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THE SITUATION ROOM
Trump Picks Exxon CEO for Secretary of State; Trump Postpones News Conference on Conflicts of Interest; Trump Picks Exxon CEO for Secretary of State; Trump Postpones News Conference on Conflicts of Interest; Video Shows Russian Special Forces in Syria. Aired 5-6p ET
Aired December 13, 2016 - 17:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
[17:00:09] WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, oil and water. Donald Trump's pick of the ExxonMobil CEO for secretary of state doesn't mix well with some Republicans. Key GOP senators are voicing concerns about Rex Tillerson's ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Will he face an uphill battle for confirmation?
Nuclear science. Trump taps former Texas governor and "Dancing with the Stars" alumnus Rick Perry for energy secretary, putting him in charge of a department Perry once said he wanted to abolish. With no atomic background, is he ready to ensure the integrity and the safety of the nation's nuclear weapons?
Tweet the press. Donald Trump postpones the news conference he scheduled to discuss how he'll avoid conflicts of interest. It's been five months since he held a formal press conference.
And Putin's soldiers. Never before seen video of Russian special operations troops fighting in Syria. As controversy swirls in the U.S. over Russian hacking and Vladimir Putin's intentions. A new elite Russian unit is taking on ISIS. Can they defeat the terrorists?
I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.
Amid mounting concerns over Russian interference for the White House, President-elect Donald Trump has chosen a top oil executive close to Vladimir Putin for secretary of state. Senate Democrats and some Republicans say they're troubled by Rex Tillerson's ties to Moscow and potential conflicts of interest. One senior lawmaker tells CNN Tillerson could have trouble winning Senate confirmation.
And multiple sources are telling CNN that Trump has picked former Texas governor Rick Perry to lead the Energy Department. As a presidential candidate back in 2012, Perry said he wanted to eliminate three federal agencies, including the Energy Department. But when asked to name them during a debate, he blanked on energy.
And new tonight, video showing a new elite Russian special operations unit fighting ISIS inside Syria. Russian authorities say this footage has never been seen in public. The commandos are modelled after the U.S. Navy SEALs and Delta Force. We're covering that and much more this hour with our guests, including
a key member of the House Intelligence Committee, Congressman Peter King of New York. Our correspondents and our expert analysts are also standing by.
Let's begin with our senior White House correspondent Jim Acosta. He's in Wisconsin for us.
Jim, Donald Trump and Mike Pence are holding a thank-you rally where you are later tonight. Update us.
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. Donald Trump will be here in Wisconsin later on tonight to thank voters in the state who were crucial to his victory back in November. But his advisers are not looking back to the election. They're gearing up for the battle ahead over what could be his most controversial cabinet pick yet, his pick for secretary of state.
ACOSTA (voice-over): Donald Trump is facing a gusher of questions over his pick of Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson for secretary of state. Trump aides are already crafting their defense of Tillerson, who's forged such a close relationship with Vladimir Putin, cutting oil deals in Russia, that he accepted a friendship award from the Russian leader just three years ago.
SEAN SPICER, RNC COMMUNICATIONS DIRECTOR: I think, frankly, if we want to get things done in Russia, we need somebody who has a relationship not just with Putin but from other world leaders.
ACOSTA: While Tillerson is being praised by GOP heavyweights like Dick Cheney, former defense secretary Bob Gates, and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, Republican senators Lindsey Graham, John McCain and Marco Rubio are all expressing doubts.
Rubio said in a statement, "While Rex Tillerson is a respected businessman, I have serious concerns about his nomination."
Fueling those worries, the U.S. intelligence community's recent findings that Russia was hacking into the Democratic Party to boost Trump's chances. The Tillerson nomination could give Democrats an opening to probe further.
REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D), MARYLAND: I'm more concerned of just trying to figure out exactly what happened, how it happened. This is a fight for the soul of our democracy.
ACOSTA: Even as Trump's advisers see a case of sour grapes.
SPICER: In the same way that we agree that no one should interfere with our elections, we should equally agree that Donald Trump won resoundingly by the rules of the game that were established. He will be the next president.
ACOSTA: Tillerson could cause other headaches, an oil man who sounded the alarm over climate change, something Trump once caused a hoax.
REX TILLERSON, SECRETARY OF STATE NOMINEE: The risk posed by rising greenhouse gas emissions could prove to be significant. So it has been ExxonMobil's view for some time that it is prudent to take action while accommodating the uncertainties that remain.
ACOSTA: Trump has one other Texan on his vine, tapping former governor Rick Perry to become secretary of energy. Perry, recently an energetic contestant on "Dancing with the Stars," once famously forgot he wanted to eliminate the Energy Department in a debate.
