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Trump, GOP Celebrate Final Passage of Sweeping Tax Bill; Top Intel Dem Warns About GOP Threats to Fire Mueller; Don Trump Jr. Claims Government Conspiracy Is Against His Dad. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 20, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news. Declaring victory. P9resident Trump and congressional Republicans hold a victory party after passing a major tax overhaul which the president claims is also a death blow to Obamacare. But with our poll showing most Americans oppose the bill and most want Democrats to control Congress, are Republicans celebrating too soon?

[17:00:23] Heading for a shutdown? GOP congressional leaders must still come up with a short-term spending measure to keep the government running this weekend. Did they mislead a key Republican senator by promise her -- promising her they'd pass health care subsidies if she voted for the tax bill?

Hitting back. An extraordinary warning from the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee about GOP threats against Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Senator Mark Warner now says any move to fire Mueller or end his Russia probe could spark what he calls a constitutional crisis.

And Putin pushes back. The Kremlin calls President Trump's new national security strategy confrontational and imperialist. Is the bromance over between President Trump and Russia's President Putin?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Breaking news. Republicans are cheering final passage of what President Trump calls a big, beautiful tax cut, the first major overhaul of the federal tax code in decades, and the first major legislative victory for the president.

After the House sealed the deal this afternoon, GOP lawmakers took a victory lap, riding in busses over to the White House for a celebration. But hanging over that party is the threat of a government shutdown in the immediate days ahead, unless -- unless lawmakers can come up with a temporary spending bill to keep the lights on in Washington.

No Democrats voted for the tax bill, and Democratic leaders warn it will come back to bite Republicans, saying it favors the wealthy, favors the corporations at the expense of the middle-class. Our latest CNN poll shows two-thirds of Americans share that assessment, with more than half opposing the tax plan. And the new poll also shows that most Americans want Democrats to

control the next Congress. But Democrats are in the minority right now, and there are growing fear among them that Republicans will stifle or cut short the investigations into Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Just moments ago, Senator Mark Warner, the Intelligence Committee vice chairman, warned against any move to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller or pardon any witness, saying such action by the White House against the Russia probe would be, in his words, "a gross abuse of power."

I'll speak with Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of the Intelligence Committee; and our correspondents, specialists and guests are also standing by with full coverage.

Let's begin with the Republican victory lap after their big win on taxes. Our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta is over at the White House.

Jim, a lot of smiles, a lot of back-slapping as GOP lawmakers gathered over at the White House.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: They were happy, Wolf. President Trump celebrated the passage of his first signature legislative achievement over here at the White House, but with Republicans in charge of Congress, the easy part was passing this tax cut plan.

Now comes the hard part: selling it to Americans who aren't buying that this package is relief for them.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): The president who promised, if elected, Americans would be winning so much they'd be sick of it, finally scored a victory.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's always a lot of fun when you win. If you work hard and lose, that's not acceptable.

ACOSTA: GOP leaders delivered on their tax cut plan promise after a last-second glitch forced the House to vote on the package a second time. But House Speaker Paul Ryan vowed taxpayers won't view the bill as a mistake.

REP. PAUL RYAN (R-WI), SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: The message to the families in America who have been struggling paycheck and paycheck: your tax rates are going down and your paychecks are going up. This is the kind of relief that Americans deserve.

ACOSTA: The tax plan does offer modest cuts to middle-class families, but there are far bigger gains for the wealthy and large corporations while creating uncertainty in the nation's health care system by repealing the mandate to buy insurance in Obamacare and adding more than a trillion dollars to the deficit over ten years.

Earlier in the day, the president relished the idea of taking down Obamacare.

TRUMP: I hate to say this, but we essentially repealed Obamacare, because we got rid of the individual mandate, which was terrible.

ACOSTA: The GOP bill also spares the so-called carried interest loophole preserving a massive break for billionaire investors, something White House economic adviser Gary Cohn blamed on Congress.

GARY COHN, WHITE HOUSE ECONOMIC ADVISOR: We would have cut carried interest. We've been trying to cut carried interest. Man, we probably tried 25 times.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And what happened?

