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Interview With Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal; Roy Moore Vows to Stay in Senate Race; Al Franken Apologizes in Wake of Sexual Misconduct Allegations; House Passes GOP Tax Bill; Fate in Senate Unclear; Senators Question "Disturbing Picture" at State Department. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 16, 2017 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:31]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: groping allegations. Democratic Senator Al Franken accused of sexual misconduct by a woman who has a photo to prove her claim.

Franken is apologizing, as fellow senators in both parties now call for an ethics investigation.

Bring it on. That's the message from GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore as he tries to blame his sexual abuse scandal on the Senate Republican leader. Tonight, the White House is hedging on the president's views about Moore, while Mr. Trump refuses to answer questions.

Halfway there. President Trump visits Capitol Hill to cheer on House Republicans taking a crucial first step towards passing tax reform. Now the fight shifts to the Senate, where the president's party is rolling the dice.

And backdoor overture. Senator investigators demand Jared Kushner turn over more documents, including e-mails on WikiLeaks and -- quote -- "backdoor overture from Russia." How much is the president's son- in-law holding back?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking tonight, Democratic Senator Al Franken under fire as sexual misconduct allegations surface that could potentially cost him his job.

A radio news anchor now publicly accusing Franken of forcibly kissing her during rehearsal for a 2006 USO show overseas. Leeann Tweeden says Franken also groped her while she slept, posting a photo of the incident. Senators in both parties are now calling for a full-scale ethics investigation and Franken is promising to cooperate.

Top Democrats say it could possibly leave to Franken's expulsion from the Senate. Also breaking, the White House says they find sexual abuse allegations

against Republican Roy Moore extremely troubling, but Press Secretary Sarah Sanders says Mr. Trump believes the people of Alabama should decide whether Moore wins or loses the December 12 Senate election.

The president again dodging questions about whether Moore should step aside. Also tonight, Moore is denying a new round of accusations and claiming it's an all-out attempt by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to steal the election.

And after a pep talk from the president, the House of Representatives has passed a sweeping tax reform bill. It's a first step in advancing a top priority for Mr. Trump and his party, but the legislation faces very uncertain prospects in the Senate, where Republicans have linked tax reform to the repeal of the Obamacare insurance mandate.

This hour, I will talk about those stories and more with Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a Democrat on the Judiciary and Armed Services Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to CNN's Ryan Nobles. He's up on Capitol Hill with more on the accusations against Senator Al Franken and his apology.

Ryan, Franken's accuser tells CNN she believes his apology is heartfelt. But the senator is in hot water right now up on Capitol Hill.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No doubt about that, Wolf. Senator Franken stayed out of the public eye today and he even avoided contact with his fellow Democratic senators.

This despite the fact that not one member of the U.S. Senate has called for him to resign. Franken is still facing a serious ethics investigation, one that is supported by both Republicans and Democrats.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES (voice-over): Tonight, Al Franken, a Democratic senator and former "Saturday Night Live" comedian, is facing a Senate ethics communication 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, KABC RADIO: I was so angry. I was in disbelief, really, and I just sort of -- my hand -- to this day, I talk about it and my hand clinches into a fist, because I think my initial reaction is that I wanted to hit him.

NOBLES: The accuser is 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, telling CNN Jake Tapper's today:

TWEEDEN: He just mashes his mouth to my lips. And it was wet. And he puts his tongue in my mouth. And my reaction, it was just sort of -- I pushed his chest away with my hands. And I'm like, if you ever do that to me again...

[18:05:01]

NOBLES: 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."

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'd do comedy routines, and we would introduce music, and 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's the comedian and lawmaker facing serious accusations himself. Tweeden said she accepted his apology.

TWEEDEN: I believe it, and I believe him. And I honestly do believe him. And I wasn't -- I wasn't waiting for an apology from him, but I gladly accept it.

And, thank you, Senator Franken.

NOBLES: But said she remains concerned for the victims who still feel like they cannot come forward.

TWEEDEN: People have been texting and calling, and they're like, stay strong because you're doing something that's going to make the world better for your daughter. And maybe I am. I didn't look at it that way, but maybe I am. And if I am, OK, I will take it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: And because of his career as a comedian and actor, Al Franken might be the most recognizable member of the U.S. Senate. And, as a result, he's called on to raise thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates across the country.

