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Tillerson Slams Russia; Trump Golfing, Tweeting at China; Roy Moore Continues to Contest Election Loss. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 28, 2017 - 18:00   ET



BRIANNA KEILAR, ANCHOR: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson says he has no illusions about the threat from a resurgent Russia in his op-ed that strikes a tougher tone than we hear from the president. Is Tillerson sending a message to the Kremlin and to the Trump White House?

And certifiable. Roy Moore trots out unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud, but his last-minute challenge goes anywhere. Will the alleged sexual predator finally admit defeat now that Democrat Doug Jones has been certified as Alabama's senator-elect?

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.

Tonight, new questions about President Trump's approach to the volatile North Korea crisis after a tweet he posted while he was on the golf course in Florida. Mr. Trump claiming China was caught red- handed, allowing oil to go to Kim Jong-un's regime.

That would be a violation of the United Nations sanctions. And it's unclear, though, whether Mr. Trump's slap at China is based on U.S. intelligence or unconfirmed media reports of secret Chinese oil sales to North Korea.

We're also following a tough new take on U.S. policy towards Russia in an opinion piece by the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson declaring that Washington has a poor relationship with Moscow. He says that Trump administration has no illusions about Vladimir Putin's regime and its aggression.

Tillerson's words in stark contrast to President Trump's often rosy public comments about Russia.

And an 11th-hour attempt by Roy Moore to challenge his election loss has been denied by a judge and dismissed by Democrats as desperate. Moore attempted to delay certification of the results of the Alabama Senate election, offering unsubstantiated claims of possible voter fraud.

But tonight Democrat Doug Jones has officially been certified as the winner. And Moore remains defiance, insisting the election was fraudulent and refusing to concede. We're covering all of that and more with our guests, including Jake

Sullivan, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, and our correspondents and specialists are also standing by.

First, I want to go to CNN's Ryan Nobles. He's covering the president in Florida.

Ryan, what more can you tell us about this tweet about China and North Korea?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It seems that this tweet from President Trump came out of nowhere today and it was sent while the president was at the golf course for the third consecutive day of this holiday vacation.

And it was a pretty harsh criticism of China as it relates to the situation in North Korea. This is what the president wrote -- quote -- "Caught red-handed. Very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea. There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen."

And the president has talked openly about his warm relationship with China and in particular its president, Xi Jinping. But he's also said that China needs to do more to rein in North Korea, specifically with economic sanctions.

And that was something that his secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, echoed in a "New York Times" editorial. Tillerson writing -- quote -- "A central component of our North Korea strategy is persuading China to exert its decisive economic leverage on Pyongyang. China has applied certain import bans and sanctions, but it could and it should do more."

But the big question tonight is, why today did the administration decide to take this tough stance on China as it relates to know? Now, there are unconfirmed reports from South Korean outlets that satellite images have picked up Chinese ships and North Korean ships transferring oil from the Chinese ships to the North Korean ships.

And there was a Treasury Department report in November that accused the Chinese of doing the same thing. This would be an effort to get around U.N. sanctions. But as of today, there is nothing definitive from the administration.

We have reached out to the White House to ask specifically why the president chose to take on this topic today and we have not received an answer. At the very least, Brianna, this shows that as we head into the new year, this administration remains focused on North Korea.

And the president followed up a little bit later today with another tweet, this a video showing President Bill Clinton talking about North Korea from 23 years ago, and then video of the president himself before he got into politics in an interview with "Meet the Press" where he talked about how in terms of foreign policy preventing North Korea from getting nuclear weapons should be a priority of the United States. So, the president showing that for a long time he's talked tough when

it comes to North Korea. And, as 2018 begins, when it comes to his foreign policy, that tough talk will continue -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Ryan Nobles, thank you so much for that report, following the president in Florida.

And the president's new tweets come at a sensitive time on the Korean Peninsula, with the South preparing to host the Winter Olympics and the North possibly preparing for another provocative missile launch.

I want to bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.


Barbara, what kind of impact could the president's words have on the region?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, everyone now will be watching to see how China reacts, because, remember, China, of course, is North Korea's major trading, if not their only significant trading partner at this point.

The Chinese will sign up for these sanctions, but what they don't want to do is make them so onerous that the North Korean regime collapses. That would provoke a calamity, they feel, on their border. Thousands, tens of thousands of refugees, economic collapse of the regime in North Korea could be disastrous for China.

China wants stability. Now, that's the watchword as we go into the new year on the Korean Peninsula. Because of the Olympic Games, everyone wants to see no drama, things stay nice and calm. So how China will react to the president's tweet is one marker to watch for. And, as you say, Brianna, the second marker, an additional marker, what North Korea may do next.

