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Trump Doubles down against China; Gore Meets with Trump; Trump's Taiwan Call; Oakland Warehouse Fire Deaths Likely to Climb; Son of Trump Adviser Spreads Fake News Story. Aired 2-2:30p ET

Aired December 05, 2016 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Eastern in "The Situation Room."

The news continues right now, right here on CNN.

ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: Hello on this Monday. I'm Ana Cabrera, in for Brooke Baldwin.

Lots of new developments coming from President-elect Trump today. He just nominated the first African-American to his cabinet and he's gone on a Twitter tirade against China. This after Chinese officials lodged a complaint with the U.S. over Trump's phone call with the president of Taiwan.

Now, Trump tweeted this, "did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency, making it harder for our companies to compete, heavily tax our products going into their country? The U.S. doesn't tax them. Or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don't think so." We should point out, however, the U.S. does impose a small tax on Chinese goods.

I want to bring in CNN's Jessica Schneider, joining us from Trump Tower, tracking all the latest developments.

Jessica, first, the White House just commented on Trump's slam of China. Tell us what Obama administration officials are saying.

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirming that the White House has, in fact, been in touch with its Chinese counterparts reaffirming U.S.'s one China policy. That is affirming Beijing's claim to Taiwan. Now, Josh Earnest continued on saying that this policy is meant to promote stability and peace and then he essentially punted it back to the Trump team, telling them that they should explain if they feel any different, if their policies could potentially be any different.

Of course, the White House believing that it has made significant progress in the U.S./China relationship and believing that these recent tweets and comments and even the phone call by Donald Trump could present a problem, could destabilize that relationship. Of course, Donald Trump, over the weekend, taking things a step farther, criticizing China over Twitter in multiple tweets, saying that China had devalued its currency, also criticizing China's military intervention in the South China Sea.

So a lot of concern overseas in China. The foreign ministry expressing concerns in China as well. And now the White House weighing in.


CABRERA: So, Jessica, we're also learning in the last couple of hours Trump met with former Vice President Al Gore. Trump previously called climate change a hoax. This is Al Gore's big issue. What have you learned about this meeting?

SCHNEIDER: Well, leave it to Donald Trump to keep us on our toes. When we learned that Al Gore would be here at Trump Tower today, the Trump transition team told us that it would only be for a meeting with Ivanka Trump, the future first daughter. It would be about climate change. Ivanka Trump looking to make climate change one of her signature issues, as, of course, it has been for Al Gore throughout his career. But, yes, we understand that it was quite a lengthy meeting between Al Gore and Donald Trump. And Al Gore talked about it briefly after that meeting. Take a listen.


AL GORE, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: The bulk of the time was with the president-elect, Donald Trump. I found it an extremely interesting conversation. And to be continued. And I'm just going to leave it at that.


SCHNEIDER: So, a few questions looming in the wake of that meeting, both with Ivanka Trump and President-elect Trump. What role will Ivanka Trump take in the White House and, also, could we see some latitude with Donald Trump when it does come to climate change? Of course, in the past years, he's called it a hoax, a manipulation by China, in fact. But, actually, just before Thanksgiving, when he met with "The New York Times" editorial board and reporters, Donald Trump did show some leeway on it, saying that it is possible that human activity could contribute to climate change. So will we see a further change? Of course that, as everything here at Trump Tower, remains to be seen.


CABRERA: Mr. Gore not giving much away there in his response, just calling their meeting very interesting, but he didn't say anything negative about it either. So, Jessica Schneider, thanks for keeping us up to speed on all of that.

I want to have a bigger conversation now with CNN political director David Chalian and also joining us Michael Pillsbury, a Hudson Institute fellow who wrote the book, "The Hundred Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower." He also served in the Reagan, Bush 43 and Obama administrations.

I'll go to you first, Michael. What do you make of this call with Taiwan? A simple call of congratulations or was this a policy shift?