[17:05:02] RICK PERRY (R), FORMER PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Let's see. I can't. The third one I can't. Sorry. Oops.
ACOSTA: Trump says he's so busy filling out his cabinet that he's postponing a news conference he scheduled for this week to explain how he'll hand over his vast business dealings to his children. Instead, the president-elect tweeted two of his children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. And that no new deals will be done while he's in office.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't want to do deals. Because I want to focus on this.
ACOSTA: But Trump did make time for a visit with hip-hop star Kanye West.
ACOSTA: That spilled out in front of the cameras.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kanye, are you considering (UNINTELLIGIBLE)
ACOSTA: Ensuring plenty of air time.
KANYE WEST, HIP-HOP STAR: Just wanted to take a picture right now.
ACOSTA: And we should point out that Condoleezza Rice and Bob Gates, who were pushing Tillerson for secretary of state, had ties to ExxonMobil through their consulting firms.
And Wolf, we should also note that, at -- at this hour that, at Trump Tower as we speak, Katrina Pierson, who was a campaign spokeswoman, she is now auditioning for the role of press secretary. There are others, obviously, in the mix. But Katrina Pierson at Trump Tower now, making her pitch for that very important position at the White House -- Wolf.
BLITZER: Thanks very much. Jim Acosta outside Trump -- in Wisconsin right now for us. Trump will be giving a thank-you rally speech in a little while there in Wisconsin.
Let's get some more now on the controversy over Tillerson. Our chief national security correspondent, Jim Sciutto, has been looking into his background, working the story for us.
Jim, Tillerson could face an uphill battle, getting Senate approval.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: That's right. From Democrats and Republicans, two key questions. One is personal, is now a time for someone with a close personal relationship with the Russian president, increasingly adversarial times between the U.S. and Russia.
But also financial. Because Tillerson, at least today, unless he divests, has enormous financial stake -- personal financial stake in the state of U.S.-Russian relations.
SCIUTTO (voice-over): Rex Tillerson doesn't just have a personal relationship with Russia's leader.
TILLERSON: Thank you for the warm welcome.
SCIUTTO: As head of the world's largest oil company, he also has a personal interest in one of the principal foreign policy questions facing the Trump administration: whether to continue economic sanctions against Russia for its annexation of Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine, sanctions that Tillerson opposed as Exxon CEO.
REP. REID RIBBLE (R-WI), FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE: It does throw up some red flags, and certainly Mr. Tillerson should -- should divest himself of his holdings at Exxon so that we -- there's no conflict of interest at all.
SCIUTTO: Tillerson's nomination follows...
TRUMP: Wouldn't it be nice if we actually did get along with Russia?
SCIUTTO: ... Trump's repeated praise for the Russian president on the campaign trail.
JOSH EARNEST, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Throughout his campaign the president-elect indicated his intent, if elected president, to pursue warmer relations with Russia. So what better way to do that than to choose somebody who's been awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin to be your secretary of state?
SCIUTTO: The nomination comes at a precarious time in U.S.-Russian relations. U.S. intelligence agencies are confident that Russia hacked Democratic Party organizations and individuals before the U.S. election, with the approval of the senior-most Russian leaders. And the intelligence community has growing confidence, officials tell CNN, that Russia's intention was to help Trump.
GOP Senator John McCain, who has called for a full Senate investigation of the hacking, says Tillerson's ties to Putin are troubling.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), ARIZONA: I have, obviously, concerns of reports of his relationship with Vladimir Putin, who is a thug and a murderer.
SCIUTTO: CNN has learned that intel agencies' belief Russian hacking was intended to help Trump is based in part on the fact that Russia also breached Republican lawmakers and party organizations, though it did not release most of that hacked information.
Asked about that assessment today, Trump's transition spokesman told us...
SPICER: Maybe they hacked these other entities successfully, and maybe they didn't find anything worth releasing. But we're all sitting around having this parlor game of "what ifs," and the fact of the matter is, it's devoid of a lot of facts.
SCIUTTO: Officials are already welcoming Tillerson's nomination. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister saying of both Tillerson and Trump, in his words, that "these people are pragmatic." Wolf, he says the Russian government believes they can work with the Trump administration.
BLITZER: Jim, you also have some new information on the president- elect's intelligence briefings. What are you learning?
SCIUTTO: That's right, Wolf. You may remember last week we reported, speaking to U.S. intelligence officials, that, to that point, Donald Trump was only getting the presidential daily briefing, which is prepared for presidents by the intelligence community, once a week. Meant to be delivered every day.
But I'm now told by Sean Spicer, spokesman for the transition, that Donald Trump is receiving the so-called PDB three times a week now, and in addition, he's getting a briefing every day from his incoming national security advisor, General Michael Flynn, who himself is getting the PDB every day.
