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Interview With California Congressman John Garamendi; Search for Soldiers Continues; President Trump Backing Roy Moore for Senate; Conway Faces Ethics Complaint For Comments on Senate Race. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 22, 2017 - 18:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: tweet revenge. President Trump unleashes an online storm with a new attack on the NFL and assailing the father of the UCLA basketball player released by China. Will the president get the gratitude that he's demanding?

Fixing background checks. The Justice Department orders a review of the database that houses the country's gun background checks following a mass shooting by an ex-convict who should not have been allowed to buy his weapon. Why did the system fail?

Search and rescue -- a desperate effort to find survivors from a U.S. Navy plane that went down off the coast of Japan. It's the latest in a series of serious and deadly accidents plaguing the Navy. Are America's ships and aircraft in the region prepared to face the North Korean threat?

And ethical challenge. A top Trump aide is accused of breaking rules that bar White House workers from taking part in political campaigns while on the job. Did Kellyanne Conway's comments about the Alabama Senate race violate the Hatch Act?

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Sciutto, and you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

While many Americans are talking turkey on this Thanksgiving eve, President Trump is turning to Twitter to vent his anger and his outrage.

In a series of tweets from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the president lashed out at LaVar Ball, the father of a UCLA basketball player who was detained for shoplifting in China.

Mr. Trump is apparently incensed by Ball's failure to thank the president for his role in his son's release, calling him -- quote -- "an ungrateful fool" and a "poor man's version of Don King, but without the hair."

There's also breaking news coming in. CNN has learned the ATF and the FBI are being ordered by the Justice Department to carry out a comprehensive review of the national database that houses gun background checks.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions says it's in response to the church massacre in Sutherland Springs, Texas. It was carried out by a former Air Force serviceman whose conviction for domestic abuse was not properly reported, making it possible for him to buy the gun that he used in that shooting.

And White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is facing an ethics complaint tonight. She's accused by the former director of the Office of Government Ethics of violating the Hatch Act, which bars most White House workers from actively taking part in political campaigns while on the job.

During a TV news interview, Conway said that Senate candidate Roy Moore's Democratic rival wants to raise taxes and is weak on crime and borders.

We're covering all of that and more this hour with our guests, including Congressman John Garamendi of the Armed Services Committee. Our correspondents and specialists also standing by tonight.

Let's begin, though, with the president's Thanksgiving eve Twitter tirade.

CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny is in Florida with the president.

Jeff, we have seen tweetstorms like these from Mr. Trump before when he's visited his Mar-a-Lago report, but this one this morning particularly angry.


And it's dinner hour now at Mar-a-Lago, but this Twitter storm started early today, in fact, before sunrise, with the president setting the tone for the day here, reviving many old grievances here on Twitter.

In a series -- in a week of thankfulness, when presidents often have given thanks, this morning, the president did anything but.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump back at Mar-a-Lago for the first time since April, his Thanksgiving break opening another season at his private club in Palm Beach, even though he went to great lengths to insist he's not on vacation.

"We will be having meetings and working the phones from the winter White House in Florida," the president tweeted just after sunrise. But as Republicans measured fallout from his embrace of controversial Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, the president hit the links today following an early morning burst of tweets starting at 5:25 a.m.

He added new fuel to the fight with LaVar Ball, the father of one of the UCLA basketball players jailed in China after allegedly stealing sunglasses.

Ball blasted Trump earlier this week to CNN's Chris Cuomo.

LAVAR BALL, FATHER: Tell Donald Trump to have a great Thanksgiving.

ZELENY: The president still fuming over not getting credit for securing their release. "It wasn't the White House, it wasn't the State Department, it wasn't father LaVar's so-called people on the ground in China that got his son out of a long-term prison sentence. It was me. Too bad. LaVar is just a poor man's version of Don King, but without the hair."

The president went on to call him "an ungrateful fool."

In a season of thankfulness, it was a blistering response to Ball's refusal to say the words thank you to President Trump.

BALL: If I was going to thank somebody, I would probably thank President Xi.

ZELENY: The president didn't stop there, also reviving his beef with the NFL. "The NFL is now thinking about a new idea, keeping teams in the locker room during the national anthem next season. That's almost as bad as kneeling."


The tweetstorm didn't stop until the president arrived at Trump International Golf Course.