In fact, Franken was scheduled to headline a fund-raiser for Florida Senator Bill Nelson this weekend. He's no longer doing that. And several prominent Democrats have said they are going to take his contributions and donate them to charities who support sexual assault victims -- Wolf.

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

This is yet another bombshell over there up on Capitol Hill, as members of both parties try to move forward with their legislative priorities, despite multiple distractions.

Let's go to our congressional correspondent, Phil Mattingly.

Phil, this was a big day up on Capitol Hill, but the Al Franken story certainly took center stage.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, no question about it, Wolf.

Look, it's something we have seen repeatedly over the course of the last 10 months. Lawmakers have best-laid plans in both parties, whether it's communications strategies or the way that they want to tout specific pieces of legislation, only to see them fall apart because of a tweet or in more serious situations, allegations like we saw today or like we've seen over the last couple of weeks with Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

It's something that when you talk to these lawmakers, they recognize these are serious allegations. These are things that they need to answer. But, Wolf, think back to this morning. This was supposed to be a day about tax reform and for Republicans touting a major victory in the House, a once-in-a-generation type of victory in the House, as they set the path forward in the Senate.

For Democrats, the same issue, different strategy, trying to marshal opposition to that and trying to rally the grassroots behind a bill that is not just a tax bill, but has now in some ways become a health care bill as well.

Instead, Republican lawmakers, both House and Senate, Democratic lawmakers, both House and Senate, spending the day answering questions about this, trying to figure out what their path forward is with their members, or, in the case of Roy Moore, potential future members.

[18:10:01]

You have seen Senator Chuck Schumer agree with Senator McConnell's call for an ethics investigation into Al Franken. You have seen Senator McConnell say that an ethics investigation would need to be launched if Roy Moore was here.

If you look at the legislative agenda, there are very clear implications there. Wolf, I have talked to aides in both parties that say, look, when it comes to legislation, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. That's why we're here. We know that we have to answer questions when allegations like this, serious as they are, come up.

But an important point here as it pertains to tax reform and specifically as it pertains to Roy Moore. The special election is on December 12. Roy Moore, if he wins, would not be seated before then. If he loses, Doug Jones would not be seated in the near term after then.

But when you talk to Republicans, Wolf, they are keenly aware when it comes to that special election, whoever wins could cause serious problems for their vote count on tax reform going forward. And so that, more than anything else, spurs the need to try and get things done legislatively in the near term.

All in all, when you look at the broad picture here, Wolf, clearly Republicans and Democrats have had difficulty passing pieces of legislation. Issues like this, distractions like this, serious allegations like this, Republicans and Democrats alike will tell you, it's not helpful to what they are trying to do. Frankly, it's not helpful to trying to run the country, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, excellent point. Phil Mattingly up on Capitol Hill, thank you.

Let's talk about all of this and more with Senator Richard Blumenthal. He's a Democrat on Judiciary and Armed Services Committees.

Senator, thanks very much for coming in.

SEN. RICHARD BLUMENTHAL (D), CONNECTICUT: Thank you.

BLITZER: What's your reaction to these allegations against your Democratic colleague, Senator Franken?

BLUMENTHAL: Unwanted sexual advances, groping, or harassment are never OK, they're never acceptable, never funny.

And one point made very compellingly by the excellent report that we have just seen is how much courage it takes for a victim or survivor to come forward, whether it's domestic violence or sexual assault. And I think an ethics investigation is absolutely appropriate.

BLITZER: You believe Leeann Tweeden?

BLUMENTHAL: I believe that the photograph of Al Franken, in effect, groping her cannot be denied.

BLITZER: This must be pretty shocking to you. You know Al Franken. He's a Democratic colleague of yours. He's worked with you for a long time.

BLUMENTHAL: He's worked with me and my colleagues on both sides of the aisle. But this kind of conduct is totally unacceptable, abhorrent and repugnant, and I think Al Franken's apology recognizes it.

BLITZER: What do you hope emerges from this Senate ethics investigation that presumably is about to begin?

BLUMENTHAL: We need the truth about all of what happened. And if there are other facts that we should know about this incident, about other incidents, about other people, they have to be known as well.