[17:10:08] So the words from the Trump campaign is that now, at least once a day, sometimes twice a day, the president-elect, Trump, is getting some sort of intelligence briefing.
BLITZER: All right. Good to know. Thanks very much. Jim Sciutto reporting for us.
Let's get some more on all of this. Republican Congressman Peter King of New York is joining us. He's a member of both the Intelligence and the Homeland Security Committees.
Congressman, thanks for joining us.
REP. PETER KING (R), NEW YORK: Thank you, Wolf. Thank you very much.
BLITZER: Do you support the president-elect's decision to name ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary of state?
KING: Even though I don't know him, and I've not dealt with him, from all I've heard he is extremely capable, extremely knowledgeable. Donald Trump -- President-elect Trump obviously has faith in him. So to me it's a good choice for President-elect Trump.
Now, obviously, his relationship with Russia is going to be a main topic of the foreign relations confirmation hearing. And I'm sure the senators will ask him some tough questions. And it's going to be up to Mr. Tillerson to show that his relationship with Putin and his dealings in Russia actually qualify him to understand more what's going on in Russia and to be an effective negotiator and a bargainer for the U.S.
So again, this is -- he has to accentuate the positive. I think he will. I don't think Donald Trump would have picked him otherwise.
But again, it's -- there's no doubt he's very intelligent. There's no doubt he's very successful. And he has to show that his experience in Russia is going to be a strong positive for the United States.
KING: He also has to show that he can make a global view of the world. And that's just, you know, country by country. I'm confident he will.
BLITZER: I want you to listen to Republican Senator John McCain outline his concerns about Tillerson. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
MCCAIN: Anybody who's a friend of Vladimir Putin must disregard the fact that Vladimir Putin is a murderer, a thug, a KGB agent, whose airplanes, as we speak, have been targeting, with precision weapons, hospitals in Aleppo, who have committed atrocities throughout the region, and has destabilized Ukraine, has invaded Ukraine, destabilizing -- trying to destabilize Baltic countries. And the list goes on and on.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BLITZER: Tillerson clearly is a friend of Russia, of Putin. Received an award from Putin a few years ago. The Russians warmly welcomed the announcement today. So what do you say to John McCain?
KING: Well, first of all, I have a great respect for John McCain. And the -- to the extent John McCain is making his case, he's accurate on the facts.
But the facts also are that, as a business leader, as a person in the energy field, Mr. Tillerson had to do business -- not had to but would be expected to do business with Russia, and I'm sure he has a cordial business relationship with Putin. That's different from being secretary of state. That's different from representing your country. So it's two different roles.
And again, to me, it makes sense that, if he's in that field, he would have dealings with Putin; and obviously, if he's successful, he would have a certain degree of business friendship with him. That doesn't mean that he supports any of the atrocities Putin is carrying out.
I'm -- I am against Putin. I'm a real skeptic when it comes to Russia. Having said that, I've also spoken to leading diplomats from some close allies of ours who think this could be the time for us to make a move and to actually be able to work things out with Russia to some extent.
Now, I'm confident Donald Trump will not be taken in, that there is a possibility for room for negotiations with Russia here. We should do it with a strong hand. And it's up to Mr. Tillerson to show the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the U.S. Senate that he's equipped to do it. I think he is. We'll have to wait and see. Right now, I'm confident that Donald Trump knows what he's doing on this.
BLITZER: As you know, this comes at a very sensitive moment with the ongoing investigations into Russia's interference in the U.S. presidential election. Do you accept the conclusion made by both the CIA and the FBI that Russia was, indeed, responsible for meddling, conducting cyberattacks to, at a minimum, destabilize the U.S. presidential election process?
KING: You know what I agree with is that Russia was involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. I also believe that -- I am not certain that they were involved in the hacking of John Podesta's e-mails. They may or may not. That I'm not...
BLITZER: Why aren't you -- why aren't you certain about that?
KING: Based on briefings I've gotten. I am...
BLITZER: Briefings from -- without giving us names but briefings by various law enforcement or national security intelligence agencies?
KING: A combination of both. And I can also tell you this, that I don't know where this conclusion comes from that the CIA has said that they know the intent. Because we've been briefed very recently by the intelligence community, including Director Clapper, the head of -- the director of national intelligence, saying that they have not concluded what the intent of the Russians were, as to whether it was to favor Donald Trump or whether it was just to destabilize the election. They started this long before Donald Trump was the nominee, long before even he was thought to be a serious contender.
So I think that is something that's being leaked out. I think it's unfair. It could be -- possibly be illegal if they are leaking that out. Because I tell you, the House Intelligence Committee has not been told that. In fact, they've been told the opposite.
BLITZER: So I just want to be precise. You do believe the Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee?
KING: Yes. Yes, they did.
