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THE SITUATION ROOM

Whistleblower: TSA Screening Changes "Making Air Travel Less Safe"; Trump Fumes Popular Evangelical Christian Magazine that Called for his Removal from Office; Interview with Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT); Washington Post: White House Demanded Democrats Strip Ukraine Aid Language from Spending Package; Interview with Presidential Candidate Deval Patrick (D); U.S. Diplomat's Wife Charged in Crash that Killed British Teen. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired December 20, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:15]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, trial run. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone surveys the Senate floor despite of President Trump's eventual impeachment trial. And sources are telling CNN that Democratic leaders and key committee staffers are expected to work over the holiday recess to prepare for the proceedings against the president.

Religious awakening. President Trump fires back at a leading "Evangelical Magazine" calling for his removal from office. Labelling it far left and claiming that no president has done more for evangelicals and religion than him.

Piling on. Pete Buttigieg under fire in the final presidential debate of the year as Joe Biden leads the pack. But our new poll shows the highest ratings for the economy in almost two decades. Will that boost President Trump? I'll talk about it with Democratic presidential candidate, Deval Patrick.

And travel less safe. A TSA whistleblower warns that screening changes designed to save passengers time are placing speed over security just as millions of Americans are about to board flights over the holidays. It is a CNN exclusive.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight Democrats and the White House are actively preparing for President Trump's impeachment trial despite the standoff over sending the articles of impeachment from the House to the Senate. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone scouted out Senate locations where the trial would take place just a little while ago and that briefly with the Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Also, there's new concern about the safety of airline travel as millions of Americans are expected to be flying over the holidays. Tonight, CNN talks exclusively to a TSA whistleblower who is sounding the alarm about changes in the passenger screening process that he says are making air travel less safe. Congressman Jim Himes of the Intelligence Committee is standing by. He will join us live this hour and our correspondents and analysts are also standing by.

First, the whistleblower alarm over air travel safety. CNN's Rene Marsh is here. She's been working on this exclusive report. Rene, I understand the whistleblower says TSA changes are injecting danger into the passenger screening process.

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: That is right, Wolf. This TSA whistleblower is coming forward. He says because of the concerns he's raised over the last couple of years have not been addressed. To put it simply, he says the agency is putting speed over security. He says the TSA officers on the front lines are not to blame. These are screening changes that have come from TSA leadership.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH (voice-over): More than 40 million U.S. airline passengers are expected to go through airport security checkpoints this holiday. But this TSA security director says you may not be as safe as you think.

JAY BRAINARD, TSA FEDERAL SECURITY DIRECTOR: What they're doing is injecting danger into the system.

MARSH: Jay Brainard is the top TSA official in his state and has been with the agency for 17 years. He says TSA is cutting corners on the screening process to shorten wait times. One example, TSA reduced the sensitivity on all walk-through metal detectors at airports across America.

BRAINARD: They're reducing the concentration of metal that it would take to setoff that alarms, so that you can speed up lines and have (INAUDIBLE).

MARSH (on camera): How do you know that's why they did it?

BRAINARD: Because there is a memo out that supports it.

MARSH (voice-over): This TSA memo shows the order came in 2013, quote, changing all walk-through metal detectors settings in all lanes to the TSA pre-check setting to normalize the passenger experience. Brainard says the practice continues today and he worries bomb-making components could go undetected.

BRAINARD: You could have a 30-minute wait time and they treat it like it is a national emergency that is such an unhealthy obsession of placing speed over security.

MARSH: Brainard says that obsession also led the TSA to disable technology on x-ray machines that screen carry-on bags and pre-check lanes. This internal memo states as of last month, those X-ray machines should be operated without the auto detection algorithm enabled.

BRAINARD: Put simply, when the item comes through, a box will come around and surround the item that says hey stop and take a look at this, that box is no longer on the screen. TSA has made changes to the settings which really hamper the ability of the X-ray operator to detect explosives in carry-on baggage.

