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Third-Largest Wildfire in California History Grows; Trump Attorney Says No Consideration of Firing Mueller; Omarosa's Exit Highlights Lack of White House Diversity; Poll: Melania Trump More Popular than Her Husband. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired December 16, 2017 - 20:00   ET



ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Eight o'clock Eastern, 5:00 in the evening out west. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York. Thanks for being here.

There appears to be no end in sight to those deadly fires in southern California. The Thomas Fire is now the third largest in state history.

And look at these images. We have live pictures tonight of the massive fire burning northwest of Los Angeles. It has grown to nearly 260,000 acres. Several highways in Santa Barbara County have been shut down because of the paths being in flames.

And a firefighter has now died battling the wildfire. A woman was also killed while trying to escape. Officials have ordered another 12,000 people to evacuate just today.

Our correspondent, Miguel Marquez, is joining us live from Santa Barbara County, and meteorologist Gene Norman is in the CNN Weather Center.

Miguel, I want to begin with you. You obviously have the full gear there. The winds have been a major problem for firefighters and for residents.

What are you hearing from the people you're talking to? Are they heeding the evacuation order?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: For the most part, people are heeding the evacuation order. We did see some people who were staying by their homes, watering things down, trying to make it as moist and wet as possible before this fire possibly comes in here.

I want to show you where we are right now. This is -- the winds and the conditions here have just gotten worse.

Just on the other side of this ridge, there was a spot fire that was popping up. A helicopter was trying to get in there to drop water, but it took it minutes and minutes to try to get in there because the wind is blowing so heavily. And if you look up into the mountains here, you can see the intensity

of the wind in the trees. And all afternoon and the last 15, 20 minutes, we would just see these massive flames coming off of different parts of the mountain as that wind pushes it down towards Santa Barbara.

It is really make or break for these firefighters. They've had really bad Santa Ana winds, very, very dry conditions over the last weak. They had a few days' break where they thought they were getting on top of it.

They were doing burnout operations and trying to get rid of a lot of the undergrowth here, and then these Santa Ana's came roaring back. And now, this is the week spot in the fire.

They have some 400 different vehicles up in this area, trying to fight this fire, trying to protect homes, hoping that it doesn't spread. But it is -- they are fighting the winds like, I think, that they had -- were not expecting.

They were expecting winds as high as 20 miles per hour up until 11 p.m. Pacific Time and then 30 miles per hour topping out after that until 7 a.m. Pacific Time. But the winds right now, especially up in those higher areas, in those gullies where it sorts of funnels the wind, very, very intense gusts, 30, 40 miles per hours.

Where we are now, it's probably in the 15, 20-mile-per-hour range, but it's going to be a very, very long night here in Santa Barbara, Ana.

CABRERA: Oh, my, not good news. Thank you, Miguel. Stand by as I bring in Gene now to talk more about where we go from here weather- wise.

Those winds, Gene, are causing all kinds of problems. Is there any relief in sight?

GENE NORMAN, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Ana, unfortunately, the bad news is no. And actually, today, what Miguel has been reporting is kind of a one-two problem of those wicked winds whipping those fires.

Of course, we talked about the Santa Ana's, all the times that it had been fueling these. But, today, we had a new player, an area of low pressure developing in just offshore here that helped the winds come back toward the coast.

So you had them coming from opposite directions. And if you saw Miguel's reports from earlier, he said they were just moving around erratically, and this is one of the reasons why.

Now, as we move on into the rest of the day and on into tomorrow, the National Weather Service has expanded the red flag warning. In fact, this is the longest red flag warning they said they've ever had, and it's going to last until late tomorrow night.

And it's expanded to include a good part of southern California where, earlier, it was just the Santa Barbara area. And potentially, there's a red flag all the way up towards San Francisco and Sacramento.

So what about the wind forecast? It's expected to peak overnight until about maybe 7:00 or 8:00 tomorrow morning local time out there in the California area and then begin to weaken as we head our way into late on Sunday and then early into Monday.

So they might get a break but, Ana, today, that one-two punch really made things really tricky and dicey.

CABRERA: I am keeping my fingers crossed that the weather helps those firefighters sooner rather than later.

[20:05:05] Thank you, Gene Norman, Miguel Marquez. We appreciate it. Just stay safe, Miguel.

