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State of the Union

Interview With U.S. Transportation Secretary Nominee Pete Buttigieg; Interview With Former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Director Christopher Krebs; Interview With Operation Warp Speed Chief Adviser Dr. Moncef Slaoui; Interview With Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT). Aired 9-10a ET

Aired December 20, 2020 - 09:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Dose of hope. As the FDA approves a second coronavirus vaccine, Americans line up.

MIKE PENCE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: History will record that this week was the beginning of the end of the coronavirus pandemic.

TAPPER: As cases, hospitalizations and deaths climb to record highs, Congress is on the brink of a deal for some relief, but how bad will it get before it gets better? Operation Warp Speed chief scientist Dr. Moncef Slaoui joins me to discuss.

And conspiracy in the Oval Office? President Trump reportedly discusses with disgraced former General Michael Flynn declaring martial law to force new elections in states that Biden won. How scared should we be?

Republican Senator Mitt Romney and potential new Biden Cabinet official Pete Buttigieg join us.

Plus: act of war? The U.S. scrambles to respond to a sweeping cyberattack linked to Russia.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): This is a massive hack of our national security infrastructure.

TAPPER: Why is President Trump blaming someone other than Putin? I will talk exclusively to former top cybersecurity official Chris Krebs.


TAPPER: Hello. I'm Jake Tapper in Washington, where the state of our union is, frankly, appalled.

For anyone wondering just how much damage an outgoing president can do in the final month in office, we're beginning to get something of an idea. On Friday in the Oval Office, the president reportedly discussed with disgraced pardoned former General Michael Flynn Flynn's deranged proposal to have Trump declare martial law to force new elections in states that Biden won, so as to overturn the election results.

Trump is also reportedly talking about giving the powers of a special counsel to attorney Sidney Powell, whose crackpot conspiracy theories about the election have been laughed out of courtroom after courtroom.

And Trump's attorney general -- I'm sorry -- and Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani has been asking officials at the Department of Homeland Security about seizing voting machines, this as the United States suffered what experts are describing as a modern-day cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor, which President Trump is dismissing as media hype and defending Russia, even though experts, including his own secretary of state, say that country is to blame.

The president is also falsely using the cyberattack to further his discredited false conspiracy theories about the election, all of this as the country is facing a dark reality in the coronavirus pandemic, record cases, record hospitalizations, record deaths, and a key model now projecting that the virus will kill well over half-a-million people in the United States by April.

Still, there are signs of hope. Overnight, lawmakers on Capitol Hill reached an agreement on a key dispute and are now on the brink of a $900 billion relief bill to help struggling Americans, this as shipments of Moderna's vaccine are beginning to roll out this morning.

And the first shots could be in arms as soon as tomorrow, making the U.S. the first country in the world with two vaccines deployed against this horrific pandemic.

I'm going to start this morning on the pandemic.

Joining me now is the chief scientific adviser for Operation Warp Speed, Dr. Moncef Slaoui.

Dr. Slaoui, thanks for joining us.

So, the U.S. just reported a new record of nearly 250,000 cases on Friday, new cases. Almost 3,000 Americans are dying every day. Is it going to get even worse than that? Could we see up to 5,000 deaths a day?

DR. MONCEF SLAOUI, CHIEF ADVISER, OPERATION WARP SPEED: Well, first, I think, unfortunately, it will get worse, because we still are experiencing the outcome of the Thanksgiving holidays and the gatherings. And, unfortunately, there may be more with the Christmas -- over the Christmas holiday.

So, there will be a continuing surge. Exactly what the numbers may be, I don't know. But, unfortunately, they're going to be higher than what they are today, most likely.

But, as you were saying, there is light at the end of the tunnel. There are now two vaccines that are approved. They are incredibly effective and efficacious. And they will be targeted first to the people who help us stay healthy, the health care workers, particularly those that are in the front line with -- taking care of coronavirus patients, and on the other hand to the most frail part of the population, people -- elderly people that are in homes and are suffering from this pandemic most.

So, hopefully, we will get better, after getting worse.


TAPPER: Absolutely. There's a light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to the efforts of you and the scientists for Operation Warp Speed.

I want to ask you. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he's now imposing stricter guidelines because there's this new variant of COVID-19 spreading in the U.K. that -- quote -- "may be up to 70 percent more transmissible than the earlier strain."


Do you think that variant is here in the U.S.? What can you tell us about it?

SLAOUI: So, we don't know yet.

We are, of course, particularly the NIH and the CDC, looking very carefully into this. Many, many strains of the virus are sequenced all the time.

