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White House: Trump Believes Millions Voted Illegally; Trump Cabinet Picks Under Fire; White House: Trump Believes Millions Voted Illegally; Trump Obsessed with the Same Media He Criticizes. Aired 5- 6p ET

Aired January 24, 2017 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now. Breaking news, false claim. President Trump repeats his claim that he lost the popular vote because millions voted illegally. The White House offers no evidence of that thoroughly debunked contention, saying the president, quote, "believes what he believes."

[17:00:32] "Maybe we will." Asked if the White House will push for a voter fraud investigation, Trump's spokesman says, "Maybe we will." And Republican Senator Lindsey Graham warns the president's claim will shake confidence in our democracy and erode Trump's ability to govern.

In the pipeline. President Trump overturns decisions made by his predecessor and signs actions to advance the stalled Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines. Environmental and Native American groups are gearing up for fresh protests.

And press obsession. Ever the showman, President Trump invites the media in for photo ops, basking in the coverage and devouring news stories, even as he constantly insults the media as dishonest.

I'm Wolf Blitzer, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. He now sits in the Oval Office, but 2-1/2 months after he won the presidency, a sweeping electoral victory, President Trump still claims that he lost the popular vote because of voter fraud. The White House says the president believes millions voted illegally.

That claim has been thoroughly debunked and press secretary Sean Spicer today offered no evidence, saying only that the president, quote, "believes what he believes." That puzzling and chilling assertion is overshadowing another busy day for the president.

He met with auto Manufacturers, holding the big stick of steep border taxes behind his back. And he issued more executive actions, clearing the way for major oil pipelines that his predecessor blocked, and he said that he'll decide on a U.S. Supreme Court nominee next week.

But the voter fraud claims also reverberating on Capitol Hill, overshadowing the fact that more of Trump's cabinet picks are slowly moving toward confirmation. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is urging the president to, quote, "knock it" -- "knock this off," adding, "People will start doubting you as a person." Graham says such claims could, quote, "undermine his presidency and shake confidence in our democracy."

I'll speak with Democratic Senator Chris Coons. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, all are standing by for full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with President Trump clinging to his stunning claim of massive fraud in the popular vote. Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, first. Jim, key Republicans are finding this very troubling.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. President Trump has whipped up another firestorm by once again repeating the false claim that millions of people voted illegally in the election. What's more shocking is that White House officials are not knocking down this falsehood, only saying it's what the president believes.


ACOSTA (voice-over): It's a lie that won't die. At a reception with congressional leaders at the White House, President Trump once again repeated his false claim that millions of people cast fraudulent ballots, robbing him of a popular vote victory in the November election. White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed this is what the president believes.

SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The president does believe that. He has stated that before. I think he stated his concerns of voter fraud and people voting illegally during the campaign. And he continues to maintain that belief, based on studies and evidence that people have presented to him.

ACOSTA: Reporters pressed Spicer to offer proof.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What evidence do you have?

SPICER: As I said, I think the president has believed that for a while, based on studies and information he has.

ACOSTA: Word of the president's mention of this falsehood spread like wildfire on Capitol Hill, where it was rejected by both Democrats and Republicans.

REP. KEITH ELLISON (D), MINNESOTA: I think we're going to see more of this. I think we've just got to be very clear that we're going to call -- we're going to correct the record and tell the truth to the American people. There is no record of millions of people who are not authorized to vote.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: I wasn't there. But if the president of the United States is claiming that 3 to 5 -- 3 to 3 1/2 million people voted illegally, that shakes confidence in our democracy. He needs to disclose why he believes that. ACOSTA: To back up the president's claim, Trump aides have repeatedly

pointed to this 2012 study from the Pew Charitable Trust that finds nearly 3 million people have registrations in more than one state, and almost 2 million are listed as dead. But the study's authors have made it clear they did not actually find examples of voter fraud.

[17:05:03] Trump has made the claim before, tweeting after the election that, "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote, if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."