ZELENY: The messages may have been an attempt to change the subject from his remarks Tuesday at the White House.

TRUMP: Let me just tell you, Roy Moore denies it. That's all I can say. He denies it. And, by the way, he totally denies it.

ZELENY: Even as a majority of Americans say Moore shouldn't serve.

Tonight, a Quinnipiac new poll shows 60 percent of American voters say if Moore is elected, the Senate should vote to expel to him; 28 percent do not.

But in Alabama, Moore's campaign touted the move, sending a copy of Mr. Trump's kind words to supporters.

Florida Congressman Francis Rooney told CNN's Jim Sciutto he was among the Republicans who would not be following the president's lead and backing Roy Moore.

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R), FLORIDA: Well, it's up to the president to decide what he wants to do. But I would have rather just seen no support for Roy Moore myself.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZELENY: Now, as for the president's meetings and phone calls, White House aides here in Florida did not respond to our request for comments who the president called or who he met with.

We do know that he spent about five hours or so at the Trump International Golf Course.

Now, all of this is routine. We have covered several presidents for several administrations. They do indeed take vacation the day before Thanksgiving.

But President Trump does not want to ever acknowledge he in fact is on vacation. Now, as for the Roy Moore situation, we learned late today the RNC, the Republican National Committee, and the Republican Senatorial Committee that oversee all these races, they are not changing their stance on putting money back into the race.

Last week, they decided to pull money from the Alabama Senate race. And I'm told today by officials there they're not going to revisit that decision, despite the president's tight embrace of Roy Moore -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Jeff Zeleny traveling with the president in Florida, thanks very much.

Tonight, the longest serving member of the House of Representatives is facing a call to step down from his post as the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and other calls to resign from Congress as a whole.

John Conyers of Michigan now the subject of an ethics investigation after allegations of sexual harassment.

CNN congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty is here with more.

So, Sunlen, Conyers says he's done nothing wrong, but he does admit to paying this settlement to at least one accuser.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. He does. And he's certainly facing some new pressure tonight, Jim, and that is coming from members of his own party.

Just in the last few hours, Congresswoman Kathleen Rice becoming the very first to call for his resignation.

She says tonight in a statement -- quote -- "Representative John Conyers should resign. I have reviewed the allegations against him, and they are as credible as they are repulsive. Whether it happened 40 years ago or last week, settlement or no settlement, Democrat or Republican, harassment is harassment, assault is assault. We all know credible allegations when we hear them, and the same is true of hypocrisy."

And add to that earlier today we also heard from Congressman Meeks, another fellow Democrat, calling for Conyers to give up his post on the Judiciary Committee. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. GREGORY MEEKS (D), NEW YORK: I really think that probably the appropriate thing right now is he should step down as the ranking member of the Judiciary Committee and be subject to this ethics investigation, so it can be determined whether or not there's a practice or pattern.

And then appropriate considerations should be made at that time, as soon as the Ethics Committee finishes its review.


SERFATY: Meantime, also significant, "The Detroit Free Press" editorial page today calling for him to resign. That's his hometown newspaper, not wanting -- waiting for the results of the ethics investigation.

They say -- quote -- "John Conyers Jr. must go. After 53 years in Congress, after a stellar career of fighting for equality, after contributing so much to Southeast Michigan and the nation, it's a tragic end to his public career, but it's the appropriate consequence for the stunning subterfuge his office has indulged here and a needed warning to other members of Congress that this can never be tolerated."

And in that editorial, they specifically mention the payment that he admitted to making to the accuser which came out of, significantly, his budget out of his office. That's outside the way this is typically paid out, out of the settlement fund set up within the Treasury Department.

And they say, as you ask, Jim, in this editorial, they allude to that they believe that was intended to bury the story.

SCIUTTO: There's another congressman, a Republican, Joe Barton. He is apologizing over a lewd photo that got out there.

SERFATY: That's right. He is apologizing.

And this all stems from an anonymous tweet which showed that a nude photo the user claimed online was of Congressman Barton. Now, Barton is apologizing tonight.

He says in a statement -- quote -- "While separated from my second wife prior to divorce, I had sexual relationships with other mature adult women. Each was consensual. Those relationships have ended. I am sorry that I did not use better judgment during those days. I am sorry that I let my constituents down."


