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Sources: Trump Wanted News Conference Aides Talked Him Out Of It; House Intel Committee Interviews Longtime Trump Assistant; Former Manafort Deputy May Have Violated Gag Order In Russia Case; GOP Seizing On Anti-Trump Texts By Two FBI Agents; DACA Advocates Fear Dems Have Lost Leverage. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 22, 2017 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:01] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, cashing in on credit. President Trump reverses course deciding to sign the GOP tax bill in front of the news media today instead of in January as originally planned. The President boasting of his accomplishments and complaining he gets no credit. Does he have any regrets from his first year in office?

The inner circle, the Russia investigation focuses on one of the President's longest serving aides. The woman who has been his gatekeeper over at Trump Tower in New York for more than 30 years, she answers questions from the House Intelligence Committee with the Deputy FBI Director now corroborating James Comey's accounts of his conversations with the President. Is the Russia probe about to enter a new phase?

Also, breaking news, anthrax missiles. As the U.N. votes on new sanctions against North Korea, South Korea reports the Kim Jong-un regime has more than a dozen biological agents, including anthrax that could be made weapon-ready within a matter of days. Is Kim Jong-un contemplating a horrifying attack?

And Christmas allowed. A new app from a pro-Trump group thanks the President for things like taxes, the economy, supporting Israel and, quote, letting us say Merry Christmas again. Is that among his most significant accomplishments?

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

President Trump's Christmas holiday is underway. He's now over at his resort at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, leaving Washington after signing the GOP tax bill in a hastily-arranged ceremony. White House sources tell CNN the President actually wanted to hold a year-end news conference like so many of his predecessors but was persuaded not to do so by top aides. Instead, the President used the signing ceremony to tout his achievements and to complain that he doesn't get enough credit for them.

And we're also following beaking news. The House Intelligence Committee Russia investigators are interviewing one of the President's longest-serving aides, Rhona Graff. For more than three decades, she's been his gatekeeper in New York where the interview was held over the objection of Democrats on the committee. And the United Nations Security Council has voted unanimously to impose harsh new sanctions on North Korea in response to its ballistic missile tests. President Trump praised the move in a tweet just moments ago and added, quote, the world wants peace, not death.

And now there is new concern about the Kim Jong-un regime's ability to use those missiles to deliver biological weapons, including anthrax and smallpox. We're covering all of that much more this hour with out guess including Congressman Ted Lieu of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by. Let's begin with the news on President Trump.

Our senior White House Correspondent, Jeff Zeleny is joining us from the White House right now. Jeff, we now know he wanted to hold a year-end news conference but his aides talked him out of it. What are you hearing?

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITEHOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that is what we are told tonight by administration officials. The President wanted to do what many Presidents do and hold year-end news conference. But some aides worried the Russia investigation and other matters could overshadow the conversation. So instead, the President invited a few reporters into the Oval Office as his aides stood by and watched as he signed the tax bill into law.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So this is the bill right here. And we're very proud of it.

ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump signing the tax bill into law today, his final Oval Office act throughout the year. Injecting a burst of reality show drama into the moment, the President hastily summoning reporters after White House aides said he would sign the bill privately. But from his seat at the resolute desk, the President making a rare acknowledgment of a favorite pastime, watching television.

TRUMP: We're going to wait until January 7th or 8th and do a big formal ceremony, but every one of the networks was saying will he keep his promise, will he sign it for Christmas -- before Christmas? And so I immediately called, I said let's get it ready.

ZELENY (voice-over): The President hoping to end 2017 on a high note, presiding over the first major overhaul of the U.S. tax system in three decades. He downplayed concerns of the laws unpopularity with many Americans or that it could be a weight on Republicans in the midterm elections.

TRUMP: I think it's selling itself. It's becoming very popular. But I think it will really -- you'll see something on February 1st when they open up the paycheck. That's when you're going to start to see it.