His loss in the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by roughly 3 million votes is hardly the only insecurity the president is nursing these days. Democrats were taunting the president over the crowd size of his inauguration at a confirmation hearing for Mr. Trump's pick to run the Office of Management and Budget.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: Which crowd is larger, the 2009 crowd or the 2017 crowd?

REP. MICK MULVANEY (R-SC), BUDGET DIRECTOR NOMINEE: Senator, if you allow me to give the disclaimer that I'm not really sure how this ties to OMB, I'll be happy to answer your question, which was from that picture it does appear that the crowd on the left-hand side is bigger than the crowd on the right-hand side.

ACOSTA: It's yet another controversy overshadowing the early days of the new administration, a time when the White House senior staff would rather focus on the president's executive actions, resurrecting the Keystone Pipeline.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We will build our own pipeline. We will build our own pipes. That's what it has to do with. Like we used to in the old days.

ACOSTA: White House insists the president is secure in his win.

SPICER: He's very comfortable with his win.


ACOSTA: Now, a wide range of academic studies and fact-check reports have investigated claims of widespread voter fraud in the U.S., and there is simply no proof of any fraudulent voting occurring anywhere near the scale that the president is talking about.

The experts in this area agree instances of voter fraud are rare. President Trump lost the popular vote, Wolf, because more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for him. That's it, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.

Let's go to our other senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny right now. Jeff, you were there at today's briefing in the West Wing and challenged the press secretary Sean Spicer on the president's claim of widespread voter fraud. Tell our viewers how that went down. JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, would

have. The question here is, if there was widespread fraud, if these allegations are true, as the press secretary said the president believes, I wanted to know if the Republican National Committee had the same questions.

Sean Spicer, of course, after all was the chief strategist of the Republican National Committee during the general election campaign. The new White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, was the chairman of the RNC during that time.

So, I asked Sean Spicer if he believes those allegations.


ZELENY: You said the president believes that there was voter fraud. I wonder if you believe that. You were at the Republican National Committee at the time, and chief of staff Reince Priebus was the chairman of the RNC at the time. Do you believe there is widespread voter fraud?

SPICER: My job is not -- look...

ZELENY: How can he be comfortable with his win if he believes...

SPICER: He's very comfortable with his win.

ZELENY: ... those three million votes. Maybe he didn't win.

SPICER: No, he's very comfortable with his win. It's an electoral- based system. He won 300 electoral votes. Thirty-three of 50 states voted for him. I think -- look, Jeff, I've asked and answered this question twice. He believes what he believes, based on the information that he's provided. Yes, ma'am.

ZELENY: What does that mean for democracy, though, Sean?

SPICER: Thanks, Jeff.

ZELENY: If he does believe that, what does it mean for democracy?

SPICER: It means that I've answered your question.

ZELENY: Have you?


ZELENY: And, Wolf, in terms of what it means for democracy, that is what so many lawmakers are asking here. And they believe that this is a more serious argument, particularly now that Donald Trump is president. It's a very familiar argument. He was making it on the campaign trail at the end of the campaign, and certainly in those victory rallies we saw him take in November and December.

But now as president making those charges last night during that meeting with congressional leaders, his fellow Republicans, Wolf, wish he would stop talking about this. No indication yet if he will. This certainly overshadowed many things happening today here at the White House -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And there's no indication, Jeff, that the White House is ordering a full-scale investigation of what they regard, at least of what the president regards as widespread voter fraud, is there?

ZELENY: No, Wolf, there isn't at all. Sean Spicer left open the door slightly. He said maybe we will, but clearly was not prepared when he came here into this briefing room. In fact, standing right here at the podium to answer that question.

And, look, he now controls the government. So, he could direct his Justice Department or his attorney general, once Senator Sessions, if he is confirmed, is in place. But there's no plan on doing that.

Wolf, even people here, and certainly Republicans want to change the subject on this. But we'll see if the president ends up acknowledging that this belief isn't true. As of now, they say he believes it is true, Wolf, despite no evidence to back it up -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jeff reporting from the White House. Thanks very much.