MICHAEL PILLSBURY, HUDSON INSTITUTE FELLOW: I'm pretty close to what Mike Pence said on Sunday, that the new policy toward China that Mr. Trump has been campaigning on and been writing about in a couple of his books, that will come after January 20th. So this was mainly a courtesy call. It's actually not unprecedented. Many senators and congressmen visit Taiwan. They make phone calls back and forth to the president -- so-called president of Taiwan. So for him to do that as a private citizen is not a big deal. That's my view. I think Kellyanne Conway and Vice President-elect Pence have said it, too. The new policy will come after January 20th. And Mr. Trump has laid down fairly clearly what his negotiating strategy and new policy is going to be. We have yet to see that.

[14:05:17] CABRERA: I know that you have been an adviser on China for Mr. Trump, at least during the campaign. I do want to point out that he isn't just a private citizen, though. He is president-elect. So there is a bit of unprecedented move here when he is having this phone call. That is why we've been making a big deal about it.

Some have pointed out that, you know, Taiwan is a pro-democratic state, so why is it a bad thing for Donald Trump to take a call from the president of Taiwan? We know about this one China policy, but explain some of the dynamics at play here.

PILLSBURY: Well, the one China policy has been largely secret over the last 40 years. Some new documents have been released in the last few years that describe what the one China policy is from the American point of view. It's quite different from the Chinese view. And often the -- our media gets confused about which one China policy they're talking about.

The Chinese view is, the U.S. has somehow conceded the sovereignty of the island of Taiwan and given it to the mainland. This is not true. This is not the American view. The records show that President Nixon was the first to say, we won't talk about it, but we never actually gave the sovereignty of Taiwan to one China. There's been a lot of testimony to the Congress about this. Way back in the Clinton administration, George W. Bush's administration. So, the media is often confused.

What President-elect Trump is talking about is his right to talk as a private citizen, he's not a government official, he has not been sworn in, to the leader of Taiwan. Now, you could be against that politically, but it's not a violation of protocol or international law to do it. In fact, it's a -- if you think of Mr. Trump's book and his campaign promises, he wants to negotiate a new deal with China. He's been very clear on that. He's talked about the five or six terms of the new deal. So, obviously, this call does what he said he was going to do. He wants to shake up China. He actually specifically said in his book that he wants to be unpredictable in the Chinese mind because they're such good negotiators. He's quite worried that America has been outsmarted and out negotiated and he wants to sort of start off, I personally think, with just this kind of message to them. And the tweets last night tend to back up that message. He's going to be firm, and he's reminding them that we need to have a talk now, Beijing and Washington, but it's only after he's inaugurated. Not now. It's -- this is just clearing the decks for action, if you will. CABRERA: All right, let me bring David into the conversation because I

want to talk a little bit more about the fact that he is tweeting as president-elect. But what we're also hearing is he is also tweeting as a private citizen. So can you have it both ways? And what are we to believe? Is he just speaking his mind at the time as a private citizen or is he sending a message as the next president of the United States?

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Right. We should dispute (ph) the notion that he's a private citizen. He's not. President-elect, there is a transition office, a government-funded transition office. There is protocols followed for the transition. He's in -- you know, he has just won the election and he's in this period of transition. He's clearly a public figure and not a private citizen.

That being said, I think everything we're going to have to sort of look at in two slices with Donald Trump now because we should not be surprised, of course. He didn't campaign like any traditional presidential candidate. He's not going to govern like any traditional president. So when he breaks with tradition to push the envelope to try to gain leverage in a deal-making kind of situation, that shouldn't surprise us. That's been what his book, "The Art of the Deal" was about, what he did in business, what he did on the presidential campaign trail.