We are following new developments out of Washington tonight. President Trump's attorneys are preparing for a one-on-one meeting with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Sources telling CNN that the two teams plan to sit down as early as this week to discuss the Russia investigation.

Now, this potentially climactic meeting comes as one of the President's attorneys releases a new statement today, insisting that there are no plans to fire Mueller. CNN's Boris Sanchez has been at the White House all day, tracking new developments.

And, Boris, we'll get to the new statement from the President's attorney insisting Mueller's job is safe in just a moment, but, first, I understand you have even more new reporting, new information, about what's going on in terms of the lawyers representing President Trump now saying they -- that Mueller got ahold of documents and -- that he wasn't authorized? Tell us more.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Ana. This is quite a bit complicated, but an attorney for the Trump transition team has written a letter to several committees in Congress, making the claim that Special Counsel Robert Mueller had unauthorized access to tens of thousands of transition e-mails and that he did not disclose the possession of these e-mails to transition officials.

This letter makes the claim that Mueller got these e-mails from the General Services Administration, which supports transition teams with things like e-mail logistics.

The letter also claims that Mueller used the information on these tens of thousands of e-mails during interviews with transition officials, again, without disclosing that the Special Counsel was in possession of them.

These tens of thousands of e-mails are between some 13 transition officials, including four top officials.

We reached out to the Special Counsel, but they declined to comment. We've also reached out to a representative for the General Services Administration, but they could not be reached, Ana. This adds yet another layer to the claims being made recently by

Republicans that the Special Counsel is now tainted and that Robert Mueller should resign, Ana.

CABRERA: So tell us more about the statement then from the President's attorney about Mueller's future.

SANCHEZ: Right. Well, that is essentially coming in response to statements being made by Democrats, which are responding to statements that have recently been made by Republicans.

Just this week, you had the President lamenting the state of the FBI, which, in his eyes, has fallen into shame. He was alluding to certain exchanges, messages, that were exchanged between two top FBI officials back in 2016 during the campaign that were very critical of then- candidate Trump. And very critical of others, including Democrats, I should mention.

Two of those officials that exchanged these messages wound up serving on the Special Counsel. One of them left the Special Counsel before these text messages were revealed. Another one was reassigned after the messages came to light.

Recently, Republicans have specifically called for Robert Mueller to resign, pointing to these messages as a sign that the Special Counsel has become partisan and that it is now looking to attack the President politically.

Democrats have responded to those remarks by essentially making the case that the White House is now planning to fire Robert Mueller to get rid of this cloud of the Russia investigation from looming over the White House.

Both Adam Schiff and Jackie Speier, both on the House Intelligence Committee, made those claims this weekend. Jackie Speier speaking to a San Francisco T.V. station, saying that she believed that the firing of Robert Mueller was imminent.

We asked White House Counsel Ty Cobb about those comments -- well, here's the comment from Jackie Speier.

She told that San Francisco T.V. station, quote, I believe that the President wants all of this shutdown. He wants to shut down these investigations -- she's alluding to the ones in Congress -- and he wants to fire Special Counsel Mueller.

As I mentioned, we asked White House Counsel Ty Cobb about these remarks coming from Democrats, and he sent us the following statement.

He wrote, quote, as the White House has consistently said for months, there is no consideration of firing the Special Counsel.

So, again, you have the White House denying that there's any plan to get rid of Robert Mueller while Democrats are saying that it is imminent, and Republicans, some, are saying that he should resign because the Special Counsel is tainted -- Ana. CABRERA: Oh, boy, a lot to unpack. Thank you, Boris Sanchez. We

appreciate the reporting.

Now, a short time ago I spoke to two of CNN's most experienced legal and political analysts about these latest developments, Jeffrey Toobin and David Gergen. I asked them about the President's attorney insisting this weekend that they have no plans to get rid of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.


[20:10:05] DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, there are no plans in their office perhaps, but the question is, what's going on in the Oval Office? And that, we simply don't know.

What we do know is that his attorneys have been promising President Trump for some time that this would all be wrapped up by the holiday season. It's not. They think all the people have been interviewed as we've just heard, so they'd like to see it draw to a conclusion.

