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Obama Defends Free Press in Final News Conference; Dems Grill Controversial Health, EPA Nominees. Aired 5-5:30p ET

Aired January 18, 2017 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news, final answers. President Obama gives his last news conference. He defends the news media harshly criticized by President-elect Trump, and he defends commuting the sentence of national security leaker Chelsea Manning.

[17:00:21] And as our new poll shows, President Obama is leaving office with an approval rating of 60 percent. He cautions his successor, saying, "You can't do it by yourself."

Confrontation hearings. Angry Democrats saying Donald Trump has put together what they call a swamp cabinet and harshly grills his nominees for the health and environmental posts. But the Pentagon pick sails through the Armed Services Committee.

Intensive care. Former president George H.W. Bush is treated for an acute respiratory problem. His wife, Barbara, is also hospitalized. Tonight, the latest on their conditions.

And in their -- in his own words. Trump says he's writing the first draft of his inaugural address by himself. The president-elect concedes to interviewers that intelligence briefings are worrisome and says he understands that he needs to, quote, "get it right."

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking news stories tonight. After eight years in office, President Obama holds his final news conference. He defends commuting the sentence of national security leaker Chelsea Manning, saying justice was done. And in a dig at Donald Trump, he defends the need for a free and adversarial press core.

Obama says his conversations with Trump have been cordial and constructive and offers the president-elect a final piece of advice: Don't go it alone.

Democrats today lashed out with what they call the president-elect's quote swamp cabinet, full of backers and billionaires. They grilled the health secretary nominee, a strong critic of Obamacare, and the EPA nominee, who has previously sued the agency he's been tapped to lead. But the United Nations pick today strayed from some of Trump's foreign

policy positions and defense secretary nominee James Mattis breezed through the Senate Armed Services Committee, 26-1.

Former president George H.W. Bush, meanwhile, is in intensive care at a Houston hospital tonight for an acute respiratory problem. His wife Barbara is also hospitalized for fatigue and coughing. We'll get an update on their conditions.

Last week the former president wrote Donald Trump expressing regret that he could not attend the inauguration.

I'll speak with Republican Senator Tom Cotton of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees. And our correspondents, analysts and guests, they are standing by with full coverage of the day's top stories.

Let's begin with our White House correspondent, Michelle Kosinski.

Michelle, on President Obama's last White House news conference that he held today, the president came out with a very strong defense of the news media. Update our viewers.

MICHELLE KOSINSKI, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: You know, this was absolutely a message to the incoming administration. I mean, he stood there and told the White House press corps that they're not supposed to be a bunch of sycophants; they're supposed to be skeptics, and that's what they have been. In the same way that he seemed to be warning Donald Trump the job of the presidency is too big to do it yourself. You need good people around you, but you can't surround yourself only with people who agree with you.

So did the president break major new ground here? No. Did he want to be critical? Definitely not. He wanted to end this on a positive note.

However, he didn't shy away from issuing these kinds of warnings.


KOSINSKI (voice-over): President Obama opened his final press conference as president by thanking the press core, telling them they make the White House work better.

BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It doesn't work if we don't have a well-informed citizenry. And you are the conduit through which they receive the information about what's taking place in the halls of power. So America needs you and our democracy needs you.

KOSINSKI: And he defended his decision to commute the sentence of Private Chelsea Manning, convicted of stealing and leaking sensitive military documents to WikiLeaks.

OBAMA: Let's be clear. Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence. I feel very comfortable that justice has been served and that a message has still been sent. KOSINSKI: The president promised that if fundamental democratic

principles are undermined in the days ahead, he will not remain silent.

OBAMA: There's a difference between that normal functioning of politics and certain issues or certain moments where I think our core values may be at stake. I put in that category if I saw systematic discrimination being ratified in some fashion. I put in that category explicit or functional obstacles to people being able to vote, to exercise their franchise. I'd put in that category institutional efforts to silence dissent or the press.

[17:05:34] KOSINSKI: As he zeroed in on voter suppression.

