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Report: Trump White House "Winging It" ahead of Mueller Report; Trump: WH Chief of Staff Kelly Leaving at End of Year; Trump Nominates William Barr to be his Next Attorney General; SPACEX Cargo, Holiday Treats Arrive at ISS; Comey On Flynn; Cohen Lied Publicly; Paul Manafort's Plea Deal. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 8, 2018 - 17:00   ET

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


LAURA JARRETT, CNN JUSTICE REPORTER: -- with some questioning about the president's first national security advisor, General Michael Flynn. And, of course, we remember the recollection of what Comey said about how the president allegedly asked him to let the investigation into Flynn go, early on in January of 2017.

And so, Comey was asked about the fact that Flynn has now been cooperating with the government, ultimately pleading guilty to lying to investigators. And so, I want to read to you just a little bit of what he told House members yesterday on that point. And he says, of course, there was no chance at all that I was going to abide by the direction to let the Flynn investigation go.

And then, he goes on to say, when I saw the public accounts of his plea and cooperation, I felt as a citizen glad that he was held accountable for his crimes, and that he was assisting the United States. So, it seemed to me like a just outcome.

So, just a little interesting color there about how he is looking at this. Of course, one of the things that investigators have been really interested in because, obviously, it could go potential to obstruction of justice if the president was trying to disrupt an ongoing investigation asking Comey to let the Flynn investigation go. But he doesn't wade into obstruction, at least that I have seen thus far. He says that's an issue for the special counsel to look into, as he has said before.

And then, so far, we've seen a lot of rehearsing of old territory in this transcript. And I got to tell you, a lot on how the FBI looked into Hillary Clinton's handling of classified information. Of course, how she treated those classified emails that we've heard so much about for the last couple of years.

We are -- a lot of treading over the old territory about the tarmac meeting between former President Bill Clinton and then attorney general Loretta Lynch. And whether Comey thought that that was inappropriate. He has, of course, weighed in on that in the past, saying he thought it was. And it was part of the reason he thought the attorney general, Loretta Lynch, should step aside.

And then, he was also asked by Republicans early on about a former FBI counter intelligence official, Peter Strzok, that we've heard so much about from President Trump. Of course, Strzok was on both the Russia investigation and the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation, and he's asked whether he thought that his text messages with Lisa Page, another FBI official, were appropriate.

Comey said he thought that they were not appropriate, as he has said already said in the past. And he also said that he thought if he had known about them at the time, he would have taken those two individuals off of those investigations, Ana.

So, some interesting color here, but much we have already seen in the past. As Comey said that we would.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR, NEWSROOM: Now, let's listen to Comey, in fact, and what he had to say about the interview on Friday.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JAMES COMEY, FORMER DIRECTOR, FBI: After a full day of questioning, two things are clear to me. One, we could have done this in open setting. And, two, when you read the transcript, you will see that we are talking, again, about Hillary Clinton's emails, for heaven sakes.

So, I'm not sure we need to do this at all. But I'm trying to respect the institution and to answer questions in a respectful way. You'll see I did that in the transcript.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Laura, we know Comey has testified before Congress in public settings, at least a couple other times before this. What was the point of him going back before Congress?

JARRETT: Yes, it's interesting. You know, I think many feel as if this was a last ditch effort by House Republicans before Democrats retake the House in January to try to get the last squeeze of information out of somebody who was, of course, very key to decisions about both the Clinton investigation and the Trump Russia investigation.

So, Comey is at the heart of all of this. But, so far, he is not adding anything new to the equation, Ana.

CABRERA: All right, Laura Jarrett, thank you for that quick reporting, that quick turn.

Also tonight, everyone has been lying and Robert Mueller knows it. Over the next hour, we'll walk you through a series of revelations that make clear the special counsel's Russia probe is focused deep inside the west wing. We will talk about Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort. The lies they allegedly told, the laws they broke, and the communications they allegedly had with the White House.

