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Trump Secretary Questioned in Russia Probe; Trump Signs Republican Tax Bill; Interview With Arizona Congressman Ruben Gallego; Hispanic Caucus Angry Over Inaction on Dreamers; Trump Secretary Talks; FBI Reveals Terror Plot; McConnell Mocks Bannon's "Political Genius"; Putin Calls Trump's New Security Strategy "Aggressive". Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 22, 2017 - 18:00   ET


[18:00:11] WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now: seeking credit. President Trump signs his tax overhaul into law, complaining about news media coverage of his accomplishments, while avoiding a year-end Q&A session with the White House press corps.

Tonight, we're learning how the Trump team tried to force him to stay on message.

Grilling the gatekeeper. The president's longtime secretary who was part of the cast of "The Apprentice" has a new role tonight, as a witness in the Russia investigation. Is she revealing new information about that infamous meeting over at Trump Tower?

Terror attack thwarted. Breaking news tonight, the FBI says a former U.S. Marine was planning an attack at a California landmark over the holidays. We're going to tell you what we're learning about the alleged plot.

And Putin perturbed. The Russian leader's hot and cold relationship with President Trump gets icy again. Vladimir Putin slamming U.S. policy as aggressive, as the two countries spar about their warplanes over Syria.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following breaking news on an alleged terror plot targeting a very popular tourist attraction over the holidays.

The FBI says a former U.S. Marine was planning to strike with weapons and explosives at San Francisco's Pier 39. Stand by for details on that, claims of an ISIS connection and how the feds say they prevented the attack.

Also tonight, White House officials say President Trump was convinced by his aides not to hold a formal year-end news conference, even though he wanted to tout his accomplishments. We're told Mr. Trump's advisers feared he would be pummelled with questions about the Russia investigation. Instead, the president held a low-key photo-op in the Oval Office to sign the tax bill and a short-term spending bill, before heading to Florida for the holidays.

The Russia investigation, meanwhile, is reaching into the president's inner circle once again with his longtime secretary Rhona Graff facing questions from congressional investigators. Graff was mentioned by name in e-mails leading up to that 2016 Trump meeting with a Russia lawyer who offered dirt on Hillary Clinton.

As the Russia probe plays out, there are also new signs right now of tension between Vladimir Putin and the Trump administration. The Russian leader telling his defense officials that the new U.S. national security strategy is -- quote -- "aggressive."

This hour, I will talk with Congressman Ruben Gallego. He's a Democrat of the Armed Services Committee. And our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, let's go to our senior White House correspondent, Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, the president is starting his holiday break in Palm Beach in Florida with the tax bill signed, but without holding a year-end news conference.


The president left town this morning without holding a year-end press conference, like most presidents have done in recent years, even though back several years. But the president, I'm told, did not want his accomplishments to be overshadowed by questions of the Russia investigation.

I'm told he initially wanted to have a press conference. His aides prevailed on him not to have one. But in either case, he sat in the Oval Office today at the Resolute Desk, signed that tax bill into law, the biggest victory of the year.


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 of 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 acknowledgement of a favorite pastime, watching television.

TRUMP: We were going to wait until January 7 or 8 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: 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 concern of the law's 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 will see something on February 1, when they open up the paycheck. That's when you're going to start to see it.

ZELENY: 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. But 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.


ZELENY: 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 accomplishment.

TRUMP: Harry Truman had more legislative approvals than any other president, and a record long-held, and we beat him on legislative approvals, for which I get no credit.

ZELENY: We asked the president if things would have gone smoother if he had 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 will be having that done pretty quickly.

ZELENY: When we asked this...

(on camera): Any regrets?

(voice-over): ... Mr. Trump shook his head no, yet Politico first reported a memo from the president's handpicked RNC chairwoman, Ronna McDaniel, suggesting the GOP is in danger of losing support among women voters critical in the midterms elections.

As Republicans brace to defend seats in the House and Senate, 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, Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear he blames Bannon for losing a Republican seat 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.

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

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

RONALD REAGAN, 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: 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 advised against it, to avoid being besieged with questions about the Russia investigation.