COHN: We hit opposition in that big white building with the dome at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue every time we tried.

ACOSTA: Democrats are accusing Republicans of raiding the treasury to reward their contributors.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NH), MINORITY LEADER: There are only two places where America's popping champagne: the White House and the corporate boardrooms.

ACOSTA: Now Republicans have to sell their plan at a critical time, with the upcoming midterm elections looming next year.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Absolutely. I mean, we're looking forward to it. My view of this, if we can't sell this to the American people, we ought to go into another line of work.

ACOSTA: A new CNN poll finds a big majority of Americans now want Democrats in control of Congress.

RYAN: ... is laid upon the table.

ACOSTA: That may be why House Speaker Paul Ryan is not guaranteeing he's sticking around after 2018.

RYAN: I'm not going anywhere anytime soon. I'm so focused on getting our agenda done. On questions on way down the line, I'll address those way down the line. But in the meantime, we've got a lot of work to do. I'm here to stay. I'm not going anywhere. If something changes down the road in the future, I'll address that down the road.

ACOSTA: Other distractions won't help the GOP, from the president's son Donald Trump Jr. claiming forces inside the U.S. government are trying to sabotage his father...

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

ACOSTA: ... to the Russia investigation and its impacts on members of the Trump family, like the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE (R), NEW JERSEY: I'm telling you that he deserves this scrutiny. You know why? Because he was involved in the transition and involved in meetings that call into question his role. OK. Well, then if he's innocent of that, then that will come out as Mueller examines all the facts. And if he's not, that will come out, too.

ACOSTA: Still, the president said that prayers should go to the media heading into the holidays.

TRUMP: So with that, I'm going to ask Ben Carson, and you can stay if you want. Because you need the prayer more than I do, I think. You may be the only ones. Maybe a good solid prayer and they'll be honest, Ben, is that possible?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now there is no word on when the president will sign this tax bill. It could happen down at Mar-a-Lago, his winter retreat. White House officials aren't ruling that out. Even if his ritzy resort may not be the best backdrop for signing a bill that's supposed to help working families.

Meanwhile, there's still the matter of preventing the government shutdown at the end of the week. The White House and GOP leaders are confident they will get a short-term spending bill that will keep the government running into January.

And Wolf, some other looming problems for the GOP, the White House still has to deal with the Children's Health Insurance Program, which is running out of money, as well as the undocumented children known as the DREAMers who are losing their government protection. Those -- those items are not going to be taken care of at the end of the year, Wolf. That is going to have to wait until January at the earliest.

BLITZER: Yes, Jim Acosta, thank you.

Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, took to the Senate floor just moments ago to issue a very stark warning about Republican threats against the Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his Russia investigation.

Let's bring in our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju.

Manu, so what prompted this truly extraordinary statement by Senator Warner?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I just caught up with him after that speech, Wolf, and he said the reason why he delivered this statement was because he's concerned about a coordinated attack that's been launched by groups on the outside, by others in the media, as well by allies of this White House, going after Robert Mueller, and that he believes that potentially there could be some action taken next week when Congress is on recess to either undermine the investigation or fire Robert Mueller. He says that he wanted to make this speech today to raise concerns,

put this on lawmakers' radar before they go home for recess. Particularly Republican lawmakers who may not be focusing on this as they've been focusing on their tax bill instead. So Mark Warner just moments ago, Wolf, saying very clearly that he wants Republicans also to speak out if President Trump takes this action and fires Robert Mueller. This is what he said. \

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARK WARNER (D-VA), RANKING MEMBER, INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: I believe it is up to every member of this institution, Republican or Democrat, to make a clear and unambiguous statement that 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 and a flagrant violation of executive branch responsibilities and authorities.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, earlier this week, Wolf, I did ask Senate intelligence chairman Richard Burr if he shared concerns that Robert Mueller could be fired by this president and he batted that down as speculation. He said, really, the president can't take those actions. Only the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, could fire Robert Mueller. He is not nearly as concerned as Mark Warner is.

