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Trump to New York Times: I Think Mueller will "be Fair." China Denies Trump Accusation of Allowing Oil into North Korea; Kremlin: Relations with U.S. a Major Disappointment. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired December 29, 2017 - 10:00   ET



POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, top of the hour, 10:00 a.m. Eastern. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. Good morning to all of you. John Berman has a well-deserved morning off.

And we are following a number of developments on the president this morning. First up, a stunning "New York Times" interview where the president says he thinks Special Counsel Bob Mueller will be fair in the Russia investigation. At the same time, he says the probe is making the United States look bad. Plus, a new warning to Democrats, the president's message, no deal on DACA without a wall. All of this happens as CNN has just learned that there is an expected staff shake- up coming to the West Wing.

Let's go to Abby Phillip. She's in Florida. She's covering the president as he spends his holiday there. Let's take through all of this and let's begin with what the president is saying on Russia and Mueller.

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hey, Poppy, the president giving an extended interview with "The New York Times" yesterday at his golf club and unexpectedly talking quite a bit about this Russia probe. He talked about the Mueller investigation, giving a little bit of a rosier view of how that investigation is going to go for him.

Just a little bit of what he said to them. He said, "There was no collusion with respect to my campaign. I think I'll be treated fairly. Timing wise, I can't tell you. I just don't know. But I think we'll be treated fairly."

Now, two interesting things about that, the first is that the president has spent a lot of time in the last couple of weeks undermining the FBI and some of the individuals in charge of that investigation, suggesting that maybe he does not have that much confidence in the Mueller probe. But it seems based on this interview that he thinks at the end of the day, Mueller is going to treat him fairly, whatever that means.

The second thing here is about timing. The White House, the president's lawyers have actually told him that they believe this investigation is wrapping up. That it is coming to a close. Here the president suggests he has no idea where it is going to go. A little bit of Zen from him which is a little bit unusual considering how often we hear from him tweeting angrily about this probe on social media. Poppy?

HARLOW: And also, he just took to Twitter this morning, tweeting about DACA or a deal for so-called DREAMERS saying there is a line and really making clear where the line is for him on this.

PHILLIP: That's right. The White House has been talking quite a bit about bipartisanship. And this is one of those big issues that they will have to work with Democrats on, but the president this morning making it clear that he is not going to come to the table unless he gets that wall funding. He says, "The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed wall at the southern border and an end to the horrible chain migration and ridiculous lottery system of immigration etc. We must protect our country at all costs."

Now, everyone knows the president wants to get that wall built. But at the same time, Democrats have made it clear they want DACA to be fixed on its own, separate from all of these other immigration issues. The president, making it clear here before they even come to the negotiating table fully in the New Year that he wants those issues to be married together. It is unclear how that's going to affect how things go with that issue.

HARLOW: And Abby, what about this expected shake-up in the West Wing? What's happening staffing-wise?

PHILLIP: Well, we have been hearing a lot of complaints over the last several months about the White House political office and the need for that office to be beefed up. We have learned in the last few minutes that Johnny DeStefano who's an aid currently in the White House in charge of the office of personnel is going to be given an elevated position overseeing the political operation and several other offices. The idea here is to give a little bit more backbone to an office that's going to be critical to the White House's response to the midterm elections in 2018. DeStefano is a Capitol Hill veteran. There is an idea here that he might be able to help them work better with Hill Republicans going into these crucial midterms.

HARLOW: Abby, we appreciate all of the reporting on so many fronts this morning. Thank you.

Also in that interview with "The New York Times", the president was asked if he would order the Justice Department to reopen the investigation into Hillary Clinton's e-mails. Here's how the president responded, quote, "I have the absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department. But for purposes of hopefully thinking I'm going to be treated fairly, I have stayed uninvolved with this particular matter."

Our legal analyst, Paul Callan, is here. Let's take through this. So, Paul, he says he has the absolute right to do whatever he wants with the Justice Department. True?

PAUL CALLAN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: True and false. He is the person in charge of the Justice Department. So, for instance, he could order them to divert resources from one investigation to another or to terminate an investigation. He can do that.

[10:05:00] However, if the purpose of terminating the investigation is to protect himself or to punish an enemy, that could be viewed as an abuse of power and/or an obstruction of justice. So, as I say, it's yes and no because if he's giving a legitimate order, it has to be followed, but you can also commit an act of criminality in that context.

HARLOW: He also in the context of the attorney general and the Justice Department spoke about loyalty and his disappointment with his own Attorney General Jeff Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia investigation. And then he went on to compare the relationship between he and Sessions to President Obama and former Attorney General Eric Holder and he said holder. And he said, "Holder protected President Obama. Totally protected him. When you look at things that they did, Holder protected the president. And I have great respect for that. I'll be honest." Objectively speaking is it the role of an attorney general to protect the president?

