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THE SITUATION ROOM
GOP to Repeal Tax Cut Plan, Rubio & Corker Signal Support; Trump Renews Attack on FBI, Denies Russia Collusion; Trump Lawyers to Meet with Special Counsel; GOP Reveals Final Tax Bill Details; Possible Purge In North Korea As Top General Goes Missing. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired December 15, 2017 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:14] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. Picking up the bill. We're standing by for Republicans to reveal the final version of what they've promised will be historic tax cuts. How will they affect your wallet? Who are the winners, who are the losers and do they have the votes?
Meeting with Mueller. CNN learns President Trump's lawyers will be sitting down with Special Counsel Robert Mueller as soon as next week. Where is Mueller's investigation headed now?
Blaming the bureau. President Trump renews his attacks on the FBI while on his way to speak to a graduating class of law enforcement trainees. The president tells reporters it's a shame what happened under previous leaders and insists people are very, very angry about what happened. Why is he attacking the bureau at the same time his own people are under investigation?
And Kim's missing man. A top North Korean general believed to be second only to the leader, Kim Jong-un, hasn't been seen for months. Did he offend his notoriously fickle leader?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories. This hour, congressional Republicans are set to release the final version of their tax cut plan. Among the last-minute compromises, an increase to the child tax credit, fulfilling a demand by Senator Marco Rubio. Rubio and another key Republican, Tennessee's Bob Corker, now are signaling they will vote yes, but there are more complications, health issues that may prevent two other Republican senators, including John McCain, from even voting.
Also today, President Trump renewed his attack on the FBI. Taking questions from reporters, the president insisted past FBI leaders' handling of the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation was, in the president's words, rigged and disgraceful. He again denied his campaign colluded with the Russians and seemed to leave open the possibility of pardoning his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. And there's also breaking news in the Russia investigation. CNN has
learned President Trump's lawyers will be sitting down with Special Counsel Robert Mueller very soon, possibly next week. This could be a very significant meeting. Now that investigators have interviewed Trump's White House inner circle, several sources say Trump's legal team is hoping for signs about what Mueller may be doing next and whether his investigation is nearing its end.
Democratic Congressman Jim Himes, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, is standing by live. He'll take our questions. And our correspondents, analysts, and specialists, they will have full coverage of the day's top stories.
Let's begin with the breaking news up on Capitol Hill. Within minutes, Republican leaders will be releasing the final version of their tax cut bill, changes that apparently turned two Republican senators from "no" votes to "yes."
Let's go to our congressional correspondent Sunlen Serfaty.
Sunlen, do Republicans now have enough votes to pass the bill?
SUNLEN SERFATY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Republicans, Wolf, are very, very close tonight and certainly in a very good spot as they flipped two key Republican "no" votes to the "yes" category today. That being Senator Bob Corker, Senator Marco Rubio, both coming out late this afternoon saying, yes, indeed, they will support this bill when it comes to the floor of the Senate next week.
Corker, most significantly, he was the only Republican to vote against the Senate tax bill the last time it came around. He was against it because of deficit concerns. This entire time, including just a few days ago, he said, "Look, I still have the same deficit concerns about this bill." Yet no changes were made about the deficit concerns to appease him. Yet he still came out and is, indeed, supporting this bill.
Marco Rubio, very clear he's happy with the changes made to the child tax credit. Republican leaders throwing more money at that overnight, bringing him into the fold as well. Tonight, though, there are still three TBDs, Senator Mike Lee, Senator Flake and Senator Susan Collins. They are still reading the bill, potentially going to be making their announcements sometime soon.
But Republicans leaders, Wolf, tonight feel very, very good where they are. They're feeling confident. They certainly have a lot more breathing room now that they have these two key senators on board.
BLITZER: And two other Republican senators, Sunlen, John McCain and Thad Cochran, they're battling very serious health issues and may not be able to vote. What can you tell us about that?
SERFATY: Well, in the case of Senator John McCain, it is still a big question mark whether he will be able and healthy enough to return to the Capitol Hill to cast his vote next week. He is in a hospital here in Washington, D.C. with some side effects from the treatment that he's receiving from cancer. So that's still a big TBD, whether he appears back on the Hill.
[17:05:00] In the case of Senator Thad Cochran, he had a procedure here in Washington last week. It was for a skin cancer spot on his nose. It turned out to be much more extensive than previously thought. But tonight his office is telling me that, yes, indeed, he will return to a vote next week. That he is ready and willing if Republican leaders need him to.
But certainly, Republican leadership in a much better spot than they were 24 hours, not as tight of a space they were, when it looked like potentially they need both of those votes yesterday. Today that's simply not the case.