This is virus is what is called RNA virus. This is an approach to being a virus that is prone to more mistakes in the way RNA is made than when it's a DNA virus. And, therefore, there will be variance.

The key is that the spike protein requires really very, very specific three-dimensional structure that makes it hard for it to mutate too much. So, up to now, I don't think there has been a single variant that would be resistant to the virus -- to the vaccine.

We can't exclude it, but it's not there now. And this particular variant in the U.K., I think, is very unlikely to have escaped the vaccine immunity.

TAPPER: OK, so you are confident that the vaccines we have, Pfizer and Moderna, will also protect against any of these new variants that we're hearing about, whether in the U.K. or South Africa?

SLAOUI: Well, you can never say never in science, so there could be at some point something that comes up that helps the virus escape.

But, because the vaccines are inducing antibodies against many different parts of the spike protein, the chances that all of them change, I think, are low, but they are not inexistent.


SLAOUI: They're not there now.

TAPPER: Many states say that they're not getting all the vaccines they were promised.

I want you to take a listen to your Operation Warp Speed counterpart General Gus Perna just yesterday.


GEN. GUSTAVE PERNA, U.S. ARMY MATERIEL COMMAND: It was my fault. I gave guidance. I am the one that approved the forecast sheets. I am the one that approved the allocations.

It was a planning error, and I am responsible.


TAPPER: First of all, let me just say how refreshing it is to hear anyone in leadership in the United States government take responsibility for a mistake.

Beyond that, though, what can you tell us about when this is going to be fixed, so the states get what they need?

SLAOUI: Well, let me first acknowledge, indeed, the leadership of General Perna.

We co-lead this operation. We work every day together. He is an exceptional leader, absolutely. And I think he's been brave to take this on him personally. We all made the error or mistake of assuming that vaccine that's actually produced and being released is already available for shipment, when, in fact, there is a two-days lag between the time at which we generate a lot of data that shows this vaccine vial is actually safe and right and the time we can ship it.

The FDA has to receive certain documentation. And that's really where that lag period has resulted in differences in between what was in the plan and what was actually done.

I think we have addressed that. We will optimize every day what we're doing. We now are clear that we will be shipping 5.9 million doses of the Moderna vaccine and two million doses of the Pfizer vaccine on Monday. And that's what will happen.

And we are increasing the level of communication with the governors in order to make sure that there are no mistakes that happen or miscommunication. We will work and learn from our mistakes every day. And our focus is to make sure we get American people as many vaccine doses as are produced.

Now, I do want to say, Jake, that I explained this a few times. Manufacturing vaccines at very large scale is a very complex process. We are doing, the companies, Moderna and Pfizer and later on, Johnson and AstraZeneca, are doing everything possible to make sure we -- everything happens as per plan.

But I do want to make clear to everybody that this is not making watches. This is making living things or at least involving leaving things in the way we produce vaccines. And we don't control everything 100 percent.

And unless it's perfectly right, we will not release vaccine doses for usage. And, sometimes, there could be small hiccups. There have been none, actually, in manufacturing now. The hiccup was more into the planning.

TAPPER: Look, and don't get me wrong. That kind of transparency, I think, is very welcome among the American people. And everybody understands how difficult a task this is and how well it's been pulled out -- pulled off.

The FDA granted emergency use authorization to the Moderna vaccine this week. When do you expect the first shot of that vaccine to go into the first arm?

SLAOUI: Well, the first shot is most likely to be tomorrow morning.

I'm thrilled for Moderna, as I was thrilled for Pfizer. I can see that science, in a way, is an equalizer. The largest pharmaceutical company in the world, and a small biotech company, not so small anymore, but are coming one week apart with vaccines that are exceptionally effective and helping our population to start or at least have the prospects of controlling this pandemic.


I think it's outstanding. And we look forward to the vaccine. It's going to be slightly easier to distribute because it doesn't require as low temperature as Pfizer, and, yes, Monday morning.

TAPPER: A hospital in Illinois has temporarily paused vaccinations this weekend, after four health care workers experienced tingling and elevated heart rates after receiving the vaccine. They have since resumed.

But there are also three health care workers in Alaska that also experienced reactions. I don't want to be alarmist about this. All these individuals are OK. But how common do you believe these reactions are? How concerned should the American people be?

SLAOUI: So, first, I think what's very important to note here is, the pharmacovigilance system, the system that capture the safety of the vaccines we use in the general population, is functioning very well.

And every single case is immediately identified and documented. Second, we are looking into this. And I know the CDC and the FDA, they are very, very carefully looking into the situation to characterize these events.