ZELENY (voice-over): Even as he blasted Democrats for standing in unison against the bill, the President said he believes his rivals will come aboard next year to support a major infrastructure plan.

TRUMP: The Democrats very much regret it. They wanted to be a part of it. It just doesn't work out. I really do believe we're going to have a lot of bipartisan work done and maybe we start with infrastructure. Because I really believe infrastructure can be bipartisan.

[17:05:04] ZELENY (voice-over): It's an open question whether bipartisanship is wishful thinking or a New Year's resolution. As he reflected on his first year in office, the President complained about not getting credit for his accomplishments.

TRUMP: 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.

ZELENY (voice-over): We asked the President if things would have gone smoother if he started with infrastructure rather than trying to repeal Obamacare?

TRUMP: I could have started with infrastructure. I actually wanted to save the easy one for the one down the road. So, we'll be having that done pretty quickly.

ZELENY (voice-over): When asked whether he had any regrets from the start of his presidency, Mr. Trump shook his head no. Yet Politico reported a memo from the President's handpick RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel suggests the GOP is in danger of losing its majority in Congress next year. As Republicans brace to defend seats in the House and Senate --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Roy Moore --

ZELENY (voice-over): The role of the President's former Chief Strategist Steve Bannon remains a critical question. At a year-end news conference on Capitol Hill today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear he blames Bannon for losing a Republican seat in Alabama.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R), 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.

ZELENY (voice-over): At the White House, there was no traditional year-end news conference, like most presidents have done.

BARACK OBAMA, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: All I want for Christmas is to take your questions.

RONALD REAGAN, FMR. PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: With the holiday season upon us, I'm delighted to see Americans giving each other the best Christmas present possible, a strong economy.

ZELENY (voice-over): In fact, President Trump has not held a formal solo news conference since February. He was initially planning one to tout his accomplishments, CNN has learned, but some advisers argued against it to avoid being besiege with questions about the Russia investigation.

TRUMP: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

ZELENY (voice-over): That tension was clear in the Oval Office today as aides tried again and again to escort reporters out, even as the President seemed eager to talk.

A few hours later, Mr. Trump arriving in Sunsplash, Florida with a bounce in his step, greeting supporters as he started a 10-day Christmas break.

OBAMA: Merry Christmas.

ZELENY (voice-over): Even though President Obama and other presidents have long celebrated Christmas, Mr. Trump has taken credit for shining a new spotlight on the holiday, with one of his super pacs launching this ad.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, President Trump, for letting us say, Merry Christmas again.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZELENY: So that ad playing from one of the Trump super pacs, thanking the President allowing people to say Merry Christmas. Well, of course, Wolf, that has always been allowed. But it was one of the biggest applause lines at Trump campaign rallies throughout last year and, indeed, this year as well when he travels across the country. He has seized upon that to talk about Christmas.

But, Wolf, he is at Mar-a-Lago now for a 10-day holiday vacation. He calls it a working vacation, of course, keeping an eye on North Korea and other threats. But as of now, he is flying a bit high from the tax bill he signed into law. Of course we'll be talking about that all next year as it's a central figure in the midterm election campaign. Wolf?

BLITZER: Certainly will be. Jeff Zeleny at the White House, thanks very much.

There's breaking news in the Russia investigation. The House Intelligence Committee interviewing President Trump's assistant and gatekeeper for more than three decades, Rhona Graff.

Our Senior Congressional Correspondent Manu Raju is here. He's working this story for us. Manu, a lot of Democrats objected to this interview. The fact to it was taking place for example in New York.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, because this investigation could be coming to an end and that's what Democrats in the House particularly are concerned about. They see these interviews being stacked in the way that is meant to expedite the investigation.

What you're hearing from members of Democrats who are concerned about the fact that this is happening on a Friday before Christmas, where most members will not be attending and it's happening in New York. They're saying, well, why couldn't we wait until January when we're back in session?