BLITZER: Yes. We're standing by for the official release of the bill. That's coming up within minutes. We'll, of course, update our viewers once we get the actual text. Sunlen, thank you very much.
Now for President Trump's latest blast at the FBI and the Justice Department, which came just before he described himself as the best friend law enforcement agencies could have in the White House.
Let's go to our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. Jim, tell us more about what the president had to say.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that's right. President Trump is slamming the FBI again, describing the bureau's actions as disgraceful and denying any collusion with the Russians during the 2016 campaign.
The president also appeared to open the door to pardoning his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, earlier today before the White House seemed to shut that down.
ACOSTA (voice-over): The president is ratcheting up his attacks on the investigators who are investigating the White House and Trump campaign officials under scrutiny in the Russia probe.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Well, it's a shame what's happened with the FBI, but we're going to rebuild the FBI. It will be bigger and better than ever.
ACOSTA: Mr. Trump seized on recent revelations that an FBI agent was removed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team after sending texts that were critical of the president.
TRUMP: It is very sad when you look at those documents; and how they've done that is really, really disgraceful. And you have a lot of very angry people that are seeing it. It's a very sad thing to watch, I will tell you that.
ACOSTA: The president then once again denied any wrongdoing.
TRUMP: They're spending millions and millions of dollars. There is absolutely no collusion. I didn't make a phone call to Russia. I have nothing to do with Russia. Everybody knows it.
ACOSTA: Before refusing to rule out the possibility of pardoning former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators earlier this month.
TRUMP: I don't want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens. Let's see. I can say this. When you look at what's gone on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.
ACOSTA: The White House attorney Ty Cobb threw cold water on that, saying in a statement, "There is no consideration being given to pardoning Michael Flynn at the White House."
It's not the first time the president has slammed the FBI, tweeting earlier this month that the bureau's reputation was in tatters, its worst in history. The president made his latest comments about the bureau after hour before he praised federal and law enforcement officials at an FBI academy, where he again blasted the news media.
TRUMP: You see, there's the fake news back there. Look, everybody. Fake news. No, actually, some of them are fine people. About, let's see, who's back there? Yes, about 30 percent.
SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: Robert Mueller's merry band of Democratic donors.
TRUMP: But the president appears to be echoing complaints on conservative media and from GOP lawmakers about the Mueller investigation.
REP. MATT GAETZ (R), FLORIDA: It's as if when Bob Mueller picked his team he was fishing in the "never Trump" aquarium.
ACOSTA: The attacks on federal law enforcement officials come little more than a year after then-Trump surrogate and now White House press secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted, "When you're attacking FBI agents because you're under a criminal investigation, you're losing."
Democrats worry the groundwork is being laid for the president to dump Mueller.
REP. DENNY HECK (D), WASHINGTON: I think the fact that Bob Mueller removed somebody for those text messages is, in fact, proof that Bob Mueller is committed to undertaking this investigation with the utmost of integrity.
ACOSTA: The president's intense focus on the Mueller probe is yet another distraction for GOP leaders who are trying to pass tax cuts before leaving for the holidays.
DOUG JONES (D), ALABAMA SENATOR-ELECT: OK. Well, thank you.
ACOSTA: Republicans want to move on the tax plan before incoming Alabama Senator Doug Jones is seated after defeating Roy Moore. Mr. Trump is ready for Moore to concede that race. TRUMP: I think he should. He tried. I want to support -- always I
want to support the person running. We need the seat. We'd like to have the seat. I think we're doing very well on the tax. We'll see what happens.
ACOSTA: Now while he was criticizing the FBI today, the president had kind words for Russian President Vladimir Putin. One day after the two leaders spoke, the president thanked Putin for praising Mr. Trump's performance on the U.S. economy. Well, it was yet another example of how the president just doesn't seem to ever criticize Vladimir Putin -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes, good point. Jim Acosta, thank you very much.
Now to the important breaking news in the Russia investigation. CNN has learned President Trump's legal team will be sitting down with Special Counsel Robert Mueller very soon.
Let's go to our justice correspondent, Evan Perez. He's been working his sources. Evan, tell our viewers what you're learning.
[17:10:04] EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, sources tell us that the president's lawyers are planning to meet with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team, and we're told as soon as next week. What the president's lawyers hope will be a chance to find out the next steps in the Mueller investigation.
Now the Trump legal team, led by John Dowd and Jay Sekulow, is hoping that they can see signs that the end is near for the Mueller investigation. They've had other meetings, but here's why this one is significant. The White House says that everyone who works there and who Mueller had asked to an interview has now gone in to be interviewed. One of the last happened just earlier this week with White House counsel Don McGahn sitting down for an interview.