But before we could even do that, we have to talk about this. For the first time ever, federal prosecutors have connected the president of the United States to two federal crimes before the 2016 election. In a court filing yesterday, they say Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, was acting at Trump's direction when he twice broke campaign finance laws by paying off these two women, that claim they had an affair with Trump and would have gone public with their stories before the election.

Here's the key line. In particular, and as Cohen has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of individual one. Individual one being the code name for the president. Today, he denied he did anything illegal with either Cohen or with Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There was no collusion whatsoever. There never has been. The last thing I want is help from Russia or the campaign.

You should ask Hillary Clinton about Russia because she financed the fake dossier.

[17:05:03] UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sir, did you direct Michael Cohen to commit any violations of the law?

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, no, no.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: OK, right to CNN Political Correspondent Sara Murray. Sara, prosecutors did not mince their words in describing this hush money scheme.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, they really didn't. Obviously, as you pointed out, they implicated President Trump in these payments, and the southern district of New York, they were very harsh when it came to Michael Cohen. They said he deserved substantial jail time.

And, in particular, they had an issue, obviously, with these payments. Here's what they said about Michael Cohen's move to make these hush money payments in violation of campaign law. They said, while many Americans who desired a particular outcome to the election knocked on doors, toiled at phone banks or found any number of legal ways to make their voices heard, Cohen sought to influence the election from the shadows.

And so, you see the southern district of New York taking it very seriously that Michael Cohen, hand in hand with Donald Trump, tried to influence an election in an illegal manner -- Ana.

CABRERA: The court document we just talked about was a sentencing memo from the southern district of New York separate from Robert Mueller's filing in his own sentencing memo for Cohen. And in it, they detail a previously unknown contact that Cohen had with a Russian way back in 2015. Tell us about that, Sara.

MURRAY: That's right. In addition to Michael Cohen coming clean with them about the Trump Tower Moscow project, and how it had been going on longer than he was originally honest about and how he kept Trump in the loop about that, he also talked about this Russian national who approached him around November of 2015.

And here's what the filing from Mueller's office said about that. Cohen received a contact information for and spoke with a Russian national who claimed to be a trusted person in the Russian federation and who could offer the campaign political synergy and synergy on a government level. This person who was never named even offered to set up a meeting between then candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Now, Michael Cohen apparently never took this person up on the meeting. But it is yet another example of the Russians trying to infiltrate the Trump campaign or Trump's inner circle trying to make inroads there, Ana, and very early in the 2016 presidential campaign.

CABRERA: All right, Sara, stay we with me. I want to come back to you to talk Manafort in just a bit.

But let's focus on Cohen right now. And with us to do just that is former Clinton White House counsel, Jack Quinn, and former prosecutor for the Justice Department, Joseph Moreno.

So, Jack, Trump says he's happy with what he sees in these memos. You've advised a president. If you were Trump's attorney, would you be happy with what's in these filings?

JACK QUINN, FORMER WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL, CLINTON ADMINISTRATION: I would be anything but happy. I think that the filings, in both cases, should make people in the White House and in the Trump legal team exceedingly worried about what's coming next.

CABRERA: Joseph, the president points out in these documents that they don't prove collusion. He says the last thing he'd want is help from Russia. But that's not entirely true. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: There was no collusion whatsoever. There never has been. The last thing I want is help from Russia on a campaign.

Russia, if you're listening, I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Besides Trump asking for those emails, he also, we know, at least his campaign, was willing to accept help from Russia because of that Trump Tower meeting. But, Joseph, is the president right when he says these documents don't prove collusion.

JOSEPH MORENO, FORMER PROSECUTOR, NATIONAL SECURITY: Hi, Ana. Well, first off, no. I mean, these documents don't prove or disprove collusion. It's, perhaps, a small sigh of relief on the president's defense side that they don't come out and outright lay it out there. But I would think he's far from out of the weeds here.

There's a reason that the president keeps going back to this notion of collusion or the lack thereof, right? Remember, half the laws is in the -- in the courtroom. The other half of the law is in the -- in the court of public opinion. And the president is very much fighting in the court of public opinion. And so, he's going to keep that bar at collusion, and say anything short of that just falls short.

