Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

CNN: Deputy FBI Director Could Back Up Comey's "Loyalty" Claim; Pelosi Urges Ryan Not To Let House Probe Shut Down; Today: House Staffers Talk To Trump's Longtime Assistant; CNN Poll: 56 Percent Doubt Trump's Comments On Russia; Trump to Head to Mar-a-Lago After Tax Victory; Key Battles Pushed to New Year After Shutdown Averted. Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired December 22, 2017 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:01:00] POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Note to Bill Weir, I have already read Alisyn Camerota's book, "Amanda Wakes Up." It is a great read and a great Christmas gift.

Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow. John Berman has a well deserved day-off.

President Trump is about to set out for his Mar-a-Lago holiday but a couple of important loose ends still need to be tied up. Those include the tax overhaul that Congress passed this week. Some big companies say they are giving bonuses this year. Because of it the president this morning is touting that as all the rage.

He's expected to sign the tax bill today. We'll see if he takes reporter's questions at the same time. Meantime, the president must sign the stopgap spending bill that lawmakers did manage to pass last night. That's the thing that keeps the government up and running for you, the American taxpayer. It also, though, frankly punts the really tough decisions down the road about a month. More on that in a moment.

First, though, our Jeff Zeleny at the White House with more.

Jeff, what can we expect today before the president is Florida-bound?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Poppy. Well, time is running out for the president to do much more work here at the White House before he leaves for his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. He'll be leaving about an hour, hour and 20 minutes or so, and yesterday we were told that he was likely to sign that tax bill into law before leaving the White House. Now it is unclear if that is going to happen. His advisers say that it may, it may not happen.

So the reason for some uncertainty over this is technicality. The Senate, as you know, overnight passed the final bill to keep the government open essentially for another few weeks to keep the lights on, to keep the funding program. He has to sign that as well before he can sign the tax bill. But all of that is simply a formality. The specific details of the tax bill will start taking effect in 10

days or so. Workers will start seeing some of these changes in their paychecks beginning February, possibly March. But the president has to sign that at some point, so if not here he could sign it down in Florida in Mar-a-Lago or something like that, Poppy, so we will let you know when he does actually pull out that pen.

It does raise a point, though, for all of the executive orders he has signed all year, this will be the first significant law he has signed, and it takes a while to sign a bill into law because of the enrollment process that's called to get it sort of all the technicalities in a row here. So he will sign that at some point and we know he'll be going to Florida. He'll be there shortly after lunchtime -- Poppy.

HARLOW: You might think that this is the day he would welcome questions, albeit, you know, many of them tough questions on what this tax bill does necessarily for a broad swath of the middle class, big picture, but I find it interesting that we don't know if he's going to say anything or take any questions or have that sort of typical end- of-the-year press conference.

ZELENY: Poppy, it has been since February since he has had a formal sit-down news conference in the East Room of the White House to -- for it to go on a variety of topics. He did that for almost an hour.

I am told by a few advisers that he would like to do this. That he would like to talk about his accomplishments. There definitely is a discussion, an argument even, if you will, about whether he should do that because, of course, so many questions about the Russia investigation would also come up, so many of those questions are lawyer questions, if you will.

I believe that that is not why he will have a formal news conference. I do expect him, though, to take a few questions as he leaves the White House and walks on to Marine One -- Poppy.

HARLOW: All right. And that will happen during this show so stay tuned. Jeff Zeleny, thank you very much.

To Capitol Hill now where lawmakers averted a government shutdown again, postponed a lot of important things for just a few weeks down the road. Manu Raju is here to tell us about all of this. The deal that actually keep the lights on, keep the government functioning is very important.

And I would know, Manu, we talk a lot about CHIP, for example on the show yesterday, funding health care for kids whose parents can't afford it. They did get that thing through at least for a little bit.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: At least for a little bit. That's the key point. Congress did yesterday what it tends to do in these situations which is punt, punted a lot of the key issues, thorny issues, that they have had a very difficult time dealing with. Punting it to the New York. This deal to keep the government. I know it's only a three-week deal. By January 19th they've got to reach another deal to extend government funding. But they did reach an agreement as part of this to extend that CHIP

program, but really only through March. And on top of that there's only a short-term extension of the surveillance powers under the FISA law which have become a big fight particularly among civil libertarians who are trying to stop that. And they also didn't include in this proposal an $81 billion disaster aid package.