Joining us now, Democratic Senator Chris Coons. He's a member of the Foreign Relations and Judiciary Committee. Senator, thanks for joining us.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let me get your reaction to President Trump's baseless claim that he would have won the popular vote if millions of people had not voted illegally. What's your reaction?

COONS: Wolf, this is very troubling. Once again, we see the president focused on size, on the size of the crowds that turned out at his inauguration versus President Obama's inauguration. The size of the popular vote and whether or not Hillary Clinton won the popular vote or he did.

And he and his representatives, Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway, have presented this suggestion that millions of people voted illegally as an alternative fact. It's not an alternative fact. It is a baseless lie, and it has consequence, Wolf. Because we've got more than a dozen states that have enacted laws to require voter I.D., to restrict access to the opportunity to vote based on identification, using widespread falsehoods about the idea that there are millions of people voting illegally. So, it's had a real consequence.

This is part of a several-year-long orchestrated campaign to challenge the legitimacy of our electorate and our democratic process. And I'm very distraught to see the president of the United States, President Trump, repeating these falsehoods.

BLITZER: Wouldn't widespread voter fraud, if in fact, 3 million or 4 million people illegally voted in the most recent presidential election, if that, in fact, is true, wouldn't that demand an immediate federal investigation?

COONS: Absolutely, Wolf. And we had hearings on the Judiciary Committee in the last Congress on the question of voter fraud and whether or not these voter I.D. laws were needed. There is virtually no evidence of voter fraud in the United States across every state in the country. As you know, Wolf, state and local official conduct these elections. So, secretaries of state, both Republican and Democrat in states all over the country, have confirmed virtually no cases in our entire country. Not hundreds of cases, not thousands of cases, and certainly not millions of cases.

But, Wolf, what we do know is that the intelligence community unanimously concluded that Russia did try to influence our most recent election, and I don't see a call from the Trump administration for the sort of thorough, timely and forceful investigation of that action to undermine our democracy, which I think it deserves.

BLITZER: Well, there is going to be a Senate investigation. There are House investigations. The oversight committees are looking into this. And as you point out, all the U.S. intelligence agencies and the FBI, they offered their conclusions publicly already.

Let's talk about something else that happened today, Senator. President Trump signed more executive actions, including the approval of two oil pipelines that had been shelved by the Obama administration. The union leaders who met with Trump at the White House today, they were thrilled by that decision. Thousands of jobs will be created in building those pipelines.

Do you worry, though, that Trump is siphoning off support from those kinds of groups, blue-collar workers like unions, who have traditionally voted for Democrats?

COONS: Well, I do think that President Trump is making good on a number of his campaign promises with some of his early executive orders. And I do think that, in a few cases, they will show some real impact on job creation.

But I wonder how long he's going to be able to make the kind of difference and to keep the sorts of commitments that he made in the campaign.

Coming up shortly are much more difficult challenges than simply allowing one or two pipelines to go ahead. He's claimed he is intent on repealing the ACA while still providing health insurance for all. Yet, the Republicans have no comprehensive plan for how to deal with the Affordable Care Act, and President Trump's nominee, Congressman Price, to run HHS and to lead the whole process of replacing the ACA, is on record as wanting to privatize or turn into a voucher or block grant treasured programs like Medicare and Medicaid. And he is on record as being a staunch opponent of the ACA without a comprehensive plan to replace it.

These things, I think, will be much bigger issues for him in the weeks ahead. BLITZER: Take a look at these live pictures we're getting in from

outside the White House. Protesters gathering right now. The pipeline decisions, the executive actions signed by the president today, they're beginning to show up. There's a U.S. congressman who is there, Congressman Grijalva, among others who are standing outside the White House. Do you expect Democrats will try to fight the president on these executive actions, approving these two oil pipelines?

COONS: Well, Wolf, I think you're going to see very strong push back by Democrats in the Senate on some of his extreme nominees. Scott Pruitt to run the EPA in particular is someone who not only would have approved these pipelines, but would have made major changes to the laws that protect clean air and clean water.