And then the ethics investigation is going to have to determine whether any sanctions or penalties are appropriate. But I also believe, as a prosecutor and someone who really trusts the rule of law and impartial decision-makers, that this investigation ought to be allowed to proceed without any of us interfering in it.

BLITZER: Because there are some suggesting he should simply resign right now and not put you guys, Republicans and Democrats, the entire Senate, the entire country, in front of a full-scale Senate ethics investigation.

BLUMENTHAL: A full-scale investigation will be unpleasant. But it will also be a teaching moment for the nation, and creating awareness, in effect, supporting victims and survivors who come forward, as this woman has done with grace and dignity and courage, also has a value.

BLITZER: What if more women come forward and make similar accusations against him?

BLUMENTHAL: We will have to deal with additional complaints if and when they occur.

I really, in all honestly, can't expect what the investigation will do with additional complaints, let alone this one.

BLITZER: Because, I don't know if you remember this, but the previous ethics investigation led by Mitch McConnell against then Senator Bob Packwood, that continued for 30 months. Is the country ready for a 30-minute investigation along these lines? BLUMENTHAL: We are going to have to continue to do our work on taxes, on health care, on infrastructure, on foreign policy.

We can't allow ourselves to be distracted by the ethics investigation. In fact, the ethics investigation will be largely done confidentially. A lot of the findings will be very deliberately reviewed. And I think that its conclusions and recommendations will have to be assessed when and if they are done. But we need to press forward with the business of the nation.

BLITZER: What response would you expect from your Republican colleagues in the Senate if Roy Moore goes on, wins the Senate race in Alabama and comes and takes his Senate seat?

[18:15:01]

BLUMENTHAL: Roy Moore's situation should not be conflated with Al Franken in terms of the number of complaints, the kinds of complaints. The two are different.

We can argue about one being more serious than the other, but the point is, each of these instances has to be assessed on its own terms and its own facts.

BLITZER: But the accusations, you believe, against Senator Franken are very serious?

BLUMENTHAL: They are serious. They need to be investigated. And any unwanted sexual advances are inexcusable and intolerable, and Al Franken's own apology reflects, I think, that fact.

BLITZER: But if Roy Moore is elected and sworn in as a U.S. senator, you would want him, what, to be expelled as quickly as possible?

BLUMENTHAL: Roy Moore is unfit to be a United States senator on various grounds, and those grounds includes the kinds of sexual advances he made to children.

BLITZER: Senator, stand by. There's more developing stories that we need to discuss and update our viewers on. Let's take a quick break. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:20:42]

BLITZER: We're back with Senator Richard Blumenthal.

And we're following the breaking news on Democratic Senator Al Franken, accused of groping and kissing a woman without her consent.

Senator, stand by.

We're learning more about President Trump's strategy going forward right now, now that the House Republicans have passed a tax cut bill.

I want to go to our senior White House correspondent, Jim Acosta.

Jim, this is an important step for the president, but there are several hurdles still ahead.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Absolutely, Wolf.

The White House is pushing Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill to pass a tax cut plan and get it to the president's desk before the end of the year. But the question is, which tax plan, the version that just cleared the House or the one over in Senate?

Meanwhile, the White House was also asked today about the fate of Roy Moore down in Alabama and they said at the White House today that is up to the voters of that state.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The bill is passed without objection. The 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 muscled 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? Grumbling 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: 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 and 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 share 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 for the middle class and 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-top at the Bureau of Engraving as a symbol of Republican greed run amuck.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: The disconnect is staggering. Who thinks to put on your 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. But the president still wasn't commenting on that.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much, everybody. Thank you. The tax is going really well. Thank you very much.

ACOSTA: As for the accusations facing Roy Moore, the White House said it's up to the voters in Alabama to decide.

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

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Not that I'm know of.

ACOSTA: And can I ask you a follow-up?

Do you think he's a creep?

HUCKABEE SANDERS: Do I?

ACOSTA: Yes.

HUCKABEE 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.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: The question now for the GOP tax plan is what happens in the Senate, where Republicans hold a slim majority, and a number of senators who, by the way, don't get along with the president.

As House Speaker Paul Ryan put it earlier today, they have a long road ahead of them -- Wolf.

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

Let's get back to Senator Blumenthal. Senator, do you think -- what are the chances that this tax reform

legislation passes the Senate?