[09:05:05] That package was for all the territories and states that were struck by those hurricanes and disasters earlier this year. That $81 billion package passed the House but it did not pass the Senate. On top of that it didn't include dealing with the efforts to stabilize the individual insurance market under Obamacare which had been a key reason why one senator, Susan Collins, had voted for the tax bill and its repeal of the individual mandate.

She wanted this to be part of the end-of-year program to help stabilize the insurance market. That did not get on the -- in this funding bill. They're going to have to deal with this next year. And then even other thorny issues like what to do with all these Dreamers. These kids who came in the country at a young age, undocumented. Those so-called DACA program recipients, there's no resolution on how to deal with that, and Democrats were sharply divided over this issue.

House Democrats voted against the short-term spending bill because they did not want to go vote for this without any deal on the Dreamers, but the Senate Democrats were split and a lot of those vulnerable Democrats did vote for this, Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes.

RAJU: Just shows all the difficult things they're going to have to deal with when they get back into town.

HARLOW: So better rest up. They've got a lot of work ahead.

Manu Raju, thank you very much. Stay with us. He'll be with us on Andy McCabe's testimony in just a minute.

Joining me now, though, on all of this, Eliana Johnson, national political reporter for Politico, Michael Shear, White House correspondent for the "New York Times," and Caitlin Huey Burns, national political reporter for RealClearPolitics.

Nice to have you all here so the president taking to Twitter this morning before he heads on holiday.

And Caitlin, let me begin with you because he's tweeting about bipartisanship, one of his messages this morning, saying that he predicts, starting to work a lot with Democrats in the New Year, talking about an infrastructure bill, which we know in theory has a lot of bipartisan support. So a new leaf for the president or what?

CAITLIN HUEY BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, REALCLEARPOLITICS: I think it's actually more reflective of the political reality that Republicans will be facing next year. Remember they will be down one senator with that Alabama special election and DOUG Jones coming in next year to fill that seat.

Infrastructure does typically has bipartisan support and yes, you do have several Democrats running for re-election next year in states that Trump won. A handful of those in states that he won by overwhelming margins, but it's been so interesting to watch over the past year that none of those Democrats have crossed the aisle on major ticket items so far like tax reform being the most recent example.

Now that could be a very political -- a big political risk for those Democrats, but right now I think that signals the environment that they are seeing and looking at that generic battleground test, where --

HARLOW: Yes.

HUEY BURNS: Congressional ballot where there's an 11-point difference at this point.

HARLOW: Yes, they had quite a lead.

Eliana, to you, I do think, just to Caitlin's point, it's interesting Mitch McConnell was asked yesterday about entitlement reform, which, you know, Paul Ryan, that was like he would love to see that after tax reform and he talked a lot about it in the past week. Mitch McConnell came out and said, I don't think we're going to move on entitlement reform next year because the Democrats don't want to move on it. I mean the Democrats didn't move on trying to repeal Obamacare or tax reform and McConnell went full steam with those, so why is he now saying we're not going to take on entitlement reform next year?

ELIANA JOHNSON, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, POLITICO: The difference between the roll back off Obamacare and tax reform is I think they had much wider support in the Republican conference than reforming entitlements. With a -- with just a 51-seat margin in the Senate, I think McConnell knows that the political reality is entitlement reform would be incredibly difficult.

If you remember during the health care debate, it was the Medicaid provision that Before it was the Medicaid provisions that proved to be the deal breaker for many Senate Republicans the first time around and for many House Republicans. And so it really is, when you're trying to take something away from people rather than give something to people with taxes, many Republicans were talking about the tax cuts, many people are going to get, it's just a wrenching process and I think McConnell is bowing to the political reality of an incredibly slim Senate margin.

HARLOW: Yes. Michael, your colleague at the "New York Times" Maggie Haberman, out with yet another fascinating piece this morning. This is on the internal drama inside the White House. This week, this meeting on Wednesday, highly contentious. Here's all the folks who were in it. The political director Bill Stepien, the chief of staff John Kelly, you had Corey Lewandowski, the president's former campaign manager, and a host of others, and it got really, really heated, according to Maggie's reporting. Tempers flared as they vented their frustrations, she writes, at the

electoral defeats this year and concerns about the midterms in the 2018 political map. What's interesting to me is this comes on the same day that they had this huge legislative victory, right, with tax reform, but looking at this, I mean, Corey Lewandowski arguing, Maggie reports, that there aren't enough people in the Trump camp fully on this stuff.