MARSH (on camera): But TSA will say this is pre-check.

BRAINARD: They've been putting millions of passengers in the TSA pre- check who are not pre-checked. So you do not have an entire population in pre-check that are vetted.

DAVID PEKOSKE, TSA ADMINISTRATOR: Good morning everybody.

MARSH (voice-over): CNN put this to TSA Administrator David Pekoske. He said the agency is not prioritizing wait times over security.

[17:05:00]

PEKOSKE: No, I won't discuss any of our particular security procedures because that is not really appropriate for me to do. But rest assured that we do provide the level of security that we think is appropriate based on the risk of the passenger.

Brainard says the issues he has raised are especially problematic for an agency with a 95 percent failure rate in detecting danger asylums at the checkpoint. That's according to a government audit in 2015. Another audit two years later found there were still vulnerabilities.

BRAINARD: When you sit back and you watch these things happen, it is the most frustrating thing you could imagine.

MARSH: Going public is his last resort. He's filed an official whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel. He sent complaints to DHS, TSA and sent letters to Congress. Not just about the metal detectors but also the X-ray machines, a policy change allowing some passengers with medical devices to do a self-path down and a new policy called blended lanes where pre-check and standard passengers are mixed in one line, something that could confuse screeners.

BRAINARD: They now have to mentally switch themselves on and off about what is permitted, what's not permitted with every other passenger. You know, the last time I checked our detection rates were not stellar and it doesn't make any sense to introduce this kind of variable.

MARSH: Last year, the Special Counsel ordered DHS to investigate Brainard's complaints writing, "There is a substantial likelihood that the information provided to OSC discloses gross mismanagement and specific danger to public safety."

BRAINARD: My biggest fear is having something happen that costs American lives and I didn't step up and put a stop to it, or at least try because it is going to happen. It is not a question of if. It is a question of when. We are long overdue for another attack.

MARSH: TSA did take action on one of Brainard's complaint. He says, they continued to use an ineffective test to determine if new hires were color blind, a disqualifying medical condition even after concerns about the test's effectiveness were raised.

BRAINARD: If you had something in the bag and somebody were color bind, they wouldn't see the bomb if it were the only thing in the bag.

MARSH: TSA is now using a new test for new hires. But according to this TSA memo, the agency will not finish retesting the existing work force until the end of next year.

Brainard knows, despite whistleblower protections, and consistent top ratings on his TSA performance evaluations, speaking out could cost him his job.

BRAINARD: I fully expect that the first discussion that they're going to have is how they could fire me.

MARSH: But he believes these issues are too urgent to keep quiet.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MARSH: And to be clear, the changes have not been made to the body scanners that passengers go through. CNN reached out to both agencies investigated Brainard's complaints but no comment from either Brainard has a whistleblower attorney and in response to the complaints he raised in our story, the head of TSA told me that whistleblowers, and I'm quoting, "provide a very valuable service and it is our responsibility to fully investigate those concerns to see if they represent a valid security risk or not."

The TSA, though, Wolf, saying that they haven't finished that assessment just yet.

BLITZER: Excellent reporting. Rene, I want you to stand by. I want to bring in -- dig deeper into this and bring in former national transportation safety board managing director and CNN aviation analyst, Peter Goelz and CNN aviation analyst Miles O'Brien.

And Peter, how much of these changes increase potentially the danger for millions of air travelers?

PETER GOELZ, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well they are prescribing a faster go-through. And it is causing trouble. This is going to put people at risk. And all you have to do is look at the test results. They were a little better after two years but not much. And you know, just today, TSA announced that they were refreshing their technology, except the refreshment. It's not going to take place for three years and it's only going to affect 300 machines. We're dealing with old machines and a very unsafe situation.