Some of them could be anaphylactic shock. That's dangerous. Some of them could be more, let's call them an allergic reaction. That's important to know, but less dangerous.

The key is, we are aware of it now. There need to be in the areas where vaccination is happening the right equipment to help people if they were to have an anaphylactic shock, to have, for instance, an EpiPen where you make the injection.

If you are prepared, these are the kind of events that can be dealt with. And we will continue to try and understand, what is it in the vaccine that induces this, if -- if there is something that induces this that's specific?

TAPPER: And we should just underline that. Everybody that's had any sort of adverse reaction -- and it's a very, very small number -- all of them are OK. All of that was dealt with EpiPens or with other medicine.


TAPPER: Vice President Pence was vaccinated on Friday.


TAPPER: President-elect Joe Biden will be vaccinated tomorrow.

You have said it's important for President Trump to get vaccinated. Just on the medical level there, that means you're saying that people who have had the virus, like President Trump, they should still get vaccinated?

SLAOUI: So, what we know, Jake -- and it's a really important question, because a lot of people have been infected, with disease or without disease.

What we know is that it is safe to be immunized after having been exposed to the virus. That has happened in the clinical trials. People that participated in the trial had experienced or actually had a viral infection at the time they started being vaccinated. So it's safe.

On the other hand, we know that infection doesn't induce a very strong immune response, and it wanes over time. So, as a -- I think, as a clear precaution, it is appropriate to be vaccinated, because it's safe. It will induce a much higher immune response, and will ensure, in case natural infection doesn't induce long-lasting protection, it will allow to have a better protection.

I think people should be vaccinated, indeed.

TAPPER: Lastly, Dr. Slaoui, in addition to being a fellow Eagles fan, I should note that you're an immigrant, as are many key figures in this amazing vaccine accomplishment.

You were born in Morocco. The CEO of Pfizer is from Greece. The CEO of Moderna is from France. The founder of Moderna is from Lebanon.

It's pretty incredible, in terms of how many immigrants have contributed to this incredible achievement by the United States.

SLAOUI: Listen, this is what we all love about America, which is, it's a country that is welcoming, and I hope it will continue to welcome immigrants, like all the people that you have cited. The opportunities are enormous. The possibilities are, frankly, limitless. I'm very excited to be a Moroccan, a Belgian, and an American, but it's in the U.S. that the full potential, frankly, of what I could achieve in life has taken place.

And that's great for America, and it's great for the world. And all the people you said, I know personally, and I know we all feel at the same time American and proud of our origins.

TAPPER: Well, we're lucky to have you.

Dr. Slaoui, thanks so much.

Big game later today against the Cardinals.

SLAOUI: Thank you, Jake.

TAPPER: I'm sure I will be watching and rooting the same time as you.


SLAOUI: Likewise.

TAPPER: Time is money, jobs and food on the table. Time is running out.

Congress made a breakthrough overnight, but will there be a deal today? Republican Senator Mitt Romney joins me next.

And they have a history on the campaign trail. Will they now make history as teammates? Biden's transportation pick, Pete Buttigieg, joins me exclusively in moments.



TAPPER: Welcome back to State of the Union. I'm Jake Tapper.

After months of negotiations, stretching into the early hours of this morning, leaders on Capitol Hill now say votes could come as soon as today on a $900 billion relief package.

This would help millions of Americans whose checks from the federal government are set to stop the day after Christmas.

Joining me now is a senator who has been deeply involved in the negotiations, Republican Mitt Romney of Utah, also a former Republican presidential nominee.

Senator Romney, it's good to see you. Thanks so much for joining us.

I want to get to that relief bill in just one second.

But, first, I have to ask you. President Trump held a meeting on Friday in which he reportedly discussed with his disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn this deranged idea to declare martial law to force new elections in states that Biden won.


They also discussed appointing conspiracy theorist Sidney Powell as a special counsel to investigate her baseless claims of election fraud, and also issuing an executive order to seize voting machines.

This is, needless to say, quite alarming and scary to a lot of people. What's your response? What will Senate Republicans do to make sure none of this madness happens?

SEN. MITT ROMNEY (R-UT): Well, it's not going to happen. That's going nowhere.

And I understand the president is casting about, trying to find some way to have a different result than the one that was delivered by the American people.

But it's really sad, in a lot of respects, and embarrassing, because the president could right now be writing the last chapter of this administration with a victory lap with regards to the vaccine. After all, he pushed aggressively to get the vaccine developed and distributed. That's happening on a quick time frame.

