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NYT: Trump Makes Inflammatory Statements about Immigrants in Meeting; Rhona Graff Interviewed by Lawmakers in Russia Probe; Comey Tweets about James Baker Resignation; Trump Hits Golf Course After Tax Bill Victory; FBI Prevents San Francisco Terror Attack; Amb. Peter Hoekstra Apologizes for Calling Muslim Comments "Fake News"; Thieves Steel Delivered Christmas Packages; Pentagon Releases Video of Possible UFOs; SpaceX Rocket Launch Causes Alien-Invasion Scare in California. Aired 3-4p ET

Aired December 23, 2017 - 15:00   ET



[15:00:13] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: And you are in the CNN NEWSROOM on this Saturday. I'm Pamela Brown, in for Ana Cabrera.

We begin with stunning insight into how the president privately views immigration. The new reporting comes from "The New York Times," which talked to people who either attended or who were briefed on an Oval Office meeting back in June. During this meeting, President Trump reportedly became enraged and began making inflammatory comments as he began reading aloud from a document that detailed how many immigrants had received visas in 2017.

The paper writes, quote, "Haiti had sent 15,000 people. 'They all have AIDS,' he allegedly grumbled, according to one person who attended the meeting and another person who was briefed about it by a different person who was there. "Forty thousand had come from Nigeria." Mr. Trump added, "Once they had seen the United States, they would never go back to their huts in Africa," recalled two officials who asked for anonymity to discuss the sensitive conversation in the Oval Office.

The White House forcefully denies this report, telling CNN, quote, "General Kelly, General McMaster and Secretary Tillerson, Secretary Nielson, and all other senior staff actually in the meeting deny these outrageous claims. And it's both sad and telling 'The New York Times' would print the lies of their anonymous sources anyway."

Joining us now is one of the "The New York Times" reporters who broke this story, Michael Shear.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHAEL SHEAR, WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Sure, happy to do it. Thanks for having me.

BROWN: The first obvious question in the face of the strong White House denial is, do you stand by your reporting? SHEAR: We do. My colleague, Julie Davis, and I set out three months

ago to write a story that sort of chronicled President Trump's efforts on immigration, how that effort had evolved from the time he was a candidate and through the first year of the presidency. And as part of that reporting, we began to hear about this meeting from multiple people.

And, you know, we heard different stories, and as a reporter you put it together the best you can from both people that were in the meeting, people that had talked to folks that were in the meeting. And at the end of the day, we came to believe that the report, as we produced it and published it today, was accurate, was true. And, you know, the White House did push back very forcefully. We included their denial in the report that we published on the Web site today, but we stand by our story.

BROWN: Two sources told you Trump made these remarks, but other officials said he never used the words "huts" or "AIDS." Why do you find these two sources that you used for the story more credible than those who are denying it on the record?

SHEAR: Well, look, as you well-known, Pam, that's something you do every day as a reporter, is you weigh the motivations of your sources. You weigh the kind of detail that they told you, how they told you, how they described events, and whether they, you know, are consistent over time and the like. And we -- you know, we came to believe that the people who were telling us this, described this meeting accurately. We didn't just listen to them.

We tried to talk to a whole lot of people. And you're right, we did talk to some people who said they didn't recall those comments being made back in June. And then, as you say, the White House gave us a statement saying that several of the top officials that were in the meeting denied it. But at the end of the day, after, you know, deliberation and looking at our reporting, we stand by the story.

BROWN: And, you know, as a fellow reporter -- I've been in those positions before. And this is also a White House that has denied things on the record that do turn out to be true. And you have to be able to put that trust in your sources.

Were you surprised by these accounts when you were told what Donald Trump had said in the Oval Office? I mean, we are talking about a man who launched his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murders.

