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Trump's Approval Sinking; Confusion and Contradictions with Trump's Legal Team; Feinstein Comments about Grassley; Ex-Trump Adviser Contradicts Herself; Trump Could Announce Embassy Move. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired December 5, 2017 - 14:00   ET

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


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[14:00:08] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Hi there. I'm Brianna Keilar, in for Brooke Baldwin.

And just in, new polls showing just how unpopular President Trump continues to be. Gallop's latest poll. It shows that his approval rating is at 35 percent. You have 60 percent of disapproval among all adults there.

And Quinnipiac University has his approval as well at 35 percent, 58 there -- 58 percent disapproving among registered voters.

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

So, Jim, not good numbers for the president as he's hoping for here not too long a big legislative victory. Is there any worry there at the White House that his poll numbers continue to be so low?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I think there is concern over here at the White House, Brianna, and that is why you see the Republicans up on Capitol Hill, you see people over here at the White House, including the president, trying very hard to get this tax cut plan passed before the end of the year so the president can sign it and then head off for the holidays.

Keep in mind, in this Quinnipiac poll, Brianna, that just came out, some pretty alarming numbers for the president and House and Senate Republicans. It says here 29 percent say they approve of the Republican tax plan. Twenty-nine percent. Fifty-three percent say they disapprove. Those are really bad numbers for a tax plan that they just rammed through the Senate in the middle of the night the other night.

And you heard the president just a little while ago, here meeting with some Republican senators, really singing the praises of this tax cut plan and declaring that there's Republican unity in the GOP like we haven't seen before. He was saying that right next to Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who, obviously, very famously in the last couple of months announced his serious concerns about President Trump's leadership.

And it was in that conversation here over here at the White House, Brianna, when the president once again endorsed Roy Moore for the Alabama Senate race, sitting right next to Jeff Flake. I was told by a spokesman for Jeff Flake that he still continues to opposes Roy Moore's candidacy for the Senate. And so there's anything but unity in the Republican Party right now and it -- according to this poll, some very big concerns about that tax cut plan that they're trying to get the president's desk.

Brianna.

KEILAR: All right, Jim Acosta, thank you for that from the White House for us.

ACOSTA: Sure.

KEILAR: I want to turn to the divide among the president's lawyers as the White House is about to hold its first press briefing since the guilty plea of Michael Flynn. Flynn is the first former Trump administration official to be charged and to cut a deal in the Russia investigation.

And as the president takes on questions that he may have obstructed justice to help Flynn, we're now seeing an apparent split in strategy between President Trump's legal team. White House Counsel Ty Cobb seen -- or -- seen on the right, is backing away from what the president's personal attorney has been asserting. John Dowd, there on the left, reportedly has said that a president cannot obstruct justice.

I want to go back now to Jim Acosta to talk about this.

What is Ty Cobb saying?

ACOSTA: Yes, and I just had a chance a few moments ago to catch up with Ty Cobb, Brianna. He did confirm to us that the White House is pursuing a legal strategy of what he called a fact-based defense, not this theoretical legal defense that the president cannot be held accountable or be found guilty of obstruction of justice. That is a concept that was floated out there by John Dowd, the president's outside attorney, as you know, yesterday to Axios. But we can put this up on screen. This is a statement from Ty Cobb to "The Washington Post." But he just confirmed it to me just a few moments ago.

It says, it's interesting, as a technical legal issue, talking about this theory from John Dowd that the president can't be held accountable for obstruction of justice. But the president's lawyers intend to present a fact based defense, not a mere legal defense. That should, going on here with this statement, resolve things. But we all shall see.

That's an interesting statement there from Ty Cobb because it does reveal sort of a split in the president's legal strategy at this point as to -- as to how to deal with this Russian investigation. Of course, yesterday, Brianna, as you know, when John Dowd's quote hit the headlines there via Axios, it struck a lot of people in Washington as sort of a president is above the law, the president is above the law type of legal defense, which, of course, is something that's been tried before and has not worked for other presidents in the past.