The White House has also finished turning over documents that were requested by the special counsel. Now, there's no request for the -- for an interview with the president or the vice president. Of course, you know, Mueller could still come back to ask for more interviews and for more documents.
And it's important to note that there's no requirement for Mueller to give them any information. They're hoping he's going to show his cards, but there's a chance that he won't do that.
The bottom line here, Wolf, is that the president and Republicans are getting impatient. They want the cloud of this investigation lifted.
BLITZER: They certainly do. Is there any sense, Evan, how quickly this investigation is now moving?
PEREZ: Well, you know, the investigation is actually moving relatively quickly, compared to typical white-collar criminal investigations that often stretch into years. Now he's been on the job seven months or so, and already Mueller has
brought charges against four people, including two who have pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
Now, other lawyers representing people involved in the case don't see signs that this is going to wrap up soon. Sources tell us that the questions that are being asked by investigators deal with the firing of the former FBI director, James Comey, and details of the White House handling of that 2016 Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr. set up with Russians who were offering negative information on Hillary Clinton.
Now we know that some members of Mueller's team are assigned specifically to the issue of obstruction of justice and we don't know what else Mueller is still digging into, Wolf.
BLITZER: We did hear concerns yesterday from Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, that the House investigation could be shut down.
Is there a chance Mueller's investigation could be shut down, as well?
PEREZ: Well, we don't know. You know, we do know that Republicans are getting impatient and we heard today from Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida, saying he wants Republicans to join him to shut down the Mueller investigation. The congressional investigations do depend, of course, on the patience of Republicans. And if they decide that they've had enough, they can stop the congressional investigations. But shutting down Mueller's investigation is another thing entirely. It's certainly more politically treacherous, Wolf.
BLITZER: Certainly is. Evan Perez, good reporting. Thank you.
With us now, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Hello, Wolf.
BLITZER: So how significant is it that the president's lawyers will meet with the Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team in the coming days?
HIMES: Well, it's hard to say. And one of the good things about the Mueller investigation is that it has been conducted largely without leaks. I would say, because there is a profoundly dangerous thing happening in this country with people like the president, people like FOX News, certain of my colleagues, looking to delegitimize Mueller's investigation and the FBI as a whole and the DOJ as a whole.
I will tell you that that is an investigation that has been conducted apolitically without actually a lot of interaction with the congressional investigations which, of course, by their very nature are political. But, you know, we'll see. We'll see.
Look, when the indictments came out. And we need to step back and remember here that, you know, now four people have either been indicted or pled guilty as a result of Mueller's investigation. Something that should cause every American to say, "Gosh, I want to get to the bottom of this." Before those indictments and guilty pleas came out, there were no leaks; there were no nothing. This is an investigation of real integrity.
BLITZER: What does it say to you, Congressman, that Robert Mueller hasn't requested an interview with President Trump or vice president Pence for that matter?
HIMES: Well, it doesn't really say anything to me. You know, as -- what we know is that he secured guilty pleas from Michael Flynn, from others. We know that those individuals are cooperating. That's about all we know.
Now, anybody who's familiar with investigations knows that the way you climb the ladder is to secure pleas, to promise leniency in exchange for testimony. One presumes that that is the process underway.
One would also -- and this president, you know, in the dozens of norms that he has broken in the erosion of our decency, the attack on our basic democracy, is doing something that no president has ever done, which is attack the fine men and women of the FBI, men and women who put on a weapon every single morning to go fight terrorists, to go fight violent criminals. And you have to ask yourself why. If the president is convinced that he and his people are innocent, if that's what he really believes, why, why would you do such enormous destruction and do things that -- that are simply designed to delegitimize the people who are investigating you?
[17:15:18] BLITZER: Congressman, there are some new developments emerging right now. I want to take a quick break, resume the interview right after this. We'll be right back.
BLITZER: We're back with Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut. He's on the House Intelligence Committee.
Congressman, yesterday your colleague, the top Democrat on your committee, Congressman Adam Schiff, joined me here in THE SITUATION ROOM, and he explained his deep fears that Republicans will shut down your committee's entire investigation into the Russia probe and eventually take aim at the special counsel's investigation as well. Do you share those fears?
HIMES: I do. And those are two separate things.
You know, as Adam, I think, probably told you on Monday, we have three witness depositions scheduled in such a way that the various investigators will be spread thin across three different interviews. Many of the interviews or some of the interviews have been conducted without our having the documents that we have requested. There have -- there's probably ten-plus witnesses that we have requested to speak to, people who would potentially have knowledge of the topics we're investigating that have not yet been scheduled. So yes, I'm terribly concerned.
