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THE SITUATION ROOM

Trump Cutting Troops In Afghanistan, Iraq Before Biden Takes Office; Aide: Biden Has No Immediate Plans To Comment On Troop Drawdown; Biden Moves Ahead With National Security Planning Despite Being Blocked From Classified Briefings; Interview With Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL); Sen. Cruz Calls Dem Sen. Brown A "Complete Ass" And "Idiotic" For Asking Fellow Senator To Wear Mask; Pfizer: Vaccine Has Reached Its Safety Milestone, Company Is Preparing To File For Emergency Use; Witness Corroborates GA Secretary Of State's Claim That GOP Sen. Graham Asked About Throwing Out Ballots. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired November 17, 2020 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: The 79-year-old was also a great grandpa. His son says he'll miss calling his dad whenever he wants advice or listening ear.

Strawberry (ph) went to the hospital with flu like symptoms on October 18. He was put on oxygen within two days. He was taken off oxygen a week later. May his memory be a blessing.

Our coverage on CNN continues right now.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

We're following breaking news. President-elect Joe Biden moving ahead with the transition of power, receiving a national security briefing just a short time ago from outside advisors of experts, as the Trump administration continues to block him from getting classified briefings.

Also breaking, sweeping drawdowns of American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq announced by President Trump's newly appointed acting defense secretary. It's the latest in a series of controversial moves by the President as his weeks in the White House dwindle.

The drawdown will leave just 2,500 U.S. troops in each country by January 15th, five days before the start of the Biden administration.

We're also following breaking pandemic news right now, the number of Americans killed by COVID-19 has just surpassed 248,000, as cases climbed to more than 11.2 million, prompting many states to implement new restrictions. But in a hopeful sign, Pfizer just announced that its vaccine has reached its safety milestone and the company is preparing to file with the FDA for emergency use authorization.

First, let's get some more in the presidential transition right now. Our Senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny is reporting from Wilmington, Delaware.

Jeff, the President won't let his experts brief the incoming president. So the President-elect, what, he brought in his own experts.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WASHINGTON CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, that's exactly what he did. He brought in about 13 advisors, many of whom served in the Obama Biden administration. Some indeed were very recognizable names, like Admiral McRaven, who of course, read the -- who led the raid against Osama bin Laden and so many other top advisors.

They were briefing him in a virtual sense, not a classified sense. But even as he was focused on that, his coronavirus advisors were putting on the pressure on the Trump administration saying they need access to all those documents and data. They said time cannot be wasted.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

ZELENY (voice-over): A national security briefing tonight for President-elect Joe Biden.

JOE BIDEN, (D) PRESIDENT-ELECT: We inherit a divided country and world in disarray. I wish I had been wrong. But that's why I need all so badly in your advice.

ZELENY: But the update was not from the government, with President Trump still refusing to acknowledge the outcome of the election.

BIDEN: I've been unable to get the briefings that ordinarily would have come by now. And so I just want to get your input on what you see ahead.

ZELENY: Instead, Biden conducting a virtual session with more than a dozen outside advisors, most of whom are boldface names from the Obama administration. It's all part of this transition team trying to make one thing clear, Biden is on the job, even as another day passed with the president not seen in public.

BIDEN: We've been through a lot of damage done in the last four years in my view, and we need to rebuild our institutions that and our workforce to reflect the full strength and diversity of our country.

ZELENY: With the coronavirus pandemic growing more dire, Biden's advisors are also increasing pressure on the administration, demanding more cooperation for an orderly transition to help fight COVID and distribute vaccines.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's no time to waste. We don't have a day to waste.

ZELENY: Tonight, Biden also moving ahead to fill his inner circle of White House advisors.

REP. CEDRIC RICHMOND (D), LOUISIANA: This new row will allow me to offer advice to the President when he wants it maybe sometimes when he doesn't want it. ZELENY: Louisiana Congressman Cedric Richmond, a co-chairman of the Biden campaign will lead the Office of Public Engagement, a key link to Congress and outside groups. Biden also naming his campaign manager Jennifer O'Malley Dillon as a Deputy Chief of Staff, and two longtime advisors, Mike Donilon, and Steve Ricchetti to top posts in the West Wing.