Brianna.

KEILAR: It's just stunning how publicly they are so not on the same page.

ACOSTA: Absolutely.

KEILAR: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House. Thank you for that as well.

And the president's legal team, not only division that we're seeing there. We're seeing division involving the Russia investigation. There's conflict now between the two leaders of a Senate panel probing Trump's campaign ties to Russia. I'm talking about Democrat Senator Dianne Feinstein and Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, who are the top members of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

[14:05:04] CNN's senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju is live for us on Capitol Hill.

So, Manu, what is Dianne Feinstein saying about Senator Grassley and is he responding?

MANU RAJU, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, she's raising some new concerns that Senator Grassley, in her view, is not willing to dig deep on the Russia meddling investigation. She has sent a number of letters to various people in the Trump universe, everybody from Roger Stone, to Carter Page, to the senior White House aide Rick Dearborn, asking them for records, documents and for interviews. And she's not done that with the support of her chairman, Chuck Grassley, who has not signed on to those letters. She told me yesterday she believes that there's a subtle effort not to dig deeply into this issue.

Now when I put this question to Chuck Grassley as well earlier today, Brianna, he pushed back. He said that is simply not the case. He also would not say whether or not he agreed with Dianne Feinstein about whether or not the committee is building an obstruction of justice case against President Trump. Here's what Grassley said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. CHUCK GRASSLEY (D), CHAIRMAN, JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: The bottom line really is that if people come up here as a result of her letters or my letters to be questioned, then her staff and my staff can sit in on each other's and ask questions. So at the level of actually asking questions, there's a great deal of cooperation.

RAJU: You're not stalling?

GRASSLEY: Well, you know, I'm not going to interpret anybody's -- how they feel about something.

RAJU: Do you think there is a case for obstruction? She said that on Sunday. Do you agree with that? A case for obstruction, sir?

(END VIDEO CLIP) RAJU: So he didn't want to answer that last question at that moment, but his spokesman, Brianna, later said, look, he does not want to prejudge the outcome of this investigation.

Brianna.

KEILAR: And, Manu, you also have reporting about K.T. McFarland, the former Trump administration official, who's now under scrutiny for her conflicting statements on what she knew about Michael Flynn's contact with the Russian ambassador. What did you learn?

RAJU: Yes, that's right. She had testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as part of her nomination to be the ambassador to Singapore. And when she was asked in written correspondence whether or not she knew about any conversations between Michael Flynn and the Russian ambassador at the time, Sergey Kislyak, she said she was not aware of that.

Well, it turns out that the court filings unsealed on Friday from Special Counsel Robert Mueller show that a senior transition official did have conversations with Michael Flynn about Sergey Kislyak and the issue of Russian sanctions. And that we've learned that that senior official was K.T. McFarland.

Now, I had asked Senator Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, what this does for her nomination. Here's what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), CHAIRMAN, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: If she did testify inappropriately, obviously that's a big, big problem. I just don't know.

But, look, it's a problem. And her nomination is frozen for a while until that gets worked out. And, you know, she knows -- she has to know that herself. And we'll deal with it at the appropriate time.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Brianna, a source tells me that Democrats in the Senate have placed a hold on K.T. McFarland's nomination. That means that she is effectively stalled before she answers these questions that members have about this apparent conflict in her testimony. It looks like she's not going to get that confirmation vote, at least any time soon, unless she answers these questions or unless the Republicans decide to eat up some valuable floor time in the United States Senate. That's something they do not want to do. So unclear if she'll ever get that post before she answers further questions, Brianna.

KEILAR: Yes, it is hard to see how Republicans would go out on a limb for her at this point.

All right, Manu Raju on The Hill. Thank you, sir.

We have so much to discuss here. I want to bring in CNN contributor John Dean. He was President Nixon's White House counsel during Watergate.

Great expertise that you can lend in this situation, John.