BLITZER: You're not convinced that the Russians hacked John Podesta, the former chairman of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign -- that the Russians were responsible for hacking and releasing all of his Gmail account, if you will.
KING: No, I'm not. Again, it could be. But again, on the evidence I've seen, I am not certain on that. I am -- I am virtually certain, as I can be in this world of intelligence, that they did hack the Democratic National Committee.
BLITZER: But as you know, Donald Trump isn't even ready to accept that. He believes it's ridiculous to say the Russians did it. He said it could have been the Chinese; it could have been some guy in New Jersey on his bed.
KING: Yes. Well, based on what I've seen and dealing with people in the intelligence community and seeing the type of evidence they were looking at as far as signatures, I do believe that the Russians did hack the Democratic National Committee.
BLITZER: If the Russians were not involved in the hacking of John Podesta's e-mail, who was?
KING: That could have been WikiLeaks itself. And there's reasons for thinking that. But again, the jury is still out on that one. But I said it's not anywhere near -- to me it's not as conclusive as it is with the Democratic National Committee.
BLITZER: Have you been briefed along those lines, that it might have been WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, that they were responsible for hacking and releasing John Podesta's e-mails, as opposed to the Russians?
KING: All I would say on the record for that is that that is what WikiLeaks itself is saying.
BLITZER: But have you heard that from reliable sources? I'm just wondering, because this is new information we're going through right now.
KING: No I -- yes, I've heard it from reliable sources, yes.
BLITZER: In formal -- in formal briefings for you and other members of the intelligence committee?
KING: I can't go any further than what I said.
BLITZER: All right. So you're staying by -- what about the hacking of Republican political operatives? What can you tell us about that? Because very little of that e-mail, of those documents, have been publicly released. Why is that? Why -- why did they just release information damaging to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, as opposed to information that could have been potentially damaging to Donald Trump and the Republicans?
KING: Well, you know, Reince Priebus said there's no evidence that the Democrats -- I mean -- excuse me -- that the Russians successfully hacked the Republican National Committee.
BLITZER: That's correct. That is correct. There is no evidence. And the FBI doesn't believe, and the CIA, for that matter, that the RNC, per se, was hacked.
But I'll read to you a statement that Mike McCaul, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, a man you know well, and I'm sure you respect. He was on this program a few months ago back in September, and he initially said the RNC had been hacked. Right after the program, he issued a statement, and I'll read it to you. "I misspoke by asserting that the RNC was hacked. What I had intended to say was that, in addition to the DNC hack, Republican political operatives have also been hacked."
Here's the question. Republican political operatives, their information was hacked. Why wasn't that information released?
KING: Again, I don't know how much information was hacked. I don't know how successful they were. I know Mike McCaul said that. He must have had some basis for it. But again, I don't know if it was anywhere near the extent of Podesta. There may have been nothing at all incriminating or nothing there that was -- you know, going to get anybody's attention.
I know they did hack into Colin Powell, I guess, some of his e-mails. I know that. But as far as I know, I'm not aware of who these Republican officials are, and I'm not aware, if they were, if there's anything significant that was taken from them.
And again, I received a number of briefings on this issue.
Let me emphasize again that what we've been told is that, as far as the intent, that the main intent of the Russians seems to have been to destabilize the process; to put a cloud over the election; to cause people to doubt who the real winner is and just, again, undermine democracy. And again, maybe they've been successful in that, because we're now talking about it five weeks after the election.
BLITZER: And so just the bottom line, when Donald Trump tweets or says that he doesn't buy what the intelligence community is saying about all of this, you've worked with the intelligence community for a long time. You know these professionals. Is that acceptable for the incoming commander in chief to, in effect, so severely criticize the intelligence community and recall the blunders leading up to Saddam Hussein's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction stockpiles.
KING: Well, again, if Donald Trump is referring to the fact that the CIA has concluded what the Russian intent was, he's right on that...
BLITZER: He's saying -- he's saying it's ridiculous to even suggest that the Russians hacked at all.
KING: No. I would have an honest disagreement with him on that.
As far as the CIA, the overwhelming majority of CIA employees are solid people. They're very dedicated. On the other hand, we have found instances in, for instance, during the Bush administration, there were elements in the CIA that I thought were leaking stuff out to make the administration look bad. You occasionally do have elements within the CIA that push back, that
think they're a government unto themselves. But the overwhelming majority of CIA officials are outstanding Americans.
BLITZER: All right. Congressman, there's more to discuss. I need to take a quick break. We'll resume our conversation right after this.
BLITZER: What was supposed to be Donald Trump's first news conference since July has now been postponed, at least until next month, as questions swirl about how the president-elect will handle his business empire as president.