The President-elect also fielding more calls from world leaders.

BIDEN: I spoken to, I think, 13, I'm not sure how many some men, but 13 heads of state.

ZELENY: Including Israeli Benjamin Netanyahu, a top Trump ally, who address Biden for the first time as President-elect.

It's the dawn of a new relationship for two men who have known each other for decades.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also reaching out to Biden, discussing shared priorities of fighting COVID-19 and climate change.

BIDEN: My big message is America is back and it's no longer America alone.

[17:05:04]

ZELENY: All this as vice President-elect Kamala Harris returned to the Senate floor. Welcomed by some of the same Republicans who refuse to acknowledge her victory, like Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

ZELENY: So you saw a fist bump there from Senator Lindsey Graham and Senator Kamala Harris, of course, is on her way to becoming Vice President, certainly at odds with all of his public statements when he's been, you know, really giving reinforcement to the President's claims that this election is not over. So many Republican senators were there welcoming her but certainly their posture is different.

But, Wolf, behind the scenes, you do get the sense of reality setting in for all of these Republicans as the Biden transition team is pushing for access to these COVID-19 plans. Again, his experts just had a conference call a few moments ago, and they said time is of the essence here. They need access to these vaccines and the data. Wolf.

BLITZER: They certainly do.

All right, Jeff Zeleny, standby, we get back to you. But I want to go to the White House right now. Our White House Correspondent Kaitlan Collins is on the scene for us. And she always is.

Kaitlan, a major and very consequential military move by the President just weeks before he leaves office. Update our viewers on the latest.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, you don't often see a president announcing something like this, a significant troop draw down in Iraq and Afghanistan just days before he's leaving office or only months before the president is leaving office. But that's what President Trump is doing.

Following through on this campaign promise that he made to voters four years ago, but just now with two months left in his term is making good on. And of course this comes as the President has largely spent his time behind closed doors as he's making these significant moves. He has not had hardly any public events since the day of the election, only appearing in front of cameras a few times. And Wolf, he has not taken questions from reporters in two weeks.

(BEGIN VIDEO TAPE)

COLLINS (voice-over): With two months left in office, President Trump ordered the Pentagon to withdraw thousands of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan before his term is up as he tries to make good on a campaign promise.

CHRISTOPHER MILLER, ACTING DEFENSE SECRETARY: This is consistent with our established plans and strategic objectives supported by the American people, and does not equate to a change in U.S. policy or objectives.

COLLINS: Acting Defense Secretary Chris Miller confirmed the move today and only his second week on the job. His predecessor, Mark Esper, who was fired last week had written a classified memo arguing conditions on the ground did not justify these reductions.

MILLER: By January 15, 2021, our forces, their size in Afghanistan will be 2,500 troops. Our four size in Iraq will also be 2,500 by that same date.

COLLINS: Miller said the troops will be withdrawn by the time President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated. But instead of offering in sight into the decision, he walked off and too no questions.

At the White House, National Security Advisor Robert O'Brien also touted the move without answering a single question.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a thinly vailed warning from Capitol Hill moments after the announcement.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), MAJORITY LEADER: I think it's extremely important here in the next couple months not to have any earth-shaking changes with regard to defense and foreign policy.

COLLINS: The top Republican on the House Arm Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, said it would undercut negotiations and "the Taliban has done nothing, met no condition that would justify this cut.

President Trump did not publicly comment on the announcement as he stayed behind close doors again today. Behind the scenes, Trump has continued to push baseless claims of election fraud while pushing his attorneys to keep making (INAUDIBLE) arguments in court. After the first two legal teams drop out, his third set of attorneys attempted to stop the certification of the vote in Pennsylvania today where the case is seen as a legal long shot. The Trump campaign has until tomorrow with 5 p.m. Central to ask for a recount in Wisconsin that will cost an estimated $7.9 million and must be paid upfront. The campaign hasn't said what they'll do.

