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Congress Passes Historic $1.5T Tax Plan, Major Win For Trump; Trump, GOP Celebrate Tax Victory, Brace For 2018 Showdown; Warner: Firing Mueller Would Be "Gross Abuse Of Power"; House Judiciary To Interview Deputy FBI Director; Trump Jr. Criticized For Floating Government Conspiracy Against Trump. Aired 7-8pm ET

Aired December 20, 2017 - 19:00   ET



WOLF BLITZER: Ryan Nobles, we'll watch it together with you. Thanks very much. That's it for me. Erin Burnett "OUTFRONT" starts right now.

JIM SCIUTTO, OUTFRONT HOST: OutFront next, President Trump takes a victory lap after Republicans pass their tax bill. But does this win have staying power? Plus, the top Democrat in the Senate's Russia probe warns the President in no uncertain terms, don't even think about firing Robert Mueller.

And the senator behind the covert program to track UFOs is speaking out tonight. Is he a believer? Let's go OutFront.

SCIUTTO: And good evening, I'm Jim Sciutto in for Erin Burnett. And OutFront tonight, the President claims a major victory. Celebrating the trillion dollar tax bill surrounded by Republicans at the White House.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's the largest tax cut in the history of our country, and reform, but tax cut, really something special.


SCIUTTO: Except that the tax cuts are actually not the largest ever. This is certainly the largest tax overhaul in 30 years, but Presidents Reagan and Obama got larger cuts passed. Yes, a legitimate win for Trump. No question.

Yes, Republicans can say they have done something very big this year. Momentum on their side. But now Republicans have to go out and sell it to an American public that is very skeptical.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), MAJORITY LEADER: My view is, if we can't sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work.


SCIUTTO: He has his work cut out for him. The bill is just simply not popular. A CNN poll this week shows 33 percent support it. According to the Joint Committee on Taxation, the bill drives up the deficit by more than $1 trillion and it does so by giving corporations, not individuals, the lion's share of the cuts.

Add to that, the reality that it benefits the wealthy, including Trump, more than the middle class. This as most Americans view Republicans less favorably than Democrats. A new CNN poll today of registered voters reveals this. 56 percent favor a Democrat in their congressional district while 38 percent prefer a Republican. That's double digit trouble for the GOP come November.

But today, the President did not let that dampen his mood. He was all praise for the GOP leadership in Congress.


TRUMP: Paul Ryan and Mitch, it was a little team. We just got together and we would work very hard anyway. It seems like it was a lot of fun. It's always a lot of fun when you win.


SCIUTTO: Abby Phillip is OutFront at the White House. Abby, it was all roses you might say for the President and Republican leaders today. Words of praise, we don't often hear between those two teams.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It was everything like a love fest at the White House today with Republicans really kind of holding hands on this tax bill after months and months of really being at odds with each other over major issues. You heard Paul Ryan call the President critical to this bill, saying that he had exquisite leadership on the tax bill and would not have gotten done if he had not been there pushing them over the finish line.

Now, they have, it's a good time for that to happen because Republicans are also preparing to go head to head with Democrats, who say that this tax bill is going to be a huge liability for them in 2018. We also know from that CNN poll this week that just about 66 percent of Americans think that this bill will do more to benefit the wealthy than the middle class.

As for when President Trump will actually end up signing this bill, I'm told that the White House is waiting for the Hill to complete their administrative process and that it's not likely to happen before the President leaves for Mar-a-Lago this week. It's very likely that bill will end up being shipped down to Florida where he can then sign it before the New Year, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Interesting optics there. Abby Phillip at the White House.

OutFront tonight, David Gergen served as Adviser to four presidents. April Ryan, White House Correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks and Tim Naftali, he is a Presidential Historian. David, really, no matter how you slice it, this was a big moment for this President.

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: In fairness, I think everyone has to acknowledge that this is Donald Trump's most positive moment since he was inaugurated. This was a big league win. The kind of really shaped your legacy as president.

He has rewritten the tax code more extensively than I think we've seen since the 1980s. And so it is, you know, any president would proclaim this as historic, positive, good news.