He could be going out and championing this extraordinary success.

And, instead, he's leaving Washington with a whole series of conspiracy theories and things that are so nutty and loopy that people are shaking their head, wondering, what in the world has gotten into this man?

And I think that's unfortunate, because he has more accomplishments than this last chapter suggests he's going to be known for.

TAPPER: I know you're eager to talk about the stimulus negotiations.

It seems like there was a major breakthrough last night. Do you believe there is going to be a deal today?

ROMNEY: Well, I believe there's going to be a deal. There are always sticking points. But the big one was resolved last night very late.

And over the past, if -- you know, if several weeks, there's been a lot of work done. Of course, it should have happened a long time ago. But we got a group together about four weeks ago that sat down and said, hey, we have got to find a way to get some progress here, four Republicans, four Democrats.

We met time and time and time again. We came up with a $900 billion, roughly, proposal. That was picked up by leadership on both sides. And they're working on some additional points.

But I think it's going to get done. It'll get done before Christmas.

TAPPER: One of the major sticking points has been the size of the direct payments to Americans. President Trump weighed in last night, tweeting that Congress should send more money. Where does that stand? Is it still, do you think, going to be at about $600 per individual?

ROMNEY: Yes, it's going to be $600. And it would be nice to be even more than that.

But I think there's a recognition the part of those of us that worked on this deal that our highest priority is to get people who are worried about keeping their job. And so getting, if you will, help to small business is critical, helping people that are unemployed have extension of unemployment benefits, also housing support.

And then, of course, cost -- the cost of vaccine distribution needs to be covered. We want to keep airlines flying, buses going, transit systems going. All these things are very, very high priority. So, the check is going to be roughly $600 a person. And that will help, although I know people would like it to be a larger number.

TAPPER: Let's go to the massive ongoing cyberattack against the United States, which has affected countless government agencies and private companies.

Senate Intelligence Committee chairman, your colleague Senator Marco Rubio, said it was essentially an act of war. Colorado Congressman Jason Crow called it the cyber equivalent of Pearl Harbor. Is that how you see it?

ROMNEY: Well, it's extraordinarily severe.

And, actually, Tom Bossert, who was the president's national security adviser -- homeland security adviser, said that you couldn't overstate how serious this attack was.

And it's an invasion of kind on our cyberspace. And just to put it in context, if you think back 20 years ago, when we were attacking Baghdad, you saw these cruise missiles being launched from ships going across the landscape, and then taking out the communications towers, the utility towers and so forth, because you can cripple a country by doing so.

Well, what Russia has done is put in place a capacity to potentially cripple us, in terms of our electricity, our water, our communications. I mean, this is the same sort of thing one can do in a wartime setting.

And so it's extraordinarily dangerous. And it's an outrageous affront on our sovereignty, and one that's going to have to be met with a very strong response, not just rhetorical, important as that is, but also with a cyber-response of like magnitude or greater.

TAPPER: White House officials were prepared to publicly blame Russia for this hack on Friday, as you just did, but they were told to stand down.

And then, yesterday, President Trump tweeted this: "The cyber-hack is far greater in the fake news media than in actuality. I have been fully briefed, and everything is well under control. Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant whenever anything happens because lamestream is, for mostly financial reasons, petrified of discussing the possibility that it may be China. It may."

And the president goes on to tie all of this to his baseless allegations of election fraud, which I won't repeat here.

This is part of a long pattern throughout the Trump presidency of President Trump refusing to hold Russia accountable, even though you and Tom Bossert and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have all said this was Russia.


What's your response to the president's tweet?

ROMNEY: Well, the president has a blind spot when it comes to Russia. And so you can expect that that's the response that he would have.

But, when it comes to matters of intrusion into our cyberspace, I, frankly, look to the experts, because I'm not an expert on that dimension. And the experts, the thousands upon thousands who work at the Department of Defense in the intelligence unit, the CIA, the National Security Administration, and others who've looked at this said, well, there's no question it's come from Russia.

They have done this sort of thing before. They have done it again. And what it underscores is, Russia acts with impunity with regards to these cyberattacks because they don't think we have the capacity to respond in like measure.

They also recognize that our defense is inadequate. And they have come to recognize that what will come from the White House will not be the kind of rhetoric which would be jarring.

So, this is a big wakeup call for us. And I think we're going to have to really rethink our military and national security readiness when it comes to cyberspace, because this is the warfare of the future. And I hope that we get ourselves up to the capacity you would expect the strongest, greatest nation on Earth to have.