Betsy Devos, who is the nominee to be secretary of education, has had withering criticism and opposition here in the Senate. She's someone where many of us are going to vote not just no, but "no way."

And I think you're going to see a united Democratic opposition to some of his least qualified and most controversial nominees for the cabinet.

BLITZER: President Trump also announced today that he plans to announce his pick for the U.S. Supreme Court vacancy next week. The Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer, says Democrats would fight, in his words, "tooth and nail" against any nominee who isn't, in his words, "bipartisan and mainstream." Would you join that fight? And including a possible filibuster that would require 60 senators' approval in order to grant confirmation?

[17:15:15] COONS: Well, Wolf, let's be clear about how we got here. Justice Scalia passed away roughly a little more than a year ago. He passed away in early 2016. And that vacant seat was held vacant without a hearing, without a vote by the Republican majority for virtually an entire year, an unprecedented step.

I think that every one of President Trump's nominees deserve a hearing. And if we hear that his nominee for the Supreme Court is a consensus candidate, someone in the mainstream of American jurisprudence, then I could vote for him.

But I will join Senator Schumer in voting against someone who is an extreme candidate, someone who is outside the mainstream of American legal thinking. And the way we can get to that conclusion is through a full and fair hearing, exactly the sort of hearing that Judge Merrick Garland never received.

BLITZER: Senator, we're getting more information, more breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We're also standing by. A key confirmation vote up at the Senate right now. We'll take a quick break, resume the Q&A with you right after this.


[07:20:41] BLITZER: Our breaking news, President Trump still claiming that he lost the popular vote because of voter fraud. That's been totally debunked, but the White House says the president believes what he believes.

Up on Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham says that claim can undermine Trump's presidency and rock, in his words, our democracy. Indeed, the president is diverting attention from his cabinet picks. Some took a step toward confirmation today, but one in particular is having a tough time.

Let's go to our senior congressional reporter, Manu Raju. Manu, what's the latest?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Wolf, Congressman Tom Price, Donald Trump's pick to be the Health and Human Services secretary, facing a second round of questioning today from Democrats and Republicans. Democrats pushing him hard on what he would replace Obamacare with, and he didn't have many specifics and that prompted Democratic frustration.


RAJU (voice-over): Congressman Tom Price under fire from Senate Democrats in a contentious hearing over his nomination to lead the Health and Human Services Department. Democrats pushed Price to explain what he would do to replace Obamacare.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL (D-MO), FINANCE COMMITTEE: What we have after the repeal is Trumpcare.

RAJU: Price often deflecting questions, including whether he supports turning Medicaid from a guarantee into a grant program.

MCCASKILL: I don't know why you won't be willing to answer whether or not you are in favor of block granting Medicaid. That's not complicated.

REP. TOM PRICE (R-GA), HHS SECRETARY NOMINEE: I'm in favor of making certain that Medicaid is a system that responds to patients, not the government

RAJU: In another exchange, Price dodged a question about whether he was working directly with Trump on a plan to replace Obamacare.

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D-OH), FINANCE COMMITTEE: President Trump said he's working with you on a replacement plan for the ACA, which is nearly finished and will be revealed after your confirmation. Is that true?

PRICE: It's true that he said that, yes.

RAJU: And refused to say how he would implement a Trump executive order, giving the HHS secretary the power to weaken Obamacare.

SEN. RON WYDEN (D-OR), FINANCE COMMITTEE: Yes or no, under the executive order, will you commit that no one will be worse off? PRICE: What I commit to, Senator, is working with you and every

single member of Congress to make certain that we have the highest quality health care and that every single American has access to affordable coverage.

RAJU: But Price, an orthopedic surgeon, tried to reassure senators he isn't a partisan actor.

PRICE: One of my physician colleagues used to tell me that he never operated on a Democrat patient or Republican patient. He operated on a patient. And that's the way that I view the system. It's not a Republican system; it's not a Democrat system.

RAJU: Price has faced growing questions about his investments in healthcare companies while pursuing legislation affecting those firms, including after a CNN report last week showing the Georgia congressman investing in a medical device maker shortly before introducing a bill to aid the company.