And I wonder, just having been in the position you were in, why do you think, as you look at Ty Cobb saying -- what you're hearing from Ty Cobb and what you're hearing from the president's personal lawyer, very different statements. You're hearing from Ty Cobb this idea that the legal team is going to present a fact based argument. And then you've heard now from John Dowd what he has said, that the president cannot obstruct justice. Why are we hearing these two very different things?

JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL DURING WATERGATE: Well, one explanation could be they both have different clients. Mr. Dowd represents Mr. Trump personally. Ty Cobb actually technically represents the office of the president. And while the president is Mr. Trump, there can be some differences at times. I don't know if that's the reason that we have these -- this divergent. It is one potential explanation. The other is they just might not be coordinating. They're certainly not conspiring.

KEILAR: When you're looking at their descriptions then of the strategy, should you put -- should what John Dowd says hold more water as we look at what the strategy of the president's personal legal team and -- to understand what that really is going to be?

[14:10:13] DEAN: I would suspect you'd see out of Dowd more rough and tumble than you're seeing out of Cobb. And that's been the case right along where the White House is trying to certainly give the impression they're cooperating. I'm not so sure that that's going to go across with both -- with all lawyers. Some of the lawyers are recommending that they pick a fight with the special counsel. That can be dangerous, but it can also be a strategy.

So the fact that he has two approaches actually gives him some benefit to see how which plays the best.

KEILAR: OK.

I want to turn now to Paul Manafort, who is obviously Mr. Trump's former campaign chairman, because he has pleaded not guilty to money laundering charges. But the special counsel team now says that he violated court orders for working as a ghost writer on an op-ed with a Russian who has tie to the Russian intelligence service. What do you think Paul Manafort was thinking here? Or is there any possible explanation for this? I mean this sounds like a huge mistake.

DEAN: It sound like he was not thinking, Brianna, so I'm not sure what he was doing. We'll see if the judge finds this a violation and what he explains it -- excuse me, whether it was an innocent mistake or something he was calculating. He's going to have to be very frank with the judge or he's going to be in trouble with his bail.

KEILAR: So -- and we don't know what his explanation is going to be --

DEAN: We don't. KEILAR: If that's potentially that he didn't know whether this person

had ties to Russian intel, right? That could be a possible defense, but we don't know.

DEAN: It could be, that he is innocent and didn't know the connection.

KEILAR: OK.

So you heard Manu Raju's reporting there on K.T. McFarland. She currently is nominated pending Senate confirmation to be the ambassador to Singapore. But now we've learned that what she said in her answer, in her written answer as part of these confirmation proceedings, about what she knew about Michael Flynn's contact with the Russian ambassador. We now know that she was not being forthcoming. How is this going to play for her, do you think?

DEAN: Well, I've watched a lot of ambassador appointments over my years in government, as well as out of government, and this is typically the sort of thing that can disqualify someone. So I wouldn't be surprised at all if she stepped aside. But on the other hand, we have an administration that seems to ignore all existing norms. So the norm of when you make this kind of fatal error, you just quietly step aside and ask to have your nomination withdrawn, may or may not happen. We don't know. I think she'd probably be smart to back down at this point if she's going to get drilled even more intensely and may find herself on thin ice in other areas.

KEILAR: Yes. And we'll see, does Congress, do Republicans in Congress wants to go out on a limb for her. That's a question, too.

John Dean, thank you so much, sir. Appreciate it.

Now, coming up, he is the first member of Congress to step down in the face of sexual harassment allegations. Congressman John Conyers announcing his retirement today, but he says that his retirement has nothing to do with the explosive allegations against him.

And also, the Roy Moore dilemma. The Republican National Party had avoided Roy Moore's candidacy. But why is it now putting money and support behind an accused child molester. Moore's Democratic challenger, Doug Jones, speaking out moments ago. We're going to have a live report for that.

All of this as we await the White House press briefing, which we will bring to you live. And we're back in a moment.

