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Cabinet Officials Heaping Praise on President Trump; Americans Approve of Mueller Investigation; House to Vote Soon on Keeping Government Open; VP Pence Surprise Visit to Afghanistan Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 21, 2017 - 16:00   ET


[16:00:13] JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Is it possible to go too far heaping praise on President Trump? Vice President Pence better hope not. THE LEAD starts right now.

At this hour, a new CNN poll, your very first look at new numbers on the public and how they view President Trump on the Russia investigation. Is the effort to undermine Bob Mueller, the investigation, and the FBI having any impact on the public?

And just a day after congressional Republicans congratulated themselves on a big tax bill, we are just one day before the government runs out of money and shuts down. A vote to keep the government open is minutes away.

Plus, a resounding rebuke -- 128 countries reject the Trump decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in Israel. Will President Trump stick by his threat to take names and cut off foreign aid to countries that voted against him?

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.

We're going to start with some breaking news in the politics lead.

As a crescendo of criticism grows from Trump-friendly politicians and media outlets against the special counsel's Russia investigation, a brand-new CNN poll shows that more Americans approve of Bob Mueller's handling of the probe than they do President Trump's approach.

I want to get right to CNN political director David Chalian to break down the numbers for us.

And, David, we should point out this poll was done shortly after the president's former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

How are the American people perceiving Mueller's general overall investigation?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: That's right, Jake. This brand-new CNN poll conducted by SSRS was done about two weeks after that bombshell news. So that certainly had time to seep in with the American public. Let's take a look at Bob Mueller's approval rating in this poll about how he's handling the investigation. You see it's in positive territory in terms of 47 percent approve, 34 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Mueller's handling it.

And a pretty big nearly one in five Americans say they're not sure how Mueller's handling it, but a plus-13 approval rating there.

Let's look at the president on this issue, Jake, not nearly as good. He's at 32 percent approval with how he's handling the Russia investigation. In fact, that's a bit lower than his overall 35 percent approval; 56 percent disapprove of the way the president handles this, so clearly stacked up against Mueller, not nearly as good.

TAPPER: And, obviously, there's been a big push from Trump-friendly politicians and Trump-friendly media outlets and from the president himself to bash the investigation.

The poll asked people if they believe what the president has to say about the investigation. What are the results?

CHALIAN: Yes, not very good for the president. Take a look at this.

A majority of Americans, if you add the false side together here, that's 56 percent. A majority Americans think what they hear from President Trump on the Russia investigation is false. In fact, only 8 percent in this poll, Jake, can say that everything they hear from the president is completely true.

So, clearly, not so good there, but when you look at it by party, you start seeing how much partisanship matters and how people are viewing this investigation; 73 percent of Republicans think what the president says on the matter is true; 86 percent of Democrats think what the president says on the matter is false.

So, clearly, partisanship matters when viewing this issue.

TAPPER: And what about those wider effort to discredit the Mueller investigation? Is that having an effect?

CHALIAN: You know, it is, although not overall, broadly with the American people. Look, more than six in 10 call this investigation a serious matter. Only about a third are saying that it's just an effort to discredit the president.

But if you look at Republicans only, on this issue, Jake, take a look at this; 16 percent of Republicans now say it's a serious matter; 78 percent see it as an effort to discredit the president. And compare that to November.

They are on the rise, in terms of thinking it's an effort to discredit, and they are on the decline of Republicans who think it's a serious matter. It seems to me, if you're watching FOX News, if you're listening to Republican politicians, if you're listening to the president himself, and as we just noted, believing him, you are starting to see this more and more as an effort to discredit the president.

TAPPER: All right. David Chalian, thanks so much.

Let's talk about this with our panel.

Amanda Carpenter, your reaction to the poll. That is a lot of Republicans who see the Russia investigation as an effort to discredit President Trump and not as a serious matter.

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, there's a lot of effort being put into it.

If you asked me this a couple weeks ago, I would say this is mostly in talk radio and conservative media. But I think we have turned the corner a little bit, that more Republicans are getting on board.