We're back with Republican Congressman Peter King of New York. He's a member of both the Intelligence and the Homeland Security Committees.
Congressman, the president-elect, as you know, was supposed to give this news conference a day after tomorrow, on Thursday, to announce specific details of how he would attempt to prevent any conflicts of interest with his business empire once he becomes president. That's been postponed, as I just noted.
[17:25:00] He tweeted last night this, and let me put it up on the screen: "Even though I am not mandated by law to do so, I will be leaving my business before January 20 so I can -- so that I can focus full-time on the presidency. Two of my children, Don and Eric, plus executives, will manage them. No new deals will be done during my terms in office."
So it doesn't sound like he'll be divesting from his companies. And experts say there's no real way to create a firewall between the president-elect and his own children, his adult children. Do you believe there's any arrangement that would mitigate all of the potential issues surrounding his domestic and international business interests?
KING: Wolf, I am sure no matter what he does people will find something that could be done differently or they're going to find something there.
The reality is, when Donald Trump ran, everyone in the country knew he had extensive holdings throughout the country, throughout the world. They knew they were very complicated and very detailed investments he had, holdings he had, ownerships he had. And he never said that he was going to divest himself completely. He said he was going to turn it over to his, as I recall it, to his children to run, that there would be -- he would be out of it himself, but his family would continue to run it.
So it's not like there's some expose here. And he's trying to do the very best he can. I think we should give him the time to try to work it out. This isn't something we found out secretly after the election. The whole world knew this the whole time he was campaigning. BLITZER: But is that OK with you, that his two sons, his two adult
sons and other executives, would be running the business, even if they wouldn't be doing any new deals, as he said, but they -- they have a lot of existing deals, as you well know?
KING: Wolf, I don't -- I don't think you can expect someone to divest himself of a world-wide enterprise when, again, that was not an issue during the campaign. He never said he would. I think he will do the best he can. They'll try to set up what walls they can. I'm sure there's always going to be some ethics expert somewhere who says he should be doing more.
But the fact is that, when you have these extensive holdings -- and, again, it's not something we found out after the fact. We've known he's had so many holdings everywhere. And again, I -- let's give him time to get it done. Let's not prejudge him.
And let's also realize that he's not doing anything different now from what he said he was going to do when he was running. In fact, he's probably going further than what he said. At that time he just said he was going to himself out of it and have his children run the company. Now he's trying to put in more protections.
BLITZER: Congressman King, thanks for joining us.
KING: Thank you, Wolf.
BLITZER: Peter King of New York.
Coming up, more on Donald Trump's business dilemma. Will putting his sons in charge really address potential conflicts? We'll be right back.
BLITZER: Recapping today's top story. President-elect Donald Trump wants ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson to become the next secretary of state. The choice is drawing praise from, among others, former Vice President Dick Cheney. But many Democrats, even some Republicans are raising questions which potentially could point to some trouble when Tillerson comes up for Senate confirmation.
[17:31:38] CNN political reporter Sara Murray is outside Trump Tower in New York City for us.
Sara, why Tillerson and how concerned is the Trump team about opposition to him up on Capitol Hill, including even from some Republicans?
SARA MURRAY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, it did seem in some ways like Tillerson came out of nowhere. But when Donald Trump met with him, he was very impressed by his work on the global stage. He was impressed by the fact that he already had relationships with world leaders, and frankly, he was impressed by the fact that this is a businessman who knows how to do deals. Obviously, that's something that Donald Trump can relate to. But the fact that Condoleezza Rice, the fact that Robert Gates, the
fact that James Baker were all willing to put their support behind this man, that also resonated with Donald Trump and his team, particularly members who didn't necessarily feel comfortable with the notion of Trump going with someone like Mitt Romney for secretary of state. Now, we've heard senators on the Hill expressing concern already.
But in talking to Trump's team, they don't seem particularly concerned about the notion of Tillerson getting confirmed. They do believe that, once he starts meeting with senators privately and once he's in these hearings, that people will get a much better sense of his record and sort of why he did the things he did and that he will ultimately impress them and win over their support, Wolf.
BLITZER: Sara, how much is Russia -- Russia policy actually dominating the decision-making behind the scenes among the Trump transition officials?
MURRAY: Well, while we in the media and members on Capitol Hill have been very focused on Russia and Tillerson's relationship with Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump's perspective -- and this is from a senior transition official, is actually that China is the main event here.
So when he is looking at people to represent the U.S. on the world stage, he is thinking about China being our No. 1 geopolitical issue here, not Russia. And that's really what is driving some of his decision-making.
For instance, that is the reason Mitt Romney was such a formidable contender. It was not necessarily an issue about whether he agreed or disagreed with Donald Trump on Russia.
