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Interview With New York Congressman Adriano Espaillat; Nuclear Diplomacy; President Trump Tries to Discredit FBI Investigation. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired December 26, 2017 - 18:00   ET

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


[18:00:00]

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now: FBI tainted? There's no holiday from President Trump's attacks on the Russia investigation, as he tweets his gripes about the bureau and makes some misleading statements along the way. This hour, we're separating fact from fiction about the notorious Trump-Russia dossier.

Nuclear diplomacy. Russia is putting new pressure on the Trump administration to open talks with North Korea, offering to play the role of mediator. But what is Moscow's motive?

And threatening moves. Russian warships come too close for comfort, prompting the British Navy to take action. Tonight, U.S. officials fear Vladimir Putin may be bracing for risky battles in 2018.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off. I'm Brianna Keilar. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Tonight, as President Trump heads into the new year, he's staying focused on two signature pursuits, golf and his attempts to discredit the Russia investigation.

CNN shooting exclusive video of Mr. Trump on the links in Florida, just hours after he declared that he was going back to work today. The president began this day after Christmas with an angry tweet, calling the FBI tainted, slamming the infamous Trump-Russia dossier as garbage and blaming Hillary Clinton for it, this as Britain warns of new and menacing moves by Russia's military, forcing the U.K. to track a Russian warship near its coastline on Christmas Day.

U.S. officials and foreign policy experts are warning that Vladimir Putin and his war machine are likely to test the Trump administration in new ways in 2018 on multiple fronts, from Syria to Ukraine.

Meantime, Russia is billing itself as a broker of peace, offering to act as a mediator between the United States and North Korea. Russia's foreign minister says he spoke on the phone with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and encouraged the U.S. to take a first step toward a dialogue with Kim Jong-un's regime.

But, tonight, the Russia administration is taking new steps to punish North Korea -- the Trump administration, I should say, sanctioning two officials, linked to the country's ballistic missile program. We're covering all of that and more with our guests, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Adriano Espaillat, and our correspondents and specialists, who are also standing by.

First, I want to go to CNN correspondent Ryan Nobles, who is with the president in Florida.

So, Ryan, what is the latest?

RYAN NOBLES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, the president had no public events on his schedule today, so the only way we can really glean as to what he's thinking about or working on is through his Twitter feed.

And if that's the case, we know the president is thinking about health care, he's thinking about taxes, and he's also continuing to find ways to discredit Robert Mueller and his investigation.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: After tweeting on Christmas Day, "Tomorrow, it's back to work," President Trump spent today on the golf course, the 110th day of his presidency that he's spent at one of his personally branded properties.

He hit the links with PGA Tour pro Bryson DeChambeau and former PGA Dana Quigley. But there may have been some work discussed as well. Also joining the foursome, Georgia Senator David Perdue, a loyal Republican vote for the administration, but someone hoping to forge a bipartisan solution on immigration, a solution that could prove to be more difficult after a "New York Times" story that quotes the president grumbling in an Oval Office meeting, that immigrants from countries like Haiti -- quote -- "all have AIDS" and that 40,000 immigrants from Nigeria would never -- quote -- "go back to their huts."

White House officials strongly deny the report. And Marc Short, the director of legislative affairs, argues that there needs to be a plan for people living in the United States under temporary protected status.

MARC SHORT, WHITE HOUSE DIRECTOR OF LEGISLATIVE AFFAIRS: Congress needs to change these laws, impose a continual six-month extension of people that are here from 10 and 20 years ago.

NOBLES: But while immigration, including a promised fix for the so- called dreamers, government spending, entitlement reform, and infrastructure all have been pointed to as priorities in 2018, on Tuesday, the president was focused on a failure from 2017.

Tweeting -- quote -- "Based on the fact that the very unfair and unpopular individual mandate has been terminated as part of our tax cut bill, which essentially repeals over time Obamacare, the Democrats and Republicans will eventually come together and develop a great new health care plan." Republicans were unable to come up with a replacement to Obamacare, but as part of their new broad tax reform bill, they struck the individual mandate, which requires Americans to have health insurance or face a tax penalty.

Those fines equal billions of dollars that help keep the Affordable Care Act insurance market stable. Despite the elimination of the tax penalty, Obamacare remains in place, and some nine million Americans have just signed up for Obamacare health care plans, exceeding expectations in a shortened enrollment period.

Regardless of the president's pleas, there are no signs of progress on a new health care deal.

[18:05:00]

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS (I), VERMONT: Instead of bragging about more Americans without health insurance, we should join every other major country on Earth, guarantee health care to all people, and end the absurdity of paying twice as much per capita.