[09:10:07] They need more Trump folks at the RNC, et cetera, pushing into the 2018 midterms. What is your takeaway?

MICHAEL SHEAR, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, I mean, look, in some ways the bigger headline would be if there weren't tempers flaring in the White House, that seems to be kind of the way this White House rolls. But it -- I think it's reflective of the flip side of what we've been talking about so far this morning, which is, you know, at the same time that they're going into 2018 with some the victories, the tax bill, there is also an environment that is going to be toxic politically for this president and for Republicans.

The president himself is at, you know, low to mid-30s in approval ratings. The swirling Russia investigation is -- you know, for all that we know is going to just continue and intensify, and when you have a midterm election that normally goes against the sitting president in the first term. You know, you have a lot of things that suggest that Republicans are going to be very, very stressed out. And that's not going to add to bipartisanship, it's going to -- it's going to increase the divisions.

And the Democrats are going to take advantage of that. I mean, they're going to push on issues like immigration that they know are tough for Republicans and that split the party. They're going to push back as Eleana said on entitlement reform, if they do bring that up. That's something that divides the Republican caucus especially in the Senate where there are some senators who really are wary of touching some of those very sort of -- those issues that are really important, especially to seniors and others.

So, you know, we're entering a year where, yes, they've had a big victory on the tax fight but there's a lot of roadblocks ahead for Republicans.

HARLOW: But --

SHEAR: It's going to be really tough for them.

HARLOW: But, Caitlin, to you, I mean, it may not have been pretty, right, how they got here, and all the drama as Michael points to nothing new in the White House and the West Wing inside the Oval Office, as Maggie reports. That's where this meeting was, but objectively speaking, it got done.

HUEY BURNS: Right.

HARLOW: I mean they got a big legislative win done that hasn't happened in, you know, three odd decades. HUEY BURNS: Yes.

HARLOW: They got sort of travel ban 3.0 through the court system. A partial Obamacare repeal within this tax reform. A lot of lower and very important court -- you know, judicial appointments done, and Neil Gorsuch, a Supreme Court pick, so?

HUEY BURNS: Right. And that's why you saw all of those Republicans standing at the White House the other day praising the president and the president praising them. These are the Republicans in Congress and the president are going to need each other in the midterms next year and they do have a lot of accomplishments to tout whether you agree with them or not.

The question I have, though, is whether that's enough to generate a lot of enthusiasm among the Republican base when they are heading into those headwinds next year when you have an energized Democratic Party, and while tax reform is certainly a big deal for Republicans, when you look at the numbers, the president's approval rating really low at a time when the economy, at least on paper, looks pretty good.

HARLOW: Yes.

HUEY BURNS: That shows how polarizing the president is and how damaging he could be to others running in really tough congressional races next year.

HARLOW: Which his sort of bizarre because that's not what history usually shows. As usual when the economy is doing well, despite other headwinds, the president have much higher approval ratings than this.

Let me get you, Eleana, before we go on this "Vanity Fair" reporting from Dave Sherman about Steve Bannon. It's fascinating, just some of the nuggets. CNN told the -- its reporter to have said that he -- the president has lost step, that he's like an 11-year-old child and he also once again reiterated what we previously reported according to Sherman's reporting, that Bannon said the president only has a 30 percent chance of serving out his term whether he's impeached or removed from Cabinet through the 25th Amendment. This -- the significance of this coming from the president's former chief strategist.

HUEY BURNS: The significance of that story, I think, is that it reveals very publicly that the man who has claimed to be the beating heart and soul of Trumpism really isn't quite that, it reveals that Bannonism is quite a different thing than Trumpism, actually, and that he spends most of his time now that he is outside the White House actually lobbying criticisms at the president and his closest advisers, which is significant I think because in the public consciousness, people viewed them as sort of indivisible or seen Bannon as really the tribunal of Trumpism, and he's not quire that as I think he makes clear in this interview with Gabriel Sherman in "Vanity Fair."

HARLOW: He does. Or the "SNL" skit which I can't -- I can never get out of my mind. HUEY BURNS: Exactly.

HARLOW: Of where they are in the Oval Office. Appreciate it all very much. Have a great holiday. A great Christmas. Thank you very much.

So did President Trump ask for loyalty from fired FBI director James Comey. Comey testified as much.

[09:15:00] And now new testimony in front of Congress appears to corroborate that. This as Nancy Pelosi tells the House speaker do not let the Russia investigation get shut down.

