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Interview With Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed; President Obama Awards Vice President Biden Presidential Medal Of Freedom; Senate Passes Waiver for General Mattis; Inspector General to Examine Comey Decision; Obama Awards Tearful Biden Medal of Freedom. Aired 6-7p ET
Aired January 12, 2017 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Justice probe. The Justice Department's internal watchdog is now investigating the FBI's handling of the probe into Hillary Clinton's private e-mail server. Director James Comey says he's grateful for the investigation. Did his actions cost Hillary Clinton the election?
And tears and laughter. President Obama surprises Vice President Biden, awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom during a very emotional ceremony. And the first lady, Michelle Obama, close to tears as she talks about leaving the White House on late-night TV.
We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following breaking news, including the rift between Donald Trump and the U.S. intelligence community over unsubstantiated claims that Russia has compromising information about the president- elect.
Tonight, Vice President Biden is confirming that he and President Obama were briefed on those claims that CNN first reported. Biden's comments come on the heels of similar confirmation by the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, himself.
Clapper is rejecting Trump's accusation that the intelligence community leaked the story after speaking with Trump. He issued a rare public statement expressing dismay at the leaks.
Up on Capitol Hill, Donald Trump's nominees to lead the Defense Department, the CIA, they are taking a hard-line stance against Russia, a stance at odds with the president-elect. Congressman Mike Pompeo, the CIA nominee, called Russian hacking -- quote -- "aggressive action taken by senior leadership."
And Defense Secretary nominee General James Mattis said principal threats start, in his words, with Russia.
And there's breaking news over at the White House, where President Obama has just awarded Vice President Biden the Medal of Freedom, a surprise move that brought Biden to tears.
We're covering that and much more this hour with our guests, including Senator Jack Reed. He's the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He's also a key member of the Intelligence Committee.
And our correspondents and expert analysts are also standing by.
But let's begin with the breaking news.
Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is working the story for us.
Jim, you're learning new information.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's exactly right.
Vice President Joe Biden confirming to CNN 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 Trump.
CNN, you may remember, first reported that the nation's top intelligence chiefs provided both the president and president-elect with a two-page written synopsis of those claims, which came from a larger 35-page report compiled by a former British intelligence operative based on Russian sources.
Intelligence agencies appended the summary of those allegations to documents prepared for the briefing on Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The vice president told reporters that he and Obama were briefed about those 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 also planning on informing Mr. Trump. Biden also said that he read the entire 35-page dossier. The comments by Biden are the first by any top government official confirming that they were told about the allegations as part of their intelligence briefing, this, of course, after last night the director of national intelligence also released a statement confirming those briefings as well.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): The same day that president-elect Trump accused CNN of reporting fake news...
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: It's all fake news. It's phony stuff.
SCIUTTO: ... the nation's top spy confirmed CNN's report that the intelligence community presented Trump with information on claims that Russia has compromising information on him. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper saying in a statement
-- quote -- "Part of our obligation is to ensure that policy-makers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security."
Director Clapper also told Mr. Trump that the intelligence community is not to blame for leaking the allegations, saying in the statement -- quote -- "I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press. I do not believe the leaks came from within the intelligence community."
Apparently, an effort to defuse tensions after Trump accused the intelligence chiefs Wednesday of leaking the claims intentionally.
TRUMP: I think it was disgraceful, disgraceful that the intelligence agencies allowed any information that turned out to be so false and fake out. I think it's a disgrace. And I say that, and I say that. And that's something that Nazi Germany would have done and did do.
SCIUTTO: Trump tweeted about his conversation with Clapper, saying -- quote -- "James Clapper called me yesterday to denounce the false and fictitious report that was illegally circulated, made up, phony facts. Too bad!"
That is actually a contradiction of Clapper's public statement. The intelligence community has not made a judgment, it says, on the veracity of the allegations.
President Obama was also presented with the claims and reportedly dismissed them. Today, Vice President Biden telling print reporters -- quote -- "The president was like, what does this have to do with anything?" Biden said. "Neither of us asked for any detail."
REP. MIKE POMPEO (R), KANSAS: Look, there are a number of very serious things that have taken place.
SCIUTTO: Today, the man that president-elect Trump has chosen to lead the CIA told senators that the agency would continue to explore the allegations.
POMPEO: I promise I will pursue the facts wherever they take us.
SCIUTTO: Still, senators questioned Pompeo's judgment on what constitutes credible information. During Pompeo's nomination hearing...
SEN. ANGUS KING (I), MAINE: Leaked by WikiLeaks.
SCIUTTO: ... Senator Angus King pointed to this tweet in which Pompeo equates WikiLeaks with proof.
KING: Do you think WikiLeaks is a reliable source of information?
POMPEO: I do not. KING: And the fact that you used the word proof, need proof, that
would indicate that you did think it was a credible source of information.
POMPEO: I have never believed that WikiLeaks was a credible source of information.
KING: Well, how do you explain your Twitter?