And just to emphasize here, there's no allegations of sexual harassment here, but certainly very embarrassing for a sitting member of Congress to have these photos out there.

SCIUTTO: Sunlen Serfaty, thanks very much.

There is breaking news tonight. CNN has learned that Attorney General Jeff Sessions is ordering the ATF and the FBI to do a comprehensive review of the national database that houses gun background checks.

CNN justice reporter Laura Jarrett, she's been working that story for us. Laura, this in response to the church shooting in Texas that left more than two dozen people dead because he had crimes that were not properly entered into the database.


Attorney General Jeff Sessions is taking the first step today to ensure those with violent criminal records no longer fall through the cracks when it comes to buying a gun, calling the breakdowns in the system today alarming and unacceptable.

Sessions specifically directs the head of the FBI and the ATF to work with the Defense Department to make sure all convictions are now properly entered into what's called the National Instant Criminal Background System, otherwise known as NICS.

Now, as you mentioned, the timing here is no coincidence as that mass shooting of churchgoers in Texas earlier this month showed how someone with a criminal record of domestic abuse was still able to buy a gun because the Air Force failed to enter his information in the federal database.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also taken note of the problems and the breakdowns in the system here. And last week, a bipartisan group of senators announced a bill to ensure that states and federal authorities all upload the required information to the database from now on, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Well, you would think that would be a no-brainer.

Laura Jarrett, thanks very much.

JARRETT: Thanks.

SCIUTTO: Let's get more on all this with Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California. He's a member of the Armed Services Committee.

Congressman Garamendi, thanks for taking the time during this holiday week. It's good to have you on.

REP. JOHN GARAMENDI (D), CALIFORNIA: It's good to be with you, Jim. And what a week it's been.

SCIUTTO: No question.

You just heard Laura Jarrett's reporting there, decision by Attorney General Sessions, not a new law, really reviewing an existing database that should have worked in advance of the shooting here. But do you see this as a substantive review that could save lives?

GARAMENDI: Well, the review is very, very necessary, although I'm not sure I trust Sessions. I'm thinking he may want to take a whole lot of people off the database, as well as make sure those -- some people get on the database.

We know that there is clearly a problem with the military. They simply, over the last decade, maybe almost more than that, have not provided information into that database when appropriate.

The kind of thing that we saw in Texas is terrible, but, nonetheless, most -- well, all of the military failed to do their duty to put those names of people that -- domestic violence, other crimes into the database.

That's been subject in our hearings, and we need to make sure that the military does its duty here and carries out this particular responsibility.

SCIUTTO: Before the Texas shooting, of course, we had that horrific shooting in Las Vegas, more than 50 killed there. There was a lot of talk about bump stocks after that, even from Republican lawmakers, but that seems to have died on the vine.

Is there still any talk about banning bump stocks, which basically turn semiautomatic weapons in to automatic weapons?

GARAMENDI: I'm afraid not.

It's a tragic situation. We stand up, we hear a moment of silence, prayer, almost every week now, and yet the legislation that could help, the bump stocks, other kind of legislation to get these very, very dangerous guns out of the public hands just doesn't happen.

There's been no legislation at all. Even do not apply, cannot buy, even that didn't pass the Congress. And it's a terrible situation. The Republicans refuse to allow any gun safety legislation to come to the floor for a vote.

SCIUTTO: The one you referenced there, in case viewers didn't recognize it, is for people on the no-fly list for terror danger not being able to buy a weapon.


SCIUTTO: I want to turn, if I can, to the president's tweets this morning.

I'm sure you're aware of them right now, but calling LaVar Ball an ungrateful fool, calling him a poor man's Don King without the hair.

As you read a tweet like this, do you see dog whistling here?

GARAMENDI: Absolutely. There is no doubt. He's been going after African-Americans in many, many ways, and

minorities generally. In fact, he started his campaign for president going after minorities, in that case, Mexican nationals here in the United States, as well as Mexican -- people of Mexican origin that have been here forever.


Took on a federal judge. It goes on and on, one minority after another. And right now, he's focusing on the African-Americans, obviously, the football players who are protesting by not standing for the national anthem.

Protest is a tradition in America, but yet the president seems to be focused basically now on African-Americans, previously on others.

SCIUTTO: Turning to another topic, we're learning more about the allegations against your fellow Congressman Conyers.

