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Sen. Franken Agrees to Ethics Probe after Groping Allegation; House GOP Passes Sweeping Tax Overhaul. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired November 16, 2017 - 17:00   ET


TAPPER: Got to go. Thanks, that's it for the lead, Jake Tapper, turning over to Wolf Blitzer in THE SIT ROOM. Thanks for watching.

[17:00:13] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, Franken accused. Democrat Senator Al Franken apologized -- apologizes after being accused of groping and forcibly kissing a woman a decade ago. Now Democratic and Republican senators are calling for an ethics investigation. Could Franken lose his job?

Moore denials. Embattled Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore calls allegations against him of sexual assault untrue, unsubstantiated, and an effort to steal the election from the people of Alabama. Republican calls for Moore to step aside are growing. Will President Trump add his voice?

Taxing divide. House Republicans pass a sweeping tax Bill while Senate Republicans continue to work on their proposal, but there are critical differences between the two tax plans that could prove hard to reconcile.

And targeting the pope. ISIS appears to use the image of its notorious executioner, Jihadi John, in a new Christmas threat against the Vatican. Are terrorists planning a holiday vehicle attack right on the heart of the Roman Catholic Church?

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news, including a new sex harassment scandal rocking Capitol Hill. A radio host now says Democratic Senator Al Franken of Minnesota forcibly kissed her and groped her while they were on a USO tour together back in 2006. Frank is apologizing but says he doesn't remember the encounter that way. He may now face a full-scale ethics investigation in the Senate.

Also breaking, new denials by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, accused by multiple women of inappropriately pursuing them when they were teenagers and sexual assaulting one of them. President Trump still has not joined the chorus of Republicans calling for Moore to drop out of the race.

The White House says the president thinks the allegations against Moore are very troubling, but he also believes Alabama voters should decide Moore's fate. The White House is also hailing the passage of a sweeping tax reform

Bill passed by the House. It's a key part of President Trump's agenda and an urgently needed legislative accomplishment for the GOP, but there are significant differences with the Senate's tax proposal, which is still being hammered out. And with a slim majority and one Republican senator already opposing the measure, it's unclear if a final Bill can get to the president's desk by the end of the year.

Also new tonight, a disturbing threat of an ISIS attack on the Vatican at Christmas. A poster just released online shows a masked man driving toward the heart of the Vatican with a gun at his side and a chilling warning of, quote, "Christmas blood."

We're covering all of that and much more this hour with our correspondents and our guests. Our specialists, they're all standing by.

But let's begin with the biggest bombshell of the multiple breaking stories up on Capitol Hill right now. Democratic Senator Al Franken apologizing and promising to cooperate with an Ethics Committee investigation after a woman alleged he groped and kissed her without consent back in 2006.

CNN's Ryan Nobles is up on Capitol Hill for us. Ryan, there's been swift reaction to the allegations.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf, but at this point, not one member of the U.S. Senate, Democrat or Republican, is calling on Senator Franken to resign his post, but these remain serious allegations, and it is yet another example of the new focus on sexual assault allegations against prominent public figures.


NOBLES (voice-over): Tonight, Al Franken, a Democratic senator and former "Saturday Night Live" comedian, is facing a Senate ethics investigation after claims by a radio host and former model that Franken groped and forcibly kissed her during a trip to entertain troops overseas with the USO back in 2006, before Franken was a senator.

LEEANN TWEEDEN, ACCUSED SENATOR FRANKEN OF SEXUAL HARASSMENT: I just remember, I almost punched him, so -- because every time I see him now, my hands clench into fists.

NOBLES: The accuser is a Leeann Tweeden, a radio host in Los Angeles. In a lengthy blog post, she describes how Franken asked her to rehearse a skit he had planned that included a kiss. She says she repeatedly turned him down, but after his badgering, she relented.

"He came at me, put his hand on the back of my head, mashed his lips against mine and aggressively stuck his tongue in my mouth."

Franken was nowhere to be seen in the halls of the Capitol on Thursday. He skipped votes on the floor, and then initially released a brief statement where he apologized, but qualified the apology by writing, quote, "I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way."

