn, who are not particularly Russia doves; those are Russia hawks. I think that it's mixed on that question if you're sitting in Moscow.

BLITZER: Do you believe the Russians do have compromising information, whether professional information or business, professional information about Donald Trump that could be embarrassing to him if they were to release it?

COTTON: Well, first I want to stress, as you stressed, Wolf, that the claims that have been published this week, which ought never to have be published, are completely unsubstantiated and unconfirmed.

I also want to say it's not surprising that hostile foreign adversaries try to conduct espionage and influence operations against the United States. That includes against our leaders. Presidents, presidents elect, senior cabinet officials, members of Congress. And this is something the FBI has as its core mission. It is our counterintelligence agency, and it's designed to detect these kind of operations. And it also informs leaders. The FBI has informed me of such matters about myself in the past. This happens regularly.

BLITZER: Explain that. That someone tried to release information that could be embarrassing or awkward, or they could potentially blackmail you?

COTTON: Any kind of effort to intimidate, to coerce, to influence, to blackmail, to hack into e-mail, or to computer servers or anything of that nature. As our counterintelligence agency, the FBI's responsibility is to monitor that, to disrupt it, to defend against it, to brief our leaders on it.

So, what has been reported by CNN is not something out of the ordinary. That's something the FBI has done for many years to protect against exactly that kind of influence operation by a hostile nation state.

BLITZER: Does the president-elect take this threat from Russia, specifically from Russia -- whenever he talks about Russia he throws in china, he throws in North Korea, he throws in other countries, throws in a 400 pound guy sitting on a bed. But does he take it seriously?

COTTON: I believe he does based on our conversations. In his press conference yesterday, that was pretty freewheeling and wide-ranging. He did say that he believed that Russia was responsible for those hacks, the DNC and John Podesta's e-mail. He also said they shouldn't have done it, and they're they're not going to do it when he's president. And I take that as a signal to Putin and Russia that there's going to be a new sheriff in town come next Friday.

BLITZER: And once again, you do not believe there should be a select committee?

COTTON: I think the Senate Intelligence Committee should continue the oversight we're do on this and drill down deeper into that report.

BLITZER: Senator, we have more to discuss, there is more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, as well. We'll take a quick break. Much more with Senator Cotton right after this.


[17:22:08] BLITZER: We're back with Republican Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees.

Senator, on Obamacare, you suggested, don't repeal until there's a plan in place to replace it, Obamacare, simultaneously with the repeal. But it looks like they're moving forward taking some of the preliminary steps to repeal and not worry about a replacement plan, at least several months down the road, if not longer.

COTTON: Well, Wolf, what I mean is that we shouldn't wait until, say, 2018 or 2019, as some have suggested. Look, this is a hard and complex problem. That's one reason why Republicans haven't coalesced around a single plan in the last six years. It's not going to get any easier a year or two years from now.

So, I'm fine if we pass our repeal legislation, and then we have a replacement bill or what is more likely to be a series of replacement bills to deal with the problems over a period of weeks or months and if the implementation of those bills are phased out over a period of months or even years as Obamacare itself was. But what I don't think we should do is kick the can down the road a year or two years before we tell the American people and the health care markets what we're going to do to solve some of the problems that Obamacare has made worse.

BLITZER: But you've got to come up with a plan and put it in legislative writing.

COTTON: We did.

BLITZER: ... if you will. And there are a lot of plans out there. A lot of people have ideas, but so far, even though Obamacare has been in business for, what, for six years, something like that. Why don't you have a plan ready to go? I mean, this was a major campaign commitment.

COTTON: Well, again, it's a complex problem and when you're the party in opposition, you know, it's oftentimes a matter of each individual senator or congressman's ideas. So, that's why they have so many plans.

As we move forward, though, and Donald Trump becomes president, Tom Price becomes the secretary of health and human services, our committees start working on it, I think we will coalesce around a plan. There will be some compromises, some things people might not prefer to ideas they would prefer. But in the end, it's our responsibility to reach a solution that solves these problems for the American people.

BLITZER: Because some have suggested you know what? You repeal it right away, and then you spend another year coming up with a plan, and then another two or three years before that is implemented. In other words, it could be three or four years down the road before you've really gotten rid of Obamacare.