NOBLES: And despite the sunny West Palm Beach skies, the president and his agenda remain under the cloud of the Mueller investigation, something Mr. Trump continues to attempt to discredit.

Today on Twitter, he suggested that the dossier produced by a former British intelligence officer, which the president called a -- quote -- "pile of garbage," was the basis for the special counsel's investigation. While the dossier has been used in the investigation, it is far from the entire basis of Mueller's inquiry.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

NOBLES: And we mentioned that the president is also thinking about taxes tonight. In a tweet just posted less than an hour ago, the president said this -- quote -- "All signs are that business is looking really good for next year, only to be helped further by our tax cut bill. Will be a great year for companies and JOBS" -- jobs in all caps. "Stock market is poised for another year of success."

Brianna, it's clear the president feeling like this is a big victory for his administration and he wants to make sure that the American people know all about it -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Ryan Nobles, thank you so much for that.

I want to dig a little deeper now into the Trump-Russia dossier and how it figures into the broader Russia investigation.

Let's bring in CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju.

So, Manu, the president today called the president -- quote -- "a pile of garbage." And he suggested that the FBI cannot verify the claims that are in it. But give us a little fact-check.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I mean, it's a little bit more conflicted than that, Brianna.

U.S. investigators say they have, in fact, corroborated some of the communications in that 35-page dossier, specifically communications among foreign nationals who were mentioned in the memos. And the dossier's broad assertions that Russia waged a campaign to interfere in the election is now accepted as fact by the U.S. intelligence community.

Now, the FBI has used the findings as part of its justifications to secretly monitor that Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page during the campaign last year. But there are a lot of things in the dossier that are either under investigation or just have not been substantiated, including the most salacious allegations in there.

But it's important to note, Brianna, that U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials have said federal investigators have done their own work, completely separate from the dossier, to support their findings that Russia tried to interfere in the elections in favor of President Trump.

And while Bob Mueller's team did meet this past summer with the former British agent Christopher Steele, who did author that dossier, none of the charges that were fired in the special counsel's ongoing investigation so far reference the dossier, Brianna.

KEILAR: And yet again and again it becomes this political flash point.

RAJU: Yes, no question about it. The opposition research firm behind that dossier is named Fusion GPS. And it's become a lightning rod among conservatives.

But the fact is that Fusion GPS got some initial funding from conservatives in the primary who were opposed to Trump. But during the general election, a law firm retained by the DNC and the Clinton campaign paid for Fusion GPS' service and the group then used Steele to put together the dossier.

Now, Republican Devin Nunes, who is the House Intelligence chairman, has been hammering the Justice Department for months to detail the relationship between the FBI and Steele. He's been threatening subpoenas. He's been writing angrily worded letters.

And we're told the dossier was a significant line of questioning when FBI Director Andy McCabe came for a closed-door interview last week before the House Intelligence Committee for roughly eight hours. And Republicans were not satisfied with what he said. Expect this to be a big focus in 2018, because the FBI's decisions in the 2016 elections are a central focus of another House-led investigation, or Republican- led investigation in the House launched by two committees.

And that will undoubtedly pick up steam next year in the heat of midterm elections.

KEILAR: All right, Manu Raju, thank you so much for that report.

I want to get more on all of this with Congressman Adriano Espaillat. He's a Democrat on Foreign Affairs Committee.

Congressman, thanks so much for being with us today.

And I do want to get your reaction to the president's tweet this morning that claims the dossier is a pile of garbage. And he suggests that it's really the entire basis for the Russia investigation. What is your reaction?

REP. ADRIANO ESPAILLAT (D), NEW YORK: This is, again, an ill-advised attempt by the president to discredit the investigator Mueller, who we all know is a person that's beyond reproach, well-respected among all circles from both sides of the aisle.

And as the investigation deepens, you will see a greater attempt by the White House and their supporters to try to muddy it up and to try to discredit Mueller. I think it's ill-advised. We have already seen the arrest of Flynn. We have already seen the arrest of Manafort and the interrogation of Donald Trump Jr.

So this investigation is moving forward. And I think that they are reacting to the fact that this investigation is moving forward, and independent of the dossier, is digging up evidence that has resulted in the arrest of these two important figures in the Trump campaign and the Trump administration.

[18:10:11]

So, once the heat continues to mount, I think they're going to run out of the kitchen and try to muddy up Bob Mueller and try to discredit his investigation.

KEILAR: We have seen an effort from some of your Republican colleagues to really discount the investigation, as you referenced there.