But remember, in 2012 Mitt Romney said he would label China a currency manipulator if he were president. So on this key issue, in Donald Trump's mind, they actually saw eye to eye.
One of the big questions with Tillerson is what his view is on China. He does not have as much experience with that country, as he does with others across the globe. So it will be interesting to see how that fits into Donald Trump's agenda. But it just gives you yet another perspective of this is a guy who ran on creating jobs, who ran on wanting to defend the American worker. And he sees no country as more pivotal to that than China. And that's what we should expect to see when it comes to his foreign policy, as well, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, interesting. Sara, thanks very much. Sara Murray outside Trump Tower in New York.
Let's get some insight from our experts, and I'll start with Gloria Borger, what does it say to you that neither Trump nor Rex Tillerson, for that matter, necessarily see Russia right now as the top priority? They see China as the top priority.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Look, I think we know what Donald Trump believes. At this point we don't know what Rex Tillerson believes.
We know what he's done as the CEO of Exxon, where he did an awful lot of business with Russia. He became a friend of Vladimir Putin's. But we also don't know, for example, Wolf, what would he do on the Iran nuclear deal? He wasn't opposed to the Iran nuclear deal. I should say Exxon wasn't necessarily, because it would open, potentially, oil markets for them. They were for TPP at one point. They did not -- Tillerson did not oppose the Paris climate deal.
So, until you get him before that committee and you get to ask him these questions about what would you do as secretary of state for Donald Trump to implement what Donald Trump believes, let's hear the answers to his questions, and we'll all be curious to hear what he says about Putin. We'll all be curious to hear what he says about China, and we'll all be curious to hear whether he believes he can do deals on a geopolitical scale on behalf of the United States with Russia, as he did as the CEO of Exxon. I'm interested to hear what he's got to say.
BLITZER: You'll hear hours and hours of testimony before Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
BORGER: We will. We will.
BLITZER: S.E., Donald Trump tweeted this. I'll put it up on the screen. "The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience in dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments."
So how does his vast business experience -- and it is enormous -- running one of the largest companies in the world, ExxonMobil, how does that translate to international diplomacy?
S.E. CUPP, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, and let me just add on to Gloria's good list, what he would do about Syria, another big issue.
CUPP: But I think there's an argument -- sure, this is not a conventional road to the secretary of state. I think you can make an argument that diplomacy, at face value, is the art of negotiation. John Kerry negotiated deals with Iran, with Russia over -- over Syrian chemical weapons. This is, in some ways, the job.
And the fact that Tillerson has so much experience negotiating deals internationally with some of the key players that he's going to have to work with in the future, I don't think it's disqualifying. In fact, it could be -- could be -- an asset.
Could he -- could he be vastly unprepared for this job? Yes. And I think we'd know that very soon. But I'm not very quick to dismiss his business -- I mean, this is why we thought Mitt Romney might be a good secretary of state, because of his business experience. I'm -- like Gloria, I'm interested to see what he does say.
BLITZER: You remember during the campaign Donald Trump often dismissed politicians, diplomats, careerists, if you will. They couldn't negotiate.
BLITZER: He needed the greatest negotiators of the world, people who have made enormous deals. That's who he wanted representing the United States.
CUPP: This is on brand, yes. Totally.
BLITZER: So we shouldn't be all that surprised that he selected Tillerson, who used to -- still does until he leaves ExxonMobil, negotiate huge deals.
But he's getting a lot of concern, Rebecca Berg. Marco Rubio, John McCain, Senator James Langford of Oklahoma, among others, they've expressed some concern about Tillerson's ties with Russia and Putin. So how could that color the upcoming hearings, the battle that clearly take place, because a lot of Democrats are not in favor?
REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Sure. Well, it's my sense, Wolf, that this is partially a concern about Donald Trump and the way he has approached Russia throughout the campaign and still during the transition.
Many Republicans have been concerned that he has gone too easy on Russia, hasn't taken an aggressive stance. And so the fact that he's choosing someone like Tillerson, who is close associates with Vladimir Putin, has worked with him in his capacity as an executive at ExxonMobil for almost two decades, that concerns them because, will he be a counterweight to Donald Trump on Russia? Will he take a more aggressive approach? Will he encourage an aggressive approach from Donald Trump?
And so Republicans are looking at this and thinking, will he use kid gloves against Vladimir Putin? And that would be a legitimate concern.
But in the same way that this could present challenges, it also presents an opportunity. And I think that's what Donald Trump is looking at here. Here is someone who knows how Vladimir Putin operates, very intimately knows how the Russian government works, knows where their interests lie; and oil is a big driver of their economy. And so he understands that. And so Donald Trump and his team are thinking here is someone who they can really negotiate with and who will know when to push back and know when not to.