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 sun-splashed Florida with a bounce in his step, greeting supporters as he started a 10-day Christmas break.

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 ACTRESS: Thank you, President Trump, for letting us say merry Christmas again.


ZELENY: So, Wolf, of course, that merry Christmas line was always one of the biggest applause lines at Trump campaign rallies when he was running for president and indeed since he's become president, no matter what season it was.

President Trump always said he would bring merry Christmas back. Of course, a little bit of a war on Christmas there. You have always been able to say merry Christmas.

And we do wish everyone a merry Christmas tonight from the White House. But, Wolf, what this really says is that this White House here is shifting now to the winter White House in Palm Beach, Florida, at least for the next 10 days or so.

The president told us today he's going to have a working vacation, of course, keeping an eye on all the threats around the world. He's also going to be planning his State of the Union address, the first State of the Union address he will give, at the end of the January.

So, a lot on his mind, of course, but he does leave Washington with the big legislative accomplishment. The question here is how will that play out in the 2018 elections. That will be front and center, if Republicans can keep control of the House and the Senate. The president says he does not believe he will be traveling much around the country selling this tax bill. He said Americans will see the benefits for themselves. We will see about that, Wolf, though.

There are Republicans who wonder how this will play out for them. A busy year, of course, at the White House, the president now tonight in Palm Beach -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Where it's a lot warmer than it is here in Washington, D.C.

ZELENY: No doubt.

BLITZER: All right, Jeff, thanks very much.

Now to the Russia investigation and serious new questions for the president's secretary and gatekeeper.

Our chief security national correspondent, Jim Sciutto, is following all the breaking developments for us.

We're talking about Rhona Graff, who worked for the Trump Organization and worked for the president, what, for three decades.


She's been a target of Hill investigations for some time. And certainly the Democrats on the committees have been looking to talk to her for some time, in part because of her proximity to the president, but also because she was in effect the president's e-mail communicator.

Mr. Trump, before he became president and since then, does not like e- mail, didn't use it, so e-mail communications would go to and from Rhona Graff, one subject of questions from Hill investigators.


SCIUTTO (voice-over): President Trump's long-time secretary, Rhona Graff, is the latest member of his inner circle to face questions from lawmakers in the Russia investigation.

TRUMP: Rhona, come here. I'm going to make you a star.

SCIUTTO: Graff has been at Trump's side for decades, long considered his gatekeeper, including sending and receiving e-mails on behalf of Mr. Trump, who has avoided them.


Graff was mentioned by name in the June 2016 e-mails between Donald Trump Jr. and British publicist Rob Goldstone, in which the two discussed connecting the campaign with a Russian lawyer offering damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

Goldstone writing -- quote -- "I can also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive. So, wanted to send to you first."

Also this week, lawmakers from three House committees questioned FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe for more than 16 hours on a range of topics, including the Russia probe of special interest to Democrats, and the FBI's investigation of Hillary Clinton's use of a private e- mail server as secretary of state, notable for Republicans.

McCabe was also grilled on his interactions with fired FBI Director James Comey, who McCabe told lawmakers informed him of conversations he had with President Donald Trump soon after they happened, this according to three sources with knowledge of the matter.

Democrats, meanwhile, are again warning President Trump not to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation.

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: Firing Mr. Mueller or any other of the top brass involved in this investigation would not only call into question this administration's commitment to the truth, but also to our most basic concept, rule of law.

It also has the potential to provoke a constitutional crisis.

SCIUTTO: That is a warning the White House quickly shrugged off.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: I want to be very clear and make sure that I address Senator Warner's concern for the 1,000th time. We have no intentions of firing Bob Mueller. We're continuing to work closely and cooperate with him. We look forward to seeing this hoax wrap up very soon.

SCIUTTO: Despite the reassurances from the White House, Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi penned a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan Thursday urging the senior House Republican to protect Mueller.

Pelosi writing -- quote -- "Democrats are deeply concerned by the majority's efforts to curtail the House Intelligence Committee investigation and its overall failure to address Russia's meddling in the 2016 election."


