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Trump's Christmas Eve Spent Calling Troops, Golf and Tweets; Aired 9-9:30a ET

Aired December 25, 2017 - 09:00   ET

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


[09:00:23] PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Merry Christmas and happy holidays to everyone. I'm Pamela Brown in for John and Poppy.

And this morning the president is celebrating his first Christmas as the commander-in-chief in Mar-a-Lago and it's already been a busy holiday for him and his family.

On Christmas Eve he wished troops a Merry Christmas and did a church service, but also on the same day he launched a stream of attacks on Twitter and touted his accomplishments.

CNN's Dan Merica is with the president in Florida -- Dan.

DAN MERICA, CNN POLITICS CORRESPONDENT: That's right. The president has golfed, he has spent time a lot of time at his Mar-a-Lago resort, and he has done things that he usually does at the White House. He tweeted about the FBI.

Over the last four -- two days, excuse me, he's tweeted four times about the FBI, particularly about Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. He tweeted yesterday criticizing his handling of the Hillary Clinton e- mail controversy and the fact that his -- Andrew McCabe's wife ran for office in Virginia as a Democrat and took money from that state's Democratic governor.

Now we learned, CNN has learned that Andrew McCabe intends to retire in the next few months, but the fact that the president has really gone after McCabe over the last two days has led some Democratic lawmakers to think that the president is trying to force him out early.

I want to read to you what Ted Lieu, a congressman from California, said. "POTUS has tweeted quite a bit about FBI official Andrew McCabe, who could be called as a witness against Trump in an obstruction of justice case. Trump's Twitter feed is the gift that keeps on giving. Merry Christmas, Robert Mueller."

Of course, Mueller is the special counsel who is investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. So really his timing here has been a collision of the traditional things that many presidents have done. President Trump yesterday teleconferenced with the troops. He participated in the NORAD Track Santa event yesterday and he also went to a late mass last night, as well, in Palm Beach. But he's also continued tweeting like he has over the last 10 months,

ever since he came in to office. Additionally, President Trump has taken some credit down in Palm Beach for saying Merry Christmas again, something he has done for much of the summer and November and he particularly tweeted yesterday that he is proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase.

We've seen a few photos of the president from last night, especially the first lady this morning. We'll continue to monitor what he's doing but we imagine he's going to be spending time with his family at Mar-a-Lago for much of today -- Pamela.

BROWN: And I'm sure you'll also be monitoring his Twitter account just in case.

Dan Merica, thank you so much.

And joining me now is Renato Mariotti, former federal prosecutor.

Thank you so much for coming on. I want to start with what we just heard from my colleague Dan Merica, what Democratic Representative Ted Lieu is suggesting that the president's recent Twitter rant about McCabe is actually a gift to Special Counsel Mueller. Why would that be the case and do you think he's right on that?

RENATO MARIOTTI, FORMER FEDERAL PROSECUTOR: Well, I think that Special Counsel Mueller could use the president's tweets as evidence to suggest that he's fixated on the Mueller probe and he's trying to interfere in it. And the main potential liability for the president is obstruction of justice related to the firing of James Comey. In order to prove that, Mueller has to prove that the president acted with, quote, "corrupt intent." So in other words, he acted corruptly. He was trying to influence the investigation in an improper way.

That can be a difficult thing to prove because it's not like you have a telescope peering into the mind of somebody to know exactly what they're thinking. And evidence like this that shows that he's really focused on going after investigators or in this case a witness who could be testifying, you know, as to his obstruction. It just lends to that picture that Special Counsel Mueller is going to try to paint.

BALDWIN: And to your point there, Richard Painter, the chief White House ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, he put it this way to President Trump when he's talking about Andy McCabe.

"You don't like Andy McCabe because he's a witness to your obstruction of justice." Of course, he is the deputy FBI director retiring soon. CNN reported last week that McCabe testified on Capitol Hill that Comey told him about the alleged loyalty pledge Trump asked him to make of course when Comey, James Comey, was the head of the FBI.

What is the likelihood in your view that McCabe is being treated as a witness in the Mueller investigation as part of the obstruction of justice case against the president.

MARIOTTI: Well, I think it's very likely that he's considered a witness. We don't know whether or not, you know, he has written a report or otherwise recounted what he was told by James Comey, but we know this much.