Do you believe that, based on what you know now, that he should resign, not only his position as ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, but do you think he should resign from his seat from Congress?

GARAMENDI: Well, I really don't know.

I have been on the outside of the information. We're going to be back in session Tuesday of next week. And all of this information should be made available to us, should be full transparency of every allegation, every charge that has been made.

And let's take a look at it very carefully at that point. I don't know all of the details. I do know John Conyers. He is -- I'm frankly very, very surprised to hear all of this. But after 53 years in Congress, this is a terrible tragedy for him and, certainly, even more so for those people that were affected by his actions.

SCIUTTO: You are aware of the attention yesterday to President Trump as to whether he believes the allegations against Roy Moore, the Senate candidate in Alabama. In this case, do you believe the allegations against Congressman Conyers, the women's allegations against him?

GARAMENDI: Well, I think in every case we must give credit to these allegations, wherever they may arise. In the case of President Trump, the allegations against him, yes, I do give those credit -- give credibility to those.

To Moore, yes.

The accusers, we should always give them the benefit of the doubt, put the facts on the table, have a discussion or, in the case of an ethics investigation, and see what is truthful, what is not.

But always, always, we must start with the basic assumption that the allegations are correct. You simply can't wave them aside. Furthermore, we have to be held accountable. We're 435 members of Congress, 100 senators and a president.

We have a very, very unique and special obligation to be ethical and to have high ethical standards, to speak the truth, and to engage in ethical behavior in every way.

Unfortunately, we have a president that wakes up at 5:30 in the morning and blasts a fellow who's talking about protecting his son. You go, what in the world is this president doing? If he's angry, wow. But that's a responsibility that he has to raise the level of his...


SCIUTTO: Of discourse, sure.

GARAMENDI: Raise the level discourse, absolutely. Thank you for that word.

SCIUTTO: I do -- I hear you on that.

I had your Democratic colleague Debbie Dingell on a short time ago. And she herself has spoken on our air about being the victim, being the target of sexual harassment during her career.


SCIUTTO: But she also raised her own concern about due process, about the possibility of false allegations or giving a chance at least for the accused to respond.

And I wonder, it seems like both parties are struggling with this question. I wonder if you have similar concerns.

GARAMENDI: Well, I do.

And I think Representative Dingell is correct. We should give credibility to the accusations. That's the starting point. And we have to have a process that is open, transparent. And if the accusations in that process, in this case the Ethics Committee, dealing with it diligently and quickly, getting the information out there, not hiding anything.

And if at the end of that investigation, the answer is, yes, somebody misbehaved, then what is the appropriate -- where do you go from there?

First of all, I don't think you ought to use taxpayer money to settle these claims. It ought to come out of the pockets of the -- and if it's a representative, out of the pockets of a representative. If it's a chief of staff or someone else in the office, they ought to be held accountable in the same way.

Taxpayer money shouldn't be used. But the issue needs to be, first of all, credibility given to the accusation and a process immediately under way. Certainly, Mr. Conyers, when we return next week, lay it out, put it out on the table. What did take place? What is the accusations?

And if they are credible and if they're substantial, as they appear to be, then what is the appropriate action?


And I'm quite sure that Mr. Conyers will do whatever is appropriate at that point.


Congressman, please stay with us. We have new information coming in.


SCIUTTO: We're going to get right back to you right after this break.


SCIUTTO: We are back with Democratic Congressman John Garamendi of California, a member of the Armed Services Committee.

We will talk with him about that crash of a U.S. Navy yet off the coast of Japan.

First, let's get the latest from CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, we know that eight people were rescued, but still three sailors missing tonight.



Three American military families waiting desperately for word of their loved ones.


STARR (voice-over): The aircraft crashed into the Pacific carrying 11 Navy personnel. It was flying from an air station in Japan out to the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan 500 miles off the coast of Okinawa.

RICHARD SPENCER, U.S. NAVY SECRETARY: I would like everyone to take a moment and keep some of our Navy family and friends and loved ones in their thoughts and prayers.

STARR: Eight people were initially rescued by Navy helicopters, taken to the Reagan and said to be in good condition. Search-and-rescue for the missing three personnel by U.S. and Japanese forces is ongoing.