SCIUTTO: We now have Ryan's spokesperson's response to Nancy Pelosi's letter, quite a strong one, I should say, saying -- quote -- "To suit her political agenda, Leader Pelosi would like to see this investigation go on forever."

Wolf, that's an impatience you hear certainly not just from Republicans on the Hill, but from the White House as well. And then, on the other side, from Democrat's, you hear concern they're going to get undue pressure to wrap the investigation up before they feel they are finished.

BLITZER: Lots of questions remaining. Thanks very much for that, Jim Sciutto reporting for us.

Let's get some more on all of this. Congressman Ruben Gallego, Democrat of the Armed Services Committee, is joining us.

Congressman, thanks for joining us.

REP. RUBEN GALLEGO (D), ARIZONA: Thank you for having, Wolf.

BLITZER: As you know, President Trump's longtime secretary Rhona Graff, she has now been interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee.

She's been in the Trump orbit for a lot longer than anyone on his campaign. How useful do you believe her testimony could be to the investigators?

GALLEGO: Well, I think she may be the final link to actually put potentially the whole case together of collusion.

What we do know for a fact now is that the Trump administration campaign repeatedly has lied about their involvement with the Russians, first, who was meeting with them, how these meetings were set up, how often they were meeting with Russian, both officials, as well trying to set up back lines through Jared Kushner.

So there is a lot of very nefarious actions that the president has been taking his whole time, and his people, I should say, his people have been taking. And the question is how much does this lead to President Trump.

Now, we are worried in the House of Representatives that there has been actions, both by the White House and by certain members of the House of Representatives, to undermine this investigation, undermine special prosecutor Mueller.

And we're going to continue to make sure that there is accountability for what occurred and there is a real investigation, because right now we don't see that at least urgency coming from the Republicans in the House of Representatives.

BLITZER: What can you do about that?

GALLEGO: Well, at some point, if we have to use the levers of government, for example, whether it is trying to stop must-pass legislation, whether it's funding government, whether it is assuring that there's a classification and specification that the special prosecutor shall be funded through the White House and not through the Department of Justice, we may have to do that.

But right now, just seeing the actions of some, especially Freedom Caucus members such as Jim Jordan, trying to undermine the special prosecutor, it is very disturbing.

BLITZER: CNN has learned, Congressman, that the FBI deputy director, Andrew McCabe, is one of the people -- was one of the people briefed contemporaneously by the fired FBI Director James Comey after his conversations with President Trump.

[18:15:10] Could he bolster Comey's account?

GALLEGO: Well, absolutely.

From what we understand so far -- and, again, this is from hearing in the news and not through any private communication -- was that Director Comey did communicate to McCabe that the president asked for his loyalty and demanded his loyalty, which goes further to the proof why the president eventually did fire him is essentially to give cover and try to protect Flynn, who he knew was acting illegally in regards to his actions with Russia and Turkey.

So, essentially, the president was helping to cover up a crime by trying to protect Flynn. So, yes, this is a very serious matter. This is why Mr. McCabe is being attacked by members of the House of Representatives, especially Republican leaders from the Freedom Caucus, because they know that he has very dangerous testimony and that he could reinforce some of the testimony of Director Comey about what the president was trying to do on that fateful night that they had dinner at the White House.

BLITZER: And you see all of this as part of the obstruction of justice investigation.

Do you believe the deputy FBI director, McCabe, is safe in his role?

GALLEGO: If you would have asked me two weeks ago, I would say yes, because I thought the Republicans particularly in the House of Representatives believed in the rule of law, believed in getting down to the truth of what actually occurred.

But the actions that I have seen by some of these Republicans has been disgraceful. They have gone from always believing in law enforcement, from believing in thorough investigations -- these are the same legislators that were very eager to get to the bottom of Benghazi and spent tens of millions of dollars in three years investigating Benghazi to find nothing, and now are trying to shut down an investigation when so far four people in President Trump's orbits have been indicted.

And now they're going and trying to disgrace not just McCabe, not just Comey, but also special prosecutor Mueller.