SHEAR: Look, I think what -- that the meeting shows, from my perspective, and why I think we chose to lead this story with it, is that it shows his frustration at a point in time in his administration, it comes about the midpoint of his first year, and it's at a time when he's increasingly frustrated that the promises that he's trying to put into place, that he talked about during the campaign -- you'll remember, he talked about the wall, he talked about banning Muslims during the campaign. I mean, this was a person who came into the White House, came into the Oval Office trying to make good on that promise that was really at the core of his campaign. And by June, he was struggling.

The courts were blocking his efforts. We say, in the story, we describe a different scene in which he's very frustrated when he has to put in place a second travel ban that he considers watered down and a weaker and a more politically correct version of it. The deep state, you hear that all the time from this White House, that the bureaucrats are kind of pushing back on his agenda. So I think that's the context of this meeting and why I think the Oval Office meeting in June kind of shows kind of the depths of where his frustration was coming from.

[15:05:37] BROWN: And you say in the article, your reporting is that a lot of his attitude towards immigrants long predates his entry into the White House. I've got to say, some of this description is that of a xenophobe. You quote biographer, Michael d'Antonio, by saying, "He's always been fearful where other cultures are concerned and always had anxiety about food and safety when he travels."

SHEAR: Yes, look, to take the flip side of it, what the White House would say is that the president is motivated by a real passionate concern for safety and the safety of the American public, and that drives him towards a set of policies that shuts kind of the borders down in a way they haven't been in our country in a long time. And you see that across the set of policies the president has tried to put in place, not just the travel ban, but limits on refugees coming into the country, round ups and a tougher enforcement in the interior of the country and at the border. So the question is, where does that come from? Some of that is his advisers he has around him. But it's also clearly -- from some of the people we talked to, we talked to about three dozen people for this story -- and it clearly comes from something inside him. The kind of reactions he has to immigrants are very personal and very visceral, according to the people we talked to.

BROWN: And you also report that the president has privately shown a soft spot for DREAMers. Those are, of course, children brought to the U.S. at a young age. What can you tell us about that?

SHEAR: You know, it sort of continues a conversation I was just talking about. What motivations Donald Trump, I think, in part, are these personal experiences, right? He's not a book-learning kind of guy. And I mean that in not as a, you know, a snarky way. He experiences things, and that's what motivates him. And in 2013, Donald Trump had a very little cover -- there were a couple of reports about it, but a very little covered meeting with DREAMers.

Of course, 2013, long before he was running for president. And a bunch of young DREAMers came to Trump Tower, went up, had a long meeting with him, and they talked about their stories and what they were facing, what their families were facing. And when we talked to the folks that had met with him, they said, you know, he seemed actually sympathetic. And he said, as they rode down the elevator with them, I believe you, you convinced me. So he brings that experience as much as he does the other kinds of experiences that are more, you know, aimed at keeping people out of the country.

BROWN: You know, it was almost a year ago where the travel ban was first introduced. I covered that at the time. It was such a chaotic time. And you sort of trace how the approach from the White House has changed. At that time, they left so many people out of the process. The White House has really been bucking bureaucracy. How have you seen the president's approach evolve since that first chaotic introduction of the travel ban?

SHEAR: Yes, it's really different both in terms of sort of the outward process and also the process inside. So from the outside reporters, it was like nothing -- and you remember, Pam, nothing we've ever seen. There were no briefings ahead of time. Nobody knew what was going on. When we asked questions, it turns out that aides were going back and Googling the answers because they didn't know, nobody had told them.

And then you fast forward eight or nine or 10 months, and you look at the policies the president has sort of successfully put in place in the last few months, limits on refugees, the end of TPS, which is a special designation for Haitians who had been allowed to come into the country because of the earthquake there. These are -- the way they rolled out those policies as well as a third version of the travel ban was much more disciplined. They had their ducks in a row.

They had sort of -- instead of the bureaucracy being against them or fighting them, they had figured out how to use the bureaucracy to put them in place. And all of them did get put in place. I think you see a year that started very chaotically but, over the course of the year, they've really learned how to be more effective at putting this sort of thing in place. They're not finished. They didn't succeed in all areas, and there's a long way to go. But if you're fan of Trump's policies on immigration, you've got to be excited he's making progress.