ERIN PERRINE, TRUMP CAMPAIGN PRESS COMMUNICATIONS DIR.: We'll have a decision coming in the next, you know, few days here.

COLLINS: As Georgia's recount comes to a close, the top election official in the states says he's under growing pressure from his own party including South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.

BLITZER: I just want to be clear on this, Mr. Secretary, you say Senator Graham wanted you to find ways to get rid of legally cast ballots because CNN asked him about this allegations, he denied. He says that's ridiculous. His words, that's ridiculous.

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER, GEORGIA SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, it's just an implication that look hard and see how many ballots you can throw out.

COLLINS: Graham denied pressuring Georgia's Republican Secretary of State.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: I categorically reject that. That wasn't my intent and that wasn't the purpose of the conversation to throw out ballots. We're talking about an election we had yet, which is the Senate races. That was my focus.

(END VIDEO TAPE)

[17:10:15]

COLLINS: Now, Wolf, the President has been spending a lot of time here at the White House, he may be spending even more because a White House official is telling my colleague Kate Bennett, that apparently the President is strongly considering canceling his trip to Mara Lago, of course where he goes every single Thanksgiving since he's been in the White House and he was supposed to go next week on Wednesday, of course, after that Turkey party that happens here at the White House. But now we are told he may be remaining back in Washington for the Thanksgiving break.

And an official referred to it, Wolf, as this kind of bunker mentality that we've seen from the President since that fateful Tuesday.

BLITZER: Yes, clearly extraordinary developments. Kaitlan, thank you very much.

I want to bring in our Pentagon Correspondent Barbara Starr, bring back our Senior Washington Correspondent Jeff Zeleny, as well.

So Barbara, let's begin with these newly confirmed plans to withdraw thousands more U.S. troops from both Afghanistan and Iraq by January 15. We know the recently fired Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, opposed what he saw as the premature removal of these U.S. troops, warning it was very, very dangerous. Tell us what you're learning.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, look, Wolf, Esper wrote that letter knowing that the top commanders agreed with him. This was a consensus view in the Pentagon just until several days ago, too soon for this kind of withdrawal that they needed to see violence in Afghanistan in particular, reduced needed to see the Taliban stop their attacks. But now the president wanted this order carried out and there is civilian control of the military.

He is the commander in chief, it's a legal order. So, it will be carried out. How quickly it will be carried out remains to be seen.

The big question may be right now what if in Afghanistan, the Taliban, the remnants of ISIS that are there, Al Qaeda and the ISIS remnants inside Iraq, what if they, you know, they're watching all of this, what if they see this as an opportunity to increase their attacks, increase the violence, because they see the U.S. packing up and going.

Nobody wants to stay forever in a war. Troops should come home. I think everyone agrees with that. But commanders who are looking for a responsible withdrawal, nothing precipitous. And that may be the real question, what happens in the coming days if the violence does take a radical upward turn?

BLITZER: Yes. But they might wait, Al Qaeda, the Taliban until all those U.S. troops that are announced to be coming home have left already by January 15. And then they might intensify their campaign against the remaining troops and others as well, NATO coalition forces.

You know Kaitlan, bringing these troops home was one of President Trump's campaign promises. He used to talk about it all the time when a blunder it was to keep all those troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. But does the decision to complete this drawdown just five days before he leaves office on January 20, indicate with some are already describing as a scorched earth mentality during these final a couple months of his presidency.

COLLINS: That's the way it seems to be Wolf, because by doing this, the President is basically guaranteeing he is not going back to be the person to deal with the aftermath of this. And I can tell you, he's at a lot of conversations with national security officials during his time in office about wanting to do this.

And every time that they have come to this conclusion that Barbara was just talking about was the understanding at the Pentagon, that it wasn't time and the conditions on the ground had not been met yet. And of course, that meant that the President would have had to deal with it if he had done it two years ago, three years ago when he first took office. So now he's waiting until he's leaving.