I don't think that anyone really in the FBI is safe. And I think it's prudent for House Democrats and House -- and any person who actually cares about the rule of law and trying to stop foreign intervention in our elections to make sure that the FBI and Department of Justice stays impartial and is allowed to finish this investigation.

BLITZER: Two of those four have already pled guilty and they are cooperating with the special counsel, including the president's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.

Put your hat on, on the Armed Services Committee for a moment, Congressman. As you know, Russian President Putin has now reacted to the Trump administration's new national security strategy, that 55- page document that was just released, and Putin saying, if we use military terms, it's no doubt, in Putin's words, aggressive.

You're a member of the Armed Services Committee . Do you expect Russia to retaliate for that new strategy?

GALLEGO: I don't see what level they would retaliate.

They have already retaliated. They have undermined our democracy. Maybe they will do some close buzz calls with our planes in the Middle East or in the Baltics.

But they have already been acting hostile. They have undermined again our democracy. They have potentially compromised a presidency. They have invaded in the Ukraine, have attempted to undermine Western democracies and allies.

I don't know how much more aggressive that you can get than what Putin has already done, and his whole criminal, criminally corrupt government that's encouraging worldwide hacking.

So Putin should really -- Putin and the Russians should be the last people that should be arguing about aggression. If anything, they should be looking at their own actions and actually trying to curtail them. And us, as the United States, should be always looking for any way to really pen in these overly aggressive actions that the Russians have been conducting essentially for the last six years.

BLITZER: There's been some other developments with Russia over the past week or so, Congressman.

Five more people have now been sanctioned by the U.S. government under the Magnitsky Act, Russians. The State Department is now allowing Ukraine to buy light weapons from the United States, something Russians aren't happy about.

The Pentagon is accusing Russia of intentionally violating an airspace agreement over Syria. As you know, there have been some close and very dangerous encounters between U.S. and Russian warplanes. How do you read those developments?

GALLEGO: Well, it's Russia being Russia.

And I'm glad that there are elements of the Trump administration that are not going to let Putin or Putin's regime and oligarchs woo them and not understand that Russia is an actual threat.

But this is what Russia has been doing, they have been getting away with for a while. It started with Georgia when they used hybrid warfare to overthrow a democratically elected -- or to invade a democratically elected country and then continued on to other countries.


We do need to put them in check. They're complaining now because there's an actual movement, not just by the United States, but other Western countries to put them in check. But that's the only thing the Russians really understand is power.

They do not understand compromise. They never will understand compromise. At some point, we're going to have to use what has always put Russia in check, which is strong political will by democracies to really start penning them in and eventually let their own corruption as a government destroy what is the Putin administration.

BLITZER: All right, Congressman Gutierrez, we have more to discuss, got to take a quick break.

We will resume our conversation right after this.



BLITZER: We're following the breaking news on the Russia investigation, new testimony by President Trump's longtime secretary.

This after the president kicks off his holiday week in Florida, after suggesting he will have a better relationship with Democrats in the new year.

Let's continue our conversation with Democratic Congressman Ruben Gallego.

Congressman, are you willing to work with the president as far as infrastructure spending is concerned? I assume there's a lot of roads and bridges and airports in Arizona that need some improvement.

GALLEGO: There's also a lot of things that have to happen first before we jump to infrastructure.

Number one, we need to fix the DREAM Act. This is a disaster that was created by President Trump. And before we move on to any type of legislation where he's going to need any support from Democrats, we need to protect our dreamers and give them a pathway to citizenship and truly come up with a solution that finally puts them at ease before we even go into anything else.

Secondly, if he wants to work on infrastructure, he needs to actually be open with us, considering that he is not going to be able to do this with just Republicans votes, who do not hold the president accountable.

If he wants Democratic votes, then I want to see his taxes. I want to make sure that whatever we're doing is not designed to basically line his pockets and the pockets of all his friends. We know that this president has already been able to use the government to basically make money by being president, something that's been illegal in the past.

We know now, for example, just by going to Mar-a-Lago so far, he's been able to reap tens of millions of dollars from fees from the Secret Service. So before we go and spend billions and billions of dollars on infrastructure, we need to know where the president's money is, we need to know who's investing in the president, and we need to know who the president owes.

