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Interview With New York Congressman Lee Zeldin; Trump Tweeting to End the New Year; New York Fire; ; U.S. Officials: North Korea Might Test Missile After January 1. Aired 4-4:30p ET

Aired December 29, 2017 - 4:00   ET



DANA BASH, CNN HOST: President Trump is tweeting like his account will expire in 2018.

THE LEAD starts right now.

Closing arguments. The president sharing his thoughts on everything from Robert Mueller to building that wall on the border in an explosion of tweets and a whirlwind interview to close out 2017.

And building inferno. The deadliest fire in New York City in decades kills a dozen people, including four children. And now we know it was a small child who started it.

Plus, cold shoulder? President Trump tweets that the East Coast could use a little global warming, but the joke may be lost on Americans suffering from wildfires, floods and hurricanes.

Welcome to THE LEAD. I am Dana Bash, in for Jake Tapper.

Down in Florida away from many of his aides and mingling at his golf club, President Trump is finding a way to share his unfiltered thoughts on the Russia investigation and his embattled attorney general, against the advice of his own team.

In an interview with "The New York Times," the president sounded a conciliatory tone about special counsel Robert Mueller, even as he repeatedly insisted there was no collusion with Russia, while on Twitter he's making a series of claims that don't always comport with the facts.

We will come through it all with my panel, but first let's go to CNN's Ryan Nobles, who is joining us now from West Palm Beach.

And, Ryan, we heard a lot from the president over the past 24 hours. Despite the fact he's still on vacation, a working vacation, he's still golfing, but he got his messages out, many of them.

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Dana, in the very unique way that this finds an opportunity to do that.

He has made news on a number of topics, including in a wide-ranging interview with "The New York Times" that could serve as a preview to his second year in office.


NOBLES (voice-over): For the fourth day in a row, President Trump spent the day as his Trump International Golf Course, but today in a rare move, our cameras were allowed on the course to capture the president meeting members of the Coast Guard. He shut down his course Friday to allow the service members to play.

It was at that same golf course where the president sat down for a wide-ranging interview with "The New York Times," where he claimed the Robert Mueller investigation into his campaign's connection into Russia will yield nothing.

"I think that Bob Mueller will be fair, and everybody knows that there was no collusion. I saw Dianne Feinstein the other day on television saying there is no collusion. She's the head of the committee."

The president describing Mueller as fair is an about-face from his previous description of the investigation as a witch-hunt. And while the president has had kind words for Mueller, he's still smarting from his own attorney general's decision to recuse himself from the Russia investigation.

"I thought it was a terrible thing he did. I thought it was certainly unnecessary."

Mr. Trump even said that Mr. Sessions should treat him the way former Attorney General Eric Holder treated former President Barack Obama. "I don't want to get into loyalty, but I will tell you that, I will say this. Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him."

And he even claimed that if he wanted he could force the Justice Department to continue their investigation into Hillary Clinton's e- mails. "I have absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department," Trump said, "but for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly, I have stayed uninvolved with this particular matter."

In addition to the lengthy "Times" interview, the president's Twitter feed has been active. He's used the social media platform to point out the cold temperatures in the Northeast as a way to question global warming, to tout poll numbers that show his approval rating improving, and to attack China for allegedly supplying oil to North Korean, in a violation of U.N. sanctions, a charge he told "The Times" he picked up from watching cable news.

But the North Korean threat is just one of many major issues impacting the Trump administration in 2018. And it comes against the backdrop of a huge midterm election that could decide which party controls the Congress.

Republican Congressman Francis Rooney of Florida said that the president will weigh heavy on many of these races.

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R), FLORIDA: I think maybe this year, with all the press and hysteria that has been going on about the Russian probe and other things like that, whether it's right or wrong, good, bad or ugly, the fact is the country seems to be in a chaotic moment right now.


NOBLES: And the White House seems to recognize the country is in a bit of chaos right now.

And as a result, they are strengthening their political arm, the president bringing in John DeStefano after the start of the new year to oversee their political operation. DeStefano, a former Capitol Hill hand, will help them focus on those midterm races with the hope that Republicans can continue to hold both the House and the Senate -- Dana.


BASH: Ryan, thank you so much.

My panel joins me now.

Patti Solis Doyle, you heard the president or you read the president say that he thinks that Robert Mueller is going to be fair. Does that ally your concerns and your fellow Democrats' concerns that he's going to fire Mueller?