BLITZER: Very scary. Miles, what is your assessment of the potential risk?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN AVIATION ANALYST: Well, I think Peter has hit the nail on the head as he always does in this case. New technology is really important here. Those machines that they turned off that artificial intelligence, that pattern recognition by the computer amount to a bunch of false positives. In other words, the machine is not very good at doing its job.

The same could be said for these magnetometers that they had to dial down. We're talking about a bunch of false positives which doesn't mean that there was a security threat there necessarily, just means that it clogged up the works. New technology, better artificial intelligence that learns as it goes, for example, will help on this front. But we do have to remember that ultimately it is how the system tests out and the system is never going to be perfect.

[17:10:00]

They are always dialing between efficiency and security and if you are dialing back because you have a bunch of false positives, we need to know a little more about this picture to make a full conclusion about what this means to security.

BLITZER: You know Rene, how much pressure is TSA facing to keep the wait times down for travelers? They want to go through these lines quickly.

MARSH: Yes, I mean, that is the balance. The tough balance for this agency because you know, when you do see these long wait Rene, how much pressure is TSA facing to keep the wait times down for travelers? They want to go through the lines quickly.

Yes, that is the balance. The tough balance for this agency, because you know when you do see these long wait times, travelers most times are not happy. But you have to remember as this whistleblower points out the purpose of TSA, why it was set up, to make sure that dangerous items don't get past the security checkpoint and make it on a commercial airliner and bring it down.

So it is this delicate balance. There is certainly the pressure there. This whistleblower points out that in a short period of time over a course of a couple of months he received some 2,000 -- more than 2,000 alerts from TSA headquarters basically flagging the fact that wait times were too long. He says that is an intimidation factor to essentially say, everyone, we need to shorten the times. So from his perspective, they're making that the priority, certainly the pressure there. But the key is not compromising the security.

BLITZER: So Peter, now that Rene has reported all of this information, what do they need to do to reassure the flying public.

GOELZ: Well, as Miles said, they got to get some new technology out. TSA has promised new technology for years. And it simply hasn't come online in a fast enough manner. So we need new technology that uses AI, that uses 3D scanning and we need to train our workers better and give them the working conditions so they can make the right choices as they're at their position.

BLITZER: Miles, what do you recommend?

O'BRIEN: Well, one thing that we should be considering is further use of biometrics. I think many people have been seeing this independent company clear at many airport checkpoints. I happen to use that myself. And that greatly speeds the whole process of getting people through, identifying people and potentially identifying threats. The other thing I think we need to address, Wolf, is that you know anybody who has flown El Al Airlines, the key to security there -- the Israeli flagship is interviewing people and essentially profiling for potential terrorism. Now profiling is a word that is very controversial. But it is an effective way of rooting out potential terror and that may be something that technology can't give us just yet.

BLITZER: Do you want to add something?

MARSH: I just want to say you know, that Peter brought up the point of new technology. We know that TSA said that they will be rolling out this more enhanced screening machinery, 30 a month, so that eventually over a course of a couple of years they will be in all airports but of course that whistleblower will say what is happening right now. That is his concern.

BLITZER: People are going to be nervous. Excellent reporting, Rene. Thank you very much guys. Thanks to you as well.

Up next, despite the uncertainty swirling around his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, President Trump has accepted Nancy Pelosi's invitation to deliver the State of the Union Address before joint session of Congress. We have details. We'll be right back.

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[17:18:00]

BLITZER: Tonight, House Democrats are strategizing behind the scenes despite Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to put the brakes on President Trump's impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, top White House officials are drawing up their own game plan with the help of the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Our chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta is on the story for us tonight. Jim, give us the latest.

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Wolf, just days before Christmas, President Trump doesn't sound like he's in the holiday spirit. The president is furious over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's move to hold back the articles of impeachment until she receives assurances about a trial in the Senate and the White House is planning for a trial either way. Earlier today, the White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and other top aides were taking a peek at the Senate floor where trial would occur as well as meeting with GOP leaders.