The C-2 Greyhound is a decades old, but reliable workhorse of the carrier fleet, flying people on and off carrier decks, landing on the deck just like fighter jets. STEVE WARREN, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: The fact that eight personnel

were able to survive this incident tells us that there was probably a very skilled pilot at the stick who was able in some way to bring this aircraft down to the sea in such a way that the plane didn't break up.

STARR: It's been a difficult and deadly year for the Navy's 7th Fleet, which oversees maritime operations in the Pacific and is on the front lines of deterrence against North Korea, 17 U.S. sailors killed in two collisions, the USS John S. McCain and USS Fitzgerald each colliding with commercial ships.

A total of five ship accidents throughout the year. The fleet commander relieved of duty, along with eight others. Three of the crashes were deemed preventable by the Navy, a result of widespread failures and mistakes.

Together, the incidents serious enough, the chief of naval operations ordered a worldwide review of ships and staffing. But the Pentagon insists its ships and aircraft in the region are ready to go in the face of an always dangerous North Korean threat.

WARREN: The North Koreans would be very ill advised to try us immediately following some sort of an incident like this. Any military force can always improve their readiness, but let there be no mistake, the American Navy is the most ready, the most capable, the most lethal navy on the planet Earth today.


STARR: The Pentagon insists the Navy is ready to face any threats that are out there, but there is a lot of concern that this is a force that is stretched thin -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon with the latest there.

Now back with Congressman John Garamendi.

Congressman, you're on the Armed Services Committee. Have you learned in the investigation so far what's behind the series of deadly accidents?

GARAMENDI: Well, I think it's been said already here.

And that is, there is a period of time in which the Naval officers didn't cause there to be sufficient training and awareness on the Naval ships. Just that was the initial, and that seems to be the bottom line of this.

I think there's also another issue that many of us are concerned about. And that is cyber-security. It seems strange to most of us that -- or to many of us that five ships were in the wrong place, were not going where they were supposed to have been going, unaware of what was going on around them.

All of that raises the question about cyber-security, although the investigation at this point does not tend to go in that direction, but rather to readiness, training and awareness on the ships themselves.


SCIUTTO: Of course, the bulk of these forces out there, Congressman, responding -- a show of force in response to the threat from North Korea.

I have to wonder, do these failures put the U.S. at a disadvantage as it faces that threat?

GARAMENDI: No, not at all.

What it does show is that we have a lot of ships in that area. We have three aircraft carriers, unusual, but, nonetheless, aircraft carriers, in the vicinity of the Korean Peninsula.

And that's a show of force that is awesome, to say the least. At the same time, accidents do happen. These are dangerous circumstances. Landing on a carrier is not easy. The airplanes -- I -- we have no idea what caused this particular crash or failure, but we will find out as time goes on.

But my heart and my thoughts go out to -- really, what we have been talking about in this interview is that all this craziness about harassment and all of that is going on at the same time we have these servicemen out there protecting our country, showing the flag, doing what they're supposed to do in situations in which they die.

SCIUTTO: And the president gets up this morning and takes on some father who's trying to talk about his son. You go, "Mr. President, you're the commander in chief. Would you please, please, grow up? Stop this kind of absolute foolishness, because you bring all of us down. You bring our country down."

[18:30:20] But, you know, Thanksgiving is coming up, and I don't know. If I sound frustrated, I am. I am concerned. I'm very concerned about what's going on here. I've got five daughters, and I'm concerned about where they are. I was talking to my granddaughter earlier as we were out feeding the cattle. And I told her, I said, "I want you to be strong. I want your voice to be strong. I want you to stand up for yourself. And don't you ever, ever let anybody put you down along the way in any way."


GARAMENDI: And, you know, so we've got responsibilities as parents.

SCIUTTO: Well, I'll tell you...

GARAMENDI: And it is Thanksgiving tomorrow. And I just hope we can put all this aside, at least for a few hours.

SCIUTTO: I tell you, as a father, as well. I share your concerns. Wishing you and your family a happy Thanksgiving, Congressman. Thanks very much for taking the time.

GARAMENDI: And yours, too. And thank you.

SCIUTTO: Just ahead, did White House counselor Kellyanne Conway violate the law by publicly taking sides in the Alabama Senate race? Former ethics officials say that is a fireable offense.