COTTON: I don't think it will take a year to come up with that legislation. Look, this is complex and takes a while to draft and debate and vote on. It took Obamacare about 15 months to be passed into law. I think we can do better than that. I think the implementation can be better than three or four years.

BLITZER: Will you be able to guarantee to the 20 or 30 million people who do have health insurance now who didn't have it before, that they will continue to have health insurance at least at the rate that they're paying right now, that the subsidies will be there?

COTTON: We want to make sure that everyone has access to affordable quality health insurance. That may look different than what we have under Obamacare. Some of the aspects of Obamacare have certainly not played out as expected. But we want to make sure that every American has access to affordable quality health insurance that can't be canceled because they get sick, or because they move jobs or what have you.

BLITZER: Will there be an individual mandate, meaning healthy people will be forced to at least buy some health insurance so that people who aren't that healthy will be able to afford it?

[17:25:07] COTTON: I don't think that we should impose that kind of mandate on the American people. I think, rather than force them to buy something and subsidize them with taxpayer dollars, we should create the kind of market that gives the incentives for people to want health insurance that fits their needs, for some people they'll get health insurance like now I have health insurance that gets -- I want health insurance that covers pediatric care, because I have young children. Five years ago I might have gotten a skinnier plan.

We should encourage people to make the choices that are right for them and their families but also create the kind of incentives in the marketplace for them to afford those plans, as well.

BLITZER: Because if there's no mandate, you know there are a whole bunch of people out there say, You know, "When I get sick, I'll go to the emergency room. It will be free. Why should I pay for health insurance?" What do you do with people like that?

COTTON: A lot of those people are young, healthy and not very wealthy. You know, like a lot of us were in our 20s. But you can get them health insurance that has very low premiums, higher deductibles, higher copays because they're not going to use it. In the same way I mentioned five years ago I might have wanted a skinnier plan than I have now because you I have children I have to provide for.

And then for those people that can't afford it, I thank we can use a form of maybe tax deductions or tax credits that help them afford the plan that's right for them and their personal needs.

BLITZER: Bottom line you have a lot of work to do.

COTTON: We do have a lot of work.

BLITZER: Senator Cotton, as usual, thanks very much.

COTTON: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Senator Tom Cotton. We have some more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right

now. There is a new investigation tonight into how the FBI and the Justice Department handled the probe of Hillary Clinton's private e- mail server.

I want to go straight to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. Evan, tell us more about what the Justice Department inspector general announced today.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. The Justice Department inspector general is investigating whether the FBI director, James Comey, and other officials at the Justice Department and the bureau followed the rules in their handling of the investigation of Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server.

Now, at the top of the concerns is that extraordinary July press conference, which Comey said he would recommend no charges against Clinton and that no reasonable prosecutor would bring a case against her, but then, breaking with protocol, Comey went into great detail about all the things that he thought Clinton did wrong, including calling her extremely careless in her handling of classified information.

The inspector general is also taking a look into Comey's unprecedented letter to Congress a few days before the election, in which he announced that new e-mails were found and that the FBI was essentially reopening its investigation of Clinton and then a week later his announcement that the investigation was closed again.

Also under scrutiny is whether the deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe should have recused himself from this investigation and whether improper considerations played any role in this case.

Comey has issued a statement about the new investigation saying, quote, "I am grateful to the Department of Justice's I.G. for taking on this review. He is professional and independent; and the FBI will cooperate fully with him and his office. I hope very much he is able to share his conclusions and observations with the public because everyone will benefit from thoughtful evaluation and transparency regarding this matter. Wolf?

Evan Perez reporting for us. Thanks very much.

Let's get some immediate reaction from Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager, Robby Mook. Thanks for joining us. React to this. Do you welcome this investigation by the inspector general, the Justice Department, or from your perspective, is it too late?

ROBBY MOOK, FORMER CLINTON CAMPAIGN MANAGER (via phone): Well, Wolf, thanks for having me.

We do welcome this. I certainly welcome it. We expressed deep concerns during the campaign, as you know, that what Director Comey did was not just inappropriate; it was a breach of long-standing Justice Department protocol, both to editorialize about what he thought about Secretary Clinton rather than just saying he was not recommending that the investigation move forward.

