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President Obama Commutes Sentence of Chelsea Manning; Obama Pardons General Cartwright, Who Lied about Leaks; Interview with Sen. Robert Menendez; Putin: Claims of Trump Surveillance are 'Rubbish'; U.N. Ambassador Warns Trump about Russian Aggression; Confirmation Hearing for Trump's Education Nominee. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired January 17, 2017 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: prison release. President Obama commutes the sentence of Chelsea Manning, the Army intelligence analyst sentenced to 35 years for a massive leak of U.S. military secrets. And the president pardons a former vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff who pleaded guilty to making false statements about a leak of secrets on Iran.

[17:00:26] Power play. First on CNN, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, warns the Trump administration not to ignore Russia's interference in the U.S. election and says it would be a grave mistake to start a new dialogue with Russia from a position of weakness.

Putin pushes back. Russia's president comes to the defense of Donald Trump, dismissing as rubbish the claims that Moscow has got compromising information on the president-elect.

Disapproval. Our exclusive new poll shows that just four in ten Americans approve of the way Donald Trump is handling his transition. That's the lowest rating of any recent president-elect. It comes as dozens of Democratic lawmakers show their disapproval by boycotting Trump's inauguration.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking news stories right now. President Obama has commuted the remaining prison sentence of Chelsea Manning, the soldier convicted of stealing three quarters of a million pages of documents and videos and turning them over to WikiLeaks.

And the president has pardoned James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who pleaded guilty to making false statements about leaking secret information on Iran to journalists.

And first on CNN, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, warns it would be a grave mistake for the Trump administration to overlook Russian aggression and Russia's interference in the U.S. election. She says Trump should not begin a new dialogue with Russia from a standpoint of weakness. Fireworks are expected as a hearing is about to begin for President-

elect Trump's controversial pick for education secretary, the Michigan billionaire Betsy Davos. She's known as a strong advocate for school choice and education vouchers, but critics say she has no connection to public education. Democrats are digging in for a fight. We'll bring you that hearing live. That's coming up momentarily.

And an exclusive, our new CNN/ORC poll shows that Donald Trump's approval rating, just 40 percent. That's the lowest of any recent president-elect. More than four dozen Democratic members of Congress say they'll boycott Trump's inauguration, a move sparked by Trump's feud with their colleague, Congressman John Lewis.

I'll speak with Democratic Senator Robert Menendez. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they'll have today's coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski, and this hour's breaking news, President Obama commuting the sentence of Chelsea Manning.

Michelle, was this a surprise?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I mean, not in the sense that we knew this was a possibility. The White House has been asked about it repeatedly over the last couple of weeks leading up to this, but that doesn't mean it's not a bombshell, especially to the intelligence community.

I mean, Chelsea Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of pages of classified or sensitive documents, ending up on WikiLeaks. Many feel that she hurt national security. And when the White House would talk about, say, Edward Snowden by comparison, that's exactly what they would say his situation was, that he harmed national security.

As we speak, we're getting a briefing from White House officials to shed more light on the decision making here and why he did this. And keep in mind, we're also going to hear from the president tomorrow, so the president can be asked directly his thinking on this.

But there have been petitions, several of them. One on the White House website was more than 100,000 signatures saying that Chelsea Manning has suffered behind bars. She was sentenced to 35 years. She's already served several years. She has tried to commit suicide. She's been held at times in isolation. So, it could be that there's a sense that she's served her time, that she faced her crime, as opposed to Edward Snowden, that she served part of that.

But keep in mind -- and Edward Snowden, again, by comparison, he didn't apply for clemency. But we did hear former attorney general Eric Holder say that he felt Snowden did a public service, at least in the sense that he shed some light and started a conversation about secrecy within the government, and the NSA.

So, it's possible that there isn't a sense that what she exposed -- and part of it was human rights abuses or what she saw as that, had some value publicly. But we're really going to have to hear from the White House directly and the president to hear what went into this.

[17:05:03] Already, though, we are hearing from those in opposition, from Republicans saying that a traitor should not be held as a martyr. And we're hearing from WikiLeaks, too, that tweeted out "victory" -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michelle Kosinski at the White House. The president will be holding a full-scale conference, his last as president, tomorrow.

For more on the president's controversial decision to commute Chelsea Manning's sentence, let's bring in our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. Evan, what are you hearing from your sources?

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this was a shock to the national security establishment in Washington, the fact that -- that the president, who in the last -- in his administration, frankly, over the last couple of months, has taken a strong line against WikiLeaks and the role in the leaks of information that were -- of information that was stolen by Russian intelligence, at least according to the U.S. government, and the role WikiLeaks played in that, in the recent election, the idea that you would commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who is the one that put WikiLeaks on the map with her leaks, was something that people just could not fathom. The idea that you -- at least in the view of national security officials, they believe that she endangered people's lives, these hundreds of thousands of documents. Not only the lives of people, but also the relationships between the United States and other governments. A lot of information that other governments had passed on to the U.S. government, to the State Department, was released as part of that.