And in concert with the president, and not just the president, but Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, the president's allies in the Congress attempt to delegitimize the FBI, to suggest that a man like Bob Mueller, an American war hero, the finest FBI director the country has arguably had, to throw mud on that investigation so that it -- so that the option opens to end that investigation is a profoundly concerning thing.
BLITZER: Congressman Schiff said in his words there were very credible allegations that the Russians were laundering money through the Trump organization. Do you agree?
HIMES: Well, Wolf, I don't -- one of the ways we preserve this investigation is by not getting out ahead of what possible conclusions could be.
There are questions about financial transactions. There are questions about the Trump Organization's interactions with various banks, where they got their credit, where they got the money. Real estate, of course, is a business where people can park cash in things like hard assets in homes and apartments.
But look, this is something that is properly to be investigated by Bob Mueller. Not so much the Congress. Remember, we're about the Russian hack. We're about whether there was collusion, about the nature of leaks, but this is something that you wouldn't want to foreclose as a possibility before Bob Mueller is in a position to go out there and say, "Here's what I found."
BLITZER: Congressman Schiff also said the Republican leadership of your committee has prevented you from subpoenaing Trump Organization bank records. Why is that?
HIMES: Well, there's -- there's been -- there's been fights, and it's not only been with the Republican majority, you know. It has been with the actual witnesses themselves on the terms on which they will provide information.
Remember, everything from -- yes, there have been instances where the majority has pushed back. But then, of course, as you'll recall, the president's son Don Jr. -- this was widely reported, decided he was going to claim attorney/client privilege in answering questions about conversations that he had with his father. Despite the fact that there really is no attorney/client privilege when you're speaking with your father, even if there are lawyers in the room. And despite the fact that Congress traditionally has not acknowledged attorney/client privilege or any other privilege in its investigation.
So, yes, it is fair to say that in addition to the fear that this investigation at the probably desire of the president is at risk of being wrapped up before we can finish off our work, it is also true that there have been any number of speed bumps along the way in terms of getting the answers we need. And again, without in any way prejudicing our conclusions, you've got to ask yourself why. If everything is hunky-dory, if there is no wrongdoing, if everybody is innocent, why isn't everybody cooperating to get the information out in a timely, prudent and effective way?
BLITZER: You think these attacks on the FBI, on Mueller, on the Justice Department, are coordinated between the White House and let's say some on FOX News and others in the -- in the right-wing media?
HIMES: Look, no question. You know, whether there is a hotline between the Oval Office and FOX News, I doubt that's true. But when the president is talking about the investigation and makes it very clear he wants them over and uses the words "do something," you know, people who will sell their souls, who will trade their integrity, who will betray their positions of trust in favor of supporting this man -- and why you would choose to do that I do not know -- will do precisely that.
And again, you know, people like Sean Hannity, who are throwing mud on the FBI, Jeanine Pirro, some of my colleagues. Can you imagine if Barack Obama had attacked the FBI, the protests in the streets we would have seen, the indictments, the investigations?
And look, at the end of the day, Wolf, our -- whatever you think of the president, when judges are attacked for their ethnicity, when the media, something that is annoying to politicians but essential to our democracy, is attacked by the president of the United States, our democracy is at risk.
And the FBI -- look, the FBI has a storied history. They haven't always done exactly the right thing. But when you are attacking the mechanism of justice of the United States of America, you are setting this country up for a place where no facts are true or false. Anybody can get away with any behavior at all. And we will have something that does not look in any way, shape or form like the democracy that has been such a gift to all of us for a long period of time.
BLITZER: The president did say today as he was leaving the White House on the South Lawn, he said about the FBI, "What they've done is very, very disgraceful. And you have a lot of angry people that are seeing it. It's a very sad thing to watch." That was the president himself.
But just a little while ago, the attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, was asked whether he would appoint a second special counsel to investigate the current special counsel investigation. And he gave a long answer detailing all the ways he says the Justice Department has been responsive to criticism and congressional oversight, and then Sessions said this. Listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
JEFF SESSIONS, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We intend to monitor our people, to maintain high standards, but I've got to tell you, sometimes things that might appear to be bad in the press have more innocent explanations. And so fairness and justice is also -- should also be provided to our personnel.
(END VIDEO CLIP) [07:25:10] BLITZER: Do you have confidence that the attorney general will let the Mueller investigation play out, free of any outside influence?
HIMES: I guess I would be looking, considering what's at stake here, Wolf, for a somewhat more vigorous, more manly support of the organization and the good people that work for him than I heard from Jeff Sessions.