Republicans say, look, we want to get through all the witnesses as quickly as possible. And she is an important witness. Why? Because she is a longtime personal assistant to the President. She worked in the Trump Organization for roughly three decades. And she presumably knows about any contacts that may have occurred, including that meeting that occurred in June 2016 with Donald Trump Jr. and those Trump associates in Trump Tower.

Because, Wolf, in that e-mail exchange between Rob Goldstone, the British publicist and Donald Trump Jr. setting up the meeting. Goldstone references Rhona Graff and says, I can contact Rhona Graff instead if you want me to take this directly to your father Donald Trump. It's uncertain whether or not he went that route. But undoubtedly, she will be asked this question at his interview today by the committee.

BLITZER: The staff members are talking to her, not the lawmakers?

RAJU: There's some members may attend. We have get -- we have work that some members have attended this, but not the full committee for certain. Most of them are out of town.

BLITZER: There are also new developments involving Paul Manafort's Deputy Rick Gates who is facing charges in the Russia probe.

[17:10:01] RAJU: Yes, that's right. Apparently, a federal judge is concerned that perhaps he may have violated his gag order. This because of a lobbyist -- a controversial lobbyist by the name of Jack Burkman played a video of him talking to donors essentially talking about -- thanking them for their help in their case. The question of -- that the judge is wondering is that whether or not this violated the gag order.

And also side note that this lobbyist is a rather controversial person, someone who promoted this conspiracy theory about the death of that DNC staffer Seth Rich. So some questions there as well, but one question is whether or not he did anything that the court would not approve of which is to violate this gag order.

BLITZER: Let's see what happens on that front as well. Manu, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of these. The Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California is joining us. He is a member of both the Judiciary and the Foreign Affairs Committees. Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. TED LIEU, (D) JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: So President Trump's longtime Secretary Rhona Graff has been interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee. She was his gatekeeper, as you know. Some called her his rolodex. How useful could her testimony be to investigators? LIEU: Well, let me first say happy holidays to you and to your viewers. In regards to your question, I'm pleased that the House Intelligence Committee is continuing to do interviews. I think it would be tragic if speaker Ryan shutdown the committee. And I think they're going to look pretty silly because I can guarantee you, the Senate Committees and Special Counsel Mueller's going to keep on going and they're going to keep revealing additional evidence, additional facts. So I really hope that the House Committee on intelligence does not shutdown.

BLITZER: Yes, there's a lot of concern, including Adam Schiff, your California colleague, who is the Ranking Democrat on that committee, because nothing so far is scheduled for next year. They're wrapping things up right now. Let's see what happens on that front. Does your committee, Congressman, the Judiciary Committee, want to interview Rhona Graff as well?

LIEU: I would be happy to interview her. I do know that we did have a confidential interview of Andrew McCabe yesterday with the FBI. And I would be happy if he came back in an open public hearing, because I think America would like to know what he said.

BLITZER: Because CNN has learned that Andrew McCabe, the Deputy Director of the FBI, is one of the people who were briefed contemporaneously by the fired FBI Director James Comey after his conversations with President Trump. You're on that Judiciary Committee and as you correctly point out, McCabe appeared there this week. He appeared before other committees behind closed doors as well. Do you believe McCabe could corroborate Comey's account?

LIEU: So I don't want to comment on what he said because it was a confidential testimony hearing, but I would be happy if Republicans called him back to an open hearing. I think America would like to know what he said.

BLITZER: How do you see all of the attacks on McCabe? Because there's some concern that there's a push to get rid of him by some Republicans.

LIEU: As a former prosecutor, I have to say it's disgraceful, the attacks by the Republicans on law enforcement, on FBI agents, on prosecutors. So publicly they've attacked him because his wife engaged in political contributions.

So let me just say, the FBI director Christopher Wray gave over $39,000 exclusively to Republicans and I trust Director Wray to do the right thing, to act impartially, because it's offensive and demeaning to say that if you're an FBI agent you somehow can't do your job just because you exercised your First Amendment right, to make political contributions. It's even a farther stretch to that say your spouse engaged in certain conduct regarding political contributions and somehow that affects your bias.

BLITZER: His wife was running for state office in Virginia and received a lot of contributions from the Virginia Governor Democrat Terry McAuliffe pac in Virginia. That's the accusation against the Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. But does he also have to answer for some of those anti-Trump text messages that were sent by two FBI agents and both of those agents, their responsibilities have changed as a result. They've been dropped from the Mueller probe.

LIEU: So he did not send those text messages. And when Robert Mueller found out about those text messages, he removed the FBI agent that sent those messages. And keep in mind, Robert Mueller is a Republican appointed previously by Republican President. And Special Counsel Mueller did absolutely the right thing by removing that agent. And we need to let the Special Counsel investigation continue forward. And when you see all of these attacks to smear Mueller's team, my question is, what are people afraid of?

BLITZER: Well, what do you think they're afraid of?

LIEU: So, when Special Counsel Mueller was appointed, Republicans praised him. Republicans like Newt Gingrich and others. Now they're attacking him. The only thing that's changed is two guilty pleas plus two additional indictments.

[17:15:01] So they're afraid, I think, of facts and evidence that Mueller is uncovering and that is not a good justification to try to smear his team.

BLITZER: Are there outstanding questions, Congressman, about the handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation, or are those questions a distraction from the current Russia probe?

LIEU: I believe it's a distraction. And last time I checked, Hillary Clinton is not President. Donald Trump is President. Our intelligence communities and agencies assessed that Russia attacked America last year in the cyber world. They did an influence campaign to undermine the democracy and help Donald Trump get elected.

BLITZER: How much was the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation a focus of the interview with the Deputy Director of the FBI, McCabe?

LIEU: Again, I don't want to comment on his testimony, but I'm just going to say, again, I think if he testified openly and publicly that Americans would be interested to know what he said.

BLITZER: Well, explain that, if you can elaborate a little bit.

LIEU: Yes, absolutely. He would give you immense confidence in the FBI. And, by the way, I want to thank the FBI today for thwarting a terrorist attack on Pier 39 in California. The FBI is one of our nation's preeminent law enforcement agencies and it is a dear service for Republicans and allies of the President to attack the credibility of 37,000 people of the FBI.

BLITZER: Yes. We're going to have a lot more on that breaking story later here in THE SITUATION ROOM as well. Congressman, stand by.

There are more developments unfolding right now. We'll take a quick break. We'll resume the interview right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:21:06] BLITZER: President Trump thinks -- says he thinks Democrats now regret not working on the GOP tax bill he signed into law today, but he also says he thinks they will want to work with Republicans on an infrastructure bill in the new year.

We're back with Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu of California. He's a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committees. Is there a will, Congressman, among Democrats like you to work with President Trump on infrastructure? I'm sure there's lot of bridges and roads and airports infrastructure that need help out in California.

LIEU: Absolutely. Democrats believe that the tax plan is a raw deal for many middle class Americans and we had a better plan and a better deal. But in terms of infrastructure, I think that's something we can agree with the President on.

In May of this year, I, along with other Democrats, introduced a big, bold and beautiful infrastructure bill. I urge the President and his aides to look at that and to work with us. We do need to repair our roads and bridges. And according to the study by the American Society of Civil Engineers, we've got a $4 trillion infrastructure deficit of which $2 trillion is not paid for.

BLITZER: You saw some Republicans express support for a bill to protect what are called the DREAMERS maybe 700,000 or 800,000 young people, some not so young anymore who were brought here as children illegally by their parents, but they've lived here almost their whole life. How much leverage will Democrats have in the New Year to work on a DACA deal as it's called with Republicans?

LIEU: I believe we'll have a lot, but I think it's totally unacceptable that the Congress has still not come up for a fix for undocumented youth. It's something the President has publicly stated that he wants. There are over 200 co-sponsors of the DREAM Act. That's a bipartisan bill that if Speaker Ryan would allow on the floor of Congress it would pass with an overwhelming bipartisan majority. And I urge Speaker Ryan to let the DREAM Act come up for a vote.