And if they want Democratic votes, that will be part of that challenge. But before anything else gets going, we need a fix to the DREAM Act and we need to see CHIP be reinstituted to make sure that the nine million children that are about to go without health insurance because the president and the Republicans could care less to take care of them before the end of the year, that they are taken care of first.

BLITZER: It's interesting. You raised the whole issue of DACA, the dreamers, 700,000 or 800,000 of these people who are here right now.

You and some of your fellow members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, you actually confronted the Senate minority leader, the top Democrat in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, over this whole issue. You had a significant meeting with him. Tell us about that.

GALLEGO: Well, obviously, we want to keep some of the conversation private, as colleagues and professionals.

But it has been the stance of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus the whole time that the DREAM Act is first and foremost our most important piece of legislation.

We made it very clear to Leader Pelosi that the Democrats would not support a continuing resolution if there was no fixing the DREAM Act. We encouraged, therefore, Chuck Schumer to do the same.

And our meeting was essentially to reinforce that and to encourage him to actually talk to other Senate Democrats and get us to have more Democrats vote against the continuing resolution, because we believe that would put us in a better bargaining position come January.

And that was what the conversation was. We all are professional. We all want a solution to the DREAM Act. But we wanted to make sure that, as Congressional Hispanic Caucus, that Senator Schumer, as well as other Senate Democrats, understood what our position was and what we believe the best bargaining position would be vis-a-vis how they vote.

BLITZER: Because that deadline is coming up I think in March that they have -- there has to be new legislation, new law passed in order to allow them to stay and have legal status here in the United States. I don't know if they're going to agree to a pathway to citizenship, but legal status for the time being.

Earlier in the week, Congressman, the White House director of legislative affairs, Marc Short, he was here in THE SITUATION ROOM with me and he flatly said that the White House, in his words, is committed to getting a resolution on the DACA situation. He said they have been working on negotiations. He also said they're anxious to complete them.

Is that encouraging to you?

GALLEGO: No, not at all. Look, the White House will say anything, we know this, whether it's

truthful or not. They don't quite understand the legislative process. And while they may be working on a fix, they certainly are not working with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on a fix.

And we would be the person that would -- the entity that would eventually broker this type of deal. And we have not had that type of communication. And we are getting

fairly close to the end of the timeline.

[18:30:04] Come January we're going to have to deal with some must- pass legislation and at that point the White House again is going to come asking for Democratic votes and there needs to be a viable DREAM Act fix before we get to January 15th through January 19th or else they're going to find themselves without the necessary votes to pass must-pass legislation.

BLITZER: Congressman Ruben Gallego of Arizona, thanks so much for joining us.

GALLEGO: Thank you. Thank you, Wolf. Happy holidays, Merry Christmas.

BLITZER: And Merry Christmas, Happy New Year to you and your family as well.

Coming up, what is the president's long time secretary now telling him rational (ph) investigators behind closed doors. Standby, we've got more on the Russia investigation.

And we'll also have a full report on a breaking story right now, a terror attack that was allegedly being planned by a former U.S. marine at a very popular San Francisco landmark.


[18:35:31] BLITZER: Breaking news tonight on a terror attack that was allegedly in the works for over the holidays. The FBI says a former U.S. Marine was behind it. Let's go to our justice correspondent Jessica Schneider. Jessica, what are you learning?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, we know that he was discharged from the Marines and authorities say Everitt Aaron Jameson was plotting to stage an attack on Pier 39 in San Francisco sometime over the Christmas holiday. And the FBI agents who were tracking him online they say he was modeling his plan attack in those over the past few years including San Bernardino, and most recently that New York City attack.

In fact, Jameson voice his support for that truck attack in New York City on October 31st where eight people were killed. They were mowed down on that bike path. And then the complaint said Jameson recently became a tow truck driver in his hometown of Modesto, California, leading to concerns that he could attempt the exact same type of attack that happened in New York City. Now the criminal complaint details the letter that authorities found inside his home this week. The letter said in parts, "You all brought this upon yourselves, you allowed Donald Trump to give away Al Quds to the Jews, referring there to Jerusalem, and we have penetrated and infiltrated your disgusting country."