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[14:18:17] ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

KEILAR: And we have some breaking news. The president is expected to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and signal his intentions to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv during a Wednesday announce. This could come as soon as Wednesday we're told.

CNN's Michelle Kosinski joining me now with more. This would be very significant, Michelle?

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN SENIOR DIPLOMATIC CORRESPONDENT: Right. And sources have been telling us details -- or I guess we should say potential details of this plan for days. And now we're hearing it from more sources and sources close to the White House describing what, at this point at least, President Trump is expected to announce tomorrow afternoon. First that he will sign the waiver keeping the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv for six more months, but that he's also going to declare that the U.S. recognizes Jerusalem as the Israel capital.

He is also expected to say that he will move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. That that's a definite plan. Although keeping indefinite a time frame. So he's going to say, for now the U.S. embassy stays in Tel Aviv. I'm going to move the embassy to Jerusalem, but uncertain when, because that's going to take some time.

Additionally, we're told, that these source expect him to find some way to soften this because of the tensions that it's already increasing in the region and beyond. That he will recognize possibly part of Jerusalem as being the future Palestinian capital. Certain holy sites giving heed to the Palestinian claims and deep sensitivities surrounding Jerusalem.

[14:20:04] One more thing. We're told that it's possible the president will also use some language to further soften this, which has been hotly debated within the White House, how to balance all of these tensions out on -- that he may make some kind of statement on their being a need ultimately for a two-state solution.

KEILAR: I want to bring in now CNN special correspondent Jamie Gangel, and also CNN global affairs analyst Aaron David Miller, who served for two decades as a State Department analyst, negotiator and adviser on Middle East issues.

Aaron, to you.

We've heard now, as of today, there were a series of phone calls that President Trump made and he alerted Arab leaders that indeed he is going to do this. There's been so much push back on whether or not this is a good idea. What's your reaction to this news?

AARON DAVID MILLER, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: I think it's ill- timed, ill-advised and ill-conceived. It's not that the U.S. embassy doesn't belong in west Jerusalem. It does. There's no question. Israel's the only country which we do not maintain a capital in the preferred capital of the host government. It's all about timing and context.

To recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, let alone to move the embassy, is going to break an enormous amount of crockery because in recognizing Jerusalem as the capital, it's not just west Jerusalem. The Israelis lay claim to sovereignty over both west and east. Unless the president finds a way to soften this, and it would have to be a pretty dramatic softening, I think this is going to set the stage perhaps for violence, but ultimately for an undermined American rule as any sort of effective, let alone honest broker in a peace process that's right now comatose.

KEILAR: Michelle's talking about how there would be some softening. And clearly that's something the president's trying to do. But when the embassy, it appears, will be moving, is there anything that can soften that to try to effectively avoid maybe even violence, as you mention?

MILLER: You know, if the president of the United States, in a double historic move, recognizes west Jerusalem as the capital, and in the accompanying paragraph says that during the course of the negotiation, on the road to establishing a Palestinian state, the United States will extend diplomatic recognition to a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem, I mean that would be an extraordinarily double, double historic move. But that would drive the Israelis crazy. And ultimately would undermine, I think, one of the purposes of the president's announcement.

KEILAR: Jamie Gangel, tell us how this decision was made, because you heard Aaron David Miller there saying that the timing on this is bad and that this is ill-conceived. He really had no positive words for how this decision, both timing and content, came about.

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So our sources have told us a couple of things. First of all, that President Trump, this was a campaign promise that he wanted to fulfill. And that it's -- there have been meetings going on for about eight days about it. And that he has been -- the advisers have been saying to him, bringing up all of the concerns, and he said no, I want to do this.

Just one point to go back to on softening, which I think is worth mentioning. I was talking to someone about moving the embassy. And the reality is, they have to find a piece of land. They have to build it. That's a project that could take five or ten years. And it sounds as if they are not doing something that had been talked about from time to time, and that would be to take the U.S. consulate that's in Jerusalem and hang a new plaque out there and say that's the embassy. It sounds as if that is not a part of this. That they're stepping away from that.

