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Corker, Rubio to Vote "Yes" on Final Tax Bill; Tillerson: We Do Not Want War with North Korea; Interview with Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland; Trump Judge Now Struggles To Answer Legal Questions; Omarosa: There Was A Lack Of Diversity At WH; "Last Jedi" Makes $45 Mil On Opening Night. Aired 4:30-5p ET

Aired December 15, 2017 - 16:30   ET


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: When it came to Senator Bob Corker, I think the amazing thing is his concerns that led to a no vote the first time around, that the bill would add $1 trillion to the deficit or $500 billion, depending on the baseline you used, there hasn't been any movement on the major side of things to actually those.

[16:30:05] And he still came around. There's a lot of politics at play here. A lot of things that were happening.

But I will also note, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has quietly over the course of the last five or six days been working very closely, very intently with Senator Corker. He is now a yes and Republicans feel like they're about to give Senate Majority Leader McConnell a big victory in just a couple of days.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And, Phil, House Republicans, they're going to vote on this final version of the bill first. Are there any roadblocks there?

MATTINGLY: There are procedural things Democrats can do to slow the process, but if the votes are there, the votes are there. There's not a lot -- because of the way the conference report is structured they can actually do to shut things down. Slow is the best they can do. And right now, Republicans appear to be on a glide path.

Obviously, still keeping an eye on a couple of outstanding senators, but in the House, I'm told, the votes -- they're very confident about where they are. And once again, Jake, it's an amazing moment where you think they did this in eight or nine weeks, something that hasn't been done in 31 years. The speed they were able to move a lot of people point to the political imperative of doing something, anything, towards the end of the year. And they're right at the cusp of that right now.

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mattingly with breaking news for us on Capitol Hill -- thank you.

With the North Korean nuclear threat growing more imminent, is the divide between President Trump and his secretary of state damaging efforts to stop Kim Jong-un? We'll discuss next. Stay with us. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:35:38] TAPPER: And we're back with our panel.

But first, our world lead. With the drumbeat of war against North Korea growing louder by the day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson took a sharper tone today. He addressed the United Nations and left open the option for use of military force by the U.S.


REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE: We have been clear that all options remain on the table in the defense of our nation, but we do not seek nor do we want war with North Korea. The United States will use all necessary measures to defend itself against North Korean aggression, but our hope remains that diplomacy will produce a resolution.


TAPPER: Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland joins me now. He's the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Senator, good to see you, as always.

Tillerson said today that any talks with North Korea must be preceded by a, quote, sustained cessation of North Korea's threatening behavior. But contrast that with what Tillerson said just three days ago. Take a listen.


TILLERSON: We're ready to talk any time North Korea would like to talk, and we're ready to have the first meeting without precondition. Let's just meet. And let's -- we can talk about the weather if you want.


TAPPER: And after Tillerson said that, the White House issued a statement undercutting the secretary. People at the White House trash talking him to the media.

What is the impact of all of these mixed messages?

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D-MD), RANKING MEMBER, FOREIGN RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, I think Secretary Tillerson understands that the only way to have a successful outcome with North Korea is through diplomacy and he has tried on a couple of occasions to advance diplomacy, only to be undercut by the administration. I think that's what happened as you saw today.

The use of force to try to prevent North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon really is not an option without severe consequences. What we need to have is a surge in diplomacy. It's not just talking to North Korea without conditions, it's talking to China. We need to have a common strategy between our two countries as to how we get North Korea on a different path.

And that requires a surge in diplomacy. And every time Secretary Tillerson starts that surge, it seems like the White House undercuts him.

TAPPER: Well, I mean, if this is the constant dynamic between President Trump and Secretary Tillerson, and they're not obviously on the same page and this is shown time and time again, is Tillerson an effective secretary of state? Should he even still have that job?

CARDIN: Well, when you talk to people in the national security team, I think we all recognize that we need diplomacy in North Korea. We have to work with Japan and the Republic of Korea. We've got to work with China. We have to work with our European allies. Isolate North Korea, have a strategy that can get them started on a different path.

So, I don't want to undercut the State Department's ability to move us in that direction. I think the key here is for the president of the United States to recognize that he needs to empower his national security team and his secretary of state to pursue that option. I think there have been mixed signals from the president of the United States.

TAPPER: Your colleague, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, told "The Atlantic" that there is a 30 percent chance the U.S. will attack North Korea and 70 percent if North Korea keeps up its nuclear testing. He said, quote, I don't know how to say it more direct, if nothing changes, Trump's going to have to use the military option because time is running out, unquote.

Today, China said that use of force on the Korean peninsula would be unacceptable.

Do you think that we are -- there is a 30 percent chance that the U.S. is going to use force?

CARDIN: First, let me say, you know, North Korea is heading in a very dangerous position. The United States must protect itself if there is an immediate threat against our security. That we must do.

But to use force in an effort to stop what North Korea's doing on its nuclear program could be catastrophic. We know that there are 20 million people that live in the Seoul area alone. That's just miles from the North Korea border where there are literally numerous missiles pointed towards South Korea. The number of casualties could be catastrophic. And once it starts, there is no guarantee you couldn't -- you would be able to control what is going on.

As Senator Corker said, the chairman of our committee, this could lead us into World War III. So, no, I hear what Senator Graham is saying and I don't want to get into percentages.

[16:40:04] But for us to try to initiate a military solution would be a major mistake. What we need to do is to have a surge in diplomacy and that means having a really candid discussion with China with a common strategy to end this crisis, recognizing that our objective is a non-nuclear North Korea.

And China agrees with us on that but they want to make sure that we are not trying to undermine the stability of the Kim Jong-un regime.

TAPPER: I know you've been briefed on what it might look like if the U.S. does conduct a military strike, pre-emptive military strike against North Korea.

Tell us what it would mean. Would it be millions killed in the aftermath?

CARDIN: Well, let us, first of all, I don't want to go down that path. But if we try to use conventional weapons, and that's how I think most would agree -- and if North Korea responded by conventional weapons, the number of missiles that would successfully reach its targets in that region would be -- would cause catastrophic numbers of deaths. It's not just the Koreans, you've got the Japanese, you've got American troops that are over there. It's very difficult to see the starting of a military operation that wouldn't cause a reaction from North Korea with multiple casualties.

TAPPER: I want to change subjects. The sanctions against Russia, you and Senator McCain have been very active in trying to push the Trump administration. They missed their first deadline, in enacting the sanctions. The final deadline, I believe, is January 29th, when they need to have them implemented.

Are you confident that the Trump administration is going to honor that January 29th deadline?

CARDIN: Well, I can tell you that we're going to be following this very, very closely. This is going to be not just Democrats but Democrats and Republicans, Senator McCain and myself and many others to make sure our law that was passed 98-2 in the United States Senate is carried out. As you point out, the end of January, these mandatory sanctions are to be imposed.

So, we expect the administration to meet that deadline. Russia has not changed its behavior. It's continuing to do things that are against our interests, interfering in Ukraine, interfering what they're doing in Syria, still interfering in domestic elections in Europe and also in the United States. The sanctions that were authorized by Congress are mandatory and we expect the first round will take effect at the end of the January.

TAPPER: Senator Ben Cardin, thank you so much. I appreciate it, sir. Happy Hanukkah.

CARDIN: Good to be with you.

TAPPER: It is a Trump judicial nominee hearing or a clip from "My Cousin Vinnie."


SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Have you ever tried a jury trial? MATTHEW PETERSEN, JUDICIAL NOMINEE: I have not.



KENNEDY: Criminal?





TAPPER: You decide, next.


[16:45:00] TAPPER: Welcome back to THE LEAD. We've got more with our panel but first, questions about Trump nominees to the federal bench. Earlier this week, the White House withdrew the names of two judicial nominees under fire and then there is the case of Matthew Petersen, one of President Trump's U.S. District Judge nominees. During in a Senate Confirmation Hearing Wednesday, Petersen looked like a lawyer in headlight as Republican Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana asked him a few questions that legal experts say should be basic for anyone gunning for a lifetime seat on the bench.


SEN. JOHN NEELY KENNEDY (R), LOUISIANA: Have you ever tried a jury trial?




KENNEDY: Criminal?




KENNEDY: State or Federal Court?

PETERSEN: I have not.

KENNEDY: Do you know what a motion in limine is?

PETERSEN: I would probably not be able to give you a good definition. KENNEDY: Do you know what the Younger abstention doctrine is?

PETERSEN: I've heard of it, but, again --

KENNEDY: How about the Pullman abstention doctrine?


KENNEDY: You're going to see -- you'll all see that a lot in federal court. OK.


TAPPER: Petersen is currently a Commissioner on the U.S. Federal Election Commission. Laura Coates is our Legal Analyst. She joins us on the panel. I'm not a lawyer. I don't know any of that stuff is but how basic is that information?

LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It's like asking somebody what the first and last letter of the alphabet is and what the last letter of the alphabet is. Remember, lawyers are presumed generalist. They're supposed to know all sorts of areas of the law. There are nuanced areas of the law, there are more experts and specialists than others, but you've got to know the federal rules of evidence, you got to know what's going to comprise most of your day if not year if not lifetime tenure. Things like motion practice, litigation, overseeing a technical trial, depositions, (INAUDIBLE), we talk about expert testimony, is it a quack doctor or something we should actually think about. These are really basic things you have to know about. And his absence or inability to answer the question was astonishing, even in terms of did you prep the night before? Did you have a clips notes first or any these things? I mean, it's hard -- it's hard to give him the benefit of the doubt with him taking it so not seriously.

TAPPER: Do you think that Senator Kennedy, who we should point out is a conservative Trump-backing Louisiana Republican, do you think he went too far by exposing this?

COATES: No, not at all. What he did was point out that if you like to have a lifetime position on the bench, overseeing federal trials as a district judge, well, it would behoove you to perhaps be experienced in the law or at least pretend to be on T.V. in front of the hearings. And what this points out is, remember, this is not a partisan issue. I'm glad you pointed out his particular politics because you have over the course of the Obama administration in eight years zero judges were ever disqualified by the American Bar Association, who has a hand in saying, yeah, you should go ahead and nominate this people. The Bush administration over the seven years, like what, three or four, maybe five, you've got seven people who have that same rating in the 11 months since they have been nominated by President Trump, which to me says they're not doing their research and the judges are not showing up. They're not even phoning it in.

[16:50:26] TAPPER: And one of the things that the Trump White House point out is they have been filling seats in the federal judiciary in a rapid clip in a way that the Obama administration failed to do, squandered that opportunity. But there have been some pretty high- profile embarrassments, including this one.

SCOTT JENNINGS, FORMER SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes, this guy -- I mean, for all we know, maybe he stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night, and that would help cover over a little bit but this is clearly a failure of preparation. I'm sure he's also a very nice person. The entire internet and free world is piling in on this guy today so I'm not going to join in. It's going to by a sideshow ultimately when we write the history of the Trump-McConnell judicial era. 12 Circuit Judges this year which is the most since they invented Circuit Courts in one year. Justice Neil Gorsuch, more to come in the next year. Obama, I think got about 40 percent of the Federal Judiciary. If Donald Trump keeps at this pace, he's going to eat into that. So ultimately, embarrassment today overall conservatives are happy with Trump on judicial appointments.

TAPPER: I want to turn to another Trump appointee heading out the door, Omarosa. She's calling out what she says is a lack of diversity in the White House. Here she was on ABC's Nightline.


OMAROSA MANIGAULT, FORMER POLITICAL AIDE, WHITE HOUSE: There was a lack of diversity that I will acknowledge. It has been very, very challenging being the only African-American woman in the senior staff.


TAPPER: What do you think?

NEERA TANDEN, PRESIDENT, CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: I mean, the President comments this whole year from Charlottesville to NFL to a whole range of issues really speaks to I think a kind of racializing of politics that, you know, I'm surprised that she lasted until this point. And, you know, she didn't seem to be so concerned about the President's remarks after Charlottesville, which I think were amongst the most offensive I've heard of any president. So, you know, I'm glad she's left. I'm not surprised that she thought there was a lack of diversity. You can see it everywhere. But I am probably more concerned about what the President himself is saying and doing every day.

TAPPER: Well, listen to what she had to say about President Trump and this issue of race.


MANIGAULT: Yes, I will acknowledge many of the exchanges, particularly in the last six months, have been racially charged. Do we then just stop and label him as a racist? No.



BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR-AT-LARGE, THE WEEKLY STANDARD: Yes, well, it might have been nice if she had spoken up about this a little earlier and -- or resigned in protest rather than getting fired by Chief of Staff Kelly but whatever.

JENNINGS: Yes, I think most people write their book proposals down on paper and hand it to a publisher. She just says hers out loud on television. I mean, she wants to obviously write a book and cash in on this experience and you know, the President wished her well so I'm sure the rest of the White House staff will wish her well as they move on and filling her job.

TAPPER: Yes, I mean, I do think it's interesting she's going out the way she is, alluding to all sorts of interesting stories she has but not sharing them, per se.

TANDEM: Oh, she will share them. She's just not going to do it now.

JENNINGS: Don't give it away for free. You can't get that stuff away.

TAPPER: You think she's just trying to protect her reputation, not get attacked on Twitter by conservatives or do you think she's just saving it for the book?

COATES: Well, you know, I think Omarosa has launched her career as being a villain. So perhaps the idea that the reputation is not what she's thinking about. But I think people should be less concerned and I hope she will be less concerned with the idea of how she, A, entered the White House, and C, how she left, and more B, about what else she did while you were there, because the most important thing is not to run and stomp your feet after your escorted out of the door however you were done so. It's more important to actually stand up as a public servant while you have the opportunity to do so. And if you think about the idea of it's important if you don't have a seat at the table, you will be on the menu. Well, you were at the table, did you -- what did you eat when you were there? And I want to know if the liaison you were supposed to be for the black community, did it pan out in support of the black community or was it in name only? And I'd like to read that chapter if nothing else.

TAPPER: Well, I hope -- I hope she writes candidly. Thanks so much. My thanks to the panel. Coming up next, Luke, I am your cash cow. The Last Jedi does what Star Wars movies do at the box office. Details of a monumental first night in our "POP CULTURE LEAD" next. Stay with us.


[16:55:00] TAPPER: Welcome back for the "POP CULTURE LEAD." Call it the out of this world lead right now. Last night's opening of The Last Jedi has a lot of people thinking about space. The newest Star Wars movie brought in $45 million. The second-best Thursday Premier in history. Second best to the last Star Wars episode. But in a galaxy not as far away, commercial spaceflight company SpaceX made actual history.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Three, two, one, ignition, lift-off. (END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: Now, this craft might not be able to make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, but this launch reused both the capsule and the booster for the first time ever. SpaceX hopes reusing rocket parts will make space flight significantly cheaper. This mission is going to the international space station, but 2024 SpaceX hopes to send people to Mars. Be sure to tune in this Sunday to "STATE OF THE UNION." My guest will be Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin to talk about the Tax Plan. Republican seem to be on the verge of passing the bill, plus newly elected Alabama Senator-Elect Doug Jones, the Democrat, coming off his historic win. It all starts at 9:00 and noon Eastern on Sunday. That's it for THE LEAD, I'm Jake Tapper turning you over to Wolf Blitzer. Have a great weekend.