[15:10:15] BROWN: And of course, the biggest campaign promise to build a wall. But certainly it appears some lessons were learned.

Michael Shear, thank you very much.

SHEAR: Yes, sure. Happy to do it. Thank you.

BROWN: And these latest accusations come as the president remains under intense scrutiny over the Russian probe. CNN has learned that Rhona Graff, Trump's long-time assistant of the Trump Organization, has been interviewed by congressional investigators. Graff has worked for Trump for more than two decades and has often served as his gatekeeper.

With us to discuss, retired FBI supervisory agent, James Gagliano, and former counsel to the U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, Carrie Cordero.

Thank you both for coming on.

Carrie, I'm going to start with you.

Clearly, Rhona Graff has been there during some critical moments, perhaps of interest to investigators. Tell us, as an investigator, why would you want to speak with her? What would you hope to learn from her?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think there's a few things the special counsel's office is going to want to know from her, as well as the House Intelligence Committee and other congressional investigators. Primarily, they're going to probably focus on that June 16 meeting that took place at Trump Tower. If it's correct as it's been reported that she is always sort always outside the office, been a gatekeeper to the then-candidate and now President Trump, she will have information about who was at that meeting, potentially, whether she heard anything that happened in that meeting or was knowledgeable about how it was setup and sort of what the purpose of it was.

But also, I would think that House Intelligence investigators may be interested in longer-standing information that she has regarding Trump and the organization, the Trump Organization's interactions with the Russian businesses or Russian government officials sort of over the duration of the Trump Organization's work.

BROWN: All right.

I want to go to this tweet that James Comey, the former FBI director, put out this morning. He said, "Sadly, we are now at a point in our political life where anyone can be attacked for partisan gain. James Baker, who is stepping down as FBI general counsel, served our country incredibly well for 25 years and deserves better. He is what we should all want our public servants to be."

That of course, raises the question, James, why was he reassigned. I'm told he was reassigned to be part of special projects in the FBI. We don't exactly know why. And of course, the new FBI director is more than welcome to come in and bring his own leadership in and move older out. But do you think this could be a result of a concerted effort by Republicans to undermine the investigation and those leading it?

JAMES GAGLIANO, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Sure. Pam, moving aside from the politics a second, just to unpack this for you viewers, processes and protocols in the FBI. The FBI has been around for 110 years. There's only been eight FBI directors. The one right now is Director Wray. Each one is entitled to pick his senior staff. They're going to move folks around, pick their own deputy director and own chief counsel. James Baker served as the head of OGC, the Office of General Counsel, for the FBI. He wasn't, per se, Director Comey's or Director Wray's or Deputy Director McCabe's personal attorney.

BROWN: Although, he did work closely with James Comey.

CORDERO: Very closely. And certainly, he would be the guy called in for questions about investigations or cases or how to proceed. He's been reassigned. You can take that two ways. Republicans will harp on this and say he's got a lot of baggage. Democrats would look at this and say it's a political angle to try to cache on the FBI. One we sort through all of that, I think it's going to be interesting, because if he ever decides to become a private citizen, because he's been reassigned, and he could retire and go somewhere else, he could be called in front of these congressional subcommittees and be asked to testify about conversations.

BROWN: It certainly, seems from Comey's tweet, that he believes this is politics. "The New York Times" reported Wray was under pressure from President Trump to reassign people who were close to James Comey. Can you see an FBI director giving in to pressure from the president like this?

GAGLIANO: No, I listened to every second of Director Wray's confirmation hearing. And I believe him. I don't know him personally, but I talked to a number of agent that worked with him when he was at the Department of Justice. He's a guy who's going to chart his own course. I think what he's done is a couple of things. He's reigned certain things back. The FBI's policy now on communicating with the media has been kind of tamped back down the way that it used to be.

BROWN: Tell me about it.


BROWN: I'm someone who covers the FBI.