We have heard from several of your Democratic colleagues on the House Intel Committee that they're actually worried Republicans could shut down that committee's investigation into alleged Trump campaign Russia collusion in the new year. Do you share your House colleagues' concerns?

ESPAILLAT: I think, if they do that, it will throw the country into an institutional crisis.

I think that their attempt to try to shut down the investigation would only shed additional light that they're really afraid of the effectiveness of the investigation and where Bob Mueller is heading, too.

So, look, this is still -- this is just the beginning of this investigation. I think much more needs to happen. Let's allow Mueller to conduct the investigation with the least amount of hurdles and impediments. Let's make sure that the American people regain the confidence that the Russians did not really impede or influence our electoral process, which is really great. And so let's let him do his job. And I think they're reacting because

the heat is beginning to mount up and they're very afraid that it's getting closer to the White House.

KEILAR: Some of your Republican -- or I should say, actually, your Democratic colleagues are worried that Mueller could be fired by President Trump. Do you worry about that?

ESPAILLAT: I do worry about that.

And I think that Mueller, as I have said before, is someone that is beyond reproach and well-respected by many people in Washington. And he's conducted a very fair and impartial investigation. And to fire him because he's digging up evidence that has resulted in the arrest of Flynn, as well as Manafort, is troubling to all Americans, and not just to me.

But I think all Americans want an impartial, transparent investigation of what happened between the Russians and our electoral process.

KEILAR: I do want to switch gears and talk to you about DACA recipients, young undocumented folks brought to the U.S. while they're children.

You had vowed to vote against any long-term spending bill that does not protect DACA recipients, these so-called dreamers. But -- and Democrats said they would do something by the end of the year, but given the chance to attach this to the government funding bill and a potential government shutdown showdown, Democrats decided not to do it.

Did they make a mistake by not taking that opportunity, a rare opportunity, when Democrats don't control both chambers of Congress? Did they miss a chance to protect DACA recipients?

ESPAILLAT: Look, 122 DACA recipients are losing their status on a daily basis.

This is very troubling. This is throwing families into chaos. We missed an opportunity to really have it at the forefront of the discussion during the last approval of the C.R.

We will get a second shot at it right about mid-January, about the 18th or 19th of January. I voted against the C.R. because it did not include a clean DREAM Act. I will vote against it again in January if it doesn't include a clean DREAM Act.

Most Americans, close to 80 percent of Americans across the country, including some Trump supporters, believe that these young people, who are teachers, who are members of the armed forces, who are going to school and working, deserve to stay here. So let's get this done once and for all. I think that...

KEILAR: But what about other members of your party, including the former speaker and the Democratic leader in the House, Nancy Pelosi, who said Democrats weren't going to leave until this was done? So you voted against the spending bill, but a lot of Democrats did not.

ESPAILLAT: We met with Nancy Pelosi, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and she again stressed her complete support for the dreamers and DACA.

And I am confident that, come mid-January, she will stand by us and we will not move one day more unless the plight of these 800,000 young people is addressed. And so this is an American story. These are young people that want to contribute.

They're, perhaps, the best economic development program that we have as a nation. Let's give them a chance to come fully in and really pay taxes, really make sure that they're part of the American dream and that they resolve their own personal status.

I think that our leadership is aware of that and they are committed to it. And I think that we will bring that again up January 18. And I will again vote against it if it's not included in that piece of legislation.

KEILAR: I want to ask you about a "New York Times" report that came out over the weekend. According to two officials, during a meeting in June of this year, President Trump, when discussing immigrants who had gotten visas, who had come into the U.S., had some words that were very inflammatory.

[18:15:10]

He said that people coming from Haiti -- quote -- "all have AIDS" and that Nigerian immigrants would -- quote -- "never go back to their huts."

What was your reaction reading those words?

ESPAILLAT: Well, this is more the disparaging words that are hurled by the White House and by President Trump against immigrants and people that don't look like him, when, in fact, we all know that visas are given to people that show that they have some level of assets, liquidity, a job, or even a property back in their home country, that assures them to return back to their country.

Visas are not given willy-nilly. They're given to people that show that they have a particular interest in returning back to their country. So for him to just hurl these very disparaging statements against people from those two countries, as he's done in the past against other immigrants, is just more of the same.

And that's why many people are concerned about this administration and his polls have plummeted. He's really going down. He's in a freefall. And I don't know where he's going to go further down than this, this coming year. They're in real trouble. And I think his behavior and his tweeting has contributed to that.

KEILAR: I should say, the White House does deny that report, "The New York Times" standing by it.

And, Congressman, if you could stick around for us, we have so much more to talk about.