And, of course, the letters were completely inappropriate. The fact that he sent a letter to Congress saying he may have some information, he wasn't sure, and lo and behold, a few days later came back and said, "I don't have anything there."

And, so, I'm glad that someone has finally spoken up and is looking into this and, you know, we look forward to seeing what the findings are.

BLITZER: Have you had a chance, Robby, to speak with secretary Clinton since this announcement a few hours ago?

MOOK: I have not. But, you know, I think we all were disturbed by what happened with -- with this letter, the two letters that Director Comey sent out.

[17:30:00] And you know, I think the election is over now; and this is the time to step back and ask ourselves what we can do to make our democratic process work better. And I think what's disturbing to me and what should be disturbing to all Americans, whether they're Democrats, Republicans or independents, is that we saw unprecedented interventions over the course of this campaign, from the FBI, but also frankly from Russia. And no American should be OK with interventions by our government officials or by -- certainly by foreign powers to try and doing things that might have some undue influence on the outcome of the election.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Robby, that this inspector general investigation over at the Justice Department, could prove there were miss steps that potentially could have cost Hillary Clinton the election?

MOOK: Well, I don't want to get into, you know, what the quantitative impact of any of this could be. But there are independent experts in polling and research who have indicated that this could have been a decisive moment in the campaign, and obviously, that's incredibly concerning if that's even a possibility, and I do think that this needs to be examined very closely. Just looking at it, you know, from the outside and from the seat that I had on the campaign, we know that the Justice Department has protocols, that they are not supposed to comment on the details of an -- of an investigation unless they believe that it is something the prosecutors need to look at.

So, it was curious to begin with why Director Comey was editorializing so much about what he learned about Secretary Clinton, and then the fact that he sent these letters saying that he might have some new evidence, was just bizarre. I was also, frankly, disturbed at the senate hearings this week on the interventions by the Russians in the election, that Director Comey who's pressed repeatedly to talk about what he was looking at, as it relates to the Russians and their connections to Donald Trump, and he said, he could not comment on an ongoing investigation.

So, I don't understand when he has information about Secretary Clinton, that he suddenly feels compelled to tell congress everything he knows, but when it comes to Donald Trump and allegations as serious as treason, that he isn't able to comment at all. And the leaks that were coming left and right from the FBI were so slanted against Hillary Clinton. Director Comey also claimed that he needed to send that letter to the Hill, because he was worried it would leak out. Well, we can't punish candidates because of the - of the bad behavior, the improper and unprofessional behavior of bureaucrats. It's just unacceptable. And so, again, what I hope comes out of this is, first of all, the fact, but second of all, some important takeaways for government agencies and for our intelligence agencies with the Russians, that we stop these interventions once and for all in our elections.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Robby, that Donald Trump won the election fair and square?

MOOK: Look, the tally is in. Donald Trump is going to be sworn in as our president. And I certainly hope he understands the awesome responsibility that he is taking on, and I think all Americans need to hope and wish that he is going to do a good job, and that he is going to act in our collective best interests. That matter is settled, but again, what is not yet settled is what happened. What did the Russians do? Were there connections between the Russians and the Trump campaign or with Mr. Trump himself? Does Mr. Trump have financial entanglements with the Russians?

And then, what was going on at the FBI? Why were there be these leaks coming out constantly about Secretary Clinton? Why when the FBI was asked about investigations into Mr. Trump, they pooh-poohed it and pushed it away, yet all of a sudden, all this information has come on to -- come out into the open that the FBI had for some time. We need to understand how we make our elections fair. And really key point in this for me, Wolf, this cannot be partisan. This isn't about democrats, republicans, independents. This is about as Americans, what has made our country great, what has made us prosperous, is that we have a thriving, fair, free and open democratic process. There are questions about whether there were interventions that impeded that process. We've got to get the facts, and we've got to make sure that no candidate, like Secretary Clinton, has to be sitting here today, hearing all this information and questioning why it seems that this improper -- these improper actions took place.

BLITZER: Donald Trump repeatedly, including as recently as yesterday, he flatly denies that he had any financial or any other connection with the Russians during the course of this campaign or in his business dealings, personal dealings or any other dealings. Robby Mook, thanks very much for joining us.

[17:35:03] MOOK: Thank you very much, Wolf.