[17:05:00] But Tweeden also shared this photo of Franken groping her breasts while she was asleep on the return flight from Afghanistan, something she says she discovered only by looking through photos from the trip.

TWEEDEN: There's Al Franken, literally in the photo, grabbing my boobs with his hands as if he's grabbing my breasts and looking at the camera and like smiling, laughing with this smirk on his face.

NOBLES: Franken later released a much longer statement where he wrote, quote, "The first thing I want to do is apologize to Leeann, to everyone else who was a part of that tour, to everyone who has worked for me, to everyone I represent, and to everyone who counts on me to be an ally and supporter and champion of women."

The news led to condemnation from Capitol Hill leaders on both sides of the aisle. Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for a full ethics investigation but stopped short of saying he should resign. Democratic Minority Leader Chuck Schumer echoed McConnell's call for the investigation and called the incident, quote, "troubling."

Franken, who said he welcomes the ethics probe, has often spoke of his trip with Tweeden. In his book he described the trip as a monumental step in the decision to run for the Senate. He even spoke about Tweeden on the floor of the Senate.

SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: I was kind of a co-host with a beautiful woman named Leeann Tweeden. And we do comedy routines, and we'd introduce music and we'd introduce the cheerleaders.

NOBLES: Franken has been an outspoken advocate for sexual assault victims. He wrote a lengthy Facebook post about the allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and last month said Congress needs to do more to help the victims.

FRANKEN: Unfortunately, sexual harassment happens in every profession, and I think that we need to do something legislatively to make it easier for women to not only go to court but -- so that this isn't secret.

NOBLES: Now it is the comedian and lawmaker facing serious accusations himself. Tweeden said she accepted his apology, but said she remains concerned for the victims who still feel like they cannot come forward.

TWEEDEN: I really do think the tide has turned. And really, I'm doing it now because it's different. There's strength in numbers.


NOBLES: And because of his career as a comedian and an actor, Al Franken may be one of the most recognizable members of the U.S. Senate. As a result, he's called upon to raise thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates across the country. He was scheduled to appear at a fundraiser this weekend with Florida

Senator Bill Nelson. He will no longer be at that fundraiser. And several prominent Democrats have decided to take his contributions and donate them to charities that support sexual victims -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right Ryan, thank you. Ryan Nobles up on Capitol Hill.

Let's stay up on Capitol Hill, get more reaction to this latest sex harassment scandal that's rocking the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is on the scene for us. Manu, there are now, what, bipartisan calls for a full-scale Senate ethics investigation of Senator Franken.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And the question is where does go after that, Wolf? The most extreme case could be expelling Al Franken from the Senate, if the Ethics Committee does recommend trying to kick him out of the seat.

Now that is a very, very rare occurrence, but one in which a number of senators would not rule out. Even Democratic senators, when I put that question to them today, they said, "Well, let's let the process play out. Even if it leads to his expulsion, we have to have this investigation first." Here's what they said.


SEN. CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTRO (D), NEVADA: Very disappointed. I support and ethics investigation. This kind -- kind of conduct should not be tolerated by anyone in any public official.

RAJU: Do you think that this could lead to his expulsion?

SEN. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (D), RHODE ISLAND: I wouldn't want to prejudge anything at this point.

RAJU: I mean, that's -- I mean, that's pretty serious to say that you're not -- expulsion, you can't shut the door on expulsion.

WHITEHOUSE: Don't -- the Senate will take this up through proper procedures, and we'll work it's will. Don't you prejudge it, and I won't prejudge it either.

SEN. JEFF MERKLEY (D), OREGON: He said that he's going to cooperate with the Ethics Committee, and that's the right place to handle this question.

RAJU: Could he could be expelled from the Senate, do you think?

MERKLEY: I think the right place to address it is Ethics Committee. I don't serve on that committee. I'll leave it to the appropriate process.

(END VIDEO CLIP) RAJU: Now in order to expel a senator, you have actually two-thirds of senators voting in support of moving -- to remove a senator from his seat, as I've said, a very rare occurrence, but one in which members are already warning would also happen to Roy Moore if he were to become senator.