There are signs it may be preparing for its next missile test. It's preliminary. No one is exactly sure what they are up to, but some equipment is moving around, we are told. So if North Korea were to engage in a provocation during the Olympic Games or close to the timing of the Olympic Games, it could significantly unsettle the region -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Certainly could.

Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you.

And now to the Trump administration's Russia policy and this new op-ed by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson which calls the U.S. relationship with Moscow poor. Tillerson specifically citing Russia's election meddling as a reason that there cannot be business as usual with the Kremlin.

And, tonight, Russia is dismissing Tillerson's views as confrontational.

Let's bring in CNN global affairs correspondent Elise Labott.

So, Elise, it's a disconnect that we're noticing between Tillerson's words and between the words of the president.

ELISE LABOTT, CNN FOREIGN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Brianna, and the secretary and the rest of the Cabinet and even the policies of this administration with the rhetoric of the president.

Now, you remember, last week, President Trump's national security strategy laid out Russia as a competitor, talked about Russia's aggressive actions to destabilize the world and against U.S. interests.

And that's really -- if you look at what some of the policies are, that's clearly how the U.S. is treating them. Last week, President Trump for the first time approved the lethal sale of arms to Ukraine. That's something that both Democrat and Republican administrations have not done and something that all of his Cabinet and lawmakers have asked him to do.

So, this is much more of a tougher policy, yet President Trump refuses to accept the conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that the U.S. -- meddled in the elections. So I think his rhetoric really talks about, really goes to the heart, Brianna, of his presidency.

If he's going to speak against Putin, against meddling in the U.S. election, I think for his supporters that would call into question whether he, in his mind, was elected legitimately.

Nobody ever questioned that he was, but yet he will never say the words. If you look at the policies of his administration and the comments by Secretary Tillerson and others, including his national security adviser, they are pretty clear on what Russia is and how the administration is going to treat it.

KEILAR: Elise, many observers are looking at this op-ed, and they are wondering about the timing of it and if Tillerson is perhaps punctuating the end of his tenure with it. What are your sources telling you?

LABOTT: Well, they say the exact opposite, Brianna. Look, there's no doubt that Secretary Tillerson has faced a lot of criticism, a lot of questions about his management at the State Department.

Even his own spokesman has admitted that there's low morale. But I think he also notes that he has in his mind a perception problem. This is part of an effort, I'm told by aides, to reframe the narrative and talk about what is actually being done. You saw a little bit in the last couple of weeks the secretary speaking a little bit more.

We were at the holiday party with the secretary and he said, in the new year, I have been told I have to be more engaging, so I'm going to be talking to you more.

And I think this op-ed is an effort to reframe the narrative that diplomacy is actually getting done, and also I think to talk to his troops, to the rank and file of the State Department that feel demoralized that their diplomacy is not appreciated, that he is saying, I appreciate and I am proud of what you're doing.

Whether it will be effective or not, I don't know. But I think reports that Secretary Tillerson would be out by the end of the year are, you know, proving not to be true. Whether he lasts the full administration, I'm not, you know, pretty sure that he may not.

But I think we will see in the next couple of weeks and months the secretary trying to lay out more of his agenda and explain a little bit more about what he's doing, not just on the diplomatic front, but in management of the State Department.


KEILAR: All right, Elise Labott, thank you so much for that report.

And I want to get more on all of this with Jake Sullivan. He's a former State Department official who was a top adviser to Hillary Clinton and to Joe Biden in the Obama White House.

Jake, thank you so much for being with us. We appreciate it.


KEILAR: So, obviously, you woke up, read this op-ed by Rex Tillerson, which, in part, he says: "On Russia, we have no illusions about the regime we're dealing with. The United States today has a poor relationship with a resurgent Russia that has invaded its neighbors Georgia and Ukraine in the last decade and undermined the sovereignty of Western nations by meddling in our election and others."

What is your reaction to that very strong assertion?

SULLIVAN: Well, you know, first of all, I agree with it.

Secondly, I was not entirely surprised by it, because, as Elise Labott just said, this is consistent with where most of the senior members of the Trump national security team have been, whether you're talking about the secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joe Dunford, or even the national security adviser.

They've all taken a tough line on Russia. But I think what Vladimir Putin is telling himself tonight is, I don't need to worry about this too much because I still have got the president, the guy who actually matters.

Remember that one of the last times that Donald Trump spoke with Vladimir Putin, he put out this strange statement talking about how Putin was flattering him. And it just goes to show you that there's a huge disconnect between the professionals on Trump's national security team and Trump's own view of Russia.