And of course, this does seem to be fitting a pattern where the President wants to make these major moves, because he does realize even though he hasn't publicly admitted that his time in office is growing short.

BLITZER: Jeff, is the President-elect and his team responded to this news about the troop withdrawal?

ZELENY: Wolf, he has not responded to this at all. And I am told by advisors that he does not plan to have a public comment, at least at this point, to this announcement from the Pentagon. In fact, it was coming really at the same time that President-elect Biden was sitting here in Wilmington with his advisors in that virtual briefing. I'm told it did come up during the briefing, but he is not going to speak about it because he firmly believes there is one commander in chief at a time.

It's one thing to talk about disagreements and policy, when you are months or even a years away from that. It's a whole another matter when you are just a days away from this. So he believes that the safety of troops in other matters at this point at least would you not expect to hear a comment about what his -- what he believes the wisdom of this is.

But, Wolf, you can, you know, just ascertain by his previous views on the Iraq War, Afghanistan, et cetera, that he may not support this policy, but we are not hearing from him directly on this for that reason, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. Jeff Zeleny, thank you. Barbara Starr, Kaitlan Collins, thanks to both of you as well.

Up next, we'll have more on President Trump's move to pull thousands of U.S. forces from Iraq and Afghanistan just days before Joe Biden becomes president.

[17:15:00]

Plus, the breaking pandemic news, Pfizer just announced like a little while ago, a vaccine milestone saying it's not preparing to formally file for emergency use authorization.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories including President-elect Biden moving ahead with the transition despite absolutely no cooperation so far from the Trump administration. Today, Biden concentrated on national security and foreign affairs.

Right now, we're joined by Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. He's a member of the Democratic leadership, the Minority Whip. He's also a member of the Judiciary Committee.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

So it's been exactly two weeks since Election Day. How concerning is it that the President-elect still has to rely on outside experts, albeit talented outside experts to give them this kind of information rather than receive the classified daily briefings from senior federal officials. He's certainly entitled to receive that kind of information.

[17:20:14] SEN. DICK DURBIN (D-IL): It is absolutely inexcusable. And the people are paying the price for Americans in terms of our national security to make sure that there's an orderly, peaceful, smooth transition, in terms of our national health at a moment when we're facing the death of almost every hour of more and more Americans, the terrible increase in infections and deaths to COVID-19.

They think that this President, outgoing president, would not even share the information necessary for a smooth transition to deal with this public health crisis is the height of irresponsibility.

BLITZER: Yes. Not only on the public health crisis but our national security issues as well, which leads me to get your reaction to the President's decision now to drawdown U.S. troop levels in both Iraq and Afghanistan to 2,500 by the end of his term, by January 15, five days before the inauguration.

Do you believe that the drawdown is justified by the facts on the ground in those two countries?

DURBIN: I don't believe that this is an orderly drawdown. I think impulsive, rush, shoot from the hip decision because the President is so infamous for it.

And just -- let me put this on perspective for a minute. There is a family in Illinois who has a brother and son, Mark Ferric (ph) who is a prisoner of the Al Qaeda, they believe that his only chance of survival is this negotiation that the President is withdrawing from and walking from. I hope they won't. I hope we can save his life.

But that's what's at stake here, when the President does this impulsive things.

BLITZER: Some believe the President is taking what it's been describe, as I say, is the scorch earth approach to the Pentagon, other federal agencies as he purges senior leadership on the way -- on his way out to door (ph). Does it look like the President is trying to box in the incoming Biden administration before the inauguration?

DURBIN: Well, people have told you that, believe there are some design or strategy behind these tantrums, I'm not even sure of that. I think it's just the President acting out his very concern about the fact that he may have lost the election. Listen, it happens to all of us.

And the fact the matter is, this person needs a good intervention. I'm not sure who can bring it on. But somebody in his family or close friends or someone has got to sit down with him and say stop. Stop what you're doing for the good of this nation. Have a peaceful transition.

Yes, play it out in court if you wish, but don't do it at the expense of people in America who are fighting this pandemic for the security of this country.