This in some ways could foreshadow what could happen to Roy Moore, opening up an ethics investigation into an alleged past misconduct of his, as well.

Now Al Franken really has not been seen on Capitol Hill today. He skipped several votes. He did not attend a Senate Democratic lunch in which he could have addressed his colleagues head on. He's been holed up in his office.

[17:10:05] I'm told he did talk to his staff. He offered a rather emotional apology to his staff about what happened. But he has not yet spoken out beyond those two written statements that he's issued, issuing that apology.

But already, members distancing themselves from Al Franken, including a number of senators who did say we're going to return his donations. And the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Wolf, Chris Van Hollen told me earlier that they were going to look into whether or not they should return any money for Al Franken. It has raised money for their committee, as well as any fundraising solicitations, whether they should stop that going forward. It's going to be part of a review that they are doing pretty significant, because he's one of the most prolific fundraisers for the Senate Democrats at this point, Wolf.

BLITZER: I take it, Manu, there's no indication Senator Franken is about to make a public statement, go before the cameras and say what he wants to say.

Are you getting any indication at all he might do that within the next few hours?

RAJU: We are getting no indication of that. In fact, he has been, for the most part, hunkered down in his office. There are scores of cameras and reporters waiting out at almost every corner of his office, waiting for him to leave. It's a question of whether or not he snuck out in any way without addressing reporters. Right now, he has not been seen.

And it's significant, because there were several votes. This is the last day of the session before Congress takes a recess up ahead of next week's weeklong congressional recess. This would be his one opportunity to address the national media, who are waiting for him to respond.

He typically does not talk to reporters in the hallways here, but he would be -- it would be unavoidable at this moment, because cameras would be in his face and asking him questions about what happened and if there were any other situations of his own sexual misconduct with other women in the past, questions will be almost certainly put forward to him if he were to come forward to the cameras right now.

But right now, he's doing everything he can to avoid making a public statement beyond that written statement. And a lot of his colleagues, too, Wolf, don't want to address questions either. They were quick to race out of the Senate afterwards and avoid reporters as much as possible. Particularly Democrats given their relationship and feelings towards Al Franken, but seeing what they see here is something that is completely indefensible, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. All right, Manu, thanks very much. If you see him, let us know.

Let's get some insight now from our political specialists and Mark Preston. Some are suggesting his days in the U.S. Senate may actually be numbered. What do you think?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And they very may well be. A lot's going to happen over the next 24, 48 hours. In some ways, he might be aided by the Thanksgiving break which gets him out of Washington, gets him away from the glare of the national media.

It's really going to depend upon, really, a couple of things, one, is will he lose the support of Democrats? And I think we have seen so far that they are willing to cut him loose. And two, are there any other allegations out there at this point? I think it's a very tender situation.

BLITZER: How do you see it, Chris?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER AND EDITOR AT LARGE: I think Mark is right, I think this is a different climate than six months ago. And that's -- Al Franken has to exist in that. I think if there are other allegations, it's going to get a lot tougher.

I think the combination of the Thanksgiving recess, people doing other things, and the well, we've referred it to the Senate Ethics Committee, which candidly is sort of a way to buy time and to try to take some heat off of this and see how it sorts itself out. If people are still angry, if other allegations come out, you can always say, you know what? We need to countermand that.

So he may survive. I would say, Wolf, if this was two or three years ago, I would say, "You know what? The behavior's inappropriate. I thought his first apology totally missed the mark and gives you a sense he doesn't really get it. Second apology was better, staying silent, I would say he probably winds up surviving it."

I candidly don't know if he will, just because I think we are in a different place with different rules than we were six months ago.

BLITZER: In this long statement, you know, Kaitlan, he doesn't really dispute any of what the woman in this particular case, Leeann suggested. Not disputing anything at all.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, he can't really dispute it, because there's the photo of him groping her while she is asleep, may I point out. And this is just months before he announced that he was going to run for Senate.

And I -- that makes me wonder, this photo, if this would be a very different news day that we would be having if there wasn't this photo that she could stand on and put her accusation on this credible platform of "Here's a photo of one of the things that he did to me."