There have been aggressive military moves on the part of Russia. What does that mean for the U.S. relationship with Russia and for national security? We will be talking about with Congressman Espaillat when we get back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:21:00]

KEILAR: And we're back now with House Foreign Affairs Committee member Adriano Espaillat talking about the Russia investigation and much more.

Congressman, I do want you to stand by for this next report, because right now we are learning more about threatening military moves by Russia and the potential dangers for the United States.

Let's bring in CNN Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr.

Barbara, there is growing concern among the U.S. and also its allies about Vladimir Putin's military plans.

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

Good evening, Brianna.

All of this is raising a very critical question as we approach 2018. How far is Vladimir Putin willing to go and what is President Trump prepared to do about it?

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

STARR (voice-over): A British royal Navy helicopter's infrared camera tracks a Russian warship Christmas Day, as it sailed close to U.K. territorial waters, the latest in what the British government is calling an upsurge in Russian warships too close to its coastline.

It's all part of a message from Moscow to Washington: The Russian military will be a force to be reckoned with in 2018.

MICHAEL ALLEN, FORMER BUSH NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL STAFFER: The Russians are certainly pushing the envelope. A lot of their activities in the naval and aerial arena are certainly hard-edged and they're design to push us to the limits.

STARR: The question now, how much confrontation will President Trump risk? He has taken an unexpected step, allowing the export of anti- tank weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian-backed rebels in a country where pro-Russia rebels frequently clash with Ukrainian armed forces.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), MARYLAND: It was important for the United States to tell Russia that we will support Ukraine's ability to defend itself.

STARR: But it's also a risky step. ALLEN: If Putin decides that this is sort of a hostile act in a new

U.S. policy to push back on Russia, Russia has everything from covert operatives across the region in Ukraine, and they're able to push back and escalate very significantly.

STARR: Vladimir Putin's military has also flown aggressively against U.S. pilots in Syria, the Pentagon openly calling it a deliberate violation of an agreement to prevent accidents.

After that, Moscow appears to have backed off a bit. Putin personally challenging the president's new national security strategy.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We also face rival powers, Russia and China, that seek to challenge American influence, values, and wealth. We will attempt to build a great partnership with those and other countries, but in a manner that always protects our national interest.

VLADIMIR PUTIN, RUSSIAN PRESIDENT (through translator): Diplomatically speaking, if I can put it in two words, it is of an attacking nature. And if we use military terms, it's no doubt aggressive. We need to take that into account in our practical work.

STARR: There is some U.S. leverage. Moscow may be nervous that new congressionally-backed sanctions could be strengthened even further.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

STARR: But Moscow may have still one more hand to play. It is trying to pressure President Trump into a corner, calling for the U.S. to sit down and talk with North Korea, something the president does not want to do until North Korea promises denuclearization of the peninsula -- Brianna.

KEILAR: Barbara Starr, thank you for that report.

I want to get back now to Congressman Adriano Espaillat to talk about this.

Sir, you just heard Barbara's report there that Russia seems to be continuing to increase their aggressive posture in the West. Over Christmas, over the weekend there, you saw British navy ships were dispatched to actually track Russian vessels that were passing too close to British territory, the British Defense Ministry saying they had seen an increase like this, that this wasn't just one thing.

[18:25:02]

They have seen an increase in this activity recently. How concerning is this to you?

ESPAILLAT: This is very concerning.

This is an attempt by Putin to outflank the White House. While they're tweeting, Putin is pushing his military forces across the globe, in addition to his influence or his interference in the electoral processes not only here in the United States, but in Germany and France. He's looking to become a bigger player in the planet.

And he's outflanking, in many ways, President Trump. So this is concerning. And this is really an act to provoke, perhaps, even the U.K. or the Europeans to react. So I'm very concerned that he's moving forward, as a juggernaut, and that the president is allowing this to happen while he is involved in tweeting and other kinds of distractions.

KEILAR: Russia is also now offering to be a mediator between the U.S. and North Korea, which a lot of critics are saying that's just not even really a serious offer. They're saying it's laughable.

What's your reaction to this offer?

ESPAILLAT: I think it's hilarious.

First of all, Russia has aided and abetted North Korea for a long time. I have been a strong supporter of the sanctions against North Korea.

To be a mediator -- let's make sure that this is clear. To be a mediator, you have to be impartial. You have to have a clear and impartial view of the conflict and not takes sides with either one of the parties involved in the conflict.

And in the past, Russia has played a pivotal role in aiding and abetting North Korea. As such, they will not be able to clearly mediate this conflict. Now, I'm a supporter of the sanctions. I think there should be diplomatic efforts to perhaps tone down the level of the conflict.

