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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER

Russia Provoking Trump?; Trump Tweeting; Russia Conducts Aggressive Military Maneuvers. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 26, 2017 - 16:00   ET

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


[16:00:20]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: It is almost 2018, and the president is still tweeting about crooked Hillary.

THE LEAD starts right now.

President Trump gives new meaning to Boxing Day, throwing new roundhouses as his own FBI and ignoring the fact that the Russian dossier is a real thing.

Message from Moscow. Vladimir Putin daring President Trump with new bold military moves in the air and at sea. How will the president play this hand?

Also, Russia offers to be the peacemaker? Could Putin be the one who brings the U.S. and North Korea to the table and away from the risk of military conflict? And should President Trump trust him?

Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jim Sciutto, in for Jake.

And after taking Christmas Day off from angry tweeting, the president was back at it once again, this time going again at his own FBI,the law enforcement professionals who keep the country safe from things like terrorism.

He was also going after the Russia dossier yet again, saying that you cannot verify any of the claims in that dossier, when, in fact, parts of the dossier have been verified over time. In February, my colleague Evan Perez and I, we reported that the U.S. officials had corroborated some of the communications detailed in it, that meetings took place on days and in the places as described in there, and which, according to multiple sources, gave officials -- quote -- "greater confidence in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier."

In April, CNN reported that the FBI used the dossier as part of its justification to win approval to secretly monitor Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Officials familiar with the process say that if the application included information from the dossier, it would only be after the FBI had, in fact, corroborated information through its own investigation as well.

And in October, one more point, two sources told CNN that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation met with the author of the dossier, that is the former British spy with the MI6, Christopher Steele, and that the FBI and FBI -- and CIA, rather, took Steele's research seriously enough that they kept it out of a publicly released report on Russian meddling in the election in order to not divulge which parts of the dossier they had corroborated and what methods they had used to do that.

While most of the salacious allegations in the dossier have not been verified, its assertion that Russia waged a campaign to interfere in the election is now accepted as fact by the U.S. intelligence community, and I might note by Republicans and Democrats as well.

I want to start now with Abby Phillip. She has been following the president. She is with him in Florida right now.

And, of course, Abby Phillip, we learned today that not only was the president tweeting, he was golfing again during the holidays.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: That's right, Jim. The president is at the cusp of a new year, but he seems to be holding on to quite a few old grudges.

His Twitter feed over the last few days as he's been on his Christmas vacation here have been all about many of the same things he's been talking about on Twitter for many, many months, the Russia investigation, the Georgia Senate race that he backed the GOP candidate who then lost to -- I'm sorry -- the Alabama Senate race, who then lost to a Democrat.

And then also talking about the FBI, as you just mentioned, attacking the very same agency that he now leads. The president seems to be indicating that in the new year none of these things are going to go away. He did talk about one other thing, giving some indication where he might be going on policy.

He talked a little bit about wanting to work with Democrats on a health care fix. We will have to see if that comes to fruition in the new year.

SCIUTTO: Abby Phillip there in Florida with the president.

My panel joins me now, but first I want to go to my colleague Pamela Brown.

And, Pamela, so many charges being thrown around, mostly by the president, on the dossier today. Let's get at exactly what the dossier is. The president called it, in his words, a Clinton campaign-, DNC-funded dossier. Explain to our viewers exactly how the dossier came to be.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: So the dossier, Jim, is a compilation of 17 raw company intelligence reports put together by Christopher Steele, a former British spy, who U.S. officials view as credible because they have worked with him in the past.

It is true that, indeed, it was funded by the DNC and by Hillary Clinton's campaign. Marc Elias, a lawyer or the DNC and for Clinton's campaign, was leading the charge and getting the funding for the dossier.

But Glenn Simpson, the founder of Fusion GPS, which was the research firm that then hired Christopher Steele, testified to Congress that Christopher Steele himself did not pay any of his sources for any of the information that was in that dossier.

[16:05:15]

Also, the FBI, there was a deal initially for the FBI to pay Christopher Steele to continue to do research. That did not happen. That deal fell through.

But you're right. Some of the broad claims within the dossier that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, that the Russians were trying to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton, those exact claims that were put together during the campaign later came out in the U.S. intelligence community assessment earlier this year as -- you know, as part of the broad assessment of what happened during the 2016 election, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So there are a lot of questions that the dossier got to. I mean, one is the question of collusion, but also that Russia had compromising information on the president.

But the current investigation, special counsel and congressional investigations, how exactly does the dossier factor in there and is it a central part of those investigations, to our knowledge?

BROWN: To our knowledge, it is not the central part. Look, it is one piece of a puzzle. It is a small piece of a puzzle, the way we understand it, Jim, what our sources have told us.

