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Will Republicans Lose Congress?; President Trump Declines to Hold Traditional End-of-Year Press Conference; CNN: Deputy FBI Director Could Up Comey's "Loyalty" Claim; In January, Congress Will Take Up Spending Bill Fight, Again. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 22, 2017 - 16:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: President Trump arrives at Mar-a-Lago for what will be day 106 at one of his own properties since taking office in January. Wow.

THE LEAD starts right now.

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but behind the scenes at the White House, it's Festivus, and the airing of grievances has begun. A historically unpopular president spending 20 minutes talking about how great this year has been for his administration, but with many thorny issues outstanding, unresolved party infighting and both chambers Congress in jeopardy, are Republicans actually terrified about 2008 (sic)?

And you have to be on the list if you want to get past the velvet rope. Ambassador Nikki Haley backing up her threat to punish U.N. countries that voted against the U.S. on its move of its embassy in Israel. She's hosting a very exclusive friendship party. Only the nine countries that voted with the Trump administration got invited, though they have a plus-35 for the abstentions.

Most liberal democracies, well, they made other plans.

Plus, candidate Trump promised to get rid of the EPA, so only tidbits remained. Well, it looks as though he's on the right track. At the agency that is charged with protecting human health and the environment, scientists and staff are leaving in droves. What might that mean for our health?

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

As President Trump and Republicans head into the holidays, they're trying to put a proud face on the state of their party going into the midterm election year. The president spent the morning touting the GOP's historically unpopular tax law and predicting that both parties will start working closely together.

But behind the scenes, Republicans are attacking each other and terrified of what might happen in the midterm elections in November. They're worried that an increasingly unpopular president and a series of missteps could see them removed from power next year. My panel is here with me to discuss all of this.

But I want to start with CNN's Sara Murray.

Sara, the blame game and the second-guessing, it has already begun.


Look, we know even the president's own allies outside the White House have warned him that, great, you passed tax reform, that's a big accomplishment, that's not going to be enough to save your party's control in 2018.

We know the leadership in both chambers -- we have been talking about the House, concerns about keeping the House. Now that has moved to the Senate. Control of both chambers, leadership is concerned. And we know that Ronna McDaniel, who is the head of the RNC, was handpicked by the president for that role, sent a memo to John Kelly -- this is according to Politico -- warning him, look, the party's support with female voters is collapsing. This is a real problem.

So, yes, the president got his tax reform win. He's sort of riding that wave of victory, but it could be short-lived and we could see Republican infighting starting as soon as January when they have this whole list of priorities they kicked down the line come to fruition.

TAPPER: Also lots of other reports, McConnell vs. Steve Bannon, Corey Lewandowski lashing out, telling the president he's not being served well. Is the message getting across at all to President Trump?

MURRAY: This is a great question. You would not think that the president was particularly concerned if you were watching him today. Listen to him tout his legislative accomplishments.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Our country's doing very well. We have tremendously cut regulations. Legislative approvals, for which I'm given no credit in the mainstream media, we have I believe it's 88, which is number one in the history of our country. Second now is Harry Truman. Harry Truman had more legislative approvals than any other president.

And a record long-held, and we beat him on legislative approvals, of which I get no credit.


MURRAY: Now, his math may be wrong about his legislative achievements vs. Harry Truman. But this gets to the heart of one of the president's core grievances, which is he believes he has actually been very successful and he's not getting credit.

There are people around him who think this is someone who needs to be more concerned about what 2018 could hold for control for his own party. And we are seeing the RNC begin to ramp up already because they're worried, they're worried about keeping control, too, and they're trying to form a message for Republicans to run on that isn't just tax reform, but economic growth and his judicial nominations.

It's just not clear if that's going to be enough.

TAPPER: All right. Sara Murray, thanks so much.

Let's talk about it with our panel.

Let's start with the infighting between McConnell and Steve Bannon. McConnell got an opportunity today to hit back at Steve Bannon, who has declared war on him. Take a listen.


QUESTION: Do you blame Steve Bannon for Doug Jones being elected in Alabama?

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: Well, let me just say this. The political genius on display throwing away a seat in the reddest state in America is hard to ignore.