But Russia should not be and will not be the party to do this.

KEILAR: Last week, the Trump administration approved the sale of lethal arms to Ukraine to aid them in the fight against pro-Russian separatists in this country.

This is something that many Democrats and Republicans have been calling for. You're a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Do you agree with the president on this move?

ESPAILLAT: Well, look, I think that the proliferation of arms across the world is troubling for anybody, particularly the proliferation of nuclear armaments across the world.

This is something that's troubling to all of us across the United States. But this country is in constant threat of the Soviet -- of the Russian regime. They are folks that have felt in a very dramatic and drastic way the force of the Russian military apparatus.

And we have to give them some level of support for them to be able to survive. I think -- and I believe in the diplomatic way, but, in this case, they're in constant threat of the Russian military. And I think we have to give them some level of support.

KEILAR: All right, Congressman, thank you so much for joining us. ESPAILLAT: Thank you.

KEILAR: Congressman Adriano Espaillat, we do appreciate it.

And just ahead: As the president gets ready to ring in the new year, how seriously is he taking warnings of a bloodbath for Republicans in the midterms? Our political team is standing by to talk about that.

And is the U.S. willing to open negotiations with Kim Jong-un's regime and to take Russia up on that offer to mediate, if they will even take it seriously? I will talk about the threat from North Korea with a former State Department adviser in the Trump administration.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

KEILAR: We're following the president's newest attacks on the FBI as he attempts to demean and discredit the Russia investigation.

[18:33:12] We're joined now by our analysts and specialists to break all of this down: Rebecca Berg, David Swerdlick, Phil Mudd, and Ron Brownstein with us.

And Ron, you saw this tweet this morning from the president, where he said, "Wow, FOX and Friends, dossier is bogus. Clinton campaign, DNC- funded dossier. FBI cannot after all of this time verify claims in dossier of Russia/Trump collusion. FBI tainted. And they used this Crooked Hillary pile of garbage as the basis for going after the Trump campaign."

I mean, he's on vacation, but this is clearly what he's thinking about.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You wonder what people are going to do with their extra 140 characters, right? I mean, that's...

KEILAR: And we know now. Can we go back?

BROWNSTEIN: Packing -- packing a lot -- yes, packing a lot into one tweet there.

Look, this is, I think, a continuation of what we have seen from the president, really, from the outset, from his point as a candidacy, where he has shown a determination to try to delegitimize any institution that he thinks can stand up against him or cause him difficulties. Whether it was the media, whether it was Judge Curiel. Now in office, it has been the FBI. I think that has not changed.

What has changed and I think is significant is the attitude of Republicans in Congress. Because earlier in his presidency, I think there was a more consistent understanding that they were playing with fire by, in any way, encouraging the president to go after the special counsel or the FBI. And I think many Republicans recognized that that was something that could cause a real kind of explosion in the midterm election. That message, Brianna, has gotten very muddled in the last few weeks,

and there are actually Republicans who seem to be encouraging this kind of behavior for the president. And I really think they are playing with fire if they -- as they go down that road in terms of what it might mean for the 2018 election.

KEILAR: I see you nodding, David Swerdlick.

[18:35:00] DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, no, I think that Ron is right on point here. Look, the president had a narrative going for the early part of this year, which is "Move on, nothing to see here." We got the Manafort indictment. Then we got the Flynn -- the Flynn plea. And that narrative went away for them.

When you read this tweet, you're looking for them -- he's looking for a hook. It's very specific. "The dossier is unverified." We know that it's not all verified.

KEILAR: But it's not all unverified.

SWERDLICK: But that's -- that's not all that the Mueller investigation is investigating.

The president is fishing for a way to get back to the idea that this is closed, game over, nothing to see here, and he hasn't found it yet.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: Can we hold on just a second? I realize the word "fact" is a four-letter word, but we have four indictments so far. Four indictments. Two have pled guilty. None of them have anything to do with the dossier.

We have a president tweeting on an issue that has not appeared yet in the investigation, as far as I can figure out, and including an investigation of two people who told the FBI, the "tattered" FBI, "Yes, you're right. I'm going to plead guilty, because I lied to you." I mean, this is kind of -- if it weren't so tragic, it would be a joke, another four-letter word.

KEILAR: But if he just -- he's clearly messaging here, Phil. And it arguably is pretty successful when you look at the poll numbers, as Rebecca has pointed out. What was that percentage you were talking about?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. I have this right here, most recent CNN poll on the Russia investigation. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans, excuse me, believe the investigation is merely an effort to undermine the president, not a legitimate effort to uncover Russian meddling, uncover connections to the Trump campaign. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans, that's up 10 percent from last month, as well.

KEILAR: So this is -- there's...

BROWNSTEIN: But what was...

KEILAR: The reason why he's doing this, Phil Mudd, because it's working!

MUDD: It's not....

BROWNSTEIN: No, no, no.

KEILAR: You don't think so, Ron?

BROWNSTEIN: No. No. It is...

KEILAR: "No, no."

BROWNSTEIN: It is of a piece with everything else from the president. Look, it's narrow -- it's deepened but narrow. Right? I mean, that is kind of the Trump philosophy, really, across the board on policy and politics in general.

Yes, 78 percent of Republicans think that it's inappropriate. What is the number for the country overall? I mean, that is the reality.

This presidency has been about reinforcing kind of a shrink -- a retreating coalition. I mean, he is -- he has stuck at 40 percent or below, because pretty much everything he has done, from the way he comports himself to the policies that he has pursued, have been more about hardening that core than about expanding it or even speaking to the conflicted part of the people, of the coalition that elected him.

So, again, I think this is -- this is a dangerous path for Republicans. Because while trying to please the portion of their base that likes the president's combativeness on this and everything else, they can easily lose sight of what is happening all around them, which is that the big middle of the electorate has been moving against them in New Jersey and Virginia and Alabama. And overwhelmingly, I think, that is driven by unease about the way the president approaches the job.

KEILAR: OK, so I hear you on that. You know, this isn't a majority of people, but David Swerdlick, if you're looking at President Trump as he's saying this and he's getting back up from, I would say, a growing chorus of GOP members of Congress, who are undercutting Robert Mueller, undercutting the investigation, and the bigger picture is that they're undercutting the very institution...

SWERDLICK: Right.

KEILAR: ... I mean, isn't there a worry that this could have a lasting effect? When you have this many people who believe that what the FBI is doing is phooey, that's a problem?

SWERDLICK: So here's where I think Ron is totally right. That if you're narrowcasting to a Republican base, toward that 78 percent, that's going to help the president keep Republican members of Congress onboard with him and not make moves against him in his own investigations. Because those are the same Republican voters that they rely on to hold their seats.

But if you look at the broader country and the bigger picture, yes, this could be a problem for Republicans in swing districts, where there are Democrats, where there are those persuadable people who are less likely to see this investigation as bogus. And that might factor into the election. But the president is trying to do politics and hold off a legal investigation at the same time.

KEILAR: Phil Mudd, Mueller has been pretty quiet through all of this.

MUDD: Yes.

KEILAR: I mean, what do you think -- what do you think about that? Maybe it's not surprising, but it certainly stands in contrast.

MUDD: He was that way -- I served with him for four and a half years. The man would not speak in public unless he was forced to. His view was, we have investigations to conduct. If we have something to say to the American people about investigations, we'll speak.

I think there are a couple of conclusions, though, we can draw both from who he is, and from what we've seen so far. The investigations, again, you get closer and closer to the core. We have Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort at the beginning. Then you have closer to the center, Mike Flynn. I think the question will be, is the next step -- it's not going to be -- it's not going to be further away from the White House. The next step will be, is someone like an individual in the West Wing going to get hit?

The final thing I'd say on this, and I can take -- you can take this to the bank is, Robert Mueller is a methodical man. He is not a patient dude. I mean, that guy does not like to sit around. We're not going to be here next year saying, we're into year two, year three of the investigation. Some time I would tell you in calendar year 2018, we're going to figure out where this is going, and I'm going to bet it's in some time of the first half of the year. He does not sit around and wait. That's not his...

[18:40:12] KEILAR: Very interesting.

All right. If you guys can stick around for me, we have so much more to talk about. And ahead, we are going to talk about Republicans. Republicans warning the president that 2018 could be a bloodbath. What does he think about that? We'll be chatting about that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:04] BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: And we're back with our analysts and our specialists.

With 2018 and the midterm election campaign really just days away here, as things are going to get underway, I wonder what you think, Ron, as Republicans are warning President Trump that 2018 could be a bloodbath. It seems like it would be very tricky for the Congress to flip, but it seems very likely that they could suffer some losses.

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: No, it is -- I think the flip of the House is clearly within reach when you look at what we're seeing in polling now. And I think what's worrisome for Republicans is not only the magnitude of the advantage that Democrats now have in the so-called generic ballot, which is when you ask people whether they now intend to vote Democratic or Republican for Congress. Democrats have a lead in that that is comparable, if not greater than what we've seen at other points, where the control has flipped. In 2010, 2006, 1994.

But I think what's more important is that that polling is internally consistent with the polling we're seeing in the actual elections of 2017. And the Democratic gains in 2017 have been driven, by and large, by two key factors. One is a lot of engagement among core Democratic constituencies, particularly African-Americans. But also to a surprising extent, young people, millennials. And the other is a movement away from Republicans and white collar suburbs among college- educated white voters, especially women.

Now, against that, the president -- we were talking about with Rebecca before, he is holding support among his core constituencies of older blue collar rural whites but they are not turning out at the same level. And what you are seeing, Brianna, so far in 2017 is what we have seen in the past, which is that attitudes towards the president are driving these votes. Eighty-five percent of people who disapprove or more of Donald Trump voted Democratic in these key Alabama and Virginia elections and if that is the pattern that's showing up in polling for 2018, if it persists, there are a lot of Republicans in swing districts who cannot survive that kind of undertow.

KEILAR: Rebecca, there's this question, are we going to see a wave? And the thing is, you never know until election night is well underway, whether you're actually seeing a wave. But what do you think at this point in time, as we're looking at what could happen in Congress?

REBECCA BERG, CNN POLITICAL REPORTER: Well, there are important predictors that you can look at, Brianna, in advance of election night, that do tend to tell us whether we might see a wave election, and what I'm hearing from pollsters right now on both sides of the aisle is that we are seeing many of those signs right now in favor of Democrats. The president's approval rating is always a great predictor. But as they're looking also at what happened in Georgia six, in the Virginia governor's race and in Alabama in terms of Democratic turnout versus Republicans who maybe didn't turnout, these are all signs that they are considering and saying, we're probably going to see a wave election.

Even, I was talking to Republican pollster, Neil Newhouse recently, and even on the Republican side, he was saying, Democrats have the wind at their back right now. And, of course, a lot can change before Election Day. We're a year away. But if the election were to be held today, Democrats would be feeling very good about where they are.

KEILAR: There's a story, David, in "The New York Times," was reported over the weekend, and it's -- I mean, it's pretty staggering, because you have two officials, one of whom was actually in a meeting that the president was in at the time. This was a meeting back in June. The president was discussing numbers for visas for presidents coming into the U.S. and he was not happy with the situation. And he talked about people coming from Haiti, and he said they, quote, all have AIDS, according to this report. And that Nigerian immigrants would, quote, never go back to their huts.

When you hear a story like this -- and I should say, the White House denies this, but "The New York Times" is standing by it -- to what extent do these types of stories really motivate the Democratic base?

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: So, here's what I think is the two problems for the White House on this, and that factors into both the Democratic base and the Republican base. If you go back and review President Trump's track record, he made the comments when he announced his presidential campaign about Mexican immigrants, made the comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, more recently he handled Charlottesville extremely poorly, managed to botch what I think was a disgraceful botching of Sergeant La David Johnson, the condolence call that he made to his soldier of color.

You add these incidents, many more, together. The problem for the White House is not whether they deny this or whether people believe these specific quotes, Brianna, is that people are prepared to believe this. You have people denying it, but you don't have anybody saying, oh, that doesn't sound like anything President Trump would say.

KEILAR: It plays into something. And in the same report, Phil, it's interesting, because it talks about how the president's attitude towards immigrants and foreigners, how this predates what we've seen from him as a candidate. So, he's always been fearful where other cultures are concerned, and always had anxiety about food and safety when he travels, said Michael D'Antonio, who interviewed him for the biography, "The Truth About Trump". His objectification and demonization of people who are different has festered for decades.

[18:50:02] But this is a big part of his job now, Phil.

PHIL MUDD, CNN COUNTERTERRORISM ANALYST: It's not just attitudes. I would -- I would sort of frame the problem more broadly and talk about curiosity and let me use the word the president said. When we had the president of China down in Mar-a-Lago earlier on the administration, President Trump walked out and said, the North Korea issue is sort of more complicated than I anticipated. The president walked into office saying I'm going to tear up the Iran nuclear deal. It's pretty complicated. He kicked that one down sort of Pennsylvania Avenue and down toward Capitol Hill.

When you talk about health care, he said, you know, who knew this was so complicated? When you look at his curiosity about foreign cultures and you look at the issues we have to deal with, a place like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, my problem with this is not just how he came into the Oval Office. It's whether he has curiosity once he comes in to learn. And the answer so far I've seen is no.

KEILAR: We're going to leave it there. Thank you so much for all of you.

And just ahead, is Russia pushing for peace or stirring up trouble by offering to mediate U.S. talks with North Korea? We have a former Trump administration senior adviser weighing in on that.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:55:17] KEILAR: New tonight, the United States says it is sanctioning two North Korean officials linked to Kim Jong-un's dangerous and defiant missile program. At the same time, Russia is urging the Trump administration to open talks with North Korea with Russia as the mediator.

We're joined by Christian Whiton. He recently served as a State Department senior adviser in the Trump administration. He also worked in George W. Bush's administration.

So, Christian, thank you for being with us. And I really -- I wonder what you think about this offer by Russia to step in and mediate between the U.S. and North Korea. They're not exactly an impartial party when it comes to this relationship.

What do you think? Is this -- I have heard some people say it's laughable. What's your take?

CHRISTIAN WHITON, FORMER TRUMP STATE DEPARTMENT SENIOR ADVISER: You know, it's not a huge game changer, but I think it's a good step. Russia can do a lot of things that are good on North Korea. They do have a small border with North Korea. It's nowhere near the size of China's border with North Korea, and their commerce with North Korea is far less than China's.

But nonetheless, first of all, Russia could do some very unhelpful things that it's not doing. It could trade illicit goods with North Korea, start buying North Korean coal and seafood. Those are things that Moscow hasn't done. So, these are positive signs. Also, by having them at the table, offering to be a mediator and negotiator, it helps frankly counterbalance Beijing, which at times plays North Korea off us.

So, I think it's good. I think this is also the result of quiet work that's been done by the State Department to keep lines of communication open, to keep channels open. I know a lot of our senior negotiators have quietly visited Moscow just to keep them apprised of what's going on and what our thinking is.

KEILAR: So, do you think this is something that Trump administration officials are taking seriously, this offer?

WHITON: I think so. But I don't think there's a rush to get to negotiations. And frankly, there's been talk of a dispute between the White House and the State Department. That's not really true.

There's a broad, I think, consensus within the administration if there are going to be negotiations, it should be North Korea coming to the table, frankly, as a supplicant, even though we wouldn't say that publicly. You know, in the past, when negotiations were conducted in the Clinton administration and the Bush administration, the U.S. was awfully eager to get to yes, as were our partners. And that's not a great position to be in when negotiating. The point of these sanctions that had been put on North Korea is that

whether it happens in a month or a year or several years, when we do get to negotiations, that North Korea is a much frankly more pliant mood than it has been in the past.

KEILAR: The U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted another round of sanctions against North Korea last week. North Korea maybe not surprisingly called the sanctions, quote, an act of war. So far, sanctions have not -- several rounds of sanctions haven't slowed down the development rate of North Korea's weapons program.

So, why is the reason to believe these are going to be any different?

WHITON: Yes, I don't think this will have an impact, a serious impact on that program. That program is so far developed and has been so long coming, both the nuclear and rocket program. And, you know, they have demonstrated a perfected ability to launch an ICBM, to test a reported hydrogen bomb. There's some dispute over whether they have perfected a reentry vehicle, but it seems like it's pretty much at this point a done deal.

I think the sanctions are helpful in demonstrating international unity. There's always a question if China is in fact complying, and there are signs that they are constraining some trade but not all trade with North Korea. But, again, sort of the idea, you know, whether it's spoken or not is really to get North Korea to the table eventually, but in the mood to actually make concessions rather than in the past where they have seen in the West, a very eager negotiator that's willing to shower them with goodies in exchange for an unfulfilled promise to disarm.

KEILAR: We have about 40 seconds left, Christian. I do want to ask you, though, about one of North Korea's highest ranking officials who hasn't been seen for weeks, the director of the general political bureau. What do you read this as?

WHITON: You know, this could be another big shakeup, a big purge in North Korea. And this has, you know, been a very frequent occurrence in this Kim, in Kim Jong-un's administration, in his dictatorship, unlike his father and grandfather, even people who are made men, to use a mafia term, people in the inner circle can disappear. They can be executed.

And you'd think over time that would lead to factions in North Korea that realize they need to get rid of Kim or else eventually their time would be up. The only cautionary note I'd add is there have been times in the past where people have disappeared for long periods of time, been presumed executed or exiled or rusticated, and have come back. So, again, we just don't know.

KEILAR: All right. Well, we will be watching with you. Christian Whiton, thank you so much.

And finally, we do want to remind you to stay with CNN to ring in the New Year in a New Way. Be sure to check out Anderson Cooper and his good friend Andy Cohen for an epic celebration, 8:00 Eastern, New Year's Eve only on CNN.

I am Brianna Keilar. Thank you so much for watching.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.