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Trump Slams FBI; Winds Whipping Up California Wildfires; "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" Having Stellar Opening Weekend. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 16, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: -- is the White House saying about this idea of firing Mueller and where is this coming from?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Ana. Well, all of this is stemming from several comments that have been made by the president and the Republicans more aggressively than the president. Just a few days ago, the president was speaking to reporters lamenting what he sees of the state of the FBI saying that it is a shame what is happening to the FBI.

He was specifically alluding to some messages that were exchanged between top FBI officials back in 2016 during the campaign that were very critical of the president among other lawmakers.

One of those officials ended up becoming part of the Mueller's special counsel. After those messages were revealed that officials were since reassigned, but you are hearing growing calls from Republicans arguing that now the special investigation is tainted because of what they see as a political bias that was revealed in these exchange messages.

The response from Democrats is that they feel that Republicans are now going to use this to discredit Mueller's investigation. Now, we heard from Jackie Speier, who is on the House Intelligence Committee.

She spoke to a San Francisco tv station and she said that in part, quote, "I believe that the president wants all of this shut down." Alluding to the several investigations in Congress and a special counsel.

She said, "He wants to shut down these investigations and he wants to fire Special Counsel Mueller." Another representative on the Investigative Committee, Adam Schiff, made similar comments yesterday on Twitter.

So, we reached out to White House Counsel Ty Cobb, who gave us the following statement. He said, quote, "As the White House has consistently said for months, there is no consideration of firing the special counsel."

So, the White House essentially denying these claims that are being made by Democrats in response to things being said by Republicans. All of this makes an interesting meeting coming up this week between attorneys for the president and Robert Mueller, making that meeting certainly much more significant -- Ana. CABRERA: All right. Boris Sanchez, thank you. Let me turn to Evan, who has the reporting on this upcoming meeting. It is an interesting timing of that statement. Obviously, they want to have a fairly good relationship with Robert Mueller in order to glean the kind of information that they are after.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Right, exactly. It is funny that Ty Cobb keep on having to say this and the reason is he has to do this is because we know that the president is very impatient with this investigation. It is something that's clouding his year-old administration obviously and he wants this to go away as soon as possible.

We know that this meeting which we expect to happen later this week is going to be focusing on the president's legal team trying to essentially get Mueller to put his cards on the table and explain where this in investigation is going and how much longer is this expected to go and what parts of the investigation are left to be done.

And the importance of this meeting is simply this, I mean, they have now turned over every document they say that Mueller has requested, and they also say that everybody who works at the White House that Mueller has asked to interview has now gone in for an interview.

We know Don McGahn, the White House counsel went in for his interview earlier in the past week. So, they believed that everything is done and so now it is in Mueller's court so to speak for him to do what he has to do next.

CABRERA: All right. So, that makes sense that they believe that because they have done everything that they have asked so far that that lead them to believe that the investigation could be wrapping up. We just don't know for sure.

PEREZ: That's exactly right. I mean, Mueller does not have to tell them anything and he does not have to show any cards so whatsoever. He has more to go and we believe based on talking to sources and other lawyers believe that there is a lot more investigation to be done.

CABRERA: They've had some meetings before, though, too.

PEREZ: Exactly. They've had more other meeting before. This one is important because of the timing of all the other parts of this that have been done.

CABRERA: OK. Evan Perez, thank you for that reporting and Boris as well, thank you. I want to bring in a couple of experts who has a lot of perspective for us. CNN senior political analyst, a former adviser to four U.S. presidents, David Gergen is with us. Joining us on the phone, CNN chief legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, Jeffery Toobin.

First to you, David, your reaction to the president's attorneys putting out there insisting there are no plans to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller? DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there are no plans. The question is what's going on in the oval office? That we simply don't know. What we do know is that that his attorneys have been promising President Trump for some time that this would be wrapped up by the holiday season. It is not.

They think all the people have been interviewed as we just heard so they would like to see if it will come to a conclusion. At the same time, we have the president in the last 48 hours not shutting down speculations about whether he may pardon his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

[17:05:11] From Michael Flynn's point of view that maybe encouraging not to be fully cooperative. The other interesting thing is very different straw in the wind was the starting that we had late this week that the lawyer for Jared Kushner are seeking a public relations firm that's used to handling crisis. That's a very interesting development.