KEILAR: And there's a warning now from the State Department issuing a warning about demonstrations in Jerusalem and the West Bank. So there's a clear acknowledgment, Aaron David Miller, that there could be -- there could be that violence, that possibility you mentioned.

MILLER: I mean let's be clear, Jerusalem it a tinder box waiting for a match. We saw it in 1990. We saw it in '96. We saw it in 2000. You saw it, Brianna, earlier this year, 2017, with putting metal detectors up on the Haram al-Sharif, the Temple Mount.

It's combustible. It's provocative. It's an issue that frankly neither Israelis and Palestinians are willing or able to deal with. And for the United States to inject itself, legitimately it can put its capital where it wants. In the preferred capital of the host country, without context, without trust between the Israelis and the Palestinians, I think is going to fundamentally undermine the very initiative, the ultimate deal that President Trump wants to achieve. [14:25:04] KEILAR: Michelle, do we have any idea what Jared Kushner's

role in all of this may have been? Because, obviously, he was someone who the president has said, you know, he's going to be instrumental when it comes to trying to figure out a peace deal.

KOSINSKI: Yes. You just read my mind. Because in the complex web of this, I mean to really simplify this, and I haven't spoken to Jared Kushner personally, but just based on our sources and knowledge of the thinking, we know that the president wants to do this to fulfill a campaign promise to, you know, put that out there for parts of his base. Israel is OK on this, but we know that Jared Kushner, his son- in-law and White House adviser, has been trying to orchestrate the peace office.

So is there tension there? And there's been this question if, well, if Kushner has been working so closely with Saudi Arabia, must there not be some kind of working together on this where the White House potentially and the Saudis feel like they can control whatever tensions are there? Maybe they've worked out some kind of plan where they feel like this would be well balanced?

But now we just got a little more insight in a statement from Saudi Arabia. And this is at least publicly they're saying, no. They're calling this move, which we expect, a contradiction to immutable international resolutions. They are saying that this is going to complicate things and obstruct the ongoing peace process.

So what I want to know is, you know, we know there's debate in the White House, but where do those lines of tension lie? Where are there still gaps? And where is there overlap? And if the White House is -- OK, if so many of our sources are saying, OK, we get what you're trying to do, but why do this now? We don't understand the timing. You would think that the White House has some plan for this all going to be OK.

But as we get closer to the decision, and we hear these kinds of responses coming from all kinds of angles, and we here that this debate is still raging on inside the White House, that kind of makes that conclusion a little less or a lot less certain.

KEILAR: Jamie, what do you think? And it sounds like it comes down to the president getting some counsel about the negatives of a decision like this and saying, I want to do it.

GANGEL: So just -- let's put it in political context. What have we been talking about for the last week? The Russia investigation. The words obstruction of justice. The question about whether Jared Kushner is at all vulnerable in the Mueller investigation.

I just think that we need to put out there, and we've seen this time and again with President Trump and the White House, this changes the conversation. We are not talking about that right now. And we're also talking about something that Jared Kushner was involved in. It's moving in that direction.

One other thing I just want to mention. I did speak to a senior foreign official who is from a country in the region, shall we say, about what they are concerned about from a security point of view coming. And the word I heard was that they are on alert and that they are bracing, was the word, for possible demonstrations or fallout from this.

Brianna.

KEILAR: Bracing, which may tell you all you need to know about the potential after effects of this.

Jamie Gangel, Aaron David Miller, Michelle Kosinski, thank you so much to all of you.

And, next, the Republican National Party, well, it once avoided Roy Moore's candidacy, but now it's putting money in support behind the accused child molester. Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell asked about his apparent reversal just moments ago, saying there's been no change of heart on Roy Moore, but is that true? We're going to take you live to Alabama, next.

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