BLITZER: Robby Mook, the former Hillary Clinton Campaign Manager, reacting to the "BREAKING NEWS" out of the Justice Department today. An inspector general is going to review all of the way that the James Comey and other officials, at the Justice Department and the FBI, handled the Hillary Clinton e-mail server investigation. There's more "BREAKING NEWS" coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll have that for you right after a quick break. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:40:04] BLITZER: We're following the "BREAKING NEWS". The Justice Department's top watch dog is promising to review whether the probe of Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server was handled properly. Our political experts are here to assess and discuss. Dana, throughout this transition, Donald Trump has demonstrated a lot of concern whenever someone has suggested maybe his victory was not all that appropriate --

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That was officially the understatement of the year.

BLITZER: Right. That's based in illegitimate -- will this new inspector general investigation at the Justice Department of the FBI and the Justice Department officials, will that feed that concern he has?

BASH: Depends what they say. It depends what they find. I mean, that's the honest answer. And, you know, remember, the biggest thing that they appear to be investigating based on the release is whether Comey acted properly, whether Comey acted properly initially in saying that he wasn't going to indict or go after prosecute Hillary Clinton, which made republicans very mad, but then also his controversial decisions to first 11 days before the election, to say we're going to reopen this and then a couple days later say, never mind.

And there also is, probably, some lower scale of questioning of whether or not there was improper discussions between the Justice Department and the Clinton campaign. So, it's kind of a mixed bag what they're looking into. But to answer your question and where you're getting at, of course, if there is any kind of conclusion, assuming that this I.G. report goes through to its conclusion, that suggests that had this not happened or had things gone differently, you know, perhaps the election would have gone differently, you can probably, you know, say three, two, one, until you see the tweet from Donald Trump and maybe even more.

BLITZER: Oh, yes. Mark Preston, how much of a distraction could this investigation be in the early weeks and months? Because, you know, an inspector general investigation just doesn't go a week or two. This could go on for quite a while.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: It could. And I really think it's up to Donald Trump about whether it is going to be a distraction or not. And the reason why I say that is, is that he could ignore it, choose to ignore this, let the investigation continue on and focus on getting things done. And if he starts to have winds, if he shows that he's able to repeal and replace Obamacare in a way that is acceptable to the American people, if he's able to continue moving the economy in the right direction, if he's able to do -- move forward on some of our foreign policy challenges, then I think the American public will ignore it. But what is the most concerning to me about Donald Trump in all of this is that he personalizes all of this, and then he has personal vendettas against people. And I think that in his position as the president-elect, soon to be President of the United States, that is very scary.

BLITZER: How do you think, Rebecca Berg, he'll react?

REBECCA BERG, REALCLEARPOLITICS NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, I agree with Dana, we have to wait and see, see what the investigator general actually finds, if anything, but certainly, I would also agree that when Donald Trump feels that his victory is impugned the slightest bit, he does react. And so, I would agree with you, Mark, that it is a good time for him maybe to focus on the task at hand, which is actually becoming President of the United States. But the problem with Donald Trump in the past, if past is prologue here, has been that he does not tend to focus. He tends to get distracted by these things, by these sleights against him as he sees them. And that might be the case here, depending on what they find.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin, as you know the justice department review was orchestrated, the inspector general says, not only the complaints coming in from democrats, but complaints coming in from republicans. They're responding to those republican complaints as well. Jason Chaffetz, the republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, he's welcoming this review. He's got his own review that continues at the same time. So, it could be above politics, potentially.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think there's an important issue that we haven't mentioned here. Michael Horowitz, who is the inspector general, is a political appointee of the Obama administration. His -- he could be fired on January 21st by Donald Trump. Now, there is a tradition of inspector generals serving from one administration to the next that arose in after 1981, when Ronald Reagan fired a bunch of inspector general. But it's not a law, it's just a tradition.

So, it is not entirely clear that Michael Horowitz will even be able to conduct this investigation. Also, the attorney general has the right to shut down any investigation. So, Jeff Sessions, if he is confirmed as it's likely to be, he could shut this down. He will probably be asked in the next few days whether he will allow this investigation to proceed. But I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that this investigation will even take place, much less what the conclusions will be.