CABRERA: That would suggest that his team does not think that this investigation is over any time soon.

GERGEN: Exactly right.

CABRERA: So Jeffery to David's point, while the lawyers are saying there are no plans to fire Mueller, yesterday, the president raised the specter of possibly pardoning Michael Flynn. I want to play it for us.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I don't want to talk about pardon for Michael Flynn yet. We'll see what happens, let's see. I can say this. When you look at what's going on with the FBI and the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: So, he just said let's see while his lawyers are clarifying, you know, what's going to happen with Mueller. They aren't putting out any statements clarifying what the president meant by those comments, Jeffrey?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST (via telephone): Well, you can listen to what President Trump says without also listening to the news media he follows. I mean, there is this enormous drumbeat on Fox News and Breitbart for this investigation to end and for Donald Trump to shut it down.

And you know, there is an interesting difference between Ty Cobb and Donald Trump. Donald Trump is president of the United States. Ty Cobb is a midlevel employee. I would listen far more carefully to what Donald Trump says than to what Ty Cobb says about what his intentions really are.

And I think it is very unclear whether this investigation -- that the White House will attempt to shut down this investigation one way or another.

CABRERA: David, the president often says "we'll see" when he's asked tough questions about topics he really doesn't want to discuss. So, is it possible that he's just going to go into that throw away response sort of his natural instinct and that pardoning Flynn really isn't something he's considering.

GERGEN: Well, I found the operative word in that and the most striking word in his response on the pardon and I don't want to talk about pardoning Michael Flynn yet, yet. That suggests he wants to keep the door open in his own mind about what he's going to do.

That's a clear and obvious signal to the Flynn people to take some encouragement and possibly holding on and hope to get a pardon. That maybe better than whatever stories he got to spill.

What we don't know what -- you know, Flynn has been cooperating for a while. So, he may have already told a lot of these stories. We have to wait and see about what this is. I agree with Jeffery that we don't know yet whether the president tends to shut it down.

What I do think is so unusual and so odd is that in the past when the White House has hired a lawyer, and that lawyer is supposed to be the representative to the public and to the press.

But first it's supposed to reflect the views of the president and here we have this total disconnect again and again between what to say what the secretary of state says versus the policy that comes from the president.

What the lawyer for the president says and what the president himself maybe thinking. It leaves a great deal of uncertainty, but I think it also from the president's point of view perhaps maintain flexibility.

So, that if the pressure mounts as Jeffrey says from Breitbart and Fox and so forth and so on, he may feel he has more leverage to shut it down than he does six weeks ago.

CABRERA: So, Jeffrey -- go ahead.

TOOBIN: I just want to add one thing David, said. You know, he said one word jumped out of him and that word was yet. No pardon discussion yet. The other word that jumped out of me was "people."

He said, you know, people are angry at the FBI and upset at this investigation. If you look at the public opinion polls, that's not true for a considerable majority of the public. The people who are upset are the people who watch Fox and the people who are on Fox.

And that's those the opinion leaders that this president follows. I think as long as they are beating the drums for firing Mueller, that idea will never be off the table for this White House.

CABRERA: I want to get your take, Jeffrey, on this idea that Ty Cobb is putting out there that the White House interviews are complete and that there were no requests to interview the vice president or the president himself.

[17:10:05] So, in their mind it suggests that the president isn't under investigation or isn't in the hot seat in their investigation. Do you think it's possible Mueller would end this investigation without ever questioning not only the president and the vice president, but also Ivanka?

TOOBIN: I would find it very hard to believe that Mueller and his team would shut down their investigation without talking to the president. That seems like performing "Hamlet" without Hamlet.

It would seem it would not be a thorough investigation. You know, Ty Cobb has been saying almost since he was fired in July that the investigation is wrapping up. He said Thanksgiving, end of the year, and now January.

I mean, I think he wants that to be true and I think he has taken a cooperative posture. He has made witness available. He has produced documents, but the person in charge of this investigation is not Ty Cobb. It is Robert Mueller.

And I certainly don't know that he's wrapping up this investigation. I would be very surprised if Ty Cobb knew for sure that he was wrapping up the investigation either.