[09:05:07] I mean, we know that Mueller is looking at obstruction of justice. We know that from the document request that he sent to the White House, we know that from accounts of witness interviews that he's conducted, and I don't think any prosecutor could be looking at obstruction of justice without looking at the testimony of James Comey and then what can -- what we call corroborate, in other words, what can back up the testimony of Comey?

So, you know, Comey and the president were together, you know, in a room, no one else was present, so you have the account of those two men and one of the things that could be used to bolster Comey's testimony if there was any kind of court proceeding related to that would be, you know, his statements right afterwards to other people about what happened.

BALDWIN: Trump's lawyer argued earlier this month that the president cannot obstruct justice because he is the chief law enforcement officer under Article II and has every right to express his view of any case.

Do you think he's right? Is there anything the president could tweet that would actually get him in legal trouble?

MARIOTTI: Well, you know, I don't know if a tweet him -- you know, the tweet in and of itself is going to create a potential criminal activity, but I think, you know, what is being suggested there is that the president is essentially immune from, you know, doing anything corrupt related to the hiring and firing of personnel, for example, or ending and starting investigations.

And then I think widely it's considered by legal scholars to be incorrect. You know, the president, obviously, has the power to fire the FBI director if he wants to. The question -- but, you know, can you do that for an improper purpose? You know, hypothetically, you could imagine, say, a president getting a bribe in exchange for firing an FBI director, that would obviously be a crime.

You know, here, you know, if there was evidence that the -- you know, beyond a reasonable doubt that the president had fired Comey in order to help himself or his friend Mike Flynn or someone else, you know, that -- you know, that could potentially be a crime. Obstruction of justice.

BROWN: All right. Renato Mariotti, thank you so much for coming on, sharing your perspective.

MARIOTTI: Thank you.

BROWN: And joining me now to discuss a little bit more, Errol Louis, CNN political commentator and political anchor for "Spectrum News," Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for "The Chicago Sun-Times," and Patrick Healy, CNN political analyst and "New York Times" deputy culture editor. Thank you all for coming on on this holiday.

I'm going to start with you, Errol. President Trump, as we know, went after Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe over the weekend in these tweets after it emerged that he intends to retire in the coming weeks. Trump tweeted, "FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is wasting the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go." Several sources tell CNN that McCabe told the FBI months ago that he plans to retire and that he was not forced out, so in your view what is the president trying to gain with this attack and is it effective?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, it is the Trump style to strike back if anybody says anything bad about him, and the fact that Deputy Director McCabe just testified before Congress and apparently and reportedly confirmed what James Comey's account was of different exchanges between the president and James Comey really puts the president in a perilous political and legal sort of situation.

And so this is just his way, as far as I can tell, of striking back, of saying something negative even if it doesn't make sense. And let's be clear, what he said doesn't make any sense. The money that was provided to Dr. Jill McCabe when she ran, the race was over before he had anything to do with the Clinton probe.

So what the president has said as far as his attacks, you know, sort of trying to suggest that he wants to drive him out of office, even though he was already planning to retire from the FBI again doesn't make sense other than the president blowing off some steam, striking back at somebody who he thinks has maybe damaged him in some way, and providing an example to everybody else of what will happen if you say something bad about Donald Trump.

BROWN: I want to look at this headline, this recent headline in "The Washington Post" that said "No Longer a Lonely Battle, How the Campaign Against the Mueller Probe Has Taken Hold." And the article cites Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff, saying, "The White House would like to have the best of both worlds. They make the public case that they are cooperating, while their allies do the dirty work."

So what do you think, Lynn? Do you think the White House is privately onboard with these attacks that we're hearing from Republicans on Capitol Hill while, you know, publicly they're putting on a different face?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, THE CHICAGO SUN-TIMES: I do. I think that the goal of the White House writ large, including tweets that the president sends, is to delegitimize this -- anything that comes out of the fruits of this Mueller investigation, and a byproduct of that then would be to raise credibility doubts about what Congress is doing in their three congressional investigations, too.

[09:10:06] So it's kind of one strategy that has the same purpose, to erode whatever the conclusions may be from these investigations except, of course, if it's something that's exculpatory. Then all of a sudden we'll hear a different story. But I think the point is that in this kind of relentless attack on the Mueller investigation and also anyone who is raising questions, there is some evidence now that this has taken hold, which is, I guess, a plus when you think about messaging and the impact of repetitive messaging. This is a case study as to what happens.

BROWN: That's exactly it. And you see it's picking up mainstream support?

SWEET: Well, I don't know if it's mainstream support, but just by having stories raising the credibility questions, that raises the question of people who aren't necessarily devoting night and day about what they consider important in this investigation, so it is a public relations strategy, so the other part of your question, is the White House cooperating? They do want to say they are cooperating because that's a reasonable public posture to have, and whether or not they are cooperating timely and we don't know the whole story yet on that if all the witnesses are coming forth that they want -- in the way they want.

One quick point. I think what President Trump is not recognizing in his tweets where he is so focused often on Russia, that his bigger danger now for himself personally is obstruction of justice, which is different than whether or not somebody could conclude there was some collusion with his campaign that he might not have known about.

BROWN: Yes. There are two different investigations going on.

Patrick, to you. Retiring Republican Senator Jeff Flake spoke with ABC's Jonathan Karl yesterday about the White House and Republican attempts to undermine the Mueller probe. Let's listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: The sensitivity that the White House has to the special counsel and this investigation is troubling. I still cannot figure out the rationale for the timing of the Comey firing and if the president continues to try to, you know, undermine the legitimacy of that investigation and if Republicans continue to try to help with that, I think that puts us in peril.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Well, Senator Flake will give a series of speeches on the Senate floor about the state of President Trump's relationship with the truth. Do you think that this is really just his swan song, or do you think it will actually carry some impact?

PATRICK HEALY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think Jeff Flake has been pretty consistent, you know, in saying -- in sort of speaking out for a certain part of the leadership wing of the Republican Party that has never been comfortable with the Trump presidency, that's never been comfortable with the way that President Trump tweets at institutions like the FBI and the intelligence services, you know, the EPA, scientists, and sort of degrades Americans' trusts in these institutions, makes them question motives.

I mean I think Flake and some others, you know, in Congress certainly have the advantage that they are leaving office, that they do have a certain maybe more -- a greater degree of independence to say what they believe, but they are speaking for, certainly, a number of Republicans, who even though they like total party control, you know, of the presidency, of Congress, they like what they've seen in terms of some of the appointments and confirmations on the judiciary. They are still uncomfortable with the idea that this kind of -- the way the president attacks institutions will become normalized.

And I think you see Jeff Flake sort of still saying this isn't really normal, the way that the president goes about and does these things.

BROWN: Yes. Really focusing on his behavior there.

All right, thank you so much, Patrick Healy, Lynn Sweet, Errol Louis. Stick around. A lot more to discuss this morning.

And coming up, a warning from members of the president's own party, 2018 midterms could be very ugly.

And North Korea calls the latest U.N. sanctions an act of war, saying the U.S. and other nations will pay a heavy price.

Plus, Hurricane Maria destroyed his home in Puerto Rico, but it's not stopping one man from delivering magic on Christmas. We'll be back.

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[09:18:25]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REPRESENTATIVE CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: Got to be running into the headwinds, you've got to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best. Let's be prepared for the worst because this could be a really tough year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: That was retiring Republican Congressman Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania. The really tough year he's referring to starts one week from today. You hear Dent and at least one other GOP lawmaker talked 2018 is a year Republicans should be dreading.

These things President Trump is putting the party at risk of losing its majorities of both the House and the Senate next year. Republican senator and outspoken Trump critic, Jeff Flake, who is also retiring next year said this about his party's future.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE (R), ARIZONA: Look at some of the audiences cheering for Republicans sometimes. You look out there and you say, those are the spasms of a dying party when you look at the lack of diversity sometimes, and it depends on where you are, obviously, but by and large, we're appealing to older white men, and they are just, you know, there's a limited number of them. (END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Back with me now to discuss, CNN political commentator and political anchor of Spectrum News, Errol Louis, Washington bureau chief of "The Chicago-Sun Times" Lynn Sweet, and CNN political analyst and deputy culture editor of the "New York Times," Patrick Healy.

You heard Jeff Flake saying basically there was a concern there's not enough diversity in the Republican Party, that could hurt them in the midterms. If you look at the polls, Patrick, support among GOP women of Donald Trump is in decline pretty steadily. Do you think that is adding to the concern here?

PATRICK HEALY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I think absolutely. I mean, Donald Trump has done so little as a politician to really help his party in terms of a message that can build the party and grow the party.

[09:20:13] He has spent pretty much his entire presidency and the campaign before that going after a very, very narrow slice of the electorate that Steve Bannon and others have convinced him that is your base, that is what you need to focus on, that's what you need to tend to.