Right now, the President of the White House still has a big problem. And that is the Republicans have done a lousy job selling this bill. It's unpopular. There's a wave building up on the Democratic side toward the 2018 elections as reflected in those CNN numbers you just cited, Jim.

And the bill itself, you know, it's a gamble about whether we'll get the growth its proclaimed or whether it's going to be a sugar high and the economy will start sink a little bit. But very importantly, it also has in it what many would consider a poison pill.

[19:05:11] And that is getting rid of the mandate on Obamacare is essentially as Republicans are suggesting today, including the President himself, is intended to wreck Obamacare. And that for a lot of Americans is a bridge way too far. We know how unpopular that was when Republicans did it in full and, you know, displayed it earlier on.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Something of a stealth repeal, you might say.

April, you've -- Abby Phillip mentioned this, David as well, unpopular. Just look at the number here. 55 percent of Americans oppose it. Just 3 percent a third, support it.


SCIUTTO: Now, to be clear, by some estimates, about 80 percent of Americans are going to get a cut of some kind. Will they begin to like this over time?

RYAN: Well, for individuals over time, in 2025, individuals will not see the pay cut. It will not be permanent like it is for corporations. And I talked to Congressman Cedric Richmond, the Head of the Congressional Black Caucus who said this was basically a gift to the donors of President Trump.

He also said there's a big question about the pay-fors. How do you pay for? And he's very concerned about the next issue that this administration and Capitol Hill will be looking to, which is entitlements. And he's very concerned that they will cut that as well as the least of these programs for the least of these.

So there's a big concern. It's not necessarily the biggest win. It's a history making moment. But the question is where's the win and where are the pay-fors.

And he also said, Jim, and this is really big. Congressman Richmond said that if you take all the people who are on unemployment right now and you pay them $50,000, give them $50,000 jobs, that's cheaper than the cost of this tax cut.

SCIUTTO: But I wonder here -- I wonder, Tim, you've studied a president or two in your time. I wonder if there's a parallel here between the Obamacare passage and this. And that you have a President with majorities in both Houses from his own party, passing without any votes from the opposite party, something that was a priority for that one party. And paying for it in effect in those midterm elections there. Did you see that danger of this being a repeat of what Obama saw after passing Obamacare in 2009?

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, I see a possible parallel in this. When President Obama signed Obamacare, only 40 percent of those poll like the Gallup poll, approved of the bill. So it was not a popular bill when it was born. While it turns out the tax reform program is even less popular. Now than Obamacare was in 2010.

The challenge for the President, President Obama, was that the advantages of Obamacare were put so far in the future that there was lots of time for people to create noise. To make it seem like a disaster well before people started to benefit from it.

In the case of the tax reform program, salaried Americans are going to start seeing some changes. Positive changes when the -- when it hits next year because the federal withholding is going to be less because the standard deduction has gone way up. It's doubled. So initially, people might actually see a little bit more money in their paychecks. And the Republicans are going to say hey, that's because of us.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely.

NAFTALI: So that might be -- that's a different kind of outcome.

SCIUTTO: Yes. And David, I wonder because what happened with Obamacare, interestingly, it was unpopular at the beginning, but over time, people began to like many of the, many of the provisions in there. And then didn't want to see it go. And we saw that earlier this year when Republicans tried to repeal it.

Can you see the same thing playing out with this? That over time and granted, no, it will not be -- their cuts will not be as big by any measure as say corporations cuts or even some wealthy people. But at the end of the day, people see hundred bucks extra in their paycheck every pay period, or something in that range, will they over time then, give credit to the Republicans?

GERGEN: I'm not sure they'll give credit, but I will say this. When the pendulum ultimately I guess back to the Democrats as it will at some point, we don't know when, it will be hard for Democrats to raise taxes to go back to where we are. It's always harder to raise taxes than to lower taxes. SCIUTTO: And harder if you take away in the entitlements.

GERGEN: The oddity of course is that we're lowering taxes and the public doesn't want it. They could say no thank you because it really favors corporations. But I must tell you, I do think, Jim, that we're paying a price.

There's -- You can talk about the economy, but you can also talk about the process, and talk about democracy. It has been a terrible blow for democracy that we now have every bill, big bill in Obama and now with Trump. Gets passed by the party of the President, gets no vote from the other side.