TAPPER: Former White House cybersecurity czar Richard Clarke told me a few days ago something similar to what you just said, that there aren't many options left for sanctions. The only way for Russia to take us seriously is to hurt them back in the cyber-sphere.

I have to ask. When you ran for president in 2012, President Obama and his team mocked you for saying that Russia was the number one geopolitical foe of the United States. You were proven correct about that.

A lot of those same people who mocked you in 2012 are about to take over the foreign policy of the United States. Do you think they now agree that Russia is the number one geopolitical foe of the United States, or at least one of the top two with China? ROMNEY: I do, actually.

I had the chance to be with Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state under the Obama administration. And she said, you were right. And we didn't recognize it at the time. But she said, you were right.

And it was nice to hear. But I would have rather seen the actions taken then that would have prevented the kind of things from occurring that we have seen over the last several years.

But I think that president-elect Biden is a clear-eyed and intelligent individual. And he's going to assess Russia and their capabilities in an appropriate way. But I also think that he will look at China and recognize that, long term, China is the more significant threat to America.

Russia is, if you will, a gas station parading as a country, as John McCain used to say. And they have got extraordinary difficulties, and they're lashing out in a moment of decline.

China, of course, is emerging stronger and stronger, and presents an extraordinary threat to freedom around the world and to our prosperity here. And so that's going to be the more significant challenge that will be faced by a new president.

But I have confidence that the people around the president, president- elect, and the president-elect himself will recognize the severity of what we face on the global front.

TAPPER: Senator, you're consistently one of the only Republicans in Washington willing to criticize President Trump and break with your party on issues of principle. There are two or three guys in the House. You're pretty alone in the Senate.

Republican leaders have either remain silent or actively supported the president's deranged claims about the election. Do you still recognize the Republican Party?

ROMNEY: Well, the party has taken a different course than, obviously, the one that I knew as a younger person.

And, I mean, the party that I knew is one that was very concerned about Russia and Putin and Kim Jong-un and North Korea. We pushed back aggressively against them. We were a party concerned about balancing the budget. We believed in trade with other nations. We were happy to play a leadership role on the world stage, because we felt that made us safer and more prosperous. And we believed that character was essential in the leaders that we chose.

We have strayed from that. I don't see us returning to that for a long time. As I look at the 2024 contenders, most of them are trying to become as much like Donald Trump as they can be, although I must admit that his style and shtick, if you will, is difficult to duplicate. He's an extraordinarily talented person from that standpoint.

But, yes, I represent a very small slice of the Republican Party today. But, you know, everybody has to stand up for what they believe. And I believe my colleagues are doing what they think is right.

TAPPER: Do you ever think about leaving the Republican Party, as Congressman Paul Mitchell did, to protest the attacks on democracy that the Republican Party and President Trump are doing right now?


ROMNEY: I think I'm more effective in the Republican Party, continuing to battle for the things I believe in.

And I think, ultimately, the Republican Party will return to the roots that have been formed over the -- well, the century. So, we will get back at some point. And, hopefully, people will recognize we need to take a different course than the one we're on right now.

TAPPER: Senator Romney, merry Christmas, and best wishes to you and Ann and your whole family for 2021. Thanks for joining us today.

ROMNEY: Thanks, Jake. Good to be with you.

TAPPER: He says he will fix the longest-running joke of the Trump White House. Can Mayor Pete Buttigieg save infrastructure week, or does he have a bridge to sell you?

We will ask the new Cabinet nominee next.

Stay with us.



TAPPER: Welcome back to STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Jake Tapper.

President-elect Joe Biden tapping another Democratic primary rival, Pete Buttigieg, to be his transportation secretary, calling him a new voice, new voice to move past old politics.

Joining me now for his first interview since his nomination was announced, the former mayor of South Bend Indiana, Pete Buttigieg.

What -- do we call you Mayor Pete? Do we call you Secretary Pete, Secretary Mayor Pete? What do you want us to do here?



So, President Trump held a meeting on Friday -- I have to ask you about this -- where he and allies discussed this idea pushed by his disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn to declare martial law, to hold new elections in states Biden won, to overturn the election.

What's your reaction to this? And how concerned is the Biden transition team about what President Trump might do in the next month, before January 20?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, obviously, it's irresponsible and it's dangerous.

But, at the end of the day, this is a country of laws. And the American people have spoken. The election took place. Vice President Biden became president-elect Biden, and he will become President Biden on Inauguration Day.

I just hope that, across the party and across the country, there's an understanding about how important it is that we remain committed to democracy. It is the cornerstone of what it is to be American. And we have got to get back to that.

TAPPER: You're a veteran.