But clearly, Wolf, Warner trying to get this on Republicans' radar screens as they head home for recess. Warner would not say if he was fired or if President Trump pardons any of the individual Sin the Russia investigation, whether that would be impeachable offense. He did not go that far. He said that this would just be a red line the president would cross and that lawmakers should speak out if he does go that far, Wolf.

BLITZER: Manu, you've also learned that another one of the president's major nominees could be in serious jeopardy right now.

RAJU: Yes, that's right. That's K.T. McFarland. She was President Trump's nominee to be the ambassador to Singapore. And she was also a deputy under Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser.

But I'm told by senators from both parties that her nomination is going to be sent back to the White House after the Senate wraps up its session for the year, as soon as this week. The reason why is because her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year actually was at odds with the plea agreement that was reached between Michael Flynn and Special Counsel Robert Mueller that included some language in that plea agreement that said that -- that Michael Flynn had communications with someone in the senior level of the transition in late December 2016 about communications that Flynn would have with Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador. Well, it turns out that that senior official was K.T. McFarland.

But when she was asked, Wolf, at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year whether or not she had any conversations with Michael Flynn about Sergey Kislyak, she responded to Senator Cory Booker by saying she was not aware of any such conversation. That has raised a number of concerns. People have questioned whether or not she was honest with Congress. Democrats, in particular, have asked to her to clarify her testimony. And I am told by senators from both parties she had not yet clarified her testimony, and that's one reason why the nomination will be sent back to the White House.

The question will be whether the White House will formally try to renominate her next year. But if she does, Wolf, I'm told that her chances of a confirmation are exceedingly grim, which means that this could be the second nominee whose nomination was imperiled by the Russia investigation, thwarted by the Russia investigation. The other one being Sam Clovis, who lost his senior USDA job after it was revealed that he had contacts with that foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos who, of course, also pled guilty to lying to the FBI just earlier this year, Wolf.

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed. All right. Manu Raju up on Capitol Hill. Thanks very much.

Let's stay up on Capitol Hill. A key member of the House Intelligence Committee, Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of Connecticut is joining us.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. JIM HIMES (D), CONNECTICUT: Hello, Wolf.

BLITZER: So what's your immediate reaction to what we just heard from senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee? Very strong words of warning.

HIMES: Yes, a lot of us were very gratified to see Senator Warner speak up and articulate some nervousness that has permeated this building, certainly the Democratic side of this building. You know, we've seen in the House investigation -- I'm not speaking for the Senate -- we've seen in the House investigation rumors and statements from Republicans that they want to end it, that they want to bring it to a close.

We saw something truly remarkable this week, Wolf, which was eight different witness interviews, eight or nine actually. Some of which were held outside of Washington. There have been months when we haven't done eight interviews. They require a lot of preparation. They require a lot of thought. And there is a sense that the tempo was just increased, possibility around, you know winding up the House investigations leading to, of course, something that we know the president dearly, dearly, dearly wants done, which is an end to the Mueller investigation, which as Senator Warner said, would be a -- would be a very, very major crisis for this country.

BLITZER: Well, in fact, and you heard Senator Warner saying that firing Robert Mueller, the special counsel, or other top officials in the investigation could lead to what he calls this constitutional crisis. Do you agree with him? HIMES: I do. I do. And it makes me very nervous because we have

not yet seen, and, remember, if he were to do that, you know, apart from what the American people would see, they would see the end of an investigation, which has already secured two guilty pleas, Michael Flynn amongst them, and a number of indictments, brought to a sudden halt. I don't care what party you're in, if an -- if an investigation that has already produced those sorts of results is ended, there has to be a reason why that investigation was ended.

And it makes me particularly nervous, Wolf, because at the time that Nixon tried to do this back in the early '70s, the famous Saturday Night Massacre where he ordered the attorney general to fire the Watergate prosecutor, of course, you had resignations. At that time in this country in the early '70s, you had Republicans who stood up and said this will not stand, who were standing up to the president, to the Republican president and saying, no, the independence of that effort had to go forward.