As for Mr. Trump, he appears to be in one hellacious mood tonight over a Christian publication calling for his removal from office. He's insisting no president has done more for religion than himself.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) ACOSTA (voice-over): Demanding to be declared innocent in the Ukraine scandal, President Trump is slamming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to hang on to the articles of impeachment on negotiations continue over the upcoming trial in the Senate. The president tweeted, "Actually, they have zero proof of anything, they will never even show up. They want out. I want an immediate trial."

Mr. Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani told young conservatives at a Turning Point USA summit, Democrats are out for blood.

RUDY GIULIANI, DONALD TRUMP'S PERSONAL ATTORNEY: They want to put Barr in prison and they want to execute me. Good luck. I just get angrier and I go after you more.

ACOSTA: The president's daughter, Ivanka, concedes her father is upset.

IVANKA TRUMP, DONALD TRUMP'S DAUGHTER: Angry at the waste of time. Angry at the collateral damage. Angry -- but is still energizing and focuses you on really draws into relief the stark contrast in priorities.

REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): The House will be in order.

ACOSTA: But Pelosi appears to be getting in some digs of her own inviting the president to deliver the State of the Union around the time of Mr. Trump's trial.

[17:20:00]

Writing in a letter "In the spirit of respecting our Constitution, I invite you to deliver your State of the Union Address before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, February 4th, 2020."

But an expert witness for the Democrats during the inquiries warning Pelosi should get on with it. Writing in an op-ed, "If the House does not communicate its impeachment to the Senate, it hasn't actually impeached the president."

Democrats aren't buying that.

REP. NORMA TORRES (D-CA): Absolutely. You know after the vote that we took on the floor and you know the majority of Congress voted to impeach the president. He has absolutely been impeached.

ACOSTA: As Christmas is approaching, the president is all but saying "bah humbug" to the religious publication "Christianity Today" which is calling for Mr. Trump's removal over his actions in Ukraine. The president blasted the website as a far left magazine but that is not true according to its editor.

MARK GALLI, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF, "CHRISTIANITY TODAY": It is factually inaccurate that we're far left. We're pretty centrist. We rarely comment on politics unless we feel it rises to the level of some national or concern that is really important and this would be a case.

ACOSTA: Mr. Trump tweeted, "The fact is, no president has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself."

But while the president is popular among Christian conservatives he rarely attends church and has at times puzzled his own faithful, whether by signing Bibles or misquoting passages from the scripture.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Two Corinthians, 3:17 that is the whole ball game.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now the president is tweeting about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. We can put this up on screen insisting she should be impeached for demanding a fair trial in the Senate. And even with all of that friction tonight, the president has accepted Pelosi's invitation to deliver the State of the Union in early February but that could be messy if the president's impeachment trial is still underway.

At the moment, House Democrats are planning for a trial in early January, despite this current delay and next the president is off to Mar-a-Lago. He does that later on this evening for his winter vacation where he'll be celebrating the holidays and making one resolution for the New Year, exoneration. Wolf?

BLTIZER: Jim Acosta at the White House. Thank you.

Let's get some more on all of this. Democratic Representative Jim Himes of Connecticut is joining us. He's a key member of the Intelligence Committee. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. As you saw, the president says Nancy Pelosi is looking for a quid pro quo, his words, with the Senate. What is your reaction?

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): Well, it is just nonsense, Wolf. The president is raging because for the very first time in his life he has been held accountable for his actions. Actions that were plain for everyone to see. That he held up military aid. That he held up a White House meeting. That he just wanted a favor and that favor of course was an announced investigation into his political opponent.

And so, for the first time in his life this president is being held accountable. He, of course, is being completely defended by those complicit in his presidency, my Republican colleagues and his family who are trying to flip this back around to be a problem with the Democrats.