GAGLIANO: Absolutely. And I think that's part of the response to the fact that Director Comey had a much more open and garrulous relationship with the media. And I think they're trying to do that.

The leaks are unconscionable. I have great respect for Director Comey, his probity, he's unquestionable and unimpeachable, but he's guilty of a leak, and that's something I think they're going to struggle with.

[15:15:11] BROWN: You mean the memo that he gave to his friend who then leaked to "The New York Times?"

GAGLIANO: Through a surrogate to "The New York Times," yes. So we have strict rules about that when we're working within the FBI. And for the director to have engaged in it -- you know, people have --

BROWN: Well, at that point, he was the former director.

GAGLIANO: That's very, very true.


GAGLIANO: People have argued -- that's something right now the FBI is dealing with. Are people leaking? Are people in sensitive investigations leaking? And that's something nobody wants.

BROWN: OK, I'm going to go back to Carrie here.

Carrie, we heard three similar accusations from the president's son and two sitting members of Congress this week. Take a listen to this.


DONALD TRUMP JR, SON OF PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: My father talked about a rigged system throughout the campaign. And people are like, oh, what are you talking about? But it is, and you're seeing it. There is, and there are people at the highest levels of government that don't want to let America be America. They don't want to let the little guy have a voice.

REP. JIM JORDAN, (R), OHIO: I think they were putting together a plan to stop Donald Trump from being the next president of the United States. I think it's amazing, in spite the fact the Democrats were against him, the establishment was against him, the main stream press was against him, and now I believe the Justice Department and the FBI were against him.

SEN. RAND PAUL, (R), KENTUCKY: You know, we've had this investigation about Russian collusion. Maybe now we need an investigation about high-ranking Obama officials colluding to try to prevent Trump from becoming president. That's more serious than even Watergate.


BROWN: In the face of all that, Carrie, as my colleague, John Berman, pointed out to Jim Jordan, if the FBI was trying to prevent the president from becoming president, then why did James Comey wait, looking into his campaign and possible coordination with the Russians?

That aside, is it reasonable to think there is some sort of coordination between the White House and members of Congress to undermine this investigation's credibility?

CORDERO: It sure looks like that, Pamela.

I want to go back to a second with what Jim was talking about and the tweet you put up from former Director Comey. I've known Jim Baker, the outgoing FBI general counsel, for almost 20 years now, and there really is nobody who represents a greater level of public service and dedication to the country, particularly after the years after September 11th.

So what we're seeing in some of those clips that you played from Republican members of Congress, from Donald Trump Jr, it's just part of what is happening that I just can't ever remember seeing before. Which is members of Congress, those involved in the political space, who are verbally attacking and going after individuals like Jim Baker, like Jim Comey, like Andrew McCabe, who have dedicated their lives to public service and protecting the country. It's one thing to have politics over issues or politics in the context of an election. But this targeted attack against, particularly the FBI and individuals, senior officials in the Justice Department, who are charged with enforcing the law and protecting the country, is really just out of the bounds.

BROWN: And, you know, it is interesting, Robert Mueller, of course, is also the subject of these attacks. When he was first appointed special, he was lauded on both sides of the aisle as being an independent prosecutor. And now, as we see, the tide has turned on him as well.

Carrie Cordero, James Gagliano, thank you so much.

CORDERO: Thank you.

GAGLIANO: Thanks for having me.

BROWN: Well, the president is spending his first day of holiday break, what else, golfing, and celebrating a major victory on getting tax cuts signed into law. We'll take you to his Florida golf club just ahead.

You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM. Stay with us. We'll be right back.


[15:22:51] BROWN: It is day one of Christmas vacation for President Trump. So far, he's spent his first day off golfing at his private club in Florida. CNN shot this exclusive video of him setting up for a putt.

The holiday break comes as the president celebrates a major victory. Just 24 hours ago, he signed the Republican tax bill into law. But even then, when the president had every reason to brag, he didn't talk for long. Unlike past presidents, President Trump did not hold a year-end conference to tout his accomplishments, something that hasn't happened in 15 years. Instead, he took a few questions before reporters were ushered out of the room. Today, we're learning that's not what President Trump originally wanted. We're actually told his aides argued against it, fearing he'd be asked questions about the Russia investigation.