OBAMA: The reason that we are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote is it traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery. And it became sort of acceptable to restrict the franchise.

And that's not who we are. That shouldn't be who we are. That's not when America works best. So I hope that people pay a lot of attention to making sure that everybody has a chance to vote. Make it easier, not harder. This whole notion of election -- or voting fraud -- this is something that has constantly been disproved. This is fake news.

KOSINSKI: And the president offered up advice he gave to President- elect Trump, cautioning him on who he surrounds himself with.

OBAMA: This is something I have told him, that this is a job of such magnitude that you can't do it by yourself. You are enormously reliant on a team.

KOSINSKI: As the first black president, President Obama said he expects he won't be the last to lead the nation.

OBAMA: I think we're going to see people of merit rise up from every race, faith, corner of this country, because that's America's strength. When we have everybody getting a chance and everybody is on the field, we end up being better.

KOSINSKI: And finished this last gathering by expressing his optimism for the future of the country.

OBAMA: This is not just a matter of no-drama Obama. This is -- this is what I really believe. It is true that behind closed doors I curse more than I do in public. And sometimes I get mad and frustrated like everybody else does.

But at my core, I think we're going to be OK. We just have to fight for it. We have to work for it. And not take it for granted. And I know that you will help us do that.


KOSINSKI: So, he leaves office a very popular president, though his candidate lost. He ran on hope and change, and he ends by saying, "We're going to be OK, but you have to fight for what you believe in."

And one thing he wouldn't comment on were all of these Democrats, dozens of them now, who are boycotting the inauguration, even though his administration has weighed in and said they don't believe that these Democrats are hurting a smooth transition or contributing to division. He himself, even though reporters have been wanting to ask him this question, he wouldn't weigh in at all -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, he said he didn't want to comment on that decision by so many of these House Democrats to boycott the inauguration. Michelle Kosinski, thanks very much.

Rocky moments for the Trump transition today as controversial cabinet picks came in for some pretty tough questioning. Democrats grilled the health and human services secretary nominee, an outspoken critic of Obamacare, and the EPA nominee, the climate change critic who actually has sued the agency he's now been picked to head.

Our political reporter, Sara Murray, is here to sum it all up for us. There were some fireworks up on the Hill behind us today.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: There absolutely were. There were some stumbles. There were some big breaks in policy with the incoming president-elect. And there's a big looming question, which is just how many of Donald Trump's cabinet picks will be confirmed and ready to begin the job when he is sworn in on Friday?

And I'm told by someone that that's been a perplexing question for Donald Trump himself. Why can't he get his entire cabinet confirmed the day he begins his tenure as the president?


MURRAY (voice-over): Donald Trump appears set to enter the White House without most of his cabinet picks by his side.

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: My cabinet members, we have put together a team, I think, the likes of which has never been assembled before.

KOSINSKI: With just two days until he takes the oath of office, a number of Trump's nominees are getting grilled on Capitol Hill and publicly splitting with their new boss. Perhaps the most intense questioning was reserved for Congressman Tom Price, Trump's pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services and dismantle Obamacare.

REP. TOM PRICE (R), HHS SECRETARY NOMINEE: I believe and I look forward to working with you to make certain that every single American has access to the highest quality care and coverage that is possible.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: "Has access to" does not mean that they are guaranteed health care. I have access to buying a $10 million home. I don't have the money to do that.

KOSINSKI: Price facing sharp questions, not only about his plans to overhaul the nation's healthcare system, but also his past financial investments. That's after CNN reported Price bought shares in a medical device manufacturer just days before introducing legislation that would have benefited the company.

[17:10:16] PRICE: Everything that we have done has been aboveboard, transparent, ethical and legal.

KOSINSKI: Today price insisted he has no idea what stock he owns.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D), MASSACHUSETTS: This is someone who buys stock at your direction. This is someone who buys and sells the stock you want them to buy and sell.

PRICE: Not true.

WARREN: So, when you found out...

PRICE: That's not true, Senator.