We're not hearing that. It is Senator Warner. It is Adam Schiff on the House side who are standing up. The question is when will the Republicans say, "Hey, I'm an American first. I'm about the rule of law. And regardless of what I think about this president, Robert Mueller needs to be untouchable."

BLITZER: Yesterday the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., suggested that high-level FBI officials helped create that Russia -- Russia dossier as an insurance policy, he said, in case President Trump won the election.

He also said, in his words, there are people at the highest level of government who are part of a rigged system against, his words, against his father. What do you make of that?

HIMES: Well, the first part that the FBI somehow created this dossier as an insurance policy against Trump's election is not just fantasy; it's very dangerous fantasy.

And it's keeping with something that we talked about last week, which was this appalling effort to throw mud on this storied institution, the FBI, made up of men and women who literally risk their lives every single day to keep us safe. And you've got people like Donald Trump Jr., you know, throwing mud on this institution.

The dossier was -- came out of an effort that started, by the way, with Republicans doing opposition research on Donald Trump, as we know. When that effort stopped, the Democrats picked up that project. This dossier was, of course, as we have come to learn, done by a highly-respected British intelligence agency. That is not to say that we know that what was in that dossier was true or false.

But what Donald Trump is peddling is not just a fantasy, but it's a corrosive fantasy, corrosive of the sort of independence of law enforcement, of the stature of the FBI, and the confidence that Americans have in their government, which is the point.

BLITZER: You know, the -- Donald Trump Jr. also said there are people at the highest level of government that don't want to let America be America. And he also referred to a text message sent by FBI agent Peter Strzok. He wrote without explanation, and let me quote from that: "I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy's office." That's an apparent reference to the deputy FBI director, Andrew McCabe. "That there's no way he gets elected, but I'm afraid we can't take that risk. It's like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you're 40."

Does the FBI need to clarify the context of that text for the American people?

HIMES: Well, only to say that it turns out FBI agents, like pretty much every other American, have political opinions. And so this opinion was discovered. Not an uncommon political opinion.

By the way, probably one that has only gotten worse within the FBI as President Trump has trashed that organization over time. It turns out shockingly that FBI agents and CIA agents and United States Marines and media and members of Congress have political opinions.

What happened? The moment Robert Mueller discovered this series of texts, he fired both agents involved. So yes, FBI agents turn out to have the same sorts of fears about Donald Trump that many people had going into this election, but the point is that Robert Mueller who is, let's remember, Bronze Star, wounded in Vietnam, probably this generation's premier director of the FBI.

Again, people like Donald Trump Jr., FOX News, others throwing mud on this American hero, this is all an effort to gin up the idea that this storied institution, that law enforcement is somehow in the service of attacking or bringing down this president. And I tell you, Wolf, it is profoundly, profoundly not just fantastical but very dangerous to this country.

BLITZER: You just mentioned, Congressman, that your committee staff, the House Intelligence Committee staff, interviewed at least eight witnesses this week alone, including several down here in Washington. I'm assuming you're talking about President Trump's longtime secretary, Rhona Graff, and Felix Sater, a Russian-American business partner of President Trump's.

What did your staff learn from them? Do you want them to appear before the committee in open session?

HIMES: Yes, Wolf, I don't want to get into the particulars of individual interviews. I will confirm to you that those two individuals were people that we are either hoping to or did, in fact, interview this week. Part of the eight that I referred to.

But another reason why this investigation can't be, you know, shut down just based on somebody's timetable, whether it's the end of the year or whatever it is, is of course, every time you do an interview, it is possible, and it has been true, that one interview points to somebody that may have some information that you would want to follow up on. So you know, in any given week, we have never done eight interviews

before. There were or will be eight interviews this week. The odds that that's just going to close the book entirely and not generate new leads, not generate questions that we need answered in a reasonable investigation, is pretty close to zero. So to answer your question, out of the interviews that we had this week, not just Democrats but Republicans have questions that they want answered.

BLITZER: There's more questions that we have for you, Congressman. I need to take a quick break. We'll resume our conversation right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:23:46] BLITZER: All right. Breaking news. President Trump and GOP lawmakers are celebrating passage of a major tax overhaul, but looming over that celebration, a possible government shutdown in the days ahead unless they also pass a temporary spending bill.

We're back with Democratic Congressman Jim Himes of the Intelligence Committee.

Let me get you to react to what the president, among other things, said today, touting another aspect of the tax reform plan, which is about to be signed into law. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: When the individual mandate is being repealed, that means Obamacare is being repealed. Because they get their money from the individual mandate. So the individual mandate is being repealed. So in this bill, not only do we have massive tax cuts and tax reform, we have essentially repealed Obamacare.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: So no longer will individuals who don't want to buy health insurance be fined or taxed by this individual mandate. The way the president explained it, is that how you and your fellow Democrats view it, as well?

HIMES: Well, yes, to be -- to be clear and direct about that. But the president doesn't understand that what he's just done is he's raised -- if this goes through and it looks like it will, he has raised health insurance premiums on every American.

Why is that? The reason -- and, you know, I've been talking about the mandate for a long time. The reason we have a mandate, Wolf, is because people, often young people who are very healthy, think "I don't need health insurance. Why should I pay the hundreds of dollars a month that I need -- that I would need to pay for health insurance? I'm immortal."

[17:25:14} I was that way once myself. The reality is that healthy 25-year-olds get hit by buses sometimes, and those healthy 25-year- olds get hit by buses and show up in emergency rooms. If they do not have health insurance, guess who pays for their cost to the emergency room? Those of us who actually do buy insurance.

So what will happen, Wolf, is if do away with the mandate and healthy people don't buy insurance, now you've got people who are older and sicker and using more health care buying insurance. Simple math, simple insurance. If that is true, everybody's premiums go up.

So I think the president is probably right, but he is going to rue the day that he took a step that raises premiums on an awful lot of Americans just at a time, by the way, when he handed an immense amount of cash -- an immense amount of cash to corporations. The tax rate going from 35 percent to 20 percent. Almost half. You know, are some Americans going to see some dimes and nickels as a result of this tax cut? For a couple of years, yes, they are.

But then they're going to realize that this immense amount of money that was handed to corporations is a permanent change in the tax code. But the little change that puts, you know, some nickels, dime and quarters back into the middle-class people's pockets, those go away in years five, six and seven.

So eventually, Americans -- the Americans are going to catch on to what's gone on in this building and there's going to be hell to pay for the people celebrating in this building.

The corporate tax will now go down from 35 percent to 21 percent. It was 20, but they raised it to 21 percent.

All right. Congressman Jim Himes. Thanks so much for joining us.

HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.

Coming up, President Trump and congressional Republicans, they're celebrating final passage of a major tax overhaul, but can they close out the week by acting to prevent a looming government shutdown? And what's on their agenda after the holidays?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: The breaking news. Republicans are cheering the final passage of a major overhaul of the American tax code, a cherished priority for President Trump and the GOP. The plan remains unpopular, though, with the American public. But top Republicans insist that will all change once the tax cuts kick in early next year.

[17:31:59] Let's discuss with our political experts. So Jeff, this was an important win for the president. The first major legislative victory he's had with Republicans all year. But he's still got historically low job approval numbers, which underscores simply, I guess, how important this -- this win is for him.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It certainly is. And you definitely have to hand it to the Republican president and the Republicans there. I mean, if you think about it, it should have been easy. Republicans do tax cuts. It's one of the sort of central core of what the party does, but it has been difficult to govern this year. So I think the fact that they had that bit of stagecraft on the South Lawn of the White House, which I'm told the president orchestrated -- he wanted that image -- it is important. It is a big deal.

The question here now, though, is can he sell it? Up until now, we have not seen him go across the country. His aides have promised and promised for months that he would go across the country and sell and explain these bills. He really hasn't done that much. Will he do that in the coming months heading into the midterm elections? We think he will, because his party depends on it.

The question her now is this is already being defined. Can he break the definition that Democrats are already defining it?