But it's not the entirety of the Mueller investigation. It's not the entirety of the investigations on Capitol Hill. The investigations into possible collusion do continue.

But, clearly, Mueller's investigators were interested in the dossier, interested in learning more. In fact, as you pointed out, they traveled to London to interview Christopher Steele. As we pointed out, he was the person that put the dossier together. We should also point out that none of the charges against the four Trump campaign associates that Mueller's team has brought, they don't reference the dossier.

But certainly, as I pointed out, it was one piece of the puzzle.

SCIUTTO: We also know it was important enough, was it not, that when then president-elect Donald Trump was a couple of weeks away from his inauguration that the most senior intelligence officials in the U.S. took the time to brief him on it?

BROWN: That's right. In fact, the director of national intelligence former director of national intelligence, I should say, James Clapper told me that the concern in the intelligence and FBI was that the Russians could have leverage over the future president. While at that time they had not verified the dossier, they felt it was

important enough, especially considering the fact it was put together by Christopher Steele, somebody they viewed as credible, they felt it was important enough to let the president know -- the future president at the time -- know that these allegations were out there.

But it's clear, Jim, that Trump viewed this as a way of the FBI having leverage over him, holding this over his head, and it continues to bother him, as we see on Twitter, to this day, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question. The bottom line is, some of it has been corroborated, some of it has not, some is still under investigation.

BROWN: Which is so often the case, as you know, in intelligence reports.

SCIUTTO: Absolutely. It takes time. Pamela Brown, thanks very much.

Let's get now to the rest of our political panel.

Amanda, the president, though, keeps bringing up the dossier. And I know that there is a portion of his base, perhaps all of his base and beyond that, who agrees with him, that this is a meaningless investigation going nowhere, but is it actually to his advantage many months after the election to keep going back here?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: It sounds counterintuitive, but clearly he thinks it does.

He is trying to out-scandal the scandal. It's a very transparent campaign going on by the Trump White House and other Republicans to try to throw as much as they can at the investigation to try to taint it so that there is any information that comes out later, it won't sound so bad.

You can see this coming from Capitol Hill really in the last couple of weeks, when you see Republicans calling for all of these counterinvestigations. There is one to, you know, investigate corruption at the Department of Justice. There is one to investigate, you know, the investigators for bias.

It keeps going on and on. But what I think is really interesting about this dossier, and, really, we should call it oppo research, because that's what it was during the campaign, this started during the Republican primary, when the conservative Web site Washington Free Beacon started engaging Fusion GPS to look into Trump contacts.

But this dossier is not the basis for the investigation. The investigation is about Russian meddling in the election. And the reason why it's going to the Trump White House is because they kept lying about their contacts that they had with Russians throughout the campaign, the transition. That's why it's going to the Trump White House.

SCIUTTO: It's a great point, because among the meetings that the dossier does not detail, for instance, the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, when we know Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner walked into that building expecting to get damaging information on Hillary Clinton from Russians.

Sahil, I have to ask you here, because Amanda makes a great point that this is part of a broader Republican-White House campaign to undermine the whole investigation, saying that senior FBI officials are actually closet Democrats, the dossier is fake.

[16:10:02]

I wonder from your point of view, is it working? Is that campaign working beyond the base, perhaps with more Republicans, to not just begin to question, but to begin to dismiss this investigation as biased?

SAHIL KAPUR, BLOOMBERG: It's certainly working with the base, Jim.

I think we have seen in recent polls as many as 81 percent as self- identified Republicans now believe the Mueller probe is somehow politically motivated and not justified.

And I think the president's coordinated attack and attempt to discredit this campaign with his Republican allies and with allies in conservative media have really had a number on these voters. They have really affected and then shaped a lot of people's thinking on this.

Beyond that, though, it is not working. The public widely approves of the probe by special counsel Mueller and these other investigations going on. Americans by a wide margin believe that Russian meddling in the 2016 election happened, as the U.S. intel community widely agrees.

And they believe this probe is legitimate and want to see it continue. This is part and parcel of President Trump's pattern where he plays to his base, he gets a solid maybe a third of the country strongly on his side, but fails to convince anybody outside of it. His own toxic brand with voters outside of his base is part of the reason that he's not able to reach outside of it.

SCIUTTO: And, Symone, clearly, this is sensitive personal territory for the president, is it not?

Because you will even hear this from Trump senior advisers that he views this as somehow delegitimizing his victory.

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Absolutely.

Look, Donald Trump has spent the entire first year of his presidency under a cloud of suspicion with the Russia investigation, a Russia -- an investigation, mind you, that only has a special counsel because he fired the former director of the FBI, James Comey.