CALLAN: It is really a strange answer for him to give because he's continuing his attack on Jeff Sessions. I thought he was going to ease up on that but really what he's saying is Obama had a great attorney general who was loyal to him, but mine has not been. And frankly, it is very, very unusual to see a president attacking his own attorney general in a continuing way like this.

But, you know, Poppy, this entire interview was so strange. The other thing that I thought was really bizarre was him now praising the fairness of Mueller. And as a former prosecutor, it reminds me of the use of the good guy/bad guy routine. Remember, Trump's people had been attacking Mueller relentlessly for conducting an unfair investigation. And now the president is saying, well, it is a fair investigation. It's sort of he's acting like, you know, the good guy and his spokespeople are acting like the bad guy in a criminal interrogation.

HARLOW: Yes, for now.

CALLAN: For now, yes.

HARLOW: He said that he thinks Mueller is being fair. He's called this a witch hunt so many times before.

Paul Callan, appreciate it. Thank you.

With me now, CNN political commentators, Symone Sanders and Alice Stewart. And Alice, let me begin with you. I mean, just on Paul Callan's comments. What do you make of the fact that the president said, look, I think Mueller is going to be fair on this. In an investigation, he is deemed a witch hunt so many times.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think he should repeat that one line over and over and over and over again and put a big period at the end of that sentence and say nothing else about the Russia investigation. Poppy, let me just say from a communications standpoint, any time you have any elected official meeting with any reporter without any press team present for 30 minutes, it makes my heart beat really fast and I have shell shock thinking about what could possibly have come out of this.

But look, I think he was right to say that he thinks he will be treated fair by Mueller. I think reiterating that there is no collusion 16 times may help convince some of the base, but that's not going to change the outcome of this investigation. But I think overall, I think it was important for him to get out, say at least one positive comment about Mueller, despite the fact that many others in the GOP are being critical of the investigation. And I think, given what could have happened, I think this was a really nice outcome, given the potential of something like this.

HARLOW: He also said 16 separate times in this half hour sit down with "The New York Times" that there was no collusion. Look, that's part of what's being investigated. Symone, one thing that stood out to me, you know, for you as a Democrat who worked with Bernie Sanders, he said virtually every Democrat has said there is no collusion. What did you think when you read that?

SYMONE SANDERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, I think Donald Trump is reaching here. Look, I think there are a few questions to answer with the Russia investigation. The Russia investigation from questions that you have asked Trump supporters and other people out there that you know is not necessarily electoral issue just yet. Folks are not going to the ballot box voting on Donald Trump and Russia. But I think some of the questions that this investigation will answer is, yes, was there collusion. Were there attempts to collude? Was there obstruction of justice? And those answers have not been concluded just yet. So it is incorrect actually for the president to note that that has been an outcome of this investigation.

HARLOW: So many things to go through here. I do find it interesting, Alice, you know, another part of what the president said on the Russia investigation is timing-wise. He doesn't know when Mueller's probe will wrap up and he didn't seem to feel any urgency in getting it done. He did say it's bad for America that it's going on. But the White House counsel has said, we think this is going to wrap up at the end of the year, and then pushing it to right after the New Year. It seems like he's on a very different page that his own White House counsel on this. Does that matter?

STEWART: I think we're going to always have conflicting desires for when this will wrap up. Clearly, in my view, I think his counsel is telling him things will wrap up quickly just to satisfy the president. He wants it to. I think it is in the country's best interest if it wraps up quickly. But at the same time, I think they just need to stop talking about it. They need to quit trying to anticipate the outcome and anticipate the timing of this. Let Robert Mueller do his job.

[10:10:05] And if the administration is accurate and if they have done nothing wrong, then let the facts play out. Let it lead to its conclusion. I think it is important not to pre-judge the outcome of this, but I think he should do as he's done the last month or so, focus on meaningful legislation, meaningful more issues like tax reform. Now infrastructure and let's put the Russia investigation on the back burner right now and let Mueller do his job.

HARLOW: So -- we'll see if he doesn't talk about the Russia investigation. I'm not so sure about that. But Symone, he did talk a great deal in this interview about bipartisanship and working with Democrats. Just part of what he said, "Dems should come to me on infrastructure. They should come to me on DACA. We're trying to do something about it. They should definitely come to me on health care because we could do bipartisan on health care. We can do bipartisan on infrastructure. We can do bipartisan on DACA. You know, 12 hours after this interview, he just tweeted this morning and said, "No DACA deal without a wall." I mean, is this genuine hope for bipartisanship?