WYDEN: Set aside the legal issues, it is hard to see this as anything but a conflict of interest and an abuse of position.

RAJU: Republicans quickly leapt to Price's defense, saying he fully complied with the law.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does it burn you that they want to hold you to a difficult standard now that you're a nominee than they are as a member?

PRICE: Well, I -- we know what's going on here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, we do. We do.

RAJU: And Price argued that many of his questionable transactions were made by a broker without his knowledge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The advisors and not Dr. Price has the discretion to decide which securities to buy and sell.

PRICE: Anybody who knows me well knows that I would never violate their trust.


RAJU: Now, there was some good news for some Donald Trump nominees today including for Elaine Chao to be the transportation secretary, Wilbur Ross to be the commerce secretary, and Ben Carson to be the HUD secretary. Each of those three nominees getting confirmed by committee, Carson even getting the support from liberal Democrats Sherrod Brown and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

But Mick Mulvaney, who is Donald Trump's choice to be budget director, coming under sharp criticism from a fellow Republican today. John McCain concerned about Mulvaney's support in the past for defense cuts and for wanting to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, telling Mulvaney in a hearing that he's, quote, "deeply concerned" about Mulvaney's, quote, "lack of support for our military" -- Wolf.

[17:25:04] BLITZER: Interesting, very interesting. Manu Raju up on the Hill. Thanks very much for that.

We're back with Democratic Senator Chris Coons.

Senator, as far as Tom Price is concerned, you heard some of the tough questions, the accusations that he was trading in healthcare stocks while pursuing legislation that would directly affect those companies. From your perspective, was that a disqualifying maneuver?

COONS: Wolf, there was a fairly disturbing amount of dancing going on there by Congressman Price, both in not answering in a forthright way questions about his plans for providing healthcare for the American people once the ACA is repealed, which is President Trump's promise; and not being forthright about his investments and whether or not those investments were a real conflict of interest.

If the facts prove out, as suggested in the hearing clip that you provided and that I've seen in the press publicly, I think it would be a disqualifying act and something that ought to be investigated further.

BLITZER: Why are you opposing Nikki Haley to become the next U.S. ambassador to the U.N.?

COONS: Well, I know there's very few who share that position. She did very well in her confirmation hearing in front of the Foreign Relations Committee. And as governor she did take a brave stand about removing the Confederate flag from the state capital in South Carolina. She was very likeable and very engaging.

But in her testimony in front of the committee, up front she said, "I have a great deal to learn about foreign policy." She frankly will be one of the least experienced U.N. ambassadors in American history, and I just felt that it was important to vote based on her qualifications.

I am optimistic she'll learn the role and she will grow into it, but given the number of conflicts we face around the world and given the tough competitors at the United Nations, top diplomats like Russia and China and Iran, I don't think this is the sort of job, Wolf, where we ought to send someone who's learning on the job.

BLITZER: Senator Chris Coons, thanks very much.

COONS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, more on this afternoon's breaking news. The new White House press secretary repeating President Trump's claim that millions of people voted illegally in the last election, but offering no proof to back up that claim.


BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. Today the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, repeated President Trump's claim that millions of people illegally voted in the presidential election, but offered no proof.

[17:32:00] Let's bring in our political experts. Gloria Borger, I'll start with you. They say it was -- the White House says -- Sean Spicer, it was a free and fair election. He won freely, but there were also millions of illegal votes. He would have won the popular vote if there had not been all the illegal votes out there.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It's a little bit of double think here, a little Orwellian. Because on the one hand you're saying, you know, we won this election. On the other hand, 3 million people voted illegally.

Nobody was talking about it, Wolf. Nobody was talking about Hillary Clinton's win in the popular vote, which is of course, underlying all of this. Nobody was talking about the crowd size until the president of the United States couldn't help himself.