And until Trump himself shows that he recognizes the Russian threat for what it is, I'm not going to sit comfortably. KEILAR: OK. But can Vladimir Putin comfortably say I have the

president still when you look at American policies? When you look at the actual policies of the Trump administration, do you think they hew more closely to Donald Trump's rhetoric or to Secretary Mattis', Secretary Tillerson's rhetoric, like we're reading in this op-ed?

SULLIVAN: It's interesting.

Elise mentioned the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine, which is a shift from the Obama administration, actually a more aggressive approach than even the Obama administration took on these issues. So, on that, it is definitely out of step and out of character with a softer approach to Russia than we had seen earlier in the administration.

But on other key issues, on the implementations on sanctions against Russia, on actually trying to figure out how to deal with the threat of Russian interference, not just in the past election, but in the next one and the one after that, there, you have seen much less from this administration. And that's because they are taking their tone from the top, from President Trump.

KEILAR: That's right.

And we do have reporting that actually dealing with that for future elections has been hindered, as the president isn't really taking it as seriously as some other officials.

I want to ask you about North Korea, because the president did tweet this today, and it appeared to be related to photos that we have seen of ships, including North Korean ships, according to the Treasury Department.

"Caught red-handed. Very disappointed that China is allowing oil to go into North Korea. There will never be a friendly solution to the North Korea problem if this continues to happen."

So, we don't actually know. Now, it's been reported outside of the U.S. that the other ships are Chinese ships getting ready to give oil to North Korean ships, which would be a violation of sanctions. But we don't necessarily know that, at least publicly, here in the U.S.

So do you think this is the president, again, firing off something where it's not even necessarily confirmed by U.S. intelligence, he's just responding to a report, or do you think that he's actually letting us know that this is actually happening?

SULLIVAN: Honestly, it's impossible to say. And none of us can see inside the mind of Donald Trump, especially when he's tweeting.

But there is an interesting coincidence in timing. There was a FOX News report yesterday citing these South Korean newspaper reports about this illegal transfer of oil. And it's consistent with everything that Trump said in his tweet.

So the timing on that is funny. And when you combine that with the fact that neither the State Department nor the NSC has been able to identify the source of Trump's information and his history of relying on FOX News for this information, I think it's a fair supposition that he probably picked up FOX News or picked up his phone and read FOX News and concluded he should tweet something about this.

KEILAR: He did this earlier on in the year more. We saw him do this, where he would basically -- it almost seemed like he was confirming news reports, but really he was reacting to them.

It seemed like it had been some time before -- assuming he is just responding to "FOX & Friends," it seems that it had been some time since he did that. Right?

SULLIVAN: Well, he's on vacation now, so maybe he has more time to watch TV. I'm not sure.

But what I can say is that these photos that are the source of this news account from the South Korean newspaper were actually released by the Treasury Department in November. So it's not -- it doesn't appear to me to be an instance of which -- where he's revealing highly classified information.

It seems that he is working off of reports and leaping to conclusions, and doing so in a way that I find quite interesting, because he's taking a direct shot at the Chinese. He has done this previously. And it shows his irritation that he's not seeing, from his perspective, the level of cooperation from China in tightening the noose around North Korea.


It's not clear to me that actually is consistent with where the rest of the administration is, but now we will have to see.

KEILAR: What does it mean if these ships are actually from China? Because a lot of experts we've spoken to said they wouldn't be surprised if they are.


KEILAR: What would it mean for the relationship? What would it mean for how China relates to sanctions?

SULLIVAN: This would be a classic means of trying to evade a sanctions regime, to go offshore with ships, and instead of passing across the border, pass oil ship to ship, and thereby find a way to slip through a tightening sanctions regime.

I think it would be a significant issue that would have to be brought up at the highest levels of Beijing, if in fact the Chinese government is looking the other way on this.

Now, I think the Chinese have probably gotten a wakeup call from the president's tweet and they are going to look into whether or not this is something they intend to crack down on. But, by and large, it has to be the case that the United States maintains vigilance and makes sure that China is following through on the commitments that it has made in successive U.N. Security Council resolutions.

KEILAR: A senior administration official is telling CNN that the Trump administration has sort of a new tack when it comes to how they talk about these joint military exercises done between the U.S. and South Korea and Japan, exercises that are supposed to be in reaction to the belligerence of North Korea.

But the plan is to be -- quote -- "more quiet, more discreet" as they speak publicly about these exercises.

We're told that it's meant to give a little leeway to the diplomatic channel to try to avert obviously North Korea becoming a full-fledged nuclear power with a nuclear weapon that has miniaturized and capable of hitting the U.S.