CABRERA: All right, Gentlemen, I have much more to ask you about, but I need you to stick around, got to squeeze in a quick break. I want to talk about a revealing Q&A session that I am going to play for you where senators were questioning one of President Trump's nominees to be a federal judge. Here is the sneak peek.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

MATTHEW PETERSEN, DISTRICT COURT JUDGE NOMINEE: I have not.

KENNEDY: Civil?

PETERSEN: No.

KENNEDY: Criminal?

PETERSEN: No.

KENNEDY: Bench?

PETERSEN: No.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: That did not end there. There is an apparent lack of legal knowledge with the follow up question that comes in this back and forth. What did that reveal about President Trump's efforts to remake the federal court if anything. We'll discuss, live in the CNN NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:16:13]

CABRERA: President Trump's efforts to remake the federal courts hitting an awkward moment this week. One of the president's judicial nominees, Matthew Petersen, coming under fire after failing on answer questions on basic legal knowledge.

CNN's Ariane De Vogue takes a look at the jaw dropping exchange between Petersen and Republican Senator John Kennedy during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Take a look.

ARIANE DE VOGUE, CNN SUPREME COURT REPORTER: It is not often that a confirmation hearing for a district court judge grabs anyone's attention. But on Thursday, a Republican senator grilled nominee, Matthew Petersen. He's up for a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The video of his testimony went viral. He stumbled on basic legal questions. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

KENNEDY: Have you ever tried a jury trial?

PETERSEN: I have not.

KENNEDY: Civil?

PETERSEN: No.

KENNEDY: Criminal?

PETERSEN: No.

KENNEDY: Bench?

PETERSEN: No.

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 I --

KENNEDY: How about the Pullman extension doctrine? You'll all see that a lot in federal court. OK.

(END VIDEOTAPE) DE VOGUE: What's interesting here is the outrage of a Republican senator and it comes as Senator Chuck Grassley, the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee at the White House earlier in the week to withdraw two nominations.

One of the nominees had expressed early support for the KKK. But here's what is significant, despite this misstep, all and all they have had an unprecedented success. They put some 12 appeals courts nominee and that's a record. So, they may be losing the battle with these few nominees, but they are winning the war to reshape the judiciary -- Ana.

CABRERA: All right. Ariane De Vogue, thank you for that. Back with us, our panel as the White House -- by the way, I want to read the White House's response to this ongoing controversy surrounding the judicial nominee, Matthew Petersen. This is what they write in a statement.

"Mr. Petersen has spent nearly a decade as a commissioner of an important federal agency overseeing its litigation on regulatory issues -- the very kinds of issues federal district court in D.C. decides. It is no surprise the president's opponents keep trying to distract from record-setting success the president has had on judicial nominations."

Again, a reminder, it was the Republican senator who was asking those question. Back with us to discuss all of this is David Gergen and Jeffrey Toobin. Jeffrey, as a legal mind yourself, were these gotcha questions?

TOOBIN: No, they weren't gotcha questions. They were really easy questions. A motion in limine is simply a motion to keep evidence out of the view of the jury and abstention relates to federal state relations in court.

I mean, these are questions a second-year law student should be able to answer. It is more important I think to recognize what's really going on with the federal courts, which is that President Trump and Mitch McConnell, the majority leader's great (inaudible) is moving the courts in a dramatically more conservative direction.

Remember, it was Mitch McConnell, who kept Antonin Scalia's seat open for a year and did not allow a vote on Merrick Garland and he didn't allow votes on lawsuits of judicial vacant seats.

And Donald Trump is filling them mostly with highly qualified nominees. In fairness, I think Petersen was an exception in that regard. They are qualified and extremely conservative. That's going to be one of President Trump's most significant legacy.

CABRERA: I want to ask you more about that in a second, but it is not an isolated issue of what we just heard from Petersen.

[17:20:04] I mean, the White House had to pull two other judicial nominees whose credentials were questioned by the Republican chair of the Judiciary Committee also happening this week. I mean, Brett Talley, he was nominated to be a federal judge in Alabama. He has never tried a court case. He got a unanimous not qualified rating from the American Bar Association. We have also learned that Talley failed to disclose that his wife works for the White House Councils Office.