BLITZER: Do you think it will?

LIEU: Absolutely. There are already 200 bipartisan co-sponsors. And, in addition, there are a number of Republicans who said they will vote for the bill. We have a clear majority to pass the DREAM Act right now.

BLITZER: What would you do if it's linked to what the President calls beefing up border security, including a commitment to building a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico?

LIEU: The U.S. is a sovereign nation. I would support increased border security. I would be opposed to a wall. It is inefficient and stupid system. And so it depend not exactly what is in that bill.

BLITZER: Congressman Ted Lieu of California, thanks so much for joining us. LIEU: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and your family.

LIEU: Thank you.

BLITZER: There is breaking news ahead. President Trump tweets as the United Nations punishes North Korea for its latest ballistic missile launch. Is the Kim Jong-un regime planning a biological attack?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

[17:28:43] BLITZER: New tonight, President Trump is celebrating passage of the Republican tax overhaul as he caps off 2017 with a legislative victory. As he signed the plan into law today, the President boasted of his record during his first year in office but lamenting getting no credit from the news media.

Let's discuss this and more with our political experts. Rebecca Berg, the President apparently wanted to do what is traditional, a year-end news conference, but his aides apparently talked him out of it. Some of them were afraid he would be asked a lot of awkward questions about the Russia investigation. What do you make of that?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, the President did seem eager, Wolf, to answer some questions today in spite of the fact that this wasn't a traditional news conference. He did take some questions from the reporters who were there in the room with him for this bill signing.

So he didn't dodge reporters completely. But this was still very much the Donald Trump show. A chance for the President to take a victory lap, to tout his accomplishments during the year, and also, of course, to criticize the media for not putting enough of a focus in his mind on those accomplishments.

BLITZER: You know, David Swerdlick, the President seems pretty confident that once the tax cuts go into effect, paychecks will be a little bit higher starting in February and March that this will help bolster the popularity of the tax cuts. But as you know, a lot of Republican strategists right now, they are deeply worried about the midterm elections.

[17:30:00] SWERDICK: It makes sense that the strategists are worried in the sense that you have a tax cut putting money in people's pockets. In theory, that should be more popular. It's not popular if you look at the CNN poll this week and the Wall Street Journal poll this week. That being said, I'm not sure that it's unpopular enough or that people are paying as much attention to this enough right at this stage, that it's fatal to Republicans in 2018. Democrats have to make up more than 40 seats if they want to take the house back. They've got ways to go for that.

BLITZER: Do you think, Jeffrey Toobin, that the president's lawyers were suggesting to him, you know, this might not be a great time to have an open-ended formal east room news conference where 15 or 20 reporters stand up, ask the president specific, tough questions. Do you think the lawyers intervened in that? And you're a lawyer.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: No, you know, who's the president here? I mean, he's the one -- you know, yes, there is this investigation, but we have a president now who never answers any questions except from Fox News. I mean, this is, again, another unprecedented fact about the Trump presidency. You know, he gave -- he used to give occasional interviews to Maggie Haberman at the New York Times, but he's invisible now. Except under the extremely favorable conditions of Fox News. And, you know, sure his lawyers might be worried about what he might say, but he's the president. He's supposed to have some sort of relationship with the public, and that involves answering questions from someone other than the people at "Fox & Friends." I mean, I just think this is yet another departure from the norms of how presidencies are supposed to work.

BLITZER: His last, Rebecca, his last full-scale formal news conference in the east room or in the rose garden, a formal news conference, was back in February.