WARREN: Well, because you decide not to tell them, wink, wink, nod, nod, and we're all just supposed to believe that?

KOSINSKI: Trump's pick to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, also irks Democrats with his views on climate change. He acknowledged human activity contributes to it but wouldn't say to what extent.

SANDERS: Why is the climate changing?

SCOTT PRUITT, ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY NOMINEE: Senator, in response to the CO2 issue, the EPA administrator is constrained by statutes...

SANDERS: I'm asking you a personal opinion.

PRUITT: My personal opinion is immaterial.

SANDERS: Really?

PRUITT: To the job of, to the job of...

SANDERS: You are going to be the head of the agency to protect the environment, and your personal feelings about whether climate change is caused by human activity and carbon emissions is immaterial?

KOSINSKI: Meanwhile, Nikki Haley, Trump's choice for ambassador to the United Nations, is the latest cabinet pick to break with Trump's world view. Shrugging aside his past criticism of the U.N. and insisting she'll be able to change his mind once he's in the White House.

NIKKI HALEY, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE U.N. NOMINEE: I look forward to communicating to him how I feel as I do -- I know the rest of the National Security council does, as well.

It is important that we have alliances. I know the president-elect realizes that. It is important that we create coalitions. As we continue to talk to him about these alliances and how they can be helpful and strategic in the way that we move forward, I do anticipate that he will listen to all of us.

KOSINSKI: This as yet another nominee comes under scrutiny. Congressman Mick Mulvaney, Trump's pick for budget director, failed to pay $15,000 in payroll taxes for a household employee. That admission coming from Mulvaney himself in a statement to the Senate Budget Committee, first reported by "The New York Times" and confirmed by CNN.

While most of these nominees are still on track to be confirmed, Democrats aren't taking it quietly.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY), MAJORITY LEADER: A swamp cabinet full of bankers and billionaires, many of them have hard right views, some of which directly contradict promises that the president-elect campaigned on.


MURRAY: Now, some of these nominees may come out of this process a little more battered, a little more bruised, but for the most part, they're all expected to be confirmed. It's just a question of when.

And in the meantime, Donald Trump's team is springing to their defense. They called Senator Chuck Schumer a partisan attack dog today, and they said nobody is more qualified to reign in government spending than Mick Mulvaney.

BLITZER: Fifty-two Republicans in the Senate, 48 Democrats. They have the votes if they all stick to the party line. Sara, thanks very much for that.

Joining us now, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He's a member of the intelligence committee as well as the Armed Services Committee. He's a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Senator, thanks very much for joining us.


BLITZER: Let's talk about the president's decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning. He said justice has been served. She has already served seven years for leaking all this information.

Hundreds of thousands of documents to WikiLeaks. He said that's -- the sentence that she received 35 years was disproportionate. He says that this was justice, and it was a good decision that he made. He strongly defending it. I know you strongly disagree. Tell our viewers why.

COTTON: I disagree, and it's very disappointing. I think it's dangerous for our country. Chelsea Manning leaked hundreds of thousands of documents that revealed war plans and capabilities of our military, also the identities of many foreigners who worked with our government.

If it's disproportionate, maybe because there's the crime that she committed is disproportionate to any other crime that we've seen in recent years.

But this is also dangerous for us in the future. This is not just something where we're looking backward. We depend vitally on the cooperation much many foreigners, most of whom don't want that cooperation revealed, who want to do so in secret.

Now that the president, in a very sensational and high-profile way, has commuted Chelsea Manning's sentences -- sentence by 28 years, I think a lot of foreigners will question whether or not they can trust the United States government to conceal their identities in the future. That's very dangerous for our troops and diplomats, intelligence officers and, ultimately, our national security.

BLITZER: She will be released in May of this year, serving almost, seven years, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a very tough prison to serve. She really has paid a price for what she did. President also says she acknowledges it was a crime expressed remorse, it's time to move on.

COTTON: Well, she served seven years. She received a sentence for 35 years.