But at the same time, we have -- and Jeffrey can respond to this so well. At the same time, we have the President in the last 48 hours not shutting down speculation about whether he might pardon his national security adviser -- former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. From Michael Flynn's point of view, that might be encouraging not to be fully cooperative.

The other interesting thing, though, I think, Ana, which was also a very different straw in the wind, was the story we had late this week, that the lawyers for Jared Kushner are now seeking a public relations firm that is used to handling crises. That's a very interesting development.

CABRERA: And that would suggest that his team doesn't think that this investigation is over anytime soon.

GERGEN: Exactly right.

CABRERA: So, Jeffrey, to David's point, while the lawyers are out there 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.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: 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 going on with the FBI and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.


CABRERA: So he just says "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't 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 mid-level employee.

I'd 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 will -- 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 -- you know, going to that throwaway response is sort of his natural instinct and that pardoning Flynn really isn't something he's considering?

GERGEN: Well, I found the most operative word and the most striking word in his response on the pardon that he -- 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. And that's a clear and obvious signal to the Flynn people to take some encouragement from that and possibly hold on in the hopes of getting a pardon. That might be better than, you know, whatever story he's got to spill.

Now, what we don't know is what -- you know, Flynn has been cooperating for a while, so he may have already told a lot of his story. We'll have to, you know, again, wait and see about what this is, but I agree with Jeffrey 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, that person is supposed to reflect the views of the President.

And here we have this sort of -- this total disconnect again and again between what, say, the Secretary of State says versus the policy that comes from the President. What the lawyer for the President says, what the President himself may be thinking.

It leaves a great deal of uncertainty, but I think it also, from the President's point of view, perhaps maintains 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, let me just say, six weeks ago.

TOOBIN: But, you know --

CABRERA: So, Jeffrey --

TOOBIN: Ana, if I could just --

CABRERA: Go ahead.

TOOBIN: -- add to one thing David said. You know, he said one word jumped out at him and that word was "yet," no pardon discussion yet. The other word that jumped out at me was "people."

He said, you know, people are very angry at the FBI. People are very upset at this investigation. If you look at the public opinion polls, that's not true for a considerable majority of the public.

[20:15:05] The people who are upset are the people who watch Fox and the people on Fox. And that is -- those are the opinion leaders that this President follows. And I think as long as they are beating the drum for firing Mueller, that idea will never be off the table in this White House.


CABRERA: Coming up, the not-so-fond farewell for Omarosa. Why she struck such a nerve for many in the community that Donald Trump asked her to reach out to.


CABRERA: Breaking news we're following tonight. Another member of Congress stepping aside amid sexual harassment allegations. Democrat Ruben Kihuen of Nevada says he will not run for re-election amid a House Ethics Committee investigation into accusations that he sexually harassed two women.

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

[20:20:04] I want to state clearly again that I deny 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 re-election campaign.

So she was in charge of African-American outreach for the Trump administration before her resignation this week, but Omarosa Newman hit a nerve in the Black community where many say she did not represent them. Randi Kaye takes a closer look at her White House legacy.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At the White House, Omarosa Manigault-Newman's job was to reach out to African-Americans, improve relations, and get their support for the President's agenda. But if you listen to the reaction to her work and her, you might think she did more harm than good.

SUNNY HOSTIN, HOST, "THE VIEW": Truth be told, she's a pariah in the African-American community. She's always sort of been the villain, and her job as a director of outreach in the African-American community was almost a slap in the face of the African-American community.

KAYE (voice-over): On "The View," co-host Whoopi Goldberg piled on.

WHOOPI GOLDBERG, HOST, "THE VIEW": I hope you that you find your people because maybe they're looking for you.


GOLDBERG: She's just been so nasty to so many women.

HOSTIN: Everyone.

GOLDBERG: And so many women of color.


GOLDBERG: You know, so many women of color.

KAYE (voice-over): Women like radio and talk show host Wendy Williams.



MANIGAULT-NEWMAN: It looks like you had a nose job.




MANIGAULT-NEWMAN: No, I mean, I just looked at before and after --


WILLIAMS: Honey --

MANIGAULT-NEWMAN: Before and after. Before and after pictures.

WILLIAMS: But if I can suggest -- because the only thing that I've had done to my face is a little Botox, I would suggest to you some Restylane. The lines stay.


WILLIAMS: They say Black don't crack. She's cracking.