TAPPER: That's pretty harsh, Bill. "The political genius on display for throwing a way a state in the reddest state of America is hard to ignore."


And yet Bannon is recruiting candidates all over the country just not to run against Democrats, but to challenge Republicans in primaries.

BILL KRISTOL, EDITOR, "THE WEEKLY STANDARD": Primarily to challenge Republicans in primaries, since, in any case, it's obvious that Bannon-backed candidate, as in Alabama, might be weaker in the general election.

Bannon wants to take over, transform the Republican Party. Trump has done some of that, but he's not ideologically consistent enough for Bannon's taste, and Bannon wants to turn it into a European-style nationalist, populist party. And I hope he fails, but he's going to take a shot at it.

TAPPER: You must be enjoying this, to a degree.


My party -- I'm a Democratic strategist -- my people have been trying for 25 years to elect a Democrat in Alabama. Failed every single time. Steve Bannon accomplished what I never could or James Carville or David Axelrod. The greatest Democrats of my generation have never been able to pull off what Bannon pulled off. I admire him.

(CROSSTALK) TAPPER: You're being just mean.

BEGALA: It's Christmas and I'm filled with the Christmas spirit.

No, I couldn't be happier to see this infighting. It is self- destructive. McConnell's right. I don't know that he needs me to say that.

But it used to be -- Bill Buckley used to say, we're going to elect the most electable conservative or the most conservative candidate who can win. There was always a pragmatism to Reagan or Bill Buckley or Bill Kristol. Well, Bannon has none of that. And I couldn't be happier.

TAPPER: There is also some other infighting going on.

"The Washington Post" is reporting that former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told President Trump he is being ill-served by the Republican National Committee and his political staff.

At a meeting hours after Republicans celebrating passing the tax bill, it said in "The Post" story: "Lewandowski told the president that the RNC was not raising nearly enough money, even though the party has raised record sums, and is not doing enough to support his agenda. Other advisers outlined to the president what could be a difficult year ahead and urged the White House to beef up its management of the political calender and party efforts."

Do you think that they need to beef up the political shop at the White House or is that not actually the issue?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, there is certainly the question of whether the president's support can truly help candidates, because we saw this case study in Alabama. He endorsed two very, very different candidates and both of them lost.

Luther Strange very much more of an establishment Republican that Mitch McConnell supported and wanted to win the nomination and go on to be the next senator from Alabama, and then he lost, and the president was fuming because he felt misled by his team. He didn't go with his gut and endorse Roy Moore.

And then he turned around and supported Roy Moore, and he also lost to a Democrat, one of the reddest states in America. Of course, he was also an accused child molester.

TAPPER: Small detail.


KRISTOL: This must be 2017, that that's like a throwaway line in the middle of...

COLLINS: It really raises the question, does the president's help, is his support going to help push them over the line? Because a lot of Republicans who aren't Trump loyalists are making

that question of whether they're going to side with the president or voice their opposition to him when they do oppose him.

TAPPER: Stand by.

I want to bring in CNN's Boris Sanchez, who is in Florida, where the president just arrived to spend the holiday with his family at Mar-a- Lago.

Boris, we know there is one piece of unfinished business the president hoped to accomplish while still in Washington.

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jake. Sources are telling CNN that the president did want to have an end-of-year press conference with reporters, the kind of which, you know, a scheduled session with reporters, that he hasn't had going back to February.

We're told that the president was eager to tout his accomplishments, including the passage of this major tax reform legislation earlier this week, but that advisers talked him out of it because they were afraid that the president might be, in the words of these sources, besieged by questions about the Russia investigation and other potential distractions that would put the president in an uncomfortable position.

You had the White House seemingly indecisive about whether or not to do this. We're told aides were told to prepare for a press conference for about two days before it was ultimately scrapped. The president also apparently wanted to have a public signing of this tax reform legislation in January, but, ultimately, as we saw this morning, he said that he saw some speculation about whether or not he would sign the bill before Christmas on television and decided to get it done today before the Christmas holiday as a symbolic gift to the American people, Jake.