BLITZER: I want to get your reaction, it's totally different issue right now. A really awkward development and, you know, unpleasant to put it mildly. You know, I want your thoughts on Senator Ted Cruz calling your Democratic colleagues, Senator Sherrod Brown and I'm quoting Cruz now, "A complete ass," for simply asking Senator Dan Sullivan to wear a mask while presiding over the Senate yesterday.

It's extraordinary that someone would make a reference like to a sitting United State Senator. What's your reaction for that kind of --

DURBIN: I'm afraid it reflects a depths we have drop to in terms of political discourse. It's like being bag, Wolf, you know, it's tough business, it's politics. But at least we try to maintain some decorum between members certainly when it comes to public statements.

I'm sorry about that. The situation is deterrent. It's in the point that Senator Cruz made the statement he gave.

BLITZER: Have you heard comments like that over your years in the Senate by sitting senators against another sitting senator, calling someone complete ass?

DURBIN: Well, there's been some harsh statements. I'm not going to mislead you. But that is above and beyond of anything I've heard before.

BLITZER: Senator Durbin, thanks so much for joining us. Stay safe out there.

DURBIN: Thank you.

BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following, a promising coronavirus vaccine reaches an important miles going in this one major step closer to being authorize for emergency use here in the United States. And it can happen soon enough as the positivity rate across the country is soaring to the highest level since spring. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:29:03]

BLITZER: We're following a breaking pandemic news. Tonight the U.S. coronavirus death toll has now topped 248,000 people, the new cases have exploded to more than 11.2 million.

CNN's Nick Watt is in Los Angeles with the latest.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM, (D) CALIFORNIA: This is simply the fastest increase California has seen since the beginning of this pandemic.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): So this morning 94 percent of Californians woke up under the Golden State's strictest COVID-19 restrictions and the curfew is under consideration.

DR. UMAIR SHAH, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, HARRIS COUNTY, TX PUBLIC HEALTH: 2020 it was like in a football game for the first half. The holidays and where we are right now is half time. We've got a whole half ahead of us.

WATT: Nationwide average daily case counts are no double the peak of the summer surge. Seventeen states now have record number of COVID patients in the hospital. Many are rural, don't have a lot of beds.

[17:30:01]

DR. DARA KASS, EMERGENCY PHYSICIAN, COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER: When they get at capacity, it's going to be a breaking point for them in a way it wasn't for us in the coastal cities and states.

WATT (voice-over): More than 1,000 people are now dying every day, also higher than that summer surge. Yes, two vaccines are close, but there will be plenty more dying before they get here.

DR. ANTHONY FAUCI, DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY & INFECTIOUS DISEASES: We don't want the extraordinary success of these two vaccines to get people to be complacent. I've often said help is on the way. But help is not here yet.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Good luck, folks. I'll see --

WATT (voice-over): And the President is engineering maybe the messiest transition in history in the midst of a pandemic.

FAUCI: Transitions are important. And if you don't have a smooth transition, you would not optimize whatever efforts you're doing.

WATT (voice-over): The Navajo Nation taking the initiative shutting down for three weeks.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The cases just have been increasing. There's no plateau, there's no flattening.

WATT (voice-over): Tomorrow, Oregon goes into what they're calling a two-week freeze.

DEBORAH KAFOURY, CHAIRWOMAN, MULTNOMAH COUNTY COMMISSION: People here, we felt lucky. We had lower numbers than almost any other state in the country. And I think people got relaxed.

WATT (voice-over): Over in Iowa yesterday, an all-time high death toll. Today, there is finally a partial mask mandate.

DR. AUSTIN BAETH, UNITYPOINT HEALTH: I think that health care workers from across Iowa gave a collective sigh of relief.

WATT (voice-over): But no mask mandate in South Dakota despite ridiculous rates of infection.

DR. CELINE GOUNDER, MEMBER, BIDEN-HARRIS TRANSITION COVID-19 ADVISORY BOARD: This is like politicizing the use of toilet paper, a very basic hygienic tool.