POMPEO: I would have to go back and take a look at that, Senator. But I can assure you, I have some deep understanding of WikiLeaks, and I have never viewed it as a credible source of information for the United States or for anyone else.
SCIUTTO: Today, all 100 senators were given a briefing in closed session again on Russian meddling in the U.S. election. Wolf, we know that included in that briefing was again that two-page synopsis of those unsubstantiated allegations.
BLITZER: Yes, it was indeed. All right, thanks very much, Jim Sciutto.
Evan Perez, our justice correspondent, is here.
You're getting some new information as well. What are you learning?
EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we're told that at Friday's briefing between the intelligence chiefs and the president- elect, there was a private one-on-one conversation between the director of the FBI, James Comey, and the president-elect, Donald Trump.
It was during that discussion that the president-elect was informed about the details of this two-page synopsis of this dossier, which contained all these allegations based on these Russian sources. Now, all four intelligence chiefs who were at this briefing with the president-elect agreed that Comey would be the one to handle this very, very sensitive discussion with the president-elect.
We're told that this discussion was very cordial, and that Donald Trump was very appreciative of this information. We reached out to the FBI for comment, and they declined to comment on this account, Wolf.
BLITZER: But the whole substance of what these allegations, these are wild accusations.
PEREZ: Unverified accusations.
BLITZER: Totally, but it was up to Comey to basically relay that information to the president-elect.
PEREZ: Exactly. There's been a lot of questions as to when exactly this was delivered. It was a broader briefing with the four intelligence chiefs, the head of the NSA, CIA, the DNI, and the FBI.
And then apparently after those gentlemen all stepped aside, Comey delivered this information personally to the president-elect. It was something that obviously he felt was very sensitive. It was something the FBI has been handling. The Counterintelligence Division of the FBI has been investigating these claims, again, still unverified. But he felt he was the one that should have handled this information to provide to the president-elect.
BLITZER: Very interesting indeed. All right, Evan, thanks very much.
Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island is joining us. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee. In fact, he's the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. He's also a member of the Intelligence Committee.
Senator, thanks very much for joining us.
SEN. JACK REED (D), RHODE ISLAND: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: So the full Senate, as you know, all 100 members, they have just been briefed behind closed doors about Russia, what its role was in hacking computers, interfering in the U.S. presidential election. Is there any shadow of a doubt in your mind that Vladimir Putin himself was behind the hacking?
REED: No, not at all.
In fact, the unclassified report, which is public knowledge, concludes that very clearly. What is not publicly released is some of the evidence. And that's to protect sources and methods.
But the conclusion shared by all of our intelligence agencies, the entire community, is that Putin was directly involved and authorized at some point this operation, a very multifaceted operation.
BLITZER: James Clapper, as you know, he is the director of national intelligence, the outgoing director. He rejected a suggestion by president-elect Trump that intelligence agencies were responsible for the leaks that have been coming out claiming Russia holds compromising information potentially, unsubstantiated, unconfirmed information about him.
Why do you think Trump is blaming intelligence agencies for that?
REED: Well, that, I'm not sure of.
I know, though, that the disparagement of the intelligence agencies -- and this is not as a result just of yesterday's release, but throughout the period of denial that the Russians were involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee -- this disparagement is difficult.
When General Clapper came before the Armed Services Committee, he pointed out that there's a big difference between constructive criticism and disparaging, because disparagement affects thousands of intelligence workers, Americans who are dedicating their life to the country, sometimes in very dangerous situations, doing their best to protect us.
And to just dismiss their efforts as something that's either without meaning or mischievous or something else is not appropriate.
BLITZER: Senator Reed, you were there at that closed-door briefing today, the intelligence community briefing, all 100 members of the Senate, classified information. Did that two-page summary, that synopsis, if you will, of these unsubstantiated allegations that the Russians supposedly collected to potentially compromise Donald Trump, did that come up during the session today?
REED: Well, the reason it's a closed-door session is because the matters discussed behind those doors are -- should be kept there. I would prefer that.
I think, essentially, this allegation, series of allegations is in the public domain. That's out there. And I think just standard procedure of the intelligence services, particularly the FBI's counterintelligence, is to try to verify, discredit, disprove, or confirm, because it could in some cases provide access, leverage, or some other nefarious means to an opponent of the United States, if it's not disputed or not dismissed.
BLITZER: Senator Reed, I want you to stand by. There's more we have to discuss, including Donald Trump's nominee for defense secretary. He took a hard line today when it comes to Russia during his confirmation hearing, joining other Cabinet picks who seemed to disagree with Donald Trump's praise of Vladimir Putin.
I want to bring in our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr.
Barbara, retired General James Mattis appears to have some pretty strong support in the Senate.
BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: He does, Wolf. All the indications are the Republican-controlled Senate will confirm him at this point. This is a guy who is very plainspoken. And today at his confirmation hearing, he had no hesitation in diverting potentially from his new commander in chief.
STARR (voice-over): Retired four-star Marine Corps General James Mattis wasted no time making clear he has no rose-colored glasses about Russia or Vladimir Putin.
GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET.), SECRETARY OF DEFENSE NOMINEE: And I would consider the principal threats to start with Russia.
STARR: Mattis, now a civilian looking for Senate confirmation as defense secretary, appears much more skeptical of Russia than president-elect Donald Trump, especially on NATO. MATTIS: The most important thing is that we recognize the reality of
what we deal with Mr. Putin, and we recognize that he is trying to break the North Atlantic Alliance.
STARR: Just hours before Mattis testified, the Kremlin spokesman told journalists the arrival of U.S. troops in Eastern Europe for exercises was a security threat. Mattis says he isn't sure where his views on Putin differ from Trump's.
MATTIS: I can tell you that my view of Putin is that he has chosen to be both a strategic competitor, to quote the chairman's opening statement, and an adversary in key areas.
STARR: Mattis says he agrees with Trump it's important to engage with Russia.
MATTIS: But I have very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin. We have a relatively short list of successes in that regard.
STARR: The new administration, Mattis says, has to recognize the reality of what Russia is up to.
MATTIS: There's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively and an increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia.
STARR: Mattis, renowned for his plain talk, says he believes he can talk to Trump candidly.
MATTIS: I would not have taken this job if I didn't believe the president-elect would also be open to my input on this or any other matter.
STARR: And one of those other matters where there may be disagreement is the Iran nuclear deal. General Mattis saying now that the U.S. has signed up to that Iran deal, it has to keep its word, very different than Donald Trump -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, Barbara, thank you very, very much.
I want to get back to Senator Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
Senator, you asked General Mattis a tough question without naming president-elect Trump about his relations with the intelligence community. Let me play it for our viewers.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MATTIS: I have very, very high degree of confidence in our intelligence community.
REED: And if you see that community being undercut, not debated about their conclusion, but undercut or somehow ignored or selectively being listened to or ignored, again, do you feel you have an obligation to make us aware of this, so that we can exercise our responsibilities?
MATTIS: I will be completely transparent with this committee, sir. But I would not have taken this job if I didn't believe the president- elect would also be open to my input on this or any other matter.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Were you encouraged by that, Senator Reed? He's saying he would not have accepted the job if he didn't think president-elect Trump would be open to his input.
REED: Well, I'm encouraged by General Mattis because of his forthright manner, his great knowledge and his incredible dedication to the nation. And he was very clear he will make his reservations known to the president.
What I was trying to solicit and what I think he agreed to is that at some point, which he'd have to determine, there's a need also to inform Congress, because we play a role in national security policy also. But I'm very confident that he will make the judgments that are necessary to properly inform the president, and if necessary inform the Congress.
BLITZER: You also asked General Mattis about Russia specifically. He said it's important to recognize reality, his words, when it comes to what Russia is up to. Do you think he can change president-elect Trump's mind when it comes to Russia and Putin?
REED: I think he will make the case based on the facts, based upon the realities that he sees and, again, based, I hope, on very accurate intelligence of the threats that Russia pose, and also, as he indicated, maybe a handful, but some opportunities for collaboration.
But I think he's going to approach the issue of Russia with a much more hard-nosed, much more pragmatic view of what they're about and what we can do to ensure that we don't get into a situation where there's an escalation or anything else, in fact, we can provide support for our allies in Eastern Europe particularly.
BLITZER: Will you vote to confirm General Mattis as the next defense secretary, and are you comfortable with a military man taking over this traditionally civilian post?
REED: I will support General Mattis. I supported the legislation today that authorizes his appointment short of the seven-year waiting period.
I did so because Senator McCain conducted some very good hearings, first with experts in the policy field, then today with General Mattis himself. I think those individuals were very, very clear about the history, the reason for the originally 10-year, but now seven-year waiting period, and also the reasons why General Mattis, because of his qualities of character and the circumstances, is someone that should be given consideration.
It was done once before for General Marshall in the late 1940s. Once again, I think they suggested that it be done. And also I think, very, very importantly, today at the hearing, former Senator Sam Nunn, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, along with former Senator and Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen, came forward and made the same judgment.
These are two extraordinary public servants who are very sensitive to the issue of civilian control of the military. But I also made it very clear and emphatic that this would not be routine, that this exception is one-off, that if there was an opening again in this administration or any other administration, that I would reject a military appointment, because we can't set the standard that this is something that's a low bar.
It has to be a very, very high bar.
BLITZER: All right, Senator Reed, thanks very much.
REED: Thanks, Wolf.
BLITZER: Jack Reed, top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, joining us.
I want to get some new information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM now, the latest on the president-elect.
I want to bring in our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. He's over at Trump Tower in New York City.
What are you learning, Jim?
ACOSTA: Wolf, there are still plenty of questions for Donald Trump besides Russia after that contentious news conference, from his potential for conflicts of interest as president to his plans for replacing Obamacare.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Add Vice President Joe Biden to the list of critics who don't think Donald Trump is going far enough in his plan to separate himself from his real estate empire when he becomes president.
JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't think he's done enough. And he may sink in the swamp.
ACOSTA: Biden's comments come one day after the head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics took the rare step of criticizing the incoming president's proposal for turning his vast holdings over to a trust run by his sons, instead of a blind trust that would have completely shielded Trump from his businesses.
WALTER M. SHAUB, DIRECTOR, U.S. OFFICE OF GOVERNMENT ETHICS: The plan the president has announced doesn't meet the standards that the best of his nominees are meeting, and that every president in the past four decades has met.
ACOSTA: Today, the transition team brushed off those comments.
SEAN SPICER, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president, by law, doesn't have conflicts. It's somewhat of a silly discussion. And the steps that he did take are, frankly, extraordinary. What he did was go above and beyond.
ACOSTA: But in an interview with NBC, Biden zeroed in on Trump's own admission at his news conference yesterday that a businessman in Dubai just offered him a multibillion-dollar deal.
TRUMP: Was offered $2 billion to do a deal in Dubai, number of deals. And I turned it down. I didn't have to turn it down.
BIDEN: I found it bizarre to talk about, well, I could have made a $2 billion deal. I could have done both, but I decided not to, as if you're doing a favor, I mean, the country a favor.
ACOSTA: The president-elect raised more eyebrows when he tweeted his support for the family member of the L.L. Bean clothing brand, who has faced calls for a boycott over a donation made to a pro-Trump political group.
Trump tweeted: "Thank you to Linda Bean of L.L. Bean for your great support and courage. People will support you even more now. Buy L.L. Bean."
LINDA BEAN, L.L. BEAN: I never back down if I feel I'm right. And I do feel that they're bullies.
ACOSTA: There are other questions coming out of Trump's news conference. One day after the president-elect suggested Republicans in Congress could repeal and replace Obamacare on a single day...
TRUMP: It will be repeal and replace. It will be essentially simultaneously. It will be various segments, you understand, but will most likely be on the same day or the same week, but probably the same day.
ACOSTA: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell appeared to tamp down expectations.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: The next step then will be legislation to finally repeal Obamacare and move us toward smarter health policies. The repeal legislation will include a stable transition period as we work toward patient-centered health care.
ACOSTA: Now, Donald Trump was not seen in the lobby of Trump Tower today. But one of Europe's most controversial politicians was. Marine Le Pen, the French presidential candidate, was spotted inside by reporters.
Wolf, she's seen her popularity rise by bashing trade deals and immigration, just as Donald Trump has. She's described herself as an admirer of Donald Trump. But the Trump transition team said she had no scheduled meetings with either Trump or anybody on the staff. Wolf, it is a mystery as to what a woman who could be the next president of France was doing inside Trump Tower today, Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much, Jim Acosta. It's a mystery that hopefully we will figure out in the not-too-distant future.
I want to get back to the hour's breaking news that we're following. The FBI director, James Comey, and president-elect Donald Trump, they had a brief one-on-one conversation at Friday's intelligence briefing. That according to multiple U.S. sources briefed on the matter, that's what they tell CNN.
During that pull-aside, Comey briefed the president-elect on that two- page synopsis of Russian claims, unsubstantiated against Donald Trump.
I want to bring in our experts and analysts.
Evan Perez, I want to start with you right now. This is a significant development that the FBI director personally took Donald Trump aside and said, you know what, here's a two-page summary. Here's information that's very damaging to you. We haven't confirmed any of it. It's all unsubstantiated. But he wanted to point it out to him.
It really fits into what we know about this investigation that's been ongoing now for several months. The FBI Counterintelligence Division is really in charge of trying to keep an eye on foreign spy services that are operating inside the United States and to see what they're up to. And this is information, obviously unverified, unsubstantiated, that the government is aware of.
And they felt if was their responsibility, frankly, Wolf, to make sure that the president-elect was aware of this, that this stuff was out there. Again, as we described, it was the worst-kept secret in Washington.
Journalists, members of Congress, everybody had access to various versions of this dossier over the last few months. And the FBI director wanted him to know before he takes office that this is out there.
BLITZER: What was the thinking behind Comey should actually deliver the information to Trump, as opposed to Clapper or someone else?
PEREZ: Because it is his bureau, the FBI, that is handling this, to take a look to see whether or not there's anything here that can be verified. Again, the Counterintelligence Division is the one that is responsible for this, Wolf, to keep an eye on the spy services of other countries and what they're doing, who they're targeting in this country.
Again, the question here is whether or not and the concern here would be whether or not someone is targeting the incoming president of the United States. That would be the concern here. And that's the reason why they decided to have this one-on-one conversation.
BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, you have done a lot of reporting on this as well.
SCIUTTO: Listen, we have got the rarest look inside the most classified briefing you can have, right? They do classified briefings all the time. But the ones they do for the president, president- elect, are pretty darn classified.
We now have two people who were inside the room, the vice president and the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, speaking on the record about what was talked about. And, of course, through our own sources, we're getting more details about both the content and even the arrangement, the one-on-one between Comey and the president- elect.
And, listen, why? Why are we getting this view, beyond the fact that we worked really hard on the story? One reason must be to set the record straight, it seems, because you had the president-elect yesterday giving what I can only call a counternarrative to what we know happened inside that room, and, of course, accusing CNN at the same time of spreading fake news.
So, we now know that. Two, I would just note unsubstantiated claims, but considered germane enough to the overall conversation about Russian interference in the election to mention to the president-elect and the president and the vice president of the United States.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Don't you think part of that is also that the intelligence community wanted Donald Trump to know, who has been very skeptical of the Russian hack, wanted him to know that when you become president, the target could be on your back from the Russians?
PEREZ: That is a big concern here.
BORGER: Right, and that he needs to know that.
Now, I would argue he probably had heard a lot of these rumors, or his campaign staff had heard a lot of rumors. They might have passed it along to him. It was -- it might have been something Donald Trump had heard along during the past year or so. But...
PEREZ: And it goes beyond that, because now we know that members of Congress have come out from their briefing, the senators who were briefed today. And they said they were -- they had a discussion about this.
And I think one of the concerns is, Wolf, that certainly beyond the president-elect, there could be targets on members of Congress as well.
If they did this to Hillary Clinton during the election, they're trying to do this to other people.
JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: What Trump said during the press conference also kind of gives a window into his thinking. He said, do you really think I wouldn't be tougher on Putin than Hillary Clinton?
He thinks there's something that that the Russians wouldn't dare do that. And it's more about -- to him, there's more danger in people thinking he's illegitimate than there is to Russia targeting, because he alone is a deterrent.
BLITZER: It's politically a sensitive issue, Gloria. How is it going to play out?
BORGER: Well, you know, right now, everything is politically sensitive.
Look, you have the president-elect saying, finally admitting that the Russians did the hack. And you have him during the campaign talking about the veracity of WikiLeaks.
And I think -- and we heard this today in the confirmation hearings. We heard from his incoming CIA director, from his incoming secretary of defense that they have complete confidence in the intelligence community.
And I think part of all of this that we're seeing is the intelligence community going to the president-elect and saying, we have your back. We have your back, and we need you to know that these things are going on about you and that, when you become president, we will be there for you.
SCIUTTO: Great point.
DAVID SWERDLICK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": That's consistent with what I heard yesterday. I talked to Congressman Will Hurd, a second-term Republican from Texas, who is a former CIA operative, Wolf.
And what he said was, first, he said Russia's an adversary, full stop. He wanted to make that clear. He was not critical of president-elect Trump, but he did want to impress upon him and his fellow Republicans that this is something that they really needed to take seriously, and not allow it to get sort of glazed over before the inauguration, that he felt that this was serious. He understood why the president and the president-elect were briefed.
And he also -- if anything, he encouraged -- sort of encouraged president-elect Trump to be circumspect about speaking out about this before he had all the...
BLITZER: What was impressive, David, was that these nominees, who were before these committees today, whether Mattis or Pompeo, they made it clear they're willing to speak to Donald Trump and tell him, "You know what, Mr. President" -- when he's the president -- "you're wrong. Here's what we believe."
[18:30:18] They weren't shy distancing themselves during their confirmation hearings from statements that Donald Trump would make often during the campaign.
SWERDLICK: Yes, clearly. Well, if you're Congressman Pompeo, right, you're going to be leading the CIA. On the one hand, President-elect Trump will be your boss. But on the other hand, you're going to be leading all these other intelligence officials who, to a degree, have been impugned over the last couple of weeks.
BLITZER: Because Jackie, all of this concern from Trump is that all of these stories could raise questions about the legitimacy of his election.
KUCINICH: That is the heart of it. That is -- he is trying to protect No. 1 right now. And it is not - that's not what this is about. And you can't just rely on the kind of Incredible Hulk "you won't like me when I'm angry" as a deterrent for Russia. There needs -- this needs to be taken seriously.
And he kind of inched into that during the press conference, saying that "I think Russia did the hack." But then he said, "But, you know, everybody tries to hack us." So it's still -- he's still catching because he's so -- he's so worried about the perception that he's not the real president. He is.
BLITZER: The inspector general, Evan, over at the Justice Department has now ordered a full-scale investigation of the way Comey dealt with Hillary Clinton's e-mail server; other senior officials at the Justice Department, what roles they were playing. Potentially, this -- Comey himself said he welcomes this investigation, but who knows where it's going to wind up?
PEREZ: It's just what we needed, right? Another investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails.
KUCINICH: I think so, yes.
PEREZ: Just when we thought that had gone away.
Look, the inspector general, he has a responsibility to oversee and look at what the Justice Department and the FBI and how they conducted themselves in this investigation. We know how much controversy came about as a result of this. But one of the focuses, I'm told, is on the -- the extraordinary July
press conference that James Comey held, in which he said, "We're not going to recommend any charges, and no prosecutor, no reasonable prosecutor would bring charges like this."