MANIGAULT-NEWMAN: And I would suggest --

WILLIAMS: Thank you so much.

MANIGAULT-NEWMAN: And I would suggest a wig that doesn't sit off my head three inches. That would be my suggestion.

KAYE (voice-over): After she took the White House job, Spike Lee had an especially strong reaction, slamming her on Instagram, posting this picture of her wearing a clown nose.

And despite all her claims she supported President Trump only to help the Black community --

MANIGAULT-NEWMAN: I will never forget the people who turned their backs on me when all I was trying to do was help the Black community. It's been so incredibly hard.

KAYE (on camera): -- Omarosa Manigault-Newman was also known for hostile exchanges with the community, including one at a gathering for the National Association of Black Journalists earlier this year.



MANIGAULT-NEWMAN: Ask your question --

GORDON: Here we go.

MANIGAULT-NEWMAN: -- but don't lecture me.

GORDON: Here we go. I'll --

KAYE (voice-over): As for her assertion that she saw things in the White House that made her upset --

MANIGAULT-NEWMAN: I have seen things that have made me uncomfortable, that have upset me, that have affected me deeply and emotionally, that has affected my community and my people. And when I --

KAYE (voice-over): At least one late critic simply had enough.

TREVOR NOAH, HOST, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH TREVOR NOAH": Oh, when she says her people, does she mean reality show stars?


NOAH: Because she was not fighting for Black people in the White House. My people. Slow down, Omarosa Park, slow down. You can't you roll hard with President Trump for a year and then come back to the neighborhood like, hey, that was really weird, right?


NOAH: Anyone else noticed that? Was it just me? Anyone? Oh, and if you're wondering whether Black people were buying it, just

ask Robin Roberts.


KAYE (voice-over): Randi Kaye, CNN, New York.


CABRERA: Up next, her exit making plenty of waves in Washington, but it's Omarosa's comments about diversity in the White House that's really sparking debate now. Does the West Wing have a diversity problem? We'll discuss live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


CABRERA: OK. So moments ago, we saw a range of intense reactions to Omarosa's sudden departure from the Trump White House. Was Omarosa Manigault-Newman fired or did she quit? Well, it depends on who you ask.

One thing we do know, though, the former reality T.V. star was the most prominent and visible African-American senior staffer inside the Trump White House. What does her dramatic exit then signal about West Wing diversity under President Trump?

Well, let's talk it over with Charles Blow, opinion columnist for "The New York Times" and Paris Dennard, former White House director of Black outreach under President George W. Bush.

So, Paris, Omarosa's departure has really shined a light on the lack of diversity in the administration, especially lack of African- Americans. Paris, do you see that as a problem?

PARIS DENNARD, FORMER DIRECTOR OF BLACK OUTREACH FOR PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, I don't see a problem as shining a light on the lack of diversity because I think it shows the opportunity.

The administration is acutely aware of the need to have more African- Americans who agree with the President's agenda to make America great again and want to do so by helping our community.

And a lot of people have told me and a lot of people have been telling other people that Omarosa stood in the way for many African-Americans who happen to be Republican who wanted to support the administration by working for the administration, not just at the White House but across the different federal agencies.

Now, with her gone, maybe that is going to change because that impediment is no longer there. But the notion that diversity is important is not falling on deaf ears at the White House.

Surely, the White House is diverse when it comes to other groups like women especially in the West Wing and the communications division. But when you look at African-Americans in senior-level positions, there -- they could do a better job. [20:30:05] But I will -- last point is this, there are a lot of

African-Americans that there at the White House and across the agency that are there and have been there from day one, working to support this President.

CABRERA: I mean, we know Ben Carson, obviously, is in a high-profile division but --

DENNARD: I'm not talking about -- I'm not talking about the cabinet.


DENNARD: I'm talking about other levels of -- in the White House.


DENNARD: The surgeon --


DENNARD: There are people in the -- well, the surgeon general himself, the Vice President's Office, the Second Lady's Office, White House Leg Affairs, the White House Fellows Office. There's actually a White House Fellow there that is dedicated to supporting HBCUs as well as the Domestic Policy Council.

Then you can go to the Department of Defense. You can go to Department of Education. You can go to the new White House HBCU's second director --

CABRERA: Paris, send me the names, send me the list. We would love to be able to shine the light if there is all of that diversity when you talk about African-Americans --

DENNARD: That's fact.