Were you alarmed when the secretary of the Army and the chief of staff the Army felt the -- felt the need to come out and say that there's no role for the Army, for the military in the elections? They did that on Friday, I think.

BUTTIGIEG: Yes. And they shouldn't have had to.

But it is also reassuring to know that the professionals, the people in the uniformed services, the public servants and civil servants understand what their job is. And, again, they're going to follow the law. And the law makes very clear what happens next and the presidency that is to follow.

TAPPER: Let's turn to your historic nomination.

You're going to be the first openly gay person to serve in a Senate- confirmed Cabinet secretary position. You will also be the first millennial Cabinet member. Does this -- do these milestones mean something to you personally?

BUTTIGIEG: Absolutely.

I mentioned in the remarks when president-elect Biden introduced my proposed nomination I can remember being a teenager, I remember being in Indiana in the '90s watching on the news as an appointee of President Clinton's, James Hormel, was put forward to be an ambassador, couldn't get a hearing in the Senate, was attacked relentlessly because he was gay.

And I wasn't even out to myself at that time, but I noticed that story.

And, you know, over the weekend, having mentioned his story, I tracked down the former ambassador and called him. He did get to serve in the end, though only by a recess appointment. And he said that he made sure that he asked to be put forward for something that would have to go to the Senate, knowing full well what would happen, because he knew that that would chip away at that barrier for the next person to come along.

And so I was mindful as that announcement came out that I was standing on the shoulders of people who came before me. And I understand that part of my responsibility and my opportunity is to make it a little bit easier for the next person to come along.

And I hope there are young people who may have wondered whether they belong, maybe given reasons to wonder whether they belong in their own families or communities, understanding the message that is sent by the president-elect when he creates a place of belonging at a place like the Cabinet table in the White House.

TAPPER: And now, potentially, you will be a Cabinet secretary, if you're confirmed by the Senate.

Back during the Democratic primaries, though, I have to note, your new boss, Joe Biden, he criticized your lack of experience. Take a listen.


NARRATOR: Both Vice President Biden and former Mayor Pete have helped shape our economy. Joe Biden helped save the auto industry, which revitalized the economy of the Midwest, and led the passage and implementation of the Recovery Act, saving our economy from a depression.

Pete Buttigieg revitalized the sidewalks of downtown South Bend by laying out decorative brick.


TAPPER: As mayor, you oversaw a city government with roughly 1,000 employees.

You're now going to be leading a department that has nearly 60,000 employees nationwide. Are you confident you do have enough experience to take on this role?

BUTTIGIEG: I am. And I'm thankful for the president-elect's confidence.

Look, this is a different job. It also brings different resources and different opportunity. And it comes at a moment where the American people are ready for us to finally actually do something with infrastructure.


We can't keep letting infrastructure week be a Washington punchline. This is a moment when we have a chance to answer to something that I think people in Republican and Democratic and purple communities, rural and urban, understand, which is that Americans shouldn't settle for less when it comes to our -- our roads and our bridges, our highways, our trains, all of the infrastructure that really powers our economy and creates so many livelihoods.

And I'm really looking forward to joining the team that president- elect Biden's assembling and to working with folks around the country, business, labor, environmental groups, and, of course, with Congress to actually get something done.

TAPPER: The Biden team is reportedly already laying the groundwork for a major infrastructure bill within Biden's first year in office. It could be one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement left in Washington, though, of course, a deal has remained out of reach for years and, as you note, become something of a running joke under President Trump.

Is a deal possible? And what else would you focus on, as transportation secretary, in addition to a major infrastructure bill?

BUTTIGIEG: A deal is not just possible. It's necessary.

Again, Americans shouldn't settle for less than our peers around the developed world when it comes to the infrastructure resources that we really count on. And that's part of the mayor's-eye view, I think, too, when you come from that background in a community like mine, where daily life is shaped by transportation, but so is our economy.

And that's true in so many parts of the country. So, when I think about the opportunities ahead, I'm thinking about jobs and economic opportunity. I'm thinking about climate. And there's no way we're going to do what we must do as a country unless we move the transportation sector forward.

And you look at what America is capable of on everything from electric vehicle production to what we could be doing with our power infrastructure. The opportunity is huge. And there's also an opportunity and an imperative when it comes to justice.

It's disproportionately black and brown neighborhoods that were divided by highway projects plowing through them because they didn't have the -- sometimes the political capital to resist, or sometimes nothing at all coming to the most low-income or minoritized neighborhoods.