But for Democrats it's a risky proposition, though, as well. Not a single Democrat voted for this. And for some of them it's complicated because, you know, the headline is $1.5 trillion in tax cuts. If you're a Democrat like Heidi Heitkamp, other senators in red states, that could be a problem for not voting for this. So all the politics is not risky only for the president.

BLITZER: The bill, according to our most recent poll, our latest poll, shows it's pretty unpopular with the American public, David. Take a look at this. Views on the Republican tax reform plan: favor 33 percent, oppose 55 percent -- that's a majority -- unsure, 11 percent. But Republicans believe that once the people's paychecks increase a little bit in February, March, April, those numbers will change.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: I can't help but keep harkening back to the Obamacare battle. It was just very similar things.

When you -- when you start to experience this, now that it's in effect, it's going to become popular. Because the Democrats then passed an unpopular piece of legislation.

You just pointed out the challenge. So a third of the country is in favor of it, a majority is opposed. That's the 2018 challenge now for Republicans to go out and try to chip away at that opposition number. Yes, a little more money in the paychecks may help. If job -- if job hiring actually increases, if we do see companies pouring some money back into wages, that could all potentially help.

At the immediate outset, Wolf, what I think helps is that Republicans that we've seen a little bit in recent elections this year be a little depressed, may come back to life now, and that's the first step in the Republican Party trying to build up the fortress it needs to deal with the coming potential Democratic wave in '18.

BLITZER: All the Republican senators voted for the legislation, including Susan Collins. She said she voted for it, because she was promised that key Obamacare subsidies would be passed, would be approved in exchange for her support.

Those subsidies appear to be questionable right now, certainly are not about to be included -- weren't included in the tax cut bill. Probably almost certainly won't be included in the spending -- the temporary spending bill; has to be passed to keep the government open by Friday. What's the status? Was she played?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. There's a lot of opposition about those in the House, but the White House seemed very optimistic about it today. Because during a background briefing with reporters, they said they feel confident that they'll be able to work with the House to get those passed in January and they think that, if they wait until the new year, that they'll have a little bit more space where they can feel more comfortable to get those passed.

So that's certainly something Susan Collins is looking for. That's why she voted for this, if it was going to include the mandate.

BLITZER: How do you see it, Jeff? Because you're covering this. This is a sensitive issue, because Susan Collins, she voted against, you know, repeal and replace of Obamacare, but she's voted in favor of the tax cuts, in part because she got this promise.

ZELENY: Right. And she also was one of the Republicans who was not at that ceremony there, was not at the pep rally. I'm not sure...

BLITZER: At the White House.

ZELENY: Exactly. I'm not sure if it was related to this, but it certainly seemed obvious that she was not there.

Look, I think that the, you know, Republicans have been reluctant to say that repealing Obamacare, the mandate was part of this. But the president said it square out when he was meeting with his cabinet later this morning. He said, you know, this was a big accomplishment. That is going to be a clip that we are going to see again and again and again here.

The reality here is Republicans do not agree on a way forward on health care, which became blatantly obvious again and again and again, which they had so many troubles with earlier in the year here. I'm not sure how this plays. Because now that is a popular program, and you're taking something away from people here. So that is another third rail, if you will...

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Is it that bipartisan legislation, Lamar Alexander, Patty Murray on health care -- that's what Susan Collins wants. Is that going to be passed by the Senate and the House and signed into law by the president?

CHALIAN: I don't know. There seems to be some serious problems with that legislation right now. I think that you may see Republicans try to go a different route here.

But think about what we're saying here. So the president did go in the cabinet room and also on the South Lawn today and touted that the repeal of Obamacare is part of this. I -- repeal Obama -- he didn't want anyone to know that while the bill was being debated. He wanted to sort of basically hide that from American people and not focus on that. So he clearly understood the politics of this a little bit.

But now -- so imagine now the president said that, now he's going to sign into law these costs subsidy adjustments that are going to get made if, indeed, Susan Collins gets her way?

BLITZER: Which will keep Obamacare going.