And if she didn't have this photo, would he simply be denying the allegations, like he is? Because he's saying he doesn't remember the kiss the way that she remembers it, and if she didn't have this photo, what would he -- what would he be saying? Would he be taking the Roy Moore route here where he's denying all of these allegations and standing by and is not going to resign?

[17:15:08] So it really goes to show you just the state of where we are, how people believe these accusers, and when they have a photo, no one is questioning her. But when it's someone who has accused Roy Moore, there's lots of questions around this from people in the state of Alabama.

CILLIZZA: And by the way, not just someone who has accused Roy Moore. Eight people who have accused Roy Moore, but Kaitlan's point still holds.

BLITZER: This was a really a very robust apology to Leeann Tweeden that he issued in the second statement when he says, "The first thing I want to do is apologize to Leeann, to everyone else who was part of that tour." And then he goes on and on. He really doesn't dispute anything she says.

PRESTON: You know, this is a conversation I have with young press secretaries when they come to Washington oftentimes. People that we know will say, "Can you sit down with so and so and talk to them about how to navigate, how to navigate the city, how to navigate Capitol Hill," whether they're Democrats or Republicans.

I always tell them if you're in the wrong, if your boss is in the wrong, then you need to fess up and try to move on. Take the hit and move on. That's clearly what we saw happen today. Had he pushed back, as Kaitlan is talking about, had that photo not existed, maybe he would have pushed back. This is going to prolong and cause more of an inquiry. What he's trying to do right now is cauterize the situation and say, "Listen, I did it. I apologize. It's not what it was meant to be and, really, please accept my apology."

CILLIZZA: Now, it's worth noting that with Jake on "THE LEAD," Leeann Tweeden did say she accepted Al Franken's apology. She said it was heartfelt. But that's...

PRESTON: But that still doesn't make...

CILLIZZA: It doesn't mitigate -- it doesn't mitigate what happened, and it doesn't -- it doesn't solve his problem politically speaking.

Look, I think you are looking at are there more accusers? Are they -- does Al Franken -- what does he do? I mean, this is -- he is in an extremely political perilous situation. Rightly so, everyone is more aware now than ever before. And that, that is a good thing. It is a bad thing for Al Franken's political outlook.

COLLINS: To follow up on that just for the apology, he's getting a lot of credit for owning this and apologizing, but that doesn't change the fact...

PRESTON: Exactly.

COLLINS: ... that he still did this in the first place, and still thought that was OK and humorous.

And another thing to add onto that apology, it does not sound like he plans on resigning. It sounds like he's going to attempt to weather these allegations.

PRESTON: Absolutely.

COLLINS: And see if he can still remain in the Senate, which is going to cause a lot of problems for his Democratic counterparts.

BLITZER: And the woman, Leeann Tweeden, is totally credible in everything she said. We just saw that long interview with Jake Tapper. We're going to have excerpts of that interview.

Also coming up, everybody stand by, the breaking news continues. Much more on the scandal sparked by allegations against Senator Al Franken, groping and forcibly kissing that woman.

Plus, the Republican tax plan clears its first hurdle, but the biggest challenge may lie ahead. Will President Trump get the legislative win he so urgently needs?


[17:22:34] BLITZER: More breaking news this hour: House Republicans passing their sweeping tax reform bill, but its fate in the Senate is unclear. Republicans there are still working on their proposal, which already has some major differences and is raising concern among some Republican senators.

Let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta. Jim, the stakes for President Trump right now, very high.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They are very high, Wolf, and the White House is pushing Republicans up on Capitol Hill to get a tax credit plan to the president's desk been the end of the year. That might be wishful thinking, but today the White House said they'll take either version in the House or the Senate.

The White House was also asked about the fate of Roy Moore down in Alabama and said that is up the voters of that state.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bill is passed without objection or motion to reconsider, is laid upon the table. ACOSTA (voice-over): Eager for a political win to show voters they can get things done in Washington, Republicans muscle their tax cut plan through the House.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Passing this bill is the single biggest thing we can do to grow the economy, to restore opportunity, and help these middle-income families who are struggling.

ACOSTA: The stakes are high for the president, who stormed Capitol Hill to help push the bill over the finish line. The reason: rumbling inside the GOP over the details. While the House plan slashes taxes for corporations and cuts the number of tax brackets for individuals, the bill also trims state and property tax deductions that are popular among Republicans in the northeast.

REP. DAN DONOVAN (R), NEW YORK: For many people today who are voting, may be voting yes in the hopes that something gets corrected.

ACOSTA: Now comes the hard part: maneuvering the tax bill through the Senate, where some Republicans are already raising objections. The Senate version wades into the health care debate, repealing the individual mandate in Obamacare. And includes a controversial plan to allow individual tax cuts to expire while keeping corporate tax cuts permanent.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), MAINE: I am concerned. I believe that, if we start getting into health care issues with the individual mandate, that we send a very mixed message.

ACOSTA: Key Republicans are demanding changes.

SEN. RON JOHNSON (R), WISCONSIN: I'm just looking for a fair shake for all businesses to maintain the competitive balance and position of all businesses. Let's not upset that apple cart and harm our economy.

ACOSTA: Despite opposition from their own party, the president and his aides are blaming Democrats with Mr. Trump tweeting, "Why are Democrats fighting massive tax cuts with the middle class in business, jobs? The reason: obstruction and delay."

Democrats sense an opening, insisting the GOP tax plan is a giveaway to the rich, pointing to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin's tone-deaf photo op at the Bureau of Engraving as a symbol of Republican greed run amuck.

[17:25:17] SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The disconnect is staggering. Who thinks you put on long leather gloves and stand and hold a sheet of money?

ACOSTA: Then, there are the alarming reports up on Capitol Hill, new allegations of sexual misconduct pouring in. The president still wasn't commenting on that.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you. The taxes going really well. Thank you very much. Thank you. ACOSTA: As for the accusations facing Roy Moore, the White House said it's up to the voters in Alabama to decide.

(on camera): Would the president campaign with Roy Moore?


ACOSTA: And can I ask you a follow-up? Do you think he's a creep?



SANDERS: Look, I don't know Roy Moore. I haven't met him in person, so I wouldn't be able to respond to that.

The president believes that these allegations are very troubling and should be taken seriously. And he thinks that the people of Alabama should make the decision on who their next senator should be.


ACOSTA: Now as for the GOP tax plan, the question now, of course, is what happens in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority, and a number of senators who don't get along with the president. As House Speaker Paul Ryan put it earlier today, there is a long road ahead of them, Wolf.

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

Let's go back up to Capitol Hill right now. Our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is joining us.

Phil, this tax bill is now out of the House of representatives, but it's still far, far from a done deal.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, exactly right. Look Wolf, the hurdles are real. The policy differences, those are acute. The math, it's complicated both on the policy side and on the political side. And you just start to tick through where Republicans currently stand in the Senate.

If you talk to leaders, they feel like they're in a good place. And at least compared to health care, they are. However, they've now included health care into this process. That's potentially problematic for somebody like Senator Susan Collins.

You heard in Jim's piece from Senator Ron Johnson. His issue, not to do with the individual mandate at all. That has everything to do with how smaller business entities called passthroughs, entities that essentially file their taxes on the individual side, are taxed by the individual rate, how those are treated.

You have deficit issues when it comes to senators Jeff Flake and Bob Corker. You have Senator John McCain, who while he said he's looking at the overall proposal, has continued to make clear that, both on the legacy side of things and on the process side of things, he wants to make sure this bill is the right Bill.

You have Rand Paul, who's made very clear he wants to ensure that the tax cuts are much deeper than they have been laid out up to this point.

Wolf, all this put together just kind of shows you the Republican leaders could be entering a stage of kind of whack-a-mole. As you watch the Senate Finance Committee move through this process -- they're supposed to be finishing up either later tonight or early tomorrow morning -- you recognize that the proposal Republicans have right now fits very closely together. It's not something where they have a lot of space to give money here or give a provision here.

Because of that fact, these senators that are hanging out right now with concerns, those concerns could be very problematic going forward.

I think what everybody needs to keep an eye on, at least according to Republican officials I've spoken to in both chambers, is will they start inching towards the proposal in the next couple of weeks? Because that's the key timeline. By the end of the week after Thanksgiving, they want to have this through the Senate floor. If they want to keep to the president's timeline of having it all done by Christmas, they need to move fast, Wolf.

BLITZER: They've got a lot going on right now. Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill, thanks very much.

Coming up, more defiance from the Alabama Senate candidate, Roy Moore. He's calling the stories from the women, multiple women accusing him of unwanted, inappropriate sexual conduct, an effort to steal the election.

Also ahead, a chilling new threat from ISIS. A threat to attack the Vatican at Christmas apparently contains an image of the terror group's notorious executioner, Jihadi John.


[17:33:33] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're following multiple breaking stories right now, including House Republicans pushing through their tax cut bill. No Democrats voted for it. 13 Republicans also voted no. A Senate committee is working on a different version of the tax cut bill, which also includes the repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate. That bill's fate right now remains very much uncertain. Let's bring back our political specialists. Mark, how difficult is this path ahead?

MARK PRESTON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It's very difficult. A couple of things: one, you're looking at timing. It's a very compressed timeframe. People think that, look, we have, what, two months left in the year, not necessarily, or six weeks left because of the holidays. So, there's only a few days left. And I know we'll talk about the specific differences shortly, but we did just see, you know, our reporting from Capitol Hill. You have Ron Johnson, Susan Collins for very different reasons are not supportive of this bill. That is problematic. It's not necessarily going to be the repeal of the mandate in the House of Representatives, they want the Senate to do so, but will Susan Collins support the bill?

BLITZER: Assuming no Democrats support it, the 52-48 margin that the Republicans have in the Senate, they can afford to lose two, Chris, not more.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR AT LARGE: Yes. Well, and I'll add to Mark's point, Bob Corker tweeting concerns about the deficits, right? I mean, let's remember that the modern Republican Party, pre- Donald Trump, was we got to get down national deficit. I don't know how many times we heard, we are burdening our kids and their kids. I mean, it's essential tenet. Paul Ryan, McConnell, everyone who is a leader of the party.

[17:35:03] So, you're going to have to get over that, because even with the 338 billion you save by -- from the deficit by adding in the individual mandate repeal, it's still going to add to the deficit. So, that's going to be a problem. Lisa Murkowski -- it sounds like McCain is on board, but what I would say is on all of these things, the coalitions are different. Don't assume that, well, because McCain's on board and he wasn't on board with health care, suddenly the bill is going to pass because Ron Johnson was not a problem prior. Bob Corker, theoretically, wasn't a problem before. So, it's not going to be easy. 52, you only lose two, is very tough because the difference between, let's say, Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma and Susan Collins from Maine is vast within the Republican Conference.

BLITZER: It looks like -- at least in this particular case, I mean, Kaitlan, the Republicans learned a lesson from the failure to repeal and replace Obamacare. Remember when the House passed that legislation repealing and replacing Obamacare, there was a huge celebration with the President in the Rose Garden, and they were thrilled, it was great. In the end, it didn't work out for them. Are they learning the lessons of that?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: No. And the President called that bill mean after he delayed his vacation to New Jersey, and to hold that little pep rally in the Rose Garden. But real quick to add to Chris's point about the deficit, today is the beginning of the press briefing, Sarah Sanders, the Press Secretary, said that this tax bill was needed to grow the economy. But when she was later asked about the deficit and what they're going to do about that, if it does -- if the economy doesn't cover it, she said that they don't expect that to be a problem because the economy has been growing in the last 10 months. It's been growing for longer than that, but she was referencing Trump's time in office.

So, I don't know how you square that circle with if it's been growing, we need the bill, but regardless of what she had to say -- but, yes, we've seen them take quite a different strategy on tax reform here because the White House, as well as Capitol Hill realized just how desperately they need a legislative achievement here, and they've certainly been going in a different manner about it. The President has been very involved with it, he spoke about it multiple times during his trip in Asia. And we've certainly seen them take a different strategy.