[19:10:11] So it becomes a political football. And you don't know whether when the Democrats get in, they will try to change some of this. We just don't know when. I think it's also been the fact that this -- I think it was a mistake by the Republicans to do this without holding any hearings.

So public became suspicious. What are they hiding? What do we not know? You know, that's why John McCain was arguing in terms of having a regular order. To have bills that people have a chance to read, they'll analyze, have hearings on the Hill. And then people can make up their minds on a more solid basis.

It's been very hard for the public to make judgments about this because frankly, it's not well understood in the country and the Republicans have intentionally insured that.

SCIUTTO: I mean, it was done that way intentionally, you know. April, you heard the President praising imagine that McConnell and Ryan today. One of the biggest divisions we've talked about this year have been the division within the Republican Party.

RYAN: Yes.

SCIUTTO: Within the President, between the President and those Republican leaders. Let's listen to some of that praise from the President today.


REP. PAUL RYAN (R), HOUSE SPEAKER: Something this big, something this generational, something this profound, could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership. Mr. President, thank you for getting us over the finish line.

REP. DIANE BLACK (R), CHAIRWOMAN, BUDGET COMMITTEE: Thank you, President Trump, for allowing us to have you as our President and to make America great again.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), PRESIDENT PRO TEMPORE: You're one heck of a leader. And we're all benefitting from it. This bill could not have passed without you.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: President Donald Trump delivered, a great victory for the American people.


SCIUTTO: Effusive praise for the President there. Is this a substantive turning point in that relationship?

RYAN: I don't know if it's substantive. I mean, we have to watch and see when the President gets upset again about something, and watch his twitter but what it does too. It resets for all of them. It resets for the legislative branch as well as it does for executive branch.

They have their first legislative plan after this whole year almost. It took a year for their first legislative win for the President and for those on the Hill. But what it does do, it shows us that this President looks for loyalty.

And when it resets it, this is resetting their, they're giving glowing support. Mr. President, you did this, you did this and how wonderful this is. We have to wait and see how long this lasts, but both sides needed to have a win and it's unfortunate it came on such a controversial bill.

SCIUTTO: Final word quickly to you, Tim Naftali. Will we look back at this as a turning point in the Trump presidency?

NAFTALI: Well, we'll look at this certainly as a turning point. But I think we will also look at this as increasing income maldistribution of the United States. You know, we're up to a point we haven't been since 1929 when over 20 percent -- when 0.1 percent of all households controlled, owned 22 percent of the country's income. We haven't been this at this point since 1929 and this is going to make it worse. So I think that some of the consequences of this law were not going to see for a while, but we will see that as a turning point and not in a good direction.

SCIUTTO: Tim, thanks to you. April, David, as always, appreciate it. And we'll see you again soon.

OutFront next, a top Democrat puts the President on notice, telling Trump that he better not fire Bob Mueller.


SEN. MARK WARNER (D), CHAIR, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: In the United States of America, no one, no one is above the law. Not even the President.


SCIUTTO: Plus, Donald Trump Jr. Peddling a conspiracy theory about government officials being out for his father. Why is it dangerous? And the secret government program to track UFOs, acknowledged tonight by the senator who backed it.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [19:17:53] SCIUTTO: New tonight, the Ranking Democrat on the Senate Intel Committee issuing a strong warning directly to the President and his Republican colleagues who are questioning the integrity of Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation. Listen.


WARNER: Any attempt by this President to remove Special Counsel Mueller from his position or to pardon key witnesses in any effort to shield them from accountability or shut down the investigation would be a gross abuse of power. These truly are red lines and simply cannot allow them to be crossed.


SCIUTTO: Warner told reporters that he spoke up today because he is concerned that President Trump might fire Mueller while Congress is in recess next week for the holidays.

Democratic Congressman Jamie Raskin is OutFront tonight. He is a member of the House Judiciary Committee. Thanks very much Congressman for taking the time.


SCIUTTO: I'll ask you directly here. Do you share Senator Warner's concerns that the President might sneakily fire the Special Counsel during the holidays?