BLUMENTHAL: There is a long and very bumpy road ahead. In fact, I'm inclined to say that the House bill is dead on arrival, because the Senate Republican leadership wants to turn this tax bill, in effect, into a health care bill by repealing the individual mandate, in effect, turning 13 million people or more off of health care, and also exacerbating some of the harms in the Republican bill, for example, eliminating retiree deduction for state and local taxes, continuing the elimination of deductions for interest paid on college loans.

[18:25:23]

There are a variety of...

BLITZER: You don't think it's going to pass?

BLUMENTHAL: I think in its present form, it will not pass.

But -- and here's a big but -- only if there is activism and energy from the opponents.

BLITZER: Let's talk about some other issues while I have you here.

You're a member of the Judiciary Committee. I know you're seeking some so-called missing documents that Jared Kushner, the adviser to the president, his son-in-law, has apparently failed to produce, including an e-mail that he forwarded concerning WikiLeaks and another e-mail he forwarded concerning -- and I'm quoting now -- "Russian backdoor overture and dinner invite."

Is Kushner making things worse for himself by omitting these documents?

BLUMENTHAL: He's definitely apparently omitting documents.

And that is the reason that I have long advocated subpoenas for all of the documents. That's the only way we will know whether he's producing all of them. He's certainly doing himself no favor by withholding some, apparently.

And I think he ought to be subpoenaed to appear before the committee in open, under oath at a hearing. I called for it yesterday on the floor of the Senate, saying that the lack of subpoenas, the lack of progress is endangering the pace of this investigation. And I'm gratified to see that the chairman and the ranking member are moving ahead.

BLITZER: Has he agreed already, Chairman Grassley, to subpoena him, to bring him before the committee, if necessary?

BLUMENTHAL: There was an agreement previously. In fact, subpoenas were issued initially.

Those subpoenas were withdrawn. We will see whether or not there is an outstanding agreement as to Kushner. But I believe very strongly that the credibility of this investigation will depend on issuing a subpoena for documents and for testimony.

BLITZER: Another important issue you're working on, you're helping to craft a bipartisan bill to make sure that states, the federal government are reporting the required information for national background checks.

And a lot of people are wondering, why isn't this already on the books? Why do you need new legislation, if it's required to submit this kind of information about individuals before they can go out and buy a weapon? Why isn't it happening already?

BLUMENTHAL: There is a background check system. It's known as the NICS database.

But it's incomplete. It has gaping holes because many of the states are failing to report convictions for serious crimes, including domestic violence.

BLITZER: Is that legal? Are they allowed to do that, fail to report that kind of information?

BLUMENTHAL: Well, they have an obligation to report, but this measure, and I'm proud of it, provides more incentives and rewards for them to do so.

And I'm also working on another measure that will apply specifically to the military, the court-martials.

But let's be very clear about this measure. It's a modest step. Some may see it as a baby step. A journey of 1,000 miles has to begin with a single step. And what I'm most hopeful about this measure is that it will encourage more bipartisanship, more working together, more coalitions across the aisle to combat gun violence.

BLITZER: Senator Blumenthal, thanks for joining us.

BLUMENTHAL: Thank you.

BLITZER: Just ahead, there are some new poll numbers just out on the Senate race in Alabama and the fallout from the Roy Moore scandal.

And can Al Franken survive in the Senate after a new allegation of unwanted kissing and groping?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Breaking news tonight: a new poll shows Republican candidate Roy Moore now trailing his Democratic opponent in the Alabama Senate race by eight points after allegations of sexual assault and pursuing teenaged girls.

[18:33:32] Also, new details emerging in the scandal involving Democratic Senator Al Franken. He's accused by a radio host, Leeann Tweeden, of forcibly kissing and groping her while they were on a USO tour together back in 2006.

Tweeden described what happened to "THE LEAD's" Jake Tapper.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LEEANN TWEEDEN, RADIO HOST: He comes in, and you know, at the last second we're coming in, and he just -- he puts his hand on the back of my neck. And he comes in so fast, and he just sort of -- you know, it's like that -- you know, there was no finesse to it at all. Let's put it that way. And he just mashes his mouth to my lips and, you know, it was like wet. And he puts his tongue in my mouth.