There's also Jeff Mattir (ph), who once described transgender children as part of, quote, "Satan's plan" and there's Leonard Stephen Brass (ph), who was narrowly confirmed despite his not qualified rating from the American Bar Association. David, what do you think is going on?

GERGEN: I think Jeffrey nailed it. The White House is in an enormous rush to fill over 143 current vacancies on the federal benches around the country because they want to -- they see the most single important legacies of the Trump years.

Something that cannot be undone if the Democrats come back into power. People who are very conservative and going into bench and having lifetime appointments. In that rush, I think the vetting process and the White House once again has been ragged and trying to fill out completely.

People are not told up in the Hill exactly what the backgrounds are of these people. If you look at Peterson's resume, I there are many strong qualities in it. You know, he's done a lot in life.

The stunning thing, though, was not only the vetting, but fact is he was nominated to this role three months ago, back in early September, he's had three months to prepare for these hearings to brush up, OK, he has not practiced this kind of law in a long time. He was on the (inaudible) of the University of Virginia.

This a guy who could have some days studying and then ready for all of these questions as Jeffrey said that are seen as pretty standard in law schools.

CABRERA: I also want to ask you guys about the lack of diversity in the president's picks because it is not just the knowledge in the Q&A, but I mean, we know the president is setting records for the percentage white people nominated for these lifetime appointments to the federal courts.

I want to show you this. Nearly 60 Trump's judicial picks, only one is black and one is Hispanic and three are Asians. And for more perspective that means only 8 percent of Trump's nominees are not white. The lowest share for a president in three decades when you look back at the percentages of his predecessors.

So, Jeffery, do you think this administration is failing to cast a wide enough net in search for talent of various ethnicities and backgrounds?

TOOBIN: It's not a priority. I mean, this White House doesn't care about diversity. You know, now that Amorosa has left the White House staff. There are no African-Americans in the senior White House staff either. This is not something that this administration cares about. What they care about is ideology and they are doing a very effective job of nominating judges who are against gay rights, abortion rights, voting rights for African-Americans, who are for lower barriers between church and state.

That's what they want and that's what they are getting. They don't care about nominating women and racial minorities, and you see that in the results of what they are getting.

CABRERA: David, your thoughts?

GERGEN: Well, I think we saw it before earlier when the president named the U.S. attorneys around the country. Now the president has a right to fire the standing U.S. attorneys when he comes in and he did that and exercised that.

In replacements of those people, there are dozens and dozens of U.S. attorneys that he named and only one is a woman. That was astonishing to me and picture after picture that comes out of the power structure in the administration when the president put his cabinet, you see only a barehand full of women and you see very, very few minorities.

CABRERA: Gentlemen, David Gergen, Jeffrey Toobin -- go ahead, last thought.

TOOBIN: It used to be said that there were not a lot of women lawyers and not a lot of minority leaders. That is decades in the past. There are thousands of women, thousands of qualified minority candidates. It is a question of ideology and that's what matters most to this White House.

CABRERA: I really appreciate the thoughtful discussion, guys. Good to have you both on.

President Trump claims the FBI is tainted and says it is a shame what's going on there. He claims the FBI is biased against him and the Russia investigation. We will talk it over with a couple of former FBI agents, coming up, live in the CNN NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:29:21]

CABRERA: Some breaking news coming into CNN, another member of Congress is stepping aside now amid sexual harassment allegations. Democrat Ruben Kihuen of Nevada says he will not run for reelection amid the House Ethics Committee investigation into accusations that he sexually harassed two women.

Now he is a first term congressman representing parts of south and central Nevada. Here is what Kihuen is saying in a statement.

"I want to state clearly again that I denied the allegations in question. I look forward to clearing my name. Due process and the presumption of innocence are bedrock legal principles which have guided our nation for centuries and they should not be lost to unsubstantiated hearsay and innuendo. However, the allegations that have surfaced would be a distraction from a fair and thorough discussion of the issues in a reelection campaign."

Meantime, Rock Star Gene Simmons is being sued for sexual battery. A civil complaint alleging that the Kiss front man groped a woman at a restaurant opening in California last month. The Jane Doe who filed the suit claims she was interviewing Simmons when he flicked her throat and grabbed her buttocks. CNN reached out to Simmons lawyer and the restaurant for comments, so far, no response. We'll bring that to you as we get it.