RASKIN: Well, absolutely. You know, Mr. Mueller was Director of the FBI. He was U.S. Attorney and he come off from Massachusetts and California. A very popular and widely heralded law enforcement official who was -- who is a registered Republican, was appointed by another Republican, Mr. Rosenstein, who is also a career DOJ official, U.S. attorney appointed by President Bush. And he was appointed by Attorney General Session, so you have a series of Republican prosecutors.

And now, there's this smear campaign against Mueller and his investigation. Why? Well, it's obviously because of the Flynn guilty plea and the Papadopoulos guilty plea and the Manafort indictment and so on. They're doing their job.

And suddenly there's this huge campaign to try to discredit and undermine them. And the speculation is right here on Capitol Hill that there are people within the White House who are moving to try to get rid of him. Now, under statute, it would require an action of the Attorney General.

[19:20:06] And the Special Counsel can be removed only for misconduct, dereliction of duty, conflict of interest or incapacity. So you'd have to show that there's some real good reason to get rid of him. We need to take a stand.

SCIUTTO: We heard the Deputy Attorney General say last week he saw no cause to fire him. Warner went on to say that firing Mueller could provoke a constitutional crisis. You hear that often from Democratic lawmakers. What does that really mean?

RASKIN: Well, I mean, I think what we call a constitutional crisis is really a political crisis that implicates some of the extraordinary measures of the constitution. And I do think that a lot of members have been on the verge of pushing for impeachment in the House of Representatives. I think that if the President engineered a series of moves to remove Mr. Mueller and destroy the Special Counsel investigation that you would see a stampede towards impeachment. And so the crisis is really a political crisis that provokes that constitutional (ph) remedy.

SCIUTTO: You're saying if the President fired Bob Mueller, you would push for impeachment and many of your colleagues would push for impeachment?

RASKIN: Well, I think it would be a clearly impeachable offense because it would constitute obstruction of justice. The same kind of obstruction of justice that we saw when he fired FBI Director Comey after Comey refused to drop the investigation into National Security Adviser Flynn and refused to essentially take a personal loyalty oath to President Trump.

So, you know, the evidence of obstruction of justice, deliberate interference with this investigation is mounting. And I think that that would clearly be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this. I imagine you have a lot of private conversations with your Republican colleagues both on the Judiciary Committee, but elsewhere on the Hill. Do any Republican colleagues say to you in private that they're concerned and that they would be outraged if the President would have fire the Special Counsel?

RASKIN: Well, unfortunately, I heard more of that you know back in summer, in the spring, where people were saying well, look, you know, if he did something really extreme like try to fire the Special Counsel, then we could see taking a stand there. And we saw a lot more effort by the Republicans to tell the President, don't do that.

Now, the goal posts have moved. You know, we've got colleagues like Trent Franks who resigned from Congress because of his hand maid's tale scandal in his office, but he took the position that the President should fire Mr. Mueller. He openly said it. So did Mr. Gates from Florida. He's egging the President on, urging him to fire the Special Counsel.

So we're alarmed that so many of the Republicans appear to be in this kind of attack mode and smear campaign against the Special Counsel. And what they're doing is they're throwing all kinds of spaghetti up against the wall. So, first it was the texts.

They found some the texts from an FBI agent who had been removed from the investigation by Mueller back in the summer. But they dig these texts out, they leak them under the most suspect and mysterious circumstances and then try to create some sort of mythical bias in the whole investigation. And they moved on to some e-mails that they said were illegally obtained. That was ridiculous. And so every day, they're coming out with a new attack on the Special Counsel and the FBI.

SCIUTTO: Well, you mentioned those e-mails. Your committee holding a closed door interview with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe tomorrow. House Intel Committee of course did the same earlier this week. It was eight hours long. What more are you hoping to learn from him during that testimony?

RASKIN: Well, this closed door hearing that we'll be in tomorrow was called not by the Democrats on the committee. As far as I know, we weren't consulted at all. The letter that I saw was coming from the chairman, the Republican chairs of the Oversight and Judiciary Committees.

So, you know, this to me also looks like it's part of this bizarre and orchestrated campaign to discredit and undermine anybody who's got anything to do with the investigation and the FBI. And apparently, the attack on McCabe is that he is married to a woman who is an active Democratic politician in Virginia. Big deal. There are lots of people in the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's office and DOJ who are married to people who are involved in politics and there's no rule against that.