BERG: Right. And so, Jeffrey's absolutely right. He's avoiding the scrutiny that you get with real questions from real reporters. Not to, you know, insult those reporters at Fox News. There are certainly those who do ask tough questions. But for the most part, the president sits for interviews with people who are extremely friendly, extremely favorable to him and don't ask the tough, hard-hitting questions in the way you might see in a news conference. It's a huge break from tradition if you remember President Obama, whenever he would go on his Christmas of news conferences, much higher with past presidents.

TOOBIN: Can I dissent? Can I dissent?

BLITZER: Go ahead.

TOOBIN: I would like to insult the reporters from "Fox & Friends." I think that is not real journalism --

BERG: "Fox & Friends" are not reporters, Jeffrey. They're the entertainment side.

TOOBIN: Well, but they're the ones who get access to the president. And, you know, this is, you know, a serious thing. It would be one thing if he was doing individual interviews with reporters from other outlets. But there is no access to this president except through the prism of journalistic outlets that are already very favorable to him. It is not normal.

BLITZER: You know, David, let me ask you this, as a pro-Trump non- profit associated with the Super PAC that's called America First Priorities, they've released an advertisement reflecting the president's first year in office. The ad touts the tax plan, other accomplishments. Let me play another clip from this ad. Listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As veterans, thank you for reminding us to stand for our national anthem.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, President Trump.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, President Trump, for letting us say Merry Christmas again.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Thank you, President Trump, for allowing us to say Merry Christmas. As far as I know, people have been saying Merry Christmas for a long time.

SWERDICK: Yes, Merry Christmas, Wolf. Merry Christmas, Rebecca. Merry Christmas, Jeffrey.

TOOBIN: No.

SWERDICK: You can already say Merry Christmas --

BERG: Don't you feel liberated?

SWERDICK: Yes, I do. Like, thank you, President Trump. Look, it's a bit of a ridiculous ad. At the same time, this for the 35 percent of Americans that still support President Trump, this is the value ad. A President Bush could've passed a tax cut. A president Rubio could have appointed Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. But this culture war, this sort of ax-grinding is what people got out of President Trump and they're sort of touting it now as they end the year.

BLITZER: Jeffrey, go ahead.

TOOBIN: Well, I know, I just wanted to say that finally, you know, the Obama prohibition on Merry Christmas has been overturned and I for one am grateful for that.

BLITZER: Yes. I know, we have a lot of clips of former President Obama actually saying those words, Merry Christmas.

TOOBIN: It's true. It's true. Just a little Christmas cheer here, you know?

BLITZER: What do you think, Rebecca?

BERG: I would agree that it is a little bit ridiculous, but, you know, can we also say Happy Christmas?

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: You can say Merry Christmas. As far as I know, this is a free country. We have freedom of speech. You can say all of the above, and lot more.

[17:34:56] All right. We'll take a quick break. Much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're back with our panel. Let's get back to Jeff Toobin. Jeff, Rhona Graff, who's been one of the president's longest-serving aides -- maybe 30 years of personal secretary. She was interviewed by staffers at the House Intelligence Committee in New York today. How important would he testimony be in the overall investigation?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, these assistants, secretaries, often turn out to be very important witnesses. Think about Rosemary Woods, who is Richard Nixon's secretary, who was involved in the 18-and-a-half- minute gap on the Watergate tapes. Fawn Hall, who was Oliver North's secretary during the Iran-contra affair who helped him destroy documents. I mean, these are very important people because they are the keepers of the physical evidence, whether it was paper in the old days or e-mails today. You know, I -- certainly, Rhona Graff is a very loyal employee but she knows how the paper flow works. She knows how the e-mails were printed out and presented to then-Candidate Trump, and that kind of stuff can be extremely important.

[17:40:39] BLITZER: It certainly could be, you know, and Rebecca, Andrew McCabe, the Deputy FBI Director, he's been questioned now like 10 or 12 or 14 hours by various committees up on Capitol Hill, all behind closed doors. But according to all of the reports, he has confirmed what James Comey, the fired FBI Director, basically said about his private conversations with the president, that the president asked him for loyalty. And that could be a problem in the potential obstruction of justice investigation.