And now what he has done is he's undermined his own message, you know? They're a White House that choreographed this pretty closely: In his first couple of days, meeting with business leaders, signing executive actions, trying to let people know he's all about job creation. And then we get off on these -- on these tangents that don't seem to get them anywhere and put, quite frankly, his press secretary in a pretty difficult position, day in and day out.

BLITZER: The reason this is all being discussed now, David Chalian, is because the president last night, when he met with Democratic and Republican, House and Senate leaders, he was the one who brought up the whole notion that 3 1/2 or 4 million people voted illegally; otherwise he would have won the popular vote.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, we're 5 1/2 hours into the fifth day of the Trump presidency, and now the Trump presidency has been 50 percent about telling falsehoods from the president. So, that's the scope of the Trump presidency right now.

And the danger in this, of this particular comment, is that nothing else matters.

BORGER: Right.

CHALIAN: Because it's a threshold issue. The entire democracy rests on this principle of free and fair elections. He is the leader of the United States of America, and he is questioning the very legitimacy of how our public representatives got here and represent us in the country.

If you do that, why are we going to listen on anything related to trade or the issue of life or any of the other issues that they're trying to get done out of the gate? He just put a silence on them, because nothing else matters right now until the president of the United States corrects this notion that he, without any evidence, questions the legitimacy of the election that delivered him the Oval Office.

BLITZER: Dana, listen to Lindsey Graham, the senator, because he was outspoken on this today.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: Al Gore walked away based on 5 or 600 votes. Richard Nixon lost a very close election.

We're talking about a man who won the election and seems to be obsessed with the idea that he could not have possibly lost the popular vote without cheating and fraud.

So, I would urge the president to knock this off. This is the greatest democracy on earth. You're the leader of the free world. And people are going to start doubting you as a person if you keep making accusations against our electoral system without justification. This is going to erode his ability to govern this country if he does not stop it.


BLITZER: And I suspect there are other Republicans who agree with him.


Look, Lindsey Graham has a give-a-darn factor of zero, which is why he is saying what he is saying in public.

BORGER: That's nice.

BASH: But you can bet, and you probably know, because you've talked to some, too, that the majority, the vast majority of President Trump's fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill feel exactly the same way. They're just not as willing to say it publicly for a lot of reasons.

But actually, one of the biggest reasons that I've heard from other Republicans who say this privately is because they don't want to feed what they call "the noise" of Donald Trump's latest tweets or latest falsehoods, frankly, and they want to focus on the legislative agenda the Republicans have been hoping to have a Republican partner in the White House to push forward for so long.

However, David said something very, very important. All of that will be very, very difficult to actually get done if the fundamentals of the presidency are in question. And if it is the president himself that is putting it out there and putting the question...

BLITZER: Mark, how much of a distraction is this going to be for the president?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: It's huge. Let me give you a parallel problem right now. Not only is he undermining our democracy as it stands right now, when you have Republican secretaries of states out there saying that what he is saying is absolutely wrong.

You now have a president who is lying, blatantly lying about an issue that we all can see. The pictures tell the whole story, right? The research tells the whole story.

If you are a foreign leader right now, and you are seeing the behavior right now of Donald Trump, do you have to question yourself if you can ever trust him in? If you are a congressional Republican on Capitol Hill or congressional Democrat trying to cut a deal with Donald Trump and you see him acting in this manner, can you trust him? And that is a huge issue, I think, going forward in his presidency.

BLITZER: Nia, a lot of us were surprised at the reaction from the White House press secretary today, because we all knew what the president said last night in that meeting with congressional leaders.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, he essentially said that this is something that Donald Trump believes. Sean Spicer didn't say whether or not he believed it himself, but said that this is -- this is something that Donald Trump believes.

You know, I think populism and conspiracy theories go hand in hand, and we have seen from Donald Trump that he has liked to peddle conspiracy theories. And the way they work, essentially, is that I think they bind outsiders together as a way of questioning whatever the official narrative is.

So, I think if we look at Donald Trump as someone who is always talking in that populist vein, always trying to bind his supporters together and keep them on the same page, I think this works politically. It is dangerous.

BASH: One thing to underline -- I'm sorry.