SCIUTTO: And either a lot of mixed party marriages in D.C. Congressman Raskin thanks very much for taking the time tonight.

RASKIN: Totally my pleasure.

SCIUTTO: OutFront next, Donald Trump Jr. taking heat tonight after claiming there is a government conspiracy to bring down his father. And former Senator Harry Reid is speaking out publicly about the covert UFO program that he championed.


[19:28:39] SCIUTTO: Tonight, backlash over Donald Trump Jr.'s latest conspiracy theory. The President's son saying that there are people at the highest levels of government who are trying to undermine President Trump and his political agenda. An accusation we should note that the President himself has echoed.

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden called these comments, quote, scary, but this is certainly not the first time that Trump Jr. has peddled such theories. Tom Foreman is OutFront.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Call in another chorus for the conspiracy choir. This time, led by Donald Trump Jr., who is once again suggesting there is a secret plot to take the President down.

DONALD TRUMP JR., PRESIDENT TRUMP'S SON: My father talked about a rigged system throughout the campaign. And people, what are you talking about. But it is. And you're seeing it.

SEAN HANNITY, FOX NEWS HOST: This is about the impeachment of the President.


FOREMAN (voice-over): At the center of the claim, the idea pushed by some of the President's supporters that the probe into possible collusion with the Russian meddling in the election is actually just an effort to delegitimize the results of that vote.

TRUMP JR.: There is and there are people at the highest levels of government that don't want to let America be America.

FOREMAN (voice-over): For a former CIA Director, Michael Hayden --

MICHAEL HAYDEN, FORMER CIA DIRECTOR: That was a little scary. I mean, that is an appeal to the heart of autocracy and challenging the patriotism of those folks who work in the United States government.

TRUMP: Say something.

FOREMAN (voice-over): But this is not the first time Donald Trump Jr. has embraced the idea of sinister forces trying to heard his father and help his foes specially Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. pushed a fake claim on Twitter that Clinton wore an earpiece during the debate for coaching during the back and forth.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: The facts are known because the media won't report on them. The politicians won't talk about them.

FOREMAN: Like his father, he routinely accuses the media of pushing fake stories to hurt the president. Stories often allegedly concocted by Democrats. Tweeting journalists they couldn't care less about the truth. He has routinely suggested Clinton broke laws and others covered her tracks. An advantage he claims his father never enjoyed.

DONALD TRUMP, JR., SON OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: If he did the same things she did, he'd be in jail for 30 years.

FOREMAN: And he even resurrected old false claims linking the Clintons to the death of a White House aide.


FOREMAN: A common theme in all these conspiracy theories is the idea that there is a permanent clandestine group in D.C., a so-called deep state, to resist populist movements for change. The irony, the Russian investigators are considering the possibility that there was a conspiracy at work, indeed a conspiracy, and team Trump, including Don Jr., might have been involved -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Tom Foreman in Washington.

OUTFRONT now, Jen Psaki, she's former White House communications director, and Brian Lanza, former communications director for President Trump's transition.

Bryan, I got to begin with you. These types of conspiracy theories, they used to be confined to really the fringe. The far right and let's be frank, the far left fringe, but to have the president's son take them very public and in the mainstream, isn't that damaging?

BRYAN LANZA, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: You know, I'll tell you what is damaging. What is damaging, what happened during last year's election when the intelligence community, which used to be very non- partisan, decided to get involved in a very partisan way.

SCIUTTO: I'm asking you about Donald Trump Jr.'s comments now --

LANZA: No, no, because this is -- let me explain how it's tied in. So, this is their introduction into politics, is allegedly an agency that's supposed to be very nonpartisan is actually very partisan in trying to, you know, put their thumb on the scale against his dad. So, their initiation into politics --

SCIUTTO: How so? I'm just curious, how are you saying?

LANZA: I'll give you the former director of national intelligence, Mike Morell. He endorsed Hillary Clinton. These were high level senior officials in the intelligence community getting behind the Democratic campaign when they're supposed to be nonpartisan.