SANDERS: You know, so I think -- I do think the president genuinely hopes that the Democrats would come to him to strike a deal. No one is coming begging and groveling to Donald Trump asking him to do something. He's confused. The Republicans are in charge of both chambers of Congress, the House of Representatives and the Senate. The reason -- that nothing has gotten done up until tax reform has been because Republicans couldn't get their stuff together, not because Democrats were, quote unquote, "obstructing."

Democrats are more than happy to work with this administration and the Republican colleagues on the Hill. The problem is, they say things like we want bipartisanship and then they say we want to overhaul and get rid of Obamacare. Well, that's not happening and no Democrats is coming to the table to do that. They say things like we want to work on -- we want to save the DREAMERS and then Donald Trump tweets things such as he tweeted this morning about a border wall. Democrats are not going to vote for a border wall in conjunction with saving DREAMERS DACA recipients who this is the only country they know. So I think the president needs to kind of retool his negotiating skills here. But Democrats are more than willing to come to the table. But be clear. Republicans don't have their caucus together and that's why nothing is getting done.

HARLOW: Is that a correct or -- I mean, Alice, just when you think about the calculation, the president saying no DACA deal without a wall. I mean, you do have I think it's 83 percent of Americans polled want to see a solution for DREAMERS here. So, you know, it is more than just his base.

STEWART: Sure. And I think just one clarification. I think we started out this year, yes, the GOP was all over the map and they didn't work together. I think they have learned they have to get something done. The GOP now is united at working together, especially with House and Senate members are working together. That's why we have tax reform. And it is critical with a lot of these issues moving forward, whether it's infrastructure or DACA,.

They do work more closely with Democrats and DACA is an important issue. But the president has made it quite clear. Anything that has any remote connection to national security with regard to immigration, he wants to build the wall. And if he has to tie that in with DACA, he's going to do that. Also think if we're talking about DACA, he's going to be talking about putting an end to chain migration, which is a key priority for this administration. So I think everyone is going to have to be willing to concede and work together if you want DACA. You also have to consider the wall and chain migration.

SANDERS: But Poppy - there is something important to be said here. In fact like that the DREAMERS and issues of immigration, phrases like chain migration negate the fact that these are real people and real families that we're talking about. These are real young people who have been in this country, who have paid their taxes, and paid the administration is not a coaching immigration from a humane perspective. So Democrats are not voting for a border wall. They're not voting for quote, unquote "ending chain migration." And that rhetoric is going to tank this deal and it is going to have Donald Trump signing an executive order on DACA. Watch.

HARLOW: We'll be watching. Really quickly, though, I did want to get you on this, Alice. And that is the president coming out and mocking climate change and equating it to weather which are two very different things. Climate and weather last night talking about the extreme cold in this tweet saying, "In the east, it could be the coldest New Year's Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old global warming that our country, but not other countries, was going to pay trillions of dollars to protect against. Bundle up!"

Either he doesn't understand that there's difference between weather and climate or he doesn't care. But also, it seems like he's making it very clear that he's not a believer in climate change, which we are trying to get clarity from him on and the White House on for a really long time.

STEWART: I think he's been really clear that with regard to climate change that he does think it is a hoax. He thinks it is a very expensive tax that has been implied on many people. But the big question that is really difficult to get a firm response is whether or not it is manmade.

[10:15:04] And that is something that we're still trying to get from him. I think with regard to global warming and climate change, I think he made his position really clear by pulling out of the Paris Climate accord and making sure that we do what's in the best interest of Americans and I think we're going to continue to see that. He clearly doesn't believe in global warming. He thinks climate change is a hoax and we're certainly not going to get any change of him on that. He's been quite clear on where he stands.

SANDERS: And he's wrong.

HARLOW: Alice, Symone, appreciate it. Thank you very much. Have a good New Year.

This morning China is firing back after the president accuses China of allowing oil, selling oil into North Korea.

Also, he has called for a purge of the FBI over what he believes is bias within the bureau. So, what does Republican Congressman Francis Rooney think about the president saying Special Counsel Bob Mueller will be fair? We're going to ask him.

And 12 people lost their lives in a massive fire in the Bronx. New York City's mayor calling it the worst fire tragedy in decades here.


HARLOW: China is this morning pushing back on President Trump's accusation on Twitter that China recently sold oil to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions.

[10:20:04] The president says he wants China to do more to help with North Korea and he tells "The New York Times" this, quote, "China is hurting us very badly on trade but I have been soft on China because the only thing more important to me than trade is war."

Let's go to Beijing. Our international correspondent Alexandra Field is there. Look, for the president to use the word soft, saying he himself has been soft on China from this president is fascinating.