GOV. KRISTI NOEM (R), SOUTH DAKOTA: My people are happy. They're happy because they're free.

WATT (voice-over): Not John Bjorkman, called COVID, eventually airlifted to Minnesota.

JOHN BJORKMAN, DIED FROM COVID: When they flew me over here, I literally didn't know if I would see the next day.

WATT (voice-over): He did. But not many more. John died after 30 days in the hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't want people to not go through this what I did. I want people to care enough about their neighbors, their family, that they wear mask.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATT: And meantime, we're all just clinging to the good vaccine news. And there is a lot of it today. Pfizer says they now have all the safety data they need. They're getting ready to submit their vaccine for FDA authorization. The FDA might make a decision on that Pfizer vaccine and a Moderna vaccine as early as December 10th. And a new Gallup poll shows that the percentage of Americans who say they would take a vaccine is rising. Wolf?

BLITZER: Nick Watt, thank you very, very much.

Let's get some more in all of these, Dr. Atul Gawande is joining us right now. He's a member of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. He's a professor at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Gawande, thank you so much for joining us. Thanks for everything you're doing.

What's your reaction to what we just heard from Nick, that there could be Emergency Use Authorization, maybe very, very soon, by mid- December, in time, potentially, for the inauguration of the incoming President?

DR. ATUL GAWANDE, BIDEN-HARRIS TRANSITION COVID-19 ADVISORY BOARD: Yes, it's a terrific news that we have the signs of when we can see the end and -- we can see the end goals here. But it's not going to be until spring or summer that we're starting to see the general public get access to the vaccine.

So that means is we have to pull together as a country and get everybody through this tunnel alive with as many jobs and our finances intact as possible. And that means a comprehensive national plan. We haven't had that from the current administration. But President-elect has campaigned on that, and the advisory board on part of is now helping with the implementation of those plans to get into place.

BLITZER: So, when the President-elect takes office on January 20th, will you already have a national plan that you'll be ready to announce?

GAWANDE: Well, there is -- the national plan has some basic components. He's been really clear, a mask mandate, much more widespread testing with good turnaround times, access to therapeutics, because there have been a number of ones including like the antibody treatment that the President got that can help reduce the likelihood you need in the hospital. And then, of course, the vaccine distribution.

All of those need an implementation plan. That means, coordinating with the current agencies over where they are on those plans. What are the supply chains? What are the roadblocks that they've encountered? And what are the plans so that we can transition and stay on a full run to keep on sprinting and moving this forward? If we don't have that handover, then there -- that will only cost speed and that means costing lives?

BLITZER: What are the consequences of the outgoing administration now refusing to cooperate with the incoming administration when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic?

[17:35:06]

GAWANDE: Well, there are specific lines of information. How is distribution occurring to nursing homes, to hospitals, to the counties, to the state? Where -- what is the status of the plan given that only 10 to 20 million people will be able to be vaccinated in the first month or two? And so, what is the prioritization plan that we can then continue to develop and move forward? And then what are the supply chains? What are the threat assessments?

And this applies also not just to the vaccine, where we've masks, gloves, the hospital beds, where do we need to deploy that support? We know the career scientists and doctors want to be working with us. It really is getting that permission to begin doing so we can't afford to lose any of that time.

BLITZER: Yes, these are life and death issues as we all know. Dr. Atul Gawande, good luck to you. Good luck to the entire team. Thanks so much for joining us.

GAWANDE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Coming up, I'll speak with the Mayor of Atlanta about the election recount in Georgia right now. It's due to be finished tomorrow. Will it change anything? And later, a closer look at the key staffers President-elect Biden is choosing for top jobs at the White House. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:40:55]

BLITZER: We're following breaking news in Georgia right now. Officials there say the hand recount of ballots in the Presidential race is on track to finish tomorrow and will affirm, will affirm that Joe Biden won the state.

Joining us now, the Mayor of Atlanta Keisha Lance Bottoms. Mayor Bottoms, thank you so much for joining us. Do you expect there to be any substantial discrepancies between the recount and the original vote tally?