BLITZER: But remember, during his testimony yesterday, Jeffrey, Senator Sessions who's been nominated to become the next attorney general, said flatly he would recuse himself from any decision involving Hillary Clinton given the statements, given his attitude that he made during the course of the campaign.

[17:45:07] TOOBIN: That's right. But Donald Trump, who is the one who has the power to fire Michael Horowitz, made no such vow. In addition, all Sessions said is that he would recuse himself. Presumably, there will be a deputy attorney general at some point. That person could stop this investigation. So, I think the politics of this investigation are not settled at all. And, you know, we don't even know for sure that it will continue to take place.

BLITZER: You know, Dana, we're listening to the testimony today, and various national security figures hoping to become Secretary of Defense, CIA Director, Secretary of State, all of these testimony, a lot of these individuals are saying things pretty starkly different than what we heard from Donald Trump during the course of the months of the campaign.

BASH: Yes, Russia was behind the hacking, which now Donald Trump has said as of yesterday. Vladimir Putin is not somebody to embrace. He is somebody to be very tough with, and confront was the word that one of the nominees used. NATO is an alliance that we should embrace, and not push away. And it is important to have international alliances. That is what General Mattis said as based on the fact that he is a scholar and a historian, based on the history of civilized nations that have succeeded. And, you know, it goes on (INAUDIBLE) torture.

So, yes, there's no question about that, which goes to the heart of what a lot of republicans say, which is that they hope by putting people who have strong opinions that are more mainstream in place, that he will defer to them.

BLITZER: And he is putting those people in place. Let's see if they're confirmed. I assume they will be. Everybody stand by, an important programming note for our viewers tonight, the House Speaker Paul Ryan joins host Jake Tapper and a live studio audience for a CNN Town Hall. That begins 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

President-elect Trump, meanwhile, is promising to distance his real estate empire from potential conflicts of interest, but his complicated business relationship with Russia is drawing some scrutiny. Brian Todd has been working the story, gathering details. Brian, what are you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, if President-elect Trump insists he's got no loans, no real estate deals pending in Russia -- CNN and other news outlets have dug into this. And so far, we found there's no indication of any major Trump real estate deals there. But Mr. Trump has tried to make some deals in Russia and those efforts go back a long way.


TODD: Donald Trump's not backing away from his apparent admiration for Vladimir Putin and his hopes for a good relationship with the Russian president.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability.

TODD: But the president-elect is determined to avoid the appearance that he might have business conflicts in Russia.

TRUMP: I have no deals, I have no loans, and I have no dealings. We could make deals in Russia very easily, if we wanted to. I just don't want to because I think that would be a conflict.

TODD: There's no way to verify Trump's claim because he hasn't released his tax returns. CNN and other news outlets have looked into Trump's history with Russia and found that he's made no significant real estate deals there, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

Trump's attempts to build hotels and other buildings in Russia go back at least 30 years.

MICHAEL KRANISH, WASHINGTON POST POLITICAL REPORTER AND AUTHOR OF "TRUMP REVEALED": He tried very hard several times to do deals in Moscow. He said, he will be in Moscow, it's inevitable we'll be there, but in the end, he wasn't able to do the real estate deals.

TODD: An attempt to build a Trump Tower in Moscow fell through before it got started. What's gotten in the way of Trump's attempts to make some real estate deals in Russia and elsewhere?

KRANISH: Donald Trump tries to make deals around the world and oftentimes in recent years it's been an effort to have someone else bear the risk and then pay Donald Trump to put his name on building.

TODD: But Trump has made money from Russians. He sold this mansion in Palm Beach to a Russian billionaire for $95 million. And there was one deal in Moscow that did go through.

TRUMP: Russia is our partner in this endeavor.

TODD: In 2013, he made millions when he partnered with the Russian billionaire to hold the Miss Universe pageant in the shadow of the Kremlin. At the time Trump tweeted, "Do you think Putin will be going to the Miss Universe pageant in November in Moscow? If so, will he become my new best friend?"

MICHAEL D'ANTONIO, CNN BIOGRAPHER AND AUTHOR OF "THE TRUTH ABOUT TRUMP": Trump did want to meet with Putin during the Miss Universe pageant. The connection was never made, but I think there was an exchange of gifts.