I have five things I have been noticing. Number one, there's more House Republicans calling for the firing of Robert Mueller. Number two, Trump lawyers are asking for an investigation of the investigation. Number three, Jeff Sessions wants an investigation of the Clinton Foundation.

Number four, Devin Nunes wants an investigation into corruption at Department of Justice. And, lastly, Rand Paul today called for an investigation of Obama holdovers.


So, to me, that is a big effort from Capitol Hill and Washington to, you know, have a counter to what Mueller is trying to do, if not get rid of him outright.

TAPPER: Of course, some of the ammunition given to the president's supporters from Peter Strzok -- that's the FBI agent who had written some text messages critical of President Trump, as well as critical of other people as well, but he was in the middle of the Hillary Clinton investigation and then was part of the Mueller investigation.

And that's been seized upon by the president's supporters.


I mean, obviously what they forget or don't mention is that Robert Mueller fired him when he learned about it pretty much immediately. I think what's obviously happening here is the Republican Party is worried about what Robert Mueller will find, and so they have a preemptive defense of the president, which is to attack the investigation.

We see that everywhere else. What I find interesting is that, you nearly break down these numbers, independents are really coming to the side of Robert Mueller. And independents and Democrats, and even a lot of Republicans think the president is lying about what happened with Russia.

So, I think the reality here is that obviously the president, people think the president did something wrong and they're trying to defend him, but with the American people, I think they're looking for the facts.

TAPPER: Phil Mudd, who used to work for the FBI, let me bring you in.

As a former FBI official, do you find this dispiriting when you hear these charges made from people on FOX News calling the FBI, the KGB, from individuals saying that the -- on FOX News again, saying that the FBI maybe even thinking about assassinating Donald Trump, a claim for which there's zero evidence?

What is the reaction like for somebody like you who used to work for the investigation?


I don't think, Jake, this is about the Russia investigation. I think this is about a president of the United States who doesn't understand his role in government. He's trying to support a Trump agenda, perfectly appropriate, the tax reform program, perfectly appropriate for a Republican president.

Meanwhile, as the head of the executive branch, that is, the sort of CEO for the U.S. government, he's persuading the American people not to trust the government that he leads. He's telling the American people not to -- not to trust the intelligence professionals who say that Russia is intervening in American elections.

He's telling the American people not to trust law enforcement professionals who are saying there's a valid investigation, led, by the way, and supported by a deputy attorney general who's a Trump nominee.

What he's telling the American people, and we're seeing this in this poll is, I'm the head of the government, and the government I lead is a government that you should not trust.

The dimensions of this, Jake, are beyond the Russia investigation. They go to a president who's persuading the American people that the taxes they pay for their government are taxes that are going to a biased and partisan government. That's painful. That is painful.

TAPPER: And, Rebecca, it's obviously not just President Trump. Devin Nunes, the congressman from California, he's the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he told CNN today that it's no secret that he is investigating the Justice Department, whether there's corruption at the Justice Department.

He says, of course, it's not a separate investigation. He says he's also been fighting to get information specifically about the dossier put together by the former British agent for an opposition research firm that was being paid by the Clinton campaign and the DNC.

He did say at one point he would step aside from this investigation, but I'm not sure that he actually has.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, he did say that, Jake, but then, you know, the House committee looked into it, found that he was in a position that he was able to continue his work. So that's kind of behind him. It's in the rear-view mirror.

But there are going to be questions about Devin Nunes moving forward because of his role in the whole unmasking controversy, because many people now see him as a partisan player in all of this.

But you can see why he would be incentivized from a political perspective to try to pursue these investigations. When you look at these numbers of Republicans who are skeptical of the Mueller investigation, when you watch FOX News or listen to conservative talk radio and hear concerns in those communities and on those programs about a -- quote, unquote -- "deep state" in the intelligence community, concerns that are shared by the president himself, it's really no surprise that Nunes would be going down this road, although it does open him up to criticism, certainly.

TAPPER: Phil Mudd, I want to play some sound from Steve Mnuchin, the treasury secretary, who told me on Sunday on "STATE OF THE UNION" that he thinks the Mueller investigation needs to end. Take a listen.