I think the president believes he can probably weather an obstruction case. He believes he can weather a campaign finance case. But he knows his support collapses, both Congressionally and the American population, if a collusion case is built against him. And so, that's why he's going to keep pounding that drum.

Now, if that evidence does appear, he may have to pivot and we'll see where that goes.

CABRERA: We know the president has, over and over again, tried to call this all a witch hunt. But these documents do point directly to Mueller's mandate about Russia's involvement in the 2016 election, and potential connections with the Trump campaign or Trump's inner circle. He talks about the Trump Tower Moscow project. He says it would have been lucrative and would have likely needed Russian government assistance to go through. Mueller also notes that it came at a time when Russia was interfering in the election.

[17:10:00] Jack, why do you think Mueller wanted to connect those dots?

QUINN: Look, I think what -- I don't disagree with anything that Joe said. Having said that, it's important for us to understand that Mueller is telling a story in bits and pieces. In each of these filings in court, with reference to a particular defendant, tells us only what he needs to tell us for the purposes of that particular court filing. Whether it's an indictment or otherwise.

And so, one has to really read the tea leaves here, piece together all of these filings that special counsel Mueller is making.

But let me make reference specifically to the filing with respect to the cooperation of Mr. Cohen. And there are some very important things that Mueller has identified here, areas where Cohen is being -- has been cooperative. And this is what I'm referring to, when I say that it should make people exceedingly nervous. Number one, he says, in the addition to the fact as you've said, that he's providing useful information about the whole Moscow Tower project. He also says that Cohen has provided useful information regarding matters core to the investigation.

Now, core to the investigation, of course, is the connection between Russia and the Trump campaign. That is the core of the investigation. Cohen has provided useful information about that, interestingly from Trump company executives during the campaign. Now, who are Trump company executives that he might have in mind here? It's a very small operation. And the only people I can think of, other than Allen Weisselberg, are people whose last name is Trump. So, I think that that would make my very uncomfortable, were I one of those people.

He -- Mueller also says that Cohen has revealed communications with persons connected to the White House. I guess whether inside or outside during the period 2017 and 2018. That's a signal to any of those people who may have had communications with Michael Cohen during that time that they'd better be talking to Robert Mueller and doing so in a very truthful way.

And then, finally, and this, I think, is quite significant, it's about the preparation and circulation of the false filing he made --

CABRERA: Yes.

QUINN: -- with the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. What he suggests there is that there were people -- there may have been a conspiracy with Cohen -- with Cohen to submit that perjurious statement to those Congressional committees. And who knows how many people were involved in that. But that's a big deal.

CABRERA: And we don't know who those people are. Not just --

QUINN: Not yet.

CABERA: -- how many, but who they are specifically. So, those are some of the mysteries that are outstanding.

I want you both to stand by. I'm going to hit pause on this conversation. I want to talk about Manafort's case as well, but I've got to squeeze in a quick break. Coming up, winging it, a new report that says the White House has no plan in place for when Mueller drops his final report. And wait until you hear why.

Plus, some breaking news. The president announcing White House chief of staff, John Kelly, is leaving by year's end, as CNN learns exclusively Kelly was interviewed by the special counsel team.

[17:13:20]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CABRERA: Back to the bombshell court filings released just yesterday. Before the break, we talked about the two involving Michael Cohen. But there's a third. This one involving Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort. That filing details how he lied about not one, not two, but five separate matters, violating his plea deal, they say.

I want to go back to our Sara Murray. Sara, walk us through what we learned in the Manafort memo.

MURRAY: Well, first of all, Ana, it's very bizarre to still be lying to investigators after you've struck a cooperation deal. Remember, Paul Manafort was already found guilty on a number of counts. And he's facing plenty of jail time. He was trying to get out of even more. He cooperated. But here are a number of things. They said he lied on five main points. Those included contact with the Trump administration. They included his interactions with the Russian associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, someone the prosecutors say has tie to Russian military intelligence. He lied about speaking with that associate and trying to, in some ways, obstruct justice, allegedly, as well as also lying about a wire transfer, and lying about another D.O.J. investigation. And the filing doesn't explain exactly what that D.O.J. investigation is.