So, when you're a Trump person, you know, a Trump family member getting involved in politics, you see the government putting their thumb on the scale for a particular candidate when it's not supposed to be that way. So, naturally, they're suspicious of everything going forward.

I think it's unfortunate. I think Mike Morell has acknowledged those probably long-term mistakes when he made that decision. But this is -- this is the consequences of their involvement in last year's election.

SCIUTTO: Jen Psaki, I imagine you have a different point of view.

JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: First of all, Mike Morell is a former acting CIA director, and he endorsed Hillary Clinton after he had left that position because he was so alarmed about the kind of leadership that would happen under Donald Trump, and I think a lot of of his predictions have happened.

This -- what Donald Jr. did last night as General Hayden said is dangerous. It's absolutely troubling to see somebody who is representing the president of the United States speaking that way about people who are serving the United States and have served for decades in nonpartisan positions. No one forced Don Jr. to lie under oath, no one forced to have a meeting with the Russians. No one forced him to not disclose this information. That was all his doing.

So, this is a bit of a ludicrous blame game here, and trying to lay the groundwork I think for firing Mueller at some point and delegitimizing the investigation. SCIUTTO: Brian, I do have -- I know you were talking about comments

during the campaign. But the president himself as president has said similar things about multiple institutions including his own intelligence community under folks that he has appointed himself. Have a listen.


TRUMP: Well, it's a shame what's happened with the FBI.

I would think that some of these great FBI agents and the people that work within the FBI, I would imagine they are just furious, as to what's happened to the reputation of the FBI.

You take a look at the FBI a year ago. It was in virtual turmoil. Less than a year ago. It hasn't recovered from that.


SCIUTTO: The president, as you know has slammed the intelligence community on Twitter, saying they behave like Nazis.

I just wonder, as president in your view, is that acceptable criticism of U.S. agencies, intelligence law enforcement agencies?

LANZA: You know, first of all, let me state that the men and women of the FBI are American heroes. They work very hard. I don't think there's any doubt about that.

But if you look at what happened, let's go back to last year when you're talking about President Trump's comments, the FBI director got involved in a presidential election. You know, they -- you know, the media and the left was very outraged when he came -- when they came out and started getting involved in the Hillary Clinton e-mail scandal and talking about it, having a press conference of exonerating her, then having a press conference that hey, maybe something did take place.

That's disruption in a nonpartisan institution that shouldn't be taking place. So, the criticism o president had of the FBI is valid. I think Democrats would agree Comey's involvement in these campaigns when it took place isn't the role of the FBI director, and I think the criticism is fair and I think American people both partisan sides agree with me on that.

SCIUTTO: Jen, let me ask you about that, because it is true that Democrats still to this day, well, not all Democrats, but many Democrats, will say that James Comey went too far and in fact, placed blame for Hillary Clinton's loss or part of the blame on the shoulders of James Comey.

PSAKI: Some do. Many do. I think that's died down a little bit, but you're absolutely right.

Now, the difference is they placed blame on the way James Comey handled that particular situation. They don't question the institution of the FBI, the men and women who serve, the men and women who serve in the Department of Justice.

There are many, many people who have all sorts of beliefs in the FBI and the Department of Justice. Many people in law enforcement are certainly wouldn't consider themselves liberals, but the point is, how does that impact their job and that's what President Trump and others are questioning and that's what's really troubling.

SCIUTTO: Jen Psaki, Bryan Lanza, thanks for duking it out.

LANZA: Thank you.

PSAKI: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Good to have you on.

OUTFRONT next, the senator behind the Pentagon's secret program to track, yes, UFOs, is talking openly about it tonight. And 81-year-old survivor of that deadly train derailment shares his story.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I was flying around inside of the train.



[19:41:07] SCIUTTO: New developments tonight regarding the once secret Pentagon program to investigate UFO sightings. The former Nevada senator, Harry Reid, a driving force behind the $22 million program said today that he's relieved details have finally been made public. I'm very glad, he said, because now we have scientific evidence.

Scientific evidence? What exactly is the evidence?

OUTFRONT now, Chris Mellon, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for intelligence. He is now working with Luis Elizondo, who ran that secret program.

Thanks very much for taking the time tonight.