STEVEN MNUCHIN, U.S. TREASURY SECRETARY: I think it should be over quickly, since I think there is nothing there. It should be over quickly, and people want to focus on other things.

TAPPER: But does that include the president firing Mueller, when you say you want it over quickly, or should it be allowed to run its course?

MNUCHIN: I don't have any reason to think that the president is going to do that, but that's obviously up to him.


TAPPER: What's your reaction to that, Phil?


MUDD: Why should it be over quickly?

That is, the former director of the FBI, Robert Mueller, nominated and served under President Bush, renominated in a unique moment in American history by President Obama, has to follow the facts.

Those facts involve everything from reviewing interviews from Trump officials to reviewing financial information that has led, by the way, to indictments, to reviewing guilty pleas and cooperating from witnesses who have said that they were guilty and lying to the FBI about this investigation. Why would anybody care what the treasury secretary says about an

investigation into political corruption by a nominee who, by the way, was a former nominee of a Republican president?

What Robert Mueller will do, I served with him for four-and-a-half years, is follow the facts. I don't think he will pay a shred of attention to what the treasury secretary says. I don't see why we should care what he says.

TAPPER: All right, don't go anywhere anyway. We have a lot more to talk.

Will Congress give America a lump of coal this holiday and allow the government to shut down, or will lawmakers pass a quick fix to fund Uncle Sam before the Friday deadline? The vote begins in just minutes. Stay with us.


[16:15:12] TAPPER: And we're back with our politics lead. Yesterday, Republicans were celebrating a big victory on the tax bill. Today, they're trying to keep the government from shutting down. Just another week in Washington.

CNN congressional correspondent Phil Mattingly joins me now live from the Hill.

Phil, now Republicans think they'll have the votes, think that they will, to avert a shut down?

MATTINGLY: Yes, Jake, as you know quite well, as the jet fumes rise, the drama tends to fade here on Capitol Hill. Look, lawmakers want to go home and I think that's been the biggest differentiator. You think just about 12, 15 hours ago, House Republicans were really struggling to find the votes for this bill, now they feel like they're comfortable. They're in a good place.

Now, let's look at what this would actually do. This is a short term funding bill. It would extend the government funding until January 19th, it would also include $3 billion to reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program through March. It would include a short term extension of warrantless surveillance program that expires at the end of the year. It would also waive the automatic spending cuts that would come because of the deficit effect of the tax bill.

Now, it's also key to look at what this bill doesn't do, particularly given the grand ambitions of some lawmakers just a couple of weeks ago. It's not a long-term reauthorization. It doesn't touch much of the budget cap issue that will lead to sequestration, large cuts across the defense industry and other places as well. It's not a long-term reauthorization of the Children's Health Insurance Program, people want a five-year reauthorization. It's not a long-term reauthorization of the surveillance program.

And while the House is expected to pass hurricane disaster relief funding, the Senate is not going to take that up. So, a lot of work left undone that'll have to be addressed in January, at least for now, looks like no shutdown is on tap, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill for us, thank you.

My panel is back with me.

Why has it been so tough for them to get the Children's Health Insurance Program reauthorized? This was signed into law initiated by Hatch and Ted Kennedy. It's bipartisan, it helps kids who aren't poor enough to qualify for Medicaid but aren't -- don't have enough money to have insurance. It would seem to be a no brainer.

BERG: Well, you still have bipartisan consensus, Jake, that this should be reauthorized. It's just a question of the particulars, how are they going to get it done and how are they going to pay for it at all?

And so, when Republicans in the House passed the reauthorization a few weeks ago, sent it to the Senate, Democrats opposed it because they opposed a measure that would have paid for some of it by increasing the rates for wealthier people who use the programs. So, Democrats oppose that, they said there shouldn't have to be a pay for, you know, if Republicans were concerned about the deficit, they wouldn't have passed tax reform to increase the deficit. So, that's really what they're quibbling over right now and trying to sort out that everyone seems to agree that this should be reauthorized in some form.