CNN's Boris Sanchez has the details. He's live in West Palm Beach, Florida, right near Mar-a-Lago.

So, Boris, what can you tell us?

BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hey, there, Pam. That's right, advisers, apparently, talked the president out of holding this year- end, in-depth news conference with reporters out of fear he'd be besieged with questions about the Russia investigation and other distractions.

The White House certainly dealing with a distraction right now in responding to this explosive "New York Times" report about some alleged insensitive comments that the president made about certain nationalities during a meeting about immigration with top officials. The White House refuting all of the "The New York Times" reporting. But this is certainly not something the White House wanted to be talking about just one day after the president signed the tax reform bill into legislation. They were expecting to be taking a victory lap right now. They wanted an uneventful vacation.

We were told the president was expected to start focusing on his State of the Union address, which is scheduled to be delivered to the nation before the end of the January. We were also told he's going to start weighing his options when it comes to his next steps in his legislative agenda. There are two options essentially on the board for the president.

One would be to dig in on entitlement reform, welfare reform, something House Speaker Paul Ryan says is the next logical step following tax reform, or potentially something he talked about before heading to Mar-a-Lago yesterday, an infrastructure plan. The president actually admitting that his legislative agenda might have moved much easier ahead had he gone for infrastructure first, because, in his words, "That's a bipartisan issue," somewhere where Republicans and Democrats can find common ground.

Despite all of that, the White House is now having to respond to this, again, explosive "The New York Times" report, something that we will likely hear about again and again in the coming days -- Pam?

[15:25:35] BROWN: And those sources in "The New York Times" requesting anonymity. White House putting out a statement saying some officials on the record denying that, but "The New York Times" -- just interviewed the reporter for that article -- and they are standing by their reporting.

Boris Sanchez, thank you so much.

The FBI uncovers a terror plot plan for the Christmas holidays. Details on the target and who they say was planning the attack, just ahead.

You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


[15:30:29] BROWN: Well, the FBI says it has prevented a terrorist attack in San Francisco. The target, a popular tourist and shopping destination during the holiday season. The suspect, a former Marine who pledged support for ISIS.

CNN's justice correspondent, Jessica Schneider, has all the details.


JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: The FBI has thwarted a plot that targeted San Francisco around the holidays. 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 tracking him online saying he was modeling his attack over those in the past few years, including San Bernardino and most recently in New York City. In fact, Jameson voiced his support for that New York City truck attack on October 31, when eight people were killed on bike path. And then a report says Jameson recently became a tow truck driver in his hometown of Modesto, California, leading to concerns that he could attempt that same type of attack as in New York City.

The criminal complaint also details a letter the authorities found inside his home under a search warrant this week. The letter said things like, "You've all brought this upon yourselves" and "You've allowed Donald J. Trump to give away al Quds to the Jews," a reference to Jerusalem, and he also said, "We have penetrated and infiltrated your disgusting country."

Top officials in the U.S. have been warning, as recently as last month, about this danger of a possible uptick in ISIS-inspired attacks in the U.S., especially with the collapse of the Islamic State caliphate.

The FBI did a search of Jameson's home in Modesto, California, just 90 miles from San Francisco, and they found firearms, empty magazines, ammunition and fireworks. Jameson is now in custody.

Jessica Schneider, CNN, Washington.


BROWN: Our thanks to Jessica Schneider.

In the meantime, California's "Modesto Bee" newspaper reports Jameson's attorney has denied the allegations.

Well, a United States ambassador is now apologizing after lying to a reporter, twice, and accusing the reporter of spreading fake news. Ambassador Peter Hoekstra, the former chair of the House Intelligence Committee, is now the ambassador to the Netherlands. In 2015, he told a panel that the Netherlands was in chaos because of Muslims. But when a reporter asked him about those comments, the ambassador flatly denied ever saying that and called it fake news. But he did say it, and the cameras were rolling.