I think that you can look at -- put it in context that no other president-elect has made this -- has had a call first with Taiwan, in president-elect to leader kind of role. So it is different. He is breaking with precedent. That doesn't mean that people have to run around with their hair on fire about it. We'll see what happens. But it can't -- it can't be both. It can't be a courtesy call and signaling a change of policy, right? It's one or the other. And what I think we're going to always ask ourselves with Donald Trump is, is he doing this intentionally or is he operating from the gut and then sort of see where the pieces fall? This, according to some reporting, this call was being put together for a little bit of time. It wasn't just on a whim.

CABRERA: Right. "The Washington Post" is saying that this could have been over the course of a week.

CHALIAN: Intentionally provocative, exactly. Yet, Mike Pence, when he was pressed time and again on it yesterday, simply wanted to call it a courtesy call. So it doesn't seem that the transition team at the top is ready to declare some new policy, perhaps because they are keenly aware of one president at a time and you saw Josh Earnest get those questions today at the White House.

[14:10:01] The other thing, though, Ana, I think you have to consider is, to Americans, I think it sounds very logical when Donald Trump tweets, why are we giving billions to Taiwan but I can't take a courtesy call? There are just -- there are a lot of voters in this country that are not going to be concerned with the diplomatic chaos that Donald Trump may be causing as much as they are with the notion of somebody being tough on China, which is something politicians on both sides of the aisle have promised to be and was certainly part of his campaign. CABRERA: So how does --

CHALIAN: There still may be some appeal, what I'm saying is, out there to what he's tweeting about, even though it complexly breaks with tradition.

CABRERA: Right. Right. And -- and, furthermore, hold --

PILLSBURY: All that -- all that's true, but can I just add one point of background?

CABRERA: Go ahead, Michael.

PILLSBURY: Obviously Mr. Trump reads the newspapers, so he knows that China had test-firing of ten missiles, ten anti-aircraft missiles last month in Asalvo (ph), which is quite striking to us. And then it's been reported that China has just flown a week before the phone call, flown two nuclear armed bombers around Taiwan Island, with jet fighter escorts with them. The administration that's currently in power has also referred to the return of great power competition with China, both the JCS chairman and the secretary of defense have used those words. So we're seeing a deterioration in the way China treats Taiwan just in the last month or so. I think we can be sure Mr. Trump is aware of that. And I think he's basically a strategic genius to call this kind of matter into world attention now rather than covering it up and saying nothing about it. I'm quite impressed with what he's done.

CABRERA: So, Michael, I'm hearing you say that all of this is strategy on Donald Trump's part.

PILLSBURY: Yes. Exactly. Yes.

CABRERA: I want to go past China real fast. And, Michael -- David, rather, get your reaction to the meeting we just learned about between Donald Trump and Al Gore. I mean, again, this is a guy who said, climate change was a hoax propagated by the Chinese, in fact, not all that long ago. Now he's meeting with Al Gore.

CHALIAN: Right, although he denies he said that, although we do have the tweet to prove it. I mean that's Donald Trump on this issue.

Listen, this is also strategy at play. Donald Trump is being very savvy about who he's meeting with, who's coming to the elevators in front of -- in Trump Tower, who the press sees going in and out, whether or not they're being considered for a position or not. This is nothing short of stunning. Al Gore, remember, was out there on the campaign trail with Hillary Clinton in Florida. It was all about trying to appeal to millennials --

CABRERA: I covered him coming to Colorado just before the election to talk about Clinton and climate change.

CHALIAN: Exactly. So, clearly, either Al Gore is able to see this as a moment where he can educate the president-elect on an issue that Al Gore has been talking about for the better part of a decade now in earnest. I don't think we should read much more into it than that.

But I was intrigued by Al Gore's comments when he came to the microphones and the cameras. As you noted, he had nothing negative to say. I wouldn't -- I wasn't surprised about that. He's in Donald Trump's house there for the moment. But he seemed to say how interesting the meeting was. And that seems to open up -- he said, stay tuned. That there's more dialogue to be had, perhaps, between Al Gore and Donald Trump. Al Gore has been a hero of the liberal left basically in his post-vice presidential years. And to go and sit with Donald Trump in this meeting on this issue, it will be fascinating if there's a relationship built here on this issue of climate change.