Remember, this impeachment was not about the Democrats. It was about the president's behavior and it also didn't waste any time at all. I'm a little exhausted at the end of this week because while the impeachment occurred we also passed a massive trade agreement. We passed a budget to prevent the government from being shut down. We passed a bill that reduced pharmaceutical and drug prices for the American people. So what you're seeing, Wolf, here is the president who for the very first time in his life is being held accountable and, boy, he does not like that.

BLITZER: As you know, Professor Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School constitutional scholar who was a key witness by the way for the Democrats says President Trump isn't actually impeached until this moves over to the Senate. The articles of impeachment are actually sent over from the House to the Senate. How do you respond to his analysis?

HIMES: Well, I'm not a constitutional scholar. I'm not even a lawyer. But I will tell you I could read the Constitution and the Constitution says the House has the sole power to impeach. Two articles passed on this week and it is not clear to me that there is anything out there that says it has to be conveyed to the Senate.

And you know look, it is very clear what Nancy Pelosi is doing here. It is equally clear that the president doesn't understand that it is congressional authority to decide how this will proceed. You know, you had Mitch McConnell who is running the Senate say, and I quote him on this, I'm not at all impartial.

Now remember Mitch McConnell is a juror in this trial. In any other court, in any part of the land, a juror who said I'm not impartial would be shown the door very, very quickly. So all the speaker is trying to do here is to make sure that this is, in fact, a trial that is consistent with the fairness and the impartiality that is required given its seriousness and if nothing else, Wolf, remember that every single senator prior to an impeachment trial raises their right hand and swears an oath to be impartial.

[17:25:00]

So I think Nancy Pelosi who has driven this process as you know very, very rapidly is just saying, wait a second. There are indications here that nobody is taking that oath seriously and that they're not going to provide the American people with the kind of fair trial that gets at the truth.

BLITZER: House staffers are working over this holiday recess to get ready for a potential trial. So do you think we could expect Speaker Pelosi to send these two articles of impeachment to the Senate, let's say when you guys come back on January 7th?

HIMES: Well, it is certainly not happening before that because and again this is my first -- my first attendance at this particular rodeo. But my understanding is there needs to be a vote to convey managers to the Senate. That vote obviously can't happen as long as we're out of session for the holidays.

So again if I were betting here, I would say that this eventually does get sent to the Senate. Look, think back on the way Nancy Pelosi has managed this process since September. This thing has moved at absolutely break-neck speed from depositions to open hearings, to Judiciary hearings, to articles to a vote. She has moved this along at absolutely break-neck speed.

And so, I don't think that she's suddenly changed her strategy or philosophy here. I think she wants to get it to the Senate. She just heard Mitch McConnell say that this is not going to be a fair trial. She heard Mitch McConnell say that they may not call witnesses which raises certain - you know raises an obvious question, you know if the president is innocent, why wouldn't we want more facts rather than fewer facts. More witnesses rather than fewer witnesses. So I think she's trying to work that out and in all likelihood it gets worked out in the second or third week of January.

BLITZER: We'll find out soon enough. Congressman Jim Himes thanks so much for joining us.

HIMES: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right. Coming up, President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, ramps up his rhetoric and now claims Democrats want to execute him.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:31:39]

BLITZER: We're just getting a very important story from "The Washington Post" that the Trump administration, according to this headline, demanded that Democrats strip Ukraine aid language from the spending bill that has been approved that the President will sign into law.

Let me read the lead: senior Trump administration officials, in recent days, threatened a presidential veto that could have led to a shutdown if House Democrats refuse to drop language requiring the prompt release of future military aid for Ukraine, according to five administration and congressional officials.

Chris Cillizza, we're talking about $250 million in aid that has already been projected in the coming year, military assistance for Ukraine.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS EDITOR-AT-LARGE: Yes, and, man, what an end of the year it would have been. We would have had impeachment, possible government shutdown -- or certain government shutdown, I guess, if they had let -- let this in Democratic debate.