We have got a chance to get that right, so, enhancing equity, delivering on climate, creating jobs across the department's fundamental mission of, of course, ensuring safety. And there's a lot we have got to look at, not just with traveler safety, but, of course, the safety of the many workers who are working in transportation and that field in general, but especially now.

When we think about front-line workers and workers involved at the tip of the spear of COVID, we think a lot about health care workers, folks in the food industry, and rightly so. But, also, think about how many people are indispensable to the vaccine supply chain and just to America's economy functioning.

We have got to make sure that we're looking after their safety too, especially to get through this first year, which will really be a test of this country in conquering COVID.

TAPPER: In addition to focusing on transportation, I'm sure that you, as just an experienced politician, will be asked for your advice on other matters. And I have to ask. President-elect Biden's son Hunter has acknowledged

that he's under investigation by the U.S. attorney in Delaware. Again, I know your focus is on transportation, but you're an experienced politician. You're a representative of the Biden transition team.

How should the Biden administration handle this investigation, so the American people can be confident that it's going to be done in a free and fair manner, without any undue influence? We're getting -- we're emerging from four years of all sorts of swampy deals when it comes to investigations and pardons and commutations when it comes to the president's allies and such.

What's the best way for president-elect Biden, President Biden to handle an investigation into his son? Should there be a special counsel? Should that U.S. attorney be allowed to do his investigation and stay in that job? What do you think?

BUTTIGIEG: Well, it's simple.

It's that politics and personal concerns ought to have absolutely nothing to do with investigations. And that's something you're going to see in the Biden administration.

We elected a president who is going to bring a level of integrity to the office. That means making sure that there is that separation. He's been very clear on that on any number of questions that have come up.

And it's one of the things that I think our country can look forward to. After four years of a president mixing political and personal, trying to use the Department of Justice as just another extension of his own agenda, now's a time to get back to what we know is right, what we know is proper.

And we're going to see that through -- as we have through the transition into the administration. It's one of the reasons I'm proud to join what I think is going to be a team of teammates getting work done in every important area for the American people, and doing it with integrity.


TAPPER: Mayor Pete, thank you so much. Congratulations on the appointment.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, and hope -- best wishes for a great 2021.

BUTTIGIEG: Thanks. Thank you.

TAPPER: It's being called an act of war and a grave threat to the U.S., so why is President Trump once again downplaying Russia's role in a hack attack?

I will ask the cyber chief that he fired next.


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo now saying it's pretty clear Russia was behind the massive cyberattack on U.S. federal government agencies, an attack that is being called a grave risk to public and private institutions in this country.


President Trump's only public acknowledgement of the attack has given Russia cover, far from the first time in the past four years he seems reluctant to rattle Vladimir Putin's cage.

Joining me now is Christopher Krebs, the man who led the U.S. Cybersecurity Agency while this attack was unfolding, until President Trump fired him because he stood up for facts and truth regarding the election.

So, Chris, I want to ask you. President Trump tweeted for the first time on the cyberattack, after days of silence.

He said -- quote -- "The cyberattack is far greater in fake news media than in actuality. I have been fully briefed. Everything is well under control. Russia, Russia, Russia is the priority chant when anything happens because lamestream is, for mostly financial reasons, petrified of discussing the possibility it may be China. It may."

He goes on to make this -- tie this to this false accusation having to do with unfounded claims of voter fraud.


TAPPER: Every expert we have heard from, though, has said that this has the hallmarks of Russia. What's your response to this?

KREBS: Everything I have heard, whether it's from private sector cybersecurity threat intelligence experts, things I have heard out of Congress and the intelligence community, it's Russia.

I mean, they are -- they're exceptionally good at this, particularly the foreign intelligence service, the SVR. They're good. They're quiet. They're deliberate. They're patient and they're careful.

TAPPER: Your former agency determined that the cyberattack poses a grave risk to governments, to critical infrastructure and private organizations.

How severe was the attack? How afraid should the American people be?

KREBS: I think we're just getting our arms around the scope of this cyber-compromise.

There has been a lot of conversation about one country, SolarWinds, but I think it's probably more broad than that. I think this -- again, this Russian intelligence service, the SVR, they're really the best of the best out there.

I would suspect that there are probably other software companies that have been compromised. And, in fact, my old agency issued a report to that effect just the other day, that we are looking for other ones. And supply chain compromises are particularly hard to defend against.

TAPPER: The cyberattack has been ongoing since at least March, we're told. In fact, it was a private cybersecurity firm, not U.S. officials, that discovered the attack, we're told.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff says agencies are going to have to answer -- quote -- "Why didn't you catch this?"