MAYOR KEISHA LANCE BOTTOMS (D), ATLANTA, GA: No, Wolf, we don't expect there to be any significant changes in the final vote tally. This, obviously, was a very close race to begin with. And with recounts, you may find both here and there. But the interesting thing about Georgia this year, we have Republicans to vote for Joe Biden, we have independence to vote for Joe Biden. So even in those counties that are normally heavily Republican counties, Joe Biden is still wanting to get his fair share of vote. So I expect that Georgia will remain blue for now.

BLITZER: What's your reaction, Mayor, to Senator Lindsey Graham calling Georgia's Republican Secretary of State and reportedly suggesting he find ways to throw out legally cast -- the legally cast mail-in ballots? You know, Lindsey Graham is totally denying this. But what's your reaction to what we all heard yesterday here in THE SITUATION ROOM from your Secretary of State?

BOTTOMS: You know, Wolf, it was disheartening to say the least. And my first thought was, where's the decency in all of this election? Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I've lost an election before, it hurts, but you move on. But this attempt to destroy our democracy at any cost, it saddens me.

And I know that Lindsey Graham was recently re-elected, but I do hope that the voters of South Carolina will remember this the next election, because attempt to interfere with the election in Georgia is despicable. And this is a Republican who is our Secretary of State who was endorsed by Donald Trump. But this is a man who is taking seriously the oath of his office and making sure that this election has been administered fairly. And to have someone of Lindsey Graham statute to attempt to interfere with that, it's dishonorable to say the least.

BLITZER: Are you surprised, Mayor, at the situation that your Secretary of State has not found himself in? Because when I spoke with him yesterday, he certainly seems to be surprised by what's happening with his Republican colleagues here. You know, he says he hoped Republicans would win, but his major responsibility was to make sure the election in Georgia was free and fair. And he says it has been.

BOTTOMS: You know, Wolf, we're -- we've been so used to partisan bickering, it has been quite refreshing to see our Secretary of State just say -- quite simply, he wants to administer a fair election. And I appreciate and applaud his courage in standing up against his own party to say that I will not allow you to interfere with this election in Georgia.

The reality is this, Donald Trump loss, he didn't expect to lose, but he suspected he was losing because he spent a lot of time in our state campaigning, as did Vice President Pence. So they knew that this was going to be a close race.

But his time is up. And the transition needs to happen for the sake of our country, for the sake of so many people who are still dealing with COVID-19, our health professionals, our soldiers, you name it. It's time for this transition to continue because our democracy is supposed to be bigger than one man. And right now, it's -- this is the Donald Trump show, and it's a horror show.

BLITZER: Yes, the awful thing is that the Secretary of State and his wife, they've had to deal. She has coronavirus, he's in quarantine.

[17:45:05]

Right now, you and your family, you've had to deal with this as well. And they're getting all sorts of threats. It's really ugly right now what has unfolded. We're wishing him and his family, of course, only the best.

Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, thanks so much for joining us. Good luck to you and your family as well.

BOTTOMS: Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, how Republican Senator Lindsey Graham went from sharp critic of Donald Trump to now pushing the President's conspiracy theories. Plus, the President now said to be considering canceling his Thanksgiving trip to Mar-a-Lago down in Palm Beach, Florida, as one official describes, quote, a bunker mentality inside the White House.

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[17:50:41]

BLITZER: There's more disturbing breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa who is 87 years old just announced via Twitter he has tested positive for coronavirus. His tweet reads and I'll read the whole thing. "I've tested positive for coronavirus.

I'll be following my doctor's orders/CDC guidelines and continue to quarantine. I'm feeling good and will keep up and my work for the people of Iowa from home. I appreciate everyone's well wishes and prayers and look forward to resuming my normal schedule soon".

