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AG Nominee Barr Expected to Face Questions Over Mueller Probe Criticisms During Confirmation Hearings; How will Withdrawal of U.S. Troops from Syria Affect War on Terror? 8 in 2018: Top Media Stories. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired December 26, 2018 - 10:30   ET



ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is important Jim to people realize that the attorney general whoever oversees Mueller has a lot of authority over Mueller, that the special counsel regulations say that Mueller needs to get approval from the attorney general for subpoenas, for significant investigative steps including search warrants and for indictments. So, this is a person who ultimately will have say so over what Mueller does. This is why it is all the much more important that the Democrats are taking over because there have been real legitimate questions raised about the impartiality and motivation of first Matthew Whittaker and now to a lesser but significant extent to Bill Barr, as well.

You know he wrote that memo that he sent into D.O.J., unsolicited which is very unusual to have an outside attorney say here's my 20 pages worth of thoughts on why Mueller is off based. And when you take that memo and you combine it with what has been going on between the president and Whitaker, the president really pretty clearly communicating to Whitaker, hey, get the southern district off my back. There are real questions here about impartiality and what's happening at the top ranks of D.O.J and the Democratic Congress can be a really crucial check on that.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. And you might wonder if that was the waving of a flag saying look at me for this job. Final question before I let you go. In response to Barr's criticism, the deputy attorney general, he had some pretty strong words with this message including -- he said, obviously our decisions are informed by our knowledge of the actual facts in this case which Mr. Barr didn't have. Is he telegraphing their - not only his own commitment to the investigation as deputy attorney general but once Barr sees the facts he will know that this is no witch hunt?

HONIG: That is what I hope he means. And it does sound like he is suggesting that. I guess some more cynical read would be he sees this guy coming in as his boss, relatively short order and is trying to sort of apologize for this bizarre move that Barr made. But I do hope that what Rosenstein means there is he will see the facts, he'll be better informed and he will come off of this sort of uninformed view.

SCIUTTO: Elie Honig thanks very much. HONIG: Thanks, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Still to come. Russia and the Syrian regime are reinforcing troops in the northern part of Syria. This just days after President Trump's summary decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the country, surprising everyone including those troops. What will this mean for the war on terror?


[10:37:03] SCIUTTO: When he announced the pull out of all U.S. forces from Syria with no warning. President Trump claimed among other things that Russia was not happy about it. Well, Vladimir Putin promptly said the opposite and this morning the Kremlin is calling on Syria's government led by its staunch ally, the dictator, Bashar al-Assad, reclaimed the territory U.S. troops are giving up.

Joining me now with his thoughts is former CIA operative, Bob Baer. Bob thanks for taking time with us. Can you please just lay out the preposterousness of the president claiming that somehow Russia would oppose the withdrawal of U.S. forces in a country that Russia very much wants to control and have controlled by Bashar al-Assad?

BOB BAER, FORMER CIA OPERATIVE: Well, Jim, this is foreign policy malpractice. Clearly the Russians are delighted that we are giving them all of Syria. That we are giving up our Kurdish allies and not only to Russia, the Iranians are going to fill the vacuum. The other day somebody from his (INAUDIBLE) called me and said, are you guys serious, you're pulling out of Syria, you're leaving it to us? I mean this is insane. Frankly, Jim, this was the most successful counter insurgence we have conducted in living memory, basically. I mean, you know, getting rid of the Islamic State using Kurdish forces and our special forces. And to just give this up gratuitously is crazy.

SCIUTTO: A senior administration official in this administration said to me that the situation in that northern pocket of Syria around ISIS closing the news, tightening the news as it were, this official compared it to Tora Bora in Afghanistan in late 2001 when U.S. forces had bin Laden encircled in effect, pulled back. He got away. That is quite a loss to have ISIS on its back foot, in effect, last battle and then to walk away.

BAER: Well, exactly. It's like Bush saying mission accomplished. It's not. The Islamic State is coming back in Iraq. There is a political mess there. The Shia have taken over that country, excluded the Sunni. The Sunni are now turning to the Islamic State. And then Eastern Syria, they may not be an organization with a capital, but it has gone underground and is well armed. And if the Kurdish forces release prisoners there's just going to be thousands and thousands more out there. And it's making us more dangerous. I don't see anybody making another calculation other than that one.