And, you know, my reaction, it was just sort of a -- you know, I pushed his chest away with my hands and I'm like, "If you ever do that to me again" -- I was so angry. I was in disbelief, really. And I just sort of -- you know, my hand -- to this day, I talk about it and my hand clinches into a fist, because I think my initial reaction was that I wanted to hit him. That's what I feel. And I still feel that to this day, I think.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Tweeden also says she didn't see a photo in which Franken appears to be grabbing her breasts while she was sleeping until after the trip was over.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TWEEDEN: It's just -- you know, it was belittling. It's humiliating. I mean, is that funny? Is that ever funny? I mean, I wasn't his friend. That's not -- I mean, is that funny if that's your wife or your daughter or your mom? I mean, it's -- you know.

[18:35:06] I mean, he came out with the apology, and he's appalled by it now and "I thought it was funny, but obviously, it's not funny." I mean, it's -- it's -- you know, I've been angry about it, Jake, for over ten years.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Let's bring in our political specialist. And Gloria, let me start with you. The problem here clearly crosses party lines. How are Democrats reacting to the allegations against their fellow Democrat, Senator Franken?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: First of all, I think they're reeling. Earlier today they were kind of shocked by this.

And I think Franken's first statement was so kind of short and a lot of people were saying, "Well, boy, that's not enough. He's just said, you know, 'I don't remember the rehearsal. And I'm sorry I offended.'"

And then it's clear that people went to him and said, "No, no, no, you need to do something more." So he put out a lengthier statement, which she said she appreciated and that -- she was very gracious, I think, and accepted his apology.

And Democrats on the Hill, I think, were probably pleased when Mitch McConnell gave them an easy out and said he is calling for an Ethics Committee investigation, because then they can all deplore the behavior and say, "This is now before the Ethics Committee so we can't really talk about it anymore."

They understand that there's an issue here, that Democrats cannot just complain when it's a Republican who is accused of the wrongdoing. These are two very different cases, obviously, Judge Moore and Al Franken. But because they come one right after the other and were in this environment that we are in, it's very clear that they all have to deplore this, which they should, and now it's before the Ethics Committee, and we'll -- we will see what happens with that.

BLITZER: You know, Rebecca, Democrats are not, at least yet, calling on Senator Franken to resign. What message does that send, though, to the women out there who are still wary of reporting what's happened to them?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, certainly, Wolf, it's not going to send a message that there is a zero tolerance policy for this sort of behavior, that as soon as a report like this surfaces, that person is going to be out of their job.

But at the same time, you know, it's encouraging. Democrats and Republicans have taken this seriously. They've condemned the behavior. They're, you know, going through the process of looking into it. Very different from what you've seen in some other prominent cases recently, where the accused, or allies of the accused, try to muddy the waters, try to cast aspersions on the motives of the accusers.

So at least in this case, they are showing and sending the message that they will take these accusations seriously. They will believe the women when the accusations are credible, as they are clearly in this case. So it is encouraging in that respect, certainly.

BLITZER: Take a look, David, I know you've studied it already, the new FOX poll in Alabama. Doug Jones, the Democrat, he's at 50 percent right now. Roy Moore, the Republican, 42 percent. Other, unsure, 9 percent. That's a significant lead for the Democrat. Would be extraordinary, the Democrat wins in a state like Alabama.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: That's not an error on your screen, folks. That's an eight-point lead for the Democrat in Alabama. That is a pretty stunning development, when FOX, the same pollster, looked at this race in October and polled there, it was a tied race. So it was already a competitive race.

What we're seeing now, where that new eight-point lead is coming from, is largely driven by women, Wolf. Not surprising, I would imagine, to most people.

Among women registered voters, Roy Moore's unfavorables have skyrocketed by 15 points. That's three times the pace of his unfavorables among men, which have gone up five points. So women are largely driving this, and Jones has a huge advantage with women in Alabama right now. That's -- that's the key to what's driving Jones' success here at the moment.

BLITZER: It's interesting, David, that the president still is avoiding talking about this, although his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, today she says the allegations are credible. They should be taken seriously. But she says it's up to the voters in Alabama to decide.

DAVID SWERDLICK, ASSISTANT EDITOR, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Yes, I think that the White House understands in this situation that if they try and just dismiss and wish away the allegations against Roy Moore, that will weaken President Trump's credibility on this issue. He already is not the ideal moral arbiter or neutral arbiter on this issue. Because he's been accused of sexual harassment by a number of individuals. There was also the "Access Hollywood" tape.

