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THE SITUATION ROOM

North Korea's Next Move?; Interview With Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee; Sex Crimes in the Sky; Republican Calls for Purge at FBI. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 27, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:21]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: Kim Jong-un's next move. There's new reason to suspect North Korea may be on the verge of new and provocative military action. We're going to tell you what U.S. intelligence is detecting tonight.

Turning the tables. While Vladimir Putin denies interference in the U.S. election, a Kremlin official is now accusing the Trump administration of meddling in Russian politics. What's behind Moscow's eye-popping allegation?

And sex assault on planes. As the MeToo movement intensifies, women are speaking out about being groped and abused on commercial flights with no way to escape and no one to help them. Stand by for a CNN investigation.

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

This hour, North Korea may be gearing up for a new show of defiance against the United States and the world. CNN has learned that the U.S. is picking up early signs that Kim Jong-un's regime is moving around equipment, possibly in preparation for a provocative new missile launch.

We're also following a brazen new allegation by Russia, attempting to turn the tables on the U.S. and its evidence of Moscow's election meddling. A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman is accusing the U.S. of direct interference in Russian elections.

The remark comes in response to U.S. concerns about a crackdown of Vladimir Putin's political opponents.

In the Russia investigation, the deputy attorney general is up against a deadline tonight. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee is demanding additional information about anti-Trump text messages sent by a senior FBI agent who was dismissed from the special counsel's team for possible political bias.

And former President Obama appears to be taking a veiled swipe at President Trump and his Twitter habit. In a new interview conducted by Britain's Prince Harry, Obama urged people in leadership not to use social media in a way that fosters division. He did not mention Mr. Trump by name.

We are covering all of that and more with our guests, including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat on the Judiciary and Homeland Security Committees, and our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, I want to go to CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr, who has new information on North Korea and its missile threat.

Barbara, what are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Brianna.

Tonight, the U.S. intelligence community, the U.S. military, and the South Koreans watching very carefully some initial signs, very preliminary, that North Korea may be moving equipment around. What is not clear yet is what exactly they may be up to. Is this preparation down the road for another ballistic missile launch test?

Is it possibly preparation for the launch of a satellite atop a rocket into space? Too early to say. No conclusions about what this may mean about North Korea's next steps. But it comes at a very sensitive time. The Olympics are upcoming.

Diplomacy is trying to work its way behind the scenes with the North Koreans. The Russians pressing for talks between the U.S. and North Korea. And what we now know is the Pentagon is taking a bit of a new stance, pulling back its public position, not talking publicly about upcoming military exercises, upcoming training that is aimed at demonstrating U.S. military capability against North Korea because of sensitivity in the region.

We are told the Pentagon is going to be more quiet, more discreet about upcoming exercises. That is an unusual military position, especially in that part of the world. Typically, the U.S. wants the North Koreans to know that these are exercises, that this is training, so there's no miscalculation that the U.S. might be about to engage in military operations against the North.

But right now, the calculation is, it's better to stay quiet about it, at least publicly. So, publicly, the thing to watch is, will President Trump stay quiet about it or will he be taking to Twitter again with assertive, aggressive rhetoric against the North Korean regime, Brianna?

KEILAR: We have heard different takes on whether this is a smart idea to be more discreet and quiet, Barbara.

Some folks in the national security sphere have said, you don't know, because it's sort of admitting some of the Russian and Chinese criticism that the U.S. has been provocative with these drills, when really the issue is that North Korea's plowing ahead with its nuclear weapons program.

[18:05:00]

STARR: Well, that's right.

And even officials, military officials that we're speaking to, are scratching their heads a little bit. They're saying this is something really -- this stance of being more quiet, more discreet, not talking about it, is not what they have typically done over the decades, because what they have wanted to do is portray to North Korea that this is routine business, that the U.S. is there to stay in the region and that it will conduct whatever training and exercises it deems necessary, that this is very routine business.

But it's something the North is very unhappy about, and also the Chinese. There's been a lot of pressure on the U.S. to pull back a bit. So we're not looking at a pullback, we're told, but we're looking at a much less public profile. It really will be up to President Trump, I suppose, to see if that carries out in the public arena in the coming days and weeks, and especially as we come up on the Olympics in South Korea.

KEILAR: All right, Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

STARR: Sure.

KEILAR: And now to another U.S. adversary challenging the Trump administration. That would be Russia.