SCIUTTO: So, Chris, I know you spent years investigating these unusual incidents. You heard former senator harry reed speaking out about how important this program was. Can you tell me, can you tell our viewers what did you discover?

MELLON: Well, I think the best case we can talk about publicly at this time, the most compelling evidence which goes to the heart of your question, Jim, involves the Nimitz case in 2004. What I think people need to understand about this is a few of the details. So, the U.S. -- SCIUTTO: This is to be clear, and we had the pilot on last night.

This is an encounter off the Pacific coast, a sort of a fast moving object.

MELLON: Correct. So what occurred was the carrier battle group was working out for an overseas deployment. Over a period of two weeks, there were numerous instances in which unidentified aircraft were approaching the carrier battle group descending from over 80,000 feet at supersonic speeds, sometimes hovering, stopping at 20,000 feet, sometimes descending to 50 feet above the ocean.

On November 14th, two F-18s that were aloft, which have two aviators each were in close proximity and were vectored to the target which was being tracked by the most advanced naval radar in the world. Aegis Class spy one radar, simultaneously being tracked by an airborne command post.

These naval aviators who have joint clearances -- top secret clearances and are drug tested, trained observers, observed the object, got as close as they could, it performed in a manner that exceeds anything we possess or even probably our understanding of aeronautics and physics at the present time.

SCIUTTO: To be clear --

MELLON: So we had multiple -- excuse me?

SCIUTTO: To be clear, when you see sighting like this, you believe that this most likely explanation is that therefore came from another world?

MELLON: You know, that's speculation. I think the thing that we need to do is get serious about finding answers. Speculation is cheap and easy. What we need is more hard data and we need to approach this scientifically.

What was so compelling about that incident was the multiple radar and other sensor system confirmation of what the pilots were reporting at the same time. So, it's an open question and that is the burning question. Where are these things coming from, how do they work, and what are their intentions?

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this because I'm sure you've talked to many skeptics, both inside and outside the Defense Department on this. You have a carrier group out there.

I mean, isn't it equally likely, arguably more likely that this could be some new technology that a U.S. adversary has, perhaps to monitor U.S. warplanes off the coast? That kind of thing? I mean, there are other explanations.

MELLON: That's a great and natural question, Jim. I could tell you this. As a habit, it is a rule, we don't test top secret aircraft in the vicinity of our own carrier battle groups and then try to intercept them and ask the pilots on board if they're carrying live ordnance. [19:45:08] So, you know, the Defense Department is a lot more

sophisticated than that, in the first place. Secondly, there are numerous such incidents and all of the people I know and I served on the community that looked at all these programs and, you know, reviewed them for funding purposes and so forth, I don't believe that there's anything like that in our inventory and we certainly don't operate in that manner.

SCIUTTO: Well, could it be, you're saying could it be a Russia or China or an adversary testing it around U.S. military equipment?

MELLON: If it is, we sure need to know that and find that out. That's all the more reason to get serious about that. That's a possibility. Because at this point, we still don't know.

What we do know is there is something very real there. And it is happening and it's continuing to happen. And frankly, I don't think there is anyone at a high level who has been tagged with the responsibility and the authority necessary to get to the bottom of this.

I think that was ultimately what led to Luis Elizondo's frustration after years of trying to pursue this and develop the information that's required.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, it's a remarkable story and Chris, we appreciate you telling us the story.

MELLON: My pleasure and thank you all for giving air time to an issue that until very recently, it wasn't possible to talk about publicly. I think that's an important first step because until the public engages, we're really not going to make progress and head way.

It's a democracy. People have to be invested and care about it for something like this to really be understood.

SCIUTTO: All right. You have a good night. Happy holidays.

OUTFRONT next, the latest on the investigation into the deadly train crash out west and one survivor's miraculous story, his back may be broken, but his spirits are not.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm an extremely lucky guy.


SCIUTTO: Plus, today's Republican love fest as observed by Jeanne Moos.


[19:51:06] SCIUTTO: New details tonight on what might have caused Monday's deadly train derailment. Investigators are now looking into whether the train's engineer was distracted by a conductor in training in the cockpit at the time of the crash. We're also hearing more harrowing stories from survivors.