BLITZER: And he says that was disproportionate, given the crime that leaks, normally, you don't get 35 years for leaking information.

[17:15:06] COTTON: Normally the documents you leak aren't personally requested by Osama bin Laden, as we know was the case with the Chelsea Manning WikiLeaks.

But also, the military justice system has a parole process. She would have been up for parole in coming years. If the judges in that military justice system thought it was disproportionate, they could have granted her parole. It wouldn't have been quite as sensational high-profile publicized. It wouldn't have been so risky for our security going forward.

BLITZER: On another sensitive issue, the president was asked about Donald Trump, President-elect Trump's statements that he might ease those sanctions against Russia after he takes office. The president strongly says, don't do that. For now, the Russians are still occupying parts of Ukraine, Crimea, the annexation. Who are you with on this, the president or the president-elect?

COTTON: I would not ease the sanctions on Russia while they continue to occupy Crimea and foment civil war in Eastern Ukraine. But more fundamentally, I would say that President Obama for eight years has not seen strategic linkages around the world. He and John Kerry and others have said they compartmentalize issues with Russia, like their nuclear agreements and Ukraine and Syria. They may do that, but that's not the way Vladimir Putin does it.

And I suspect that Donald Trump, as a very seasoned businessman and negotiator, won't do it either. He'll recognize that every interaction we have with Russia is a point of pressure and leverage in which we can advantage our interests as against Russian interests.

BLITZER: He's very tough, the president-elect when it comes to China, Mexico, even NATO, saying it was obsolete. Not very tough when he speaks about Russia or Putin. Why?

COTTON: Well, he's also said that NATO is very important to him in the same interview where he said NATO was obsolete. And some of the more fundamental policy choices he's made would not look good if you're sitting in Moscow, like trying to expand our nuclear forces, build up our military, expand oil and gas production in the United States.

Likewise, some of the men and women he's chosen for his cabinet, like Nikki Haley or John Kelly, Jim Mattis, Mike Pompeo, those are Russia hawks. They don't look good if you're sitting in Moscow either.

So I think, you know, we'll see in two days the exact policy course he takes on a lot of measures. And there's been a lot of talk for a long time. Come Friday, though, we'll all see him in action.

BLITZER: Yes, he says starting Monday he's going to start actually making some major, major announcements: decisions, executive orders.

Stand by, Senator. We have more to discuss. We're getting some new information as well, right here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories tonight. And we're back with the Republican senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas. He's a key member of Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The president today at his news conference, senator, he said -- he warned against what he called sudden unilateral moves when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now President-elect Trump has told me and others he wants to move the U.S. embassy, for example, from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Didn't say when, but he wants to do it. The president, President Obama today cautioned him. You know what? There could be serious ramifications for any of these unilateral moves by the Israelis, for example, building more settlements.

I know you disagree with the president, but do you think it's smart for the president-elect to take these kinds of immediate actions like moving the embassy, allowing or supporting the Israelis, the decision to build more settlements on the West Bank?

COTTON: Well, I think we should move our embassy to Jerusalem. It's the capital of Israel. It's going to be the capital of Israel on whatever kind of agreement Israelis and Palestinians ultimately decide in the future. It's been supported by Congress for decades.

And the time is ripe. Israel has never been in a stronger position in the Middle East than they are now. They are strongly supported by a lot of their Arab neighbors. During the past, we strongly opposed this measure. But given the threats that have occurred now from Iran and Syria and Russia in the Middle East, I think the time is right to do so. I think it's proper.

I mean, we would feel slighted if a foreign country refused to put its embassy here in Washington but put it in New York or Los Angeles. We should pay them the same courtesy that we expect every country to pay the United States.

BLITZER: Susan Rice, the president's national security advisor, told me this week that it would cause a real negative reaction from some key allies, including friends of Israel like Jordan, and Egypt, for example, if the Israelis were -- if the U.S. were to do so.

COTTON: Unfortunately, I think our friends in places like Jordan and Egypt and Saudi Arabia are more focused on dealing with the fallout of the policies that Susan Rice has helped craft with Obama in places like Syria and Iraq than they are about where the United States puts our embassy in Israel.