You are -- you were the head of one of the many agencies in charge of catching this. What's your response? Why didn't you catch this?

KREBS: So, as I already said, I think there's three contributing factors here.

First is that, again, the Russians, the SVR, are very, very good at what they do. The second is, this supply chain compromise, this third- party trusted supply chain attack, that is a particularly hard attack vector to defend against.

And the third is that the federal civilian agencies, the 101 civilian agencies, are not really optimized for defense right now. And what that means is, there's a lot of old antiquated, legacy I.T. systems that are hard to defend. Plus, the authorities are not in place for teams like CISA to really get out there and aggressively root out adversaries.

Now, there is a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act -- that's the annual defense bill that's sitting on the president's desk waiting for his signature -- that would give CISA, my old agency, the authorities to go out and really aggressively hunt and look for these adversaries.

And that's what we're going to have to do to get certainty and to the other side of this, is really deep-diving into these agencies' systems, looking for the Russians, and going hand to hand combat almost with them and get them out of those systems.

TAPPER: Was this a failure of CISA? Was this a failure of U.S. Cyber Command? How do you see it?

KREBS: So, the way I look at it is, yes, it happened on my watch at CISA. And we missed it. A bunch of other folks missed it.

But there is work that we have to do now going forward to make sure, A, we get past this, that we get the Russians out of the networks, but, B, that it never happens again. And we really need congressional support, we need the resources, we need the authorities to be able to make sure that, again, this doesn't happen again.

But going back to the beginning, the Russians are exceptionally good at this sort of work. And they found a seam in our defenses. TAPPER: You were fired on November 17 because you were standing up

for facts and truth when it came to the election.

Did you know about this attack when you left?

KREBS: I did not. This came out in the public after I was terminated.

TAPPER: Former Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said that CISA's defense system called EINSTEIN was not designed properly. He called it a management failure.

What's your response to that?

KREBS: So, EINSTEIN was not actually designed for detecting this sort of threat. EINSTEIN was designed to detect known threats. This was a never-before-seen capability.

Again, to find things like this, you need a proactive hunt capability. And, really, that means that you have people in systems, sensors that are in the systems constantly looking for things that don't look normal.


And those authorities are not in place yet. But, again, in the defense bill that the president must sign, there are authorities for CISA to do that sort of work.

TAPPER: Do you think the hackers gained access to classified U.S. government information through this hack?

KREBS: Probably not the right person to ask on that. I think that's a good question for the administration.

I don't -- everything I have seen or heard would indicate they did not.

TAPPER: Romney said the hackers now have the capacity, potentially, to shut down our economy, shut down our utilities, cause massive calamity.

Is that true?

KREBS: Well, looking at the actor, if it is, in fact, the SVR, the Russian intelligence service, that's not their typical modus operandi.

They are intelligence collectors. They're looking for policy decisions. They're looking for diplomatic negotiations in federal agencies. They're typically not the ones to run the destructive types of attacks. And they typically don't work with the other parts of the Russian government, the GRU, the military cyber-teams.

They don't work well. There's a sense of competition there. That doesn't mean they can't hand off access. But, for now, I think this is more of a intelligence collection operation. TAPPER: And you said that the cyber -- U.S. cyber forces need to go

in there, into the database or whatever, and engage in hand-to-hand combat.

You heard Romney, Richard Clarke, others have said there needs to be a retaliatory attack by the U.S. against Russia. Do you agree?

KREBS: I'd be very careful with escalating this. I think there needs to be a conversation globally, internationally, across like-minded countries about, what is acceptable?

This is espionage. I think that's, in part, how it's being characterized. The thing that really concerns me about this particular campaign by the Russians was the indiscriminate nature of the supply chain targeting, the fact that they have potentially compromised 18,000 companies.

That, to me, is outside of the bounds of at least what we have seen recently of espionage activities.

TAPPER: Lastly -- we only have about 30 seconds -- but your response to President Trump's meeting in the Oval Office with Rudy Giuliani, Mike Flynn, Sidney Powell talking about martial law to overturn the election, making Sidney Powell a special counsel, et cetera?

KREBS: I think I have said it a couple times this week in a Senate hearing on Wednesday, but this is not the America that I recognize. And this is just beyond the pale.

TAPPER: All right, Chris Krebs, thank you so much. Merry Christmas to you and your family. Hope you have a great 2021.


TAPPER: Thanks so much. And we will hope to see you back.

KREBS: Sure.

TAPPER: Thanks for spending your Sunday morning with us.

"FAREED ZAKARIA GPS" starts right now.