CABRERA: Very, very quickly, Michael, curious to your thoughts on his meeting with Al Gore. Is this a sign Donald Trump is more pragmatic than some may have thought?

PILLSBURY: Yes, it is. You find it in Mr. Trump's writings, the need, before you do a deal, to reach out to all well-informed people, gather the intelligence you need and be a sort of supremely confident in your negotiations. Don't forget, China and the United States are the two biggest polluters in the world. So for us to continue to make progress on climate change with China, I think, has got to be part of Mr. Trump's negotiating plan.

CABRERA: All right. All right, I got to end it there. Thank you so much. Michael and David, we appreciate you both being with us.

Just head, Donald Trump once compared him to a child molester, but today Ben Carson is now poised to join president-elect's cabinet. Hear what position.

Plus, a gunman walks into a pizza restaurant, fires a shot. Why? Because he was, quote, "self-investigating" a fake news story involving Hillary Clinton. You'll hear from someone who was inside.

And at least 36 people killed in this tragic warehouse fire in Oakland. New details about where the fire started when we come back.


[14:18:25] CABRERA: In Oakland, California, the death toll is rising in one of that city's deadliest fires. And officials expect the number of people who lost their lives to continue to grow. Right now the death toll stands at 36 with 11 of those victims identified, including the youngest victim. We are now learning about 17-year-old Graven McGill (ph), who was in junior high and sang in the Pacific Boys Choir.

I want to bring in CNN's Paul Vercammen.

I know you have been talking to a lot of people on the ground there. Investigators held a press conference a short time ago. What are you learning about how this fire may have started?

PAUL VERCAMMEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Ana, they're not quite sure about the origins of the fire, but they do understand that it started somewhere in the back of this warehouse. And, of course, they've described it as a death trap. A tinderbox. It was a maze of little cubicles, studios, if you will, an artist's colony where people could play a stand-up piano, or work on their paintings, whatever the case may be. And one person who lived there, Shelley Mack, described for us what she felt it was like inside there, including a visit by the police. Let's listen.


SHELLEY MACK, FORMER RESIDENT OF WAREHOUSE: I expected it to be shut down a long time ago. I called the police three times myself. They escorted me out of that place when I was living there. So they were in there to escort me out. The police were there like every single week when I was there. More than one time in a week. I called them three times in one week myself. There were several police there that they -- Derek (ph) and Micha (ph) all knew on first name. They were there on a regular basis. On a regular basis. I called them. I explained everything when I was leaving.


[14:20:02] VERCAMMEN: And Shelley Mack and others describing a situation in there where there were no smoke alarms or sprinklers. And this fire, once it started, it spread incredibly fast, Ana.

CABRERA: We can only imagine, especially with that many people who have lost their lives. Paul, thank you so much. We will hear from survivors and their harrowing accounts coming up.

Up next, fake news. A real threat. A gunman storms into a pizza shop at the center of a bizarre, viral and fake news story. Why? He says he wanted to self-investigate. We'll hear from a witness who was in that pizza shop.

Plus, Donald Trump says is he thrilled to nominate Dr. Ben Carson to his cabinet, but what about that time he compared him to a child molester?


DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT: He said that he's pathological and that he's got basically pathological disease. But if you're a child molester, there's no cure. They can't stop. Pathological, there's no cure.



[14:25:28] CABRERA: Fake news story sweeping the Internet can have more than just political consequences. An armed gunman stormed a pizza place in D.C. yesterday, pointing an assault rifle at an employee there, then began firing after that employee ran away. Authorities say the suspect claimed he was there to investigate the so-called pizzagate. Now, this is a totally false conspiracy allegation that claimed Hillary Clinton is involved in a child sex ring that's run out of that pizza restaurant. Again, this is all fake. But police say Edgar Welch of North Carolina had to find out for himself. Now he has been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon and authorities say they found two guns inside that Comet Ping Pong restaurant and another in his car. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

One witness tells CNN about what happened the moment this gunman walked into the restaurant and who he says is ultimately to blame for what happened.