The president of the United States seems to have a problem of his top law enforcement agency. President Trump has on several occasions slammed the FBI and describing it, quote, "In tatters." Saying, "It's a shame of what's happening there," without elaborating on what he means by that.

Remember, President Trump fired James Comey when he was leading the campaign collusion investigation. Critics of that move say Comey was getting too close to the Oval Office.

I want to bring in two former senior FBI investigators, Steve Moore and James Gagliano, both retired supervisory special agents.

Before we talk specific issues, guys, between the White House and the FBI, I want to know how you both feel when you hear the president of the United States put down your former agency with such hostility saying its reputation is in tatters.

Steve?

STEVE MOORE, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: I think it hurts, number one. But I think we should realize that the FBI is monolithic. You have the FBI headquarters and you have the field. The field is 90 percent of the FBI. The agents are not involved in the Washington stuff. And what they are doing right now is trying to stop al Qaeda cells and trying to stop serial killers and trying to do daily work. This is nothing but a distraction. And they know what's true and real. I think while they may feel indignant about this, it's not going to stop them. The FBI is not in tatters.

CABRERA: James, how do you feel about it?

JAMES GAGLIANO, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: To Steve's point, I agree a thousand percent. There's 35,000 FBI employees, Ana, and 12,000 FBI special agents. It's not a monolithic organization. People hue to their own different political ideologies and political stripes. What is important for the American public to understand and believe and know without any questions is the FBI is apolitical. The day-to-day investigators out there doing the job are honest, they're following the evidence and they're not letting their own political ideological leanings infect or have any bias whatsoever in their investigations.

CABRERA: That's so important and that has been called into question. This week, especially, when we heard Rod Rosenstein testifying in front of the committee, the Judiciary Committee in the House this week, who, mind you, are not involved in any kind of Russia investigation himself. They were questioning him about text messages that had been exchanged that were revealed by the Department of Justice between a member who was on Mueller's Russia investigation and somebody else who was not involved. Nonetheless, it raised the question because those messages had an anti-Trump feel about whether people who are investigating Russia and the president's potential ties or campaign ties to what happened during the election, whether they maybe tainted in terms of how they're pursuing that probe.

GAGLIANO: Sure. The Hatch Act states that an FBI agent and any federal employees cannot politic on the job. The problem here, the crux is this FBI in particular was using his government issued communication device, an iPhone that he'd gotten from FBI headquarter. There's nothing wrong with him having strong feelings one way or the other. There's nothing wrong with him to participating in the political process. What's wrong is where he was so vocal. If this had been referred to the OIG, other people at FBI headquarters, other people in that orbit had to have heard some of those comments or knew that were put on a government device. He could feel that way and no one should think that should taint investigation. But once he vocalizes it, and puts it on a device, meaning it's discoverable, those text messages are discoverable, so if there's ever a case for obstruction or anything else, those text messages are discoverable, how could you have this individual overseeing three big cases, Clinton, Trump and the Flynn plea.

CABRERA: Right. We know the I.G. office is investigating, especially the Clinton e-mails. That how these text messages were surfaced.

Steve, let's talk about the current deputy director, Andrew McCabe. His future has now been called into question by Republican lawmakers after those texts emerged. Among those texts, there was a conversation that seemed to allude to some kind of insurance policies if Trump won the election. These messages were exchanged this past summer, so before the election, Does that raise any red flags to you?

[17:35:07] MOORE: Yes. It does. As Jim talking about the Hatch Act -- we were afraid to put political signs in our yard. Politics is radioactive for an agent in the field. So to hear somebody at headquarters actually discussing it on a device, on an FBI device, through an FBI communication channels ,and discussing alternative plans if a certain candidate is elected, even if it turns out there's nothing wrong with it, the perception is unacceptable. With Strzok and any other agent who are involved in this, you have to root it out, not because I necessary think or don't think that they were involved in anything nefarious, but you cannot have the appearance of it. This is the FBI. You cannot even look like you might be doing something. And so right now, while the FBI does not have a problem, the FBI management has one. I mean, Strzok was handed back to FBI. It was like Don Vito Corleone smacked a wet one on his lips. He's done. But it's going to be harder now for McCabe to stick around.