BERG: Oh, absolutely. Because it confirms the testimony that Comey gave and independently offers another data point to support a potential obstruction of justice. I mean, Comey's testimony alone was important in that, but having confirmation from someone who was not involved directly in that conversation, it does potentially bolster a case, certainly.

BLITZER: How important is the McCabe testimony, once again, as far as this investigation is concerned?

SWERDICK: I think it is important. Again, as Rebecca said, it tends to confirm what Director Comey said in his testimony. And, again, Wolf, we don't have to guess to a degree at what the president's mindset was. Look at the May 9th letter that the president sent to Comey when he dismissed him, he referenced -- telling Comey, I asked you three times or you told me three times I wasn't under investigation. So, clearly, him being under investigation was on the president's mind. Whether or not that was the reason why he dismissed Comey. There has been this trend in the last few weeks of Republicans in the administration, on the Hill, in conservative media, trying to discredit the FBI to make it seem like this is partisan, but no one has really pointed to anything where the FBI has, you know, crossed the line into doing something that's improper.

BLITZER: How significant is his testimony, Andrew McCabe's testimony, Jeff? TOOBIN: Well, it's part of a mosaic that is available to prove what

Donald Trump said to James Comey before he fired him. And, you know, the key issue in the obstruction of justice investigation is why, why did Donald Trump fire James Comey? Was it because, as he later explained that -- because Comey was too mean to Hillary Clinton? Or as he explained it other times, to short-circuit the Russia investigation. And if it was the short circuit the Russia investigation, that raises very serious questions of obstruction of justice. And McCabe's testimony corroborating Comey is certainly evidence that is helpful to proving obstruction of justice. It doesn't settle the issue by any means, but it is certainly pro- prosecution evidence.

BLITZER: So, Jeff, as we head into the new year, where is -- forget about the congressional investigations. Robert Mueller's investigation, where is it heading?

TOOBIN: Well, you know, I'm going to say the three words you're never allowed to say on cable news, which are: I don't know. You know, I've been trying very hard to get information about the Mueller investigation. It is the most closed up shop I have ever seen, especially compared to Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation. I mean, they are not talking about where they are going, they had very productive first seven months. You know, two guilty pleas, including one from the national security adviser. We know that the trial of Manafort and Gates is scheduled for May, but whether there are additional indictments coming, whether there will be some sort of report, the detailed report presented to Congress or the public, I wish I could tell you the answer but I just don't know.

BLITZER: But there's no indication, Jeff, and you're very familiar with these prosecutors, no indication that it looks like he's wrapping things up as officials at the White House would like to believe.

TOOBIN: No, that much I think you can say. That this is not an investigation that's in its final stages. You know, Ty Cobb, who is the president's liaison to Mueller, has said for a long time that the investigation is wrapping up. I mean, it is true, apparently, that all of the documents that have been requested from the White House have been provided. A first round of interviews has been completed. But that is not necessarily a signal that the investigation is winding down. You know, I do think that Mueller does not want to be a Kenneth Starr, a Lawrence Walsh, investigating for four, five, six years. But I do think that you know, at least a year, which would take him to May of 2018, and perhaps through 2018, that's very likely.

[17:45:12] BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There is more news we're following, including breaking news. North Korea slamming President Trump's new national security strategy. The United Nations, at the same time, passing tough new sanctions against Kim Jong-un's regime. Are tensions escalating just in time for the Winter Olympics in South Korea?

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[17:50:27] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight. The United Nations has approved new sanctions against North Korea. The vote was unanimous intending to punish the North Koreans for testing a long-range ballistic missile that might capable of reach the United States. Also new tonight, Kim Jong-un's regime is taking notice of President Trump's newly unveiled national security strategy, which lays out the grim possibility of war with North Korea. Brian Todd is working this story for us. Brian, how are the North Koreans reacting specifically to this 55-page national security paper that the president released?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, they're responding like they often do with personal insults of President Trump and with threats. Tonight, we're getting new warnings about the escalating tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and about a dangerous set of weapons that Kim Jong-un may be pursuing outside of his nuclear program.