What is the definition of fair? That he or his family, Don Jr., Jared Kushner, don't get any recommended charges against them? What happens if Mueller does recommend charges against him? Is he suddenly unfair now and does that mean that Mueller now is going to get fired or his family members are going to be pardoned because Mueller was unfair by recommending charges?

No, it's -- today, he's saying he's fair. Tomorrow, it could be a totally different story.

BASH: The other thing that he -- well, one of the many other things he said was that Jeff Sessions has not been fair to him the way that Eric Holder, who was President Obama's attorney general, had been fair and protected him.

Is that a legit comparison? I will just say to lead you to something I think, is that, you know, President Obama was not under investigation.


I would put it -- it's funny, because Trump introed that question by saying, well, look, that's not something I really want to talk about it, and of course he turned around and did exactly that and he talked about it.

What was interesting to me was that Trump viewed the job of attorney general through the prism of loyalty, rather than adherence to the rule of law, that sort of thing.

What clearly impressed the most about Eric Holder was that he hadn't submitted to Republican calls for investigations on any number of things. And Trump took that to be an expression of loyalty, rather than of the fact that there really wasn't any legitimacy to a lot of these charges and clearly wanted Jeff Sessions to have behaved and comported himself in the same way.

Instead, he recused himself from the Russia investigation, admirably, I thought, and now Trump has to contend with Mueller and his investigators.

KRISTEN SOLTIS ANDERSON, REPUBLICAN STRATEGIST: But I do think that his comments about Mueller were good news.

They may change tomorrow. But this was a situation where he gave an interview without senior staff around, without really any preparation. His lawyers were not sitting there saying, Mr. President, please don't say anything controversial about Bob Mueller.

He was just sitting at his golf club and managed to restrain himself from saying that would could get him in further hot water there. So, I think he does get at least some credit for not taking a sort of opportunity where he's fully off the leash, no staff and handlers around him, and still did not...


BASH: And credit for talking to a reporter.

GREEN: But I think the positivity toward Mueller did stand out to me too. It made me think he must have shot well on the golf course.



BASH: But he also potentially, you know, kind of dismantled this case that Republicans on talk radio, on another cable network, on Capitol Hill have been making to try to chip away at the credibility of Robert Mueller.

SOLIS DOYLE: But I think we are giving him way too much credit. I don't think he was a bad guy because he didn't have to be the bad guy.

You are absolutely right, Dana. FOX News is doing it. Republicans on the Hill are doing it. He can sort of take the high road on this case and just wait it out.

BASH: Kristen, I want to also show you a quote that he gave about his relationship with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

He said: "I have unbelievably great relationships with 97 percent of the Republican congressmen and senators. I love them and they love me."

First of all, I love the 97 percent stat. And I am interested in who he considers the 3 percent he doesn't.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: I wonder what the margin of error is?



BASH: Yes. Well, that's a good question, straight from a pollster.

You think that is legit? You work with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

SOLTIS ANDERSON: I think the fact that they got tax reform done has done a lot to heal wounds, has done a lot to build bridges.

I think if tax reform hadn't worked, it would have been an ugly situation with a lot of angry tweets and a really soured relationship down Pennsylvania Avenue. But they got it done.

And for a lot of these folks in Congress, Donald Trump represents a president who will sign bills that they pass. And that alone gets them a long way.

I do think that a lot of these folks -- I think it's maybe not 97 percent. I think a lot of folks are perhaps in jeopardy, those in tough districts, because of the political situation that is in part driven by this president's low job approval.

But I think a lot of Republicans, even if they don't like the tweets, even if they don't like the rhetoric, he's a guy that will sign bills they pass and I do think that goes a long way.

BASH: You heard Ryan report that John DeStefano is somebody who is going to go to the White House, certainly not a household name.

But the most important thing to know here is the president is changing up his political team a bit as he heads into the new year. I am sure you talk to Republicans, as I do, who kind of tear their hair out saying there's nobody around the president or there aren't enough people, I should say, around the president to give him sound political advice because so many outsiders are there.


GREEN: Sure.

One of the defining characteristics of the early White House was that there were so many people in there who had no Hill connections. You had people like Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, all the Goldman Sachs crew and the senior staff. All had their own resume items that made them somebody that Trump wanted to bring in.