So GOP women, you know, white women, for instance, historically have been with Republican presidential candidates, but you get down ballot and some of these competitive House and Senate races and the degree to which the Democrats are able to hang President Trump's words around those candidates' necks, that isn't going to help.

And then you really do have this flood of Democrats who are going, both women and men, but particularly you're seeing a lot of Democratic women who are running in these Republican House districts who are going to make a very, very strong stand.

Right now, we haven't seen any ability for the president to help his party with the down ballot races and he says he's going to spend 2018 campaigning for these candidates. What we've heard is a lot of those candidates don't want him there.

BROWN: Right. That leads to my next question. The next litmus test for Republicans is loyalty to Trump, but this is a president who has a 35 percent approval rating, Lynn?

LYNN SWEET, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, "CHICAGO SUN TIMES": Let's look at how the House and the Congress will be elected. It's a two-stage process. And if we even want to go further, some governors will be ensnared in this, too.

If a Republican is worried about a primary challenge from the right, then they will be in a pickle about what to do about Trump because then it's harder to distance yourself with Trump, because that 35 percent popularity, when you just look at a Republican primary in your particular district or state, that number might be higher.

So that is dilemma one. But if you run to the right to get the nomination, then you're back to where your question is applied in the general election, and that is that Trump will be a big problem for a lot of Republicans, especially in swing districts where the votes are suburban women are very important.

BROWN: Let's just take a step back here. Obviously, the Republicans are touting a huge victory with tax reform, you know, the president put Neil Gorsuch on the bench of the Supreme Court. There have been accomplishments in the president's first year in office.

Is this just a fact of here we go, here are Trump's 2017 wins right here, repeal of Obamacare individual mandate, ISIS in retreat? You have all of these things put together. Is it because of the president's behavior of what's hurting him so much and why you're hearing two Republicans in Congress coming out and distancing themselves from the president?

ERROL LOUIS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, yes and no, Pamela, because, honestly, the president's party almost always loses seats in the midterm election. I mean, this is going all the way back to the civil war, you know. Just in recent history that I think some viewers may remember.

In 1994, Bill Clinton wasn't all that popular after getting elected and they lost a ton of seats and control of Congress in 1994. Same thing happened when George W. Bush in his second term, 2006, Democrats take back control of the House of Representatives.

It does tend to happen, and we already, I think, see the outlines of why it could happen in this case. And the president's behavior is certainly an important and very prominent aggravating factor in all of this.

Even people who like the fact he's pushed for the reopening of drilling in the arctic and sort of dismantled a lot of regulations and put these arch conservatives on the bench, even if you love all of that stuff, the reality is the vulgarity, the obscenity, the falsehoods, the ongoing investigation makes it very hard for a lot of Republicans to try and sort of buck history and do what normally doesn't happen.

And what normally does happen is, quite a few members of the president's party lose their seats in the first midterm election.

BROWN: All right. Well, we will have to wait and see what happens. Errol, Lynn, Patrick, thank you all so much.

And Pope Francis is using Christmas, his Christmas message, to focus on major world issues. He's calling for a two-state solution in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. This comes just four days after the United Nations condemned President Trump's decision on Jerusalem.

CNN's John Allen is live in Rome.

JOHN ALLEN, CNN SENIOR VATICAL ANALYST: Hi, Pamela. You're absolutely right. Pope Francis legendarily has no off switch, and he certainly didn't take Christmas day 2017 off, continuing to press his campaign for peace in a variety of global hot spots.

[09:25:11] He began with the Middle East in the wake of President Trump's controversial decision to relocate the American embassy in Israel. He prayed for peace in Jerusalem, reiterated the Vatican's long-standing support for a two-state solution that goes back to the partition.

He then touched on Myanmar, a country he visited in 2017, although carefully without using the word Rohingya, simply referring to the need for the dignity of minorities there to be protected. He also omitted the word Rohingya from his public oratory in Myanmar.

That was an effort to not inflame the situation. He touched on Venezuela, the Ukraine, a variety of African nations, Iraq, and Syria, and on perennial threats such as child soldiers, human trafficking.

So if you were looking for a preview, Pamela, of the pope's political and diplomatic to do list in 2018, that's more of what we got in Rome this Christmas.

BROWN: OK, John Allen, thank you so much. Appreciate your reporting there from Rome.

Meantime, Russia wants the U.S. to start talks with North Korea, but the North Korean regime says the latest round of U.N. sanctions are an act of war. We'll be back.

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