TAPPER: All right, Boris Sanchez with the president in Mar-a-Lago, thank you so much.

You know, what's interesting about that, Bill, is they're not -- the aides are being polite when they say they're worried the president would be hit with all of these questions about the Russia investigation. Of course he would be. There is an easy answer. There is a federal investigation and I'm not going to comment on it.

The problem isn't the questions. The problem is that President Trump would probably actually try to answer them.

KRISTOL: Well, yes. And he wouldn't just answer the questions, but he'd attack the witch-hunt and Mueller and the FBI and go back on that, which he will go back to.

Incidentally, is he going to fire, is he going to pardon? What's going to happen in that investigation? There are so many things out -- like, Republicans are feeling pretty good because of the tax bill, for better or worse, but they really need to look at January and February and think about all of the things that are piled up now, both in Congress and in terms of the investigation that could hit.



And one other thing about -- Sara mentioned earlier, that the RNC chair, Ronna McDaniel, she used to be Ronna Romney McDaniel, but "The Washington Post" said the president told her to drop the Romney, so she has.

But she warned the White House that if President Trump backed Roy Moore, it would only make Trump and the party's numbers with women -- support among women voters worse.

The memo -- quote -- "detailed the president's poor approval numbers among women nationally and in several states."

This is a red alarm fire. You can't lose women by the percentages that are indicated in some of the current polls and go on to keep the House and Senate, much less keep the White House.

COLLINS: It's very interesting to see this relationship play out between the president and the RNC, because, as you know, the RNC was originally supporting Moore and then they pulled their funding after these allegations against him were first made.

Lots of senators were stumbling over themselves to say that Roy Moore should drop out of the race. The White House was pretty quiet about it, putting out a statement saying if they were true, they believed he should step aside. But then when the president gave his full-throated endorsement to Roy Moore, even traveling just across the state line to campaign for him, then the RNC restored its funding for Roy Moore to the tune of $170,000 just before.

It's interesting to see how the RNC is trying to navigate at the president's whims essentially.

KRISTOL: But the key point is Trump's numbers are bad. He's like 38, 40 percent.

If you look at the historical data, that's a pretty good -- if the president -- if your party controls the presidency and Congress and the president's numbers are at 38 or 40 percent approval, you're likely to do badly in the off-year elections, for obvious reasons.

Voters don't -- swing voters don't trust the president. They would like a Congress to check the president. A Congress to check the president is a Congress controlled by the opposite party. And to some degree, the individual performances of different congressmen and senators doesn't matter that much. You just get one of these waves like we had in '94 or 2006 or 2010. That I think is the most likely outcome in 2018.

TAPPER: Do you think there is going to be a wave?

KRISTOL: Oh, yes, I think so. TAPPER: Do you think Democrats are handling this well? The DNC just

had a really bad fund-raising period, and I have heard a lot of Democrats skeptical that the party leadership can capitalize on what is clearly an opportunity.

BEGALA: Well, they can always do better. Right?

But set aside Alabama. Here, we all laugh because Moore had these horrendous charges, the likes of which we have never seen. Look at Virginia, where the Republicans nominated I think a more sensible, a more moderate former RNC chair, worked for President Bush

TAPPER: More moderate. He voted for Bush twice. He was a conservative, really.

BEGALA: Yes, the Democratic candidate also was a moderate.

But the Republicans did not put up a bad candidate in Virginia. And Bannon said, we're going to run Trumpism without Trump. They didn't let the president come in. His numbers were bad in Virginia.

But Ed Gillespie ran on the Trump agenda, not on the Bush agenda he used to support. He ran a vicious anti-immigrant campaign. Tried to link his Democratic opponent to child pornography. Crazy stuff. Ran ads about the NFL players taking a knee.

By the way, there is no NFL team in Virginia. And the Democrats won in a landslide. They not only elected to the governorship. They elected to the governorship -- they won the lieutenant governorship and the attorney general. And they elected more new delegates for their party than since 1880s, a landslide.

This has got to trouble -- and the heart of that was women in the suburbs, college-educated women in the suburbs who had always been a Republican base vote. They have now come to a majority in Virginia to the Democratic Party. That's a catastrophe for them.