But none of them had good relationships with the Hill. And we saw the problems that resulted from that in the failed health care fight, for instance. Having somebody like DeStefano, who is a known commodity, who has those kind of relationships, and who probably has the benefit of going into the job with at least a little bit more trust from Republicans in the wake of tax reform, I think he's set up to continue to improve the relations, although with Trump as president, you know, who knows where things are going to wind up.

BASH: You could say pretty much that at the end of every sentence you utter.

Everybody, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about.

And up next, Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin is joining me. Stay tune.


BASH: We're back with our politics lead.

President Trump is denying there was any collusion with Russia. He told "The New York Times" that he has the -- quote -- "absolute right to do what he wants with the Justice Department."

Joining me now is Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin of New York, who serves on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, first of all, you are a lawyer. Do you agree that the president is free to do whatever he wants with the Department of Justice at a time when the Department of Justice is investigating his administration?


REP. LEE ZELDIN (R), NEW YORK: I think to a great extent, he certainly has -- it's part of the executive branch, he gets to choose who the attorney general is, as well as other people at the top Senate-confirmed level positions within that Justice Department. I would say in the case of where you have special counsel appointed with regards to this investigation regarding a possible Russian involvement in the 2016 elections and to what extent, there might be any type of interaction with the Trump campaign, and any individuals associated with it.

I think it's important for there to be that level of independence, for there to be full cooperation, to be providing answers to questions, evidence when necessary in order to have a speedy conclusion that is done fairly. There's a -- it's etched in stone outside the Department of Justice, it says when law ends tyranny begins. I think it's important for there to be that independent that's.

BASH: Congressman, a number of your colleagues, fellow Republicans on Capitol Hill and elsewhere are calling Robert Mueller's integrity into question. The president said in the interview with the "New York times" he thinks Mueller is going to treat him fairly.

Does it bother you that so many of your fellow Republicans are questioning Mueller's intentions and even his credibility?

ZELDIN: Well, as it relates to Robert Mueller, he comes into this appointment with a great reputation. He's served our country for decades, highly respected on both sides of the aisle.

There is concern that there -- it's a fact that there are members of his team who are known to be partisan and anti-Trump, that is causing concern amongst people both in Congress and out, I think that is a fair thing to be concerned about. I think it's also important for Bob Mueller to be concerned about as well. He has taken action to remove people from his team who he has been able to identify as being anti- Trump, and I think that helps protect the integrity of his entire investigation.

BASH: Do you think your colleagues should continue to wage this campaign against Mueller?

ZELDIN: Well, I think as it relates to individuals who are on the team, absolutely. You know, as it has come to light that there are people who are involved who have a personal agenda or vendetta against the president, that's something that I'm concerned about, and we all should be concerned about. I think Bob Mueller should be concerned about it as well.

BASH: Obviously he is, and they are not on the team anymore. Let me turn to taxes. You voted against your party's tax legislation last week for several reasons. One is what you call the geographic redistribution of wealth, because of the new cap on deductions for state and local taxes, which are quite high in states like yours in New York. The president told "The New York Times" that it's because blue state Democrats didn't come to the table to fight back.

He said, I could have done something with salt or made it less severe but they were very ineffective. How about blue state Republicans like you, Congressman? He is blaming Democrats for not coming to the table, I'm guessing you tried?

ZELDIN: Oh, sure, very much so.

You know, this is one part of the excerpt that is not complete. The transcript doesn't have the entire interaction, but it looks like it was a follow-up to a question in working with the opposite party and the president was using this as a particular example of how, if there was more bipartisanship on the tax bill that there might have been more progress made as it relates to the state and local tax deductions, which is a fair point.

I just wish I heard the entire -- or was able to read the entire transcript of the exchange because that got cut off.

BASH: Let me just drill down one more aspect of this tax bill, which again you voted against, your colleagues, and the party is touting it as a big legislative win. You said you didn't like it.

Senator Marco Rubio did vote yes but he said in an interview with "The Hill," if I were king for a day this tax bill would have looked different. I think we went too far on helping corporations.

That's a pretty big admission. How do you think that that is going to impact Republicans like you on the ballot next year? ZELDIN: Well, as it relates to helping, you know, driving down the

corporate tax rate and going from 35 to 21 percent, for example, on a corporate tax rate, I think that's great.

[16:20:04] I just don't think it should be done on the backs of any hard-working middle income itemizers like some people who live in my own district, and that's why I referred -- that's why I opposed the bill, I was outspoken in that. I have constituents.