There are new signs tonight that Vladimir Putin is increasingly worried about the possibility of new U.S. sanctions that could have a significant economic impact, amounting to billions and billions of dollars.

Our global affairs correspondent, Elise Labott, has more on this.

What can you tell us about this, Elise?

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, clearly, President Putin is a little bit nervous about additional sanctions.

Last week, the U.S. added additional prominent Russians to its sanctions list, and now he seems to be hunkering down with a two- pronged strategy. He had already approved the issuance of special bonds for prominent Russians to make sure their money is outside of the U.S. Treasury.

And now he's making an effort to bring capital back to Russia. He's calling a capital amnesty, and he's saying that Russians can bring their foreign capital back to Russia without this kind of 13 percent income penalty they would have faced in the past.

Now, they tried to do this during the height of the conflict with Ukraine. It wasn't that successful. But now President Putin is laying out the specter of additional foreign actions, kind of warning that additional sanctions may be coming, and so that these Russians need to bring their money back to Russia.

KEILAR: That's really interesting. It also seems like Russia's trying to turn the tables on the U.S. when it comes to election meddling. Of course, the intelligence community is very convinced, conclusively, that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. But now Russia is accusing the U.S. of interfering in its election.

LABOTT: Right. That's right.

Well, you saw that the Russian Election Commission had banned one of President Putin's top opponents, Alexei Navalny, from running in the election. The State Department issued a statement from one of the spokesmen saying that they're concerned about the Russian crackdown on journalists, on political opponents, and then they called for a free and fair election.

And you heard right away the spokesman of Foreign Minister Lavrov, Maria Zakharova, who's very fluid on Twitter herself, and...

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Very outspoken in general.

LABOTT: Very outspoken, said, oh, it's like, this is really rich.

She put a statement on her Facebook post that said, you know, after accusing us of what you call interference in our election, now the spokesman of the State Department is talking about us and interfering in our election, calling it election meddling, election interference, and saying it's really rich that you are defending Russian journalists, when you're calling our journalists foreign agents, when you're saying they're trying to counter the Russian propaganda.

So it's a little bit of a tit for tat. Naturally, these Russian outlets that the U.S. has criticized in the past, R.T. and Sputnik, these are Russian state agencies that the intelligence community, as you say, has noted that they were involved in this meddling campaign.

But it was too much for Maria Zakharova to let that one pass and saying, hey, you're talking about election meddling for us. What about on your side?

KEILAR: Yes. Really interesting.

Stand by for us, Elise, if you would.

I'm going to bring in CNN's Phil Mudd to talk about this.

I want to start with the sanctions, Phil, against Russia. When you think about the timeline here, it's pretty interesting that it's taken so long for the Trump administration to act, because these sanctions were passed overwhelmingly, bipartisan passage in Congress, in August.

There was a deadline in October to deal with some of the I guess you could say administrative things, sort of like just a clear step on the way to getting these under way. The administration missed that deadline. They were almost a month late on it.

And now you have -- it seems like they're taking up all the time allotted until the end of January to get these things in place, and you see Putin taking steps to get around them.

[18:10:02]

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: I think let's set the context here.

It's not just about sanctions. It's not just about U.S. congressional action or presidential election. Let's step back. We have had obviously Russian intervention into Crimea, into Eastern Europe.

We have had Russian intervention into Syria. Two years ago, we had Russian -- a year-and-a-half ago, a year ago, we had Russian intervention in the U.S. election. Let's answer a simple question here. If you're Vladimir Putin, what is the penalty to being aggressive in Europe and aggressive in American elections?

I think the answer is the penalty is some modest American sanctions, and in the case of Crimea and the case of Syria, I think he won in both cases. I think the response from the Europeans and Americans has been pretty basic, not very substantial.

So I think, stepping back, if I'm Vladimir Putin, I'm saying going into the 2018, 2020 electoral cycle, why wouldn't I do the same thing again, Brianna? I think the Russians looking at the American response have got to say, in context, if I want to disrupt the American electoral cycle, if I want to make America less stable than it was two, three, four years ago, why wouldn't I do the same thing again? The penalty's not that great.

KEILAR: I want to ask you about North Korea as well, because you have heard our reporting and administration officials, senior administration official telling CNN these drills the U.S. does with South Korea, with Japan, which they do on the regular and they do in response to the heightened situation that North Korea has created with its activity with its missile program, they're now going to be more quiet and discreet.