So it is understandable that President Trump is defensive, but it just does not help his case. Frankly, it hasn't become an electoral issue yet, if you will. Russia hasn't. We still see that folks aren't just going to the polls just on Russia. And I don't think in 2018 they will be going to the polls just on Russia, which is why Democrats will have to come to the table with more. And I think they're ready.

SCIUTTO: Folks, stick around. We have got a lot more to talk about, President Trump's other tweets today on health care, the great new plan Republicans and Democrats are going to come up with.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:15:45] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Welcome back. And we are back with my panel.

And the president was tweeting about some other things today, this time about Obamacare and the hope, he says, that it could be replaced. He said the following: Based on the fact that the very unfair and unpopular individual mandate has been terminated as part of our tax cut bill, which essentially repeals over time Obamacare, the Democrats and Republicans will eventually come together and develop a great new health care plan, exclamation point.

Amanda Carpenter, as you know, 9 million people have actually signed up for 2018 coverage under Obamacare on the federal exchanges, this despite the fact that the enrollment period was about half what it was the previous year and virtually no promotion. Is the president and are other Republicans underestimating the popularity of Obamacare?

AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, here, I honestly think that Republicans on the Hill have made peace with Obamacare. Listen, in the last tax deal, they knocked out the easiest point to knock out, which was the individual mandate. Knocking out the other big planks are much harder. You're talking Medicaid expansion, you're talking exchanges in subsidies, you're talking essential benefits.

These are not fights that I sense Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to wade into going into 2018. I think Paul Ryan would probably have the determination to do it or at least put it on the table, but there's no appetite there right now. I predict they're going to take the win on the tax deal, president Trump is going to spin repeal of the individual mandate as a fuller repeal and we'll see where it takes them in 2018.

SCIUTTO: Symone, do you sense an appetite on the Hill for a second, third, fourth shot at Obamacare in 2018?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Look, I think Democrats -- we know Obamacare is actually popular now. It wasn't popular when it was initially implemented but it's quite popular with a large swathe of the American people, both Democrats, Republicans and independents.

And so, Democrats are more than willing to work with Republicans on fixing what's wrong with Obamacare. Premiums are too damn high. They're going to continue to go up with the repeal of the individual mandate. Premiums are going to jump up by 10 percent already.

So, this is an issue that needs to be fixed. What Democrats are not here for is another fight on repealing and changing the entire health care law. But I'm sure we'd welcome it because the Republicans have failed twice already. So, bring it on.

SCIUTTO: Sahil, part of the drama around the tax bill debate was Susan Collins' vote and Susan Collins, in fact, I was at a breakfast with her where she said she received assurances from the Republican leadership that these other bills, this bipartisan attempt at an Obamacare fix, Senator Patty Murray, and Lamar Alexander. She says she has those promises. The leadership is going to follow though.

Is that going to happen in early 2018 -- that there is going to be a bipartisan fix?

SAHIL KAPUR, NATIONAL POLITICAL REPORTER, BLOOMBERG: Jim, far from repealing and replacing Obamacare or attempting to, Republicans, one of the first bills Republicans are going to put on the floor as Susan Collins has been promised is two pieces legislation to stabilize the insurance markets with reassurance provisions, these two were promised to Susan Collins in exchange, at least in part for exchange on her vote on the tax cut bill.

Look, bigger picture, Republicans could not repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act through multiple attempts with a 52 Senate vote majority. Now, that's going to be down to 51. You do the math.

I asked Senate Majority Leader McConnell in our interview last week whether this can be replicated on other items, whether this can be replicated, this success on taxes can be replicated on other times, whether there could be a return to Obamacare repeal. He described the effort of trying to repeal Obamacare as akin to getting a root canal. He said there's very little enthusiasm among his members to do that.

And he said one of the reasons that tax reform succeeded where ACA repeal failed is that there was enthusiasm among Republicans because with tax cuts you're giving more than taking away. With Obamacare repeal, you're taking away more than you're giving, and as Amanda pointed out, the subsidies are still there, the Medicaid expansion is there, the coverage is up to 20 million, if include those pieces. These are the popular parts of Obamacare. They've ripped out the individual mandate which is unpopular. The rest people like.

SCIUTTO: Yes, people don't like to give up entitlements. And they'll certainly welcome tax cuts.

Is there anything else, Amanda, that Republicans and Democrats might sit down together on in the new legislative year?

CARPENTER: Yes, I mean, everybody's talking about infrastructure. I think that's a pipe dream because nobody has any agreement what that might be on. But what I do hear a lot of hardcore conservatives talk about is a possible deal on DACA in exchange for a border wall and ending chain migration and institutionalizing the travel ban. That could be a potential deal.