TANDEN: OK, kids and their parents are actually worried day-to-day before the holiday season about what they're going to have. The Children's Health Insurance Program, I think it is outrageous that they spent a deficit adding $1.5 trillion, and are leaving without giving that assurance program, that's $15 billion a year. You're right, there were quibbling about the cost and the cost of health care from other people to pay for this, for the Children's Health Insurance Program, and Democrats don't want to do that because they're looking at a world where we should cut health insurance for some people.

So, I think, you know, I think the American people can ask how it's possible that the Congress, which is run by Republicans can pass a trillion and a half tax cut for people who are in the top 1 percent, 81 percent of benefits, could have top 1 percent, and they're hiking it out of town when it comes to children's health insurance or health insurance for working class families.

TAPPER: Amanda, I know you care about the deficit and the national debt. Do you think -- are you worried that the Republicans have basically now just taken away any moral argument on that because they did pass this tax bill which, you know, conservative estimates are, it will add a trillion dollars to the national debt? Now, some people dispute it'll cost a huge economic boom. But that's not what the most analyses say.

CARPENTER: Here's what it comes down to, Republicans have once in a lifetime chance to pass tax reform. There is no appetite for spending cuts. Until there's some press that stands up and say programs they want to cut to heal the deficit, that is outside the defense, it just isn't going to happen. So, why on earth are Republicans going to keep going to their constituents and say, spend your money, give it to Washington so that we're going to continue to waste it?

They made the calculation that, OK, we can't cut the deficit. The least we can do is help people keep their money. And that's where it is right now. And if they want to come back and Democrats decide there's some programs they want to cut in the next three years President Trump is president, I welcome them to do that.

TANDEN: OK, but it still means that the Republicans have passed a massive increase in the deficit.

TAPPER: I am curious you, just to put you on the spot a little bit, Amanda. Republicans control the House and Senate.


TAPPER: Isn't it up to them to decide what spending cuts are? They're the majority party.

CARPENTER: But there has never been enough appetite, you know, as someone that worked for Senator DeMint and Ted Cruz, among Republicans after they do the right thing.

TAPPER: Right.

CARPENTER: I mean, Mitch McConnell for Pete sakes is saying they're not going to tackle entitlement reform the next year, that is bananas for him to take it off the table now when they have a whole year before the midterms so they could work on that. Look at Mitch McConnell if you want to do something deficit spending, because I want more appetite from him as do many other Republicans.

TAPPER: OK, we have to take a quick break, because we have some breaking news right now. We're learning --

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

TAPPER: We're learning that Vice President Mike Pence is in Afghanistan on an unannounced visit.

And I want to get right to CNN's Jeremy Diamond who is on the phone. He is with the vice president at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.

Jeremy, tell us about the stop.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER (via telephone): That's right, Jake. Well, about just over six hours ago, the vice president touched down here in Afghanistan on a secret visit. This was a surprise visit that was twofold to meet with top Afghan officials here and to rally U.S. troops here at Bagram Airfield just outside of Kabul.

The vice president spent time in Kabul meeting with President Ashraf Ghani. He's traveling with a light footprint, a handful of aides and just a dozen reporters here traveling with him. We were asked for safety reasons to keep the trip secret until about an hour before the vice president is scheduled to fly back to the United States. And so, the vice president has now wrapped up most of his visit here.

He rallied troops here for a bit, telling them that he believes that victory is closer than ever before in the fight in Afghanistan. His visit comes four months after President Donald Trump announced the new U.S. strategy here in Afghanistan.

And so, the vice president's trip here was in large part to count that strategy and to proclaim that he believes that there are real improvements being made on the ground here in the fight against the Taliban and, of course, against al Qaeda and ISIS militants here in Afghanistan, Jake.

TAPPER: All right. Jeremy, thanks so much.

Sara Murray is live with us at the White House.

And, Sara, I have to say, it's rather unusual, the vice president making this trip before the president.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: It is. It's extremely unusual, Jake, and it's extremely unusual when you think about this president and what he ran on, which is, of course, supporting the troops and keeping America safe. Though it's notable that we are now almost a year into Donald Trump's presidency, he has not been to Iraq. He has not been to Afghanistan. And that Mike Pence is making this trip before him.