BLITZER: I know they're pretty upset about Iran, too, if you want to add that to the equation.

All right. Let's move on and talk about the decision to repeal and replace Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. Do you understand -- does the president-elect really have a plan in place right now to repeal it and replace it with something specific almost simultaneously, as he says? Do you understand how he's planning to do that?

COTTON: I don't know if he has actual legislative texts that he wants to submit to committees and the Congress and have a vote on it, but I have a pretty good idea of the direction he wants to take it, the direction that we want to take it.

Look, Obamacare has failed in many ways. Premiums are up, deductibles and copays are up, networks are narrowing. It's been much more costly than was predicted. We've got to fix these problems, and we think that once we repeal Obamacare, we can focus on solving the problems that our healthcare system has had a long time...

BLITZER: You want it to be simultaneously, the decision to repeal and replace. The moment that it's repealed, you want to see legislative -- a legislative plan to replace it?

COTTON: The closer in proximity that those two things happen, the better. And I certainly would like to see it happen in a matter of weeks and months, not years.

Now, that's different from phasing in the solutions and trying to have a smooth transition so we don't pull the rug out from underneath people. But, you know, we've been working on this problem now for six years. It's not going to get better if we wait for another year or two. So the closer in proximity that we repeal Obama care and that we put forward our own solutions to our healthcare problems that are so long-standing the better off the American people will be.

BLITZER: We heard from President Obama today, his last news conference, eight years, twice elected president of the United States. You've been a sharp critic of his, but share with us one thing that you've admired about this president over the past eight years.

COTTON: I think President Obama has been a good role model for young men throughout our society, especially people like him who grew up without a father. You know, he's been an excellent father, an excellent husband. And I think the kind of quiet dignity that he's brought to the private side of his life sets a really good example for young men all around the country, who maybe don't have a father figure, don't have a role model they can look up to. And I think it will have a lasting impact.

BLITZER: Senator Cotton, thanks very much for joining us.

COTTON: Thanks, Wolf.

BLITZER: Coming up, will Donald Trump listen to President Obama's veiled warning about the relationship between the president and the press?


OBAMA: You're not supposed to be sycophants; you're supposed to be skeptics. You're supposed to ask me tough questions.



BLITZER: We're covering breaking news on multiple fronts tonight.

[17:30:37] Contentious hearings for Donald Trump's cabinet nominees, especially his picks to oversee the replacement of Obamacare and run the Environmental Protection Agency.

At the same time President Obama held his final White House news conference today, praising reporters for asking tough questions.

Let's bring in our political experts and Dana Bash, lets me start with you. I'll play a clip. This is the president of the United States speaking about the importance of a strong news media working with the staff. Listen to this.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: You're not supposed to be sycophants; you're supposed to be skeptics. You're supposed to ask me tough questions. You're not supposed to be complimentary, but you're supposed to cast a critical eye on folks who hold enormous power and make sure that we are accountable to the people who sent us here.


BLITZER: So, that message, if the president-elect was watching, how will it resonate with the president-elect who has been very critical, as you know, of the, quote, "mainstream news media"?

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, we all, like everybody at this table, hope that he was listening and watching and taking notes, and more importantly taking it in and digesting that.

He didn't just say that we're not supposed to be sycophants. He also said very clearly that the press core has been in this building. That was not an accident because, of course, there has been discussion about moving the press, whether it's the offices or the briefing room, into another facility on the grounds of the White House complex and, you know, he made clear that's not a good idea.

But also more broadly, that a free press, an adversarial press is one of the cornerstones of American democracy and needs to continue to be that way.

And to hear from Obama, I mean, no presidents love the press, let's be honest. I think that's an understatement. Obama has had his issues with the press that mainstream media, you know, across the board. But he understands its importance. And, you know, that and a whole host of other things we just hope that he was -- he, the president-elect, was listening.