CABRERA: Let's listen to the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, as he testified this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ROD ROSENSTEIN, U.S. DEPUTY ATTORNEY GENERAL: We recognize we have employees with political opinions. It's our responsibility to make sure those opinions do not influence their actions. Pardon me. So I believe that Director Mueller understands that and that he is running that office appropriately, recognizing the people have political views, but ensuring those views are not in any way of a factor in how they conduct themselves in office.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: James, I know you agree with the statement when you talked about the integrity of the FBI.

Let me pose this question. Given that people have political leanings personally, and we know that sometimes can influence or affect how we perceive information or interpret messages, does that have at least the risk of impacting the direction somebody takes in their investigation?

GAGLIANO: Ana, you gave perfect example of implicit biases. You have them and I do, and every human being has them, and FBI agents do as well. What's incumbent upon bureau management and, hopefully, under Director Wray this is going to happen, you cannot fall prey to group think. Group think is when you put a bunch of people that have similar feelings, not that they're Democrats or they're conservatives, not that they hue to this side or that side, but you have a group of folks that can distance themselves from that, look at evidence impartially, and make decisions based on the evidence, and not let their -- I am going to stand between the republic being under Donald Trump or I'm going to help this or I'm going to help that.

CABRERA: But it's not what I am asking. It's not what they want in terms of the outcome itself, but it's like how they are interpreting information.

GAGLIANO: Sure.

CABRERA: Could it be affected based on how they look at things?

GAGLIANO: Sure. That's why there are multiple layers. When Steve and I were supervisors. Then you have assistant special agents in charge above that. Then you have special agents in charge and then assistant directors, and then headquarters has a network of oversight and supervisors. And again, it goes to that point. There are different levels of people that look at it and say, show me the evidence, show me --

(CROSSTALK)

GAGLIANO: There's checks and balances there. You want to assemble your team so there are varying opinions so that folks can look at it as impartial as possible for a human being to do.

CABRERA: James Gagliano and Steve Moore, you both had great information. Thank you very much for the insights. GAGLIANO: Thanks.

MOORE: Thanks.

CABRERA: Well, winds are whipping up the California wildfires again and more people are having to evacuate. We'll take you there live and bring you the latest next in the CNN NEWSROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:43:16] CABRERA: There's no end in sight of these deadly wildfires in Southern California. The Thomas Fire has become the third-largest wildfire in the history of the state. Overnight, this massive fire grew against to nearly 260,000 acres, forcing another 12,000 evacuations, shutting down highways in Santa Barbara County. Since these wildfires sparked 12 days ago, if you can believe it, a firefighter has died while battling the flames. A woman also died while trying to flee. And despite the danger, some people are refusing to evacuate.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You think it's going to get better and worse. It's one of the things where we are here to protect the property and our home, and I don't want to leave until the end.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Let's go to CNN's national correspondent, Miguel Marquez, joining us from Santa Barbara County.

Miguel, obviously, air quality is really bad where you are. You have a mask. What are you hearing from people on the ground that you are talking to.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, there's nothing but fear in the community right now. There's real concern that this Thomas Fire may be threatening the city of Santa Barbara itself.

We are with city of Santa Barbara firefighters and two of their trucks here. They have been on shift for the last week. This fire will not quit. You come to us at a pretty good time. This wind that you are seeing, this is what firefighters are concerned with.

The fire itself are up in the foothills here. I just saw, it started to peek out over this hill here.

I don't know if you can hit that there, Dimier (ph).

That fire is brand new and it's starting to move down the hills as the winds, a northeastern wind that pushes it down this way. The winds all day have been blowing it back towards the fire and back this way. Overnight, tonight, that's the concern. That's when the winds are expected to pick up.

I want to show you, this is always amazing to see these fires, how heavy the smoke is. That's the sun here in California, and it looks like a nuclear winter. It's 2:45 p.m. on the west coast here. It should be a beautiful sunny afternoon in Santa Barbara, but it's all smoke and flames and concern -- Ana?

[17:45:28] CABRERA: Wow. That's such an impactful story when you show us how smoky it is.

Miguel, we were talking of people not evacuating, even after one firefighters was killed and another woman died. What are people doing trying to get out of harm's way?