KRISTOL: And this is the damage that Bannon and Trump are doing, if they force the Republican candidate, even the more moderate or sensible candidate like Gillespie...

TAPPER: To run to the right.

KRISTOL: To run to the right and then to cater to the base, and then they get clobbered in the general.

TAPPER: Everyone, stick around. We got lots more to talk about.

President Trump may be on vacation right now, but the Russia investigation is not. One of his closest associates is being questioned today.

That story next. Stay with us.


[16:17:42] TAPPER: We're back with our panel.

Sticking with politics, after 16 hours of being grilled by three different House committees, the big question: did FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe confirm that he had been told at the time about conversations President Trump denies ever happened?

Sources tell CNN that McCabe confirmed to House members that former FBI Director James Comey told him about conversations the president had with him. Does that include the president asking Comey to lay off his investigation into Michael Flynn? Does it include the president asking Comey to pledge his loyalty, a conversation the two men have very different recollections of?


JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: He asked specifically of loyalty in the context of asking me to stay. My common sense told me what's going on here is that he's looking to get something in exchange for granting my request to stay in the job.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know how that got there because I didn't ask that question.

I hardly know the man. I'm not going to say I want you to pledge allegiance. Who would do that?


TAPPER: I want to bring in CNN's senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju.

And, Manu, so just to be clear here, we don't know what conversations Andrew McCabe, the deputy FBI director, confirmed to the House that Comey told him about, but it could be those significant ones.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, I mean, he apparently was told the House Intelligence Committee that after all of the times that James Comey had a conversation with President Trump, he later told Andy McCabe about, including that pledge for loyalty. So, this is his sworn testimony, that at the time of these conversations, soon after Comey did tell him about these conversations.

Now, why that's significant, of course, is that clip that you just showed, the fact that the president has denied this. The fact that we know the special counsel is, in fact, investigating the circumstances around the Comey firing, including questions about whether any -- there was any obstruction of justice. So, presumably, McCabe could be a witness to corroborate -- corroborate exactly what happened.

Now, Comey did say before the Senate Intelligence Committee that he briefed his full leadership team at the FBI and he didn't say McCabe. Now we know that it is McCabe. Presumably there are some others as well and presumably they'll also give their accounts of what happened to Mueller or congressional investigators.

TAPPER: And the House Intelligence Committee, they've interviewed some big players this week, including the president's former associate of three decades.

[16:20:02] What do we know about that?

RAJU: Well, Rhona Graff, she's been a longtime associate, personal assistant of the president at the Trump Organization, works in Trump Tower.

We do know that the House Intelligence Committee has been interested in her because she has served as a gatekeeper of sorts. She's someone who presumably knew about contacts that may or may not have occurred with either Russian officials or people within the Trump organization.

And we do know that in that e-mail exchange between Rob Goldstone, that British publicist who set up the meeting with Donald Trump Jr., June of 2016, Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort attended where he was promised dirt on the Clinton campaign, that she was mentioned in that e-mail exchange from Rob Goldstone to Donald Trump Jr. saying that, well, I can go straight to your father, I can fill him in on this information by talking to Rhona Graff.

So, the questions that the investigators are going to ask, undoubtedly is that did the president know about the meeting at Trump Tower? Now, we don't have a full sense of what happened yet. That happened today off-site in New York. This is mainly interviewed by staff of the House Intelligence Committee.

And actually that has caused some concerns among Democrats on the committee, because they wanted her to come to Washington and to interview her personally, but the Republicans wanted to get this done at the end of this week. That's why they went up to New York. Staff members mainly interviewing her today, Jake.

TAPPER: More to come on that interview. Manu Raju, thank you so much. Don't go anywhere. We've got a lot going on.

Strong and insulting words about the United States from Russian President Vladimir Putin. This is, of course, the same Putin who reportedly had a friendly phone call with the president just last week.

Stay with us.


[16:26:00] TAPPER: Welcome back.

The House of Representatives is extending its winter break this year. Now, they're scheduled to return on January 8th, which gives them less than two weeks to hammer out strong disagreements and renegotiate the spending bill to keep the government open.