Jason Carroll is OUTFRONT.


RUDI WETZEL, SURVIVOR: I think I'm doing pretty good under the circumstances. I'm doing a lot better than a lot of people.

JASON CARROLL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Rudi Wetzel says the story of what happened to him onboard Amtrak Train 501 went like this. One minute he was sleeping comfortably in car number three Monday morning, the next minute, chaos.

WETZEL: I was flying around. The inside of the train, everything was just mass confusion. And then suddenly, it was silence.

The only thing you heard for maybe a minute was people crying and yelling for help and then I looked to the left of me and there was a railroad wheel from the car totally suspended in air, which caused me to have major panic because as I was crawling out, I heard an engine still running and I was afraid that the engine might push or run, go back forward and backward and crush me.

CARROLL: Wetzel says he tried to stand but realized he had broken his back. Unable to walk, the 81-year-old crawled, he says, with every bit of strength he had left in him.

WETZEL: Some young lady came running and says, here, let me help you. And she grabbed me, grabbed my arm, put it over her shoulder and literally half dragged me, half walked me out to a tree stump and put me down and took off.

CARROLL: Wetzel has two broken vertebrate. He will need a back brace for several months. Through it all, he has kept up his spirits.

WETZEL: There was some worry that I had a puncture in one of my intestines or something. They wouldn't feed me for two days, you know?

CARROLL (on camera): They were looking out for your best interests.

WETZEL: Yes. But, you know how the best interest are, you're hungry.

CARROLL (voice-over): Food aside, he has had plenty of time for reflection.

(on camera): Do you consider yourself a lucky man?

WETZEL: Oh, absolutely. If I told you all the close calls that I've had in my life, you would say I am full of something, you know, BS, big-time. Yes, I'm an extremely lucky guy.

CARROLL (voice-over): Wetzel was a retired Los Angeles Police Department officer who says back in the '70s he had another close call when a suspect tried to shoot him but the suspect's gun jammed.

(on camera): You think someone's looking out for you?

WETZEL: Oh, yes, the big guy, I'm on good terms with him. I have always said that. I'm just an extremely lucky guy. Extremely lucky, you know.


CARROLL: Well, the big guy looking out for him, he's an incredible man with incredible spirit.

You know, I asked, Jim, after all that he's experienced, would he take a train again and he said absolutely. He does not consider himself to be a train enthusiast but a transportation enthusiast.

You'll be happy to me, behind me, the I-5 opened just a few minutes ago -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Well, a great survivor story. Thanks very much to Jason Carroll.

And OUTFRONT next, hail to the chief. Jeanne Moos on today's love affair between Republican members of Congress and the president.


[19:58:18] SCIUTTO: Tonight, a Republican legislative win leads to terms of endearment like you've never seen before.

Here is Jeanne Moos.


JEANNE MOOS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: This image says it all. President Trump hailing the Republicans who passed the tax reform bill, the Republicans hailing the chief. In fact, it was one big hail fest.

SEN. ORRIN HATCH (R), UTAH: You're one heck of a leader.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: Could not have been done without exquisite presidential leadership.

HATCH: And we're going to make this the greatest presidency that we've seen not only in generations but maybe ever.

MOOS: Even President Trump seemed taken aback by that wet kiss.

TRUMP: Paul Ryan just said how good was that.

MOOS: The president has been tweeting and talking about the tax cuts being a Christmas gift and his fellow Republicans echoed that theme.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We can say merry Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Merry Christmas, America.

MOOS: President Trump was so merry that when he finds Steve Scalise, he made the light of the fact that Scalise was shot and almost killed by a gunman at baseball practice.

TRUMP: It's a hell of a way to lose weight, Steve.

MOOS: Passing tax relief seemed like a weight off the GOP shoulders.

TRUMP: We are making America great again.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You will make America great again.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is America's comeback.

MOOS: Remember when the president used to say --

TRUMP: We're going to win so much, you may even get tired of winning.

You may get bored with winning.

MOOS: Do they look bored to you?

Jeanne Moos, CNN, New York.


SCIUTTO: Thanks so much for joining us tonight. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Erin Burnett.

John Berman is in for Anderson Cooper tonight and "AC360" starts right now.