[18:35:57] SCIUTTO: More now on President Trump's Thanksgiving eve Twitter tirade. Let's discuss that with our specialists and analysts.

Rebecca, if I could begin with you, because some of the lines from the president in his tweet about LaVar really just deserve repeating. He called him a poor man's version of Don King. He called him an ungrateful fool. I wonder if you see dog whistling in the language here?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Certainly, that could be one interpretation. And the president, by tweeting this, leaves it open for people to make that interpretation.

And look, I mean, the fundamental problem, the obvious problem here, is that the president is feeding into a perception that we see over and over again in public polling, that he acts unpresidential. It's something that disturbs even some of his supporters, who wish he would tone down his Twitter rhetoric.

And also focus on the issues that they believe a president should focus on, certainly that Republicans wish he would focus on, like tax reform. A major piece of legislation that is working its way through Congress that is going to need the president and the White House's full attention moving forward in these next couple of weeks.

SCIUTTO: Beyond the pattern of target of African-Americans is "it was me." He even had that in all caps in his tweet. "I'm the one who got this guy free," this kind of desperate need, it seems, for public adulation or gratitude.

JOSHUA GREEN, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, "BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK": Yes, exactly. And I think that that is what sparked this latest conflagration, was that within, I think it was within 24 hours of getting the ball players released, Trump was complaining on Twitter that he wasn't being effusively praised by the players and by their family.

I think what's interesting and different about this tweet than other ones is that, in going after LaVar Ball, the father, he's gone after someone every bit as eager to do silly things on social media and fan the flames of controversy as Trump himself is, as we saw from the reaction today. So there's no sign that this is going to be slowing down the social media feud any time soon.

SCIUTTO: Sunlen, you've been covering the sexual harassment stories on Capitol Hill in depth. And the remarkable statement from the Democratic Congresswoman Kathleen Rice, because she, regarding John Conyers, one of several lawmakers now accused of sexual assault or harassment or something in that category. She's saying resign not just resign from his position on the committee. She's saying resign from Congress, full stop.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right. And she's the only voice at this point to call for his full resignation from Congress. So her statement just in the last few hours this afternoon, is significant in and of itself.

We've seen other members come closer. Congressman Meeks earlier today said he should step aside from Judiciary, but there were caveats: until the ethics investigation wraps up. And I do think, in this cultural moment that we're talking about all of these allegations of sexual misconduct, not only on Capitol Hill but everywhere, it shows, especially in the climate on Capitol Hill, that you need a real avalanche of accusations to come out against you before you have people calling for your resignation. It might not have been this way just a few years ago.

SCIUTTO: Right. Well, and you see the speed with which these kinds of issues are handled in the private sector. I mean, lightning speed, right, with the Charlie Rose, for instance. "The Washington Post" story was -- was it Monday? And then within 24 hours, he's out, gone. Multiple contracts.

GREEN: The other thing you have with Congress, though, is you have a mechanism built and designed to protect incumbents, to make it hard to force them out of their jobs. And we saw pretty quickly with Al Franken that there is a ritual the Democrats and Republicans came up with, to say, "We're going to refer them to the Ethics Committee," which is essentially a black box. But it's a way -- it's almost a breaker that kind of stops that -- that cavalcade of public calls to step down and at least gives these guys a few more days -- we'll see -- to try and plead their case.

SCIUTTO: Phil Mudd, in other news just in the last hour, the Justice Department announcing a review of the background check system. This coming out of a shooting in Texas and that you had a serviceman, a member of the Air Force, who had a domestic violence issue that should have been reported from the military to that system and yet, it was not; and yet, he was able to buy this gun.

How important could this review be?

[18:40:00] PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Look, the attorney general has got to do this. If you have an FBI officer killed in the line of duty, you've got to look at that and say, "What do we do better?" If you have a mistake of this significance, somebody who was convicted of assault against a woman and child, who was discharged from the military. This is important. I believe it will save lives, but let me step back for a moment.

If you're the attorney general, the FBI director and you see an incident like this, you have no alternative but to step back and say, "We've got to review the procedures where someone mis-entered data or failed to enter data and say how do we do better," because we cannot afford to have this happen again. I think it will save lives, but the attorney general has got to do it.

SCIUTTO: No question. It seems almost a no-brainer.

Stay there with us. We've got a lot more. We have more information coming in, as well. We'll be right back after this break.