Once again, he's 87 years old. He also serves as the Senate President Pro Tem third in line to the presidency. He was on the Senate floor yesterday. Hasn't missed a vote since 1993. But now, sadly, he's going to miss votes for the first time. We wish him, of course, only, only the best we wish him a speedy, speedy recovery. Once again, Chuck Grassley testing positive for coronavirus.

We'll have much more in this coming up in the next hour. Meanwhile, one of the President's most ardent supporters in the Senate hasn't always been that way. In fact, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham once condemned candidate Donald Trump with some very, very strong words.

CNN's Brian Todd is joining us right now. Brian, Lindsey Graham is now helping push the President of baseless claims that this entire election was fundamentally rigged.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. You know, officially, Senator Graham has no jurisdiction over election matters, but he's taken it upon himself to question the vote counts in states where Trump narrowly lost. And in doing that, he is fueling critics who say he's a little more than a lackey for the President.

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SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC), JUDICIARY CHAIRMAN: Can you see me?

TODD (voice-over): One of the Republicans biggest stars in the Senate, taking up President Trump's voting fight to baselessly question Joe Biden's victory.

GRAHAM: President Trump should not concede.

TODD (voice-over): Senator Lindsey Graham says he made calls to election officials in states like Georgia, Nevada and Arizona. But in doing so, he's accused of trying to put his thumb on the scales of Georgia's recount. Georgia's Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger alleging that Senator Graham last week implied that Raffensperger should throw out some legally cast mail-in ballots in Georgia.

BRAD RAFFENSPERGER, GEORGIA SECRETARY OF STATE: Well he asked if the ballots could be matched back to the voters. And then he -- I got the sense it implied that then you can throw those out for any -- really you look at the counties with the highest frequent error of signatures. Just an implication, look hard and see how many ballots you can throw out.

TODD (voice-over): Graham calls the accusation ridiculous and vehemently denies he was trying to do that, saying, he was focused on Georgia's upcoming Senate runoffs in January.

GRAHAM: What I'm very concerned about is if you're going to continue to vote by mail, that we need to know what systems work and what don't, it's up to the people of Georgia. But I think I have every right in the world to reach out and say how does it work? And that's what it is.

TODD (voice-over): There's been no evidence of widespread voter fraud in Georgia or anywhere else. And this fuels critics who call Lindsey Graham Trump's minion in the Senate.

TRUMP: Oh my Lindsey, my Lindsey. Thank you, Lindsey. Great guy.

TODD (voice-over): A far cry from Graham's days as a Republican maverick, an ardent supporter of the late Senator John McCain, a man who often bucked the party line and once stridently attacked Trump on the campaign trail,

GRAHAM: He's a race baiting, xenophobic religious bigot.

TODD (voice-over): Since then, Graham has said he doesn't think Trump is a racist by any stretch.

GRAHAM: It's not the color of your skin that matters, it's not the content of your character, is whether or not you show him respect and like him.

TODD (voice-over): In a few short years, Lindsey Graham's gone from Trump critic to Trump's golf partner from voting in favor of two of President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominees to unapologetically fighting for Trump's very controversial nomination of Brett Kavanaugh and attacking Kavanaugh's opponents.

GRAHAM: This is the most unethical sham since I've been in politics.

TODD (voice-over): Graham went from supporting Robert Mueller's investigation, which included looking into Trump's 2016 campaign to opposing Trump's impeachment and supporting baseless investigations into the Biden family. What's behind Graham's transformation? One observer says, it's part wanting to have an influence with Trump and part pure political calculation.

SEUNG MIN KIM, THE WASHINGTON POST: We see how much the Trump base has aligned behind the President himself, and any Republican who is not in lockstep behind Donald Trump really gets the wrath of not only the President, but the base of the party.

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[17:55:15]

TODD: We reached out to Lindsey Graham's office for comment on our story on him. They didn't respond, but Graham has often denied that he's a sycophant to Donald Trump. Wolf?

BLITZER: Brian Todd reporting, thank you.

Coming up, does President Trump's decision to withdraw thousands of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan just five days before he leaves office indicate a scorched-earth mentality? We're taking closer look at some very serious potential consequences when we come down.

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