Our panel is back with me.

And, Bill, in the previous panel, you alluded to all the stuff that remains outstanding that they're going to have to deal with in January. KRISTOL: Yes, the DREAMers, they have to keep the government open,

they have to pass immigration legislation. There is a March deadline on that, at least the president says there is. They should try to work that out.

The defense hawks, this was not reported much, were extremely unhappy with the extension. They want a real defense budget so they can -- the Pentagon can plan for a year and get some more spending. That didn't happen in the CR. So, there's an awful lot of issues sitting there to be resolved. What is the deadline now? January 19, something like that.

COLLINS: And the White House is certainly bracing for that. They've already said that they're going to meet with House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell the first week of 2018 once they're back to really go over what their legislative priorities are for 2018.

But we heard from the president today in the Oval Office, he thinks infrastructure is going to be really easy to pass. He said that's why they waited to tackle that one after they tried health care and tax reform because he thinks he's going to get a lot of bipartisan support on this and he really gave this message today that he thinks it's going to be something really easy for them to do in 2018.

TAPPER: Do you buy that? I mean, I've heard Mark McKinnon, who is an adviser to George W. Bush told me that actually he thinks it's the opposite. Because they did all the tough stuff and the president kept poking his fingers in the eyes of the Democrats, infrastructure is going to be much, much tougher, whereas if he started with it, he would have a much bigger advantage right now.

BEGALA: And, apparently, that was on advice of Paul Ryan, the speaker. The president is inexperienced, Speaker Ryan is very experienced, and I think gave the president terrible advice to open up on the most divisive and difficult things. They should be -- it should be easy to do infrastructure. Everybody drives. Everybody is concerned about our bridges and we don't want our kids drinking water polluted with lead.

The problem is that tax bill should have been easy, too. Ronald Reagan's tax cut had a Democrat co-sponsor. President George W. Bush's tax cut had Democratic co-sponsors. Not just votes, co- sponsors. Not a single Democrat could they get on board on this thing.

And it would have been so easy. You've just got to work with them a little bit. The infrastructure bill, at least the rumors I hear, is going to' a corporate deal. Not real infrastructure fixing our water systems and roads and bridges. But instead a lot of toll roads so that German and Spanish corporations can make a lot of money.

And toll roads are fine where people are prosperous and they need them. I'm not against toll roads. But you go to where Trump voters live, you know, and they don't need tolls. They wouldn't tolerate tolls. They wouldn't be able to afford tolls because they don't make a profit in rural America.

And so, the worry among Democrats is, again, they're going to come with something that should be bipartisan but they're going to make it a giveaway to corporations.

TAPPER: Bill --

KRISTOL: They don't have money to pay for it. I mean, the whole point of combining the infrastructure and the tax bill was you use some of the money for the tax reform closing loopholes to pay for infrastructure. I think they've used up everything they have.

TAPPER: You mentioned the DREAMers also. And I've heard from progressive Democrats who were very disappointed that the Democrats -- they think the Democratic leadership, Pelosi and Schumer, blinked, that they had Trump where they needed him. He didn't want to have a government shutdown and they were -- they should have insisted.

Do you agree? I mean, I know that -- you're a reporter. Let me ask Paul.

Do you agree the Democrats screwed the pooch on this one? Should they have insisted on DREAMers?

BEGALA: No is my short answer, because the new deadline is January 19th. That is by math 11 days before the State of the Union address. They are going to have a lot more leverage then.

It is really difficult to furlough federal employees going into Christmas. That's particularly cruel. I think the Republicans politically lost by that, but still, you're hurting people. And so, I think it's probably wise, they're going to have maximum leverage going up against that State of the Union Address. That is always every president's best day of the year when he commands the stage uninterrupted and there are no pesky reporters shouting questions at him.

So, if I'm the White House, I want to clear the decks before my guy gets up there and give State of the Union. So, the 19th, when the funding runs out, Democrats will have enormous leverage.


KRISTOL: Paul and I were discussing that maybe President Trump like to have the government shut down because the Mueller investigation would stop.