[18:45:43] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Tonight, the White House is pushing back on a senator's claim that a top White House advisor faked a bad phone connection to get President Trump off the phone.

Back with the panel now.

This is Democratic Senator Tom Carper. This was on CNN earlier today. He shared this anecdote about a tax reform phone call with the president and White House official Gary Cohn trying to get out of it. Have a listen.


SEN. TOM CARPER (D), DELAWARE: About 30 minutes into the call, Gary gets up and takes a call in his cellphone, comes back into the room and he said, we have somebody calling in from Asia, it was the president, which was nice. It was nice for him to do that.

Fifteen minutes later the president is still talking. I said to Gary, there's a room where we're all sitting around this big square table. I said, Gary, why don't you do this? Why not just take the phone from -- your cell phone back and say, Mr. President, you're brilliant but we're losing contact and I think we're going to lose you now. So, goodbye.

And that's what he did and he hung up, and then we went back to having the kind of conversation that we needed to.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: Are you saying Gary Cohn faked a bad connection to get the president off the phone?

CARPER: Well, I wouldn't -- I don't want to throw him under the bus, but yes.


SCIUTTO: I don't want to throw him under the bus, but yes, confirming that. Now, earlier today, I did speak with Senator Chris Coons, Democratic senator, who was also in the room for that conversation, here's his telling.


SEN. CHRIS COONS (D), DELAWARE: Well, I remember it a little differently. It was a long call. It was clear that there was some eagerness in the room for us to resume our conversation. We heard a lot from the president. I do remember Senator Carper making that suggestion.

I don't think Gary Cohn bankrupt abruptly hung up on the president, but it was a challenge to transition him off the call and I think Gary Cohn handled it appropriately.


SCIUTTO: Got to enter that to the lexicon hall of fame, challenge to transition him off the call.

But, Joshua, it's a funny story, revealing story.

JOSHUA GREEN, NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT, BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK: I mean, it is. I mean, they're speaking about the president the way you would speak about a babbling toddler, trying to get him to stop talking. I mean, shocking on one sense. On the other hand, if you talk to people who have spent time, legislators, with Trump, in the White House, trying to talk about policy, there's a larger truth here I think which is that Trump, according to the legislators I've spoken to, often is not familiar with the policy details of whatever is being discussed. And the context of Senator Carper's interview there was they were actually making progress, talking about tax reform, with Republicans, Trump's call interrupted that and essentially apparently he had nothing useful to contribute and they want to shoo him away and get back to the business of legislating.

SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And there reminds me something that Speaker Ryan said just a few weeks ago, they were working on tax reform, and asked him, you know, the goal of pushing it through the House. And he joked, well, the president is over in Asia, and this under current of a lot of what goes on in Capitol Hill, that things are easier if the president is not specifically involved in the day-to-day negotiations. They don't want him to blow it up day-to- day.


SCIUTTO: On another topic, Rebecca, Senator Lisa Murkowski, one of the key group of about half a dozen Republican senators essential to the a passage of this tax reform bill, she says -- she hasn't made up her mind on the bigger bill, but the issue of the Obamacare mandate, she's willing to vote for it if that's included in there. How big a step forward is that?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, it's important development because there was a question of -- by including the individual mandate as part of this bill, would some of the senators who voted against the larger health care legislation earlier this year decide, well, that's going to be a nonstarter for us. Lisa Murkowski is a good signal that some of the other senators who voted against that legislation, Susan Collins, John McCain, could also find that this is acceptable to them and then look at the tax reform bill on its other merits or non-merits.

So, it's a good sign for Republicans.

SCIUTTO: Meanwhile this happening as the signups for Obamacare are up 42 percent over the last year, not collapsing, as the president said.

Phil Mudd, I want to go to you. My ears actually perked up when I was speaking to Congressman John Garamendi just a few minutes ago about this Navy crash today and then the other Navy collisions we've seen over the course of the last several months. He said that cyber was at least as subject -- cyber interference, cyber attacks at least a possible explanation or subject of the investigation. That would be remarkable, would it not?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: It would be. I would be careful. You've got to look at some lanes here. Let's keep our lanes clear.

[18:50:00] The first after-action is to ensure you take care of the people who survive and make sure you're looking for the people who didn't.