Obviously, what's raising a lot of eyebrows are Manafort's contacts with the Trump administration. These came after he was already in trouble with the law. He was still in touch, though, through February of 2018 -- with -- February of 2018 with senior administration officials.

And, again, in May of 2018, he, apparently, sent a text message authorizing an associate to contact an administration official on his behalf. Now, it doesn't identify who these administration officials were he was in touch with or what they might have been talking about. But, Ana, wouldn't we like to know?

CABRERA: No doubt about it. Hopefully we will, eventually. Thank you, Sara Murray.

I want to bring back Joseph Moreno and Jack Quinn. According to Mueller, Paul Manafort was lying about his contacts with Trump administration officials, including a senior administration official, as Sara just reported. Joseph, what's your reaction to that?

MORENO: I mean, Sara used the word, bizarre. I would say, I mean, Paul Manafort's defense has been schizophrenic. He's all over the place. I mean, the idea, again, of trying -- first fighting, then seeking to cooperate, then burning the prosecutors who you're supposed to be cooperating with --

CABRERA: Yes.

MORENO: -- by potentially running information back. I mean, it's -- he's burned every bridge he has. Expect no leniency from the judge for Mr. Manafort.

And, of course, it raises the question, who was he speaking to? And then, do those people have exposure? What is he communicating with them about?

[17:20:02] Is he furthering some old communications or is it something new? Is he sharing information about the special counsel's investigation? Is he updating the president's defense team? None of these things are good possibilities, all of which spell trouble, not just for Mr. Manafort, but for those people he's potentially speaking to.

CABRERA: Jack, I mean, that is the big question. Who was he talking to, and then why is he lying about it? What is your experience telling you? QUINN: Well, I don't have experience with Paul.

CABRERA: But when somebody lies after they've entered into a cooperation agreement?

QUINN: So that -- look, as Joe said, it's bizarre. I mean, you don't really do this. And, by the way, by so doing, lying and violating the terms of the agreement, he has given up all of the benefits that that agreement would have provided to him, at the same time that the prosecutors gave up nothing. Paul Manafort is still stuck with his guilty pleas.

Now, look, I think, in addition to all the things Joe so well laid out, one of the more interesting things about this, Ana, is the fact that this whole thing of his dealings with Konstantin Kilimnik.

CABRERA: Yes.

QUINN: And, again, this guy is deemed, by our government, to likely be a Russian agent.

Now, again, the Russia connection, of course, is of keen interest to the special counsel because that's precisely what he's investigating, connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. And Kilimnik here, it seems like with the lie Manafort told that got Mueller so upset this time included lying about Kilimnik's role in the obstruction of justice which Manafort was involved in. So, Manafort has, essentially, said, I confessed to that obstruction of justice. But my good friend Kilimnik wasn't involved in it.

CABRERA: And let me just remind --

QUINN: Why is he protecting him?

CABRERA: That's the big question. That's a good question.

QUINN: That is a -- that is the heart of it, I believe. What is going on here that he, you know, is willing to, you know, sort of, give himself up, on this particular count but is trying to protect this Russian agent? It really suggests something very dark at the bottom of this well.

CABRERA: Here is what Manafort has said, when he was asked about Trump campaign ties to Russia.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS, ANCHOR, ABC NEWS: Are there any ties between Mr. Trump, you, or your campaign and Putin and his regime?

PAUL MANAFORT, FORMER CAMPAIGN CHAIRMAN, TRUMP CAMPAIGN: No, there are not. That's absurd, and, you know, there's no basis to it.

NORAH O'DONNELL, CO-ANCHOR, CBS NEWS: So, to be clear, Mr. Trump has no financial relationships with any Russian oligarchs?