Now top officials right here in the U.S. have warned as recently as last month about this potential danger of an up tick in ISIS inspired attacks right there especially with the collapse of the Islamic State's caliphate. Here's the FBI director.


CHRISTOPHER WRAY, FBI DIRECTOR: And we know that ISIS is encouraging fighters who aspired to travel to stay where they are and commit attacks at home.


SCHNEIDER: Now the FBI did a search of Jameson's home in Modesto, that just 90 miles from San Francisco, they found firearms, empty magazines, ammunition, and fireworks. But tonight, San Francisco officials are saying that there's no specific threat or credible threat to the city or surrounding areas. And Wolf, they're noting that this suspect was under continual surveillance so he wasn't a danger to the community at least for recently. Wolf?

BLITZER: Good work by the FBI and law enforcement. Thanks very much Jessica Schneider for that. So let's bring in our correspondents and analyst Phil Mudd how big of a threat is a suspect like this?

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Well if you own the case, and it looks like the FBI owned the case, this threat could be mitigated early on, that is they're following him with surveillance, they're following him with people behind him in the vehicle.

The problem though in this case, Wolf, is that the life of ISIS is going to live beyond the demise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. You're going to see because of the internet, because of social media, people like this. I'm going to estimate for years if not decades, get inspiration off the internet. Talk to people as this individual you'll see in the charging document he's talking to people on social media and getting inspired to do things like this.

Last thing I'd say, you know, if you want an textbook example of why federal investigators worry about copy cats, it's this guy getting a truck license right after the west side highway event in New York. We don't always catch in the Federal government the best ones. In this case he may not be brilliant, but he's looking at what happened elsewhere around the world, including New York attack and saying I can do the same thing here in San Francisco.

BLITIZER: Yes. And social media, ISIS, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, they posted all sorts of recommended to their supporters, if you can't get a bomb, get a gun, if you can't get a gun, get a knife, if you can't get a knife, get a car just go out and kill the infidels. You've seen those posts.

MUDD: I have and you've seen also social media companies including just this year starts to get more and more aggressive about that balance between what you can say in terms of free speech on the internet and what they're going to take off, YouTube, Twitter had been very aggressive taking people off. I think one of the interesting questions in this case giving the volume of stuff on social media we see in the document, ius where does Facebook go over time in terms of telling people what they can say on Facebook post. I think they're going to get more aggressive saying we're going to take that stuff off.

BLITIZER: Sara Murray, the new poll, our new CNN poll show -- we ask the question do you approve or disapprove of the way Donald Trump is handling terrorism, 42% approve, 51% disapprove. But that 41% is pretty good.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes I think it's pretty good. Look, I think this is a president who obviously ran on being tough on terror. He's continued that kind of messaging from the White House. I want to note when we're talking about this, we haven't heard or seen a coherent strategy from the White House about how they're dealing with these instances of home grown terrorism. They don't talk about that as much. They talk a lot about the immigration system and how the president and his advisors believe that allows terrorists to get into the country and to bring their associates into the country. But we haven't seen a focus, at least publically, from the administration on efforts such as this one.

[18:45:05] So it'll be interesting to see as we get into the new year as we'll face inevitably with more instances like this if we see a more coherent policy, a more coherent messaging from the White House on issues like this one.

BLITZER: Yes, 42% approve of the way the president is handling terrorism. He was supposedly all set, he wanted to hold, Kate (ph), with a formal end of year news conference as almost all of the recent presidents have done, going to East Room, going to Rose Garden, and open up with a statement saying I've accomplished all of this but then starting to take serious questions from White House correspondents, maybe 10, 15, 20 reporters would be allowed to ask questions that didn't happen.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: No it didn't. And we were told that there were tentative plans this week for there to be a year- end press conference as is tradition, but the White House aides convinced him to scrap the plans. My colleague Jeff Zelleny is reporting that they worried that he would kind of step on the message because it's been pretty successful week for this White House for them achieving their first major legislative victory with Republicans and the pretty sweeping tax bill, but thy just goes to show what the concerns are for staffers who work inside this White House and it's -- that if they let reporters in the room that he's going to step on its own message, maybe face some questions about firing the special counsel and the Russia investigation. And typically a president would say, I'm under investigation, I can't talk about that. But time and time again we've seen Donald Trump often say things like it's a hoax, being critical of Mueller. And that was certain a concern of theirs and he did not formally take any questions from reporter that he didn't want to answer before he departed the White House for the holidays.