The second question is the difference between -- we've seen a lot of naval accidents recently. The difference between training readiness, policy, procedure. Did something happen in those ship accidents we've seen recently that could be improved versus accidents?

In this case, you're talking about millions of people around the world involved in diplomatic military intelligence operations. And aircraft goes down, are we sure we have something that suggests that there was a cyber intrusion, there was a policy problem, there was a procedural problem, there was a training problem, versus did we have an accident that happens when you have millions of people operating around the world every day?

I think in this case, you might see an accident. I wouldn't rush to conclusion here.

SCIUTTO: Right. It doesn't appear that anybody is. The Navy certainly is still investigating.

MUDD: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Thanks very much to all of you. Happy Thanksgiving to all of you. I hope you have tomorrow off.

Coming up, just ahead, details of an ethics complaints filed against a top presidential aide, Kellyanne Conway. Did her comments about the Alabama Senate race violate the Hatch Act?


[18:56:05] SCIUTTO: Tonight, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is facing an ethics complaint filed by the former director of the Office of Government Ethics. He says that her comments during a TV news interview disparaging Senate candidate Roy Moore's Democratic rival violated rules known as the Hatch Act. They bar most White House workers from actively taking part in political campaigns while on the job.

Let's get more with CNN commentator Norm Eisen. He was ethics chief in the Obama White House and now with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, also a senior fellow at Brookings Institution.

So, first, for reference let's listen to those key comments from Kellyanne Conway and I want you to comment. Here they are.


KELLYANNE CONWAY, COUNSELOR TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Doug Jones in Alabama, folks, don't be fooled. He'll be a vote against tax cuts. He's weak on crime, weak on borders. He's strong on raising your taxes. He's terrible for property owners.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, vote Roy Moore?

CONWAY: He's a doctrinaire liberal, which is why he's not saying anything and why the media are trying to boost him.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, vote Roy Moore?

CONWAY: I'm telling you that we want the votes in the Senate to get this tax -- this tax bill through.


SCIUTTO: That sounded pretty political. That's against the law.

NORM EISEN, CNN COMMENTATOR: Jim, thanks for having me.

And I do believe it is against the law. The Hatch Act is designed to prevent our government officials from meddling in partisan politics while they're on the government dime and on government property. And what Kellyanne Conway did here, standing in front of the White House was weigh in to attack Doug Jones.

And you heard her talk to the voters of Alabama, Jim. Folks, she said. OK? This is not a close one and it's not her first offense.

SCIUTTO: And we -- just looking back, we looked back at previous administrations and Democrat and Republican White House officials have faced issues. Kathleen Sebelius, 2012 under Obama. Julian Castro under Obama. Nikki Haley, under the Trump administration, of course, and Ben Carson.

What is the typical penalty under the Hatch Act?

EISEN: Well, when it's a presidential appointee, the punishment is up to the president. But I can tell you that administrations of both parties previously have taken this very, very seriously. And if an Obama official had done this, particularly as a second offense, Kellyanne Conway was already sanctioned by the Office of Government Ethics for misusing her position.

SCIUTTO: So, that was selling in effect products or --

EISEN: She stood on camera in the White House and urged America to buy Ivanka Trump's products.


EISEN: So, when you have a second offense like this, I can tell you in the Obama White House and in the Bush White House because I discussed it with Bush's ethics czar, Richard Painter, this would have been very, very serious.

SCIUTTO: But -- so if Walter Shaub, who was considering -- files this complaint but if it's the president who has to issue the penalty, I mean, is anything really going to happen here? Is the president really going to penalize Kellyanne Conway?

EISEN: Well, Shaub has filed the complaint. Look, we all know that it is extremely unlikely that the president is going to penalize her. He's going to treat her the way he treated those two turkeys yesterday, Jim.

But that's not right, and there's a price for that. There's a reason this president has the lowest approval ratings of any modern president since polling began. The American people are sick of these shenanigans. They don't want to pay Kellyanne Conway to stand on the White House lawn and weigh in to partisan politics. It's wrong and that's where the sanction will be, from the public.

SCIUTTO: Norn Eisen, thanks very much, and a very happy Thanksgiving to you and your family.

EISEN: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: I'm Jim Sciutto. Thanks very much for watching. Happy Thanksgiving to you and your families as well.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" tonight with Poppy Harlow starts right now.