MANAFORT: If that's what he said. That's what I said. That's obviously what the -- our position is.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: Joe, your thoughts on the matter?

MORENO: You know, I mean, I'd say a good lawyer could probably take what he said and try to spin it a certain way and say, well, Russian oligarchs or the Russian government. And maybe he'll say Mr. Kilimnik did not fit the bill in those descriptions.

But, I mean, look, that's form over substance, right? I mean, he's clearly not being forthcoming then. He wasn't forthcoming now. He's digging himself in deeper and it's really a really, really a strange story.

CABRERA: Joseph Moreno, Jack Quinn, thank you, both.

Breaking news. The revolving door at the White House keeps on revolving. Plus, other breaking news. The president announcing the White House chief of staff, John Kelly, is leaving at the end of the year.

[17:23:22]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CABRERA: As we follow all the fast-moving developments in the Russia probe, the big question remains, how will the White House respond when Robert Mueller comes out with his final report? Well, according to a new report in "The Atlantic," there is no plan in place. They are just winging it, mainly because of the president's pension for saying and tweeting what he wants.

The magazine quotes a former official who just left the White House as saying, we would always put together plans with the knowledge that he wouldn't use them or they'd go off the rails. And, at this point with Mueller, they've decided they're not even going to do that. It's like, Jesus, take the wheel, but scarier.

Joining me now is CNN Senior Political Analyst and former advisor to four presidents, David Gergen. David, is winging it really going to cut it here?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No, and it's in such contrast to what happened during the Clinton administration, when he was facing possible, you know, charges of one kind or another. And they were bracing for that, but they were also -- they developed a plan. They had some discipline about what he would not say, how he wouldn't get into it, how they would try to protect him. He wouldn't talk about things, any of that.

This new piece in "The Atlantic" by a CNN contributor, Elaina Plott, is really quite interesting. Because it portrays a White House staff that is completely unable to plan in advance for what's coming because, A, they don't know about it. B, they can't have conversations inside that are honest. They -- you know, people are -- and, C, whatever they plan, they know the president is going to throw it in the waste basket and go out do his own thing.

So, it leaves them, you know, if you have a sense, especially with the chief of staff leaving in the midst of all of this, that this is a White House that's totally unprepared. Other than to say, well, he's -- whatever Mueller says, they're going to call it a lie.

CABRERA: Although we don't know if it's true. The president did tweet out earlier that they have a counter report that is being prepared that is, apparently, 87 pages long, so far.

[17:30:03] However, attorney Rudy Giuliani has said that, a lot of the time, they would have spent drafting some kind of response plan to the Mueller report was devoted, instead, to answering Mueller's written questions.

And here's what he told "The Atlantic." "Answering those questions was a nightmare." Giuliani said, "It took him about three weeks to do what normally would take two days." What's your reaction to that, David?

GERGEN: I think it just speaks to the confusion and the inability to keep things rolling in the White House. One of the things that's been so frustrating to the Chief of Staff Kelly, you know, when Rudy was saying in that interview they would be in talking to the president and Kelly would burst in with something about a caravan down at the border, and they would then be off to the races talking about the caravan and not talking about getting answers. And there's probably a lot I don't know, but what is striking about -- the interview with Giuliani, after the president said there's an 87-page draft floating around, Giuliani doesn't mention it at all in his interview. He doesn't say there's even a draft under preparation. He basically says the president is going to tweet.

CABRERA: Usually Giuliani doesn't hold back, right?

GERGEN: No, he doesn't. You would think that he would be telling us what the first paragraph or the second paragraph says in the report if he -- if it had been written.

(CROSSTALK)

CABRERA: Well, a source can tell us -

GERGEN: Maybe it exists but there's that Giuliani interview certainly suggests there a long way of maybe some pages.

CABRERA: Well, we will see.

Pat Cipollone is another name that's going to become familiar to a lot of us. He's supposed to start his new White House job as White House counsel on Monday following a nearly two-month delay since his appointment.

David, again, because of your experience, what do you think he's in for come January when the Democrats are now in charge of the House.