BLITZER: Yes. He hasn't really held on that kind of formal east room type press conference since February, which is a long time for a president to go without -- that kind of press conference, especially this president who used to love doing news conferences not so much anymore.

Rhona Graff, the president's long-time secretary over in New York, 30 years, she's been very much involved in working with him. She's now been questioned by the House Intelligence Committee and presumably she's got some sensitive information that could help.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Absolutely. An important witness, Wolf, because she is essentially the gatekeeper to Donald Trump, and has been for many years. If someone wanted to meet with Trump, as a private citizen, as a candidate, now even as president, she is someone who could open those doors for him.

And so she likely has a lot of information about people he's met with, been in touch over the phone, in other ways by mail, e-mail. The president doesn't e-mail much but she might have e-mailed on his behalf. And all of that information is going to be very interesting to not only congressional investigators but potentially Mueller as well.

BLITZER: Yes, she was always there when I would go to the Trump Tower over the years 15, 20 years to interview Donald Trump, private citizen Donald Trump, she was always there. We used to see her on The Apprentice as well.

Everybody standby. There's a lot more going on. We'll take a quick break, we'll be right back.


[18:47:47] BLITZER: Welcome back. We're continuing our conversation with our panel. And, Sara, this battle between Mitch McConnell and Steve Bannon is intensifying. Listen to this exchange that Mitch McConnell had today with a reporter.


REPORTER: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP) BLITZER: No love loss between these two guys.

MURRAY: You know, he may speak slowly but that is the majority leader spitting fire there at Steve Bannon. We saw him at the White House a few weeks ago warning that what matters is choosing your candidates. This is before we had Roy Moore as the candidate in Alabama. That's something he's tried to impress upon the president. Obviously, Steve Bannon still gets to the president, and something the White House might be learning the hard way. It gives you an indication into the fact that Mitch McConnell is worried about keeping the majority. He -- they are at 51 seats.

There is not a lot of room to lose in the midterms and that's something the Republicans are talking about more and more, not just the House but also the Senate.

COLLINS: And let's not forget that Mitch McConnell backed off his criticism of Roy Moore just days before the election. So, I think they were both losers here, because Steve Bannon endorsed an accused mild molester, and after he was accused of sexually assaulting all these women, doubled down on his endorsement of him and Mitch McConnell lost a Republican seat in that state.

BLITZER: They're very worried over at the White House. The Republicans are very worried they could lose the midterm election to the Democrats.

BERG: Absolutely. And there is -- you can see the stress starting to boil over in the White House. There was an argument in the Oval Office that spilled out into the outer Oval Office between Cory Lewandowski and Bill Stepien, who is the White House political the president's former campaign manager, he's concerned and he expressed his concerns that the White House is not doing enough to prepare for the midterm elections and they're not approaching 2018 from a place of strength. So, you see the stress starting to build around Republicans.

BLITZER: I'll get Phil Mudd to weigh in on this. A pro-Trump PAC is now sending out an ad with messages of gratitude to the president, including finishing up with this.

[18:50:06] Listen.


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

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, President Trump.

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


BLITZER: Very cute. Thank you President Trump for allowing us to say merry Christmas.

She's very cute.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Very cute, but he also gives us, like, Christmas trees and eggnog? I mean, I was born in 1961. I went to school with sisters of Immaculate Heart of Mary. I'm 56 years old. I've said merry Christmas every year.

I feel like saying thank you, dear leader, for allowing us to speak freely in the American open society. I don't understand what they're talking about. You want to say happy holidays? Say happy holidays. You want to say Merry Christmas, say Merry Christmas. I don't care what the president says, you can say what you want this time.