That's how it is described to us, when they're talking -- when officials are talking about that. There isn't going to be this saber- rattling all this bellicosity that we have heard in the past, in an effort to create some space for diplomats to take the diplomatic road, and this is going to create I guess some quiet, some calm, not ratchet things up while they try to do this.

It seems like mixed reaction to whether this is a good idea.

MUDD: Look, there is no easy answer here, and nobody speaks the truth. Nobody speaks the truth.

Let's cut to the chase. The North Koreans, like the Pakistanis, like the Indians, like potentially five years, 10 years down the road the Iranians, want to develop a nuclear weapons capability. That's a scientific and engineering apparatus to develop that capability.

That's the acquisition of the fissile material. That's the leadership decision to provide the money and the guidance to develop that program. What the heck are we going to do, Brianna? We're sitting here having tactical conversations about whether we're quiet about military operations.

The bottom line is if the North Koreans want to develop a nuclear program, we have got a couple of options. Number one, we use military operations against them. That won't work. Number two, we use diplomatic operations with them. I think that might contain them. That might lead us to some sort of rapprochement with the North Koreans.

That's not going to limit their ability to develop nuclear weapons. I think the president of the United States has a basic bottom line. If I want to stop the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons, what are my options? And the president of the United States is realizing something presidents have always realized. Despite the power I have, my options are pretty limited, Brianna.

KEILAR: All right. Phil Mudd, stick around for us, if you would.

I want to get an update now on President Trump, who is spending his holiday break at Mar-a-Lago.

CNN White House correspondent Sara Murray is there following the president in Florida.

So, Sara, the president had an unexpected public appearance just a short time ago. Tell us about that.

SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brianna.

The president took a break from his Mar-a-Lago club and took a break from a golf course to visit the local firehouse, not only to thank firefighters, but also to tout his record after his first year in office. Here's what he had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have signed more legislation than anybody. We broke the record of Harry Truman.

And they were saying if we get this big tax cut, because that's the legislation of all legislations. That's the biggest there is.

But -- and that included ANWR, as you know. And it included the repeal of the individual mandate, which is a disaster. That's where you have the privilege of paying a lot of money so that you don't have to buy health insurance, the most unpopular thing, which most people thought should have been unconstitutional.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MURRAY: Now, obviously, the president is riding this wave of victory after signing this sweeping tax reform package into law.

But as for the notion that he's been more productive than previous occupants of this office, in reality, this president has signed fewer bills in his first year in office than any administration dating back to Eisenhower -- Brianna.

KEILAR: And tell us about what the president -- the president has been golfing. We know that much. Yesterday, actually, CNN got some exclusive video of the president you're looking at right now. You can tell that it takes a little bit of effort because the White House doesn't really want us to see this.

[18:15:02]

So, we're shooting through trees. You can see that. You can see that right there. But today CNN was trying to get a shot, Sara, and what happened?

MURRAY: Well, that's right.

Look, we know the president likes to hit the links. He's made no secret of that. But for some reason, this White House is particularly sensitive over it, perhaps because President Trump, when he was a private citizen, was so critical of President Obama when he used to go golfing. Who knows?

But when we tried to get a shot of him on the golf course today, you could see there was a very large white box truck that was blocking any possible shot. You can see, I think, the driver trying to sort of shield his face. It's not clear who was driving this truck. It's not clear who commissioned the truck to be there.

But that's not a space that you can just drive up and park in as any pedestrian, obviously. There's pretty strict control over that space so close to President Trump. They clearly did not want the shots of the president on the golf course today, Brianna.

KEILAR: No. Now it's turned into this kind of ridiculous thing, as we can see.

All right, Sara Murray, thank you so much for that report from West Palm Beach.

And we have much more news ahead. We will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:20:27]

KEILAR: So, this hour, we are following new evidence that some Republicans are pushing ahead with a campaign to discredit the special counsel's Russia investigation.

One Florida congressman taking it to a new extreme. He has called for a purge of the FBI and the Justice Department.

I want to bring in all of our analysts and specialists who are with us today. I want to ask you first, David Axelrod, earlier today, we heard from

Congressman Francis Rooney of Florida. He's a Republican. And he had called for a purge of the DOJ and the FBI.

He admitted this was strong language, but he didn't back away at all from the criticism of the special counsel, of the DOJ, of the FBI. And he's not the only Republican. We have seen more of them.

What do you think about Republicans who are really setting the stage here to convince people that Mueller and that these institutions should not be trusted?

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, look, I remember back in the spring when Bob Mueller was appointed, and there was almost unanimous praise for that appointment, because he had this stellar reputation.

He had been appointed by Republicans in the past. He had a military background. He had a stellar background as a prosecutor. And he was highly regarded.

Now, as this investigation churns on, there's obviously a great deal of discomfort. And let's be clear. The signal is being sent by the president of the United States. He did it again this morning. He is now waging war on the FBI and his own Justice Department because he is uncomfortable with the direction of this investigation.

Obviously, the plea by General Flynn was a big blow to the White House, a major concern to the White House. And so there is this organized campaign -- and it isn't very subtle -- to try and discredit the investigation to either set the stage for the removal of Mr. Mueller, Mr. Rosenstein and others who were involved in this investigation, or to undermine whatever comes out of this investigation.

And it's really, really a serious problem, challenge for the country, because we are a nation of laws. And if the justice system and our legal system now is subjugated to political needs of the president of the United States, then we are taking one step in the direction of authoritarianism.

And so, yes, I heard what the congressman said. I heard his sort of effort to kind of sand some of the hard edges off of it. But every American should be concerned about this. This is an unhealthy development for the country.

KEILAR: David Swerdlick, we should note that this isn't universal among Republicans, but there's just this growing number. It's very noticeable, Francis Rooney among them.

What do you make of the fact that while you have some Republicans like Marco Rubio who are standing by Mueller, some of them are definitely not?

DAVID SWERDLICK, "THE WASHINGTON POST": It is a growing number. I think it's fair for Republicans to serve as what they probably see

as a watchdog role here overseeing these various investigations. I think it's also fair that Strzok was moved away from the special counsel investigation, that Ohr was moved out the deputy attorney general's office.

But when you interviewed Congressman Rooney earlier and you asked him, he stood by his point. But when you asked him what specific allegations are you making that say that there's bias in the special counsel investigation, his answer was, no, I don't see any so far.

So I think Republicans are going to be able to slow this down, throw gum in the gears, but for them to really get any traction with this, they're going to have to come forward with specific allegations of what they find wrong with the special counsel investigation.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: And I think it's important to remember or at least draw the distinction between Republicans who are on the Intelligence Committee either in the Senate and the House saying things like this, which you really haven't seen, or Republicans who don't have anything to do with oversight of the intelligence community, don't have any connections to the intelligence community, saying these things.

It's important from a political perspective to have people like Congressman Rooney out there giving cover to the president to say things attacking Mueller, attacking the FBI, attacking the intelligence community.

But from an actual -- from the standpoint of actual action that could be taken by the president without any repercussions from Congress, I think it's much more significant when you start seeing, if you start seeing Republicans who serve on the intelligence community saying these sorts of things.

KEILAR: All of this of course creating some pressure on Robert Mueller, as he is the special counsel doing this investigation, Phil. And you have spent a considerable amount of time with him.

MUDD: Two-and-a-half years.

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: Maybe too long. But he's a pretty cool customer. But I wonder how he would be handling all of this pressure.

[18:25:05]

MUDD: I can't believe he cares. That's not really the debate here. To be serious, the debate is not about what's happening with the investigation. This is not about congressional or presidential interference with the investigation.

This is about setting the stage. The president wins either way. If Robert Mueller doesn't bring charges, the president's going to say, well, obviously, from day one, this was a witch-hunt. If Robert Mueller, he doesn't bring charges -- the Department of Justice -- if he investigates and lawyers at the Department of Justice bring charges, the president's going to say, well, obviously from day one, I told you, this was a witch-hunt, they're all tainted.

I think this is a setup not for the investigation, but for what happens after the investigation, for the president to say, I have to do something, like, for example, pardon somebody because I told you from day one it's a setup, it's a witch-hunt.

KEILAR: I want to switch gears a little bit, David Axelrod.

Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon has cut ties with Paul Nehlen, who is this far-right activist. Many people may have never heard of them, but this is significant because he was challenging Paul Ryan for his congressional seat. And he received a lot of favorable coverage previously from Breitbart over the past year.

But then he really escalated racist and anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant views, and according to an adviser of Bannon's, "Nehlen is dead to us." That is the quote.

I wonder if you were surprised by this development, especially considering that Bannon was so steadfast in standing by Roy Moore, despite all of the allegations which seemed to be pretty credible from women who said they'd been as young as 14 and had been sexually -- there had been sexual misconduct from Roy Moore. I mean, what do you make about this switch?

AXELROD: Well, first of all, let's point out that Roy Moore had a chance to win that election. Almost did win that election. Nehlen lost the primary to Paul Ryan by 68 points. So he's hardly worth -- he's hardly worth saddling yourself to.

And he would become a great albatross to Steve Bannon, who's announced that he's going to wage war on the Republican establishment in 2018. This guy would be waved in the face of voters in every one of those states and districts where Bannon was involved as a kind of avatar of Breitbart and the Bannon movement, and Bannon recognized that.

This issue of anti-Semitism has been lingering for some time because of the self-professed links to the alt-right that Bannon has made in the past. The Anti-Defamation League called Breitbart and Bannon the curator of the alt-right, and the alt-right obviously has some links to anti-Semites and other extremist groups.

But I think this is about politics. This guy had no chance to win, but he had every chance to become a huge embarrassment to Bannon and an impediment in his political program. So, he was thrown overboard.

KEILAR: Do we have a sense, Rebecca, what the state of the President Trump-Steve Bannon relationship is at this point in time?

BERG: Well, it's complicated. Let's put it that way.

The president listens to Steve Bannon still. They talk semi-regularly or regularly, depending on who you're talking to, who you're getting the information from. And, of course, the president did endorse Roy Moore in the Alabama Senate race, which is something that Bannon wanted, and, of course, he was engaged in that race as well.

But a source told us here at CNN that a few weeks ago when the president sat down with RNC chairwoman Ronna Romney, McDaniel, rather, he told her he was criticizing Steve Bannon to her and very critical of him after Roy Moore lost in Alabama and maybe resenting some of his influence in that race.

And so it's a little bit complicated and everything with the president kind of goes around, becomes sort of circular. And he can be very mercurial, as we have seen.

KEILAR: As we have seen.

All right, all of you, stick around, my lovely panel. We have much more ahead.

And also just ahead, the prince and the former president, the new bromance between Harry and Barack Obama, and also a subtle jab, it seems, at President Trump.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: And we are back now with our analysts to talk about a fascinating new bond between Britain's Prince Harry and an American celebrity. And no, we are not talking about Meghan Markle. We're talking about former president Barack Obama.

[18:34:02] And as a former top adviser to President Barack Obama, David Axelrod, you saw this play out. I mean, the president really -- he doesn't do interviews, and yet he did one back in September, but it aired today on BBC Radio; and it was Prince Harry who was doing the questioning here. I want to talk about the serious stuff in this first, because he talks about the responsibility of leaders online. And here's what he says.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BARACK OBAMA, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The question, I think, really has to do with how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views but doesn't lead to a Balkanization of our society but, rather, continues to promote ways of finding common ground. And I'm not sure government can legislate that, but what I do believe is that all of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the Internet.

One of the dangers of the Internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be just cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases.

There may be somebody who you think is diametrically opposed to you when it comes to their political views, but you root for the same sports team or you notice that they're really good parents; and that's something that you as a parent care about. And you find areas of common ground, because you see that things

aren't as simple as had been portrayed in whatever chat room you've been in. And it's also, by the way, harder to be as obnoxious and cruel in person as people can be anonymously on the Internet.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: David, some of that, at least, seemed to be gently directed in President Trump's direction.

DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, I don't think you'd need to be Magellan to navigate there. There clearly -- there clearly is a message there for the president, but it also goes to a point that President Obama, I know from many, many conversations, and from things he's said publicly, is deeply, deeply concerned about.

And that is the siloing effect of the modern media environment and particularly social media, in which we create these virtual reality worlds for ourselves in which everybody agrees with us, everything affirms our point of view, and everyone outside that wall is less than human.

And it is something that's infected our politics. It's something that's infected our interactions as people. And so yes, the president has certainly used social media not to build one American community but to divide it too often.

But he's certainly not the only one. He is the most powerful one right now, but this is something that plagues the -- the entire conversation on the Internet. And this is something President Obama's been concerned about for a long time.

KEILAR: But it's not something, Rebecca, that it seems President Trump would have any interest in heeding.

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: No. Absolutely not. And of course, the president, President Trump sat down with President Obama during the transition, took his advice, or at least heard his advice, but we haven't really seen President Trump reach out to former presidents for advice as he has been president in the way that past presidents have done.

Whether that's a reflection of President Trump thinking he knows how to do this job or just sort of a pride thing for him, I'm not really sure. But certainly, it's something that we've seen that's unique to President Trump. He doesn't really take that outside advice from past presidents, especially when it comes to his Twitter account. He takes great pride in his social media practices.

KEILAR: On a lighter note let's take a look at the lightning round between Prince Harry and President Obama.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRINCE HARRY, UNITED KINGDOM: Harry or William?

OBAMA: William right now.

PRINCE HARRY: "Titanic" or "The Bodyguard"?

OBAMA: "Titanic."

PRINCE HARRY: "Suits" or "The Good Wife."

OBAMA: "Suits," obviously.

PRINCE HARRY: Great. Great answer. Cigarettes or gum?

OBAMA: Gum now, baby.

PRINCE HARRY: Gum. White House or Buckingham Palace?

OBAMA: White House, just because Buckingham Palace looks like it would take a really long time to mow.

PRINCE HARRY: OK. Fair enough.

OBAMA: A lot of upkeep.

PRINCE HARRY: Queen or the queen?

OBAMA: The queen.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KEILAR: Seems like Obama's trying to get invited to the royal wedding, David Swerdlick.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I'm trying to get invited to the royal wedding just so we're clear. No, I think he'll probably get invited, but with those answers, definitely.

AXELROD: I'm trying to remember, Brianna, the last time that he mowed the lawn at the White House.

KEILAR: I know. Right?

Also, there's a couple of big ones at the White House last I checked. But...

PHILIP MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Let me correct President Obama. Buckingham Palace or the White House? That's Buckingham Palace. That was a politically correct answer. We disagree.

KEILAR: All right, all right.

Guys, thank you so much for that.

Just ahead, sexual assault on airplanes. Why do so many cases go unreported and unpunished? Flight attendants want training, and victims want answers.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [18:43:48] KEILAR: New tonight, a CNN investigation of sexual assault and harassment on commercial flights. The victims are often trapped with their assailants in close quarters, sometimes for hours, with little, if any, intervention by the airlines. This is a growing problem, and it's getting new scrutiny as the nation confronts sexual misconduct in various industries and settings.

And CNN aviation correspondent Rene Marsh is joining us now with this exclusive report.

Tell us about this. It's more common than people might think.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Right. You would be surprised to hear some of these stories that you're about to hear. I mean, we searched federal court records and found that there are several lawsuits filed against commercial airlines by passengers who say they were sexually assaulted or harassed and that the airlines didn't do enough to help.

We even found cases where children were victims. Well, tonight four brave women are telling us about their "me too" moment that took place 30,000 feet in the air.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This gentleman?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come on.

MARSH (voice-over): A man arrested last week, accused of fondling two female passengers on board a United Airlines flight from Newark to Buffalo, New York. Katie Campos was one of them.

KATIE CAMPOS, ASSAULTED ON AIRLINE: He grabbed my, like, upper thigh like -- like in the crotch area. And he grabbed it pretty forcibly.

MARSH: A police report says that the man told the other woman he would like to kiss her. When she declined, he started stroking her leg. The man now charged with disorderly conduct.

United Airlines told CNN: We have zero tolerance for this type of behavior and our pilot requested that local law enforcement meet the aircraft on arrival.

Not enough for Campos, who tweeted: Do better, United Airlines. She says the flight attendant did not offer her to switch seats. She had to demand it.

She was then placed directly behind the harasser, the airline says because there were few empty seats. The touching continued.

CAMPOS: At the end of the day, they didn't protect my safety or those around me, and I don't think that that's a good excuse. MARSH: Like Campos, these three women tell CNN they were sexually

harassed or assaulted on commercial flights, and all of them complained the flight crew did little or nothing to help.

AYANNA HART, DELTA AIR LINES PASSENGER: He grabbed my arm and my side right under my left breast, right next to my left breast.

MARSH: Ayanna Hart was on a Delta flight from Los Angeles to Denver in May. She says the flight attendant was of no help.

HART: The flight attendant said, oh, don't worry about him, he flies with us all the time. He's Delta platinum.