[16:20:01] SANDERS: I think it's real potential, Jim, because I don't know of any Democrats that are going to vote for institutionalizing a travel ban or necessarily a large scale border wall in the way that President Trump has talked about. I mean, like, this isn't "Game of Thrones." Are we just going to drive a dragon through it? I don't know.

But I think there is an appetite to save the DREAMers and we have to do something about CHIP and so, I absolutely think that we'll see the children's health insurance program be reauthorized.

KAPUR: If I can say, Jim, the border wall and sanctuary city cutoff are two lines that Democrats won't cross. As much as they want the DACA fix, I don't think they can go there with their base. So, this is going to be a tough negotiation.

SCIUTTO: And down with Doug Jones, down to 51 majority in the Senate.

Thanks very much and please stick around. There is still much more to discuss.

And coming up, are the old cold war tensions heating up, ramping up the risk of an accidental military confrontation between Russia and the U.S.? The signs the U.S. military is watching right after this break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[16:25:03] SCIUTTO: We are back now on our world lead and growing concern over a possible military miscalculation between the United States and Russia, this despite President Trump's repeated unwillingness to call out Vladimir Putin for interfering in the 2016 election.

Let's get right to CNN's Barbara Starr. She is at the Pentagon today.

And, Barbara, you've been watching this and you report instances feel like almost every day, aggressive maneuvers by Russia, particularly over Syria, that alarm U.S. officials.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. As we go into 2018, it's really raising some fascinating questions. Just how far will Vladimir Putin push the United States and what will President Trump do about it?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): A British Royal Navy helicopter's infrared camera tracks a Russia warship Christmas Day as it sailed close to U.K. territorial waters, the latest in what the British government is calling an upsurge in Russian warships too close to its coastline. It's all part of a message from Moscow to Washington: the Russian military will be a force to be reckoned with in 2018.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The Russians are certainly pushing the envelope. A lot of their activities in the naval and aerial arena are certainly hard-edged and they're designed to push us to the limits.

STARR: The question now, how much confrontation will President Trump risk? He has taken an unexpected step, allowing the export of anti- tank weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed rebels in a country where pro-Russia rebels frequently clash with Ukrainian armed forces. SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: It was important for the United States

to tell Russia that we will support Ukraine's ability to defend itself.

STARR: But it's also a risky step.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If Putin decides that this is sort of a hostile act and a new U.S. policy to push back on Russia, Russia has everything from covert operative across the region in Ukraine and they're able to push back and escalate very significantly.

STARR: Vladimir Putin's military has also flown aggressively against U.S. pilots in Syria. The Pentagon openly calling it a deliberate violation of an agreement to prevent accidents. After that, Moscow appears to have backed off a bit.

Putin personally challenging the president's new national security strategy.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values and wealth. We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interests.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Diplomatically speaking, if I can put it in two words, it is of 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.

STARR: There is some U.S. leverage. Moscow may be nervous that new congressionally-backed sanctions could be strengthened even further.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: And Russia may have one more hand it's trying to play, pushing President Trump into talks with North Korea but President Trump is giving no indication he wants that. He wants North Korea first to denuclearize and give up its weapons program -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Barbara Starr at the Pentagon today -- thanks very much.

Joining me now is Democratic Congressman Gerry Connolly. He serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much and happy holidays to you and your family.

REP. GERALD CONNOLLY (D), VIRGINIA: And to you, too, Jim.

SCIUTTO: So, this step of giving lethal weapons to Ukraine in this conflict, ongoing conflict with Russia, it's something that the Obama administration considered, never did. Now the Trump administration has done this. I imagine you would say they deserve credit for taking this step.

CONNOLLY: I certainly think the Ukraine has the right to defend itself and the Western alliance led by the United States needs to provide defensive equipment so that the Ukraine can recapture its territory, its sovereign territory and defend itself against aggression, Russian aggression.

SCIUTTO: How do you reconcile the president's moves for instance with sending these arms to Ukraine, other sanctions that he's put on Russian individuals in recent days under the Magnitsky Act that are really painful for wealthy, powerful Russians? How do you reconcile that with his reluctance to criticize Russia or Vladimir Putin in his public comments?

CONNOLLY: Well, I think that the machinery of the United States government, the defense machinery, the foreign policy machinery has never wavered in understanding that Russia is an adversary and a threat to Western values and our own democratic system. I think the president has a lot of trouble getting that in his head because of his own personal conflicts and his own personal needs and relationships with Russians, Russian oligarchs who financed part of his enterprise and his inexplicable admiration, bromance, for Vladimir Putin.