But at the same time, you know, I think they want to get that message out there. And in a way, maybe this is not the way they intended, Wolf, but there is a grain of truth, right, in this idea that look, ultimately this is not up to what Mitch McConnell says or what the president says. It's up to the voters of Alabama. It's a citizenship test. If they want to risk having someone who's alleged to be a serial teenager dater, then that is something that they're going to decide for themselves on December 12.

[18:40:12] BLITZER: Gloria, what do you make of the president's silence?

ALLRED: Well, look, I think the reasons are obvious, as David, you know, just stated. But the fact of the matter is that if Roy Moore were to get elected, he could go to the Senate, and there could be a move to unseat him, as we know. There would definitely be an Ethics Committee investigation. And as a result of that, he could potentially be expelled from the Senate anyway.

So there are -- you know, there are issues here that the voters are, obviously, going to have to think about, which is why it might have been a good idea for the president, had he been another president, to call Roy Moore and say at some point, "I think you need to consider stepping aside so perhaps we can figure out a way that we can win this race." He might still win.

By the way, people might be lying to pollsters. We know that happens all the time. We just -- you know, we don't know yet. But there are lots of ways that this could still play out.

BLITZER: General election is December 12.

Everybody stand by. There's more breaking news. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:46:13] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: We're back with our political team and the breaking news on the House vote for sweeping tax reform.

Gloria, so, it's passed its first hurdle in the House of Representatives. How do you see it playing out in the Senate?

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think it's -- I think it's going to be close. I think there are more hurdles there. Don't forget, the repeal of the health care mandate was not in the House version of the bill. It's in the Senate version of the bill, and that gives someone like Susan Collins a lot of trouble.

State and local taxes is going to give people some trouble, the deficit implications cause concern among other senators. So, there are lots of issues here that have to be -- that have to be played out. There is one big thing that is going for this bill right now and that is that Republicans know they have to get something done. They all want to get something done to bring home to the voters and say, yes, we are giving you the tax cuts that we promised we would give to you.

Now, Democrats would say, these aren't the tax cuts that they promised. In fact, you'll get a cut the first year, according to the joint committee on taxation, and then your taxes will go up in the out years and they will say that 13 million people will be left uninsured because the repeal of the Obamacare mandate. So, there's going to be arguments on both sides but at this point, they really know this is an opportunity to take something home to the voters that they told them they would do.

BLITZER: Rebecca, which senators are you watching?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, Gloria mentioned Susan Collins. Of course, when you're adding the individual mandate to this puzzle, that's going to be a senator to watch. Of course, there is talk that there should be a deal on CSR payments to trying to bring her in to the fold on this, reassure her on the individual mandate and then the individual mandate is going to potentially be in there in the Senate to craft a compromise for senators looking for more money for the child tax credit, for example. Marco Rubio and Mike Lee are on the state and local tax deductions side. You have senators from these bigger states that pay more in state and local taxes, who want reassurances that their taxpayers are not going to be paying more money when those deductions go away or lessen.

So, those are going to be the key senators. Of course, Ron Johnson has already said he's a no for now on small businesses, but he could move to a yes. The key, as Gloria said, these senators do want to get these done and actually there's been much less drama than on health care. There's a good chance they could compromise.

BLITZER: Republicans only have a 52-48 majority. They can lose two, it would be 50-50, the vice president would make -- if they lose three, like it was with repeal and replace Obamacare, it's over, right?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: That's right. And don't forget, when we did the health care map, Ron Johnson also was out sort of early expressing reservations but then came on board to a yes. So, we may see some of the senators who are expressing reservations actually get to a yes. Clearly, the Senate Republican leadership thinks they are on the path to passing this.

You know, one of the other ways that -- and it is true what Rebecca and Gloria are saying, Republicans see it as an existential threat in 2018 if they can't go back to the voters and say they deliver on this. But one of the ways that Republicans are framing today off of the House victory is what they're delivering on is, you voters voted for change. We are now delivering on that change here are new tax cuts for you. Democrats want to protect the status quo.

That's going to be part of the 2018 messaging.