CABRERA: -- specifically that -- because Sarah Sanders, the White House Press Secretary, couldn't name a single person when she was asked about this.

Charles, I want to bring you into the conversation, though. Do you see it a problem that Omarosa left, again, showing -- now shining the spotlight that there really aren't other African-Americans inside that bubble?

CHARLES BLOW, OP-ED COLUMNIST, THE NEW YORK TIMES: No, the problem is that Omarosa was there. Diversity is not simply about, you know, the skin you're in.


BLOW: Diversity is about, what do you advocate for? What -- do you have a voice to be able to do that and then be heard? Are you really an advocate for the people who you say you're an advocate for?

Omarosa did an interview yesterday -- that was yesterday or the day before, where she's basically confessed that Donald Trump has a race problem. She basically said that he was racial but not racist, which is kind of a distinction without a difference.

And you have to ask yourself, what does that say about her? That she know -- she knew that he had this problem and that she still hitched herself to that wagon. And there is no evidence, whatsoever, that she was doing anything to kind of disabuse him of those tendencies.

And she says, you know -- in another part of that interview she says, well, to become more sensitive about these issues, you have -- it's a learning curve. Actually, it's not a learning curve.

Like, Donald Trump has been accused of these very same racial issues for decades. And basically, this is the issue not of learning curve, this is the issue of denial. This is an issue of willful blindness. This is him not wanting to accept culpability for what he has done.

And so it really doesn't matter whether or not we get more faces that are brown or whatever or Black in that White House if they're all going to toe the line the way that Omarosa was doing, which was to say, I know you have a problem with race and I'm not going to say anything about it.

CABRERA: So, Paris, it seems like both you and Charles, in many ways, agree that Omarosa was not doing right by the Black community in terms of her influence in the White House or preventing other voices from coming in.

I just want to show this picture because the image itself is somewhat striking. Kal Penn, Obama's former associate director of public engagement, responding to Sarah Sanders when she was asked specifically about, you know, who was in the White House and, you know, how much diversity there really is.

And you look at the picture here -- and if we can scroll up. I'm hoping we can show even more of the picture.

But it basically says -- since Sarah Sanders is touting their nonexistent diversity, figured I'd post a screenshot of our office staff on the last day of the Obama administration. Diversity of race, gender, ethnicity, economics, but also life experience, thought, and background. A real tapestry of America.

I just want to get your thoughts, Paris, on how the President can improve the diversity within his administration?

DENNARD: Again, when you talk about diversity, you have to parse it out. If you're talking about Black people in the West Wing or senior staff level, they can do a better job and they are going to do a better job in improving that.

If you're talking about diversity in terms of females and Hispanics and women -- Hispanics and Asians and other ethnicity groups, they are there. They are present, in addition to African-Americans.

And the last point I will say is this. The notion that you have to be a Liberal or a Democrat in order to identify with the Black community is false.

Just because you are a Republican or conservative does not mean you do not understand the community, that you want to help the community, and you understand that you are fighting for the community.

I have been fighting and there are so many more that are currently in that White House that look like me, that don't look like me. There are people in the administration and in the kitchen cabinet that are supporting this administration, who are fighting for the community, but we happen to have a Republican Party affiliation to our names.

[20:35:05] And we're just as dedicated and we're just as committed, so it's offensive to insinuate that just because you're Republican means that you are not supportive of our community. And that image, I will work with the White House to provide you an image that shows the diversity of this current administration because they're there.

CABRERA: Yes. That would be wonderful, honestly. We would welcome that.

DENNARD: They're there.

CABRERA: And frankly, Charles, I mean, Democrats don't get a free pass either. I want to us all to listen to former NBA superstar Charles Barkley talking about Democrats and the Black vote after Roy Moore's Alabama defeat. Let's listen.


CHARLES BARKLEY, ANALYST, "INSIDE THE NBA": This is a wake-up call for Democrats. Yes, Democrats. And I told Mr. Jones this -- and I love Doug.

They've taken the Black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time. It's time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for Black folks and people who are poor.


CABRERA: OK. So, Charles, quickly, what do Democrats need to do to prove to the African-American community that they really don't take their vote for granted?