AMB. PETER HOEKSTRA, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE NETHERLANDS: The Islamic movement has now gotten to a point where they have put Europe into chaos. Chaos in the Netherlands. There are cars being burned. There are politicians being burned. And, yes, there are no-go zones in the Netherlands.


BROWN: In the recent interview, he also accused the reporter of spreading fake news, and moments later, he denied using the phrase "fake news." Today, on Twitter, he asked for forgiveness and said he regrets the exchange with the journalist.

Well, sting operations catching thieves in the act trying to steal holiday gifts right off your front porch. We'll show you what happens. You're not going to want to miss this story.

You're live in the CNN NEWSROOM. We'll be right back.


[15:38:09] BROWN: Well, there are people out there this weekend trying to ruin your family's Christmas. Can you imagine that? I'm talking about crooks, thieves, who are grabbing packages and boxes from front porches and doorways. Sometimes they're caught on camera, most times not. Well, some homeowners are sick and tired of losing their stuff and now they're getting creative.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When someone comes up to pick it up, that's when it goes off.


BROWN: One police force in New Jersey is taking the booby trap concept to a higher level and setting up sting operations to catch bad guys in the act.

CNN digital correspondent, Dan Lieberman, did a ride along with him.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: As you can see he's thinking about it, thinking about it, and he walks right up to the front there, and then goes ahead and takes the package.


DAN LIEBERMAN, CNN DIGITAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It's something that's happening all across the country. Some of it caught on camera.

(on camera): Are you seeing more packages being stolen this year?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Absolutely. I think it's -- it's becoming quite the epidemic.

LIEBERMAN (voice-over): One survey found 23 million Americans have had a package stolen. In this holiday season, maybe the biggest heist yet, with more than a billion packages being delivered as more people do their shopping online.


We're going to be running two teams. Make sure everybody is vested up.

LIEBERMAN: This police unit is trying to catch package thieves in the act.

(on camera): You've got a flat-screen TV.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: We have what's made to look like a Blu Ray player over here.

LIEBERMAN: Someone trying to steal this would be pretty disappointed when they open it up.


LIEBERMAN: There's nothing in here.

As you see someone trying to steal this, you'll jump out and arrest them?


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: We have two surveillance teams with packages placed on doorsteps. The chances of one of them being stolen is possible

[15:40:07] LIEBERMAN (voice-over): Lieutenant Reiner (ph) says it's all too easy for thieves to snatch up these packages.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: This is a prime example of how easy it is to commit one of these thefts. The package is clearly visible from the road on a high-traveled street.

LIEBERMAN: So far, his department has recovered more than 100 items this season that they hope to return to their rightful owners.

(on camera): What do we have here, a blender?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: We have blenders, make up, sneakers. We have some higher-end items.

LIEBERMAN (voice-over): Packages have already been returned, but a lot of people are still missing their gifts.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: We all have families and we want to put smiles on your children's faces on Christmas morning, and just to find out that an individual stole a package is really -- it's heartbreaking.


LIEBERMAN: Now, the package thieves, we didn't see the police catch any of them when we were at the police department. But we did reach out to the biggest shippers out there, and they said, if you think you have a stolen package, contact them and file a police report -- Pam?

BROWN: Wow. What amazes me is just the variety of thief. You see a grandmother. It looks to be a grandmother, this woman. You're seeing young women, young men, a whole variety there. What happens when they're caught?

LIEBERMAN: A lot of these are kids, too. They're juveniles.


LIEBERMAN: It's difficult. The penalty is not really stiff for people taking packages. It really depends on your record. But they are trying to get more creative in how they try to stop this. We see people putting tracking devices on their package. This is big problem, when you consider that over a billion packages are being delivered from online shopping. And it's becoming a growing problem, and not sure what the answer is.