BLITZER: Jeffrey, he's spent his whole career at ExxonMobil, ever since he finished college. He was at ExxonMobil all these years, and to his credit, he worked his way up to the top. But he's been -- he's been there for a while. As a secretary of state, you've got to do a lot of other things, too.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Right. But I think -- you know, this is a guy who disagrees with the president-elect on TPP, on the big trade deal. He disagrees with...
BLITZER: Which the president-elect says he's already gotten rid of.
BLITZER: And he disagrees with the president on the Paris agreement on global warming. He agrees with him on Russia. So Russia has got to be a big reason why he was named.
Also, we talk about Russia like it's some, you know -- just, like, another country. Russia, apparently, was intimately involved in the presidential election, on Donald Trump's side, according to the CIA. So the fact that he is engaged in this very considerable outreach towards a country that apparently helped him become president, I think -- that's not part -- that's part of it.
[17:40:05] BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, because we're just getting word that another new person has emerged as a cabinet member, potentially, in the Trump administration. We'll report what we've just learned. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
BLITZER: We have some breaking news coming into THE SITUATION ROOM and a transition of power alert.
Two transition sources now tell CNN that President-elect Trump has selected Congressman Ryan Zinke of Montana to become the next interior secretary. A transition officials says Zinke, a former commander in the Navy SEALs, has accepted the offer. The announcement has not officially been made, but we have learned Ryan Zinke will be tapped to become the secretary of the interior.
We're back with our political experts. He's moving quickly, relatively speaking, compared to predecessors in a transition to fill out that cabinet. It's very impressive the speed at which he's doing this.
BORGER: And what's also impressive is that Donald Trump is not doing it because he has a bunch of IOUs. He's got to sort of check the boxes. If he had the IOUs, it might have been to Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani, and they didn't get jobs. And Jeff Sessions, of course, is going to be -- is going to be A.G.
But there are a lot of people who didn't support Donald Trump in the Republican Party or in the business community who were very lukewarm to him. I mean, Steve Mnuchin did get to be treasury secretary.
So what Donald Trump is doing is casting the net wide. He's going to respected Republicans and saying, "OK, give me a list of names and let me meet with these people." And I think he's kind of feeling them out on a -- and having these peer-to-peer conversations, which he had clearly with Tillerson, where he felt some kind of camaraderie.
TOOBIN: Right. But you say reaching out. He's not reaching out to moderates. [17:45:00]
BORGER: No, he's not. He didn't say --
TOOBIN: These are all very conservatives.
TOOBIN: I mean, Zinke is a very honorable, very conservative Congressman --
TOOBIN: -- former Navy SEAL who has a 3 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters. You know, I think in that, when you say reaching --
BORGER: I said reaching out to Republicans.
CUPP: But we should note that he also --
TOOBIN: But not even all friends with the Republican Party.
BORGER: That could be said.
CUPP: He also met Democrat Tulsi Gabbard.
CUPP: He has met with former rivals within the Republican Party. And I think, for Mitt Romney, to others, has met with moderate Republicans. There's one in the White House as his Chief of Staff. I don't think Reince Priebus is a moderate Republican.
I think the common thread to all of these disparate people that he's appointing is that they all, at least in my estimation, have a deep suspicion of just how involved the government and these big departments should be, even appointing some people who don't think that the very departments they're going to be heading should even exist. And for Ryan Zinke from Montana, you know, who, I think, has very sort of limited government, starve the beast ideas, I think that's a motivating factor in all of these picks that you're seeing.
BLITZER: But he is meeting with some moderates. Today, he met with Bill Gates, he met with Al Gore. He's not offering them any jobs and they're not going to be any jobs there, but he is reaching out. And I think Ivanka Trump potentially is his inspiration for that. What are you hearing, Rebecca?
BERG: That's right. And, you know, he did meet with Democrats as potential candidates for some of these Cabinet positions, Heidi Heitkamp was one, who, now we see, Energy is going to Rick Perry instead, but Donald Trump is listening to these people. And some of the Republicans would argue that the same could not be said of Barack Obama listening to Republicans during his administration. So Donald Trump is at least trying to send signals, I think, on that
his ears are open, that he is weighing all of the options. Donald Trump is notoriously a listener, sort of the original crowd sourcer. Everywhere he goes, he's asking people, even people who aren't necessarily qualified to be answering these questions, what they think about this pick and that, this policy and that. So clearly, he's on sort of a listening tour right now during the transition, but there comes a point when you really do need to start filling these positions.
BORGER: But why --
TOOBIN: But what does it mean, if you listen to Al Gore and then appoint as head of your EPA --
BORGER: Yes, but --
TOOBIN: -- someone who doesn't believe in climate change? I mean, what difference does it if you met with Al Gore?