CILLIZZA: Which -- just quickly, I don't think that Republicans have done all that much different from how they approached health care. They didn't celebrate. What's different is the fact that they now look at the 2018 election now less than year away, they look at the 2017 election, that was basically an across-the-board washout for them. And they think, to Kaitlan's point, we have to do something. Necessity, the worry of a wave sweeping lots and lots of them out tends to be an incentive (INAUDIBLE).

COLLINS: Yes, they realized they have a lot of problems, and that 20181 is shaping up to be a strong year for Democrats. And as Senator Lindsey Graham said, if they do not get tax reform passed and eventually, health care, they are going to lose across the board in 2018, which is, it's vital for them to pass this.

BLITZER: Yes, by no means, a done deal yet. All right, guys, standby. There's more breaking news we're following. We'll resume our special coverage right after this.


[17:42:29] BLITZER: Let's get back to our political specialists. On the Roy Moore scandal, it is a scandal right now, it was interesting at the White House earlier today, the White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, she would -- she was asked how does the President feel? The President says he's not ready apparently according to her to -- for to call on him to step aside from the race. Says it's up to the people of Alabama.

PRESTON: Kind of all she can say, right? Because he himself has been accused by multiple women of engaging in this similar behavior. So, he was very lucky to be overseas with Kaitlan, over for the past 12 or 14 days traveling when the story broke because it took him out of the story. He is now back here in Capitol Hill, specifically the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill want him engaged on this. And he's doing his best to stay clear of it. If I was advising him politically, I think I would have probably told Sarah Huckabee Sanders to go out and say the same thing.

BLITZER: You know, it's interesting, because when Sarah Sanders was asked about the sexual assault allegations against Moore and how they differed against the sexual allegations that were levelled against the then-candidate -- the private citizen Donald Trump, Sarah Sanders said this ...


SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The President has certainly a lot more insight into what he personally did or didn't do.


BLITZER: What do you think? CILLIZZA: Well, let's not forget that Sarah Sanders called the women who accused Donald Trump of sexual harassment, liars, from behind the podium at the White House. I mean, I'm --

BLITZER: There were some 16 women, too.

CILLIZZA: I'm stunned that that happened. When we elected -- when the country elected Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape, after the dozen and a half accusers, we elected someone who is not in a position -- Mark touched on this -- but he's not in a position because of his back story to lead in a way that we would expect a President to do so, which is to say, look, Roy Moore, Al Franken, George H.W. Bush, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, this is not who we are, right? This is not what we are about. This is the worst of us. I have seen the best of us. I will lead us to the best of us. He's not only not able to do that, I don't think he views that as part of his job as President, which is frankly a giant break from the people who've had that job.

BLITZER: Is that why he's so silent on this right now because of the allegations that were levelled against him?

[17:44:51] COLLINS: Well, certainly, the White House is having a difficult time navigating this because what do they say? If they condemn it, then it'll certainly bring up those allegations against the President. And those women who accused him just last week or a few weeks ago, we were talking about this, and the White House said maintained that those women were lying when they accused the President of sexual assault. But we, you know, heard from the President himself on that Access Hollywood tape where he said he grabbed women the way that they -- the way wanted to regardless of what they thought. So, really, what do we to want hear from the President? We want to hear him condemn these people who grope women without their consent and then we have the President on tape saying he can grab women without their consent the way that he wants to? So, the White House certainly doesn't know how to navigate this.

And on another note, this is a race that the President has been pretty invested in because not only did he endorse Luther Strange and recorded robocalls for him, he came down to the state, to Huntsville, Alabama to hold a rally for Luther Strange. And during that rally, those really when the numbers were really close between Moore and Strange, he said that if Strange lost, he would get behind Moore. Of course, Strange did lose and the President went on to tweet, congratulating Moore and saying that he should win in December. So, that's another reason that the White House should comment on this because this is someone the President has pretty much encouraged voters go and vote, and this is a state where Trump won overwhelmingly. So, his opinion makes a difference here. If he came out and said do not vote for Roy Moore, a lot of people in the State of Alabama would listen to what he had to say.