Now, this is a break from the norm from prior presidents, George W. Bush went abroad to visit the troops about eight months into office. Former President Barack Obama I think was in office about three months before he went abroad to visit the troops.

The president has opted for opportunities a little bit closer to home, obviously we know he was at Walter Reed today, and so, he certainly has spoken with troops. We've seen him give national security speeches, but it is a little bit bizarre to see the vice president out there to see him making a trip like this before the president himself, Jake.

TAPPER: That's right. Bush making the trip eight months into the war, not eight months into office and Obama doing it three months into his first term.

Phil Mudd, let me go to you as former FBI and former CIA, it is unusual for a vice president to go to a war zone before a president would do so. President Trump we know has never been to Iraq or Afghanistan as a president or as a private citizen.

MUDD: That's true, although I mean, we've learned president Trump doesn't like to travel that much.

I think what we have here is a temperature taking by the vice president on two fundamental issues that we've lost sight of here in America, 16 years ago, in the fall of 2001, Afghan forces with CIA and U.S. special forces rolled over the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban then providing safe haven for the al Qaeda organization that conducted the September 11th attacks.

Let's not delude ourselves, Jake, the Taliban is doing well in Afghanistan today and question one for the vice president on the ground is, what did we do 16 years later? Are we going to be here forever? Question two is even more significant in some ways for America, and it's a question that the president himself has raised. Across the boarder in Pakistan, there are allegations that the Pakistanis should be doing more.

In theory, there are American allies in this war against the Taliban and practice they don't always operate as American allies, I'm sure the vice president is asking a simple question, how hard can we press the Pakistanis to do more if we're not winning against Taliban?

TAPPER: And we're told that Vice President Pence told President Ghani we're here to see this through, we believe we're on a path to achieving a lasting victory for freedom and security in Afghanistan. Let's listen in.


MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It is humbling for me to address this force for freedom. In this ancient land and each and every one of you, I bring greetings from your commander in chief, the 45th president of the United States of America, President Donald Trump.


Now, before I left the Oval Office yesterday, I asked the president if he had a message for our troops here in Afghanistan. And he looked at me without hesitation from behind the resolute desk and he said: Tell them I love 'em.

And during this special season, I know that President Trump was speaking for every American.

You know the old book says if you owe debts, pay debts. If honor, then honor, if respect, then respect. And I'm here on behalf of your commander-in-chief and all of the American people to pay a debt of honor and respect and gratitude to each and every one of you for your service and your sacrifice. Give yourselves a round of applause. We couldn't be more proud of every one of you.


You know, I know it must be hard --


TAPPER: Vice President Pence speaking to service members at Bagram Air Base right outside of Kabul, about half hour, 45 minutes outside of Kabul.

Ryan Browne is at the Pentagon for us.

And, Ryan, the situation on the ground has changed considerably since you were last there.

RYAN BROWNE, CNN PENTAGON REPORTER: Well, that's right, Jake, I think part of the new strategy that Trump administration is put into place is really focused on kind of ramping up some of the air strikes against the Taliban, ISIS, al Qaeda, and other groups there.

Now, the previous administration had kind of ramped those down, kind of shifted away from those kind of direct fighting with the Taliban. Trump administration has kind of ramped this up, really targeting Taliban leadership, but also Taliban drug labs, also so the air strikes have really gone up, thousands of troops have arrived in the country. The goal is to put them lower, kind of forward, more forward, closer to the fighting so that you can advise Afghan troops currently engaged in heavy fighting with the Taliban all over the country.

So, again, some changes there, part of the strategy, Vice President Pence also meeting with Afghan leaders and attempt to bolster the government. All part of the Trump administration's strategy in Afghanistan -- Jake.

TAPPER: In America's longest war.

Everyone, stick around, we have a busy day to cover, including most of the world voting against the U.S. decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Is the State Department already walking back part of President Trump's threats against countries that voted against the U.S.?

Stick around.