The president's saying the FBI is in tatters. Criticizing that organization is an abomination, Wolf. If I'm a little fired up about this, it's because I have formal oversight of the FBI as a member of the Intelligence Committee. I'm never shy about saying, "I think you may have done this wrong. You may have overstepped."
But I work with these people day in and day out. They risk their lives every single day. There's a reason they carry weapons. They could be making a lot more money elsewhere.
This organization is not in tatters. It is the finest law enforcement organization on the planet, and it is time for Jeff Sessions and time for others to stand up against this president and say, "Sir, you do not get to challenge storied landmark, cornerstone institutions in the United States of America." That's what I want to hear from the attorney general.
BLITZER: President Trump today didn't rule out a possible pardon of his fired national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Flynn, of course, is now cooperating with the Mueller investigation. He pleaded guilty. So what signal is the president sending to Flynn?
HIMES: Well, let me be a little less hard on this president. One thing we know about him is that certainly on the fly, it's not clear that he's particularly considered in the words that he uses. So I'm not convinced, necessarily, that she was trying to signal anything to Michael Flynn. Who knows what -- what he meant.
But obviously, the effect of words -- let's not talk about a pardon yet, that word "yet" suggests there's is a conversation to happen down the road.
Look, Michael Flynn's not an idiot. He knows that the possibility of a presidential pardon is always out there. But it is. Again, it is an ongoing effort by the president to -- and I don't use this in its legal sense of the word. I use it in sort of the common-sense word, it is to obstruct this investigation. To, you know, to send a hint maybe that if Flynn, who presumably, by the way, is cooperating with this investigation, that maybe, you know, if you don't feel like cooperating and, you know, the Department of Justice comes down hard on you, maybe you walk away.
So, again, I don't know what the president meant, but it certainly was not useful to all of our cause, which is finding out what happened there and to the president's cause of, presumably, proving his innocence. BLITZER: Yes. He said "not yet" when he was asked if he was
considering a pardon. He used the word "yet," which some saw as very significant.
Congressman Jim Himes, thanks very much for joining us.
HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Coming up, what's in the final GOP tax bill? We're getting new details as we speak. We'll have more.
Also on the breaking news in the Russia investigation, what will President Trump's attorneys tell the Special Counsel Robert Mueller at their upcoming meeting? Is the president, as he insisted today, in the clear?
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: There is absolutely no collusion. I didn't make a phone call to Russia. I have nothing to do with Russia. Everybody knows it. That was a Democrat hoax. It was an excuse for losing the election.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
[17:31:58] BLITZER: Breaking news, CNN has learned that President Trump's lawyers are preparing to meet with Special Counsel Robert Mueller as he pursues a probe into Russian election meddling. The meeting could take place as early as next week. Let's get some more analysis with our political experts. And Gloria, you've been doing some reporting on this. What more are you learning about this upcoming meeting, two lawyers, Jay Sekulow and John Dowd, both personal lawyers, not White House lawyers, representing the president, going to meet with Mueller and his team.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well they -- according to our sources, really, consider this kind of an opportunity to gain some kind of clear understanding of where the Mueller investigation is heading, you know, particularly as it regards their client, the president of the United States. And I think, you know, this is kind of an opportunity for them given the fact that all of the interviews now are concluded within the White House, the documents have been handed over to the special counsel and they have these periodic meetings. They have met before. And they are meeting again as early as next week. And I think, you know, they would like to get some kind of sign from Mueller about where he's heading, but Mueller and his team, I should point out, are under absolutely no obligation to tell them anything.
BLITZER: How significant, potentially, is this meeting?
DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Well, you heard what Gloria was saying there about what she and our colleagues gathered from their sources about why it's significant. It's significant because they're done, Mueller's team is done with White House interviews, the White House staff, done with White House document review. So, it's significant because the previous meetings were happening on an ongoing basis and now seems to be a bit of an inflection point in that piece of it. But, I have a question if you I don't know if you happen to know.
CHALIAN: So, Mueller's under absolutely no obligation. Do we know if that is common practice for prosecutors to give lawyers a heads up?
BORGER: And my colleagues, you know, Pamela Brown and Even Perez, who cover this more than I do covering justice would tell you, and I think that lawyers would tell you that we've asked that many times lawyers do meet to -- with the prosecutor to try to get a sense of where their client stands. And they have serious conversations without the prosecutor, of course, giving away too much.
BORGER: But, I think they -- lawyer-to-lawyer, but, you know, again, Mueller doesn't have to say anything. And they have made a big point inside this White House of cooperating with Mueller. Handing over everything he wants. Getting together all the documents. Speaking with Mueller's team frequently about what they need. So, since they have been cooperating, they -- you know, and this meeting is coming up, I think that they believe that they will get some kind of response from the special counsel --
CHALIAN: They've been on best behavior.