GERGEN: Well, he's really going to have to hustle here in the next few days because it's been a security clearance problem, he has had, and he is only now two months later getting down on the job, which also means he hasn't had time to organize a full team. They have a light team now in the counsel's office, and that, again, must be discouraging for members of the staff. But what would that compare for the Democrats coming. Well you're going to have to two things at one time.

The Mueller report is very likely to come out here, and it appears we're going to get a lot more in the next two, three weeks. They're going to have to on one hand deal with that, which will be very absorbing, and then in the meantime the Democrats are about to come to town, and when they do, they're going to be this investigation, they're going to be launching in one area after another, and they've got to be prepared for that at the same time. They're going to have their hands full with the staff whether at legal counsel's office is understaffed.

CABRERA: I think everybody is going to have to hold on tight. This isn't slowing down.

GERGEN: Hold on tight.

CABRERA: Any time soon.

GERGEN: Exactly.

CABRERA: David, you're back with me in just a moment because I want to talk more about our other breaking news this evening, the president now making the announcement that White House John Kelly is out after reports that the two haven't been on speaking terms even. Plus, breaking his silence, fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks his mind about his former boss.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REX TILLERSON, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE: I would have to say to him, well, Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can't do it that way. It violates the law.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:38:12] DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: John Kelly will be leaving. I don't know if I can say retiring, but he's a great guy. John Kelly will be leaving at the end of the year. We'll be announcing who will be taking John's place. It might be on an interim basis. I'll be announcing that over the in next day or two, but John will be leaving at the end of the year. He has been with me almost two years now, as you know, between the two positions. So, we'll probably going to see him in a little while, but John Kelly -- ready? Are you ready? So John Kelly will be leaving before the end of the year, at the end of the year, and I appreciate his service very much.

(END VIDEO CLIP) CABRERA: OK. It's official. After reports of tension and that they weren't even on speaking terms, President Trump announcing today, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly will be leaving his post by the end of the year. Whoever Trump picks next will be his third chief of staff, noteworthy because back in 2012 Trump tweeted this. "Three chief of staffs in less than three years of being president: Part of the reason why Barack Obama can't manage to pass his agenda."

All this comes as sources tells CNN, Kelly sat for an interview with Mueller's team in recent months, and one of the key things Mueller wanted to know was Kelly's recollection about a conversation he witnessed between Trump and the now former White House Counsel Don McGahn. A conversation that had to do with a "New York Times" report that Trump wanted to fire Mueller.

Now, those sources also tell us White House lawyers objected to Mueller's request to interview Kelly, but then said yes after the special counsel narrowed the set of questions.

David Gergen is back with me and also joining us CNN political commentator and host of "S.E. Cupp Unfiltered," S.E. Cupp.

[17:40:00] S.E., Kelly was brought in as the man who was going to bring order back to the Trump White House, and now he is leaving after an interview with the special counsel under his belt. Just how significant is this?

S.E. CUPP, CNN HOST, "S.E. CUPP UNFILTERED": It is and it isn't. It is because Trump's inner circle. People he trusts, that's shrinking, and you know going through all of the staff turnover. That's pretty destabilizing. And he needs more than anything right now, stability.

But on the other hand, you know, this was always going to be an ill fit for John Kelly. John Kelly, who once joked that God had punished him by putting him in this job. He was you know forced to leave his dream job at DHS to take this job, and it was not a great position for him. So, it's not surprising that it's not working out for him, and regardless of who probably ends up taking this job, no one is going to be able to manage Trump. That's just sort of a fallacy.

CABRERA: Kelly, he is the more straight and narrow, he is kind of the guy in the box. Trump loves chaos, as we've discovered throughout this entire presidency.

David, CNN also learned, you know, sticking with that theme, that it's kind of shooting from the hip that Trump really didn't plan to announce Kelly's departure on the south lawn. At least those around him didn't know of any plans, but Kelly knowing Trump knew it could come at any moment. With everything the president is facing now, what type of person could possibly succeed in this job?