BLITZER: This is by no mean a done deal.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It's not a done deal, but as everyone else is saying, right, the key for Republicans is not to lose any more ground. They don't have a margin for error.

I think part of the problem here is that as we get closer to the vote and it becomes clear that they are going to have to reconcile the House bill with the Senate bill in the fine details is where we're going to see if senators like Senator Collins, Senator Johnson, Senator --

BLITZER: McCain.

SWERDLICK: -- Senator McCain, among others, are going to stick with Republicans on this.

[18:50:04] There's a lot of question.

BLITZER: Lots of uncertainty.

All right. Guys, stand by. Much more news coming up right after this.

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[18:55:04] BLITZER: Tonight, Senator John McCain is warning about questionable management practices at the State Department that are diminishing American diplomacy around the world. McCain joining with Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, urging Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to rethink a hiring freeze and other policies.

Let's bring in our CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott, and Nancy McEldowney, a long time foreign service officer who resigned from the State Department back in June.

Elise, first of all, tell us about your reporting, what, specifically, is causing alarm over at the State Department?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this has been brewing for a long time. There's been long standing concern about this hiring freeze that Secretary Tillerson instituted as part of his redesign of the State Department. They have been ordered to make cuts to staff employees.

And I think this is all brought to the surface by a letter by the president of the American Foreign Service Association which warned that the career diplomats, the very senior career members of the foreign service are leaving in droves. This -- you know, the senators are warning they are undermining American diplomacy.

And it's not just Senator McCain. You have Bob Corker, other people that have really been Tillerson allies warning that this paints a very disturbing picture. And I think, you know, the numbers, Wolf, don't necessarily signify a mass exodus, but it's fair to say that moral at the State Department has been at an all-time low.

There's a feeling that Secretary Tillerson is very insular, a lot of distrust of the State Department. There are people serving in top advisory positions, but there's kind of this widespread feeling that he doesn't appreciate value, their expertise and these senior members of the career service are saying, listen, I'm not getting these signals that I should be leaving because there's no upward mobility for me.

BLITZER: You know, Nancy, you worked at the State Department, what, for three decades. You saw a lot of saw changes under Secretary of State Tillerson before you left. So, from your assessment, your experience, what's the impact on State Department on American diplomatic efforts?

NANCY MCELDOWNEY, FORMER FOREIGN SERVICE OFFICER: I think it's clear that what's happening now is a hollowing out of the Department of State. And it's not just the numbers of senior officers who are leaving. It's the freeze on intake. The fact that vacancies cannot be filled. We have hundreds of jobs that have no one in them. No one doing the work that needs to happen.

This is a time when crisis around the world are mounting. We have more and more dangers, more threats against our country, and we need our diplomats out there helping us to deal with those threats. It's important to remember that America's diplomats are the first line of defense for our country. They work in every country around the world, and they are the ones who detect and diffuse the looming problems.

Remember when Mattis said that if you don't fund the State Department, he needs to buy more bullets. And that's exactly what he's talking about. We need diplomacy in order to keep America safe.

BLITZER: How much of this do you think is the decision made by President Trump. How much of it do you think is a decision made by Secretary Tillerson? There were a lot of questions about his qualifications for the job to begin with.

MCELDOWNEY: I think it's unfortunately a toxic mix of both. And we have both ignorance and arrogance that's at work. Ignorance of what it really takes to do diplomacy. The fact that we need people who are expert in different regions around the world, who speak the languages, who have spent years training to do this work. But there's also an extreme level of arrogance. President Trump recently commented on all the vacancies and he said

he's the only one that matters. Beyond the egotism and narcissism, it reveals an incredible ignorance about how our democratic system works and the need for processes that have integrity and fidelity at every level throughout our government.

BLITZER: What are your fears, long-term fears, Nancy, if this trend continues?

MCELDOWNEY: I believe that our country is being weakened by us not having the diplomatic capability that we need, the incidents, military conflict is going to go up. And President Trump talks about putting America first, but this is actually a policy of retreat from the world. I fear, if it's not reversed, it's going to hurt our country and make us weaker.

BLITZER: All right. Lots of important issues to worry about right now and this is one of them.

Thanks so much, Nancy McEldowney.

MCELDOWNEY: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Elise Labott, for those reports.

That's it for me. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.