At issue here, Wolf, is if the White House had allowed this to go through, which essentially says you must release the money to Ukraine as soon that -- it is signed, you don't have the power to say we'll give you some now and some later, it would admit or, at least, look to admit that what was done in the past -- and we know what was done in the past, right, Ukraine held -- Ukraine aid was held up.

You can debate -- I guess you can debate why that happened, whether Donald Trump wanted these investigations in Ukraine announced or not. Donald Trump says he has the absolute right to do that. Mick Mulvaney has said, I can do -- you know, we do it all the time, it happens all the time, get used to it.

That if you say in this spending bill, yes, we will immediately get rid of -- we will immediately dispense this money, the White House will have no sort of say over when, you are acknowledging, at some level, that the way in which the aid was parceled out -- and it had already been appropriated by Congress.

The way in which it was parceled out in the past -- I don't want to say was wrong but was not done by the proper procedures. And that makes sense why the White House was unwilling to negotiate on that and why Nancy Pelosi, according to this report in "The Washington Post," eventually backed off.

BLITZER: Yes, she backed off, the government is not going to be shut down.

Samantha Vinograd, the White House congressional liaison told "The Washington Post," quote, we made crystal clear that no restriction on the President's apportionment powers would be acceptable to him regardless of topic. And through a lot of negotiation and work back and forth, the administration and Congress were able to reach an appropriate outcome on this issue.

What's your reaction to that analysis, that reaction from the White House?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, the reaction shows that on this issue, at least, they were able to find a compromise, but let's remember why this is necessary.

The White House and parts of the executive branch previously had to certify that Ukraine reached certain benchmarks for this aid to be released and then were obligated to release these funds in line with various procurement protocols and contractual obligations.

That is how the process is supposed to work, and that is the process that the executive branch should be fulfilling going into the next year.

The issue, of course, is that the administration, instead, chose to hold this assistance to -- because of the President's personal agenda. So the question is, now, whether they're -- the administration and Congress have worked out some kind of transparent process for the executive branch and the legislative branch to see this flow of funds.

[17:35:01]

To be honest, Wolf, as a former executive branch employee, I don't know that I would support putting arbitrary deadlines like 45 days to release funds for Ukraine on the release of funds. I would want to see Ukraine certify that they reached anti-corruption benchmarks, and I'd want the procurement process and the disbursements to move along a schedule.

So at least on this, it does look like there was a compromise. But I don't have -- I don't think we have any greater understanding or feeling that the White House is going to be more transparent about how they view security assistance going forward.

BLITZER: You can only imagine, April, the chaos that would have been here the -- with the week of the presidential impeachment in the House of Representatives, that, all of a sudden -- APRIL RYAN, WASHINGTON D.C. BUREAU CHIEF, AMERICAN URBAN RADIO NETWORKS: Yes.

BLITZER: -- going into Christmas and New Year, there's a government shutdown, but that was averted.

RYAN: Right, and we've seen a government shutdown before. When this President does not get his way, he has shut the government down. It's ego versus checks and balances and what the framers put in place and what the hope was for this nation.

And bottom line, this President believes that he did nothing wrong. So with that, he's going to stand by saying, you know, hey, I don't like what you're doing; but on the Hill, they're saying, look, we need to fix this. This is checks and balances, trying to correct what happened, but then the President's going to throw in, I'll shut the government down. That doesn't bode well.

And we saw this not long ago. The GDP didn't move. You had people not getting paychecks. You had government workers not getting paychecks. You had restaurants and other buildings and organizations and agencies and businesses that support or are around government agencies not getting paid.

This would not bode well for this President, and his numbers definitely -- his poll numbers would definitely drop if, indeed, this happened.

BLITZER: And, Jim Baker, you worked with the federal government for many years. Nobody wants a government shutdown, although you've lived through it on a few occasions.

JIM BAKER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. It's terrible in the government. It's very -- it's chaotic and so on.