BORGER: -- but you just don't, you just don't know.
BLITZER: In contrast to a lot of the other critics of Mueller who are slamming him.
BORGER: What's going on in Congress, for example.
BLITZER: Yes, very much in contrast.
BORGER: They've tried to separate that.
BLITZER: We're also reporting, Jackie, that at least so far, the Mueller team has not asked to interview the president of the United States. What does that say to you?
[17:35:03] JACKIE KUCINICH, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE DAILY BEAST: It says to me they want to get all of their ducks in a row before they get President Trump in front of them. They don't want to have to come back and say, oh, we really wanted to ask him this, too. That's something -- that is the interview. So, they're going to save that one, you know, the largest person in this investigation or around the investigation, they're going to save that one for last.
BLITZER: Do you think there will be an interview with the president of the United States? BORGER: I don't know. I really don't know. I don't know whether
they would ask. And if they asked, I don't know whether they would comply. I just have, you know, I have no idea at this point, whether they would feel that they needed to interview him or the vice president. Mueller's team plays this very close to the vest.
CHALIAN: It seems, though, correct me if I'm wrong that the most -- the area of most concern to the president's lawyers, to Cobb and to Sekulow here, is the potential obstruction of justice case as opposed to the collusion case as it relates to President Trump. Here's what I think the White House may be misguided on in terms of the political impact, they are out there with their lawyers saying, hey, can we wrap this up? We'd really like to conclude this. They, clearly from the reporting, see it as part of their responsibility to try lift to this cloud of suspicion that has been hanging over the president for the year. I think the Trump White House is misunderstanding if, indeed, they think that somehow, even if this goes on with Manafort and Gates and Flynn, that somehow that's not going to be in the context of the Trump administration. Like, the -- as long as there is an investigation, Donald Trump is going to be under a cloud about it.
BORGER: He will. And don't forget, you know, John Dowd and Jay Sekulow are the president's lawyers. Ty Cobb is inside the --
CHALIAN: Oh, yes. I meant --
BORGER: He is inside the White House. They are looking at this as -- Dowd and Sekulow are looking at this as we have one client, the president. We don't represent all of those other people. So, they're looking at it through this very narrow kind of legal lens. The political story is completely different. Because even if Mueller were to say, you know, and give a report and say, you know, there's no obstruction or whatever, there may be other things that, politically, could be damaging. We just don't know. But it's not their job to be political strategists, right? And it's their job to do --
BLITZER: Amidst all of this, Jackie, a lot of the House Democrats on the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, among them, you just heard Jim Himes, they're worried that Republicans may be trying to shut down that entire House Intelligence Committee investigation and maybe even going further trying to shut down Mueller's investigation. Schiff was on a tweet storm today really trying to underscore these concerns that he has. What's behind these concerns?
KUCINICH: Well, I mean, in that thread that you mentioned, he's worried that there are only a couple more interviews that are actually scheduled. They're out of state. These people were offered to come here and they've decided instead to not have them come here. There are no interviews scheduled for 2018 yet. So, he's very concerned that they're trying to put this to rest and, you know, wash their hands of it. And from looking at what he laid out, it seems that he does have some reason for concern. But to Gloria's point, I'm talking about the president's lawyers, how they have this one objective, it's because that's how the president looks at this, too. He cares about how he is exposed in this. And that has been -- we've heard it in his remarks today. That's what he cares and about and that's what they're out to, you know, figure out.
BLITZER: What would be the political impact if the Republicans in the House do shut down the House Intelligence Committee investigation, leaving the Democrats, from their perspective with a lot of unanswered questions.
CHALIAN: Yes. I think, actually, what the political impact would be is that that would energize both bases.
CHALIAN: And that would energize the Democrats screaming foul, and that would energize the Trump base of the party that would be like, finally, yes, we're getting Congress to move past this. So, I think that would be the political impact there, Wolf. I do think, though, this entire Russia investigation issue is going to hang on the Mueller probe. So, what --
CHALIAN: -- whatever happens with the House and the Senate, this entire thing is going to come down to what Bob Mueller has to say.
BORGER: And I think the question is containing the president to a certain degree. Because you saw what he said when he came out today, and he's screaming about the FBI -- and Bob Mueller used to run the FBI, and FBI agents are investigating him. His lawyers, I presume, would rather that he keep quiet about that, but he sees what's going on in Congress, he talks to members of Congress. So, they're trying to thread a needle here because you do have a political uproar going on and they're trying to tamp down the political atmosphere until they make sure their guy is OK.