TODD: Which one biographer says included a lacquered box from Putin. Trump has since given conflicting accounts of whether he's ever actually met Putin in person.

SAVAGE: Have you met Vladimir Putin?


SAVAGE: You have?

TRUMP: One time, yes, long time ago.

TODD: A year later, a different story.

TRUMP: I never met Putin.

TODD: Either way, one Trump biographer says he's had a deep fascination with Russia and its leaders.

D'ANTONIO: There's something in him that really admires strong men, tough guys, who seem to be able to get things done without much encumbrance. (END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, as for the possibility of any future Trump deals in Russia, Donald Trump's lawyer promises that no new foreign deals will be made by Trump's company during his time in the White House. And she says, that any profits from foreign government payments to his hotels will be donated to the U.S. Treasury. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting. Thanks very much.

The Vice President Joe Biden just received a very emotional surprise from President Obama during a farewell tribute over at the White House. Let's go to our White House Correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, she's got details. Michelle, tell us more about this unexpected honor from the president.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. So, we got word today that there was going to be a sort of thank you and good-bye ceremony for the vice president here at White House. He got a little bit of a heads up about that obviously. But what -- it seemed no one knew other than a very small group was that the president was about to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom with distinction, an award that so far has only been bestowed upon the pope, Ronald Reagan, Colin Powell, and now Vice President Biden. As you can imagine, it was very emotional. Listen.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To know Joe Biden is to know the love without pretense, service without self-regard, and to live life fully. As one of his long-time colleagues in the senate who happened to be a republican, once said, "If you can't admire Joe Biden as a person, you've got a problem. He's as good a man as God ever created."

So, Joe, for your faith in your fellow Americans, for your love of country, and for your lifetime of service that will endure through the generations, I'd like to ask the military aide to join us on stage. For the final time as president, I am pleased to award our nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This honor is a -- is not only well beyond what I deserve. But it's a reflection of the extent and generosity of your spirit. I don't deserve this, but I know it came from the president's heart. There's a (INAUDIBLE) saying that says, "What comes from the heart enters the heart."

Mr. President, you have creeped into our heart, you and your whole family, including mom. And you occupy it. It's an amazing thing that happened. I knew how smart you were. I knew how honorable you were. I knew how decent you were from the couple years you worked in the senate. And I knew what you were capable of. But I never fully expected that you'd occupy the Bidens' heart from Hunter, Ashley, my sister, all of us. All of us.

And Mr. President, I -- I'm indebted to you. I'm indebted to your friendship. I'm indebted to your family. And as I'll tell you on a humorous note, we're having lunches and mostly it's - which everything one of our moms. We talk about family an awful lot. And about six months in, the president looked at me, he said, "You know, Joe, you know what surprised me? How we've become such good friends."


BIDEN: I said, surprised you?


BIDEN: But that is candid Obama. And it's real. And Mr. President, you know, as long as there's breath in me I'll be there for you, my whole family will be. And I know -- I know it is reciprocal. I - and I want to thank you all so very, very, very much. All of you. Thank you.



[17:55:10] KOSINSKI: One of the more emotional events we've seen during this administration. And there was also a lot of humor in there. Joking about their bromance and bidenisms, but mostly heartfelt words about how close they and their families have become over the years.

A White House source tells us that President Obama planned this himself, he came up with the idea, he wanted it to be a surprise. And so, he worked with a very small group of White House staffers to make this happen, Wolf.

BLITZER: What a wonderful surprise for the Vice President of the United States. All right, Michelle, thanks very much.

Coming up, more on this hour's "BREAKING NEWS". Vice President Biden now confirming he and President Obama were in fact briefed on the Intelligence Community's unsubstantiated claims against Trump.


BLITZER: Happening now, "BREAKING NEWS" -- sharing intelligence. The heads of America's intelligence agencies are briefed. The full senate about Russian attempts to influence the U.S. election. And tonight, Vice President Biden and spy chief James Clapper, they are confirming CNN's reporting on a two-page intelligence summary.

Top brass, Trump's nominee for defense secretary emerges from his confirmation hearing with strong support and takes on a tough, very tough stance when it comes to Russia, a stance that's at odds with the president-elect's view. Will General James Mattis stand up to Trump when it comes to dealing with Vladimir Putin?