BROWN: Yes. LIEBERMAN: Police are trying to figure this out. And even companies are trying to get creative with solutions. We saw in November, Amazon introduced Amazon Key, where you can actually let them open your front door to put a package inside.

So this is a difficult issue that's only going to get more intense the more people shop online.

BROWN: And it seems like they're becoming more and more brazen. I had a package that was opened up and the item inside was stolen right in front of my house. They left the box right there.


BROWN: I was just in shock over that.

Are you seeing, from this reporting, more homeowners are taking it into their own hands and installing surveillance systems, that kind of thing?

LIEBERMAN: Definitely. These cameras are so cheap and it's easy to put them in, some of them, on your front porch, and can capture anything. Actually, this surveillance footage is helping police catch the guys because they make a visual identification, and they can actually track them down.

BROWN: All right, Dan Lieberman, thank you so much for that reporting.

LIEBERMAN: You've got it. Merry Christmas.

BROWN: What a story. Thank you.

Well, this week we learned about the Pentagon's program to investigate UFOs, and even released videotape of a Navy pilot's close encounter with them. You're going to hear his description, and we'll dig deeper, just ahead.

You are live in the CNN NEWSROOM.


[15:46:26] BROWN: Well, SpaceX's CEO, Elon Musk caused a slight alien-invasion scare last night. His company launched a Falcon 9 rocket from an Air Force base in southern California. And while it did go as planned, it triggered quite a few 911 calls from people who had no idea what was lighting up in the sky. Musk had some fun with it, though. He tweeted it was a "nuclear alien UFO from North Korea."

Speaking of space mysteries, the one you're about to see now is a whole different ballgame. Watch.


UNIDENTIFIED U.S. NAVY PILOT: (INAUDIBLE) My gosh. They're going against the wind. The wind's 120 knots west. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: What you're seeing is not a scene from a sci-fi movie. This is actual footage released by the Pentagon. A seemingly genuine close encounter. And here's more of that stunned reaction from a Navy pilot.




BROWN: Not just one UFO but an entire fleet of unidentified flying objects sighted off the coast of San Diego in 2004 and kept secret until now.

Former Navy pilot, David Faber, captured the whole event.


DAVID FRAVOR, FORMER U.S. NAVY PILOT: A white object, oblong, pointing north, moving sporadically, moving left, right, more south, up, down, all around. As we started a clockwise flow around the disturbance, watching it, I decided I would go lower and the other jet stayed high. I cut across the circle, so across the middle. And as I got close to it, probably within a mile, two and a half miles, it rapidly accelerated to the south and disappeared in less than two seconds.


BROWN: How crazy is that, right?

This sighting is just one incident investigated by a top-secret UFO Pentagon program.

Joining me now to discuss this extraterrestrial bombshell is physicist and author, Don Lincoln.

First of all, Don, what is your reaction when you see this video? Could it be something actually made on earth or do you think this could actually be a UFO?

DON LINCOLN, PHYSICIST & ADJUNCT PROFESSOR OF PHYSICS, UNIVERSITY OF NOTRE DAME & AUTHOR: Well, it's important to remember that when you say UFO, what that means, it means unidentified flying object. I mean, it is unidentified.


LINCOLN: So could it be a flying saucer? Sure. But it's much more likely that it's either something from here on earth or perhaps even a glimpse of an equipment. It's probably the most improbable thing is that it's a flying saucer.

[15:50:07] BROWN: So you don't think it's an alien?

LINCOLN: No. And I would love that it would be an alien. But it's more likely that it's --

BROWN: It would make it much more interesting.

LINCOLN: -- something else.


LINCOLN: It would be much more interesting.

BROWN: Well, the Defense Department says that this program ran from 2007 to 2012 and is now over. "The New York Times" is claiming it's still up and running. What do we know?

LINCOLN: Well, I just know what I read in the newspaper, as you do. There are people that are reporting that it's still going on at a reduced level and, personally, I'm OK with that.

BROWN: So the program cost $22 million a year. It was kept totally secret. Why? Why do you think it was kept secret? And what else do we know about other sightings like this one?