SHARIF SLIMI, WITNESS/DINING WITH FAMILY WHEN GUNMAN WALKED IN: My family was playing. I was actually playing ping pong with my wife at the time. And the suspect walked in. He walked behind me. We -- I assumed he was a security guard. You know, several people seen him with the gun and were obviously, you know, starting to kind of move around and shake things up.

And so an employee came and grabbed me and let me know that this was, indeed, somebody that wasn't supposed to be there and was a gunman. And, obviously, my first reactions was to get my family out and, you know, get my kids out, and my wife did the same. And, thankfully, we were out of there. The staff there did an amazing job getting everyone out.

It seemed that he was headed straight for the back room. That's why my thought was that he was a staff member because he was walking with -- you know, straight into the back room. He didn't engage with me or any other patron. I didn't see him engage with any other customers or staff. He just walked straight into the back.

We were aware of the, sort of, you know, controversy around the place and, frankly, the lies that have been propagated regarding the Comet Ping Pong. But it's not going to deter us from visiting it. It's a delicious pizzeria. It's an excellent place to go. We had a blast, you know, playing ping pong. And, you know, the -- we're not going to be, you know, frightened by people's lies.


CABRERA: So this is just an example of what can happen when people latch onto conspiracy theories. And it matters who is peddling these conspiracy theories. Even after this incident, the son of Lieutenant General Mike Flynn, Donald Trump's pick for national security adviser, went onto Twitter and suggested the pizzagate conspiracy theory was, in fact, true. This is what Michael Flynn Jr. tweeted last night. "Until pizzagate is proven false, it will remain a story. The left seems to forget Podesta e-mails and the many coincidences tied to it."

Now, the younger Flynn is more than just his father's son. He served as his father's chief of staff and his top aide.

Joining me now, Brian Stelter, CNN's senior media correspondent and host of CNN's "Reliable Sources."

Brian, you've been talking a lot about fake news during the election, after the election, especially with Donald Trump now our president- elect. What do you make of this suggestion we just heard from Flynn's son that until something is proven false, we should assume it's true.

BRIAN STELTER, CNN SENIOR MEDIA CORRESPONDENT: Yes, he's suggesting that if I can't guarantee that every light in the sky is not a UFO, then all the lights in the skies must be UFOs. It's a very strange path to go down.

But this entire conspiracy theory ludicrously strange. It would be laughable were it not for the real-life consequences, as witnessed yesterday. You know, this man in North Carolina apparently felt compelled to drive up to Washington with the guns in his car in order to investigate this idea for himself. This idea that there were secret tunnels involving a child sex predator ring underneath a pizza place. Again, it just sounds funny, it sounds ludicrous until you realize someone actually bought into this enough to show up with weapons yesterday.

CABRERA: But depending on who is peddling this fake news does matter. When it's somebody in a very high-profile position, even President- elect Donald Trump has been known to peddle some conspiracy theories --

STELTER: Yes, and also tweet out these news stories.

CABRERA: Then others don't know necessarily who to believe. And as media, we have responsibility to call a spade a spade, to point out when something's fake, but is that enough?

STELTER: Yes, President-elect Trump is many things. To his voters, he's a beloved figure. But one of the things he is, is a conspiracy theorist. During the election, he latched onto a number of theories, including, for example, saying that thousands of Muslims were cheering in New Jersey on 9/11. No evidence at all for that. He's also in a few different cases tweeted out links to clearly fake news stories. Now, that hasn't happened in recent days. I would say it's been about a week since he tweeted something that was clearly false. He said there were millions of illegal votes that didn't happen.

[14:30:07] CABRERA: Right.