SCIUTTO: The role of the Turks in this - of Turkey is remarkable because apparently it was on a phone call with the Turkish President Erdogan that President Trump basically said, OK, fine. You've got Syria, a number of outlets reporting that description of that call. I have been told that U.S. allies in the region extremely unhappy with this and that includes allies that President Trump has brought closer, Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE because they don't want that ground seeded to Turkey.

[10:40:05] What kind of miscalculation is that for the - for what the president has said is his priority there, building this coalition against Iran.

BAER: Well, Jim, I mean frankly, we are just evacuating the Middle East. This is the first time, you know, forever that we are just giving it up, seeding it. But again, I go back to Iran. If you look at the map, the Iranians can now send missiles through Iraq, through Syria to Lebanon on the Israeli border. So the Israelis are absolutely furious about this decision that they weren't consulted, that there is no plan. And this impetuous decision on a phone call with Erdogan is I just can't tell you how transgressive this is.

SCIUTTO: For folks listening at home, they may think this is a million miles away. But the fact is ISIS remains in that pocket in Syria. U.S. will be pulling back. Al Qaeda remains in Afghanistan and U.S. cutting its commitment there and counter terror had become a chief role of those U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Do these decisions make Americans less safe in your view?

BAER: Absolutely we are less safe. This is their training ground for the Islamic State, al Qaeda. They will come back. If there is one guarantee of anything that goes in the Middle East, these people are coming back and it will make us more dangerous, more dangerous for us inside our borders and Europe's as well, of course.

SCIUTTO: Bob Baer, a lot of experience in the Middle East. Thanks very much for joining us.

In 2018 several social media sites faced controversy, to say the least, for how they handled your private information. And an anonymous writer dominated the headlines. Up next, a look back at the biggest media stories of the year.


[10:47:03] SCIUTTO: This year saw the rise of the MeToo movement, a social media reckoning and the falls of two major television stars.

Here is CNN's Brian Stelter with a look at the top eight media stories of 2018.


BRIAN STELTER, CHIEF MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Shocking stories, deadly attacks, falls from grace and the undeniable truth that words matter. Here are the top eight media stories in 2018.

Number eight, the Trump book club making nonfiction great again. Starting in January, Michael Wolff's "Fire and Fury" sold millions of copies. ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST, "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT": The bombshell book is raising a question loud and clear, is Donald Trump fit to be president of the United States.

STELTER: Pro-Trump books by Fox's Jeanine Pirro and Gregg Jarrett were also best sellers. Omarosa's tell-all didn't do as well but Bob Woodward's "Fear" broke records.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's beyond stunning. In his latest, journalist, Bob Woodward presents a devastating look behind the scenes of the Trump White House.

STELTER: The top seller of the year even bigger than all of those was Michelle Obama's "Becoming." But it was an unknown writer behind the biggest media mystery of the year. Just who penned this op-ed in the "New York Times?" The paper gave anonymity to a senior Trump official. And he or she is still unknown.

Number seven, MeToo marches on. The water shed movement against sexual harassment and abuse tumbled more titans of media including at CBS.

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Breaking news, Les Moonves, the embattled head of CBS who has faced sexual misconduct, allegations in recent weeks, including allegations by six women, new allegations just published today is out.

BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN ANCHOR: We are learning, Jeff Fager, the veteran executive producer of CBS's "60 Minutes" is leaving amid allegations of inappropriate conduct.

STELTER: Both men have denied wrongdoing.

Number six, attacks against the guardians. Members of the media around the world like Jamal Khashoggi who was brutally murdered at the hands of a Saudi hit squad. Khashoggi was a contributing columnist of the "Washington Post" which is now demanding justice for his death.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We are going to continue shouting. We are going to continue pressing our U.S. officials to do more.

STELTER: Reporters and writers have always faced threats, but the dangers have magnified and multiplied which brings me to number five, the deadliest day for U.S. journalists since September 11.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: "Baltimore Sun" now reporting that there has been a shooting at a newspaper building in Annapolis, Maryland.