What do you think about this decision to sort of walk more softly, to talk more softly about these exercises? Is it a good idea?

SULLIVAN: Look, I'm a frequent critic of the Trump administration, but I have to give them credit where credit is due. The fact that they have been able to get the level of sanctions on North Korea from the Security Council that they have, and then when you combine that pressure with this kind of diplomatic approach, trying to tone down the rhetoric, reduce the visibility of the exercises, that, to me, sounds like a very sensible approach.

Squeeze them harder with economic pressure while at the same time not thrusting the exercises into their face, and see if the condemnation of those steps can actually lead to a diplomatic breakthrough. That, I think, is good diplomacy.

KEILAR: What is your calculus of the possibility that there is actually a way to avert North Korea becoming a nuclear power capable of hitting the U.S.?

SULLIVAN: Well, from a diplomatic standpoint, a lot of that hinges on whether senior officials in the United States have already decided that we're just going to have to use the military option. Some of the rhetoric that we have heard from...

KEILAR: Preemptively, you mean, preemptively.

SULLIVAN: Preemptively.

Has been quite alarming on this front. If they have concluded there's only one way out here, and it's using force, then, no, we are not going to get to a diplomatic solution. But if they actually commit to it, if they actually say we are going to use every diplomatic and economic tool at our disposal and rally the world to try to bring North Korea to the table, I think the clock is ticking very fast, and the window of opportunity is closing, but there still is the possibility of stopping the further advance of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

KEILAR: And just real quickly, because we're going to get a break in, why would Kim Jong-un want to do that? Why would he want to stop? SULLIVAN: Well, first of all, I said there's a possibility, because I

think your question correctly underscores the fact that Kim Jong-un may have decided no amount of diplomacy is going to keep him from going all the way to proving a reentry vehicle and the rest.

However, with mounting economic pressure, with the Chinese taking a different strategy, at least we put ourselves in the position to finally test that proposition. Will Kim Jong-un come to the table or not? There are no guarantees on this.

But I do not believe that the right answer at this point is to cast aside the diplomatic option and turn to war.

KEILAR: All right, we have much more to talk but with you, Jake Sullivan, including the Iran deal. We will be discussing that when we get right back.



KEILAR: And we are back now with former State Department official Jake Sullivan, talking about a remarkable opinion piece by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and whether he's on the same page as the president.

So, he talked about a number of different areas, including Iran. He talks about the Iran deal.

And he writes: "The flawed Iran nuclear deal is no longer the focal point of our policy toward Iran. We are now confronting the totality of Iranian threats."

Come mid-January, the president has a series of deadlines when it comes to Iran and imposing sanctions. So, he's facing that. Do you interpret, by what you read in this op-ed, that the Iran deal could be totally ripped up?

SULLIVAN: I don't interpret that from the op-ed.

I think what Rex Tillerson is saying in the op-ed is, yes, we need to enforce the deal. From his perspective, it needs to be adjusted in some ways. I disagree with him on the nature of his criticisms. But he's saying let's turn to the broader threat that Iran poses and deal with those challenges outside of the context of the nuclear deal.

So I think Tillerson's op-ed is suggesting a strategy that involves keeping and enforcing the Iran deal.


KEILAR: But you mean de-emphasizing it, so that Donald Trump still has the freedom to say that this thing is terrible?

SULLIVAN: I think part of the effort here is to zoom out a bit and say let's not focus every three months just on the Iran deal. Let's get the president comfortable with the broader strategy towards Iran that he can feel is sufficiently robust and aggressive, and maybe the Iran deal isn't constantly on the chopping block.


I think that's what Tillerson is trying to accomplish. Now, whether he can succeed in that is another question. I think Donald Trump could very well decide to pull the plug on the deal in January.

KEILAR: So, he also talks in this op-ed about -- what doesn't he talk about? He talks about the reorganization of the State Department.

And we have seen, one, he hasn't staffed up with a lot of areas of the State Department as you would expect to see in other administrations. And then we have seen this exodus of career diplomats. There's been a bit of a brain drain at the State Department with members of the Foreign Service.

So how has this impacted, do you think, foreign policy over the course of the past year, and what does this mean for the future?

SULLIVAN: You know, I have spent a lot of months trying to give Rex Tillerson the benefit of the doubt. But I have to say, I'm just baffled by the approach that he's taken.

It's not just that senior officials in the Foreign Service have left in large numbers, the equivalent of three- and four-star generals. It's also that applications to enter the Foreign Service have gone down because the signal has been sent forth that diplomacy has been devalued in this administration.

Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson has advocated for a 33 percent cut in the State Department's budget. Just to put this in perspective, at the same time the administration is advocating for $58 billion extra for the Pentagon, they are talking about cutting State by 33 percent; $58 billion is more than the entire State Department and USAID budget combined.

So what is the net result of this? The net result of this is not something we're going to feel tomorrow or the next day. It is going to be felt in American security and prosperity over the coming years. And I think it will take a long time to fix, because we aren't doing the difficult spadework that people don't see every day.

KEILAR: Describe, what would some of that be?

SULLIVAN: So, for example, dealing with trafficking and children and sex slaves.

For example, working on women's political participation and enhancing the status and stature of women around the world in ways that make other societies more peaceful and more stable, so that they are less likely to produce threats to the United States over the long term.

For example, putting the money that we need into securing loose nuclear weapons around the world and all of the hard diplomatic work that is required to do that, so that terrorists never get their hands on that material.

For example, dealing with the challenges of climate change that are already coming home to roost in the superstorms and fires we're seeing here in the United States.

This is just part of what the State Department does every day. And when you are removing the senior echelons, your best and brightest and most experienced officers, and deterring new talent from coming in, and then cutting the resources, the net result of all of that is a foreign policy in which the military is elevated and diplomacy is devalued.

And that will come at a long-term cost to American security and prosperity.

KEILAR: Jake Sullivan, we really appreciate you being so generous with your time. Thank you for being in THE SITUATION ROOM.

SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.

KEILAR: And just ahead: Roy Moore tries to blame his election loss on voter fraud, instead of the sex abuse allegations against him. We're going to talk about his failed 11th-hour challenge and what happens next as Democrat Doug Jones heads to Washington.

And why Ivanka Trump's clothing may be sending the wrong message, as she and her father hit with new conflict of interests complaints.


KEILAR: Tonight, Democrat Doug Jones is officially the senator-elect from Alabama after the losing candidate, Roy Moore, managed to stir up new controversy. The Republican made a last-ditch attempt to delay certification of the vote based on unsubstantiated claims that Democrats are calling desperate.

[18:33:47] CNN's Diane Gallagher is in the Alabama capital tonight. So Diane, is there any sign that Moore is ready to let go and maybe finally move on here?

DIANE GALLAGHER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That kind of depends, Brianna, what your definition of concession is here. He did issue a statement after the election was certified that said, "I have no regrets. To God be the glory."

But his options aren't 100 percent out at this point. If he wants to pony up the cash -- and we're talking a lot of money here -- he's got 48 hours from the time that the election was certified, down to the minute, to pay for a recount.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Broke every record in the history of the state for a special election.

GALLAGHER (voice-over): Tonight, Doug Jones officially certified by the state of Alabama to be its next U.S. senator.

JOHN MERRILL (R), ALABAMA SECRETARY OF STATE: This election has been conducted with the utmost integrity, that it's been safe, secure, it's been credible.

GALLAGHER: In spite of a final hail Mary from the Roy Moore campaign, alleging potential voter fraud.

JANET PORTER, MOORE CAMPAIGN SPOKESWOMAN: This election was fraudulent, and what we need to do is ask the secretary of state to do his job and to investigate this.

GALLAGHER: Moore's refused to concede to Jones after losing the election earlier this month by more than 20,000 votes.

ROY MOORE (R), FORMER ALABAMA SENATE CANDIDATE: When the vote is this close, then it's not over.

GALLAGHER: But most Republicans, including the president, have called for Moore to concede.

[18:35:08] DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: As far as Roy Moore, yes, it's certainly -- I would certainly say he should.

GALLAGHER: And the state of Alabama says those voter fraud accusations just aren't true.

MERRILL: People are entitled to their own opinion, but they're not entitled to their own facts.

GALLAGHER: Moore calling to delay certification until there is a thorough investigation and for a new special election. But minutes before the state certification, a circuit court judge denied Moore's complaint.

The complaint alleges out-of-state residents had been allowed to vote and that election fraud experts concluded that fraud had taken place. One of those experts is Richard Charnin, who has blogged about JFK conspiracy theories and the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich. And Moore is questioning the high voter turnout in Jefferson County, where a large percentage of the population is black, calling it highly unusual.

The Alabama secretary of state says many voter fraud complaints have already been dismissed.

MERRILL: More than 60 of those have already been fully adjudicated and dismissed, but we have several that are still active, and we'll continue to investigate those until they are fully adjudicated.

KEILAR: Doug Jones' campaign released a statement saying, quote, "This desperate attempt by Roy Moore to subvert the will of the people will not succeed. The election is over; it's time to move on."

Moore's complaint also brings up allegations he had relationships with teenaged girls while he was in his 30s and several others accusing him of assault. Moore denied those accusations throughout his campaign.