BLITZER: We've all been saying merry Christmas our whole lives. Happy Hanukkah. We've all been saying all -- you want to say happy holidays, it's a free country, right?

MURRAY: Yes. I think that, you know, it is a free country. You say merry Christmas. We all do.

BLITZER: I've been saying merry Christmas.


MURRAY: This war on Christmas is something we hear about time and time again from Republicans. It's a fallacy. I don't think anyone feels like the Christmas spirit was suddenly missing last year and has reappeared magically under President Trump.

BLITZER: To all of our viewers here in the United States and around the world, let's say it together, merry Christmas.

Just ahead, a serious story we're following after recently praising President Trump. Vladimir Putin is now dashing his new national security policy. We're going to have a live report from Moscow on volatile U.S.-Russia relations right now.


[18:56:32] BLITZER: Tonight, we're following new signs of tension between the Trump administration and Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin is publicly slamming President Trump's new national strategy, calling it aggressive.

Let's go to our senior international correspondent Fred Pleitgen, joining us live from Moscow right now.

Fred, what's the status of the Putin-Trump relationship tonight?

FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, that's the big question right now, wolf. And it really comes very suddenly that the Russians seem to be changing their tone. As you noted, it was just a couple of days ago that President Trump and Vladimir Putin really laid praise on each other and now, today, you had this barrage of criticism coming from the Russians, telling the U.S. to leave Syria, saying that the U.S. is violating treaties with Russia and saying that the Russians need to create a more technologically advanced army as well, and a lot of that criticism coming from Vladimir Putin himself.

Here's what he said.


PLEITGEN (voice-over): After heaping praise on President Trump for days, tonight, speaking to his generals, Russian Leader Vladimir Putin is ripping into America and Trump's new national security strategy, which the Kremlin says is anti-Russian.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Diplomatically speaking, if I can put it in two words, it is an attacking nature and if we use military terms, it's no doubt aggressive. We need to take that into account in our practical work.

PLEITGEN: Trump mentioned Russia as a challenge to U.S. national security when he rolled out his new strategy on Monday.

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

PLEITGEN: The strategy document, which his national security team wrote, went further saying Putin's government is using, quote, information tools in an attempt to undermine democracies.

There are signs this growing rift could lead to confrontations between the U.S. and Russia including in Syria. Sources tell CNN the U.S. believes Moscow is deliberately breaking an agreement aimed at helping U.S. and Russian jets operate safely there.

Moscow's response, America should get out of Syria all together.

ALEXANDER LAVRENTIEV, RUSSIAN ENVOY TO SYRIA NEGOTIATIONS (through translator): We believe there are no legitimate reasons for their presence there at the moment.

PLEITGEN: Only last week, Putin and Trump exchanged warm words and several phone calls and Trump has repeatedly heaped praise on Putin in public.

TRUMP: I respect Putin.

PLEITGEN: But while the president voices his admiration, U.S. authorities are following a tougher line, sanctioning several Russians under the Magnitsky Act this week, including the son of Russian state prosecutor Yuri Chaika, and Chechen strongman and Putin ally, Ramzan Kadyrov, who pretended to laugh the sanctions off in a body building video on his Instagram account.

But experts say Moscow's new rhetoric may be a sign its patience with Trump is running out. VERA ZAKEM, CNA CORPORATION: Putin and his presidential

administration thought that sanctions were going to get lifted. Relations were going to be a lot warmer, but, you know, we are hampered by Congress and it's not easy so to just warm relations and give the investigations that are ongoing in terms of the interference into our elections.


PLEITGEN: And may be a sign of that, Wolf, was that the Russians were really in the past often criticizing the U.S., but really trying to go softer on President Trump, maybe hoping that he would be able to restore relations between the U.S. and Russia. Now it seems as though it's sinking in that the U.S. authorities are going to continue their harder line and we can see on the flip side, the Russians also really ratcheting up their rhetoric as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: Fred Pleitgen, reporting for us, Fred, thanks very much. That's it for me. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.