BLOW: It's -- I think everybody needs to think about the idea of having some sort of legislative agenda for -- specifically targeted at African-Americans. I just think that that's a real thing because we do it for -- I mean, we do it for other -- same-sex (ph) population.

We did not necessarily have that, even in Obama years. Even though I think he did a really good job of providing substantive changes that impacted the Black community, it wasn't targeted in that way. It wasn't labeled in that way.

DENNARD: Correct.

BLOW: And I think people need to have that happen, regardless of whether or not it is Democrat, Republican, or whatever.

I do -- you know, if you want to hear somebody talk about, you know, a -- somebody writing about how maddening the kind of Black distance is from liberals, read James Baldwin and the letters from Alabama.

This is a real thing because what is -- what happens is that Black people either get used as pawns either for or against kind of a trump card. And we can always go to this community if we can't attract voters from other communities that we need.

We can always turn to this community to either suppress their vote or pump up their vote, depending on whether or not you're liberal or conservative. That has -- that part has to stop.

Stop using us your trump card. No, we don't want you -- we don't want to be punished by conservatives, and we don't want pity from liberals. We just want the dismantling of White supremacy, get that out of the way because I genuinely believe that Black people are just like anybody, other people.

If you remove the impediments, they will behave exactly like you. They will -- we want to go to work. We want to raise our families. We want to achieve. We are creative. We are artistic just because we are human beings. And there's not --

CABRERA: Yes. Yes.

BLOW: None of that is foreign to us. The only thing that stands between Black -- that kind of Black progress and here is the structures of White supremacy and oppression. Remove that and we don't --

CABRERA: All right, guys. We --


BLOW: -- about this.

CABRERA: I really appreciate the thoughtful --

DENNARD: We also want tax cuts and good education, too. So the tax relief thing is very important.

CABRERA: OK. Paris, Charles, thank you both for the thoughtful discussion. We'll have you back to continue it another day. Thank you.

Up next, it is no secret President Trump likes to win but a new poll has him coming in a solid second place. Why Mrs. Trump may be outshining her husband. You're live in CNN NEWSROOM.


[20:42:56] CABRERA: The President is not the most popular Trump in the White House. According to a new poll, Americans like Melania a lot more than her husband. Less than half have a favorable view of the President while the majority of Americans like the first lady.

So I want to talk more about this and more with Trump biographer, Gwenda Blair. Her book is called, "The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire."

Gwenda, thanks for coming back on with us. The President, we know, doesn't like to be outdone. Do you think he's OK with his wife being more liked or more popular than he is?

GWENDA BLAIR, AUTHOR, "THE TRUMPS: THREE GENERATIONS THAT BUILT AN EMPIRE": For the moment, it's probably kind of a convenient distraction but only for a moment. I think she's going to step back into the shadows or at least, you know, a pace back. She's a prop. She's not supposed to be a principal.

CABRERA: You think that's how he views it?

BLAIR: I think that he will want to reassert the fact that the attention should be on him.

CABRERA: So the new polling also comes the same week Roy Moore lost in Alabama. Not only did the President back Moore but he also backed his primary opponent, Luther Strange, who also lost. So he was oh for two there. How do you think he's taking it?

BLAIR: He pivoted right back to how he really wanted Luther Strange, and he said he was right because he said that Moore couldn't win. And he's -- he has moved on.

CABRERA: So you think it actually reinforces --

BLAIR: He wants to reframe it, use this all post --

CABRERA: -- many things for him?

BLAIR: That's the way he's playing it. It shows -- he -- that shows he's right. The fact that Moore lost is getting kind of, you know, lost on the cutting room floor.

The fact -- what's -- what matters is that he said that Moore couldn't win, that Strange was the person to back and -- and that's how he's playing it. And the fact that Moore actually lost and that he actually backed Moore, who could remember that?

CABRERA: I mean, in some ways, he also embraced Doug Jones, who was the Democrat who won. They both seemed to have a positive take on the conversation that they shared.

[20:45:02] Do you consider that or should it be considered like an olive branch to the Democrats, how he reacted to the Jones victory?

BLAIR: I don't think -- I would've called it a very long olive branch. Sure, but I think that was part of getting -- you know, moving on past Moore, moving on past this tainted candidate, moving on past allegations of sexual harassment, which is something that Trump doesn't want to be anywhere close to. CABRERA: Now, the President has pulled no punches even with members

of his own party as we all know. But now, Republicans are in a position to pass the tax bill this week. And that would be a huge victory for the President, for the party.