MARQUEZ: Because of the number of crews they have working here, for the most part, people have left their homes. But coming up here, there were a lot of people out and spraying down trees around their homes and the roots around homes and sitting there with the cars packed and watching those hills to see if the fire is coming down. Firefighters say, look, we don't need you to spray down your roofs now. You need to get out. And when this fire comes, it will come quickly. They have so much gear up here, it will be difficult for them to operate with so many people trying to get out in a crisis -- Ana?

CABRERA: Thank you for giving us the latest information. Stay safe, Miquel, and Dimier (ph), your photographer. Hello to him as well. Good to see you.

MARQUEZ: Thanks.

CABRERA: For many, this time of the year is about giving back. But the 11th Annual CNN Heroes, All-Star Tribute salutes 10 people who put others first all years long. It airs live tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. eastern. Get ready to be inspired.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

(SINGING)

ANNOUNCER: These are every day heroes. They inspire and change lives every day.

UNIDENTIFIED CNN HERO: We want to make sure they make better choices when it comes to violence.

UNIDENTIFEID CNN HERO: When you lose your child, the love doesn't go away and has to find a place. So lucky I found a place to put that love.

(SINGING)

ANNOUNCER: They are truly what it means to be a hero.

UNIDENTIFEID CNN HERO: It's people helping people the best way we know how.

UNIDENTIFEID CNN HERO: When they see me, they always feel happy.

UNIDENTIFEID CNN HERO: Give them a chance, they can do anything you ask them to do.

ANNOUNCER: This Sunday night, CNN presents a very special live event.

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KELLY RIPA, TALK SHOW HOST & TELEVISION PRODUCER: And I'm Kelly Ripa.

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ANNOUNCER: CNN Heroes, An All-Star Tribute, live, Sunday at 8:00 p.m. on CNN.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:52:30] CABRERA: "Star Wars, The Last Jedi" is a force to be reckoned with at the box office. It's the eighth installment of the series, poised to have one of the biggest openings in the galaxy. "Variety" reports the film will earn around $215 million this weekend. That comes in just behind the previous "Star Wars" film, "The Force Awakens," for the all-time opening weekend earnings.

I want to bring in CNN's Kaylee Hartung, who is outside an Atlanta theater talking to fans as they are coming out.

No spoilers here, Kaylee, but what are you hearing from fans?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Ana, we have been here all day. I've seen Wookiees, R2D2, a little girl dressed as Rae (ph), a little boy as Darth Vader. We can't find anyone who wasn't impressed or didn't enjoy this film.

Take a listen to some of the folks we've talked to.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Amazing. It was fantastic.

HARTUNG: How did the film live up to your expectations?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Surpassed them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've seen them all. This is probably, at this stage, number one.

HARTUNG: Number one.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Number one.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARTUNG: You heard it there, number one.

So many people hold the original "Star Wars" films close to their hearts. "Empire Strikes Back" generally regarded as the best of the "Star Wars" films. But that is a strong endorsement to hear from people who have seen all eight installments of the series now saying that this is the best.

Ana, you mentioned the domestic number for this film, but the number that this film will be chasing worldwide -- you think this movie has been released in nearly 50 countries -- is $528 million. That's how much money the prequel to this, "The Force Awakens," raised in its opening weekend. We'll see if "The Last Jedi" can rival that.

CABRERA: Kaylee, did you have a chance to watch it? Are you a "Star Wars" fan?

HARTUNG: Ana, full disclosure, I've only seen one of the films, up until now. I can't believe you got me to admit that on television.

(LAUGHTER)

But after today, I'm absolutely going to see this one. The genuine enthusiasm and excitement that so many lifelong fans of the series have is hard to not get excited about this one.

[17:54:44] CABRERA: Especially when you talk about not a negative review. That guys who said this one was the best yet. Some people have pretty high expectations. That does speak volumes.

Kaylee Hartung, what a fun assignment. Thanks for bringing that to us. We appreciate it.

That's going to do it for us here for now. I'm Ana Cabrera, in New York. But I'll be back in an hour or so. So don't go away. You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM.

"SMERCONISH" is next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:59:52] MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN HOST: I'm Michael Smerconish, in Philadelphia. We welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

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