MARSH: Hart has a pending lawsuit against delta for failing to intervene and continuing to serve him alcohol. The airline would not comment on this case, citing pending litigation, but said it takes these incidents seriously and with law enforcement investigates them.

ALLISON DVALADZE, DELTA AIR LINES PASSENGER: I was dozing off when I felt a hand in my crotch and realized that the man next to me was holding -- was grabbing my crotch.

MARSH: Allison Dvaladze filed a complaint after her flight from Seattle to Amsterdam.

DVALADZE: There was not a clear procedure for what they should do. They asked me what I wanted them to do.

MARSH: A month later, she received an e-mail saying it's not fair when one person's behavior affects another and as a goodwill gesture offered her 10,000 miles.

DVALADZE: If somebody reports a crime to an airline, that it should be flagged. It should not be treated as if it's lost luggage.

MARSH: The airline told CNN: We continue to be disheartened by the events Ms. Dvaladze described.

JENNIFER RAFIEYAN, UNITED AIRLINES PASSENGER: He started to touch my leg, stroke my leg, tickle it.

MARSH: Jennifer Rafieyan was on a flight from Newark to Phoenix. She too says the flight crew did not move her away from her harasser. Instead, the airline made an offer.

RAFIEYAN: He gave me four $100 gift certificates for travel on an upcoming United flight. And he refused to let me talk to a manager.

MARSH: But shortly after a news article about her ordeal was published, United management called to in their words check on her.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This message is for Ms. Jennifer Rafieyan. This is (AUDIO DELETED) calling from United Airlines' executive offices. I can't even imagine, you know, what you went through when you were on the flight with the gentleman seated next to you.

SARA NELSON, ASSOCIATION OF FLIGHT ATTENDANTS: At thousands of feet in the air you can't call for help, you can't remove the problem.

MARSH: Sarah Nelson is president of one of the world's largest flight attendant unions.

NELSON: In my 22 years as a flight attendant, I have never taken part in a conversation in training or otherwise about how to handle sexual harassment or sexual assault.

MARSH: The union surveyed nearly 2,000 flight attendants. One out of five said they've received a report of a passenger sexual assault. But law enforcement was contacted less than half the time.

CNN reached out to all the major U.S. airlines and the industry trade group that represents them. None agreed to go on camera, but all released statements with a similar message. Passenger safety and security is their priority and they say flight attendants are trained to handle these incidents, but none gave a detailed explanation of the policies or guidelines. No federal regulatory agency tracks how many mid-air sexual assaults happen nationwide.

But the FBI does track how many it investigates. Federal data shows a 66 percent increase from 2014 to 2017. The FBI says it's unclear what's behind the rise but what is clear for these women, flight crews need to do more because at 30,000 feet, there's no escape.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: I want thank you to all four women who were brave enough to speak and share their stories with CNN.

The four women that we spoke to said they want three things. The flight crew should always separate the victims from the harasser. Do not allow drunk people on flights. Alcohol usually plays a role. It did in a lot of these cases. And call law enforcement to report these cases upon landing every time.

Brianna, I do want to point out right here in Washington, D.C., there are several lawmakers who've been pushing for legislation that would actually beef up the training for these flight attendants, as well as make requirements for tracking these incidents.

[18:50:03] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: It's so clear that all of those things are needed and that those demands are also very reasonable. Great report. Rene Marsh, thank you so much.

We have much more news ahead.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: Tonight in the final days of 2017, it is safe to say the first year of the Trump presidency has been unlike any other.

CNN's Jake Tapper looks back.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Gather round, family and friends. You'll be talking about 2017 for generations to come.

The first year of the Trump presidency shattered the status quo. Cultures of harassment were exposed, travel bans were debated, protests erupted, and I seem to recall something about Russia.

Here are, in our view, the top seven political stories of 2017.

[18:55:02] (voice-over): President Trump signed executive orders banning U.S. entry from seven Muslim-majority nations which sparked worldwide protests and disagreement among the courts before a revised version was upheld.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We're going to take our case as far as it needs to go, including all the way up to the Supreme Court.

TAPPER: The administration also ended the DACA program affecting some 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

JEFF SESSIONS, ATTORNEY GENERAL: The DACA policy, produced by the last administration, could not be sustained.

TAPPER: The fate of these so-called Dreamers was left in the hands of Congress.