ALEXANDRA FIELD, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, look, because he's had very tough language when it comes to China. First on the campaign trail when he was talking cracking down on trade, we saw him abandon that instead. But North Korea on the front burner and he has had tough talk towards China. He has in the past said that China was falling down on the job.

The priority of the Trump administration right now, Poppy, is to see this raft of sanctions work, take some hold in terms of reigning in this rogue regime. Whether or not you think that sanctions are enough to reign in the regime to curb this rapidly developing nuclear and missile program, it is clear to everyone that China's role is essential when it comes to enforcing these sanctions because of their key economic relationship with North Korea. And basically, President Trump on Twitter now, very publicly again saying that China has fallen down on the job, saying they have been caught red handed.

What exactly is he talking about? Well, he's talking about what would be an illegal network of ships transferring oil to North Korean vessels which could then take that oil into North Korea. That is indirect defiance of U.N. Security Council sanctions. There were South Korean media reports earlier this week but said there was satellite images showing that Chinese ships were involved in these transfers.

Officials here in Beijing are fighting back saying that's not the case. They are fully enforcing the sanctions against North Korea and that if they do find evidence that Chinese ships or companies have been involved in illegal sales they would deal with those entities. They are not conceding that has happened. But South Korean authorities say it is very clear that illegal transfers are happening on international waters. In fact, they say that they actually seized a ship that was registered to Hong Kong leased to a Taiwanese company. They say that ship had gone into international waters back in October to deliver oil to North Korean vessels. Poppy?

HARLOW: Alexandra Field in Beijing. Thank you very much for all the reporting.

So along with China, President Trump has said repeatedly he's seeking a better relationship, a better partnership with, quote, "rival power Russia." This morning though, a Kremlin spokesperson says Russia's relationship with the U.S. has been one of the major disappointments of the year. This comes a day after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. has a, quote, "poor relationship with Russia."

Joining me now from Moscow is our senior international correspondent Matthew Chance. So much back and forth, especially in Russia in just the past 48 hours, what is the latest from the Kremlin?

MATTHEW CHANCE, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I suppose the latest, Poppy, is the reaction we've had from the Kremlin regarding Donald Trump's interview with "The New York Times" in which he denied 16 times, again, that there had been any collusion with Russia. And this is one of the issues where, one of the many issues, where Donald Trump and the Kremlin sort of talk in sync with each other. That the Kremlin also denies there was any collusion with the Trump administration or with the Trump campaign team.

When he was asked for his response to this article, Dmitry Peskov, who is the spokesperson for Vladimir Putin said that this anti-Russian hysteria was continuing, that the Russians were perplexed at the ongoing investigation and that it was damaging, the relationship, between the United States and Russia.

And, so, you know, somewhat reflecting the kind of sentiments that President Trump was exhibiting during that interview. As you mentioned, the Kremlin spokesperson went on to say that the failure of the U.S.-Russian relationship will deterioration of it is one of the major disappointments of the year for the Russians. And that's because they started this year back in January when Trump was inaugurated full of anticipation and hope that this was going to be the president who was going to be able to turn around the relationship between Russia and the United States. Of course that hasn't happened. In fact, if anything, things have gotten much, much worse between the two powers.

HARLOW: Indeed. Matthew Chance, appreciate the reporting for us in Moscow tonight.

So, President Trump says he thinks that Robert Mueller will be fair in the Russia investigation, a big headline from that "New York Times" interview. My next guest, earlier this week, called for a purge of the FBI and the Justice Department in part because of some who were on the Mueller team. We're going to discuss what he makes of the president's comments next.


[10:28:58] HARLOW: Welcome back. I'm Poppy Harlow in New York. And we are continuing to dig into this stunning interview that President Trump gave to "The New York Times." One of the major headlines, the president says he thinks Special Counsel Bob Mueller will be fair in the Russia probe.

Joining me now is Republican Congressman Francis Rooney in Florida. He serves in the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Thanks for joining us.

REP. FRANCIS ROONEY (R-FL), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: Poppy, thank you for having me back on.

HARLOW: It is nice to have you here. So, you read the interview. I'm sure you read the transcript of the president with "New York Times." And he thinks Bob Mueller will be fair. And that would imply that his team would be fair in all of this. You said in large part because of the make-up of Mueller's team and the Russia probe you think a purge is needed at the FBI. You took some heat for the language you used. What do you think? Is the president right on this one?

ROONEY: Well, I sure hope Director Mueller will be fair. His fantastic reputation of public service would tend to indicate that he would be. But what I've been concerned about and why I spoke up - maybe fairly on nuance about it but still very concerned about all the things that have come out of some of the people in the FBI and the Justice Department, even going back during the Clinton administration.