But looking at this, I guess I'm very confused about what Congress is trying to achieve and what their goals are. Because I would think that their goal should be to constrain the President in his exercise of his duties. And, you know, everybody knows he's not going to be removed from office if and when this goes to a trial. It will go eventually.

But the power that Congress has over the purse, how it's -- how money is spent, is one of its core powers to constrain the President. So I -- he, I think, was more effective in this situation in demanding that Congress back down. And I think it was a miss for a body that is trying to constrain the President.

BLITZER: Everybody, stand by. There is more news coming into the SITUATION ROOM right now. Pete Buttigieg faces fire from his fellow Democrats for holding a high-dollar fundraiser in a Napa Valley wine cave. We're going to have more from last night's fiery debate, and the reaction that's coming in.

[17:37:55]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Divisions in the Democratic Party were on full display during the fiery final presidential debate of 2019. We're joined now by former Massachusetts governor and Democratic presidential candidate Deval Patrick.

Governor, thanks so much for joining us. Let's talk about some of the issues.

DEVAL PATRICK (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Thanks for having me.

BLITZER: You released your policy agenda yesterday, but how do you break through without being up on the debate stage, for example?

PATRICK: Well, you know, we'll get to that debate stage in the fullness of time, but there are other forums, there are other ways, public and more private ones.

I think the important thing is for my team and our supporters not to focus on the debate stage but to focus on the vote in the coming primaries and caucuses. And that means connecting personally with people and asking them to teach us whether the policy agenda is the right one for them that actually reaches them and to -- and effectively, to make the campaign theirs rather than ours.

BLITZER: What does it say about the Democratic Party right now that -- right now that Andrew Yang was the only person of color on that debate stage last night?

PATRICK: Well, it doesn't reflect well, Wolf. I understand the rules for qualifying. I think you know, as we've discussed over the years, I'm a little skeptical of polls anyway, certainly at this stage in the contest.

But I think the question for me is are the -- are the issues of concern to communities of color being asked of all of the candidates and not just the candidates of color? Because whomever gets the opportunity to serve as president has to pay attention to everyone everywhere and not just the folks who support us, not just the folks who poll for us.

Part of unifying the country, I think, is understanding that after you win, your job is to represent and to care about everybody.

BLITZER: Yes, that's an important point indeed. According to our new CNN poll, Governor, 76 percent of the American people now say the economy is somewhat or very good. But last night, Vice -- former Vice President Joe Biden made the case that voters aren't really happy with the economy right now. But in light of our polling, is that a losing argument?

PATRICK: Well, listen, I think, you know, the economic indicators are cheery. I think if your economic indicator is the stock market, you feel pretty good. And inflation is low as long as you don't count the cost of education, housing, health care, the very things that enable you to lift yourself and your family. You know, unemployment is low so long as you do count both or all three of the minimum wage jobs you have to survive.

[17:45:03]

We have to look past statistics and see what people's lived experience is and do what we can as servant leaders to try to enable people to get back on to a path of economic mobility. The American dream I have lived is more and more out of reach for more and more people, and everybody knows that. And there are no set of statistics, as cheery as they may seem, to mask that over.

BLITZER: If you're not the eventual Democratic presidential nominee and someone else is, but that someone else asks you to be his or her vice-presidential running mate, would you accept?

PATRICK: Listen, I'm running for the top job. And I'm running for the top job because I want the agenda to be ambitious. I want to be able to set that agenda.

And I want to be able to show that achieving that agenda means bringing in everybody, not doing government to people but with people, in and out of government, of various points of view. Because that's how we get better decisions and that's how we get change that lasts.

BLITZER: Governor Deval Patrick, good luck out there on the campaign trail.

PATRICK: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: We'll certainly want you back here in the SITUATION ROOM. Appreciate it very much.

PATRICK: I'll look forward to that, thank you.

BLITZER: Thank you.

PATRICK: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, coming up, the wife of a U.S. diplomat charged in an accident that killed a British teenager. Tonight, she's facing extradition.