Obviously, there was a tremendous outpouring from the human rights community in favor of Chelsea Manning. They viewed her case as one that was simply about human rights. She is somebody who is struggling with her gender identity. She was seeking to figure out a way to get out of a male prison, as you know. And, so, from the view of human rights, this was a simple case.

In the national security arena, it was not so simple, especially in light of the 2016 election, Wolf, and the -- the decision that -- or the signal that this would send, they view, to other leak cases in the future.

BLITZER: Evan Perez with the latest on that. Evan, stand by.

The Manning and Cartwright cases had significant impact on the United States military. I want to go to our Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr. So, how's this news about Chelsea Manning's commutation being received where you are over at the Pentagon?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think it's fair to say, Wolf, with a very raised eyebrow. The U.S. military firmly believes that Chelsea Manning, as a low-level junior Army soldier, mind you, stole illegally hundreds of thousands of documents, downloading them off a system -- a classified system, putting them onto a personal computer data device. This is something that is against the law. The military already, long before, taking a very hard stand on it.

And back when this all happened, top Pentagon leaders were absolutely furious about it and wanted to send a very strong message that stealing information and then leaking it would not be tolerated. And, of course, it was -- it really did put WikiLeaks on the map.

And now this action by President Obama comes against the backdrop of WikiLeaks' potential involvement in the Russian hacking scandal, potential involvement. We grant you that.

So, this is going to be looked at in a very difficult fashion, I think, by U.S. military leaders. There is an understanding of what Chelsea Manning personally is going through in prison. Everybody gets that.

But in the meantime, the view from the Pentagon is this person stole some 400,000 Defense Department documents, hundreds of thousands of State Department cables. The president has had the absolute right to do what he did, but it is the reaction from the U.S. military.

And I would say the same thing about the James Cartwright case, but that, oddly enough, is a little bit different. People like to say the junior troops get the full weight of the law, and senior commanders, when they violate the law, get excused from it. But there's a general understanding that General Cartwright did what he did, offering that information about Iran to reporters, because the administration wanted him to. He was not out there freelancing completely on his own.

But then he did lie to the FBI, according to what he pled guilty to.

But General Cartwright, as a four-star, would indeed have been one of, if not the most senior U.S. military person to serve a prison term for something like this. And he was someone, when he served, that was very close to President Obama.

So, I think there was a sense that perhaps this action for General Cartwright was coming. The Manning one, on the other hand, may be a very unpleasant surprise to many military commanders, Wolf.

BLITZER: General James Cartwright, the former vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. He pled guilty, one count of lying, in effect, to federal investigators about a leak to journalists involving Iran.

[17:10:12] So, I take it, Barbara, very difficult reactions to the decision to pardon General Cartwright over at the Pentagon, as composed, as compared to the decision to commute Chelsea Manning's prison sentence.

STARR: There are different reactions, Wolf. But I do think that people probably want to appreciate the fact that this whole business is a very long-standing issue in the U.S. military. Why is it that very senior commanders don't appear to serve the same punishment that more junior people do? Other senior commanders, General David Petraeus, is on probation still for his involvement in disclosing classified information to his biographer. He did not go to jail. He reached a plea agreement. General Cartwright -- there is a feeling that, very deeply in the

junior ranks of the U.S. military, that they got the worst of the punishment, the worst of the prison sentences, and top officials appear not to.

For all of the extenuating circumstances we've just discussed, that is what has happened to General Cartwright, to General Petraeus, to other top officials who have conducted themselves with wrongdoing, but it is a very deep feeling that runs in the junior ranks that perhaps they do bear the brunt of military law enforcement, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Barbara. I want to you stand by, as well. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is with me. You're getting more reaction to this decision by the president.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: Well, WikiLeaks is celebrating now. They just tweeted out "victory!" exclamation point. But it's an interesting test for WikiLeaks. Let's just remind our viewers of the association here.

So WikiLeaks, of course, founded by Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning was, to some degree, really their greatest source ever. Put them on the map. They'd done some releases before, but the documents that Manning stole from the U.S. Military gave and then were released via WikiLeaks were just this massive trove, as we know, essentially created WikiLeaks as this kind of global force, as it were, revealing these secrets. So, he is indelibly tied to Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks.

Five days ago, WikiLeaks tweeted the following: "If Obama grants Manning clemency, Assange will agree to clemency despite clear unconstitutionality."

Remember, Assange has been holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London to avoid extradition to Sweden. He's facing allegations there of sexual assault by two women.

The reason he has given repeatedly is he feared that, "Listen, if I go there to face these allegations, that's really a -- an attempt for the U.S. to then extradite me from there back to the U.S. for releasing these documents."

But five days ago he said, "Listen, you grant clemency, I will come to the U.S. I will face extradition" and, of course, face charges for his involvement in this. The question now is does Julian Assange keep that promise?