MOORE: These allegations are completely false. I did not date underaged women. I did not molest anyone.

GALLAGHER: But today, he released an affidavit he signed of a polygraph test he says he took after the election over the allegations made against him. Moore states, quote, "The results of the examination reflected I did not know, nor had I ever had any sexual contact with these individuals."


GALLAGHER: An important distinction here, Brianna, that we need to point out. That affidavit was signed by and written by Roy Moore. The polygraph examiner, administrator didn't fill out any paperwork, didn't sign anything either. So that was Roy Moore's affidavit about the polygraph.

One other interesting tidbit here. We know about the black turnout in Alabama. We know the Democrats turned out. But those write-in votes, it turns out, were absolutely crucial. There were more write-in votes cast than the margin of victory that Doug Jones had. So Brianna, it turned out a lot of those people who said they couldn't -- they didn't want to vote for Roy Moore so they were just going to write somebody in. That made a really big difference.

KEILAR: It sure did. Diane Gallagher in Montgomery, Alabama, thank you so much.

I want to bring in our correspondents and analysts to talk about this. Ron Brownstein, to you first.

So despite this challenge from Roy Moore, you had the Republican secretary of state who supported Moore kind of even laughed at this challenge. Went ahead. This was ultimately certified. Doug Jones is going to the Senate. He's going to be sworn in next week. How significant is this if we just look at the big picture here that you have a Democrat taking over this seat?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, you know, it's significant in the narrow terms of the Senate or the immediate terms of the Senate. going to a 51-49 Senate, leaving Republicans now only able to suffer two defections, even if they can pursue reconciliation.

But I think it's even more significant in terms of confirming the patterns that we've been seeing in the special elections of 2017 and in the polling pointing toward 2018.

In Alabama, as in Virginia earlier, as in New Jersey, we saw big turnout among African-Americans and a significant movement toward Democrats among college-educated, white suburban voters. And that overcame still big margins for Roy Moore, like Ed Gillespie, among the Trump coalition: blue collar, older, evangelical and rural whites.

The key difference is those Trump-type voters did not turn out at anything like the level as what we saw among the Democrats. So I think the big significance of Alabama is it continues this sense of optimism among Democrats. They could be heading toward a powerful wave in 2018 with the caveat that their inability to kind of crack those rural and blue-collar-type constituencies could leave them, still, with a narrow path toward a majority in the House.

KEILAR: Phil Mattingly, you cover Congress all day, every day. Put this into context for us. This may just be one Senate seat, but this means a lot.

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: No question. The practical -- the practical effect in the near term is you look at nominations, whether it's new cabinet secretaries. You expect people to start cycling out of the Trump administration. There are some openings. But also judicial vacancies, judicial nominations, which Republicans have pushed through in a major way over the course of the last 12 months.

Well, now you have one fewer senator -- Republican senator which these votes can be cast and passed through a simple majority. So Betsy DeVos, who was confirmed 50-50 with the tie breaker of Mike Pence, if Doug Jones is now the senator, Betsy DeVos is not confirmed. So Democrats have a little bit more power, a little bit more leeway on the nominations.

More broadly, and I think it's important to kind of keep an eye on what Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said. And that's that they have taken their shots down field. We're in the middle of bull season right now on their two big legislative items: on repeal and replace, on tax reform.

[18:40:08] They are now going to have to move to a more bipartisan way of trying to create legislation, whether that's infrastructure, whether it's something more small bore.

So the coalition is going to include more Democrats. Everything is going to take 60 votes, and there is just a lot less leeway, a lot less space for the majority leader and for Republicans to work with.

KEILAR: So if they're moving toward a more bipartisan direction, does that mean, you think, Juana, that Doug Jones may actually go along with Republicans on some things? Or when you look at what a slim margin this was that, let's say, he won by and perhaps his calculus may be that he won't be reelected, is he just going to go with Democrats?

JUANA SUMMERS, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER: You know, you've heard Doug Jones talk about this. CNN's Jake Tapper interviewed him. He said, you know, he's not going to be someone who's going to stick 100 percent with Democrats or with Republicans.

But I do, Brianna, think it's really important to talk about the landscape of Alabama here when we're thinking about what Doug Jones might do. This is, as you noted and Phil noted, a deeply red state. So he's got some personal decisions to make here. He could be up for a very tough re-election race just three years from now. So he's got to decided, you know, is he going to go with the largely

liberal Democratic Party that kind of elected him to this improbable win over Roy Moore in this deep red state? Or is he going to tack center or even possibly further to the right, perhaps keeping himself in the Senate a little longer? It's just not clear what he's going to do quite yet, and we'll be looking for that after he gets sworn in.