HENDERSON: But I think at the same time it has worked for him; and there is this sense that I think when people peddle these conspiracy theories, that they are tweaking the elite. And that is something that Donald Trump likes to do.

BASH: That's right. And in this particular case, the two blow-ups that we've had over the past, you know, several days have both had one very important thing in common. They are illustrations of President Trump's insecurities.

Crowd size, it's just like he was focused on -- he was focused on that during the campaign, and he did have very large crowds. He was focused on it when he was on "The Apprentice." He was all about ratings. And now it is legitimacy, in his mind, of his -- of his presidency, because Hillary Clinton won the popular vote.

The question going forward is can he grow a thicker skin?

BORGER: Well...

BASH: And if he can't, can he get people around him who can say...

BORGER: That's my question.

BASH: ... "Mr. President, I know what you're feeling, but you've got to let it go."

BORGER: That's my question. Who in the White House...

BLITZER: Hold on.

BORGER: ... can tell him stop it?

BLITZER: Hold on. One moment. We're getting some new information right now. I just want to make sure I have the precise information. What are we learning?

All right. Let's take a quick break. We'll go to breaking news right after this.


[17:43:54] BLITZER: Standing by for the final vote in the U.S. Senate, Nikki Haley, who has been nominated to become the next U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, overwhelmingly approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. She is about to be approved by the full U.S. Senate. We'll have the numbers for you. That's coming up soon.

I want to get back to our correspondents and political experts, talking about the breaking news today, the White House defending President Trump's assertion that there were 3 1/2 or 4 million illegal votes in this most recent election, otherwise he would have won the popular vote.

BORGER: Here are a couple questions I have. No. 1, who inside the White House can say to the president, "This isn't a good idea. You're taking us away from the issues we want you to be out there talking about. We don't want to look back. We want to look ahead"?

The second thing that I really don't understand -- I understand that the president has an obsession with all of this. But he is, in addition to undermining democracy and the elections of everybody in the Congress, he's also undermining himself with this; because he is, you know, at once saying there were 3 million people who voted illegally.

Then why not call for an investigation into what occurred during the election?

BASH: Right.


BORGER: Well, Sean Spicer was asked about that today and was, let's just say, noncommittal about it. So if it were really an issue that threatened our democracy at its very core, then we ought to know the facts about it. I think we do know the facts about it.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, yes, but it's also true that, I think, the Republican base has been talking about voter fraud for years, right? I mean, so I think they are much more primed to believe in voter fraud.

I mean, they use the idea that there was massive voter fraud to pass all sorts of laws in all sorts of states around voter I.D., so I'm not necessarily sure that he is undermining himself among this Republican Party base and the people who actually voted for him.

PRESTON: You know, but as far as undermining himself, though, we have Nicki Haley right now, a woman of color, a governor, a conservative, someone that is liked by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Now, maybe South Carolina Democrats are not enamored with her because she was a Republican, but yet, overall, she is about to become the U.N. Ambassador. She is about to become our diplomat to the world, and we are here right now talking about a lie that Donald Trump refuses to give. That's how he's undermining himself. He's undermining his staff by forcing them to go out and to repeat his lies.

And, look, if he's not lying -- let's assume he's not lying at all -- then what's happening right now? He's either delusional and he believes it, OK, which is that in itself is scary, or to Dana's point, the insecurities, the fact that he has these insecurities --

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: David, how does he fix this?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, he has to fix this by coming out at some point and asserting a belief in that a legitimate election took place in November.

I take your point totally about the partisan battle that has been over voter fraud and voting rights. And here's what I think is different about this. And you're right, I think that the Republican base is primed to think that there's massive voter fraud where there is not a lot of evidence of that because a lot of their leaders have told them that. See, I don't see this issue as a partisan issue at all right now.

BORGER: Right.

CHALIAN: I don't see this as, as we saw over the weekend, a battle with the press and the relationship with the press. I see this as a fundamental leader of the country, the President of the United States, needs to convince the people of this country that he's leading that their elected representatives are here freely and fairly because of a fair election.