BORGER: But Donald Trump now has changed his tune on climate change, as you know, because he once tweeted that it was a hoax and, you know, now he's, after meeting with Al Gore, saying he was interested in what he had to say. I think that we should not be surprised at the appointments that Donald Trump has made. He got elected precisely because he has more faith in business than in government to do the right thing, that he believes in smaller government, so he appoints Rick Perry as head of a department that Rick Perry get rid off --
BLITZER: All right, guys.
BORGER: -- he'll make it smaller.
BLITZER: Standby because he also likes generals too as we've seen in some of his appointments as well.
BORGER: Well --
BLITZER: Everybody stick around. I want to alert our viewers, please be sure to check out the first ever book from CNN Politics. It's called "Unprecedented: The Election That Changed Everything." You can pick your copy today in stores or you can get it online. Just go to CNN.com/book.
Coming up. Never before seen footage shows Russian special operations forces fighting inside Syria. What are Vladimir Putin's troops accomplishing? We'll be right back.
[17:52:16] BLITZER: We're keeping a very close eye on the dire situation in Syria right now. Russia says the Syrian government now controls eastern Aleppo where a new ceasefire is supposed to be in effect so there can be evacuations. There are reports of atrocities as civilians have been caught up right in the middle of the fighting between the rebels and the Syrian forces supported by Russia.
Let's bring in CNN's Brian Todd who has some never before seen video of Russian special operations troops fighting inside Syria. Brian, tell our viewers what you've learned.
BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, for the very first time, we are seeing this elite Russian unit called KSO actually taking out its enemies on the battlefield. This is extraordinary video we're going to bring you. Experts say this might not be as good as the Navy SEALS or the Delta Force yet, but in its short life span, this group of commandos has been battle tested a few times.
TODD (voice-over): These men, we're told by a Russian reporter, are ISIS fighters in Syria about to meet their deaths. In an instant, they're cut down by sniper fire. This new video airing on Russian state T.V. shows something Russian authorities say has never been seen in public, a new elite Russian special operations unit called the KSO fighting inside Syria.
TODD (on camera): Just how elite is this unit?
MICHAEL KOFMAN, RUSSIA MILITARY EXPERT, CENTER FOR NAVAL ANALYSES: Well, in terms of Russian forces in general, it's the most elite unit that they have. And their main missions are, one, to fight behind enemy lines, take out key targets, disrupt the adversary, but also to enable larger parts of the fight, such as either gather intelligence, do reconnaissance, or do targeting for conventional strikes.
TODD (voice-over): Here three men identified as militants in a truck from the right, a projectile, and they're pulverized. The video shows militants being assassinated by Russian snipers. Here an enemy sniper position is blown apart. The commandos are modeled after the U.S. Navy SEALS and Delta Force. The video captures them training, displaying their weaponry -- red dot rifle sights, noise reduction headgear, modern bolt action sniper rifles, and similar imaging capability to what U.S. forces use in battle.
LT. COL. DOUGLAS OLLIVANT (RET.), SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY STUDIES FELLOW, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: They have this thermal capability lets them see the enemy when they can't see them. The video talks about this, that the enemy is blind and we can see him. So they bring this, they bring persistent surveillance, we see either UAVs or satellite shots elsewhere in the video.
TODD (voice-over): The unit commander says these dead militants were wearing suicide vests. His commandos probe the bodies, disable the vests, look for intelligence, experts say a common practice among other special ops forces.
OLLIVANT: Certainly, you would you want to go see what intelligence value you can get off these dead combatants. TODD (voice-over): The video shows them Russians that their Special
Forces or Spetsnaz are trained in everything from scuba strikes to tactical assaults to parachute jumps.
[17:55:04] The fighting in Syria has allowed Vladimir Putin to show off Russia's capabilities from an aircraft carrier to precision bombing. This video, experts say, allows the President to crow about Russian Special Forces, tactics, and technology.
KOFMAN: The value is, it's a piece for the domestic audience to show how Russian security services are fighting terrorists and taking them out.
TODD: And that is a crucial piece for Vladimir Putin to justify Russia's intervention in Syria. Experts tell us that this is crucial for him to show that Russian Special Forces are actually taking the fight to terrorists, many of whom, according to this video, are from the former Soviet Republics. The video says they're taking them out here in Syria to prevent them from returning back home and targeting Russians at home, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right. Brian, thanks very much for that report. Coming up, key Republicans join Democrats in voicing concern about Donald Trump's pick for Secretary of State. Will there be a Senate battle over his confirmation?
[17:59:55] BLITZER: Happening now, red flags. Even some Republicans are raising concerns about President-elect Trump's choice for Secretary of State because of his close ties to Russia. Tonight, there's new fuel for a fight over the nomination of oil executive Rex Tillerson.