But then he went in -- went on to describe all the different things that Hillary Clinton did wrong and said that she was extremely careless in her handling of classified information. Extraordinary press conference.
And then, of course, there was the letter in October a few days before the election, in which he informed Congress that they had found new emails that they were taking a look at, essentially reopening the investigation just days before the election, despite the fact that the attorney general, his boss, had told him not to do that.
And then of course, a few days later, he closed the investigation again, saying they'd found nothing.
So again, all of this has been under the microscope for many people in politics. Now we're going to have someone independent. The inspector general of the Justice Department is going to take a look, and then we'll see what it comes. As you said, the FBI said that they welcome this, because finally, somebody who doesn't have an axe to grind is going to take a look at the way they conducted this.
BORGER: And it may help save the reputation of the FBI, which is -- I think is in some need of repair.
The question that I have is that the incoming attorney general, if he's confirmed, Senator Sessions, has said that he will recuse himself on anything having to do with Hillary Clinton's emails. And so if this becomes a topic, what does that mean? Who then is in charge when it's dealing with emails? Because Comey may have a conflict, because he's being investigated by the inspector general.
BLITZER: Let me read the statement that Comey himself put out after the inspector general made this announcement. And it's a terse statement. Here it is: "I'm grateful to the Department of Justice's I.G." -- inspector general -- "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."
And Jim Sciutto, the whole purpose of inspectors general at various agencies and departments in Washington is to learn from mistakes and study those mistakes to make sure they are not repeated.
SCIUTTO: That's true. I've been told by people inside the FBI, I mean, just for context, you know, this is not a 9/11 Commission investigation. Right? I mean, you're not going to -- it's not going to be, you know, thousands of documents and televised hearings, et cetera. The I.G. is often looking at the behavior of the department. So just that note. But isn't it remarkable that the two issues that Democrats claim
unduly influenced the election -- Russian election-related hacking and the actions of the FBI director -- you're going to have simultaneous investigations of those things going on in D.C. Of course, the Russian one's going to be much more prominent. You're going to have hearings, et cetera. Discussions of new sanctions.
But listen, you talk about wanting to turn the page. The president wants to move on. Is that going to be possible in this environment? I would say unlikely.
[18:35:05] BORGER: This is a very broad investigation, though. If you go down that laundry list of things that they are looking at, it touches upon everything.
BORGER: So even if it's quiet and done quietly, when the report comes out, it's going to -- it's going to kind of bring it all back again.
BLITZER: And those of us who have covered these kinds of investigations over the years in Washington, you know it often starts out pretty focused, but it can expand...
BORGER: Started out, right...
BLITZER: And it can go on and on and on.
BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. The surprise honor that brought the vice president of the United States, Joe Biden, to tears. We'll update you on that. We've got to take a quick break. We'll be right back.
[18:40:06] BLITZER: Some of Donald Trump's key nominees are taking a pretty hard line against Russia right now, a line that appears to be at odds with the president-elect's praise, for example, of Vladimir Putin.
Gloria, I'm talking about representative Mike Pompeo, who's been nominated to become the next director of the CIA. He says it's pretty clear Russia was involved in the election hacks. He's -- he's pretty aggressive in going after Putin and the Russians, in marked contrast to the president-elect himself.
BORGER: I mean, we heard that -- we heard that from Pompeo; we heard that from Mattis. I mean, look, I think that Pompeo was there today to give the people at his agency confidence that he has their back, and that he is going to defend them and their work and their product.
And I think that, if I were over there at Langley watching my TV set, and I listened to Mike Pompeo, I would feel a little better today about him, because given all of the tumult around the president- elect's lack of confidence in the intelligence agency, I think that you look at Pompeo and, if I'm working at Langley, I'm thinking, "OK. If he has the president's ear, that's a good thing. And maybe Donald Trump will trust us more because he has confidence in his new -- in his new team."
I mean, the people who work at the agency are not partisans. But they understand politics.
SCIUTTO: But isn't it kind of incredible that every one of Donald Trump's national security nominees has to make that public statement? That "I have confidence in the intelligence community."
BORGER: They're asked...
SCIUTTO: They are asked, but the reason they're asked is because the president-elect repeatedly...
BORGER: Yes, right.
SCIUTTO: ... has expressed the opposite of confidence.
Imagine -- I mean, the intelligence community works hard enough and faces enough danger. Imagine if it was the U.S. military, if every national security nominee had to say, "I have confidence, I trust the U.S. military," you know, it was a requirement just to reassure the people on the front lines?
So these are -- the intelligence community's on a different kind of front lines, right? Some of them facing danger, as well. It just struck me as remarkable that each one had to do that to reassure both Republican and Democratic members of Congress.