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[17:51:18]

BLITZER: Tonight, British authorities are trying to extradite the wife of an American diplomat, who's now been charged in connection with a deadly crash.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us right now. Brian, the diplomat's wife claimed, what, diplomatic immunity and left Britain shortly after the crash?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: She did both those things, Wolf, and it has caused a huge diplomatic battle. The family of that teenager and other critics are asking serious questions tonight about whether this woman is being protected because of her husband's job.

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TODD (voice-over): Tonight, the wife of a man being described as an American diplomat is being charged with causing death by dangerous driving after a head-on collision which killed British teenager Harry Dunn.

Dunn was riding his motorcycle in August just outside a military base in England controlled by the U.S. Air Force. Authorities say Anne Sacoolas was driving on the wrong side of the road. Dunn's parents are relieved with the new charges.

TIM DUNN, FATHER OF HARRY DUNN: We set out for this to happen, for a charge to be brought from the start. And today, we've got what we set out to get.

CHARLOTTE CHARLES, MOTHER OF HARRY DUNN: We feel that we have taken a huge step in the start of achieving the promise to Harry that we made.

TODD (voice-over): But the parents realize part of the promise to Harry may not be kept. Shortly after the accident, Anne Sacoolas cooperated with British authorities, but then she lawyered up, claimed diplomatic immunity. And three weeks after the accident, she bolted, fleeing Britain for the U.S.

British prosecutors say they'll try to get her extradited. But tonight, the State Department says it's disappointed by the decision to charge Anne Sacoolas, that it will not bring a resolution closer.

Sacoolas' lawyer says she extends condolences to the Dunn family, but she won't voluntarily return to Britain. The lawyer says this was an accident, and a criminal prosecution with a potential penalty of 14 years imprisonment is simply not a proportionate response.

The Dunn family spokesman is outraged.

RADD SEIGER, SPOKESMAN FOR THE FAMILY OF HARRY DUNN: The accused, who is not guilty of anything until convicted, doesn't get to say, I'm not going to cooperate with the legal process because the penalty is too harsh.

TODD (voice-over): Key questions tonight, whether Anne Sacoolas is being protected by the U.S. government and could that be because of her husband's job? Despite the claim that Sacoolas' husband Jonathan is a diplomat, CNN has found no indication that he worked at the U.S. embassy in Britain.

The Air Force base near where the accident occurred, Croughton, run by the U.S. Air Force is not an intelligence base, experts say, but --

CEDRIC LEIGHTON, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: What it does handle is the communications from intelligence agencies to other parts of the world. It is a main switching center for communications from the continental United States, to Europe, and the Middle East.

TODD (voice-over): The Dunn family spokesman says he's been told by sources in Washington what Jonathan Sacoolas does.

SEIGER: We have been told he is a technical intelligence officer. I'm not exactly clear what that is, but they're -- you know, that can be the only connection.

TODD (voice-over): Aside from statements from their lawyer, CNN has not been able to get comment from Anne or Jonathan Sacoolas. The CIA and the National Intelligence Director's Office would not comment when we asked if Jonathan Sacoolas works for U.S. intelligence. The NSA told the "Washington Examiner" he doesn't work for that agency.

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TODD: And the diplomatic tension in this case was made much worse by a meeting in October that President Trump had with Harry Dunn's family at the White House. When the President walked in the room, he surprised the family by saying he had Anne Sacoolas in the next room, according to sources who spoke to CNN.

Trump offered to have the family meet Sacoolas. The family and their representative turned the President down cold, saying it wasn't appropriate, that they would meet on their terms and only if she went back to Great Britain. And, Wolf, they were told that would never happen.

[17:55:01]

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting for us. Brian, we'll stay on top of this story. Thank you.

Coming up, Democrats in the White House are actively, right now, preparing for President Trump's impeachment trial. We have new details. We'll be right back.

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