Of course, there's no connection -- we're not trying to make any connection between that Assange demand and the fact that the Obama administration has decided to do this, but the fact is they have done it. Five days ago Julian Assange promised to come here to the U.S. We'll see if he follows through on that promise.

And imagine if he does. You will have -- I don't know if you want to call it the trial of a century, but you would have quite a legal proceeding here with Julian Assange, particularly as Barbara mentioned, WikiLeaks' involvement in Russian hacking and the U.S. election. It's the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that WikiLeaks was, in effect, the vessel for all these stolen documents, stolen by Russia and then released via WikiLeaks.

So, if they follow through on this promise, would be an enormous event.

BLITZER: The WikiLeaks' tweet victory, "Obama commutes Chelsea Manning sentence from 35 years to seven, release date now may 17.

SCIUTTO: Right. And we have Edward Snowden, of course, who has his own exile, as it were, in Russia for his involvement in releasing documents. He's saying, as well, in five more months he will be free, addressing this to Chelsea Manning, of course. "Thank you for what you did for everyone, Chelsea. Stay strong awhile longer," says Edward Snowden.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to get more reaction right now. Joining us, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. He's a key member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.

SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ (D), NEW JERSEY: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. So, President Obama just commuted Chelsea Manning's sentence. We pointed out she was sentenced to 35 years in prison, some three or four years ago. Respond to this. Why do you think he did it? Did he do the right thing?

MENENDEZ: Well, I don't know why he did it, and so I'll look forward to hearing his reasoning because I just heard about it. But the reality is I have serious concerns about equivocating sentences when national security is at stake.

[17:15:00] What happened here is that literally hundreds of thousands of documents were released. It put national security at risk. It put individual operatives at risk. It put our national interests at risk with other countries. And at a time that we are seriously questioning what Russia did as it relates to our recent elections and the role that WikiLeaks and the different iteration has played in that regard, I'm not sure what type of message we send here.

And, so, I'm really surprised that the president took this action and I have concerns about what message we send about ultimately revealing a sensitive national security documents.

BLITZER: So, you have serious questions about why the president did this. You'd like to hear more of an explanation directly from him, is that what I'm hearing?

MENENDEZ: I would. I'd like to hear why it is that he took this step because there are very serious consequences when you release the type of documents that she did. And at the end of the day, what message do we send for the next person who thinks that they can get a treasure trove of documents released, because something inspires them to do so, and the consequence that flow from that.

We've had agents in the field. We have operatives in the field. We have security situations set up across the world, our military and non-military entities. We have interests in terms of our advocacy and countries abroad, which is also revealed here. So, at the end of the day there was enormous damage done.

And whether it be her or whether it be Snowden or whether it be Assange, at the end of the day, we're going to have to have a clear and unequivocal message that, in fact, you cannot ultimately put the United States at risk because of your individual actions by making public critical documents that are classified and secret and put the U.S. At risk at the end of the day. There has to be serious consequences for that. And if at the end of the day you think you can do that and then have your sentence commuted, I'm not sure that we send the right message.

BLITZER: The argument that I've heard from some, some critics already, Senator, is that what the president has done in commuting Chelsea Manning's sentence is, in effect, to send a message to others in the U.S. intelligence community, the U.S. military, go ahead and do what he -- what she did and down the road you probably will get a more lenient sentence. That's the argument that will encourage more of these kinds of leaks to WikiLeaks. I'm sure you've heard that concern as well.

MENENDEZ: Well, I've heard that and other arguments in the past. And it is something that is a legitimate, I think, valid argument. The reason at the end of the day that there are consequence, punishment when convicted for ultimately releasing national security documents that put the national security of the United States at risk, those who served in the armed forces, those who served through clandestine operations, those who served in our embassies abroad is to send a very clear message that you cannot do that. And whatever calling you think you're answering, I think there has to be a severe consequences.

Now, if, in fact, people believe that you can do that and at the end of the day have your sentence commuted, or maybe walk away without that consequence, I think that is a real risk at the end of the day and a legitimate public policy issue.

BLITZER: Senator, I need you to stand by, because we have more questions for you.

But first I want to get back to our chief national security correspondent Jim Sciutto. He's following another major breaking story today ahead of his inauguration. Donald Trump now sparring with U.S. allies and adversaries alike, with the exception, I should point out, of Russia.

Jim, Vladimir Putin is actually coming to Trump's defense.

SCIUTTO: Interestingly enough, because you do have allies. Many adversaries, including China unsettled, even confused by some of the president-elect's comments with the exception of Russia that is welcoming many of them. Even sharing many of the same talking points with Mr. Trump.


SCIUTTO (voice-over) Tonight Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissing allegations that the Kremlin has compromising personal and financial information on the president-elect.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE. (through translator: what do you think? We have special security services running after every American billionaire ? Of course not. It is complete nonsense. This is rubbish.

SCIUTTO: Even joking about some of the more salacious and unsubstantiated details of such allegations, which many news organizations, including CNN, have declined to report on in detail.

PUTIN: it is hard to believe that he ran to a hotel to meet with our girls of a low social class, although they are the best in the world.

SCIUTTO: And attacking those who prepared and published the dossier.

PUTIN: People who order false information and spread this information against the elected president, who fabricate it and use it in a political fight, they are worse than prostitutes.

SCIUTTO: President Obama's spokesman took a parting shot in his press briefing to note that Putin's comments defending Trump's legitimacy echoed those of the president-elect.

JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: First of all, it sounds like he got his copy of the talking points. Second...


EARNEST: Well, I don't know. It certainly sounds a lot like what the incoming administration's team is saying. But it is not the first time that the Russian president has called into question the veracity of the United States government.

SCIUTTO: Three days to his inauguration, the president-elect's rhetoric is unsettling U.S. allies and adversaries alike. China's president Xi Jinping apparently warning Mr. Trump.

XI JINPING, PRESIDENT OF CHINA (through translator): No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.

SCIUTTO: This after Trump has repeatedly vowed to get tough with China on trade.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: They haven't played by the rules. And I know it's time that they're going to start. They're going to start. They've got to.

SCIUTTO: U.S. allies in Europe also pushing back, Germany expressing disbelief at Trump's dismissal of NATO as obsolete. FRANK-WALTER STEINMEIER, GERMAN FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator):

I just can't believe that an American administration would follow the thought process that Europe is not somehow important to the U.S. With a look at the history of the U.S., I just can't believe this.


SCIUTTO: The Trump transition team says that the president-elect does not want a trade war with China. In fact, a senior advisor to the transition says that the Chinese, in his words, and Americans have common cause and a very strong bilateral relationship.

The question, of course, Wolf, which message wins out? What is going to policy be regarding China. But also Russia under a Trump administration.

BLITZER: Jim Sciutto, stand by. We're going to be speaking about this and more with Senator Menendez in a moment.

But we also are following a breaking development, a stark warning for Donald Trump from the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, sat down with Ambassador Samantha Power just a little while ago. Elise, tell our viewers what you learned.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it was a very interesting conversation. We sat down right after Ambassador Power made a very bold and blistering speech against Russia, warning that Russia was a major threat to the U.S. that must be stopped.

Now, in our conversation, we talked about president-elect's calls for warmer ties with Russia and President Putin. You heard this week the president-elect saying he would consider easing the sanctions on Russia in exchange for perhaps a deal on reducing nuclear weapons.

Now Ambassador Power said it is necessary to have a dialogue with Russia, and she conceded that the new administration has a chance to improve ties, but she warned against letting Russia off the hook for their actions in Syria, Ukraine, the meddling in the U.S. election, and warned against appeasement. Take a listen.


LABOTT: Are you concerned that the wrong signals are being sent to Russia?

SAMANTHA POWER, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UNITED NATIONS: I would be concerned if we looked away from Russian interference in our election. I would be concerned if a country that just lopped off part of a neighbor got to keep that, because I think it would unleash dynamics around the globe that we can't even predict.

And I would certainly be concerned if we thought that, you know, violating human rights, murdering opposition politicians and journalists and some of the tactics that Putin has used internally, that that would make for a reliable partnership over time. I think one would have to ask real questions about that.

What I, though, do think is the case is that we need a dialogue with Russia and the new administration has a chance to kick one off. But we should not do so from a -- from the standpoint of weakness or the desire somehow, obsequiously, to kind of give Russia a bunch of things, notwithstanding everything they've done over the last few years. I think to have historical amnesia when the stakes are this high, for us, for our shared security, for prosperity, for trade, for you know, everything would be a grave mistake.


LABOTT: And we also talked about calls by the president-elect and members of Congress to de-fund the U.N. after that very controversial vote condemning Israeli settlements. Ambassador Power warned Trump and the woman who he's picked as her successor, Nikki Haley, against such a move. She said that countries like Russia and China would be all too happy to pick up the vacuum of U.S. leadership, and that's not a world we want to live in, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Elise, thanks very much.

Let's get back to Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey. He's a key member of the Foreign Relations Committee.

I want you to respond to what we heard, Senator, from the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, today dismissing these allegations that the Russians have compromising information on the president-elect. Does his seeming defense of -- of the president-elect concern you?

[17:25:10] MENENDEZ: Well, I have to be honest with you, Wolf. This whole relationship, at least as it appears at this point in time, between the president-elect and Vladimir Putin and some surrogates here, they all alarm me. You know, this isn't a game of Monopoly where you sit at the Monopoly board and you decide, "Well, I'll let you have, you know, Crimea and I won't make an issue of it, or part of Ukraine in return for this. You know, I'll give up sanctions if you give me this." This is not a grand deal that you make as if you were, you know, flipping real estate.

At the end of the day, I think there is a strong bipartisan view here in the Senate about Russia as an adversary; Russia's efforts against our national interests, our national security interests; about its pejorative role in the world of trying to destabilize the international order that we worked so hard since World War II to build. And, of course, in the most recent manifestation of their efforts to try to affect the U.S. election.

So, I hope that the president-elect will come to some rhyme or reason to understand that, for whatever admiration there is of him being, quote-unquote, "a strong leader," there is a difference between strength and thuggery. There is a difference between being a decisive leader and being a decisive leader that ultimately takes your people into hardship, as we see Russian soldiers coming back dead from some of the incursions in the Ukraine and in Syria and other places, all to pursue a geo policy to try to strengthen Russia's hand in the region and the Middle East.

So, this is, as he props up Assad, who is a butcher, so, I mean, there are clearly divergent reasons.

And, of course, we would all like to have a good relationship with Russia, but it has to be a relationship that is based on some common values, some common interests, some common goals, some common efforts at the end of the day that are in sync with our national priorities, that are in sync with also our principles. And that's what alarms me. I just don't see where the president-elect sees this.

And then I see Putin, who is KGB, and they still do everything that he used to do when he was at the KGB. They spend enormous amounts of money spying. They spend enormous amounts of money seeking to compromise individuals in the United States who are in positions of authority. And at the end of the day, you have to realize who your adversary is. And, so, this is really alarming, and I hope we have a change in course of events when he has all the information available to him.

BLITZER: Senator, I don't know if you saw this new CNN/ORC poll out today. It shows more Americans actually want to improve relations with Russia rather than take strong steps against Russia. You can see the numbers: 41 percent want strong steps, 56 percent want to improve relations with Russia. So, you think Americans -- do you agree with those Americans who want to work with Russia right now? Clearly, the president-elect wants to do that.

MENENDEZ: Well, look, you know, we want to work with countries in the world that share our values, that are willing to support our mutual goals, not just goals of the United States, but the goals of the international community.

But I think if you ask in the abstract, the average American would it be better to get along, have good relationships with Russia, the answer would be yes. But then when you cite what Russia is doing: its indiscriminate bombing in Aleppo and the killing of innocent civilians, its invasion in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea; and what it did in Georgia; and what it did in our elections and the list goes on, and you say, do you want a good relation at any cost, I think the answer would be overwhelmingly no. So it depends how you ask the question and how you pose it.

And, so, we have a country that is adverse to our national interests and to our national security interests. And until they are willing to be in alignment closer with us, and most importantly, willing to be in alignment with the international order that we created that they have violated, both in Ukraine and in Syria, I don't think the American people would accept a good relationship at any cost.

BLITZER: Amidst all of this, senator, the president-elect also once again called NATO, the NATO alliance obsolete. How do you think this kind of rhetoric could impact the U.S. relationship with key allies, especially in Europe?

MENENDEZ: Well, NATO is, you know, the tour de force of our strategy of being able to bring an alliance together of European countries for which our strategy is to ensure security on the European continent so that we don't relive the past as we have seen. Twice the United States went to Europe during World Wars 1 and 2. And secondly, not to deal with the challenges here at home.

[17:30:35] And so NATO invoked its charter when we were struck on September 11. NATO has engaged with us in Afghanistan, for example. NATO is a critical element of our international security structure. It is not outdated.

Can it -- can it be prepared to meet new challenges, like the challenge of ISIS where we have challenges of individual actors and entities that are not state actors? Of course. Can it work to improve, to respond to irregular forces, as what Russia did in the invasion and Ukraine, if it was part of a NATO alliance? Yes.

But at the end of the day it's critical. And the opportunity for us to have our bases in many of these countries, to create forward projection of strength anywhere in the world, is a value that I don't think that the president-elect has fully come to understand. Hopefully, his designee for the secretary of defense can edify him on that.

BLITZER: Senator Menendez, thanks very much for joining us.

MENENDEZ: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We're standing by to hear from one of Donald Trump's most controversial cabinet picks. Senators will be questioning education secretary nominee Betsy Davos. She's a billionaire, a major donor to conservative causes, as well as a major advocate for school choice and education vouchers. We're going to go to the hearing live as soon as she begins her statement, starts answering questions from the senators.

Right now, I want to bring in our political correspondents and experts to discuss a lot of what we just heard. And David Chalian, let me begin with you.

The very controversial decision by the president of the United States to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning from 35 years in prison. She will have served about seven years in prison when she's finally released in May. The political fallout from this, I anticipate, will be intense.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: And I think it's going to be across party lines. I don't think -- you're not going to see all Democrats just line up behind President Obama on this. We've seen some congressional reaction from some Democrats, already coming out quite concerned about this.

And you have to go back and remember at the time, Wolf. When those State Department cables were released, the work that the Clinton State Department at the time and the Obama administration had to do to apologize around the world. Hillary Clinton -- I was just refreshing my memory -- called it an attack at the time. So, it is indeed controversial. This is -- this is clearly one that I

don't think is going to sit well with everyone up there on Capitol Hill.

BLITZER: And we just heard from Democratic Senator Menendez. He wasn't very happy with this decision. He wants more information directly from the president.

You're getting more reaction, Dana, as well.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. I think just the opposite. You're exactly right. That it's not going to sit well with many, I think. It seems as though it's not going to sit well with most Democrats. Obviously, the most interesting, because they're breaking with their outgoing president.

But Lindsey Graham, who of course, is a very loud voice and respected voice on national security in Republican circles, just told me that Manning stabbed fellow soldiers in the back; and President Obama slapped them in the face. So, pretty strong stuff. I mean, I just got him on the phone. He was livid, absolutely livid. And like I said, he's clearly not alone.

BLITZER: You know, Sara, we haven't heard any official reaction from the Trump team yet, have we?

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, we haven't heard any official reaction. We've asked, and Donald Trump is sort of in a weird position when it comes to leaks at this point in his tenure.

BASH: And WikiLeaks in particular.

MURRAY: And WikiLeaks in particular. I think he's been critical in the past about some of this information leaking out, some of those confidential State Department documents, but he's been on the campaign trail in recent months saying, "I love WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks." And when it comes to the recent leaks around John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chief's e-mails, he has essentially all but said the means justified the ends in that hacking situation.

So, I think people will be watching very closely to see how Donald Trump walks the line on this particular issue. I don't want to try to guess what exactly he's going to say because...

JACKIE KUCINICH, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And if Julian Assange comes back. He said that, if Chelsea Manning was pardoned, he would come back. So, regardless what he thinks about the Justice Department.

So, how Donald Trump -- and his Justice Department handles Julian Assange, who's someone that he's kind of been on both sides of the fence on. He's said he should -- I think he said he should have some kind of capital punishment. And then, you know, he's praised his work in recent years, last year. So, that's going to be a really interesting test if he does decide to return.

[17:35:07] JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: I think the question this president and the White House will have to answer here, will answer -- and I think it's an important one -- if -- how much was the personal story of Chelsea Manning involved in this, because the outcry from the left was so strong on this, and she's having a difficult time in federal prison, no question.

But to me that is a central question here. Without that, you have to wonder if the outcome would be the same.

BASH: Because she transitioned.

ZELENY: Exactly. Because she transitioned from a man to a woman. I think all of that certainly played into this. Without that, it's hard to imagine, I think, this president would have done that.

BLITZER: And you covered Trump throughout the campaign. He repeatedly, as you point out, praised WikiLeaks, said, "I love WikiLeaks," because of the damaging information that was presumably being released about Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.

MURRAY: Right. And he seems to view leaks that are damaging to his political opponents in one way, whereas leaks that could be potentially damaging to national security in a different way. That's sort of the closest I could say for differentiating these two things.

But I think that -- this is going to be sort of the first real indication. OK, this is a person who is not liked by many Democrats, not liked by many Republicans, and many people do believe he put many of our intelligence assets at risk. So, how do you respond to that?

From that points, I would say Donald Trump would respond forcefully and negatively to this move by President Obama. But it does sort of put him in a box where he's saying, "OK, I feel fine about hacking directed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but I don't feel fine about these leaks."

BLITZER: Go ahead.

BASH: I was going to say, Jackie, your point about Julian Assange is so important as the story just is breaking. That is important to talk about, because not just has he changed his view...

MURRAY: Right.

BASH: ... over the past few years on Julian Assange. Remember, Julian Assange was Sean Hannity's guest recently.

MURRAY: Right.

BASH: And Sean Hannity, we know from FOX and talk radio, is a close adviser of Donald Trump. They talk quite often. And following that interview, Donald Trump started tweeting praise for Julian Assange.

So, he's going to be president in a few days. It's going to be up to him to decide what happens if Julian Assange does try to...

BLITZER: Do you think, David, Julian Assange would be more likely to come to the United States, face -- face the consequences during a Trump administration as opposed to an Obama administration?

CHALIAN: Well, I'm sure that calculus probably makes sense if you were choosing between that. But I don't know that that will happen.

I do think, though, to Jeff's point, this can't be -- and obviously, there's going to be a press conference tomorrow.

I would imagine the president is going to get a lot of questions about this, because, I mean, look, Edward Snowden just tweeted out publicly a heartfelt public "thank you" to Barack Obama. That is not what a sitting president wants from somebody who's been labelled a traitor.

So I think it is a very complicated issue that Barack Obama is probably going to take several questions tomorrow and have to spend quite a bit of time explaining to the American public, how this isn't rewarding behavior that put our national security at risk.

ZELENY: Which is why he did it today. He wants to explain this; he wants to have the final word on this. Not to be something that he did on his way out the door here.

But you have to think that Donald Trump is going to oppose this, because it's an Obama position at the end of the day. And Republicans, it's what you said Senator Graham said. That's the common thinking up there.

KUCINICH: Sure. And the White House has already drawn the distinction between Snowden and Chelsea Manning on what they said was Chelsea Manning actually went through a trial. He was sentenced. He stood in front of his peers, and she stood in front of her peers and was sentenced, where Edward Snowden ran and has been hiding in a country that is an adversarial country.

So, they've already sort of started drawing that distinction. I think you'll hear something similar from the president tomorrow, if he's asked about that.

BLITZER: This is going to be one of those legacy issues for this president on the -- two or three days before he leaves office. This controversial decision is something that's going to stick around for a while. And you covered him, Jeff. You appreciate that.

ZELENY: Add it to the list. I thought our list was sort of over of the legacy items. But I think you're absolutely right in terms of how he is viewed by hawks and national security people like Lindsey Graham and others. I think that this will, in their view, you know, offer one more piece of evidence that this president is weak in that area.

But I think, again, I do expect him to explain this tomorrow. But this is, you know, not -- I'm not sure how high it is on the list of legacy items, but it's fascinating and something I did not expect after covering him for ten years. I didn't think he would do this today.

BLITZER: Yes. I think a lot of us were surprised. David, you were, I'm sure, surprised, as well. CHALIAN: I was surprised. And I do think that it is an enormous sort

of gift to the left and the grassroots base of the left on Barack Obama's way out the door. This has been a vocal sort of rallying cry for many, many groups in the president's base.

BLITZER: And it's going to be something that, as we point out, the hawks are really going to go after, this soon-to-be ex-president of the United States.

BASH: Oh, absolutely. And it's going to give them fodder, you know, and it's going to give them a rallying cry, something to rally around. Not that they needed it when they have, you know, Obamacare and everything else. But it certainly, I think, politically does help.

I wonder how much -- and I can't wait to see this press conference tomorrow. How much he's going to say -- I mean, he won't admit that it was -- "Oh, you know what? I was pressured by the left." I mean, that's never going to happen.

But -- but how much -- how much he's going to tell the personal story of Chelsea Manning. And about -- never mind the transition and the going from a man to a woman but more specifically, why she decided to do this, the fact that she decided to stay in the United States, face trial, you know, that she didn't have a choice. And I think that -- my guess, in covering President Obama, is that it's going to be not -- his explanation's going to be not so much about national security but more about who this person is and why she decided to...

CHALIAN: I have a feeling we're going to hear from Professor Obama to explain...

BASH: Exactly.

CHALIAN: ... the human interest in this case and how he came to this conclusion.

BLITZER: We just got a statement from the speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Let me read the full statement from the speaker. "This is just outrageous. Chelsea Manning's treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation's most sensitive secrets. President Obama now leaves in place a dangerous precedent that those who compromise our national security won't be held accountable for their crimes."

I suspect, Sara, that's just the beginning of the reaction. We're going to get a lot more from a lot of Republicans and some Democrats, as well, who are deeply upset by the president's decision.

MURRAY: I think that's absolutely right. And I think, if you are Donald Trump, then you are watching this play out. For instance, you could see a moment for your party to rally behind you. A lot of members of the Republican Party, a lot of members of the Democratic Party have questions about what he's going to be like as commander in chief. He's planning this inauguration where he's trying to come off as tough, as a strong leader. And this could sort of be the first chance we see of whether he's going to send that signal to Republicans: "And look, if there are leaks, I'm not the kind of president who's going to allow that on my watch. I will crack down on people who put our national security at stake."

Because I think there are fair questions out there right now amongst some members in his own party about just how he will approach this, for instance.

BLITZER: All right. Everybody stand by. There's more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Let's take a quick break, resume our special coverage right after this.


[17:47:10] BLITZER: Momentarily, Betsy DaVos, the Education Secretary nominee put forward by President-elect Trump, she'll be making her opening statement before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. She will then answer Senators' questions.

We'll have live coverage of that coming up. Stand by.

But I want to go right to Michelle Kosinski. She's getting new information from White House sources on the President's very, very controversial decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning.

What are you learning over there, Michelle?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Right. So senior White House officials are now boiling down their thinking on this Manning commutation to three points -- that she accepted responsibility for at least some of her crimes, that she expressed remorse for those crimes, and that she served more than six years of a very long 35-year sentence. And they said that the President feels that that is sufficient.

Now, they wanted to make the point that the President still has serious concerns about those crimes. They say that those crimes were serious, that they were not good for national security, that the U.S. had to respond because of this breach of national security.

But the President said, you know, he feels that this commutation doesn't diminish that. They just feel that what she has served already is sufficient.

When asked other questions, though, I mean, does the White House feel that she is a traitor, as some are now calling her and have called her throughout this period of time? And if not, why not? The White House wouldn't answer that question.

And they were also asked, well, you know, does this commutation have anything to do with the fact that she is transgender and has struggled with that, that she has tried to commit suicide behind bars, has had a difficult time psychologically? Again, they wouldn't answer that question, but they kept pointing back to those three targets for their thinking -- that she has accepted responsibility, expressed remorse, and has served time -- Wolf. BLITZER: Michelle, what are they saying? The Speaker of the House

Paul Ryan says it's just outrageous. Chelsea Manning's treachery put Americans' lives at risk and exposed some of our nation's most sensitive secrets. We're hearing a lot more of that coming in, not just from Republicans but also some Democrats.