CHALIAN: Which will absolutely fund the Obamacare marketplace. So it will be an interesting position for the president to be in.

BLITZER: We'll see what happens. All right. A very sensitive issue, indeed.

There's more happening. There's more information coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll resume our special coverage right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:42:21] BLITZER: All right. Let's get back to our panel. You know, it's interesting, Jeff. Today Senator Mark Warner -- he's the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- he delivered a speech on the Senate floor, and he warned that any talk of firing the special counsel, Robert Mueller, in his words, would be reckless. Any such move would potentially create a constitutional crisis. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: I believe it is up to every member of this institution, Republican or Democrat, to make a clear and unambiguous statement that 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 and a flagrant violation of executive branch responsibilities and authorities.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: All right. So he's not the first. There have been a whole bunch of Democrats on the respective Intelligence Committees and elsewhere, Judiciary Committees, who have expressed alarm, as well.

ZELENY: Right. But Senator Warner, by giving this speech on the Senate floor, is elevating this and escalating it, if you will, drawing attention to what really has been a coordinated crescendo of criticism against Bob Mueller by Republicans, by conservatives.

And the reason he did this today sort of before the holidays, we're told, he told Manu Raju on Capitol Hill and some other reporters that he wanted to draw attention to this before the holiday season. He's worried that the president and some of his allies may, indeed, try and do something with the special counsel's office over this holiday break. There's going to be a two-week period or so the president is going to

be down in Mar-a-Lago, which often things happen.

But I think what he's also doing is -- is, you know, putting the spotlight on Republicans, too, to get them to go on record and to be asked about this. Because Senator Burr, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, and Senator Warner, the vice chairman, who's a Democrat, have conducted what is as close to a bipartisan, coordinated systematic investigation as this town can do, I think.

CHALIAN: Nothing like the House.

ZELENY: No, nothing like the House. And it's orderly. So I think by Senator Warner doing that today, he really is setting the bar and, in some cases, sounding the alarm.

BLITZER: Is the Mueller probe really in danger?

CHALIAN: Well, I think that is at the whim of the president of the United States. Really in danger, I'm not quite sure that it's really in danger. Might President Trump, with idle fingers on Twitter or stewing in some anger about cable news he's watching over the holiday season, react in a way without all the people around him that normally are in the White House? I think that's the concern here.

But I also -- call me naive, Wolf. I think President Trump, if he has learned anything this year, has learned that Mueller is like a real tripwire here.

And I -- he seems, to me, since June, every time he's been asked about it, he has really tamped down this notion that he's even considering firing Mueller. I think he understands what peril that would put his presidency in.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, what are you hearing from your sources?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, two things that stood out to me was how he said that the President has said just a few days ago that he is not considering firing the Special Counsel. But he also said a lot of people did not think the President would have fired James Comey, and then he went and did that really suddenly when no one was expecting it. So that was something.

And then he also sought to discredit the people who have been trying to discredit the entire Mueller investigation by saying that a lot of the people who have been involved in this investigation up to this point have been Republicans.

He named off Jeff Sessions though he has recused himself, Chris Wray, James Comey, Bob Mueller himself, Rod Rosenstein, several people. So he was really seeking to, like, tamp down that criticism that we've seen come from so many people who have surrounded the President.

BLITZER: Everybody standby. There is more news we're following here in THE SITUATION ROOM. Top Russian officials are now pushing back against President Trump's

national security strategy, a surprisingly tough indictment of Russian behavior that the Kremlin is now calling confrontational and imperialist.

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[17:50:35] BLITZER: Despite President Trump's friendly rhetoric towards Russia, his new national security strategy outlined in a very lengthy 55-page document released this week takes a much tougher stance that Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle is clearly taking notice.

Let's go to CNN's Brian Todd. He has more now on the Russian reaction to this new strategy.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf. Today, the Kremlin lashed out at President Trump and his team, saying the White House does not want to see Russia as a strong power.

With all this adversarial back and forth recently between the Putin and Trump camps, a significant question is being raised tonight. Is the kinship between the two men that we've all been talking about for months starting to fade?