BLITZER: Everybody stands by. We've got some breaking news. I want to go live to Capitol Hill right now. We're just getting into the final details of the Republican tax plan. Our Congressional Correspondent, Phil Mattingly, is standing by. Phil, what are you learning about this bill?
[17:40:02] PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, this bill has just been filed in the House, more than 500 pages. Basically, what everybody's been waiting now for weeks. Here are the changes in terms of where they stand right now. The corporate, currently at 35 percent, that will drop to 21 percent. On the individual side, there will still be seven brackets like there are in current law, but I'm going to read them out for you now. They would be at 10 percent, 12 percent, 22 percent, 24 percent, 32 percent, 35 percent and 37 percent.
Now a lot of attention has been paid to that top bracket. The current top bracket sits at 39.6 percent. So, Republicans will be dropping the top bracket down to 37 percent. It's also noteworthy that those individual rate cuts, which a lot of them are, almost across the board on average, the expectation is that individuals will get a tax cut through this plan -- that will sunset in a2025. Those rates will revert back to what they are in current law at that point. They're doing that because it's expensive. They need to meet their budget chart.
Also, a key thing that everybody's been paying attention to, the state and local tax deduction -- the conference agreement expands that. Originally, only allowed a $10,000 cap for property tax deductions. That will also allow income and sales tax as well. Some combination of two of those will be allowed for the Salt deduction -- that's important for states like New York, New Jersey, Illinois, California, some states that at least over in the house have a very large voting contingent for Republicans.
When you track through this as well -- if you look at the corporate side on the repatriation rates, Wolf, that's money that's parked overseas that they want to bring back home, those rates are now at 8 percent for ill-liquid assets, 15.5 percent for liquid assets. That's extremely important for American businesses that have clamoring for, lobbying for this for years.
On another issue, there was a huge, kind of, sticking point at various points in the Senate to pass through deduction. Where lawmakers ended up there, 20 percent credit. So, basically, these are for businesses like LLCs, S-corporations, Partnerships that pass through their business income onto the individual say, pay individual rates. That will be set at 20 percent, that credit there. So that's an agreement as well that they ended up reaching.
Overall, Wolf, I think it's important to put in context that this bill, the 500 pages here are the first overhaul of the U.S. tax code in more than 30 years. They will likely have an impact on every single American, almost every single business as well. And one of the key sticking points: that they were able to get through, and we've seen the news alerts on Marco Rubio getting to yes on this bill, the child tax credit. That is doubled from current law, from $1,000 to $2,000.
The sticking point, though, was the refundability aspect of it. Essentially, how much of that money could be used past their income tax liability? It was set at $1100 in various proposals, that is now been bumped up to $1400. And Wolf, as we know, that was enough to secure the vote of Senator Marco Rubio, Senator Mike Lee who is also outstanding, was very happy with that change.
He's not yet committed yes to the bill, but he said he's hopeful he's going to get there. There's a lot to dig through here, Wolf. Obviously, if you look the international side, the corporate side, the individual side, no shortage of issues here. But one thing they haven't answered to right now, there is a final bill, there will be no changes, and they want to get this to the president's desk by Wednesday of next week, Wolf.
BLITZER: Impressive that you went through all 500 pages that quickly. Phil Mattingly, excellent work as you always do. You really know your stuff. David Chalian, this -- looks like it's going to be a huge win for the president and the Republicans.
CHALIAN: Yes, and you can't stress enough, Wolf, how the Republicans have drilled into their members, the leadership has and how Republicans have been talking that this was an existential threat -- if they were not able to get this through. That their voters and their most ardent supporters, the biggest disappointment they have in their own party in Republicans in charge of Congress, is that they haven't been able to accomplish the agenda. And so, coming back with a big-ticket item and saying we got this done for you and making the argument your paycheck will be bigger and the policy arguments the Republicans will make is just a hugely important way turning into the election year when all the headwinds are coming at them.
BLITZER: Yeah, it looks like it's going to be a big win for the Republicans as early, the president said, by Christmas. And he may just get it.
BORGER: And, you know, there are people who say that -- Republicans who say that if the president had not set that deadline, they probably wouldn't have been able to get this done, but he was adamant about it. So, I think you have to give him credit on that.
[17:39:26] BLITZER: All right, guys, everybody stands by. There is more news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM, including a brand-new mystery in North Korea. One of Kim Jong-un's top generals hasn't been seen in months. Has he fallen out of favor? Has he been executed? Stand by.