BLITZER: Nia, you know, the president also is leaving after eight years in the White House with very good job approval numbers. Take a look at this. "How is President Obama handling his job as president?" in our brand-new CNN/ORC poll. Sixty percent approved, 39 percent disapprove.

He says he's going to continue speaking out on several issues, including voting rights among others. So, he's got some cover, given the popularity that he's leaving the White House with.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: He certainly does. And these are near record numbers. I think Reagan was at about 66 percent and Clinton was near that, too.

I think one of the problems that Obama is going to have in his -- you know, in his years out of the White House is that Republicans still don't really approve of him. If you look at where Reagan and Clinton were when they he left office, almost 40 percent of Republicans approved of them. If you look at Obama's numbers, about 20 percent of Republicans approve of his standing.

Democrats love him. He'll certainly be able to rally Democrats. But as we've seen so far, in terms of him trying to rally Republicans around some of his key issues, whether it be Obamacare, that hasn't happened.

And he's talked about that as a failure of his during his White House years, his inability to break down some of this fierce partisanship. In some ways maybe he contributed to it. In some ways he'll certainly have these approval ratings to talk to Democrats. The question is whether or not he can ever really rally Republicans to his cause.

Some of these causes around voting rights, Republicans on a different side in terms of where they think about voting I.D. He talked about institutionalized efforts to crack down on a free press. That is something he would speak out on.

And he very much made a distinction between sort of the everyday political fights that the parties have and any kind of efforts to really codify discrimination, codify efforts to discriminate against people or crack down on the press. So, we'll have to see what his post-presidency is like. And if it's very different from what we've seen from Bush, who's been on a ranch in Texas.

BLITZER: You know, Jim Sciutto, he also made a strong case from his perspective, his decision to commute the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who was convicted, has already spent almost seven years in jail for leaking 750,000 classified documents and video to WikiLeaks. Will that defense, the arguments he made today at the news conference, have an impact in the intelligence community, the military community? A lot of folks were not happy with his decision.

[17:35:15] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: In a word, very unlikely, because -- and I spoke to a lot of folks and frankly, who knows what party they're in, but serving this administration who were extremely unhappy with this decision, and a bit mesmerized from it. You heard that even from public comments from some Democratic lawmakers. I mean, mesmerized, one, because of the deep damage they believe that the releases by Chelsea Manning did to the intelligence community, unnamed sources overseas, soldiers deployed abroad, et cetera.

But also at a time where you have WikiLeaks involvement in what the intelligence community views as the greatest attack on American democracy in history.

So, the timing, but also knowing the past damage, there's confusion, there is upset. I think the arguments today meant more for the public, frankly, than for those in the national security community. It's the president's decision, and it's going to stand.

BLITZER: The nomination of Tom Price to be the secretary of Health and Human Services, Mark Preston, he had some tough questions: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken. They were asking tough questions about his stock purchases, then putting forward legislation a few days later that could have benefited those stocks, ethics questions. But is he in any serious trouble, based on what you're seeing?

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: No. After today, no. I mean, because Republicans have the votes in order to get him through, and, you know, right before the segment, Jim and Dana and I were just kind of talking about hearings in general; and Jim just kind of rhetorically said, "Do hearings matter?" And they do kind of, but in this case they don't, because Democrats are unable to stop any of Donald Trump's nominees if all the Republicans band together.

Now, there may be a question about Tillerson...

BASH: Yes. PRESTON: ... for secretary of state. I mean, that might be an issue, but that goes beyond hearings, necessarily. It goes beyond whether Republicans such as Marco Rubio want to actually get behind a Tillerson for that position.

But what we saw out of Tom Price today, I think was very telling. He was very combative with those senators; and those senators were very combative back.

BLITZER: Did you get the sense, Rebecca Berg, that Tom Price and the president-elect on the same page when it comes to a plan to not only repeal, but to replace the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, it's still a little bit tough to tell, Wolf, because the president-elect has not gone into very much detail still on what he would like to see Republicans do on health care.