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TODD: Kim Jong-un's regime tonight using some of its favorite phrases to insult President Trump, calling him "gangster-like and arrogant". Pyongyang is upset over the president's new national security strategy -- a document which highlights what the U.S. sees as North Korean's desire for a missile program, able to "kill millions of Americans with nuclear weapons", a threat the president promises to counter.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It will be taken care of. We have no choice.

TOOBIN: But tonight, Kim's regime is firing back with its own accusation, that the "gang of Trump" is seeking to invade and control North Korea by starting a nuclear war. All of this, just weeks before the winter Olympics start in South Korea.

KELLY MAGSAMEN, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: We're already in a place of pretty heightened tensions over the past year. And I think as we're looking at the Olympics and beyond the Olympics, especially when the United States begins its military exercises again in March and April timeframe, the potential for escalation is pretty high.

TODD: But it's not just nuclear arms that are escalating tensions. The new Trump security plan says, Kim's regime is also pursuing chemical and biological weapons, which "could be delivered by a missile". South Korean government reports, recently cited by Harvard University, say North Korea has 13 types of biological agents which it can weaponize within 10 days if Kim makes the decision to do that. The report says anthrax and smallpox are the most likely agents the North Koreans would deploy.

Could anthrax be deployed on a long-range missile? Could it work and could it kill a lot of people?

ANDREW WEBER, FORMER ASSISTANT DEFENSE SECRETARY: Yes, the Soviet Union did have warheads that were designed for biological weapons -- long-range missiles like the SS-18. But it's really not really necessary. You could deliver an anthrax attack in Los Angeles, or Miami, or New York covertly and have a strategic impact and kill tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people. TODD: It is impossible to know for sure if North Korea is creating

these types of weapons because the regime is difficult to penetrate and intelligence is limited. And the U.S. intelligence community has been wrong about chemical and biological weapons in the past, including the runup to the Iraq war. Still, experts who study North Korea point to what they say is troubling evidence, including these photographs from two years ago, as Kim toured the Pyongyang Bio- Technical Institute, which the North Koreans claim manufactures pesticides. But some machinery on display raised alarm among WMD experts. Equipment such as these silver tanks, which experts stay are industrial scale fermenters capable of producing anthrax on a large scale, along with other machinery used to convert biological agents into sprayable form. Andrew Weber tracked biological weapons for decades at the Pentagon.

We'll say a thumbnail size quantity of anthrax, how many people could that kill from just a spray of it?

WEBER: Delivered in the right conditions, that could kill thousands maybe, even over ten thousand people.

TODD: From a sprayer in an urban environment?

WEBER: Absolutely.

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TODD: Millions of South Koreans and tens of thousands of U.S. troops in South Korea could be vulnerable to that kind of biological attack. And using biological weapons would give Kim Jong-un one other advantage. Experts say it's much harder to trace who used a biological weapon than it is to trace a nuclear weapon. This week, the North Koreans put out a statement denying that they have a biological weapons program. Wolf.

BLITZER: Brian, what about North Korea's chemical weapons, what are you hearing about those?

TODD: Former Pentagon Official, Andrew Weber, who commissioned that recent Harvard study on all of this, he says Kim Jong-un is believed to have a stockpile of 5,000 tons of chemical weapons, and then he's able to deploy them on missiles and with artillery. We already know he's killed his own half-brother with chemical weapon.

[17:55:08] BLITZER: And one serious U.S. fear is he could sell some of those weapons.

TODD: That's right.

BLITZER: Chemical weapons, as well. Brian Todd, thanks very much. Coming up, why White House aides talked president out of holding a formal year-end news conference, and how he managed to give it a few words anyway. Plus, there's breaking news, we have details of a thwarted holiday terror plot, targeting an iconic American city.

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