GERGEN: I think S.E. put her finger on it. This is going to bring more instability, and especially as we were just discussing sensitive moments when the Mueller report seems to be coming down any day now. And you've got a legal counsel's office that is understaffed and to have instability coming out of the chief of staff's office, and to have even - you know he is -- his days are marked now. His influence is going to diminish.

So I think it's a very rough time for them. It could not come at a worse time. But there are two other things to be said about it. One is President Trump says he loves the military, but so far he hasn't gotten along with them very well. You know, he has had Flynn who has gone down. He has had McMasters, who has gone down, and now Kelly is leaving, and Secretary Mattis at defense who has been seen as the pillar of this administration on national security, his influence seems to be diminishing. That's a rough go. It's not at all clear if you are a military general or retired why you would want to come in under these circumstances.

CABRERA: He is not military, but he was a member of this administration. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the now former secretary of state raised eyebrows this week. He was explaining why he thinks he fell out of favor with the president, and listen to what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TILLERSON: We did not have a common value system. When the president said here's what I want to do and here is how I want to do it, and I would have to say to him, well, Mr. President, I understand what you want to do, but you can't do it that way. It violates the law. It violates a treaty. You know, he got really frustrated, and I think he grew tired of me being the guy every day that told him you can't do that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: In response, here's what the president tweeted. "Rex Tillerson didn't have the mental capacity needed. He was dumb as a rock and I couldn't get rid of him fast enough. He was lazy as hell."

Wow. S.E., what do you say to that?

CUPP: Scathing, also, not surprising. This is how Trump sort of turns on folks who turn on him.

CABRERA: He hits back harder.

CUPP: Yes, sure and blunter. But again, I think these points to a similar problem at chief of staff who would want to come into this administration. You know this will be you eventually. One day you will be on the receiving end of this. But the other thing is you know, the obvious question, what it says about Trump's judgment that he hires people he thinks are dumb and lazy. This is not the first time he has called someone -

CABRERA: I thought he would only hire the best.

CUPP: He only hires the best except Michael Cohen who was his lawyer for a longtime and now is apparently dumb and lazy too. It's just you know it seems to be the final conclusion for a lot of people who ran afoul of Donald Trump and why probably he can't get great hires inside the White House anymore. CABRERA: David, your thoughts?

GERGEN: It's madness. Absolute madness. Listen, he just hired - he hired Tillerson. In the first meeting he met him. He had not done any proper background checks and talked to people. This is -- secretary of state is one of the three or four most powerful jobs in the government, enormously important not only for this country here, but to our relationships overseas. And to bring up a person you don't know and then immediately get into this craps with him and now they have him tell us, had Tillerson tell the world, this guy kept on presenting illegal plans to me, and I tried to hold him back, and that's why we went afoul of each other.

[17:45:10] My goodness, what in the world was he thinking in trying to bring in Tillerson and not checking it out first and now this kind of insulting behavior towards your former secretary of state unheard of. It's madness.

CABRERA: And so here come a couple of new players to this administration. The president formally unveiling his pick for attorney general, tapping William Barr who has that served as attorney general previously under George H.W. Bush. Sources telling CNN, he was reluctant to accept this job initially, but he was pressed by prominent Republican lawyers to accept it for the good of the institution.

David, do you think people are worried about taking jobs in this administration?

GERGEN: Yes, absolutely. Some of the best people aren't coming in right from the beginning. He had a hard time on national security because so many people that were quote, the "establishment" "national security" they signed a letter basically opposing him, and he wasn't willing to take them after that. Other presidents have had that similar situations, and they've usually hired people if they think they're good and they can get along with them, and I think he has been hurt by that.

CABRERA: The president also nominating another person Fox News host and now State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert to be the next U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. She's somebody who has had to feel a lot of questions on everything from the travel ban to North Korea. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HEATHER NAUERT, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESWOMAN: I kind of take issue with the tone of your question as though we don't care about this. I think we've been clear in our responsibility and our -- let me finish -- and our concern about Americans who are serving on behalf of the U.S. government in other countries.