KEILAR: So all of this is happening, Zeke Miller, in -- with this cloud of the Russia investigation over it, despite the fact that President Trump's lawyers have clearly been telling him this is all going to wrap up soon. This could last into at least a significant portion here of the next year.

What is that going to do to the legislative agenda, which is pretty ambitious for Republicans?

ZEKE MILLER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Well, certainly, the Russia investigation is still out there. But that's largely on the back burner on Capitol Hill. The bigger -- the bigger thing hanging over them is probably going to be those midterm elections.

Will there be a desire to try to get something done on a bipartisan basis, right off the bat, whether that's the infrastructure, or if are they going to stay focused on things like entitlement reform like Ryan wants to do, which is not, which probably you're not going to get too many Democrats on board. Certainly in the midterm election here and political din dynamics that we've been covering, not a lot of goodwill or incentive to work together.

Obviously, there's that immigration crisis that's going to come up early next year. But both parties seem to want the issue for the midterm. So can they get anything done?

Russia will obviously be an important factor if something does develop that there are concrete sort of -- real progress there from on the Mueller side. That could have a big impact on Capitol Hill, but the midterms might -- you know, might even preclude that and they might not be an opportunity for a window for much to happen next year.

KEILAR: All right. You guys, stand by. We have much more to talk about, including the president golfing again today. We're going to talk about the larger issue of conflict of interest. Not just that truck that blocked the view of the president on the golf course. This issue of a conflict of interest stretching to the first daughter, Ivanka Trump, as well.


[18:47:41] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Tonight, we have an update on the case of the mysterious white truck. It was carefully positioned to block CNN from shooting video of President Trump on the golf course yesterday even though our camera was on public property.

Well, we've done some digging and here's what we have learned. That white box truck was parked in a spot reserved for sheriff's department vehicles. A similar truck was seen parked at the sheriff's department parking lot. So, was the Palm Beach sheriff's department behind this move?

Well, a department spokesperson says the camera-blocking truck maneuver was not authorized. By the way, there was no attempt to block our shot today. We should say that. We actually got a pretty good shot, if we have that handy, maybe? We'll have it. We got video today of President Trump on the golf course.

OK. Juana, why block the shot? Here's today, I should say, as promised.

JUANA SUMMERS, CNN POLITICS SENIOR WRITER: Oh, man. This is silly a little unforced but really it is a very literal attempt by this administration yet again to limit the media's access to this president. It's also something coming from the administration we've seen time and again that is very sensitive about how the president is portrayed when he's away from the White House. He's at his properties and he's on the golf course.

Keep in mind. That's something he poked fun at and ridiculed even President Obama for when he was candidate Trump and prior and saying he spent too much time on the golf course. Candidate Trump then saying, of course, he wouldn't have time to play golf when he was president. I think our reporting shows and the videotape shows that's not exactly the case.

KEILAR: We're not sure that the administration had anything to do with this, we should say. But certainly the sentiment about wanting to hide that the president golfs so much is something that the Trump White House would be on board with.

So, today is the 112th day that Trump, Zeke, as president has spent time at one of his golf properties. It's hard to tell sometimes is he golfing, is he not. Sometimes we know. Sometimes social media, he pops up. He's got a golf club on him. I mean, hello, we know what's going on there. Sometimes it's hard to tell and it is kept from us.

This is a conflict of interest.

ZEKE MILLER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS: Yes. What the president will tell you, though, is that the president -- they can't have a conflict of interest and he's said that multiple times. There's an element of truth that the president is exempt from conflict of interest laws but it doesn't mean that there isn't maybe an ethical or some other broader, more larger questions, societal questions about, is the president using the presidency to promote his businesses and to promote his brand?

[18:50:07] He's spending so much time at these clubs, whether it'd be Mar-a-Lago, the West Palm Beach, Trump International. Those clubs have raised their fees. People and sort of after -- there are new protocols in place to book reservations because people assume the president's going to be there on a given weekend.

Those are important questions. Whether -- you know, who are those people? How did they get in? Who's vetting them? Did any of them have business before the president himself and we don't know the answer to that.

The White House has been very opaque on anything having to do with Trump business. They claim that there were ethics advisers, but they provide almost no documentation of any of this. So, it's up to the American people how to sort that (ph).

KEILAR: Phil, he seems like a creature of habit, creature of comfort in a way. Maybe he's more comfortable at his golf properties. But that said, even that, putting that aside, is it incumbent on him to not just go to his properties?

PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Look, I think it's been a surprise to pretty much everybody involved that they've just been sort of deliberate about it, that been no effort to kind of put out materials saying this is why I'm doing this. He's saying this is where I'm comfortable. This is where I'm going, weather it's out in Virginia, whether it's in Palm Beach, whether it's at his hotel here in Washington, D.C., whether it's somewhere up in New York. I'm going to go where I want to go, and there's nothing that you can do to stop me.

And as Zeke said, that's his right and he's talked to his counsel's office and they've delivered kind of their legal guidance on what he can or can't do. I think the most interesting element here is you talk to Democrats on Capitol Hill about this and they're in the minority right now, but if they flip into the majority, the idea of who's staying at the Trump Hotels, why they're staying there, who's holding banquets there, all of those types of issues, the fact that the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. is a government services agency property --


MATTINGLY: -- is on government property those are the types of things that you're going to see them attempt to dig into if they ever get the majority gavel or the chairman's gavel in an oversight committee.

KEILAR: It could be like a Lincoln bedroom 2.0.

MATTINGLY: Right. It might not matter right now, but if Democrats are in the majority in the House or even in the Senate at some point in the near term, expect that to become an issue.

KEILAR: It's a really good point.

All right. So, Ron, have you seen this "Wall Street Journal" report? It reviews Ivanka Trump's outfits on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram postings. These are of her official appearances, but these are the ones that she has chosen to pose. From March until the end of October. They looked and they found she was wearing items from her personal clothing brand in 46 of the 68 outfits that they reviewed.

Has the family separated themselves at all from their brand this year? Not just the president, the family? RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. So first, you

would hope, you would hope that Ivanka Trump likes wearing the clothes she markets in her name. So you have to give her the benefit of the doubt on that. But against the context of what Zeke and Phil were just talking about, it kind of looks different because we have seen this willingness to mingle the kind of the official duties with promotion of the Trump family brands to an extent that has surprised even the ethics experts who were worried about it at the beginning of the administration.

And, you know, Brianna, it's difficult to disentangle the different elements of the personal judgments that voters are making about President Trump, how much this way versus questions about his temperament or volatility or the way he talks about institutions, from the courts to the FBI. But I think there's no question that it's part of that braid. You know, it all goes to this personal assessment of him that's at the root of why his approval rating is so much lower than you might expect given the assessment of the economy at this point.

And again, you can't separate any one of these dynamics, but all together, they have produced a great deal of doubt in something approaching 60 percent of the electorate about his personal characteristics, qualities, values, the way he comforts himself as president.

KEILAR: All right. Ron Brownstein, Zeke Miller, Phil Mattingly, Juana Summers, thank you so much to all of you.

And just ahead, the icy end to 2017 and the record breaking forecast on New Year's Eve.


[18:58:20] KEILAR: Tonight, millions of Americans across much of the U.S. are suffering through brutal, bitter cold and the deep freeze is expected to continue into the New Year.

CNN meteorologist Allison Chinchar joining us now with more on this.

So, we're seeing some record breaking temperatures here.

ALLISON CHINCHAR, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Yes and we're likely going to pick up a few more every couple of days that we go into the weekend. So, right now, it feels like it is minus 23 in Fargo. It feels like it is zero in Chicago. And it feels like it is minus 9 in Boston.

So, you can see, we've got a widespread area of those incredibly cold temperatures and it's going to get colder. If you wake up tomorrow morning in Boston, it is going to feel like it is minus 19, minus eight for Saturday morning and Chicago also very similar temperatures, going from minus 7 Friday to minus 16 Sunday.

So, notice it's going to get even colder and the reason for that is we have another wave of cold air that's going to push back through as we go through the weekend. So, you'll no sooner get through with the first one when the second arrives.

The difference with the second is notice how far south it dips. This is where we talk about how widespread this cold air is going to go. Take, for example, Atlanta, 51 for the high on Friday, only 35 on Monday. And Dallas may not hit the freezing mark on Monday. That's how widespread this is.

But the concern going forward for a lot of folks is what do we do about New York City? So many people are going to be there for the New Year's festivities and that night, many folks are standing out there for hours on end, the temperature is expected to drop into the single digits with a feels like temperature in the negative numbers. Which means this will be the coldest New Year's Eve celebration in New York since the 1960s.

So, bundle up with layers upon layers upon layers.

KEILAR: My goodness. All right. Allison Chinchar, thank you so much for that. We do appreciate it.

And a reminder that when you're all bundled up on New Year's Eve, you can watch Anderson Cooper and Andy Cohen ring in 2018 maybe just from your coach hopefully as you're warm. Begins Sunday night at 8:00 Eastern, only on CNN.

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

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.