He has said that, you know, congressional Republicans will be leading the way. Mike Pence working with them to lead the way on getting this plan through Congress.

But then he said in a recent interview that he is working on a plan of his own, and that sort of came out of nowhere, that Donald Trump would have a different plan than House Republicans, potentially, and even from Tom Price.

So, there hasn't really been any detail from Donald Trump as to how he might diverge from Republicans except when he suggested maybe everyone would need to be covered. That was something new that we hadn't heard before, and his team has sort of been walking that back. Mike Pence actually said in an interview that -- I think it was with you, Dana, actually.

He said that he thinks everyone should be able to afford health insurance, which is, of course, something very different.

But to go back to your point, Mark, that hearings may not be as important as we make them out to be, certainly from the perspective of these confirmations going through. What Democrats have been able to do is really illuminate and illustrate some of the major wedge issues between Republicans and to personalize (ph).

BLITZER: Tell us what the vice-president said to you about...

BERG: The perfect segue.

BLITZER: Vice-president-elect, I should say, what he said to you about that, because there has been some confusion about precisely where the president-elect stands on these very sensitive issues in health insurance for all Americans.

BASH: In short, and I'm not faulting him, he didn't clear it up, because what he said was a bit different, or maybe it was more to the point that he was trying to clarify what President-elect Trump said about everybody is going to have health care. He basically, the way he answered it, was saying everybody is going to have access to healthcare, and those who need it most will get healthcare.

But when it comes to the -- you know, where the rubber meets the road in how this is going to happen, and how the Republicans are going to craft legislation and policy to make that happen, even though President-elect Trump suggested that there's a plan in place, he said, no, there really are ideas. There's no real plan in place yet.

The one thing that struck me is that he said, "I don't want Americans to be anxious," and that -- the reason it struck me is because he has said that privately to Republicans. Republicans have said privately to him, they're hearing from their constituents about them being anxious. Not because they think Obamacare is going swimmingly, but because when you get a benefit, like 20 million people have, it's difficult to figure out if you're going to take it way and how.

[17:40:12] BLITZER: Take it away, they'll get anxious.

BASH: Exactly.

BLITZER: Understandably.

So everybody stay with us. We have more information coming in to THE SITUATION ROOM. We'll take a quick break. We'll be right back.


BLITZER: The Senate is racing to finish screening Donald Trump's cabinet nominees in time for the president-elect's inauguration, which is less than two days away.

We're back with our correspondents and political experts. You know, Jim, you've got some newreporting on concerns among the outgoing national security team about the incoming team, that during this transition, there really hasn't been enough preparatory work.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: So we've spoken to people, both in the White House but also in the State Department, who say that there's been some confusion and delay in terms of basically trading information and expertise as you prepare for the transition.

They say that they provided thousands of pages of classified documents, briefing papers on issues -- North Korea, ISIS, you name it -- and they're not certain that they've been read and received by the Trump transition team.

They also say that a lot of communications between the staff level, right -- and this is where some of the most essential communication goes between administrations, it's not just a Flynn meeting with a Rice. It's the deputies and the deputies below them and that that is only beginning. So far later than it has in previous administrations.

I should mention that Sean Spicer, spokesman, of course, for the transition, has said from their perspective, they don't buy that criticism. They say that they've held reading sessions of these materials. They say that the deputies have been in touch. But I will say what struck me, a couple of State Department officials

have described to us how there's been a lot of discussion in the State Department on budget issues and organization, but no big picture foreign policy discussions.

And the thing is, that's been echoed by some of Trump's own national security appointees when, for instance, Nikki Haley was questioned today. She said she has not had a deep dive discussion with the President-elect on, say, Russia, which is fairly remarkable considering the degree to which the intelligence community and the national security community views Russia as a threat. And not just on Russia issues, on North Korea and others.

So you're hearing that from a broad base of folks in the outgoing administration. I will say, fair to say, the incoming administration does dispute that.

BLITZER: Yes. Mark Preston, you've heard from Rex Tillerson, also say -- he's the Secretary of State nominee -- that he really hasn't had a substantive major discussion with the President-elect on Russia.