BLITZER: Good point. All right, everybody, stand by. There is much more news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM.

Despite the new President's self-declared war against the news media, there's plenty of evidence that the one-time reality T.V. star still wants to use reporters and cameras to craft his image and his message.


[17:52:03] BLITZER: President Trump has been inviting the news media in for photo ops, basking in the coverage, devouring news stories, even as he constantly insults the media as dishonest.

Brian Todd has been looking into all of this for us. What are you learning, Brian?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Donald Trump's combative relationship with the media has not slowed down during his first days in the White House. But, tonight, we've got new details on how the President obsessively watches T.V. news, reads mainstream and tabloid papers, and often feels the need to respond, sometimes immediately, to what they say about him.



TODD (voice-over): A carefully crafted photo op to mark his executive action on the Keystone and Dakota Access pipelines, leveraging the media to push the Trump presidential brand.

For a man who loves to project an adversarial relationship with the media --

TRUMP: I always call them the dishonest media.

TODD (voice-over): -- Donald Trump is still said to be obsessed with the media and a voracious consumer of it.

MARC FISHER, CO-AUTHOR, "TRUMP REVEALED: AN AMERICAN JOURNEY OF AMBITION, EGO, MONEY, AND POWER": He's a big consumer of the New York City newspapers, the tabloids especially. He likes to read in print, not online. He gets a printout every day, a stack of printouts of stories about himself, that his staff puts together from the major newspapers and from T.V. as well. He watches T.V. constantly.

TODD (voice-over): So-called old-school media, said to be Trump's favorites. A Trump friend tells CNN his office at Trump Tower has always been piled high with newspapers, magazines. He's said to pore over "The New York Times," a paper that, today, ran the headline, "Trump Repeats an Election Lie."

Friends and observers say he loves to watch traditional T.V. staples like CBS's "60 Minutes" and the morning shows. He often responds to those programs in real time.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: There have dozens of times when Donald Trump has seen something on cable news and then reacted to it on Twitter.

TODD (voice-over): Just last week, Trump apparently saw a report on NBC's "Today" show that cast doubt on his job creation record. Minutes, later a tweet from Trump calling NBC News totally biased, fake news. He's known to call into the shows during breaks to respond to something he's seen on air on CNN and other networks.

TRUMP: And I saw today that somebody on CNN -- TODD (voice-over): Trump's colorful history with the media has ventured from consumer to critic to master manipulator.

TRUMP (via phone): Well, I'm sort of handling P.R. because he gets so much of it.

TODD (voice-over): Trump biographers say, in the 1980s and early '90s, Trump would speak to reporters on the phone, masquerading as his own P.R., fictitious front man he'd call John Miller or John Barron.

TRUMP (via phone): He's somebody that has a lot of options. And frankly, he gets called by everybody. He gets called by everybody in the book, in terms of women.

FISHER: He didn't bother to disguise his voice. We got a hold of a recording of him making one of these calls. He sounds exactly like Donald Trump, but he was offering the story behind the story about Donald Trump and saying, you know, you ought to go to this club, and you'll see Donald Trump with the hot models of the day.


[17:55:03] TODD: Now, a clear sign that Trump is obsessed with the media and controlling how he is perceived, his hiring of Steve Bannon as one of his closest advisers. Bannon once ran the conservative news website, Breitbart.

In fact, just today, CNN is reporting that two former Breitbart staffers have also been added to the President's team, one being named a special assistant to the President. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Brian, thank you. Brian Todd reporting.

Coming up, our breaking news. President Trump repeats his claim that he lost the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally, but the White House offers no evidence of that thoroughly debunked contention.


SEAN SPICER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: He believes what he believes based on the information he's been provided. Yes, ma'am?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: What does that mean for democracy, though, Sean?

SPICER: Thanks, Jeff.

ZELENY: What does that mean --

SPICER: Ma'am?

ZELENY: If he does believe that, what does that mean for democracy?

SPICER: It means that I've answered your question.

ZELENY: Have you?