What are they saying about this very angry reaction that has developed over the past hour?

KOSINSKI: Yes. Well, they clearly expected that. They expected words like "traitor" to come up. They expected the angry reactions. But they also know, on the other side, there were multiple petitions, and one of them with more than 100,000 signatures on the White House web site, saying that she has had a difficult time, and she served a substantial amount of time, more than six years.

I mean, it depends on how you look at it, that is a long period of time. Her sentence, of course, was 35 years.

[17:49:55] So they're not backing away from the seriousness of the crimes, but they are backing away from things like acknowledging that she is a traitor. They acknowledge that what she did affected national security and, as they put it, was not good for national security, but they're not getting into any more details.

So they don't want to emphasize the harm that was done. They want to emphasize that she did, you know, face trial, accepted that sentence, and served at least a part of that, Wolf.

BLITZER: Michelle, I want you to stand by because I know you're working your sources over there. We'll be getting more information, more reaction from the White House.

We're also standing by for other breaking news. We're about to hear from one of Donald Trump's most controversial Cabinet picks. Senators will be questioning the Education Secretary nominee, Betsy DaVos.

She's a major donor to conservative causes, a major advocate for school choice, education vouchers. Critics say she has no real connection to public education. Our Senior Political Reporter Manu Raju is outside the hearing room.

Manu, Democrats have plenty of questions about her qualifications. Set the scene for what we are about to hear.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: There's going to be a lot of fireworks at this hearing, Wolf. What's about to take place are pretty sharp lines of questioning particularly from Democratic Senators concerned about Mrs. DaVos' positions on some key issues, like public school and school choice and vouchers.

These are issues that they believe that she is not in line with the mission of the Education Department which is promoting public schools. And so expect some of the more liberal members on this committee, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, to really go after Betsy DaVos on these key issues. But the Republicans are also planning a vigorous defense of her record as well.

Now, one of the things that is overshadowing this hearing also is Miss DaVos' decision -- or the Office of Government Ethics not finishing its ethics review of her assets. She is a billionaire. She's a big time Republican donor. There are questions that Democrats are raising on potential conflicts of interest.

But the Chairman of this Committee, Wolf, tells me that, if there are any conflicts, she will sell those stocks so to make sure that there are no issues going forward. They expect that review to be done before the Committee votes.

And one other piece of news, Wolf, I just ran into on a separate nomination. I just ran into Senator Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who tells me he's prepared to move forward with a Monday vote on Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State nominee.

And if they don't have the votes in the Committee, he plans to do an unusual procedure to help move that nomination to the floor, to get it confirmed on the floor. He's dead set on getting Donald Trump's Secretary of State nominee confirmed, even if he does not have the votes in his Committee.

So a lot of key nominations moving through confirmation proceedings right now as we speak, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, how many Republicans on that Foreign Relations Committee, Manu, are still undecided? We know Marco Rubio, he has been one. He hasn't said what he's going to do. What about any other republicans who could vote against the Tillerson confirmation?

RAJU: In the Committee, just Marco Rubio. We don't know where he stands yet. He is still undecided.

We don't know how some of the Democrats are going to come down. But Bob Corker telling me he has not had a conversation with Marco Rubio, but if he doesn't get the votes in that Committee, he says Tillerson will still get confirmed. They're still going to use a pretty hardball move to ensure that Tillerson is the next Secretary of State no matter what happens in the Foreign Relations Committee. So watch for that to really come to a head here in the next few days, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Manu, we're going to stay in very close touch with you. Manu is just outside the Senate hearing room where Betsy DaVos is about to make her opening statement, then answer some tough questions.

David Chalian, I'm looking at the Democrats on this committee. Bernie Sanders, you know he's going to have tough questions. Elizabeth Warren, she's going to have some tough questions. This is not going to be a picnic for her at all.

CHALIAN: No, not at all. And I would imagine the two senators you just named there may be getting some of their question ideas from the teachers' unions who are going to be infusing the Democrats, I think, with a lot of questions and concerns about vouchers and about some of the more controversial reforms -- controversial, I should say, to the teachers' unions.

This has put the Democratic Party in a bind, this education issue. Donald Trump, as you've seen since the election, he sent Ivanka Trump to go sort of research this issue. She's going to get involved with this in some way.

He's very interested in shaking up some of those education divides. Betsy DaVos is the face of that. And I think Democrats are going to rail pretty hard against it.

BASH: To me, this is one of those prime examples of, to quote my friend, Jeff Zeleny, "elections mattering." I mean, education is such a philosophical divide.

I mean, certainly, there's some in the middle. There's the Cory Bookers on the Democratic side, and others who think that the teachers' unions have way too much power, and there should be more charter schools and --

BLITZER: All right.

BASH: Go ahead.

[17:54:57] BLITZER: Hold on for a moment because Betsy DaVos has now just started her opening statement, then she'll answer questions from the Senators.