STELTER: Five people murdered in the newsroom of the "Capital Gazette."

[10:50:00] The accused gunman had a grudge against the paper. Even as it dealt with tragedy, the "Gazette" put out a new edition, just hours later.

Number four, two high profile falls from grace, Roseanne Barr and Megyn Kelly. Two networks took a chance and it backfired for both. At ABC the Roseanne reboot premiered to record ratings but then fell apart after Barr went on a racist Twitter rant. She apologized, but it was too late.

BALDWIN: Breaking news in the world of entertainment. The top-rated television comedy of the year is now cancelled.

STELTER: Hollywood was stunned, but supportive of ABC. And "The Conners" without Barr came back in the fall.

Over at NBC, disappointing ratings for Kelly's talk show led to cancellation shatter, then her offensive remarks about blackface Halloween costumes sealed her faith.

MEGYN KELLY, NBC HOST, "MEGYN KELLY TODAY": What is racist because you do get in trouble if you are a white person who puts on blackface for Halloween or a black person who puts on whiteface for Halloween? Like, when I was a kid that was OK as long as you were dressing up as like a character.

STELTER: Kelly apologized. But NBC cancelled her show. So, will she go back to Fox News now? Well, the network said it is happy with its current lineup.

And that leads us to number three, the Fox News White House, a never before seen level of coziness between a TV network and a president. Trump watches the channel, promotes its talk shows and hires on air personalities. Some White House aides have even dubbed the Sean Hannity the shadow chief of staff. So, maybe this was the logical next step.

BALDWIN: The White House today officially hired former Fox News executive Bill Shine.

STELTER: Yes. Bill Shine now running Trump's communications, while former communications aid, Hope Hicks, is now running Fox corporate PR. The line got even blurrier during the midterms.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: So, guess who was on the campaign trail with Trump just a few hours ago, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro of Fox News.

SEAN HANNITY, HOST, FOX NEWS: By the way, all those people in the back are fake news.

STELTER: Fox chastised him for that though Hannity said he was not expecting to be called on stage. But it's just the latest illustration of how little space there is between the White House and some right wing media.

Number two, a social media reckoning. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube under scrutiny as they struggle to crack down on misinformation, trolling, foreign meddling and hate speech all before Congress tech CEOs admitted that they were too slow to act and they promised changes.

MARK ZUCKERBERG, CEO, FACEBOOK: We didn't take a broad enough view of our responsibility and that was a big mistake. And it was my mistake and I'm sorry.

JACK DORSEY, CEO, TWITTER: Our singular objective as a company right now is to increase the health of public conversation.

STELTER: Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones have been kicked off the platforms. But is that the right solution? Should there be more oversight? Those are questions for 2019.

And the number one media story of 2018 is President Trump's war on the press, getting real. Antimedia words from the president are nothing new.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They are truly an enemy of the people, the fake news.

STELTER: But this year we saw actions and consequences. There were physical threats like a series of package bombs allegedly mailed by Trump supporter. The targets were some of the president's critics and CNN.

SCIUTTO: Did they have projectiles - I mean, that - excuse me - that sounds like a fire alarm here. We'll keep you posted on that.

They say that the device is inside the CNN building. It was a package that was mailed into the building.

STELTER: The suspect was arrested and so were at least two other men who phoned in threats to news rooms. But instead of lowering the temperature, Trump amped it up with events like this.

TRUMP: Sit down, please. Sit down. I didn't call you. I didn't call you. I didn't call you.

That's such a racist question.

That's enough. That's enough. That's enough. That's enough. That's enough.

STELTER: After that press conference the White House yanked Jim Acosta's press pass. CNN went to court with the support of dozens of news outlets. A judge sided with CNN and Acosta went back to work, but the challenges persist. Reporters are standing up for their values, supporting the free press with hundreds of papers coming together to say we are not the enemy. Will the White House ever get the message? Stay tuned.


SCIUTTO: Quite a year. The New Year could bring an ultra-rare meeting between the president and the chairman of the Federal Reserve who he chose.

[10:55:02] The details on that story, ahead.


[11:00:00] KATE BOLDUAN, CNN HOST, "AT THIS HOUR": Hello everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan.