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Trump Spends First Christmas as President in Mar-a-Lago; Trump Slams FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe; GOP Lawmakers Sound Alarm about 2018. Aired 10-10:30a ET

Aired December 25, 2017 - 10:00   ET

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


[10:00:00]

PAMELA BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone. Great to have you along with us. I'm Pamela Brown in for John and Poppy this morning.

And it's the first Christmas for the Trumps as the first family, celebrating in Mar-a-Lago this morning after a busy Christmas Eve. The president, who vowed to save Christmas during his campaign, attending a church service last night with the first lady. He arrived for the service just after claiming this victory. "People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. Merry Christmas!"

But it wasn't all Christmas cheer on Twitter. CNN's Dan Merica is with the president in Florida. I guess no surprise that the president has been busy on Twitter, Dan.

DAN MERICA, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes. It's been kind of a clash of the traditional things that presidents do and the tweets that the president has been known to send for a long time. You know he's spent this holiday season so far golfing in his resort nearby -- his golf club nearby, spending time in his resort and tweeting about the FBI in particular. In the last two days he sent four tweets about the FBI, particularly about Andrew McCabe, the deputy director there, he's criticized McCabe for the way he handled Hillary Clinton's e-mail investigation and the fact that McCabe's wife once ran for state Senate - as state Senate, excuse me -- in Virginia and took money from that state's Democratic governor.

Now, we have learned -- CNN has learned McCabe plans to retire in the coming months. But the tweets that the president has sent have led some Democrats to speculate that Trump is possibly trying to push McCabe out early. I want to read to you what Ted Lieu, congressman from California has said, "POTUS has tweeted quite a bit about career FBI official 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."

Now Robert Mueller is obviously the special counsel investigating collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election. So really it has been kind of a conflict between the traditional things presidents do around Christmas, calling the troops, teleconference with the troops. President Trump also called and helped take calls from the NORAD Track Santa feature where kids can call in and see where Santa is according to NORAD.

And then he went to a church service late last night with his wife. I want to mention something that was said at this church service, the homily that was given actually mentioned the fact that words can hurt people. And this is what was said, "Your words can have as much destructive potential as they do healing." So even on Christmas Eve, President Trump was hearing from people who are noting the fact that words have the potential to hurt. Pamela?

BROWN: Very interesting. Dan Merica, thanks so much.

And joining me now to discuss this, Susan Hennessey, CNN national security and legal analyst. Susan, I'm going to start with what we just heard from Dan, this tweet from Ted Lieu, basically saying that the president tweets about McCabe are a gift to Robert Mueller. Why might that be?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's in two possible reasons. One is these tweets do appear to be sort of calculated potentially to push Andrew McCabe out of the FBI early. We know that he plans to retire sometime early next year when he's eligible for retirement. These attacks on him appear to be aimed at sort of pushing him out of the government prematurely. You know it's far easier to access people that are outside of the executive branch. They might be more willing to talk. It also sort of it's helpful to Mueller's case because so much of the really serious questions here about Trump's own conduct and Trump's own legal liability go to mental state. Why did he do these things that he did.

And so, whenever we hear him talking about witnesses, talking about sort of the individuals that were really close in, to the firing of Jim Comey. You know Andrew McCabe was one of the people Comey confided in immediately afterwards, so he's a contemporaneous witness who can corroborate Comey's story. It really does speak to sort of you know the president's mental state, why he's going after these people, and I don't think it builds a particularly helpful case for Trump.

BROWN: Yes, what's the motive and you know some may view McCabe as a witness. You look at what Richard Painter, the chief White House Ethics lawyer under George W. Bush. He said this. He put it this way, "You don't like McCabe because he is a witness to your obstruction of justice."

CNN reported last week that McCabe testified in Congress that Comey had told him about the alleged loyalty pledge that Trump asked him to make. What's the likelihood in your view that Robert Mueller is looking at McCabe as a witness in this investigation?

HENNESSEY: Right, so again, Jim Comey has testified about these sort of five or six senior FBI leaders that he confided in. They're all finding themselves now sort of targets of GOP attack, President Trump didn't only tweet about Andy McCabe, but also tweeted about FBI general counsel Jim Baker, these are all people that you know almost certainly Robert Mueller is going to be interested in sitting down with and hearing sort of their versions of the event as they occurred at the time.

[10:05:04] BROWN: Right. Because these are two people who are also very close to James Comey when he was the FBI director. You look at what the White House is arguing, Trump's lawyer argued earlier this month, the president cannot obstruct justice because he's the chief law enforcement officer under Article II and has every right to express his view of any case. You hear that repeatedly from the lawyers that look, the president had the right to do this, it doesn't matter what he tweets.

HENNESSEY: So that's just not true, right? So, we've seen sort of the White House lawyers try and assert you know this is within his power within his authority. There are lots of examples of individuals within the federal government who are entitled to undertake an action but they're not allowed to undertake an action for a corrupt purpose. So, somebody might be allowed to award a contract - a federal contract to someone. If they do it in exchange for money, that's bribery. It's a crime.

So, sort of no one is asserting here that President Trump didn't have the right to speak to Jim Comey, the right to sort of express opinions on certain cases. The question here is whether or not he crossed that legal line just like any other American citizen. Now obviously, the legal questions are far more complicated in this case. But sort of assert off hand. I mean, really what they're saying is the president is above the law. He cannot commit crimes. We know that that's not true.

BROWN: Right. You do point out the legal questions are complicated. The White House, Ty Cobb, the lawyer there, has said, look, this is expected to wrap up very soon, early in the new year. Do you see that happening, or do you see this sort of dragging on for a while?

HENNESSEY: Right, so we've seen sort of this line coming out of the White House, potentially they're even telling President Trump, sort of setting this expectation. All other evidence is to the contrary. We don't know, Special Counsel Mueller has certainly had surprises in the past, so maybe he's ready to sort of exonerate the president, maybe even in this letter that Ty Cobb is expecting. But all other signs indicate that this is a complex, ongoing investigation.

Also, it does appear like the White House has been surprised over and over again. So, they don't -- they clearly were surprised by the George Papadopoulos plea, the timing of the Manafort and Flynn sort of plea and indictments. And so, there's sort of a sense that they don't necessarily know what's going on. And also that you know this is a sprawling investigation, and it's going to push into the new year.

BROWN: Right. Exactly and much to the chagrin of the White House, this shadow will continue to hang over it. All right, Susan Hennessey, thank you very much.

And joining me now to discuss a little bit more, Alice Stewart, CNN political commentator and former Ted Cruz communications director. And Robert Zimmerman, Democratic strategist and former committee man for the DNC. Thank you both for coming on in this holiday, we do appreciate it.

ROBERT ZIMMERMAN, DEMOCRATIC STRATEGIST: Merry Christmas.

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Merry Christmas.

BROWN: Merry Christmas to you. Robert, I'm going to start with you here. President Trump as we know went after deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe over the weekend on Twitter after it emerged that he intends to require in the coming weeks. Trump tweeted, "FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe is racing the clock to retire with full benefits. 90 days to go?!!!"

I'm told by one of my colleagues that this was intended, that McCabe has told his colleagues months ago that he was going to retire when he was eligible. He's not being forced out. What is the president trying to gain with this attack and is it effective, in your view?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, like so many of the slanderous attacks the president and his team have engaged in towards FBI officials, it's not only false, but more to the point, every one of these attacks, whether it's against Rod Rosenstein, whether it's against Jeff Sessions or Sally Yates or James Comey or Andrew McCabe. They have nothing to do with the FBI and the FBI's conduct. It has to do with really Donald Trump trying to protect himself and his political team trying to protect him during the Russian probe. Because in the case of Andrew McCabe, the president only turned his anger towards him when he testified in Congress that he supported James Comey's testimony where he felt the president was looking for a loyalty oath.

And I think it's also important to remember, while the president is degrading the FBI, let's remember just three days ago, our FBI disrupted and in fact arrested individuals who were plotting a very severe terrorist attack in San Francisco. So for all of us, the FBI should be in our prayers this holiday and Christmas with our gratitude for the work they do for our country.

BROWN: That's certainly not great optics on the heels of the FBI preventing that attack in San Francisco. To you, Alice, I want to go to this headline in "The Washington Post." This recent headline that said, "No longer a 'lonely battle': How the campaign against the Mueller probe has taken hold." The article cites Adam Schiff, the Democrat congressman 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." Do you see it that way, Alice?

STEWART: I actually see the president doing some of the dirty works with some of what we've been just talking about with the attacks on the FBI and McCabe in particular. I think what this does do, and it's something that the president always has high on his priority, is really energize his base and get them riled up and get them involved and really energizes and solidifies their support.

[10:10:04] The problem with that is, is that sit tends to put him in legal jeopardy, possibly, with some of the comments that he's making. This isn't going to sway Robert Mueller either way, shape, or form. He's going to do his investigation just as he's going to the way he's going to. But with the president says often in his tweets is furthering and his dialogue and his notion that any talk about FBI and Russian interference is undermining his victory. I wish that he would really grasp the concept that he won the presidency, he won it fair and square, and any questions about Russian interference are more to get to the bottom of did they interfere and influence our election. I wish he would grasp that and I wish he would fully embrace the investigation.

More than anything, they say they've done nothing wrong, they say they're in the clear. If that's the case, which I hope it is, then they should fully cooperate with the FBI, give them all the information they need and let them put this investigation behind us. I was encouraged that he did have his legislative affairs director Marc Short out on the Sunday show yesterday and gave his full support and praise for FBI director Chris Wray. I think that is a strong and important step moving forward. Let's just hope we have a lot more of that in the new year.

BROWN: But it's interesting, though, because, you know, while you see the president going after specific agents such as Andy McCabe, Peter Strzok, the one with the text messages. He really has sort of been resistant to go after Robert Mueller himself, and you wonder if that strategy will change as we get to the new year and dipping on where this investigation goes.

I want to go to you, Robert, on this other question from Jeff Flake. He is the retiring Republican senator and he spoke with ABC's Jonathan Karl yesterday about the White House and Republican attempts to undermine the Mueller probe. Take a 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: What do you think he means, Robert? What does he mean when he says it puts the U.S. in peril?

ZIMMERMAN: Well, clearly I think it's a very valid point, and Senator McCain has made the same point, that when President Trump actually takes Vladimir Putin at his word, as he says, or when in fact he supports the words of a KGB officer over our own national security leaders, when he tried to demean and degrade the Federal Bureau of Investigation or attack the Department of Justice or not listen to nor respect the advice and counsel of our national security officers. He in fact is jeopardizing our international security, our place in the world, and the confidence that the United States is held in by other nations. So, I think Senator Flake made a very important point. I would make one other point, when he talks about the timing seems curious to him, the timing isn't curious. Donald Trump said very directly that one of the principal reasons for firing James Comey as he put it was over the Russian thing. So, we're seeing a deliberate pattern by this, by this president, by his administration, to target an attack, government officials, many of them are former war heroes like Bob Mueller for example, former FBI director, when they stand up and they seek for truth on the investigation into Russian collusion.

STEWART: And I think what's important continue to bring this all back to is, this is about Russian interference in our election. There's pretty much universal acceptance of the fact that they did interfere in our elections. To what degree if they at all influenced the outcome, that remains to be seen. But I think it would be best served for the president to finally accept the fact that this is about Russian interference and influence in our election, nothing more or less. And if he would help them get to the bottom of this. The key outcome of this is to be sure this doesn't happen again, because it's a serious, serious problem.

BROWN: All right, Alice, Robert, thank you so much, again Merry Christmas to you.

ZIMMERMAN: Merry Christmas to you both.

BROWN: And we do have some breaking news coming in at this hour, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders says President Trump has briefed on the suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul. ISIS has claimed responsibility for that attack. At least 10 people were killed and five injured.

Retiring Republican lawmakers sounding the alarm to GOP could see major losses during the 2018 midterms.

Plus, an act of war. Those words coming from North Korea after the latest round of U.N. sanctions.

And they don't have to dream. Millions waking up to a white Christmas, millions under a winter weather alert. We'll be back.

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[10:18:37] BROWN: We are now down to the final week of 2017. 2018 will be here before you know it. And for a couple of Republican lawmakers, it's a year their party should fear.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

FLAKE: 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. It depends on where you are, obviously. But by and large, we're appealing to older white men. And there are, you know, just a limited number of them. REP. CHARLIE DENT (R), PENNSYLVANIA: When you run into a headwind, you have to be prepared for the worst and hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst because this could be a really tough year.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: So that was Congressman Charlie Dent and Senator Jeff Flake. Both are retiring from Congress next year, both believe Republicans risk losing their majorities in the House and the Senate, and both have been outspoken critics of President Trump.

My panel is back with me now. Alice, to you first now, Senator Flake, as you heard there, he referred to the GOP as having death spasms and that the base is shrinking. Do you agree with that? How does the GOP build beyond its base?

STEWART: A couple of things, Pamela. First of all, Flake and Dent, both are unbound by the niceties of running for - needed for running for reelection since they're retiring. So, they're going to say exactly what they feel.

[10:20:00] Look, there is no doubt, throughout history there has been a pattern of midterm elections not being very favorable to the current office in power. And that is a challenge that the Republicans are fully aware of and are taking steps to address that. Look, money matters, when we're talking about campaigns. The RNC has $40 million in the bank. The DNC, Democrats have just $6 million.

And I think it's really important to keep in mind, we have a lot of seats up for grabs come the midterm elections. Those in power, the incumbents, have a lot of things in their favor. When you're an incumbent, you have name I.D., you have the ability to raise money, build your war chest, you have a lot of support from the current party, and you also have the ability to continue doing your job in Washington and raising your name I.D. heading into the elections.

I think I'm confident that the tax reform legislation will be a positive thing. It will boost the economy. And when it gets right down to it, people will respond when they have more money in their pocket, the economy is strong, and the agenda from this president is strong. That will be a big benefit to the GOP. I think they do need to make sure and make some headway with regard to women voters. The RNC is aware of that, they're taking steps to do that. But I think surely we'll lose some seats but nowhere near the death spiral that some are predicting.

BROWN: What do you think? - Go ahead, Robert.

ZIMMERMAN: Alice, you know I admire you, but I wonder what's in your eggnog this morning.

STEWART: That's my little secret.

(LAUGHTER)

ZIMMERMAN: OK. Well, that being said, I must say, when you look at the existing - the Republican Party leadership today, it's like a country club meeting that's catered by meals on wheels. They have become an older party that is out of touch with mainstream voters, with suburban voters. Alice you referred to the tax cut that was put in place. Yes, it is a massive corporate tax cut. And that's one of the reasons why the Republican National Committee raising so much money. They certainly earned it when they put that through.

But of course, it still remains stunningly unpopular with the mainstream voters. In fact, some polls - I think the CNN poll, 55 percent were opposed to tax cut legislation. You have a president in Donald Trump with record low approval ratings in the history of presidential polling, ranging between 32 and 35 percent. You have a climate that's building right now where you have more Democratic candidates emerging to run for office than ever before. And you seeing energy that I don't think can be disputed. And you see it in the generic polling, when it's asked which party do you prefer be in charge of Congress, and in every poll, it shows the country prefers Democrats to be in charge of Congress in the next election and not Republicans.

I'm not suggesting that in fact there's a tidal wave coming but there's certainly a strong current building. You saw that with the victories in Virginia, you saw that with the victory in Alabama and New Jersey. The Republican suburbs is voting Democratic, the swing areas. That's what we have to focus on.

BROWN: And let me ask you - go ahead, Alice.

STEWART: I think he raises a few good points. Look, we learned our lesson in Alabama. We learned our lesson in Virginia. The key in Alabama is let's make sure that we put up viable candidates, vet on candidates better, make sure we don't put up another Roy Moore on the ticket where we have to go out there and defend him, which I did not, for the record. And I think vetting proper candidates is key.

And Robert raises a good point, the president's approval ratings are not good. If he's still continuing to be in the low 30s as we move into the mid-terms, my view, keep him off the campaign trail, keep him back with the RNC raising money, putting money in the campaign coffers. Keep him away from the candidates that feel that he would be an anchor to their candidate and let them raise money and help them in that way. I think there are some strategic ways to go about it. If the agenda is strong and the president is still weak. I think we still will have a good midterm election.

BROWN: All right, Alice Stewart, Robert Zimmerman, you guys made my job easy, you answered all the questions to the questions I didn't even get to ask.

STEWART: I'm going to go back to my eggnog.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: Thank you so much. You're going to have to give me your secret later.

ZIMMERMAN: I have to get that eggnog secret

BROWN: Yes, definitely. All right, thank you so much.

STEWART: Merry Christmas.

ZIMMERMAN: Thank you.

BROWN: No need to dream of a white Christmas in the northeast. Right now more than 35 million people are under a winter weather advisory, some places expecting more than a foot of fresh snow. Meteorologist Chad Myers is in the Weather Center with more. Chad?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Hi, Pamela. It's snowing now in Boston, even thunder snow for some people there in Boston. A couple of inches already on the ground. But upstate from there, north of the mass turnpike, that's where it's really been getting deep and getting dangerous to drive. So, we'll have to keep watching that.

Look at the temperatures here on this map. The high today in Minneapolis will be zero. The high in Miami will be 82. Something is just very, very wrong there. Here is the snow you were talking about. It's still here, still into Maine, still going to come all the way down to Boston for maybe another hour or two. And then lake-effect changes. This is the story will be lake-effect for Watertown, just south of Buffalo and also all the streamers coming off Lake Superior, Lake Michigan and even Lake Huron.

[10:25:10] Highs don't get much better from where we are right now though. Minneapolis, your highs tomorrow is two. Can you tell the difference between zero and two? I don't think so. Six on Wednesday and the wind is going to be blowing. So really still bitterly cold temperatures all across the country. And the snow is still coming down in the Rockies, good news for skiers if you're having a little vacation there. But this cold air continues to pour down. Windchill's in Minnesota, South Dakota, all the way into parts of Wisconsin, will be somewhere in the ballpark of 20 to 50 degrees below zero in the overnight hours tonight. Snow coming down in the northeast but in the most part it will be slowing down other than that lake-effect. Pamela?

BROWN: All right. So some get to enjoy a winter white Christmas. Thank you so much, Chad Myers.

MYERS: You're welcome.

BROWN: Well, Russia says the U.S. should start diplomatic talks with North Korea. But North Korea says new U.N. sanctions are an act of war. Up next, could the tensions lead to talks or conflict? That's ahead.

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