Now, my district voted about 14.5 points for President Trump. So, we're not just talking about people who voted for Hillary Clinton and Andrew Cuomo. We don't vote for mayor of New York. They didn't vote for Bill de Blasio obviously. These are people who include --

BASH: You are talking about Trump voters?

ZELDIN: -- these middle income itemizers. Yes, it includes Trump voters as well, and when they went to the ballot box in 2016, for them, this wasn't the tax bill they were hoping to get. So they are concerned. I mean, there are other people, by the way, who would oppose the president no matter what, there are people who will support the president no matter what.

But a lot of the elections are decided in the middle across the country, and there are people that are happy I was fighting for them and opposed the bill but they are disappointed we didn't fix that particular aspect. That might be the difference between coming out as a loser on the bill or a winner.

BASH: Congressman, stick around. We have a lot more to talk about, including a new warning about what North Korea may be preparing for 2018. That's next.


[16:25:28] BASH: We're back with our panel.

And turning to our world lead, U.S. officials are telling CNN that North Korea may be taking steps for another ballistic missile launch in the coming days.

Let's get straight to CNN's Barbara Starr at the Pentagon.

Barbara, you broke this story. What are you learning?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Dana. Well, multiple U.S. officials are telling us that there are new signs North Korea may be preparing for another ballistic missile test. It doesn't look like it's a satellite this time. They have actually indicators that if this does proceed, if there is a test, it's likely to be yet another ballistic test, coming at a very sensitive time. As we have talked about, the Olympics coming up after the first of the year, some U.S. military exercises potentially not happening on their routine schedule, trying to keep everything calm in the region.

Earlier today, Defense Secretary James Mattis visit the press corps at the Pentagon for a year-end chat and he was asked about all of this, and he talked about North Korea very broadly, very much on the no drama page for the end of the year, very much emphasizing diplomacy buttressed by economic sanctions because he wanted to make clear diplomacy is not just words, as he said, but they're going to really continue to press for real economic teeth in this, and, of course, next month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson travels to Vancouver, Canada, to meet with allies for an international discussion about what may come next to North Korea if, in fact, Kim proceeds with a missile test at this time.

It's going to be very interesting to figure out what his motivation may be -- Dana.

BASH: No question. Barbara Starr at the Pentagon, thank you so much.

And back with me is Republican Congressman Lee Zeldin.

You just heard Barbara's report, Congressman. If North Korea does conduct a launch, how should the U.S. respond?

ZELDIN: I don't know how much it's going to change. I mean, we've identified what our top options look like. They all involve China. We operate under the principle of dime diplomacy information, military, economics and these are all concepts that are inter-related, where you want to have multi-lateral diplomacy, you need to ramp up economic pressure, to make both of them work, to have a strong information campaign in North Korea and also to have the military option on the table, it's all important.

But the fact is if we were to go down a list of all the options here of how to deal with North Korea, the only good options that we come up with, they are going to involve China. So, we just need to continue that particular aspect of the effort as well as plan for the possibility of having a full range of conventional to unconventional options, if we have to use the military option. It absolutely has to be the last possible option to use.

BASH: No question.

You mention China. Obviously, this is something the president has been working on for almost a year since he has been in office and, in fact, in this "New York Times" interview, he admitted he has been softer on China on trade issues than he had planned, but that he says, look at this, the following, if they don't help us with North Korea, then I do what I've said I want to do, meaning he's gong to really try to beat back on their trade policies that he has been holding back on because he wants them to work with the U.S. and other global allies on North Korea.

How do you interpret that?

ZELDIN: Yes, that makes sense, you know, the president, when he was going through his campaign and since he, on the economic front has expressed a lot of concern for the trade interaction, the deficit that we face with China, the amount of debt that is owed, that he brought up, and the currency front, the -- (CROSSTALK)

BASH: You think he is right to hold back on that in the hopes that China is more aggressive on North Korea? Because as you have seen this week, the president has been publicly frustrated, that he says China isn't complying with some of the U.N. sanctions on North Korea.

ZELDIN: That's right. Yes, I think he is certainly looking to and willing to revisit that strategy over the course of 2017, we were seeing that strategy working where for example over the summer, there was a U.N. security counsel vote passed unanimously, including China and Russia that effectively cuts off over a third of North Korea's exports, as far as ramping up economic pressure, that China vote, that Russia vote was huge.