TRUMP: Hopefully now Congress will be able to help them and do it properly.

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Mr. President, I will not be complicit or silent.

TAPPER: In 2017, some Republicans went rogue, openly displaying disdain for the president of their own party.

SEN. BOB CORKER (R), TENNESSEE: I think the debasement of our nation will be one we'll be remembered the most for.

TAPPER: Critics such as Jeff Flake of Arizona and former Trump supporter Bob Corker of Tennessee announced they would not seek reelection to the Senate.

FLAKE: It's not enough to be conservative anymore. It seems that you have to be angry about it.

TAPPER: Both will remain in office until November working with Republican Senators John McCain, Ben Sasse, and Cory Gardner, who have expressed condemnation of Trump at different times, as well.

TRUMP: We're going to get a health bill passed. We're going to get health care taken care of in this country.

TAPPER: Republicans tried to repeal and replace Obamacare, received insufficient support, removed the bill, regrouped, and were left reeling after repeat defeats.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The motion is not agreed to. TAPPER: The most dramatic courtesy of Republican John McCain.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), SOUTH CAROLINA: We promised to repeal and replace Obamacare and we failed.

TAPPER: The GOP had no major legislative victory all year until December.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Merry Christmas, America.

TAPPER: A $1.5 trillion GOP tax plan passed with a partial repeal of Obamacare, handwritten edits, and absolutely no Democratic support.

A white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, began with a torch-lit march around a Confederate monument. One of these white supremacists rammed his car into a crowd, killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. The president initially failed to call out the white supremacists.

TRUMP: I think there's blame on both sides.

TAPPER: Even strong conservatives condemned his response.

CHARLES KRAUTHAMMER, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: What Trump did today was a moral disgrace.

TAPPER: Passionate demonstrations filled the streets.

PROTESTERS: Nazis are not welcome here!

TAPPER: And nationwide symbols of the Confederacy were vandalized or officially removed.

TRUMP: You're fired.

TAPPER: It was more than a catchphrase. Just ask Press Secretary Sean Spicer or communications director Anthony Scaramucci, or chief of staff Reince Priebus, or chief strategist Steve Bannon, or national security adviser Michael Flynn. And, of course --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Why do you believe you were fired?

JAMES COMEY, FORMER FBI DIRECTOR: I take the president at his word that I was fired because of the Russia investigation.

TAPPER: The Trump administration had more than a dozen resignations, firings, and reassignments in its first year.

The "Me-Too" movement ushered in an era of accountability, ending careers and launching a battle for moral high ground.

Allegations that Republican Roy Moore sexually assaulted teen girls as an adult led Alabama voters to elect their first Democratic senator in 25 years. SEN. AL FRANKEN (D), MINNESOTA: I am leaving while a man who has

bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault sits in the Oval Office.

TAPPER: Fellow Democrats forced Senator Al Franken to announce his resignation after several women said he acted inappropriately.

LEEANN TWEEDEN, AL FRANKEN ACCUSER: He just mashes his mouth to my lips.

TAPPER: Several others in Congress, including Trent Franks, John Conyers, Ruben Kihuen, and Blake Farenthold resigned or announced early retirements after facing accusations of their own. But in response to questions about the president's past actions, the White House was defiant.

JAMES CLAPPER, FORMER DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE: That's the big news here is the Russian interference in our election system.

TAPPER: The leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies unanimously concluded that Russia interfered in the presidential election, but did President Trump's campaign help them in their effort?

TRUMP: I have nothing to do with Russia.

TAPPER: FBI Director James Comey was leading the investigation until he was fired. Now, an investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is digging deeper.

Former National Security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to misleading the FBI and campaign chairman Paul Manafort was indicted.

The Senate Intelligence Committee questioned Donald Trump, Jr. for hours about his meetings with Russians in Trump Tower.

(on camera): Is he being forthcoming?

SEN. MARK WARNER (D), VIRGINIA: There are a lot of legitimate questions that this individual needs to answer.

TAPPER (voice-over): All this as the president and his supporters playing defense, tried to accuse the Mueller investigation of bias.

(on camera): Those are our top seven political stories of 2017. But with the Russia investigation still ongoing and control of the Senate at stake, 2018 is sure to present unprecedented political headlines of its own.

I'm Jake Tapper. Stay tuned.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

KEILAR: I'm Brianna Keilar. Thank you so much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.