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TODD (voice-over): The Russian government today issuing a blistering rebuke of President Trump's new national security strategy, which says that Russia aims to weaken U.S. influence in the world.

The Kremlin calls Trump's strategy, quote, confrontational, anti- Russian, and says Russia wants to interfere in Russian politics. Putin's influential spokesman also slammed the Trump plan for projecting American ambitions.

DMITRY PESKOV, PRESS SECRETARY FOR PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN (through translator): The document has an imperialist character. It shows a lack of willingness to give up on a single-centered world.

TODD (voice-over): Analysts say the hard-hitting response to the new American policy is likely Putin playing politics at home. That he might feel he has to tell Russians publicly that Trump and his team are being antagonistic toward Russia because of certain passages in Trump's security plan.

In a speech on Monday, the President made a passing reference to Russia.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth.

TODD (voice-over): But the President's strategy document, which was drafted by his national security team, delivers a much stronger rebuke of the Kremlin, alluding to Russian interference in the U.S. election. It's a dramatic change, given that Mr. Trump repeatedly praised the

Russian President and has seemingly accepted Putin's denial over the U.S. intelligence community's finding of Russian election meddling.

So is the bromance between the President and Putin cooling off? Analysts say it could be at a crossroads.

VERA ZAKEM, DIRECTOR OF STRATEGY AND PARTNERSHIPS FOR THE CENTER FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES, CNA: Any kind of implementation of sanctions, depending on the final outcome of the investigations in terms of intervention in the U.S. elections and U.S. democracy, potentially could create a hostility or dampen the relationship between the two men.

TODD (voice-over): Others say don't count out the two men's desire to get along. Trump, this week, talked about building a, quote, great partnership with Russia, and today's Russian statement mentioned the same.

And there have been kind words on a personal level between the two leaders recently, too. Trump thanked Putin over the phone after Putin's praise of Trump at his yearly news conference.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION (through translator): Objectively, we can see a number of fairly serious achievements over the short period he's been at work. Look at the markets, for example.

TODD (voice-over): And last weekend, Putin thanked President Trump for a recent intelligence tip from the CIA, which the Russians say helped them foil a terrorist plot in St. Petersburg.

A former top U.S. intelligence official, James Clapper, who has offered withering criticism of Trump, says Putin, a former KGB colonel, played the President.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: I think this past weekend is illustrative of what a great case officer Vladimir Putin is. He knows how to handle an asset, and that's what he's doing with the President.

TODD (voice-over): Analysts say, despite today's angry public rhetoric from the Kremlin, flattering Trump in private conversations is Putin's way of trying to get Trump to help him with sanctions or other issues.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY, DIRECTOR OF THE KENNAN INSTITUTE, THE WOODROW WILSON CENTER: He is able to talk to Trump in a way that he views as, you know, productive or beneficial to his interests. I think almost everything he says publicly, he understands, at this point, is more likely to do him harm than good, so he's very careful about it.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: Now, analysts say Putin's relationship with Trump may not get much, if any better, after Putin wins re-election in March. They say Putin, at that point, is going to be struggling to keep

Russia's economy afloat, and he's going to be obsessed with whether to try to stay in power when his next term runs out six years later. And one way Putin has always been able to stay popular with Russians is to project an "us versus them" mentality with the U.S. -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, just a little while ago, we learned that the Trump administration has actually ratcheted up the pressure on Putin and his friends. Is that right?

TODD: That's right. Once again, they've done that, Wolf.

[17:55:00] The Treasury Department just announced new economic sanctions against five Russian individuals, including this man, Putin's long-time ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of the Chechen Republic. Kadyrov and the others were cited for human rights abuses.

Now, not only is Putin's friend here being sanctioned, but this was done as part of the Magnitsky Act, which Putin absolutely hates. He is going to be furious with this.

BLITZER: Good point. Brian Todd reporting. Thank you.

Coming up, the breaking news. President Trump and Republican lawmakers, they're celebrating the passage of a major tax overhaul. But looming over that celebration, a possible government shutdown in the days ahead.

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