BLITZER: And they did, Jackie, seem to have an effective strategy to reassure them -- Mattis, for example, Pompeo, for example -- because the reaction has been pretty favorable so far, not just from the Republicans, obviously, but from plenty of Democrats, as well.
KUCINICH: Well, right. I mean, but the bottom line is they serve President Trump. So what they say during their confirmation hearings, that's what they believe. And the people at the agencies and various departments are listening to them, because that's who they're going to deal with day to day.
That said, the policy comes from the top. So we still don't know what they're going to be instructed to do, because that at the end of the day, it's going to be Donald Trump who is calling the shots.
SWERDLICK: I mean, in part -- apart from, you know, the CNN story that was broken this week, these nominees are being left to clean up a narrative that President-elect Trump has allowed to sort of fester over the last month.
Regardless of what he does when he's in office, he's allowed this narrative that, A, he doesn't have complete confidence in his intelligence agencies; B, that he is sort of soft on Russia and Putin; and C, that you know, going forward, that you know, he's not going to sort of take the advice of, say, you know, a briefing versus what he thinks he has in his gut instinct.
BLITZER: On Tillerson, the -- Rex Tillerson, Gloria, who's the nominee to become the next secretary of state, so far Marco Rubio, John McCain, key Republicans, they have not yet said...
BORGER: Lindsey Graham, yes.
BLITZER: ... Lindsey Graham, that they will vote to confirm. There are some Democrats lining up. So he'll probably have the votes, but it could be close.
BORGER: I think it could be close. And I think there are some questions that remain out there. Marco Rubio remains very -- very noncommittal.
And I think the problem with Tillerson is, again, on Russia and his close relationship as a businessman with Vladimir Putin. I think the question that members of Congress have been asking was, "OK, you were serving -- you were serving ExxonMobil when you -- when you were dealing with Putin. Now you're serving the American public."
And he voiced a skepticism towards Russia, but what was striking to me was that he said he hadn't discussed Russia policy with the incoming president of the United States. I would assume, if you were coming in to be secretary of state, that would be a long, substantive, detailed conversation that you would be having, given the way the election unfolded and giving -- given Donald Trump's statements about -- about Putin and how he wants to deal with them.
BLITZER: There were hearings all week this week, key positions, including for the attorney general of the United States, Senator Jeff Sessions, nominated to be the attorney general. How do you think the Trump team, big picture, Jackie, did?
[18:45:03] KUCINICH: I think for the most part, they were prepared. I mean, there were low points in some of these confirmation hearings, but most of these guys are going to be confirmed.
Tillerson is the only open question. And that lies largely with Marco Rubio. Marco Rubio could in theory, a choose your own adventure now, but he could kill this in committee because it's such a very close --
BLITZER: Eleven Republicans, 10 Democrats. If he switches, it could stall at a minimum.
KUCINICH: It could stall it. At minimum, it could stall it.
BORGER: You could report it out without a vote --
BLITZER: You can, but it's highly unusual.
BORGER: Yes, right.
KUCINICH: So, Tillerson really is the only open question, but I bet the rest of these nominees.
BLITZER: How do you think they did?
SCIUTTO: Listen, Tillerson was if not unprepared -- he didn't talk too his boss about Russia. That counts as lack of preparation either by both of them. But on many of the answers, he was giving careful answers and really just not -- he didn't want to call Putin a war criminal, et cetera.
But when you look at the big picture, their overall positions on these key national security and foreign policy issues are pretty mainstream. You know, when you look at these selections, whether it's Russia, Iran, China, et cetera. Question is, does Donald Trump share those views when it comes to decision time?
BLITZER: Let's get back, David, quickly to the breaking news this hour that CNN has learned that the director of the FBI, Comey himself, he briefed last Friday at that sensitive briefing for the president- elect, he briefed him on that two-page summary, if you will, of these unsubstantiated allegations. A pretty significant development when you think about the big picture of what supposedly some of these allegations unsubstantiated contain.
SWERDLICK: Right. Unsubstantiated but significant that FBI Director Comey and the heads of the other major intelligence agencies felt that it was important enough to brief President-elect Trump and President Obama and Vice President Biden versus just continuing to investigate, you know, and only giving their other briefing and recommendations.
To me, the fact that, again, President-elect Trump was so dismissive of some of this information -- again, not all the specifics, but just the general briefing earlier last month, and instead of just saying I want to wait for the facts to come in has left him in a tough spot in terms of going in with his foreign policy as he takes office.
BLITZER: All right. Everybody, stand by. There's more coming into THE SITUATION ROOM right now, including some really high emotions as the clock runs out on the Obama White House. The vice president, Joe Biden, he's moved to tears as he's honored by the president.
And the first lady also gets sentimental on late night TV.
[18:52:28] BLITZER: There's breaking news over at the White House where President Obama has just awarded Vice President Joe Biden the Medal of Freedom, a surprise move that brought the vice president to tears.
CNN's Brian Todd has details for us.