MARK PRESTON, CNN POLITICS EXECUTIVE EDITOR: Right, and I think we've seen this with all of his nominees where we've seen differences, whether it be, you know, on health care or issues on climate change as well.

We saw that today with Ryan Zinke where Zinke was asked, does he think that climate change is a hoax such as Donald Trump had once said? He says, no, I don't think it is a hoax.

Look, I think we ought to go back to step one. They didn't think they were going to be here. Donald Trump, his advisors, didn't think they were going to be here. The people they had on the ground was not as robust as the Hillary Clinton people.

And by the way, had Hillary Clinton got elected, it probably would have been a little bit of an easier transition because the Clinton people and the Obama people would have worked a little bit closer together.

They've got to get up and running. They've only got a couple of days, Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes. I need everybody to stand by. There's more coming in.

There's breaking news. Both former President George H.W. Bush, former first lady Barbara Bush, they are in the hospital tonight. We'll have an update on their conditions right after this.


[15:52:35] BLITZER: We're following breaking news in Houston, Texas, where both former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, the former first lady, Barbara Bush, they are both in the hospital.

Let's bring in our CNN Special Correspondent Jamie Gangel and our Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Jamie, first of all, what are you hearing?

JAMIE GANGEL, CNN SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT: So President Bush was admitted to the hospital over the weekend with a persistent cough and shortness of breath. They gave him I.V. antibiotics and they thought he was doing really well.

Then this morning, the situation changed. He took a turn for the worst, apparently, and he was admitted into intensive care. The diagnosis is pneumonia, and he was sedated and intubated, which we'll let the doctor talk about.

Barbara Bush, separately, was admitted to the hospital today, suffering from a cough and fatigue. So it's been a rough day for them. We wish them all our best, but it's serious.

BLITZER: He's in his early 90s, the former President.


BLITZER: And pneumonia, that's a serious complication.

GUPTA: Yes. I mean, it's one of the things you certainly worry about as people get older. It's one of the most common reasons people end up in the hospital, end up in an intensive care unit.

Interestingly, Wolf, he hadn't been on the breathing machine. He hadn't been intubated, getting that breathing tube that goes through the mouth and into the trachea, which is what he had done today.

He hadn't had that before, even with these previous bouts of pneumonia. He was hospitalized for two months, I believe, in 2012. So I think that this does indicate some added degree of seriousness here, even more so than his previous bouts of pneumonia.

As Jamie said, he's been on I.V. antibiotics since Saturday, so several days now. Usually, those are, you know, at least a weeklong course. They want to see how he does.

BLITZER: This son, George W. Bush, and Laura bush, they're supposed to be here in Washington for the inauguration. Are they staying in Texas or coming to Washington?

GANGEL: We're told actually that they've been in Florida with family, but we're told that they are still planning to come to the inauguration.

BLITZER: So that would be good. And we, obviously, hope that both the former President and Barbara Bush, they are OK. Explain that procedure of what he had done so that he can breathe more easily.

GUPTA: Yes. When someone is having difficulty breathing, in this case, it sounds like because of the pneumonia, a lot of times, people will go ahead, doctors will put a breathing tube in. It's a breathing tube. [17:55:02] BLITZER: But it's a serious procedure. You have to be

sedated for this.

GUPTA: You have to be sedated. And lot of times, patients are already sedated, for example, if they're going to have an operation. In this case, it sounds like they gave him medication to sedate him.

It's a tube. It's not an operation, per se. It's a tube that goes into the mouth and into the trachea, and then it's connected to the ventilator or breathing machine.

When someone is sedated, it may be essentially doing all the work in terms of helping them breathe. As they wake up more and more, it may be just providing assistance. The big question is, you know, how much assistance is he getting from that and how long will he need it?

BLITZER: We wish both of them a very, very speedy recovery.


BLITZER: Coming up, President Obama gives his final White House news conference and defends the news media harshly criticized by the President-elect Donald trump.