Also, is the Trump/Putin relationship on the rocks? Just moments ago, Russia's president slamming America's national security strategy calling it aggressive.

And U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley sends out an invite to a friendship party. Countries that voted against the president on that Jerusalem decision yesterday, though, they are not on this list.

Plus, CNN's exclusive sit down with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HARLOW: Welcome back. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. You are looking at live pictures of the capitol in Washington where two big questions are posed this morning on the Russia investigation.

[09:20:02] Did the FBI deputy director just corroborate James Comey's claim that the president asked for his loyalty before he fired him as FBI director and what sparked an urgent plea to House Speaker Paul Ryan from the Democratic counterpart to make sure the Russia investigation does not shut down.

Let's go Manu Raju again who is on the Hill. Let's start with McCabe's testimony. This is the part that really stood out to everyone.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Yes, that's right. He went behind closed doors for more than 16 hours with various committees on Capitol Hill asked a range of questions about the FBI's investigation into the Clinton e-mail server, as well as his conversations with James Comey, who, of course, was his former boss when Comey was the FBI director.

Now, what we have learned from this House Intelligence Committee testimony behind closed doors, according to multiple sources, from both parties was that McCabe told the lawmakers that James Comey told him about Comey's conversations with President Trump.

And now remember what President Trump allegedly told Comey, he talked to him about the investigation into Michael Flynn and suggested he should back off Michael Flynn, and suggested that perhaps James Comey should give him loyalty and that is according to Comey's public testimony. Now, the president has strongly disputed that, but what we have learned from what Andrew McCabe told the House Intelligence Committee was that Comey soon after those conversations told McCabe about this.

And McCabe essentially could provide or be a witness to corroborate some of the account here that James Comey had and his contemporaneous account. Now, on top of that, this comes as the House Intelligence Committee is facing a lot of question about its own future.

Democrats believed that they are trying to shut this investigation down. They believed the Republicans are moving quickly to shut this down and Nancy Pelosi writing a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan urging him to keep the investigation open.

Ryan so far said he will let this investigation play out. Mike Conway, the Republican who is leading this investigation wants to wrap this up, but says there will be witness interviews in the New Year.

And today, Poppy, one key witness is being interviewed in New York, Rona Grass (ph), who is a long-time personal assistant of President Trump and seen a lot through the years, presumably involved in some of the meetings that took place will be questioned by House Intelligence Committee members.

But mostly staff at the off-site hearing, but Poppy, that's one reason why some Democrats are concerned. They are saying why does it need to be off-site? We can do this next year, but they are concerned that perhaps they are trying to rush this through. The Republicans say that's not the case -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Yes. I mean, part of it was because of the, you know, like a health issue with one of the attorneys, just logistically (inaudible). Everybody knows who interviewed Donald Trump as a businessman like I did, Rona was who call. I mean, this is the woman that was between the reporters and Trump.

All right. Manu, stay with us. Also joining us Asha Rangappa, CNN national security analyst, and Caitlan Huey-Burns is back with us. Asha, let me begin with you because this is what James Comey testified back in June publicly. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

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

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: I don't know how that got there because I didn't ask that question. I hardly know the man. I am not going to say I want you to pledge allegiance. Who would do that?

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HARLOW: So, Asha, there were these accounts from these two men, right, and now that that Andy McCabe has testified, our reporting is that he is essentially cooperating what Comey said. What is the significance of that?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: The significance is that this can bolster a potential obstruction case that Mueller might be building against the president. Now, let's remember that the notes that Comey took were contemporaneous. So, these weren't notes that he then wrote after he was fired.

He wrote them at the time that he had thos conversations, and those carry great weight when you are looking at the credibility of evidence. Of course, that's his, you know, his version of events versus the president.

So, if he also told other people, like Andrew McCabe, about the content of those conversations that the president was asking him to let the investigation into Flynn go, for example, adds even more credibility to the actual fact of whether that conversation took place.

Poppy, I have to say, I would be surprised if McCabe is the only person that he told. I am guessing that maybe even another senior official he would have told in the FBI, he almost guaranteed he told the general counsel at the FBI. So, again, you know, for him to be -- for his credibility to be dismissed you have to start increasingly dismissing more and more people.