Brian, a very emotional moment at the White House.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly was, Wolf. CNN was told President Obama planned this surprise for Vice President Biden, kept the plan to himself and a couple of close aides. Well, the plan worked and it led to one of the most emotional moments of the Obama White House years. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)
TODD (voice-over): Joe Biden said he thought he was simply going to toast staff members at this White House event. But the vice president was taken completely by surprise when his friend and boss stepped in to present him the nation's highest civilian honor, the presidential medal of freedom.
BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To know Joe Biden is to know that 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.
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.
TODD: The vice president could barely contain his tears. He told the president what the award and Mr. Obama's words meant to him.
JOSEPH BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: This honor is -- 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 Talmudic 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.
TODD: A sentiment shared by the president.
[18:55:00] OBAMA: This is the kind of family that built this country. That's why my family's so proud to call ourselves honorary Bidens.
TODD: Now, at this event, President Obama awarded Vice President Biden the Medal of Freedom with distinction. That is a very rare move. The president called Joe Biden, quote, "a lion of American history" and said he's nowhere close to being finished serving the country -- Wolf.
BLITZER: It was a beautiful moment indeed.
Brian Todd, thank you very much.
Meanwhile, the First Lady Michelle Obama says her final days in the White House have been surprisingly emotional for her as well.
CNN's Sara Ganim is with us right now.
She spoke about that emotion on late-night TV, Sara.
SARA GANIM, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Very sentimentally. You know, Wolf, she's been friendly with Jimmy Kimmel over the years. They've collaborated on some of her projects, and it's very possible that she chose his tonight show as her last public appearance before the Obamas leave the White House.
MICHELLE OBAMA, FIRST LADY: It's been eight years, eight years is enough. We're packing up.
GANIM (voice-over): As Washington prepares for a new president, the first lady in New York overnight jokingly prepared for a new job.
JIMMY KIMMEL, COMEDIAN: This is where it all happens right here.
M. OBAMA: I like this.
KIMMEL: You do?
M. OBAMA: This side of the desk.
KIMMEL: You do?
M. OBAMA: Yeah.
KIMMEL: Oh, I'm not leaving! I'm not leaving. I'm not leaving. They're like this could be something big.
GANIM: Joining comedian Jimmy Fallon on his talk show writing "thank you" notes.
M. OBAMA: Thank you, Inauguration Day, or as I like to call it, let's move.
GANIM: Even surprising audience members.
KIMMEL: Was there one room in particular you're like I've always had a great time in that room?
M. OBAMA: Uh -- you guys.
KIMMEL: Hello! This is a family show today.
M. OBAMA: Settle down. Settle down.
KIMMEL: Everybody, settle down.
M. OBAMA: You guys, grow up.
GANIM: The first lady has been no stranger to late-night laughs over the last eight years, but her appearance Wednesday was different.
M. OBAMA: It is. It is nuts. I feel like crying right now.
GANIM: The 52-year-old wife and mother getting emotional and talking about what she sees as the future of hope.
M. OBAMA: Kids are my heart. You know, when I think about the fact that some of them are afraid about what's to come, you know, I really -- what I said, is I don't want them to be afraid. I want them to embrace the future and know that the world is getting better.
We have bumps in the road. We have ups and downs, but I want our kids to, like, move forward. I don't care where they come from, with strength and with hope.
GANIM: It's been a tearful few days for the first lady as the Obama family says farewell. From her final public event honoring school counselors last week --
M. OBAMA: Being your first lady has been the greatest honor of my life, and I hope I've made you proud.
GANIM: -- to the president's last address to the nation where the whole family got choked up.
BARACK OBAMA: You took on a role you didn't ask for, and you made it your own, with grace and with grit and with style, and with humor.
GANIM: And it was that humor on display overnight.
KIMMEL: Thank you, First Lady Michelle Obama, for bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase "the right to bare arms." Yeah! Come on.
M. OBAMA: You are welcome.
Thank you, Barack, for proving you're not a lame duck but my very own silver fox.
KIMMEL: And, hey, since you like exercise so much, how about running for president?
M. OBAMA: Oh.
KIMMEL: Thank you for being here, your friendship and your leadership and please come back on the show as a citizen, as well.
M. OBAMA: Oh, absolutely.
KIMMELL: Whenever you want.
GANIM: You heard that. She told Jimmy Fallon she'll be back.
Her appearance was followed with performance by Stevie Wonder on which he changed the words of his song "My Cheri Amour" to "My Michelle Amour", and he also sang for her, "Isn't She Lovely", Wolf.
BLITZER: Beautiful indeed. Very touching. Thank you very much, Sara Ganim, for that report.
An important note to our viewers. Tomorrow night right here on CNN, a CNN special report explores the first lady's journey from Chicago to the world stage, "History Made: The Legacy of Michelle Obama". That airs tomorrow night 9:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.
And later tonight, the House Speaker Paul Ryan joins host Jake Tapper and a live studio audience for a CNN town hall. That also airs later tonight 9:00 p.m. Eastern, right here on CNN.
That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.
"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.