Do you see this changing the President's relationship with Republicans in Congress now that they're about to deliver that first major legislative win?

BLAIR: Well, it's not playing that well in polls outside of Washington, so it's a kind of a complicated situation. But I think it's a bit -- it's a kind of a Faustian thing.

I mean, you know, the -- it's -- the members of Congress, they want to be on the winning team. And in the moment, Trump is in the White House. That's the winning team, so they're going to hang on to that.

The fact that they have to make a deal, do this -- sign this, you know, vote yes on a tax bill that so many of them have said some version of it's not very good, it could be better, there a lot be problems, that's -- a lot of people -- a lot of the people that are voting for it have said that.

But being lined up with the guy who's in charge, the guy who can give them things, that's pretty hard to resist. Just like Faust made a deal with the devil to get what he wanted, I think that's what's happening now. And it's no surprise.

CABRERA: I have to ask -- get your take on the tweet that raised so many eyebrows this week, when the President tweeted about Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand after she called him to resign. After that, he said she would beg for campaign donations and was, quote, willing to do anything for them.

Now, the sexual innuendo there is obvious. But do you believe the President thinks through how different sides could interpret those tweets? I mean, how thoughtful is he with his word choice, the guy you know?

BLAIR: I think it's muscle memory. He has been a very quick take, a sharp rejoinder, going for the jugular, where's -- where is the way to score the points he wants to score. He's been doing that for 40 years throughout his career, and he saw -- Kirsten Gillibrand said he should resign, zap.

And it's -- what he wants to get to is his base. He wants to show that he is still the strong guy in the room. That don't worry, he's going to stand up to them, he's not -- stand up to any attack. He's not backing down. I think that's what matters with him.

And he had to go after her in his mind, so I don't think he -- did he choose the words very carefully? I mean, in a way, yes, in a way, no, because I think it's a split-second thing where, you know, what to go after? To toss back at her something that seems to -- you know, that's kind of a smear, the same thing he did, you know, a number of times during the campaign. So thinking it through? He's been practicing.

CABRERA: But do you think he would have thought this could rub other people the wrong way, particularly other women, both Democrat and Republican?

BLAIR: This is the guy from the "Access Hollywood" tapes. I mean, he is -- you know, he just blew that off as locker room talk.

He'll blow this off as like you -- in fact, his Press Secretary -- Press Spokeswoman Sarah Sanders already did it for him: if you think that, your mind must be in the gutter.

Well, that's the response, that, you know, he didn't mean it. If you think that, it's on you.

CABRERA: Gwenda Blair, thank you. Good to see you.

BLAIR: Nice to see you.

CABRERA: We'll be right back.


CABRERA: Rock star Gene Simmons is being sued for sexual battery. The civil complaint alleges that the Kiss frontman 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 has reached out to Simmons' lawyer and the restaurant for comments. So far, no response.

And this is just in to CNN. More than 300 people became ill with a gastrointestinal type of illness while aboard a Royal Caribbean cruise ship.

That ship, now back at port, spent five nights in the Caribbean. The cruise line says they are taking steps like intensive sanitary procedures to try to minimize the risk of further issues.

And this is some breaking news here on CNN, details about the Trump administration's evolving position on China.

"The Financial Times" newspaper reporting now that President Trump intends to accuse China of engaging in economic aggression. Now, this is expected on Monday when the President is going to reveal his national security strategy.

And according to "The Financial Times," the President will propose a much tougher stance on China, reportedly a result of his frustration with the Chinese government, despite his bond with China's leader.

[20:55:02] We have reached out to White House officials for comments. They have said nothing so far. More details when we hear them. And tomorrow morning, a quick reminder. CNN's Jake Tapper is going to

talk with Alabama Senator-elect Doug Jones and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin. That's at 9:00 a.m. Eastern and Pacific. Again, "STATE OF THE UNION" only here on CNN.

That's going to do it for me tonight. Thank you for spending part of your evening with us.

I'm Ana Cabrera. I'll be back with you tomorrow afternoon at 5:00 p.m. Eastern in the CNN NEWSROOM. Good night.