BLITZER: And you're from Alabama, you know your home state. All right guys, everybody stand by. There's a lot more breaking news coming up after. More aftershocks after Democratic Senator Al Franken is accused of kissing and groping a women against her will. Also, an alarming new threat by a pro-ISIS terror group. Look closely at this, the terror group apparently is using an image of its notorious executioner Jihadi John in a rearview mirror in a threatening Christmas attack on the Vatican.


[17:51:39] BLITZER: We're following a chilling new threat from a pro- ISIS group that appears to be using an image of a notorious ISIS executioner nicknamed "Jihadi John" in a Christmas threat to the Vatican. CNN's Brian Todd is here. Brian, how seriously are authorities taking this threat?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've spoken to authorities at the Vatican today as well as Italian officials. They are not tipping their hand right now on how seriously they're taking it, but we do know it's on their radar. Tonight, just as we enter the busy holiday season, a prominent pro-ISIS group is calling on followers to strike at the heart of the catholic church at its most sacred time. And the group is utilizing a notorious figures known for his barbarism to recruit people for an attack.


TODD: A jarring image in a terrorist call to attack the Vatican at Christmas. A prominent pro-ISIS group reveals an online poster tonight, a man driving towards St. Peter's Basilica. A gun on the passenger side, the message terrifyingly simple, Christmas blood, so wait.

MICHAEL WEISS, CO-AUTHOR, "ISIS: INSIDE THE ARMY OF TERROR": They think of themselves as fighting a latter day crusade against of all Christians and all of the West. It's us versus them. It's a -- it's a struggle of civilizations. There is no twain where the two shall meet.

TODD: Analysts say ISIS almost completely defeated on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria is seeking to capitalize on recent vehicle attacks committed by ISIS followers like the deadly strike in New York on Halloween. The group has also exploited high-profile holiday attacks, either directed by ISIS or carried out by its followers.

The truck-ramming assault on a Christmas market in Berlin last year which killed 12 people and the 2015 mass shooting at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California, which left 14 people dead.

In this latest threat, superimposed in the rearview mirror, ISIS also seemed to use an image of one of its best-known and notorious figures, Jihadi John, the British executioner who presided over the beheadings of American and British hostages.

JIHADI JOHN, ISIS EXECUTIONER: It's only right we continue to strike the necks of your people.

TODD: ISIS's propaganda star who was killed in a drone strike two years ago.

WEISS: What better way to signpost the menace that they still represent and having the ghost of this world famous jihadist, this native-born son of England, appear in a propaganda piece, a poster.

TODD: During any given day over the holidays, there could be tens of thousands of people cramming St. Peter's Square. Security is tight but terror experts say an ISIS sympathizer could try to get a vehicle past a checkpoint or could smuggle knives or bludgeons in. Another risk, a popular pope who loves to spontaneously wade into crowds, a man who a former Swiss guard says the security can't hold back.

ANDREAS WIDMER, FORMER SWISS GUARD: No, you don't. And you try to work with the pope and see what he wants to do and then adapt and provide the best security that there is. The security is not what leads the pope. It's the pope that leads the security. Again, the pope is doing his ministry and that needs to be optimized and that's what a pope is all about. The security can be optimized around his activities.

TODD: So, you don't ever tell the pope, sir, you cannot go do that?

WIDMER: You can't do that. No.


TODD: We're told that at events involving the pope like gatherings at St. Peter's Square, there will likely be layers of security in the crowds during the holidays including agents blending in and watching for any threats. A short time ago, the Vatican told CNN the pope's schedule will not change because of this threat. Wolf?

[17:55:06] BLITZER: What are the security measures, Brian, are they -- are in place in St. Peter's Square? What's changed there in recent years?

TODD: We're told, Wolf, that they've got metal detectors to screen people now. The main road also leading to the St. Peter's Basilica has been cordoned off in recent years, but the challenge here now are the crowds during the holidays, Wolf, they're going to be likely a lot of overflow crowds into neighboring streets. That is going to be a nightmare for security forces.

BLITZER: Yes, it will be. All right. Brian, thank you. Breaking news next, Democratic Senator Al Franken accused of groping and forcibly kissing a woman. Will the scandal windup costing him his seat?