LINCOLN: I suspect it was kept secret because there's a lot of people that make fun of it. You know, the idea of looking for little green men and so forth is not something that's well regarded because people think it's not real. And while I'm -- I suspect that what we'll find is that this isn't extraterrestrial, I think it should be looked at. That's why I think it was not put out in the open. Although, I think it would benefit from being put in the open.

BROWN: Why do you think it's important to investigate sightings like this?

LINCOLN: Remember, the Pentagon's job is to keep us safe. If there's any possibility, whatsoever, of the possibility of something that's out there that could be a risk, it would be irresponsible to not investigate. I mean, I suspect in the end it's not that. But they should do that.

BROWN: What do we know about the program's conclusions -- and as you said, it could be operating on a low level -- and whether the Pentagon believes that these sightings are genuine. What can you tell us about that?

LINCOLN: Well, the claim is that it was shut down simply because the money could be better spent somewhere else. And from that I conclude -- I mean, if that needs to be taken seriously, I conclude that the investigation over the five years that they've been looking, that there was no real significant evidence that it was either a danger or extraterrestrial. Meaning, if it was, I can't imagine they would shut it down.

BROWN: You know, I was reading an article about the video that we're seeing now. And you said this could be an object that broke apart from something here on earth. And the argument was made by the Navy pilots, they were saying, look, this is something -- what we were seeing was defying gravity, G-force, so forth, nothing that we know of that we can make on earth can do something like this. What do you say to that?

LINCOLN: Well, that is one of the reasons why I support looking into something like this. I mean, there are many people out there who claim that they've been abducted, they have seen UFOs and so forth, and some of them are, shall we say, creative thinkers. But the people we're talking about now are responsible and solid and respectable people, and that's why I believe it would be irresponsible to not take them seriously.


LINCOLN: No matter what they saw but --


BROWN: Right. Exactly. We just have the video that we're seeing that they filmed.

But just through your work, do you believe that there are aliens? That there's other life beyond what we see here on earth?

LINCOLN: Given that what we know about how many planets there are on stars nearby and what we know about the chemistry here on earth, I think it's almost inconceivable that there's not life in the universe, and probably a lot of life in the universe. Intelligent life is a lot harder to say. When you think about it, intelligence only evolved here on earth after billions of years. And so if we didn't evolve, there's no evidence that we have intelligent cats or something like that at the time. So I think intelligent life is hard. We may be a long distance before we find an extraterrestrial cousin. But life in universe, I actually suspect is very, very common.


BROWN: We're one spec in one galaxy out of billions of galaxies.


BROWN: Go ahead.

LINCOLN: Our galaxy has 200 billions of stars. There are many billions of galaxies. The fact that life started here on earth, just after the earth cooled enough for water to form, that says to me that it's easy for life to form, and I'll bet that it's out there.

BROWN: So I have to ask you about this story that caused quite a scare in California. Elon Musk released his Falcon 9 rocket from an Air Force base in southern California. Here's the video. I guess you're not surprised that a lot of people were calling 911, thinking that they are seeing an alien spaceship right here.

LINCOLN: No. You see something weird in the sky -- I mean, OK, they should probably think it's from something here on earth, but if you can't explain it, then people's imaginations run wild.

[15:55:04] BROWN: Don Lincoln, author of "Alien Universe, Extraterrestrial Life in Our Minds and the Cosmos," thank you so much. Fascinating conversation with you.

We'll be right back after a quick break.


[15:59:47] BROWN: It's the top of the hour now. You are in the CNN NEWSROOM. I'm Pamela Brown, in for Ana Cabrera on this Saturday. Great to have you here with us.

New this hour, the White House fiercely denying that President Trump said that Haitian immigrants have AIDS and that immigrants from Nigeria would never, quote, "Go back to their huts," once they saw America. Just hours ago, "The New York Times" released a stunning new report that claims President Trump made the remarks during an Oval Office meeting back in June.