(CROSSTALK)

So I'm from Russia -

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: So, you're from Russian TV too? OK. OK. Enough said then, I'll move on.

NAUERT: Well, there's an earthquake in China. I get many e-mails and calls from all of you asking was it another nuclear test. That is how big of a deal this is at what is going on. Let me finish. OK, please. This is a big deal what is going on. It is a concern to the world not just the United States.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

CABRERA: S.E., obviously, she's an effective communicator. Could she thrive in this new role?

CUPP: Anything is possible. You know, she is good at fielding questions, and towing the line, and staying on message. This, unfortunately, is not a calm job. It's a diplomatic post. It's a really, really important and tough one, a lot of people would say. The flip side of that is if you are a critic of the U.N. and you perhaps don't take the U.N. all that seriously, you might say this is the appropriate level of seriousness to show -- to show the U.N., you know, appointing a Fox News host to the job. So, there are sort of two sides to the coin there.

CABRERA: Quickly, David, if you will, I want to get your take, given that she has been a spokeswoman for the State Department, has to address a number of foreign policy issues. Does that give her some experience to take on this role?

GERGEN: Tiny amount. You have -- I don't question her journalistic credentials at all. I think her resume for this job is thin. But very importantly, this is a job that requires diplomatic finesse. There are times when you really want to get other nations on our side and you need somebody at the U.N. who is not only close to the president and the secretary of state, but has the capacity and has the finesse to form coalitions at the U.N. It would sometimes come to our aid, even conservative presidents who haven't liked the U.N., have occasionally found it useful to be able to work with it.

CABRERA: David Gergen, S.E. Cupp, good to have you both with us.

Thank you.

CUPP: Thank you.

GERGEN: Thank you.

CABRERA: And reminder to catch S.E. on her show. It's at the top of the hour, "S.E. Cupp Unfiltered" here on CNN at 6:00 p.m. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:53:15] CABRERA: And now to outer space where it was a successful day for NASA after a rocky start. The SpaceX dragon capsule successfully docked on the international space station earlier today. NASA was forced to call off the first attempt after a temporary loss of communication. In addition to delivering station equipment and research materials, the shipment also included a traditional Christmas dinner for the astronauts including smoked turkey and candied yams.

Meantime, China is headed for the moon again.

This early morning blast off sending an unmanned rocket on a 26-day journey to the far side of the moon, China is aiming to be the first country to explore that part of the moon surface and complete a series of science experiments there. This mission, the plan is to put a remotely controlled rover on the surface of the moon, do some deep space listening and look for evidence of water.

For many, this time of year is about giving back. But the Twelfth Annual CNN Heroes All-Star Tribute salutes 10 people who put others first all year long. The star-studded gala airs live tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. Eastern here on CNN. Take a look.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're humans helping humans, and they need our help.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are truly giving the gift of mobility.

ANNOUNCER: Do the best the world has to offer.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're building something that matters a lot more than we do.

ANNOUNCER: They are heroes today and every day.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is nice.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Girls Coding teaches girls how to program. It's all about solving problems.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We serve anybody who has ever raised their hand to defend our Constitution.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My vision was to have a home where women could find safety and find themselves.

[17:55:03] UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our first goal was just to create this hospital-based intervention.

ANNOUNCER: I want each and every one of them to feel special.

ANNOUNCER: Join Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa live as they name the 2018 CNN Hero of the Year.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST, "CNN HEROES": Here once again celebrating the best of humanity.

KELLY RIPA, CNN HOST, "CNN HEROES": Don't we need this tonight more than ever.

ANNOUNCER: "CNN Heroes" an all-star tribute tomorrow at 8:00 p.m. Eastern. (END VIDEOTAPE)

CABRERA: If you want to feel good, you've got to tune into this. Do not miss it tomorrow night. Gather your family, grab your tissues and just get ready to be inspired. That does it for me tonight. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York. My colleague S.E. Cupp continues our coverage right after a quick break. Thanks for being here.

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