[09:25:02] HARLOW: And Asha, to that point, Manu, to you, I mean, Asha, says, look, you probably didn't just tell Andy McCabe, you probably told others. We know that Comey has said that he briefed people high up in his circle about his concerns following that conversation with the president, are any more of those top folks at the agency expected to testify?

RAJU: Yes, no question about it. To meet the House and Senate Intelligence Committee, and some may have already met with them. We just don't know about it. We don't know exactly what they said.

Comey did make that very clear in his public testimony that he did tell senior leadership, he did not say who they were, and now that we know that Andy McCabe has told lawmakers privately under oath that he did talk to James Comey.

Now you have two witnesses saying under oath that president had these conversations, even though the president has denied it. The president, of course, has not been under oath denying it, but these witnesses have, and we will see the other members of the senior leadership team will also say this under oath -- Poppy.

HARLOW: Caitlin, looking at the big picture here. I mean, we have brand-new CNN polling out on the Russian investigation, on Mueller, the president, who trust who more. Here's what it shows, 35 percent of Americans say that President Trump, the things he says about the Russia investigation are true.

And 56 percent think what the president says about the Russia investigation are false. He could come out again today and say it's a witch hunt and there's no collusion and he's been saying that all along. My question to you is looking at these numbers, objectively speaking how does he change the minds of the American people on this?

CAITLIN HUEY-BURNS, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, "REALCLEARPOLITICS": I think that's very difficult especially since you have had progress in terms of the Mueller investigation. Remember, you have four people connected to either Trump or the Trump campaign who have either pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI or who have been indicted for other things.

Manafort, Papadopoulos, et cetera, and Michael Flynn, of course, as well. I think also within that polling, you did see, though, a partisan divide on the probe and you are seeing that played out on both sides, each side accusing the other of being pretty partisan on this measure.

HARLOW: For sure.

HUEY-BURNS: I think if you look at the broader context, though. Remember, we are just a few weeks out from 2018, and that means a few weeks out from the start of the midterm elections, and I think there's the broader question that has been lost in all of this about Russian meddling in the election.

Because we have heard in testimony over and over again that they expect this to happen again next year, and so I think a lot of people will be asking Republicans what are you trying to do to prevent this from happening again.

HARLOW: Manu, another interesting nugget from the polling is 47 percent of Americans approve of how Special Counsel Robert Mueller is running this. I mean, it's not an overwhelming majority. It's more than disapprove, but it's 47 percent, but it's higher than when people are asked do you approve of how the president is handling the investigation, that's at 32 percent.

So, if you are looking at it from where you cover this on the Hill, and Republicans and some of them, not all, but some have come out to try and discredit Mueller. Does this change your calculous at all?

RAJU: An interesting thing, too, about the numbers that a lot of Republican voters are skeptical about the Russia investigations as well, and you are hearing an increasing number of Republicans on Capitol Hill, particularly on the House side skeptical of the investigations, raising questions about Mueller's impartiality.

And in large part that's what they are hearing from their core constituents back home, and that's shaping the narrative heading in 2018 about whether these investigations are overreaching in any way.

I should say that there is a difference. Not all Republicans on Capitol Hill are of the same mindset. A lot of them do support Mueller -- yes, particular on the Senate side, Poppy, a lot of them want the Mueller investigation to move forward, but you're hearing from the members of the House in particular raising increasing concerns.

HARLOW: It's a great good point, Manu. I mean, just like juxtapose what Jim Jordan told John Berman this week. First is what Corker said yesterday on Mueller and the investigation. It's a very good point.

Asha, this letter from Nancy Pelosi to House Speaker Paul Ryan, sort of pleading with him in the ninth hour not to shut down the Russia investigation. I just don't get where it's coming from. Maybe you see something here that I don't because I have seen the moves to try and discredit Mueller.

I have seen what the president has written and said about him in the past. I've also heard in the last week what the White House counsel said, what the president has said over and over, what Rod Rosenstein testified under oath saying no one has come to me or moved to dismiss Bob Mueller. So do you think it's warranted, this letter?

RANGAPPA: I am not sure what was prompting that letter either. I just want to clarify a couple things. Even if the House Intelligence Committee's investigation was shut down, that doesn't affect Mueller. Mueller's investigation will continue --

HARLOW: Right.

RANGAPPA: -- as an actual criminal, you know, investigation, and to be honest, Poppy, I am actually not sure it would be such a bad thing. I honestly can't figure out what value the House Intelligence Committee's investigation, quote/unquote, is really adding. There are definitely people --