BLITZER: New tonight, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is backing off an offer to meet directly with North Korean negotiators anytime and without preconditions. Tillerson now says North Korea must earn its way back to the table. We're also tracking reports of a high-ranking North Korean general gone missing and concerns he may have been executed by Kim Jong-un. Brian Todd has been looking into all of this for us. What are you finding out, Brian?
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, one of the most dangerous places to be inside North Korea is in the number two spot -- right under Kim Jong-un. And tonight, we have strong indications that Kim has moved against a man who occupied that position. It's likely got everyone else inside Kim's circle looking over their shoulders.
TODD: Tonight, intelligence officials from Washington to Seoul are paying closer attention to Kim Jong-un's inner circle. General Hwang Pyong-so, believed to have occupied a position second only to Kim himself, has been out of public view for about two months.
[17:45:09] KEN GAUSE, NORTH KOREA LEADERSHIP EXPERT, CNA: He or he could be being sent to detention, he could be retired or he could be executed. All of these things are on the table.
TODD: He also could be under-going so-called re-education. Time in a prison or labor camp to brainwash him into towing the party line. Could Hwang have been purged? There's no shortage of entry surrounding him. A South Korean lawmaker recently told CNN, it was for "impure behavior." Hwang Pyong-so directed North Korea's General Political Bureau, which
makes sure every soldier in North Korea's massive army is properly indoctrinated. Hwang had already disappeared when a North Korean soldier made a dramatic defection across the border in mid-November. But analyst says, he could still be taking the fall for that.
BRUCE KINGNER, FORMER CIA DEPUTY DIVISION CHIEF FOR KOREA: It really was quite an embarrassment for the North Korea regime. So, someone had to pay for it, and it may have been Hwang being a senior official.
TODD: But analysts say, Hwang was also involved in a brutal power struggle with a man named Chae Long-hae, who has close ties to Kim Jong-un's family. Chae is believed to have orchestrated General Hwang's removal and has taken over his job. Experts say it's likely a revenge plan for a move Hwang made three years ago.
GAUSE: We know Hwang Pyong-so replaced Chae Long-hae as the head of the General Political Bureau in 2014. If you look at the formal leadership lineups of the two -- of the North Korean leadership, the two have interchanged places on a number of occasions, which would suggest a possible rivalry.
TODD: Analysts believe it's also possible that Hwang Pyong-so simply amassed too much power, which threatened Kim Jong-un. U.S. intelligence official telling CNN tonight, Kim demands absolute loyalty from his subordinates and has a history of punishing officials who he views as seeking personal gain or prestige at his expense. Experts say, Kim also loves to pit his top aides against each other.
KINGNER: It's sort of like a lion tamer in a cage with lions. They can take him out, but if you have each of the lion standing on a very small platform, they're more focused on maintaining their balance on that platform rather than lashing out at the lion tamer -- or the North Korean leader.
TODD: Tonight, the only person expert sees as truly safe inside Kim's regime, his younger sister, Kim Yo-jung. Her star has been rising recently. Kim did execute others in his family, his uncle, his half- brother, but Kim Yo-jung is a direct blood relation who Kim Jong-un completely trusts. One analyst says she is bunker safe. Wolf
BLITZER: Interesting. Brian, there will likely be a strong signal in the next couple of days on whether this general who's been missing is really in trouble, right?
TODD: That's right, Wolf. Sunday, this Sunday the 17th, the sixth anniversary of the death of Kim Jong-un's father, Kim Jong-il. On that day, Kim and those closest to him gather and have a public viewing of the bodies of Kim's father and grandfather in that ornate mausoleum in Pyongyang. Analyst says, watch who is next to Kim at that viewing, if this missing general, Hwang Pyong-so, is there, then he's obviously returned from re-education, he could be back in favor. If he's not there, and his rival, Chae Long-hae, is next to Kim Jong- un, well then Hwang is still in deep trouble and could be dead. [17:53:24] BLITZER: North Korea observers will be watching very
closely. Brian, thank you very much. Brian Todd reporting. Coming up, more on tonight's breaking news in the Russia investigation. CNN has learned, President Trump's lawyers will be sitting down with Special Counsel Robert Mueller very soon, probably next week, and this could a very significant meeting. Stay with us.
BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news, footing the bill, Republicans just went public with details of their compromised tax bill. We're studying the fine print and the price tag as two GOP holdouts now say they'll vote "yes". How it will impact your wallet.
Special counsel sits down, CNN has learned that President Trump's lawyers are now preparing to meet soon with Robert Mueller and his team. What that means for Mr. Trump and the Russia cloud hanging over the White House?
[18:00:08] Freeing Flynn? The president isn't dismissing the idea of a pardon for Michael Flynn, suggesting it could be a possibility